On July 20, 1907, Maryanna Witkowska departed from Hamburg, Germany on the SS Lutterworth, listing her destination as “Dunkirk, NY.” She was making the journey from Czarnowo, Poland to marry a man she had never met and to become a stepmother to his seven children. Casimir Marczynski’s wife, Mary, had contracted typhoid fever and died at home on February 14, 1907 at the age of 35, leaving Casimir a widower with seven young children between the ages of 12 and 3. Casimir’s sister, Mary (Marczynski) Popielarz, had also passed away in 1907, leaving her husband, Michael, a widower with five children. According to my aunt, Blanche (Marczynski) Goss, Casimir’s mother arranged for two women to travel to the United States, marry her son and son-in-law and take care of her twelve grandchildren:
“My father’s [Casimir’s] marriage to Mary Witkowski was arranged by his mother and her friend in Poland. They sent passage money for my mother [Mary] to travel to the United States. She had a fiancé in Poland that she loved but was forced to leave him. She started a hard life in the United States with a ready-made family.”
Maryanna Louisa Witkowski was born on July 26, 1884 in Julianowo, Poland to Mikołaj Witkowski and Marcella Mintkiewicz. Each relative has a different story: some claim, like Blanche, that Mary was forced to leave her fiancé because her family did not approve of their engagement; others claim that Mary’s fiancé died in war, and that she was looking to begin a new life in the United States. One aunt says that the marriage was arranged by Casimir’s and Mary’s mothers without Mary’s knowledge, and another is certain that it was ultimately Mary’s decision to leave Poland and her former life behind. The records show that Mary traveled alone from Hamburg, Germany to Liverpool, England in mid- to late-July. Mary arrived at Ellis Island, New York in late July or early August 1907, and she married Casimir Marczynski shortly after on August 26, 1907. She was 23; he was 36.
Mary’s first few years in the United States were difficult. Although she lived in a predominantly Polish community (on St. Hedwig’s Avenue in the Fourth Ward of Dunkirk, New York), learning the English language and finding her role in the community was challenging. She was placed in charge of seven young children who had recently lost their own mother, and they were not ready to accept her as a stepmother. Nevertheless, Mary established her place in the community, found work as a seamstress and went on to raise nine children of her own with Casimir.
My grandmother adored her Babcia, and she would tell me stories about the time she and her cousin made earrings out of the buttons in Mary’s sewing room, or about the time a bolt of lightning shot through their front window, slid across the wood floor, sailed between Mary and her mother as they sat at the kitchen table and flew out the back window. My grandmother describes Mary as being kind, thoughtful, caring, patient and an incredible mother and grandmother. Mary showed my grandmother and her cousin how to sew, taught them the Polish language and was always waiting up the road with a plate of warm cookies after school.
Mary would often walk her cow (yes, you read that right!) across the train tracks to her daughter Hattie’s house each afternoon. Hattie had a number of apple trees in her backyard, and Mary would bring a paring knife in her apron pocket to eat apples with Hattie in her kitchen. As she got older, Mary developed dementia, and she woke up in the middle of the night on June 6, 1950 to walk her cow to Hattie’s house, believing it to be the afternoon. Mary was hit by an oncoming train as she crossed the train tracks, and she passed away at the age of 65. I have been researching my family tree since 2011, and each ancestor has taught me something new: I admire Mary’s strength, kindness, generosity and fearlessness, as well as her courage to travel alone from Poland and her determination to start anew in the United States.