Cousins Across Continents

In 1991 my great-aunt Mary, the oldest daughter of Nicholas and Catherine Szpet, received a letter from Jelenia Gora, a small city in Southwestern Poland.  Nicholas and Catherine had immigrated to the United States from Europe in the early 1900s and met for the first time in America.  The letter was from a Katarzyna Pawliszyn and addressed to my great-grandfather Nicholas at his home in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Though Mary still lived in the house where her parents raised their family for a time, her father Nicholas, unfortunately, no longer lived there.  Nicholas had died in 1957 of carcinoma, most likely from a life spent below ground in the coal mines that pockmarked Pennsylvania’s share of the Appalachian Mountains.  I was told he suffered from black lung, an incurable disease that is caused by prolonged exposure to coal dust[1].  Catherine would die in 1972.  None of the remaining family had heard of Katarzyna and, because no one could read the language the letter was written in, the letter got shuffled away in grandmother’s house for more than 20 years.


In the Fall of 2014, while I was pregnant with my second daughter, my mother casually mentioned a family letter that had resurfaced and was written in what Great-Aunt Mary assumed was Ukrainian since that is what she remembered her parents speaking.  The contents of the letter were unknown and Mary was very curious about what it said.  Being that I was having a tough pregnancy and was not employed at the time, I badly needed a project and asked my mother to send a copy of the letter.  My interest was not only in the contents of the letter, but also in whether or not I would be able to translate the letter for my family.

Catherine and Nicholas
Photographs from family archive, also found at

After I received the letter and began work on it, I realized something very quickly – that in my excitement over the letter and the translation, I had been very naïve.  I would not be able to translate this letter.  The Slavic language of Ukrainian was too different from my native English, combined with the fact that the letter was written in cursive and hard to read.  So I set it aside for 3 more years while I began a new life as a mother of two and a new career as a Reference Librarian here in Denton.

While working in the Special Collections and Genealogy department at the Emily Fowler Library, the thought of the letter floated back into my brain.  Perhaps I could reach out to someone to translate the letter for me and finally solve the mystery of what it said.  I did a random Google search on Slavic language professors and found one at a university in Indiana.  I had no idea how much time the translation of a 2-page letter would take, in addition to a professor’s usual workload, but I took a chance and emailed her a copy of the letter and asked her if a translation was possible.

She was very nice and agreed to translate the letter for me.  I was so excited and shared the news with my mom.  Unfortunately, I was unable to share this news with my Great-Aunt Mary, as she passed away in June 2016 at the age of 93.

In December 2017, several months after I first emailed her, I heard back from the professor.  The language of the letter, it turns out, is a mish-mash of Ukrainian and Polish.  Luckily, the translator spoke both!  She told me that, in her opinion, the writer was a Ukrainian speaker as a child, but then grew up to speak mostly Polish.  The boundaries of Eastern Europe shifted a lot historically and the Ukrainian and Polish languages, both from the same Slavic roots, have greatly influenced each other as a result.[2]

An example of the changing borders of Eastern Europe. [3]

The letter turned out to be from Nicholas’ cousin Katarzyna.  In the letter, Katarzyna tells the family that her father Mykhaylo Shpyt is the brother of Nicholas’ father.  Interestingly, she addresses Nicholas as ‘brother’ and refers to herself as his ‘sister.’  Terms of endearment I am assuming.  Also, her father’s name is another spelling of the family name ‘Szpet,’ which is good to know when doing genealogy research.  The letter, however, is very sad to read.

Katarzyna, it seems, is 73 years old at the time and very sick.  She states that her husband died 6 years ago and, with the exception of a grown son and two teenage granddaughters, she is alone.  She had written to Nicholas before and it seems he had written her letters while he was alive.  She said her son had written to the family after his death, but did not receive a reply.  She figures this is because no one could read the language that the letter was written in and admonishes the family for forgetting their roots.  Those who forget the native language “have not a heart but a stone.”  She does say that she hopes to see them and hear back from them.  Of course, she never did.

I did a search for Katarzyna Pawliszyn in several Genealogy databases and only found one potential match.  However, the birth year on the record does not match the birth year that I inferred using the date of our family’s letter and Katarzyna’s statement in the letter that she was currently 73 years old.  This doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but at the present time I do not have enough information on Katarzyna to take my search on her any further.

As I finished reading the translation for the first time that December, my first cousin twice removed, Katarzyna, this woman whom I will never know, became a new member of my family.  She knew my great-grandfather who died some 20 years before I was born.  My great-grandfather helped give life to two of the most important people in my life – my Great-Aunt Mary and my grandmother Sophia – whose presence in my life became as familiar to me as the presence of my parents.  And my grandmother, of course, helped give me my mother.  And so to Nicholas and Catherine, to Katarzyna and her son, and to her grandchildren – Hello.

If you are interested in finding out more about your European ancestors, here are some great books that can be found at Emily Fowler Library’ Special Collections Department to get you started:

And don’t forget that with your library card you get access to great genealogy and history databases that include Ancestry LibraryEdition, Family Search, Fold3 and more!

Dawn Terrizzi
Public Services Librarian

[2] The Polish and Ukrainian Languages: A Mutually Beneficial RelationshipMICHAŁ ŁESIÓW, Robert De Lossa and Roman Koropeckyj Harvard Ukrainian StudiesVol. 22, Cultures and Nations of Central and Eastern Europe (1998), pp. 393-406.



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