Lost and Found

The 12 sheets of heavy A3 paper that Ray Watembach gave me the last time I was in his kitchen nearly three years ago still do not file neatly away, but this week I made peace with their contents.

They are copies of his notes, most written on the fronts and backs of buff-coloured envelopes that carried the Polish American journal Ray subscribed to. He started researching his own Polish roots decades before digitisation made trawling through records so much easier, but these were not his family notes. Rather, they were hunting for connections to Catharina Grabowska, eight years old in 1876.

Those 12 sheets of paper covered births, marriages, and deaths from 1818 to 1876 in Kokoszkowy, a village in then Prussian-partitioned north-western Poland.

Catharina Grabowska was listed on the ship Fritz Reuter as the daughter of a Jacob Rzonska, but she was not his daughter, neither his wife’s. Catharina’s father died when she was two months old, and her mother four years later.

Catharina Grabowska may have remained hidden, had her real name not appeared on her 1883 marriage certificate. Jacob Brzoska (the same Rzonska as above) was one of the witnesses. I wonder whether the “Katie Grabowsky” on that certificate had known that she had been fostered by the Brzoska family, or whether it came as a shock when her foster-father decided that he needed to provide as much correct information as possible on an official document. There were other people from Kokoszkowy in New Zealand who knew her family.  

Jacob Brzoska, his wife, Marianna, and several children moved to the USA in 1901, including two boys younger than Katie who also travelled on the Fritz Reuter. As the president of the Polish Genealogical Society in New Zealand, Ray met, helped and guided many other family genealogists, including a Brzoska family descendant who visited New Zealand in the early 1990s. After she could find no trace of Catharina, that genealogist decided that she had died aged 11 or 12. It is not clear why those ages, but Catharina does not appear in the genealogist’s subsequent family story.

Inaccuracies in the Kokoszkowy church books must happen—no set of record keeping can ever be infallible—but are more to do with spelling variations of a name, or the germanising of a name, say, a Polish Wojciech becoming its German equivalent, Adalbert. The Kokoszkowy record keepers had generally good handwriting when compared to some of the scrawlers in other parishes, so it is possible to follow a family’s genealogy.

Kokoszkowy’s Gothic stone church of St Barbara, erected in the mid-1500s, held most of the ceremonies and records of its Catholic residents’ births, marriages, and deaths. The priests knew their parishioners, their parents, their children, their friends, and their extended families. They were unlikely to make a mistake about who was born to whom and who married whom. The death records are so precise that they give a cause of death, plus often the exact age of the person who died: Catharina Grabowska’s mother, Barbara Dytmer, died as the wife of Vincent Arim, aged 36 years two months and 24 days.

In comparison, New Zealand church records are riddled with inaccuracies. One can to some extent forgive a record keeper for not knowing a family that is new to an area, but when a bride’s father is recorded as her mother as well as her father—as happened to another Catharina who married in Carterton, Catharina Gronkowska—one wonders whether some of the colonial record takers were merely filling the forms as quickly as possible.

The same type of thing happened in other parts of the colony. In Christchurch, Michael and Ewa Piekarski had 12 children in Christchurch between 1877 and 1894. Their baptismal records from the Catholic diocese show only two surnames spelt correctly, and some so wildly silly, they border on offensive.  

One of Catharina Grabowska’s granddaughters asked Ray to investigate her mother’s roots, but would not believe that the Carterton marriage certificate was wrong. Even though Ray found the Polish record of Joseph Grabowski, aged 25, marrying Barbara Dytmer, aged 23, on 25 October 1857 at St Barbara’s, the descendant continued to believe that her great-grandmother was the Bella Oudeman named on Katie Grabowsky’s marriage certificate.

Ray accepted the descendant’s choice to believe what she wanted to, but the interaction bothered him enough to bring it up as we chatted that day about researching, and how easy it is to jump to a conclusion and remain in that hole. Two of Ray’s great-grandmothers are named Catharina, and he named his daughter Katarina after them, so he remembered the little lost girl, who happened to come from the same village as many of his extended family.

His records made researching Catharina Grabowska so much easier for me. It has been a pleasure to let him know that his researcher’s instincts were correct, that his question marks and various highlighted names did lead to a definitive answer for a little girl who became known as Catherine Salter, who in 1893 enrolled in New Zealand’s historical world-first election where women won the right to vote, who had seven children, and who is buried next to her husband in Taumarunui.   

—Barbara Scrivens

31 March 2022


Find a fuller story of Catherine Grabowska Salter, and copies of various birth and marriage records at https://polishhistorynewzealand.org/catharina-grabowska-salter/

A database of early Polish settlers in New Zealand is available at https://polishhistorynewzealand.org/search-settlers/. We allow wild-card spellings.


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