Category Archives: Challenges

From Poland to Brazil: the MS Vulcania

Both my mother and my grandparents kept the family saga alive by telling their children and grandchildren episodes from their own and their ancestors lives. Not only that, but they kept many items (photographs, papers, letters…) which, to a certain extent, document these. While researching the family history, my challenge has been to rectify the inconsistencies and connect the dots – bringing their stories together, illustrating them with personal documents and validating them against archival sources.

One such episode concerns my grandmother Wanda’s escape from Poland with her two children at the beginning of WWII. During my childhood I was always told this had succeeded thanks to my grandmother’s Brazilian passport and the Brazilian consulate’s help in Berlin. João Navarro da Costa, the Brazilian consul in Berlin at that time, not only instructed Wanda how to obtain the necessary papers from the German authorities in Krákow but also paid for the family’s trip from Berlin to Genoa and to Brazil. I found a number of documents related to this episode, among them the train tickets from Berlin to Genoa and a third class ship ticket to Brazil issued on May 1st 1940. The name of the ship stamped on the paper ticket is MS Vulcania and the date of departure, May 3rd, is crossed out in and replaced with May 2nd.

However, when I started investigating in 2012, I could not, at the time, find any evidence online that the MS Vulcania had made a southbound journey that year. Wikipedia and other sites indicated her normal route was Trieste – Naples – New York City – Trieste and the only single voyage recorded to South America took place in 1947. I questioned my mother, who replied she was told later they had boarded the last ship to depart from Genova to Brazil before Italy entered the war and closed the route. Yet, this piece of information did not lead me to MS Vulcania but to SS Conte Grande, which sailed at the end of May, weeks later than the 2nd May stated on the ticket. Besides, the travel pass given to my grandmother by the consulate in Berlin on April 26th, stated she was to embark to Brazil on May 2nd.

I talked to an Italian friend of mine, whose father had worked for an Italian shipping company in Santos. She referred me to friends of his, Mr and Mrs Bagnato, who very kindly directed me to the website of Marcello Mascherini, a well-known Italian sculptor frequently commissioned to do work on the famous Italian liners of that time, the MS Vulcania among them. On this site I found a timeline for the MS Vulcania, which records in 1940 a voyage to Buenos Aires starting in Trieste on April 26th.

While looking for more sources, I found an incredible number of amateur (and some professional) Italian historical websites and quite interesting memorabilia and ephemera. Many of these sites also offer detailed information on where to find more records. The Italian immigration to Brazil is one of the best documented in the country because of the sheer number of people who arrived here, as well as the interest of the families in finding their roots. Most immigrants came on Italian liners, like the MS Vulcania, and disembarked at the port of Santos before being guided to the Immigration Inn in São Paulo.

Stimulated by these virtual visits, I decided to surf on to the site of the Museum of Immigration of the State of São Paulo, the headquarters of which used to be the Inn. There, digitisation of documents had started but not all passenger lists were online, so it was only after about two years of frequent poking that I finally found what I was looking for: The Vulcania passenger list for May 1940. So the ship had sailed to South America at this time after all! After downloading the file and updating Wikipedia, I had to continue my search as the list of passengers did not contain the trio’s names…

Questioned again, Mother remembered the MS Vulcania was not the original ship they were supposed to board in Genoa; as some passengers had cancelled their booking, my grandmother and her charges were rushed on board at the last minute. This might explain why the name of the ship was stamped on the ticket and the original date May 3rd had been crossed out and corrected to May 2nd. She mentioned that during the trip there were rumours that some of the people on board were traveling incognito. In Gibraltar, the ship was searched and some people were forced to descend, while off the Brazilian coast a group of passengers got away on a motor boat before the ship reached Salvador. Although mother was just 11, she also recalled the stop in Barcelona, devastated by the Italian bombings of 1938 and the civil war.

Mother suggested that although Italian authorities might not have recorded their names in Genoa, surely the three of them must have been registered by the immigration office in Rio de Janeiro, where they disembarked officially. I then realized the passenger list I had found was not complete as it only contained the names of the people who had disembarked in Santos… Off I went to the Brazilian National Archives, but I was discouraged by the difficulty of navigating the site. I knew the information was there but just could not access it.

So I have very recently tried again in the hope that something had changed. Bingo! The Archives site has been redesigned and from there I was directed to the SIAN database. After a long registration online, in which I had to fully identify myself, I had again a very hard time locating and retrieving the file BR.AN, RIO. OL.0.RPV, PRJ.32870 as the simple search function does not recognize single words like Vulcania, or the year 1940. I had to resort to a different site I found via Google, which gave me the exact name of the file to look for. The search this time was successful as I uncovered a 35-page list (four different pdfs) issued by the immigration service in Rio de Janeiro. The three members of my family are listed on page 4, numbers 20, 21 and 22 in Terza Classe – my mother, Hanna (11 at the time), and my uncle, Leszek (14), traveling on the Brazilian passport of Wanda Salmonowicz (39), my grandmother’s maiden name.




While we remember

Looking back on these past three years, I suddenly realized I have not updated this blog for ages. Not for lack of activity – it’s just that everyday life ruled over, often barging into the research and writing time, which demand a different focus. These were fruitful breaks, however, during which emotions rose and subsided, facts were assimilated and ideas ripened. So now that I have some respite, I’m logging in to review and register how life, research and writing interwove during this hiatus, so as not to lose track of what has been done until now, while I remember.


In August 2012 my father was taken to hospital for two weeks and we thought he would not recover but like an old sailor, he steered back to a safe harbour – home. While my mother was taking care of him, my uncle’s second wife, Hanka, phoned from Poland asking what to do with the family documents and papers that had been left behind after my uncle’s death in 2008. She explained she did not want to keep them as they were taking too much room in her small flat. I received the call and assured her I would come to Poland the following spring to recover them. It was a decision taken on the spur of the moment but which, to a large extent, inspired me to put ideas into action and advance my budding project.


In January 2013 I registered the domain, signed up to a hosting plan and launched this website. I also started collecting what my mother had in folders and suitcases. This gave me an idea of what to look for and what to discard when I went to Poland.

In April 2013  my husband and I travelled to Poland with large suitcases to fetch  the documents for my mother so that she could help me sort them through and link them to what she had experienced in her life, while she remembered.  I also wanted to show Pierre my family’s country and culture, which he had heard so much about but did not imagine what it would be like. The trip was also part of my linguistic challenge: I wanted to brush up my Polish and check whether I could understand the language and make myself understood.

The trip itself was a rich and positive experience linguistically and culturally. My husband and I had an exquisite time in Kraków, visiting the Old Town, strolling around the Main Square and Kazimierz, eating out in little vintage restaurants, popular milk bars or choosing our own food at the Stary Kleparz market. We also took a local bus (I do get by in Polish after all) to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and up to the snow covered mountains in Zakopane. It had been a cold and hard winter, but then most winters in Poland are and they leave an imprint on people, just like the old regime did.

In Warsaw we stayed at Hanka’s, whose Polish hospitality I cannot fault. She drove us to City Garden Czerniaków, the district where my grandparents used to live and showed us the square on Goraszewska 8, where the house stood before being burnt down by German soldiers at the end of the war. We also visited the Czerniaków cemetery,  where some of the Pawlowicz family are buried.  She took us to the old historic centre, which was totally razed in 1944 and has been reconstructed by many hands in every possible detail since then, like my great-grandparents house on Kanonia 14.  I was introduced to the lawyer who is taking care of the papers of Goraszewska and Kanonia properties. We watched the interesting 20-minute documentary Warszawa 1935, which gave us an idea of how cosmopolitan and avant-garde Warsaw looked before its destruction, so well-documented and displayed in the Warsaw Uprising Museum. We will never forget!

As for the documents I had been asked to fetch and for which I had come all the way from Brazil, there was an abrupt and aggressive opposition from my host. Plans had changed since that phone call the previous year. From what I was told, the papers had been shown around and had grown in importance before my arrival. I was told they had been promised to the Polish Archiwum in exchange for favours. I found this bartering most inappropriate, especially concerning documents that did not belong to the pièce rapportée, and for which my mother had never signed a deed of gift. I held my ground in all the arguments and from the documents I was shown, I  retrieved most of what was directly related to my grandfather and to my mother. I did not take any of my uncle’s documents, old letters and poetry from great grandparents, original editions of books nor other family heirloom.

On leaving, as we checked in for our flight, we were taken aside by the Customs police for baggage inspection and got questioned about the value of what we were carrying. We were suspected of moving cultural heritage from the country (my mother was happy to learn later that a photo of hers in a swimsuit on Copacabana beach could have been considered of such high standing!). I kept my cool and explained (in Polish) that these were very personal family photos and papers. My grandfather’s correspondence on Polish affairs during the war, as well as his book manuscripts and radio scripts which were produced while living in Poland had already been donated to well-known Polish institutions and archives long ago.  After a stressful hour of interrogation, during which everything was taken out of the suitcases and examined, we were under the strong impression this was not a random Customs procedure but that we had been pointed the finger at.  Shortly before our flight, we were cleared so we rushed to embark with our suitcases.  Both situations presented an unexpected and unpleasant challenge, which tainted the trusting atmosphere we had experienced until then.

On arrival, I scanned most of the photo albums, organized the documents in different thematic boxes and started writing Bohdan’s biography, so as to establish a basic historical context. My task was made easier because my grandfather was  not only a writer, passionate about history, but also an archivist at heart. In addition to the diaries and notebooks, where he detailed every move and his impressions,  he also kept a memo book with a timeline and a list of the trips he had made. Unlike the loose photos I found in several boxes at my mother’s, the same photos in grandfather’s albums had labels with the name of people, places and dates. This allowed me to link facts much quicker. He also kept duplicates of documents which he distributed around the family.

Right after our arrival in May, my first granddaughter, Melina, was born, and 15 days later, my second granddaughter, Lea, whom we went to see in Barcelona in July. Pierre and I spent the whole month there helping my eldest son and wife with the baby. I also took the opportunity to make a pit stop in London to breathe some air, refuel intellectually and just be with dear friends.  However, happiness does not last forever,  and ten days after we returned from Europe, my father passed away at the age of 91. It was time for him to go, he had grown weary.

In the months that followed, as we all tried to get over this, I added a little bit to the biographies and wrote a Wikipedia article  about Bohdan. I was a good exercise to get acquainted with the citation system and strict editorial rules that govern this online encyclopaedia. I am very grateful to Piotr Konieczny aka Prokonsul Piotrus  and Rudolf Ammann aka Ark for lending me a hand in the process and revision. I also entered  the information about the Pawłowicz family I retrieved from a family tree into Marek Minakowski’s specialized genealogy database.


At the beginning of the year, as I rummaged through my father’s papers, I had the idea for another website and project so as to include my father’s biography  (now that I am getting used to writing them) and gather, in turn, information about the Juźwiak  family. The website runs on WordPress as well and is called Silva Rerum, the name my grandfather gave to his diaries. In a way, it’s a continuation of my grandfather’s project, with one generation interval. It takes me to more recent names and times but needs, in turn, a lot of collaborative input and writing from the other members of the family to be updated constantly, time and interest for which is hard to come by in these Facebook times.  Facebook appeals more to young people as the flow of information is quick and constant, it massages the ego and little thought or effort can be expected. Just click a button for a global audience to like you!

I also dug into a more distant past to find out about the beginnings of the Pawlowicz family in Lithuania. This came from two typewritten narratives about those times, which I translated from Polish to English:

What I remember about the Pawłowicz”, composed by Vanda Daugirdaitė-Sruogienė (Vanda Sruoga), a great grand aunt, who became a re-known Lithuanian historian.
The Pawłowicz Powyrwicie”, fragments taken from  Mykolas Biržiška ‘s memoirs in Lithuanian, translated by Vanda into Polish.

This has shed light on people and places, and while doing so, I found out that the ancient Pavirvytės manor , built by my great great grandfather, is now being was restored by its new owner through a European funding aiming at the preservation and revitalization of Lithuanian cultural heritage. Well done!  (link updated on April 15th 2017)

My youngest son, Christophe,  got married in October 2014 and my middle son, Jacques, got divorced.  Life goes on with its pleasant moments, work, dumb times like playing Scrabble on the iPad, familiar routines, painful separations, breaks, delays, disturbances and unforeseen adventures.


I have been examining two pieces of software which may help me in the project:  Omeka, to archive my primary sources  and Transkribus, which may eventually allow for the transcription of some of grandfather’s handwritten and printed manuscripts.  I am presently translating some more of Bohdan’s articles and writing a bit again.

Pourvu que j’ai le temps de tout faire: surviving, archiving and documenting the lot, while I still remember.

The linguistic challenge

One of the most difficult challenges I have to deal with in this project every day is linguistic. Most sources I am reading and trying to make sense of are in Polish. The language I have chosen to transmit this understanding is English. This could be a straightforward translation case between two languages were it not for some complicating factors. I juggle four languages on a daily basis: Polish, Portuguese, English and French. While my intimate understanding of each of them may provide me with some cognitive flexibility and a constellation of meanings that go unperceived by monolingual speakers, this same understanding also makes me painfully aware of my limitations in each, and frustrated at realizing that I am not able to communicate my thoughts adequately in any of them. L’ embarras du choix, some would remark. However, I know there is no such easy answer.

All the books my grandfather wrote, as well as his diaries and the family letters, are in Polish. He was, after all, Polish, like the family before and after him. While Polish is my mother tongue, the first language I listened to when I was born, the one I learnt at home and I still speak with my parents and brothers, I was never formally educated in it. I was born and have always lived in Brazil, so my schooling was done here, in Portuguese.

In Santos, where we lived, we had no contact with other families who spoke Polish. Polish was so much my mother tongue during my early childhood that I believed it belonged to our family exclusively. The realization that this was not true came one day when a visitor from Poland arrived and started talking to us in my…our language. I still remember the feeling of betrayal, as if the visitor had broken the family’s secret code. It also dawned on me that the place named Poland my parents always referred to in their conversations might actually exist.

My parents insisted their children use Polish when speaking to them. Whenever we said something in Portuguese, they would translate it into Polish and make us repeat. If we insisted on continuing in Portuguese, they would pretend not to understand. When we made a mistake, they would correct us and again have us repeat. They read to us in Polish at the bedside. Whenever they traveled, the postcards would come written in Polish, even though we had never been taught how to read it. However, I remember making the effort to decipher them and copy the beginnings and closings so as to reply, at least partly, in the same way: kochani, kochana mamusiu, całuję mocno…, using the language of the heart.

Now for the project, I am teaching myself to read Polish. I travel back in memory to those younger years, aided by a literacy far greater than I had then, yet I have to start at the very beginning: learning how to read. It is an odd experience to go through this process again, figuring out what is written, first by trying to read the syllables aloud, stumbling over the new alphabet and consonant system, hoping what I pronounce makes sense. I check if what I hear corresponds to anything I know, try to place it in the context and finally, if all else fails, I transcribe the paragraph (most documents I have are either manuscript or in print) and feed it to Google Translation, which gives me an approximate idea.

Fortunately, I acquired the grammar and much of the vocabulary painlessly by listening and speaking, so the reading is now a matter of understanding the conventions and getting used to the different registers. It takes time and practice but I’m spurred by having to meet my objective: uncover the data I find and render it into a language more accessible to the family and those who might be interested in the stories which will eventually emerge from the contents of the suitcase. It is also rewarding because I can feel the progress: I am reading more and more quickly. When I started about a month ago, I was reading almost syllable by syllable, then individual words at a time, several of them together, and now I can roughly skim two or three paragraphs for overall meaning but at this stage, not yet a whole page. I am confident I’ll improve further and that my trip to Poland in April will accelerate the process.

Having been educated in Portuguese from the age of 5, I also consider myself a native speaker of this language. It is the language of my native country, where I have always lived and the language to which I have been most exposed to. And yet, it is not the language I have chosen to read or write, nor the language I have chosen to bring up and educate my children. There are a number of reasons for this. The easiest one to explain is that Portuguese is pervasive in Brazil, no apparent effort is needed to acquire or use it. The most difficult explanation may have to do with cultural identity.

I have been exposed to English from very early. My parents mixed with an international crowd who used it as a means of communication, so the sound of it floated around. My grandparents and cousins lived in the US. When we visited them, English was there, on the radio, on television, in the streets. Then, there was regular school and language schools and certificates, surfing magazines, Agatha Christie, songs and films and finally, because I had had all this exposure in a country where teachers of English were scarce, I started to teach the language. Thus, I had to learn more about it and although I have never lived in an English-speaking country, English came to me easily, almost by osmosis, as if I had been soaked in it all my life. It has become my language of choice for reading and writing, the language in which I communicate with the world.

Although French is my fourth language, I started using it almost at the same time as the others. In kindergarten, to respect the hierarchical relations at the Catholic primary school I attended: the different nuns had to be called “ma soeur” (the waitresses, attendants and cleaners), “ma mère” (the teachers) and “notre mère” (the headmistress); then in the solemn and interminable Mass rituals, part in Latin and part in French: Dominus vobiscum; Et cum spiritu tuo… Je vous salue, Marie pleine de grâce ; Le Seigneur est avec vous. At secondary school, French came via its literature and grammar: through memorization of poems and passages, through the inexorable conjugation of verbs and placement of the accents: grave, aïgu and circonflexe followed by the daunting dictations; at university, for two years, through sociology, politics and anthropology.

When I met my husband, who is a French-speaking Belgian, I could understand him perfectly but could not utter a word. By interacting with his friends and family, some of the words I had successfully placed on the Scrabble boards came alive in conversations.  When my children were born, I chose to bring them up in this language so that they could communicate with the family in Europe. This was not an easy task – the structures, the words I possessed belonged to the academic and social register. Technology, cooking and books came to my aid. I learned to speak the ordinary, household language at the same time as my kids by singing them the songs from the tapes my mother in law would send from France, reading for them in French in the evening, preparing food and talking about it, and helping them with the homework when they went to the French school, where I also started working and have been teaching (English) for the past thirty years.

So do I have a native language? Which of them would it be? Is it the one based on my origin? Is it the one I know best or the one I use most? Is it the one I identify with most? Is it the one others identify me with? How do I best process my thoughts? How does one frame and influence the other? What language will my grandchildren speak? Does it all matter and why, if it does? These are some of the questions that have been coming up while I teach myself to read Polish.