"Polish Roots," a history of the Karcz family,
was completed in 1982 after several years of effort. It was compiled
almost entirely by means of recordation of oral history, as records
were difficult to obtain and research resources were limited. Nevertheless,
this type of work is worthwhile as it goes beyond the bare skeleton
of a genealogical chart or the reproduction of a marriage or death
certificate. While unsophisticated, it preserves such intangibles
as family pride and heritage, as well as photographs, personal recollections
and stories, artwork, songs, and recipes. Because such a work can
be visually attractive, it can engender more interest and stimulate
further (perhaps more academic) research by other family members.
I realized in 1980 that all of the members of my mother's
generation (the first to be born on American soil) were either retired
or nearing retirement age. Since their memories and recollections
of family facts were unwritten, I encouraged them to put pen to paper.
The response was overwhelming; and the compilation of the book has
provided personal satisfaction and has fulfilled its primary goal
of preserving what once was. This article offers a format for the
creation of an oral history, together with suggestions for others
who are interested in a similar project for their own families.
Your first step should be to make a list of the names
and addresses of all of the family members you can find. Send each
person a form soliciting basic biographical data, information about
deceased members (both of the old country and the new), recollections,
and whatever else they would like to share (this latter category
can yield surprises such as old photographs, mass cards bearing dates
of birth and death, letters, newspaper clippings, and postcards).
Promise to return all such items, insured. Ask for additional names
and addresses of family members you may have missed; enclosure of
extra forms might facilitate wider distribution. In addition, set
a deadline, albeit generous -- some people procrastinate indefinitely.
While you wait for the responses to come in, search
your own memory. Write down those bits of information you heard from
your aunt or grandfather twenty years ago. Look through old letters,
scrapbooks, photo albums, baby books, and Christmas cards. You will
later have the opportunity to compare your recollections with information
(which may corroborate them) from other family members. Also, try
some writing yourself. Draw or commission a talented relative to
do some artwork or borders. And think about organization and content,
which to some extent will be governed by the information you receive.
You may wish to follow a format similar to the one I used:
a preface, which sets forth why you think the project is important.
This is a good place to thank family members who have been particularly
2. An index
is also helpful. Don't forget to clearly number your pages.
3. Devote a
section to a discussion of the village or city in Poland from which
your family came. Maps can be included here.
4. The next
section will record family facts. This is the place for ancestor
biographies, however sketchy. You should definitely include a family
tree; I was able to put a fold-out version together (which took a
good deal of patience, time, and a copier with reduction capabilities)
containing over 200 people and spanning 160 years -- all derived
from oral history.
5. An important
part of your work will be stories and personal recollections by family
members. Editing may be called for; be kind. Also, be evenhanded
and attempt to give "equal space" to all who responded
descriptions of the current doings of family members are tomorrow's
family history. Include biographical information, enjoyable family
activities, employment, volunteer work, and information on children
or grandchildren where applicable.
7. The photograph
section is the heart of the book. Organize by either family branches
or by generations. Each photograph should be clearly captioned by
name, place, and date.
purists will wince, I suggest inclusion of family recipes. How better
to preserve your grandmother's treasured recipes for "pierogi" or "bigos"?
Be certain, however, to give credit where it is due; such things
can be touchy.
9. The final
section should be a postscript or summary. Record the family's collective
feelings or warmth and belonging for future generations.
Naturally, by the time you have planned the above,
your responses will have arrived. Do not be overwhelmed; no one says
you have to finish the project this month or even this year. Start
to fit the pieces together and resolve any inconsistencies before
you begin to formally compile. I recall being confused about contradictory
information concerning "Aunt Anna," which all fell into
place when I learned that there were two of them. You may also uncover
a few skeletons here or there; I learned that a great-uncle emigrated
(fast!) to America when confronted with an upcoming illegitimate
child. Reading and re-reading your responses will also help give
you a "feel" for what deceased family members were like
by how others write about them. This will help you shape your annotations.
When loaned photographs have been sent to you, you
may be amused to find pictures of yourself or of your immediate family
which you did not know existed. Have "prints from prints" reproductions
of the most interesting ones made, for yourself and for other relatives.
Enlargements are an excellent idea. Do this right away; once the
photos are returned to their owners, you may never see them again.
I should point out that, despite the best intentions,
some family members will either not respond to you at all or will
be hostile toward your efforts. It is an inherent risk in any family
history effort that unpleasant memories of one type or another may
be stirred. Others, however, will be delighted with your endeavors
and will provide you with unexpected help and support. These are
the people you will want to consult concerning any discrepancies,
additional ideas, and so forth. You may also have the pleasant experience
of hearing from, and getting to know well, relatives you have never
met. This is all to the good. In this case, the more cooks, the better
Now the book is together. Let a few people review
it and make comments. You may find that your friends and in-laws
find it as fascinating as you do.
The next task is printing and distribution. For individuals
with high net worth, a professional printer is the answer. For those
of us who are paying for such efforts ourselves, the local copy shop
is the more reasonable option, as printing can be extremely costly.
My "quick print" book was bound, with colored covers, and
covered with clear plastic. It looked attractive and professional.
When mailing the book to family members, you might
wish to add a "thank you" note to those who participated.
This is also the ideal opportunity to return the photographs and
other memorabilia which were lent to you; don't forget the insurance.
After a few weeks and after reading the responses you will receive,
you will be even more convinced that the entire effort was totally
If any information comes in too late to be included
in the book, save it. Also make a point of saving any family-related
information (regarding births, deaths, weddings, etc.) over the next
few years, as you will want to update your project on a periodic
basis. Polish Roots was recently given its "five year update," and
I hope to engage in some formal research for the next one, with guidance
provided by the publications of the Polish Genealogical Society.
And last of all -- if you are considering the compilation
of such a book from oral history, do it now. Memories fade, people
die, and once the unwritten facts about your proud family heritage
are gone they are gone forever.