On discovering a scandal in family history

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One of my great regrets in life is not having interrogated my loved ones about their past and their family histories while they were still alive. Now the generation of my grandparents is gone and many questions I now have will likely remain forever unanswered.

Knowing your roots is a very deeply felt human need and has been so from the time immemorial, if all the ancient genealogies and family sagas are anything to go by. Today, a huge industry exists to help people trace their ancestry through anything from old parish records to genetic analysis. Take advantage of it, by all means, but before anything else talk to your older relatives; there is no substitute for the first-hand testimony by those who’ve been there and in turn remember their own parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents (however fallible such oral records might be considered by professional historians and social scientists – you’re not one so don’t lose any sleep over it).

I know the name of my great-grandfather – my mother’s mother’s father – it’s Jozef Raczko.

I also know a few other things about him, all or none – or only some – of which might be true. These are some of these unanswered questions I mentioned before.

Over the years, I have been told by various members of my family that he was a count (hrabia in Polish). That he had a couple or more properties in the Wilno (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania) district or, again in Polish, “na Wilenszczyznie“. That he he was a major in the 2nd Polish Army Corp, the anabasis of which, from Siberia and Central Asia through the Middle East and then fighting all the way up the Italian peninsula – including taking Monte Casino and liberating Bologna – is a stuff of legends (specifically in his case the Kresowa Infantry Division – Kresy, meaning literally “the ends” or “the edges”, or translating as the Marches, was the name given to the eastern parts of the Polish Commonwealth, what is now Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine; the soldiers of the division having come mostly from the Wilno, Lwow and neighbouring districts). That straight after the war, instead of returning home (which, in any case, was now expropriated by the communists and the area itself transferred to the Lithuanian republic of the Soviet Union), he sailed on to southern China, where he made some money building airports around Hong Kong. That while eventually sailing back to join his family (including his granddaughter, my mother, whose mother and his daughter had willed herself to death in 1945 not wanting to live through another Soviet occupation) in the late 1940s, he died and was buried at sea (so his family was told), perhaps murdered for the considerable sum of money he was bringing with him, perhaps merely robbed after a natural, if untimely, death.

All or none – or only some – true.

Whoever Jozef Raczko was, he did not leave much record of himself, at least not among digitalised resources accessible online.

Last night I came across one of the very few:

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It’s a tiny, one-paragraph, mention on the bottom of page 3 (of four) of the 22 July 1924 edition of “Dziennik Wilenski”, the Polish-language “Wilno Daily” (the inter-war population of Wilno was pretty much split between ethnic Poles and the Jews, with Lithuanians constituting only a few percent of the total).

It’s really nothing like what I expected.

Under the heading “Thefts” (presumably a regular feature, considering the section above is “Accidents”) it reads: “A robbed husband. On the 20th of this month [July 1924], Jozef Raczko, of number 18, 2nd Radunska Street, informed the police that his wife, Zofja, 33-years of age, has absconded in an unknown direction with jewelry.”

At first I wasn’t sure. Jozef Raczko, check. In or around Wilno, check. But could I be sure there was only one Jozef Raczko living in the district after the First World War? Then I referred to my grandmother’s birth certificate extract, which named her mother as “Zofja”. If Zofja Raczko was 33 in 1924, it would mean she was born in 1891. A nice fit, as I was under the impression that my great-grandfather was born around 1890. This would make him the same age or a year older than his wife. .

So there it is – a family story about the great-grandfather Raczko I didn’t know about. Ironically, this is also the only story about the great-grandfather Raczko that I can be reasonably sure is true (in as much as it relates to a police complaint recorded in a contemporary newspaper, as opposed to second and third-hand stories I’ve heard in my childhood and related to you before).

A family scandal, then. No back story as to what had caused the rift, but whatever was behind it, it appears to have resulted in my great-grandmother taking the family jewels and legging it. And in the process abandoning not just her husband but also her daughter (and my mother’s future mother), Leontyna, who would have been only 5-years-old. Was Zofja ever found? Where did she end up? Were my great-grandparents ever reconciled? What happened to the jewelry? I have no idea. I don’t know what Jozef Raczko was like as a man, and I don’t know what role he played in the drama – was he a monster or an innocent wronged husband? Or something in-between? With that proviso of ignorance, I can only feel sadness now for a man whose wife did a runner on him; who then had to bring up a young daughter, likely all by himself; whose war-years must have been quite tumultuous to lead him from Wilno, via Siberia, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, all the way to and through Italy (and having first, of course, avoided being murdered by the Soviets, as so many of the Polish elite of the Kresy were in 1939-41, including, needless to say, the notorious Katyn Forest massacres); whose (only?) daughter died very young while he was still in Italy*; whose property was stolen by the communist “liberators”; and who himself died in mysterious circumstances on the way home, with the added indignity of having been robbed and his bequest denied to his loved ones.

A tragic story. A typical story, alas. Central and Eastern Europe have literally millions of such stories in the 20th century.

Alas, as piquant and scandalous the “Dziennik Wilenski” mention is, it does not shine any new light on anything else I “know” about Jozef Raczko. Whether or not he was an aristocrat with rural properties in the district, he clearly also had a residence in the capital (as was standard for land-owners in just about every European country at that time). The 2nd Radunska Street ran north-south through the suburb of Kominy (Chimneys) on the southern outskirts of Wilno. The chimneys would indicate an industrial district, but even so it’s unlikely that my great-grandfather was a factory worker (for one, the working class tended not to possess jewelry in quantities such as would justify reporting any theft to the police). Neither the number 18, nor the street itself, nor for that matter the whole suburb exist anymore. I suspect that some of it might have been destroyed during the war, with the remnants perhaps pulled down by the new communist masters. What stands today in its stead – on a new street grid – is a vast, commie-era housing estate of ugly concrete “blocks”. A more recent arrival, there is also an IKEA store.

So, a family scandal, with an added embarrassment of making it into a local newspaper. A wife on the run. With jewelry. Nearly 100 years ago. Whoever our ancestors were, one thing is always true: they were very human, their lives as full of dramas and heartache (but also happiness and achievement) as any of our lives today; perhaps more. It’s worth knowing and worth learning more about. So talk to your elders, before it’s too late. You might not realise how exciting your own family had been.

* in fact only three days before the end of the war, though experiencing now for the second time the communist rule (the first, of course, being the 1939-41 post-Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact occupation of eastern Poland), Leontyna would not have been cheered by the final victory over Nazi Germany.

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