Genealogy & Travel
Guide to Germany-Poland Trip Articles Below
1) Planning my first big solo trip to Europe
a. months in advance
b. towns to visit
c. internet search
2) Exploring and Absorbing German Culture - Berlin
a. walk the neighborhood
b. shop the local grocery store
c. take the local transportation
d. EXPLORE !
3) Onward to Hamburg and South
a. trains in Germany
b. when you find yourself in a dangerous area
c. think like a local
4) Poland? You Mean I'm Polish ???
a. find an interpreter
b. everything moves at a slower pace
c. everything is cheaper
Planning My First Big Solo Trip To Europe
I had been researching my family history for a couple years. First off, I learned two important things: (1) all four of my grandparents were from the same region - within 75 miles of one another; and (2) they were all from Poland. Item #2 was really surprising, since all I ever heard growing up was that we were German.
I had done a lot of internet research, and since my grandparents all emigrated in the early 1900's, I found that there was a limit on what I could do here in the states. Sure, I read the books listing the addresses of archives in Europe, and how to write your letter requesting copies of documents - - - blah, blah, blah. I WANTED MORE! I wanted to walk the streets where my grandparents did, see where they went to church, FEEL the atmosphere of their surroundings. So I decided to make a preliminary research trip to the "homeland." I knew that an American going to a foreign country and asking a local government or church to help me find documentation on my ancestors could be a tricky proposition - - especially since I only speak English. So I looked at this upcoming trip as just a means to explore exactly how things are done there, and get a better understanding of how the archival system works over there. I was not expecting to find anything. I didn't want to go with too high of expectations. So I went with none.
I started planning in March, knowing I could take two weeks off from work. I researched airfares and hotels, and looked for the best time for me to go. Everything was falling in to place for a November trip. I timed my trip so I would be flying home on the day before Thanksgiving - - - when the majority of Americans would be flying OUT of town, I would be flying IN. I planned to fly to Berlin, spend three days there (to get acclimated to the European way of life), then catch a $29 flight to Warsaw, Poland. From the maps I had looked at, I thought my family lived about 80-90 miles from Warsaw. Through researching all the Poland travel websites, I found an interpreter, who would drive me around to the towns on my list and see what we could find in archives, etc.. So I planned to spend almost 4 days in Poland, and fly back to Berlin. I had another week to spend, but before I left the states, I had no clue exactly how (or where) I would be spending those days. That is soooooo out of character for me! I always have some kind of plan for each day on a trip - - - at the very least, I've got my hotel reservations all booked.
Before I left on my trip, I was bombarded with questions from my friends - - mostly, "aren't you afraid traveling alone and not speaking the language?" Well, no, I wasn't. I told myself, I've got everything so well researched and planned. Then a couple days before, I started getting just a wee bit nervous. I just kept telling myself - - "it's an adventure - - - - it's an adventure - - - - IT'S AN ADVENTURE !!!!" Well, I think I convinced myself. The only slightly scary thing was that I found my interpreter on the internet - - - and we all know all the crazies are on the net!!! So, before I left, I wrote out all the information I had on Cezary (my interpreter), including his email, cell phone number, etc. and left it with two of my friends. I told them if they didn't hear anything from me, and I "disappeared" in Poland, they knew where to start looking!!
In all honesty, when I got on my flight to London, I KNEW I had planned the best I could, and left myself some "wiggle room" time to just explore Germany and see the Old Country.
Welcome to Germany!
Exploring and Absorbing German Culture-Berlin
My major concern of traveling Germany alone was not speaking the language. So I went prepared with my handy phrase book and also this nifty laminated card I found online at www.kwikpoint.com. It's a visual translator with little pictures or icons grouped by foods, restaurants, hotels, and basically getting around a foreign city. For example, you could be in a restaurant and point to a steak picture showing it as rare, medium, well done. Or you could point to salt, pepper, fork, wine, soda, etc.. It's a cheap, excellent way of communicating.
Anyhow, after the typical all night flight from the USA over the big pond, I arrived at my Berlin hotel about 1 p.m.. Of course, I was a little tired, but also excited about what I would find in the Old Country. As my cab pulls up to the hotel, I see about 40-50 people in costumes; band members and dancers, all also going into my hotel. I thought, "how sweet - - I've got my own welcoming committee!" I get to the registration desk and the music begins, and the dancing, and the singing. All of a sudden, I wasn't so tired. This was soooo cool! So I pulled out my camera and took a couple pictures. (There's one above.) It turns out that November 11th is Carnivale Day in Teltow, and I was lucky enough to see the celebration. (I found this link describing the day's celebration, but unfortunately, it's in German - - - but if you're interested, go to: Teltow
After checking in to my room, I walked the neighborhood a bit, just pinching myself and thinking - - wow, I'm really here! The hotel had a big buffet dinner, and everything was well labeled.
The next three days I spent exploring Berlin - - by taxi, by bus, by subway, and by tour bus. Everyone I encountered in the restaurants spoke English. Most of the restaurants even had separate menus printed in English. Just using my minimal German words, Danke, Bitte and Auf Viedersehn produced smiles from my waitress.
I got a good deal on my hotel, which should've told me that it was in the suburbs of Berlin - - not near the mass transit. So I initially had to take a cab to get in proximity of the subway or bus lines. Most of the taxi drivers did NOT speak English. But I was prepared by always having a couple pieces of my hotel's brochures / stationery or something with me, and then my driver knew where to go.
There is so much to see in this historic city. From Checkpoint Charlie to the remains of the Berlin Wall; the amazing ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm church after the WWII bombing to the Nikolaikirche which was built in the 1200's.
Another cheap way to see all the city sights in on the local transit bus #100. It's route goes past everything you'd want to see. There's more info on this in the getting around section of wikitravel.
After traveling around Germany, I came back to Berlin for my last day prior to flying back home, and I stayed at a hotel a couple miles from the airport. It was in a wonderful neighborhood that had a small mall, with gift shops and best of all, a grocery store and bakery. So I bought some fresh bread, lunchmeat and fruit and made my lunch. It was terrific not being in a typical tourist area where prices are usually jacked up.
I fell so in love with Berlin. The atmosphere made me feel welcomed. So much of Berlin is a constant reminder of the horrors of World War II and Hitler, and the people there are aware that it's not a place of pleasant memories for most people. But it is what it is. And there are so many treasures, museums, the Spree River, Tiergarten Park that make this a city I look forward to revisiting.
Onward to Hamburg and South
I took the train from Berlin to Hamburg. Now this is the part of my trip where I had ZERO reservations. I knew generally where I wanted to go, but not when or for how long. When I got off the train in Hamburg, there was a tourist office there. I went seeking a hotel room. They asked how much I wanted to spend on a room, did I want a private bath, etc.. They directed me to a hotel within a couple blocks of the station, and the room was just what I needed. It even included breakfast.
My primary goal in Hamburg was to look for ship records of emigrants heading to the USA. That office was only a few blocks away. I was surprised there were only 2 people in this large office. I was more surprised that the man who was helping me was from Philadelphia!! He had moved to Hamburg ten years ago. It turns out, there wasn't much information he could provide me. He told me that in the 1900's, there were so many people leaving the country, they typically didn't write down their names. Only the first class travelers were noted. But everyone else was treated like - - "you want to leave? Fine. Go. " Then he asked me for one of the names I was researching, and he gets on his computer, goes to the Ellis Island website . . . . . I said, "wait a minute - - I can do that at home!" He told me they had better records than he had.
You've probably heard this before, but the trains in Germany are amazing! Besides being clean, inexpensive, quick transportation, I was impressed with how they adhere to the schedule. If your train is scheduled to leave at 4:12 pm, then don't show up at 4:15 and hope it's still there. What struck me as strange was on a multicity trip I took. I was going to have to change trains a couple times (sometimes to a local city's subway), and the people I bought the ticket from were excellent in giving me an English description of where, when and how I'd change trains. But I didn't have to go through any turnstiles, no one looked at my ticket. I kept my ticket in my hand, waiting to show it to someone.
While I was in Hamburg, there was another type of carnival or fair going on - - known as DOM. It has rides, such as a huge ferris wheel with closed compartments, carousel and so many food vendors. They have this fair three times a year, and is easily accessible via the U-Bahn (subway). I rode the ferris wheel with a young lady who was getting ready to move to the U.S.. So it was great talking with her and encouraging her in her move.
I had one slightly scary encounter in Hamburg. After I had walked to the emigration office, I decided to walk back a different route by a couple of blocks, just to see more of Hamburg. I was surprised to see a WalMart, and thought I'd check it out. They had shopping carts in the front of the store, and I couldn't understand why they wouldn't roll - - they seemed to have locked up. So a woman was leaving the store, and I was going to grab her obviously rolling cart, when she showed me that they were coin operated. You put in one Euro coin and it would roll. When you were done shopping and returned the cart, you got you coin back! But THAT wasn't the scary part.
As I mentioned, I decided to walk back on a different route to my hotel. The young man I talked to in the emigration office had made a small comment about the area outside his window was the site of the "Hamburg Cell." In other words, it was where many of the 9/11 pilots / hijackers had originated. And here I am, walking through the neighborhood. I didn't realize it until I left the WalMart. So I'm walking along amongst this community of middle Easterners, and I'm talking to myself - - "you walk this street all the time - - - you're just a local going home from shopping at WalMart - - - you're not an American, you're a local!" It was only a couple blocks, but I said a little prayer and made it back safely to my hotel.
The internet cafe in Hamburg was terrific. It was only 2 Euro for two hours, which ANYWHERE is a good deal. The only problem I found on the German computers is whenever you typed a word with the letter " y ", you'd get the letter " z ". I did finally find the letter " y " on the keyboard, but it was more trouble than it was worth! So when I wrote home, I had a lot of " z's " in my text. Oh well. There are bigger problems in the world!
I mentioned that I headed south of Hamburg. I took a train to a small town about 100 miles southwest of Hannover. This was another genealogical destination. Eons ago, my family lived in this area and supposedly had a castle, which was destroyed in the 1600's. But now, there is a hotel named after that castle. So I thought it would be so great to stay in a hotel that has my last name. It was a charming hotel / restaurant. Since it was November, there was only one other person staying at the hotel. The owner didn't speak English, but his main assistant / waitress spoke terrific English, so that helped. When I would go down to the restaurant for breakfast, the owner's wife / maid went and cleaned my room. The next day, I walked around the area, but I didn't find where exactly the ruins of the castle were. But that's okay. I was happy to just be that close to the old homestead.
Even though I didn't have pre-arranged plans or reservations for the second half of my vacation, I had such a wonderful time, and wanted to stay in Germany for a couple more weeks - - at least!
Adventure in Poland
Poland??? You Mean I'm Polish????
All four of my grandparents came to the U.S. in the early 1900's. I knew all four lived in the same region. Everything I ever heard led me to believe we were of German descent. All of my grandparents had died by the mid-1970's, so trying to do genealogy research became a little challenging. Both of my parents had also died in 1971, so I wasn't able to ask any of them of their memories or details about our family's history. So some of the first information I found from immigration and naturalization records was that each of my grandparents were born in POLAND, not Germany. Okay, I guess I'm Polish.
A cousin of mine moved to the U.S. from Poland in the 1950's, and through him, I had seen a photo of my grandpa's house in Poland, and also the church they had attended (my father's side of my family). I met up with my interpreter in Warsaw and we drove to the town. On the map, I thought the 80 or so miles would take less than two hours to drive to. Of course, I had the mindset of traveling on well-paved highways. Our trip took over 3 hours one way. Still, it was so exciting to see the house and grounds in person! (See photos above) My interpreter, Cezary, talked with the current owner of the house - - - she was worried that I was there to take the house back into our family's possession! It took Cezary over 15 minutes to convince her that I had only come to SEE the homestead, not take it. She told him about a small town cemetery just down the road, next to some open farmland. We found this area that was maybe an acre in size, between two farms and amongst the trees. It was obvious that it was not a cemetery that anyone looked after or tended. All of the graves were overgrown with weeds, moss and such. Many graves had lost their markers, only the base remaining, and the perimeter of each graves' area was marked out by stones. We didn't have any tools with us, but did our best to wipe down the headstones we saw to look for names. I did find a tall headstone for my grandpa's brother who died in the 1930's, so that was exciting! Of course, my camera's batteries had died, so I couldn't take any photos to commemorate my discovery.
We drove to the next town and found the Lutheran church the family had attended. (Photo above) All the windows had been broken out and nothing remained inside. But again, I appreciated being able to locate the building. Across the street was a Catholic church, and we went in there to see if anyone there could direct us to where the Lutheran church records may have been moved to. The priest there loved talking with us - - - he said he had been trying to buy the old Lutheran church to turn it into a kind of youth community center. He thought my visit that day as "a sign" since he was going to meet with the town officials in a couple days. A young couple came to the door seeking counseling, and the priest turned them away, saying he had a visitor from America! (I felt bad, thinking that couple probably needed prayer, and were turned away because of me.) Of course, all the conversations were in Polish, which Cezary would summarize for me from time to time. After over an hour of sitting there, smiling, the priest finally got to answering my question seeking information. We were directed to go to Wloclawek which has the church archives. But that would have to be the next day, as it was already approaching 5 pm and we had a 3+ hour drive back to Warsaw.
The next morning, we left my hotel at 7:15 am and arrived in Wloclawek about noon. To look up birth, marriage or death records, you had to know the name of the district in the region, and then what year. Since I didn't know a lot of info to begin with, we just guessed at some and then scanned the index in each book to look for familiar names. I did find a marriage certificate for my mother's mother's side of the family. Cezary was astounded by the narrative style of the document. We got a copy of the page to take with us. The archives was closing at 2:30 pm, so there was a limited amount of research we could do, and a long drive ahead of us. When we got back to my hotel, we sat in the lobby and Cezary gave me a word for word, literal translation of the certificate.
I went to Poland without any expectations, just wanting to see how the system works there. But I came home with much, much more!
The prices in Poland were so much cheaper than I had just experienced in Germany. I want to go back sometime in the next couple years, staying in Wloclawek this time. My cousin from my mother's side said she wants to come with me, after hearing my stories. So we can share some expenses, and see if Cezary is still available as an interpreter!
Do widzenia (goodbye!)