I’ve found records connecting my great grandparents’ lives to five different towns in central Poland.
Hiel Mayer Piwko’s birth certificate, 1854
A birth certificate in the Łódź archive states that Josek Piwko, a thirty-year-old tanner appeared with two witnesses to report that his wife Cywia nee Raych, age 26, gave birth to a son Hil Majer on October 26/ November 7, 1854 at eight in the evening in the city of Skierniewice.
Żychlin book of residents, Walfisz family first half. Hinda, third from the top, was crossed out when she married and moved to Skierniewice.
In the Kutno archive, the book of Żychlin residents includes Hinda Walfisz, born August 14, 1854 (making her two months older than her future husband). Others in the household include her parents and two younger sisters. Her father Nusen was born June 14, 1817 in Wyszogród. His profession is listed as belfer, (According to JewishGen this means an assistant melamed in cheder [religious teacher]). His parents were Jamoch and Hinda nee Pigel. Her mother Pesa was born February 5, 1831 in Żychlin to Dawid Losman and Tema nee Majerek. The two other girls were Tema, born March 28, 1858 and Łaja, born May 2, 1861.
Żychlin Book of Residents, Walfisz family second half.
Hinda’s name is crossed out and a note is added on June 22, 1873 that she moved to Skierniwice to live with her husband Hil Majer Piwko. Hinda’s sister Tema eventually married Hil Majer’s younger brother Jankel Wolf, from whom the Zurich Piwkos descended.
The next document, found in the Łowicz archive, is the marriage certificate of Hil and Hinda’s oldest daughter, Liba Cywja, and Jankel Winawer in 1891. She was 18 and he was 20. His family was from Warsaw, while her family was living in Sobota, a village outside of Łowicz and not far from Żychlin. So at some point, Hil and Hinda moved from Skierniewice to Sobota. I wonder why? I’m told it was common to move from smaller to larger settlements, so why move from a town to a village?
Liba Piwko and Jankel Winawer’s marriage record, 1891
By 1901, when a son, Abram Janas (born in 1877) married Blima Kolska, the Piwko family was listed as living in Brześć Kujawski. Abram and Blima were married in Blima’s hometown of Kłodawa. I found this marriage certificate online; the Poznań archive has digitized these records.
Abram Piwko and Blima Kolska married in Kłodawa in 1901
In the Włocławek archive, I found the Piwkos in the book of residents of Brześć Kujawski. This is my Holy Grail—the thing I’ve been looking for—a document that includes my grandmother. My guide for the day, Tomasz Kawski, a historian who has written about Jews of the area, said, “It’s a miracle [cuda]” I found it. I agree.
Piwkos in the Brześć Kujawski Book of Residents
The document lists Hil Majer, son of Icek and Cywja nee Rajch, born October 26/ November 7, 1854 in Skierniewice, married, townsman, Jewish faith, trader (handlarz), and Hinda Piwko nee Wolfisz, daughter of Nusen and Pesa nee Losman, born August 2/14, 1854 in Żychlin, married, townswoman, Jewish faith, [supported] by her husband. In addition, five daughters are listed: Liba Cywja (b. January 27/February 2, 1874), Ryfka (b. December 20, 1884/ January1, 1885), Hana (b. October 11/23, 1886), Małka (b. December 10, 1895), and Haja (b. January 21/ February 2, 1894). Haja is Halina, my babcia. So I finally know her Jewish name.
The document confirms several details that have been passed down in the family; it also raises new questions:
- All the sisters are listed as having been born in Żychlin. Perhaps Hinda returned to her native home to give birth? Or maybe it was just customary to list girls as being born in their mother’s hometown?
- There is a note from July 16, 1906 that Ryfka (called Regina on Pat and Pini’s family trees) married Pinkus Kolski and moved to Piątek. The dates don’t correspond exactly to information from other sources which say Pinkus and Ryfka had a son Natan already in 1905. It might just be that the note was added a while after the wedding. Still, why then wasn’t it also noted that Ryfka died giving birth?
- According to another note on the page, Małka died in Włocławek on June 7/20, 1912. This fits the story Mom told me about Babcia’s younger sister who committed suicide at age 17. No one knew why, but they suspected it was related to unhappiness in love. My mom was fascinated with her story. Maybe it is because she was named after her (the Christianized family tree lists Małka as Maria Renata). Maybe it is because of my mom’s interest in psychology. She wondered what would have compelled Małka to take her own life. Was her love unrequited? Did her father forbid it? Mom told me that Małka was beautiful, with dark hair and a dark complexion unlike the other girls in the family who were fair. In 2011, when I found Babcia’s family photos in the envelope labeled “Do Not Open,” and showed them to Mama, one of the few ones she recognized was Małka’s (though of course mom called her Maria).
- Hana is my auntie Nunia. The document confirms her birth name and birth year, but the birthdate is different—her US records list her birthday as July 21. Similarly, my grandmother’s birthday is different on her US records—July 16. They also changed her birth years, claiming to be four years younger than they actually were, but this was a known secret in the family.
It is not clear from this document when the family moved to Brześć Kujawski. A note by the first three names states they were registered as residents of Skierniewice; it’s dated April 3, 1903. So where were they living at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries? In Skierniewice, Sobota, or Brześć Kujawski? Or could they have been in Włocławek already? Hil Majer is on the Włocławek voters list in 1907, and his obituary says he died there in 1929. Aunt Pat lists Hinda’s place of death as Włocławek in 1933. All these places are within one hundred miles of each other, more or less in a line headed northwest from Warsaw.
And why aren’t some of the other siblings listed? Jakób, the oldest boy may well have been living on his own already. But what about Sarah who supposedly married Saul Winawer in Brześć Kujawski in 1899? Or Efraim (who changed his name to Philip in the US) who was two years younger than Sarah? Why is there no mention of Rachel? She was born around 1890, between Hana and Haja who are listed. Rachel married Pinchas Kolski after the death of her sister Ryfka, so she should still have been living at home when this record was made. Conversely, why is Liba listed as single and living with her parents? Wasn’t she with her husband, Jankel (Jakub) Winawer, whom she married in 1891 in Sobota?
Of course, I wonder about the records I can’t find. The vital records for Jews of Żychlin and Brześć Kujawski no longer exist. My new Holy Grail would be to find Babcia’s marriage certificates and the birth certificates of my mom and her brothers. Vital records are made public only after 100 years, so some of these might be available through the Civil Registration Office (Urząd Stanu Cywilnego). But do they even exist? Were they destroyed by war, or somehow expunged when Babcia broke ties with her old (Jewish) life and took on her new Christian identity?
 According to JewishGen, when two dates appear on vital records, the first refers to the Julian calendar used by the Russians while the second refers to the Gregorian calendar, used in most of Europe.