Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Family Myth-Busting at the Jagiellonian Archives

with 5 comments

by David

My Great Aunt Gizela's Apartment in Cracow

I love archives. Even when I don’t understand the language, just looking at musty old documents makes me happy. It makes me especially happy when those documents relate to my family.

My advisor, Professor Hasia Diner, is not a big fan of oral history. She believes that most people remember things wrong, or are misinformed, particularly in matters relating to their family background.

In this case, professor Diner was proven exactly right.

My father had told me that his father, Arnold Weinfeld, has received his law degree from the Jagiellonian University sometime in the 1920s. That turned out to be true, except he didn’t really go to Jagiellonian University. They had very few documents on him, aside from his diploma and some exam records, which indicated that he got his initial degree, a magisterium (perhaps the equivalent to a BA or MA), at the University of Lwow. We don’t know in what discipline, but it was likely either law or philosohy (which includes every subject other than law, medicine, and theology). He completed that in 1926, and then took three major exams at Jagiellonian in Cracow to earn his JD, so he could be a practicing lawyer. The three exams were in introductory law, legal history, and law and politics. His grades steadily improved with each exam, and he passed them all. After the war, when he immigrated to Montreal, his law degree was no longer useful, so he became a bookkeeper for Montreal’s main Yiddish newspaper, and then later for the city’s Lubavitcher Yeshiva.

As for my father’s aunt, Gizela Weinfeld, lived a fairly interesting life. She immigrated to the United States before the war, and then got a job as an advisor to the US army of occupation in Germany. She then got a job as the chief reference librarian for the Slavic Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. This job required her to maintain frequent correspondence with Soviet officials, so the library could acquire the newest Russian books. Because of this correspondence, the FBI suspected her of being a Communist spy. As it turns out, Gizela was a militant anti-Communist, and when the FBI confirmed her loyalty, they sent her a letter attesting to that fact, which still stands, framed, in my parents’ house.

What sort of education prepared her for this career? My father had told me that she received her PhD in history from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, with a dissertation on Church history. Family lore had it that she was the first woman in Poland with a PhD in history. Or maybe the first Jewish woman. We really didn’t know.

So there we were, in the archives of the Jagiellonian. Just being there resonated with me, as my relatives had studied in that same institution so long ago. Though I don’t know any Polish, I do know old academic documents from my research on Horace Kallen and Alain Locke, and with the help of an energetic archivist (himself a doctoral candidate in history) to translate, we managed to set some of the record straight.

Gizela was not the first woman in Poland to get a PhD. That happened in 1905, and was earned by a Jewish woman. Several other women got their PhDs as well before Gizela received hers in 1928.

Gizela did not write her dissertation on Church history. She wrote her 100 page dissertation, of which the university has a copy, on Podolia, a region of Poland (now Ukraine), in the 1300s.

The archives had lots of juicy tidbits on Gizela, including her CV, class records, and comments her professors wrote on her dissertation. We learned that though she and her brothers grew up in Budzanow, a shtetl in Poland, she went to gymnasium (high school) in nearby Stanislawow, probably because Budzanow was too small to have a regular, non-Jewish school. Presumably her brothers (my grandfather Arnold and great uncle Abe) went there as well.

We also learned that just like some of our information was a bit off, Gizela herself could be a bit loose with the facts. In at least one document, she claimed to be born in a city that was not Budzanow. In some documents, she claimed to be born in 1900, in others, 1901. We think the former year is correct, because a copy of birth certificate has the earlier date.

Most interestingly, we learned that the students were required to fill out brief reports of their progress each semester as undergraduates. Gizela also got her first degree from the Jagiellonian University, and filled them out dutifully. In these reports, she was required to describe herself in three categories: religion, language, and citizenship. For religion, she always wrote “Mosaic.” For citizenship, she always wrote “Polish.” But for language, she sometimes wrote “Yiddish,” and other times wrote “Polish.” Why? Perhaps she was wrestling with her Jewish and Polish identity? Or perhaps it was just accidental, and she forgot what she had written the semester before.

But one piece of information suggests that she did find herself caught between two worlds, at least to some degree. One of her records had the street address where she lived while at the university! When I saw this, I pounced on it. We looked the address up on our map: 36 Starowislna. And so later that day, we visited the apartment where my great aunt Gisela lived. My father suspected that Gizela lived in the building with a relative or family friend, or maybe as a boarder. The building was still there, completely dilapidated, with graffiti all over the walls of the passageway that led to the apartments. They opened up into a large courtyard, which must have been very nice back in the 1920s, but had become completely run-down.

We didn’t know exactly which unit Gizela lived in, it was written “II,” so could have been 2, could have been eleven, or might simply have been referring to the rear set of apartments as opposed to the front ones. So we decided to guess that it was 11, as that was the only one we could get to. A man answered the door. He didn’t speak any English, but we managed to communicate to him that a relative of ours had lived in his apartment in the 1920s.  He invited us in. He lived there with his wife and young son. The apartment was nice, modern, and clean, in stark contrast to the building’s exterior, though it was extremely small. The man told us that his grandmother had told him that it was once a Jewish owned building.

No more. After the war, many Jewish owned buildings, and buildings with Jewish tenants, were left empty. It was unclear whether these people were alive, or whether they would return. So the state took them over, and charged a small rent to new tenants. But they did nothing to renovate them. So they remain, decaying but still present, relics of a different time.

36 Starowilsna is located just on the outskirts of Kazimierz, the Jewish neighbourhood, in the direction of the main square and the university. Gizela probably went southeast to Kazimierz to go to synagogue, or perhaps to shop or meet with friends, but she went northwest to go to the non-Jewish Jagiellonian. She lived between these two worlds, at least geographically. I stood in that courtyard, looked at a tall tree that may have been there when she was there. This was the best moment of my trip so far.

Now we are in Lviv, Ukraine, formerly Lwow, Poland, or Lemberg, in the province of Galicia of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Hopefully there will be more such experiences to come.


Written by David Weinfeld

September 13, 2011 at 15:29

5 Responses

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  1. This is really fascinating stuff! Since I’ve been delving into my family history in much the same way it’s been really interesting to parse out what from family lore was true–that my grandfather and namesake Karl fought in World War I–and what was not ture–that he was a mercenary in the French army. Wrong. He was in fact an enlisted American soldier who fought on the Western Front in France. It’s amazing what old documents tell you about a person–I’ve learned that my father was drafted during Vietnam but got out by serving in the National Guard, that my great grandfather was a traveling shoe salesman, and that I am not half-Irish and half-German like my parents always said, but in fact 56% German, 31% Irish and 13% Austrian-Bohemian. My Austrian-Bohemian great-great grandparents were born in Austria-Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), spoke Bohemian (now Czech), but had ethnic German names. Thanks U.S. Census records! I’m really enjoying reading all of your updates. Keep them coming!

    Karla Bruning (@KBruning)

    September 13, 2011 at 16:56

  2. I’m loving these updates. Did you get a copy of her dissertation?

    Peter Wirzbicki

    September 13, 2011 at 17:02

  3. Family history is a fascinating thing. I’m glad you were able to find some things in the archives. Thanks for all of these great posts!


    September 13, 2011 at 22:43

  4. […] David from PhD Octopus has been traveling through Eastern Europe, which has led to some pretty good blogging, including posts on the history of towns and the history of family. […]

  5. […] in Lithuania. With all the history I had learned in college and graduate school, and because of the personal connection, that trip was even more […]

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