Uncovering My Grandfather’s Past by Michaela Lawlor

As I begin my second semester of the MFA program at Western Connecticut State University, I am excited to start writing my thesis. I’ve chosen to write a screenplay about my grandfather’s life growing up in Poland during World War II, the country’s seizure by Nazi Germany, and how my grandfather’s life changed because of the trauma he experienced. Writing historical nonfiction requires a lot of research, and while I’ve completed a lot, there’s still more to be done.

Polish identification card, yellowed and aged, with photo of a young boy
Roman’s student identification card. Translation: “Czyz, Roman. Entitled to reduced fares on state railways according to tariff concessions for school students. Valid until the day 31 January 1940.” Photo courtesy of Michaela Lawlor.

My first resource was my mother. She told me a lot about my grandfather’s past, especially what it was like growing up in their house. My two aunts also told me a bit about my grandfather, but I found myself wondering if I could find more concrete evidence of his past. Looking through old family photographs, I saw a scanned image that I had never seen before. It was an identification card from when my grandfather was a boy in Poland, prior to the start of World War II. I had no idea this was in our files. I would guess he is about ten or eleven years old in the photo, and the date of expiration is nine days after his thirteenth birthday. It is strange to see him so young, and to my knowledge, this is the only photo we have of him prior to his immigration.

We also have my grandfather’s discharge papers from when he served in the Army during the Korean War after his immigration to the United States. Fortunately, he never had to fight on the frontlines of the war. He was able to stay stateside and translate documents because of his gift for language. He could speak five languages: Polish, Russian, German, Ukrainian, and English.

I continued my search for documentation of his life. I spent hours on Google and looking through the New York Historical Society’s online archives. Ultimately, I bit the bullet and signed up for the free trial of Ancestry.com, which, of course, I forgot to cancel after seven days and now have a $100 six-month subscription. Yikes. Signing up proved to be worth it, though, because I jumped for joy like a child on Christmas morning when I searched his name and the words “Potential Match” popped up on my screen. I clicked on the result, and sure enough, “Roman Jan Czyz: Immigration Record” was highlighted in green. I clicked on the image, and a scan of a worn piece of paper with handwritten cursive in black ink opened on my screen. I read the names, and halfway down the list, there it was: “Czyz, Roman, 23.1.27.”

Immigration record from 1946
Immigration record of Roman J. Czyz (DOB 23 January 1927), dated 30 April 1946. Photo from Ancestry.com.

It was him! That’s his name! January 23, 1927, is his birthday. He arrived in the United States on April 30, 1946 – a year after the end of the Second World War. I was elated! I yelled for my mother who was reading in the other room. Panicked, she came into my room and asked, “What’s wrong!?” almost with a hint of annoyance that I pulled her away from her book.

I said, “Nothing’s wrong! Look what I found on Grandpa!”

She looked at the image in awe, and almost simultaneously, we said, “Holy shit. There it is.”

No one in my family had seen this document before.

My mom stayed in the room with me as we continued to browse Ancestry.com to see if there was any other documentation on my grandfather’s life. The next thing I found was his citizenship card. He became a United States citizen on December 9, 1952, six years after his arrival and two years after he was drafted. I felt like Nicholas Cage in National Treasure, discovering one clue after the other. I got such a rush from this experience.

Certificate of naturalization issued December 9, 1952
Certificate of Naturalization for Roman Jan Czyz. Issued 9 December 1952, Brooklyn, NY. Photo from Ancestry.com.
A current Google Earth capture of the apartment building on 99 Freeman Street, Brooklyn, where Roman lived with his aunt when he immigrated to the U.S. on the SS Ernie Pyle.

Noted on his Certificate of Naturalization is the address where he was living with his aunt. Naturally, the next thing I did was look up the address on Google Earth. The apartment building still stands today in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s three stories tall, and one street over, Eagle Street, is where Joan Nakoneczny grew up. She and my grandfather would be married in 1963 at Saints Cyril and Methodius Parish in Brooklyn.

I went back into my family’s files to look for the pictures of their wedding day. I love the smiles on their faces. Then I looked for pictures of my mom, Christine, and my aunts Ellen and Lori. Lastly, I looked back at photos from when I was little. My grandfather used to babysit me almost every day. We were very close.

Old photo of a man and woman in wedding attire smiling and cutting a tiered cake
Roman and Joan’s wedding day in 1963. Photo courtesy of Michaela Lawlor.
Roman, Joan, and their three daughters, Ellen, Christine, and Lori. Photo courtesy of Michaela Lawlor.
From left: Roman, Ellen, Joan, Lori, Christine. Photo courtesy of Michaela Lawlor
Roman with granddaughter Michaela in 1999. Photo courtesy of Michaela Lawlor.

These memories are all so heartwarming, and I am grateful to have them. Unfortunately, my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and rapidly declined after my grandmother passed away in 2009. He doesn’t recognize me anymore. At first it was difficult to come to terms with, but I came to realize that even though he doesn’t recognize my present self, he still has memories of when I was in high school and even younger, which are some of our best memories together. When we’re together, he recalls those moments. He is ninety-three years old now and resides at Hancock Hall Nursing Home in Danbury, CT. My family hasn’t been able to see him since January due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but discovering these documents and looking through these old photographs are enough to make my heart smile.

Roman, on his 93rd birthday, January 23, 2020. Photo courtesy of Michaela Lawlor.

Michaela Lawlor is a graduate student in Western Connecticut State University’s Master of Fine Arts program in Creative and Professional Writing, where she studies screenwriting and journalism. She started her own business in July of 2020, New Sun Rising, LLC, in her hometown of Bethel, where she offers photography, graphic design, writing and other creative services. Michaela enjoys walking, running, hiking, golfing, mountain biking and horseback riding in her free time, and she loves staying active in her community by supporting Bethel’s fantastic small businesses and participating in local events.