How I Came to Be Polish – and Other Stories

Four weeks ago I discovered a pretty incredible Polish ancestor. I was quite thrilled with my discovery, for I would be traveling to Poland in a matter of days.

It all started with my great-grandmother who lived to be 102. Here’s a picture of her reading me a book.

Circa 1991


I have clear memories of her, and I’m so delighted that she lived to be so old. (I plan on living just as long. Also, how fun is it to be able to say I met someone who was born in the 1800s?! 1893, to be exact.) I remember the way she conserved water when washing her hands by turning on the faucet to only the tiniest stream, and there are stories about her traveling via horse-drawn wagon from Iowa to Oklahoma.

What’s interesting about my great-grandmother is that her mother was adopted from the Ukraine. You must know that this is significant; my family has very solid Swiss and German roots, so a Ukrainian ancestor is a bit of an anomaly. My great-great grandmother’s name was Mary Ratzlaff, and I was always convinced that she had an interesting Russian heritage.

Russian? Ukrainian? Polish?

You see, I have always wanted to be Russian. Because of this, I exaggerate my Ratzlaff family history. Some of you also know my affinity for Tolstoy. Once I spent the weekend in New York City and bought tickets to see The Great Comet on Broadway, Dave Malloy’s musical adaptation of War and Peace. I was pleased as punch with my nosebleed seats to see Josh Groban performing as Pierre, but more so by an Asian family who asked me how much it meant for me to see the play since I was obviously Russian. Earlier that day, a Russian family on the street stopped my friends and asked me for directions, and please could I give them in Russian.

“Why are you asking me?!” I said.

The man replied: “You look like you speak Russian!”

My family tells the story this way: Mary Ratzlaff arrived to America as an immigrant whose parents had died. She was taken in by the Brennemans, a childless Mennonite couple in Oklahoma. She never learned to read or write, but perhaps she enjoyed looking at pictures in the Brenneman’s German family Bible. (My father is in possession of this Bible, and I will inherit it.) The Bible includes a letter, written in my great-grandmother’s hand, on her mother’s origins.

Papa and I have done a bit of digging to discover more of Mary’s past, and we connected a few dots in Ukraine, but the trail goes cold in Poland, right around the time Mary’s parents and grandparents were marrying very Jewish sounding names – Koehns and Schmidts. (!!)

Dad and I lost our minds – what if we are Jewish?!

Last year, I posted about this on Instagram, and my Belarusian friend Kristina (who is living in Poland) mentioned: “Yes, her name sounds a little bit Jewish!”

Me: “Okay, is it Jewish? My dad and I have always wondered!”

Kristina: “For me, it sounds very Jewish. Both name and surname.”

Dad and I were so intrigued. A year later, this December, I did the final uncovering. Using all the free tools at ancestry.com, geni.com, and wikitree.com, I discovered the following:

Slavic?

The earliest known Ratzlaff relative was a Swedish soldier, of Slavic origin named Heinrich, who lived from 1590-1631. (Actually, his first name is unknown, but genealogists have nicknamed him thus.) He may have been a Swedish soldier in the European Civil War (the 30 Years War in 1618-1648), or perhaps a contract soldier (mercenary) of Slavic origin fighting for the King of Sweden. He was born is what is now Szczecin, Poland, a major seaport near the German border and the Baltic Sea. (This city was found by West Slavs in the 700s).

Reportedly, this Ratzlaff ancestor was moved by sermons he heard in the Mennonite church and determined to join the church. He pulled his sword from its sheath and thrust it into a hedge post and broke it off at the hilt. Jacob Wedel (1754-1791), a Mennonite of Przechovka, Poland, who traced family names back to their origins in his Przechovka-Alexanderwohl church record, relates that due to the laws in Prussia of the time about converting to the Mennonite church, Heinrich could not immediately join the church. He had to leave for the Netherlands before returning to Prussia to join the congregation. Heinrich Ratzlaff married Caterina Alcke Vogt, and his only son is described by Wedel as “by our people’s standards, a very wealthy man.”

Wedels are not only 18th century Mennonite record keepers; their German counterparts started the Polish national chocolate brand: E. Wedel!

Kenneth Ratzlaff, in his 1998 A Mennonite Family’s History, raises some interesting questions regarding the possible Slavic origins of the Ratzlaff name: “Where did this ‘Swedish’ Ratzlaff come from with his Slavic-sounding name? Several sources have pointed to Pomerania, a region of northern present-day Germany, on the Baltic Sea west of Danzig [Gdansk]. Pomerania at that time was under Swedish control, and Sweden had been at war with Poland and Russia. Consequently a soldier from that region might have had contacts around Przechowka, and someone from Pomerania could have been identified as Swedish. A similar name, Retzlaff, is common in the area around Stettin [Szczecin] in Pomerania. The name Retzlaff could have been changed to Ratzlaff to fit the Low German dialect of West Prussia. That leaves another question: Ratzlaff sounds Slavic; why would a Slavic name come from a Germanic area? Centuries earlier, Pomerania had been occupied by Slavs. Though Retzlaff is not a Serbian-sounding name, a possible origin in the present-day area of Serbia has been suggested. The Slavic identity had been lost, but the name Retzlaff was possibly a relic of that occupation.”

(Interestingly, wikitree.com indicates that “no known carriers of Heinrich’s DNA have taken a DNA test.” Presumedly doing so could prove these Slavic roots. Me: HOLD MY MENNO TEA. My DNA test just arrived in the mail today!)

For eight generations, the Ratzlaffs resided in what is now Poland. They participated in Mennonite congregations in Prussia throughout the 1600 and 1700s, and if we follow the line, it is Heinrich, Johann V Hans, Elder Berent, Berent, Hans, Heinrich, Andreas Heinrich, and Andreas, who moved to Ukraine. Andreas’s son Tobias, and Tobias’s daughter Mary Ratzlaff (my great-great-grandmother) were both born in Antonivka, Ukraine.

Indeed, to have discovered these possible Slavic origins only days before a short trip to Warsaw, Poland, was immensely gratifying. I imagined my trip to be a kind of home-going, a visiting of the motherland. I imagined 6-year-old Mary Ratzlaff boarding a ship for America, leaving behind the flat plains of Antonivka, never to return again. I imagined her on her deathbed, at 44 years old, learning of her great-great granddaughter whose entire occupation is teaching language and reading. I tried to imagine the Polish landscape, a land my ancestors once inhabited.

No words on any Jewish origins, though. Many female maiden names in the family line sound quite Mennonite (Dutch Mennonite, for that matter): Voth, Funk, Kornelson, Unruh, Dreier. (However, a DNA test should be able to identify Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, if there is any. I will know soon!) I was also shocked to discover that Mary Ratzlaff’s father Tobias did NOT die, leaving her an orphan. Rather, he dropped her off in Oklahoma, and went on to Kansas where he remarried a Helena Schmidt, and proceeded to have 13 children! Both Tobias and Helena are both buried in a Mennonite cemetery in Kansas. I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS. How could he leave his little daughter, and was he estranged from her? For my great-grandmother’s letter mentions nothing of her mother’s father remarrying or ever visiting Mary after she was taken in by the Brennemans. So fascinating.

Story #1: Warsaw holiday

Some of you who follow me on social media know that I planned a short trip to Poland over Christmas to visit two dear friends, Lizzie who is teaching English in Minsk Mazowiecki, and my Belarusian friend Kristina, who is living in Warsaw, who I met on Oasis Chorale tour in Ireland in 2014. (A crazy connection! We met after a concert in the Waterford cathedral, and we’ve stayed connected on Instagram ever since.) When I mentioned that I might be in Warsaw over Christmas, Kristina graciously invited me to visit her church and have a meal with her family.

I traveled with an old roommate of mine (you remember my scientist friend who accompanied me to the Mennonite History conference in Winnipeg) and her husband, and we had a magical time exploring the most festive bits of Old Town, for we arrived at 5:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve.

(Interestingly, Tobias and his little daughter Mary arrived to Philadelphia from Europe on Christmas day in 1874. One hundred forty-seven years later, I traveled from Philadelphia to Warsaw on Christmas Eve.)

Mary’s passage documents that I found on ancestry.com: “Maria Ratzlas, 6, female, child, Russian” aboard the S.S. Vaderland in December 1874. (Note the two little girls’ names after hers. Mary had several little sisters on the ship!)

Christmas day was spent with Lizzie and her friends, and Lizzie put me on a train back to Warsaw in the afternoon to meet my Belarusian friend Kristina, who I had not seen for seven years. I was so nervous about getting off at the correct stop, but I managed to find my way, and soon I was in the middle of a Belarusian house party, laughing my way through games played in Russian. Kristina took me back to her apartment, and we drank tea and talked late into the night.

It was an honor to attend her church on Sunday (I may or may not have sung a duet with Kristina in the service), and it was a privilege to meet her parents and 12 siblings. We shared a meal, after which the house was filled with music and singing (in Polish and English), and it felt nearly familiar, with rich four-part harmonies.

Evening came, and more conversation, and soon Kristina and I were sipping coffees at the train station, waiting for my goodbye train.

It is conversations and connections like these that bring us back to “where we are” and remind us of God’s good earth the world over. Sometimes I find that my life feels very in-grown, so very small, at my tiny school in a rural county. But that evening, it was as if, for a moment, I turned slowly in place and surveyed the whole landscape, instead of fixating on that broken hilt.

Story #2: A Man with a baby cat

On my train back to Minsk Mazowiecki, a Man with a Baby Cat began walking through my train, asking everyone to pet it. Everyone cooed at the baby cat. Even though he was well-dressed, I did NOT want to be bothered by this stranger. I got off at my train stop, and he sidled up to me near the stairs:

“Chcesz pogłaskać kociaka?”

I tried to ignore him, and put my head down and kept walking, a little scared to find an empty train platform with my friends NOWHERE in sight.

The Man with a Baby Cat, who was still wearing a huge smile, toddled off to find other victims. I couldn’t remember how to get back to Lizzie’s apartment, so I was left to shiver in 7-degree weather on the train platform and furiously text my friends.

Ten minutes later, they arrived, and all the way home, I gushed about my freshly-made Warsaw memories, and hollered about the Man with the Baby Cat, and right when we were crossing the street to my friend’s apartment, the Man with a Baby Cat dashed up behind us and asked in English, “DO YOU WANT TO PET THE KITTEN?” and we squealed and ran for the apartment and dashed inside and locked the doors.


Story #3: Ice Skating

Indeed, my Warsaw holiday was a gift, thanks to the hospitality of Lizzie and Kristina, and my traveling companions Janae & Justin.

One highlight was exploring Kazimierz Dolny, a historic town filled with art galleries, along the Vistula River.

I also enjoyed ice skating in Old Town Warsaw. (Indeed, I hadn’t gone ice skating in years!) Admission to the rink in the center of Old Town is free, and renting skates costs only $2.50. The rink is lit by festive lights strung dazzlingly across, and in the amber light, I shoved my feet into hockey skates while my friends sought out hot drinks and grilled sheep cheese with cranberries.

I slowly warmed up on the ice, weaving in and out of Polish strangers until my body remembered the movements, and then I skated fast like a little girl, darting in and out of the bundled skaters. I skated around and around, changing directions when the announcers called it, lost deep in thought, not realizing my time had wound down, much past my rental. As I swirled around on the ice that night, an old woman with gray hair, across the rink, caught my eye. She stared into my eyes, smiled, and waved and waved. I circled the rink again, trying to find her face to see if she was actually waving at me or someone else.

I kept scanning the spectators warming themselves with hot drinks by the fire heaters, but I couldn’t find her.

Had she slipped into the crowd?

It doesn’t matter. I will always imagine her to be my ancestor welcoming me home.

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