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Looking for Family Ties in Poland

 Jim and I met in 1965 at a New Year's Eve party in  Saigon, Vietnam. His unpronounceable Polish surname "VISUTSKIE" made a good topic for "getting-to-know-you" small talk.

During the months that followed, I learned that although he was fourth generation Canadian Polish had been his first language.  He told me about his birthplace, Wilno, Ontario, the first Polish settlement in Canada, where most people had a Polish surname and still spoke Polish, and that his name had originally been spelled "Wysocki".

By the end of the year, I was managing to pronounce Visutskie quiet well, so Jim offered to share his name with me!  I accepted, and we were married in Leeds, England the following New Year's Eve.  I introduced Jim to my friends and relatives--and after teaching them how to pronounce my new name, I flew off to Canada to meet Jim's family and relatives, i.e. the entire Polish community of Wilno, Ontario.

Wilno is a blink on Ontario highway 60, between Killaloe and Barry's Bay, nestled in the pass between the Madawaska and Bonnechere valleys.

Coming from an industrial city in the north of England, I thought all this pioneering stuff romantic and couldn't wait to hear stories of homesteading from the old folks.

Unfortunately, Jim's grandparents didn't indulge in reminiscing and felt that the old times were best forgotten.  His aunts and uncles were too busy worrying about their future, now that farming was no longer remunerative, to dwell on their past.  So I read a lot of books about early pioneers and got an idea of how it must have been for the early Polish settlers.    

In 1853 the Opeongo Road was built to open up land in the Ottawa valley region for settlement. In 1858 a group of Kashubs left their homeland in Prussia to seek a new life in Canada.  They came to the Renfrew area and in 1859 began to settle along the Opeongo Road, amongst these was Paul Trzebinski and Josef Roliebecki, two of Jim's great-great grandfathers.   Jim's "Wysocki" great grandfather, Martin, arrived in 1883. 

These Kashubs, who were a distinct group of Slavs, came from Pomorania which at that time had been annexed by Prussia. The Prussians were systematically pushing the Kashubs to leave the area by discouraging the use of their language, the practise of their religion, and  by expropriating their land. Approximately one third of the Kashub population emigrated during this period, mainly to America and Canada.

The Kashubs arrived in Canada with nothing but their desire to be free to practise their religion and speak their language. During the first few years, they had to walk up to 10 miles to the church in Brudenell in sub zero temperatures in the winter, and through mosquito and blackfly infested bush in the summer. Yet despite these harsh conditions and the isolation of their farms, they persevered. In 1872, a Polish priest arrived to give masses in Polish and a parish was established. In 1876  he started to build a church, and the community was given the name Wilno after his birthplace, Vilnius (today the capital of Lithuania).

Jim and I spent the next twenty-five years living abroad, but always returned to Wilno on leave. Over the years, I met more and more of Jim's extensive family--he was related to everyone in the village, and beyond--and many of them were beginning to celebrate their Polish heritage with family reunions, trips to Poland and writing books about their pioneering families.

When Jim was offered a posting to Poland, we didn't hesitate to accept, and many members of our extended family were interested in our venture.  One cousin, a few times removed, contacted Jim and explained she had written a book about the first 60 families who emigrated from Kaszuby to Wilno (Canada) which included:family trees, parishes of origin, sailing dates, and names of ships they sailed on! She asked if he could help her with some further research on the history of the Kashubs that she was doing.

We were delighted to be involved in such a project, and it would fit in well with a project Jim had in mind. He knew from previous conversational encounters with Poles, that the Polish he spoke was different. In Wilno they talked of "high" Polish and "low" Polish: theirs was "low". He used to believe that "low" was synonymous with "poor", and put it down to the fact that the Polish spoken in Wilno was that of Polish peasants which had not been updated for over 130 years. However, more recently he had learned that the Polish spoken
in Wilno was in fact a dialect - "Kashubian" and he wanted to find out more about it.

We were able to visit Kaszubi not long after we had arrived in Poland. We went to Gdansk by train and hired a car with driver. Our "quest"-- Jim's linguistic investigation-- began from the moment the driver met us at the train--he was a Kaszubian and spoke the dialect. Over the next four days Jim was assured that the Kashub dialect matched the Wilno variation of Polish.

Fortunately for us, the families of Jim's ancestors who emigrated to Wilno all came from the same area: a group of villages along a road that runs from Lipusz to Bruzy in Kaszubi. We knew that Jim's great-grandfather, Martin Wysocki had emigrated from the village of Zwangshoff in the Parish of Lesno, but we couldn't find Zwangshoff on the map, so we hoped to find someone in Lesno who would know the whereabouts of Zwangshoff.

Lesno is a small village just off the main road from Lipusz to Brusy.  Most of the buildings are of the communist era and the village looked dismal under the grey winter sky.   We were delighted when we found the church to be a charming  wooden building on the side of a lake.  When we got closer we saw the outside had been newly renovated, and although it was in the traditional style, we were worried that we might find a modernized church inside.  It was a very emotional moment for Jim as he entered the church to find it virtually as it had been when his great grandfather Martin worshipped there prior  to his departure to Canada.

We went to the Presbytery and introduced ourselves to the Priest.  He showed us church registers that went back to 1823.  Everything was beautifully entered, and it was exciting to find an entry for the christening of Martin Wysocki's first son and sad to see an entry for his funeral six months' later.*

The Priest then took us and introduced us to a family who could have been related to Martin Wysocki, and they took us to the cemetery. As we walked through the gravestones, which dated back to the 1870s, we recognized many Wilno names.       As it was getting dark, and we had quite a long drive back to our lodgings, we said "do wizdenia". We had made a lot of headway and contacts in the two days that we were in the area, but realized that in order to really find more about the Wysockis, we would have to find the village Martin Wysocki and his family had emigrated from and if any of siblings had
stayed behind.

A few weeks after this visit we received an invitation from the Deputy Mayor of the district of Gdansk, Professor Jozef Borzyskowski, in his capacity as a member of the Kaszubian-Canadian society, to visit him and some other members of the society in Gdansk. The Canadian Ambassador, Anne Leahey was also invited. We decided this would be a good opportunity to look further for the home village of the Wysockis

The day after we arrived was a Polish holiday, and there was a special mass in the Lesno church that the Priest invited us to attend. The church looked very pretty and it was packed, with people even standing outside, which is not uncommon in Poland.

We were invited to coffee and cakes with the Priest after the service, and we were able spend more time discussing our project and going through the church records with him.  We noted down any references to the Wysocki family. The records showed that although they had lived in "Zwangshoff", which we still hadn't been able to locate, Martin had been born in Wysoka-Zaborska.

As we stood on the Presbytery doorstep, saying goodbye to the Priest, our Polish friend who was with us, cried "That's it!"  And pointing to a large road sign directly opposite which said Przymusewo, he explained, "Zwangshoff roughly translated means 'need-place' and Pzymusewo roughly translated is the same thing!"

We quickly hopped in the car and followed the direction of the sign. The only building we could actually identify as being in Przymusewo was a forest ranger's house.  Feeling that all our answers were here, we knocked on the ranger's door. The ranger answered, and after we explained our mission, he invited us in. He wasn't actually from the area and said he didn't know any Wysockis, but suggested we try the nearby village of Wysoka-Zaborska.  

Wysoka-Zaborska--it wasn't even on the map, and now we had directions how to get there.  We found the only sign for it was at the bus-stop at the end of a dirt road. We followed the dirt road until we came to a cluster of small farms, which we found out was all that was left of the village of Wysoka- Zaborska. We chatted to one or two of the residents, but they said there weren't any Wysockis there now, but there had been.

Before coming to Poland, it had been recommended that we meet Father Szulist, a well known historian of the Kashubs, and an authority on Kashub emigration to Canada and the USA. As he lived in Lipusz, we decided that this was a good time to introduce ourselves and see if he could help us.

He confirmed that there had been Wysockis in Wysoka- Zaborska and gave us an extract from a Chronicle written by Father Triebiatowski that described the Wysocki farm there. Unfortunately, the Germans burnt it down in their retreat in 1945.

The next day we had been invited to visit Professor Borzyskowski at his home on a lake just outside Kartuzy to meet his family and for an informal supper.  

The cottage was deep in Kaszubi and the countryside just like that around Wilno. Our host's wife made supper for us all and as the weather was beautiful, we enjoyed a walk in the bush.   We could have been strolling in the bush in Wilno, even down to the hungry mosquitos. Everybody was very interested to talk to Jim in Kashubian as they were completely fascinated by Jim's ability to speak their language--a Canadian who had never been to Kaszubi before!

Through our interest in my husband's Kashub heritage we have made a lot of new friends, both in Canada and in Poland, and we have travelled to a lovely area of Poland which is off the beaten track of tourists.  We have broadened our knowledge of Polish and Canadian history, and as with other family history researchers, come to understand what shaped the attitudes of our parents and grandparents, and in so doing understand a lot about ourselves.

*These Registers have been put on microfilm by the Church of the Latter Day Saints and are available on request.

For more information on the Wilno Heritage Society e-mail: