Yesterday I had to see my doctor for a possible Lyme disease rash. He agreed that it looks suspicious and prescribed a course of prophylactic antibiotics. And oddly enough, that got me thinking about genealogy. Lyme disease is one of many diseases known to modern-day physicians that is readily treated with antibiotics, and has an excellent prognosis if it’s caught early. But life was very different for our ancestors, and I often remind myself of this fact when I start romanticizing those by-gone, simpler times.
As I’m sure is true for many of us, I find some ancestors’ stories to be more compelling than others. For me, one such compelling ancestor is Wiktoria Zarzecka, one of my great-great-great-great-grandmothers. I first encountered Wiktoria in this 1826 marriage record for her son, Józef Zarzycki, and his bride, Joanna Krzemińska1:
The record describes the groom, Józef Zarzycki, as a “bachelor, of Szwarocin residing, master of the shoemaking profession, born in the village of Szwarocin of Adam and Wiktoria née Stolarska, the married couple Zarzycki; having twenty-two years of age.”1 Interestingly, this record is the only time we see Wiktoria’s maiden name recorded as Stolarska. In her own marriage record to Adam Zarzecki in 1802, shown below,2 the priest calls her only, “Victoria, from the voivodeship of Sieradz, the names of whose parents I do not know” and tells us that she was age 23 at the time of her wedding, suggesting a birth year of about 1779.
The Sieradz Voivodeship (Palatinatus Siradiensis), where Wiktoria was said to have been born, existed at that time as an administrative division of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and encompassed 6 counties and close to 200 Roman Catholic parishes. Without knowing her parents’ names and an exact place of birth, further research on this line will be difficult at best. Wiktoria was born into tumultuous times for Poland. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had already been diminished in size after the first partition of Poland in 1772, and Poland would be partitioned twice more, in 1793 and 1795, until it no longer existed by the time of Wiktoria’s marriage in 1802. Both her birthplace, and her new hometown in the parish of Rybno, had become part of the Prussian Empire when she married Adam Zarzecki, gave birth to their only son, and died on 19 May 1807. This political situation was as brief as Wiktoria’s life, however: just two months after her death, the Duchy of Warsaw was created by the Franco-Prussian treaty signed at Tilsit on 9 July 1807, creating a semi-autonomous Polish state that was in personal union with the Kingdom of Saxony.
One wonders why the priest might have recorded Wiktoria’s surname as Stolarska on her son’s marriage record in 1826, when it was unknown in 1802. Perhaps her name truly was Stolarska, but the priest in 1802 was careless in his premarital examination, forgot to ask this information or failed to remember it, and then recorded later that he simply did not know her parents’ names? How could she not have known her at least her father’s surname, if not her parents’ given names? Was she born to an unwed mother, and perhaps she was orphaned at a young age? How did a young, unmarried woman come to travel a distance of perhaps 90 miles from her home and settle in a distant village? Did she travel with other family members, perhaps? Unfortunately, the records of Rybno remain silent in regard to most of these questions. The surname Stolarski does not appear in the parish records at all during this time period,3 which suggests that no other family members accompanied Wiktoria to Rybno. The name “Stolarski” itself, like all Polish surnames with the root “Stolar-,” derives from the word, “stolarz,” meaning “joiner, carpenter,”4 so it’s also possible that the priest in 1826 created this surname for Wiktoria when he recorded her son’s marriage, perhaps based on someone’s recollection that her father was a carpenter. As one might expect with such an etymology, the surname is not uncommon in Poland today, and is widely distributed geographically. However, it does display a moderately increased prevalence in present-day Piotrków Trybunalski County, which was contained within the Sieradz Voivodeship. It’s tempting to speculate that perhaps this surname really was used by Wiktoria’s family from that area, whose descendants still live there today.
Wiktoria’s life was sadly brief. Following her marriage in 1802, she became the mother of her only child, Józef Zarzycki, who was born some time between August 1803 and March 1804 in Szwarocin.5 One might expect to see births to a married couple every two years, on average, but this was not the case for Wiktoria and Adam Zarzycki. Unfortunately, fewer births mean fewer records which might mention Wiktoria and provide us with glimpses into her life. In 1807, she died at the age of 28.6 This close-up of her death record tells us that she died of “petocie,” which is mentioned here as an old Polish form of the Latin word, “Petechiae.”
Petechiae are small, red or purple spots on the skin, caused by minor bleeding from a broken capillary, and can have a variety of causes ranging from infectious diseases, to trauma, to leukemia, and a variety of autoimmune or otherwise non-infectious causes. However, an infectious, contagious disease is suggested here, since at least eight other deaths on this page were attributed to the same cause (two are shown here). Two serious illnesses that cause a rash and were common during this time are scarlet fever and typhus. Both of these illnesses are presently treated with antibiotics, and these diseases are no longer life-threatening with timely intervention.
As a 21st-century American, I’m very grateful for the easy access to antibiotics which I enjoy, and which is one reason why rashes and fevers no longer terrify us as they did our ancestors. We’ll never know what Wiktoria’s life might have included had she lived longer. Probably she would have lived quietly, just another illiterate peasant woman, raising her family, tending to her home and garden, and supporting her husband’s shoemaking business in whatever ways she was capable. She probably never imagined that one day her descendents would live all over the world. Although her story is short, it’s one that captivates me. Rest in peace, Wiktoria.
1Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga ślubów 1826-1828,” 1826, #11, marriage record for Józef Zarzycki and Joanna Krzymińska.
2Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga ślubów 1790-1802,” 1802, #9, marriage record for Adam Zarzecki and Victoria, parents’ names unknown.
3Justyna Krogulska, Warsaw, Poland to Julie Szczepankiewicz, Zarzycki research notes; privately held by Julie Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, USA.
4Hoffman, William F. Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings. 3rd ed. Vol. 2. (Chicago: Polish Genealogical Society of America, 2012), 729.
5 Justyna Krogulska, Warsaw, Poland to Julie Szczepankiewicz, Zarzycki research notes; privately held by Julie Szczepankiewicz, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, USA. .”I didn’t find the birth certificate of Józef Zarzycki! There is a gap in the documents in the Aug 1803 – Mar 1804. It follows that Joseph was born at the turn of the year 1803-1804. In the years 1802-1807 were not born other children of Adam Zarzecki and Wiktoria.”
6Roman Catholic Church, St. Bartholomew’s Parish (Rybno, Sochaczew, Mazowieckie, Poland), “Księga zgonów, 1802-1807,”1807, #39, death record for Victoria Zarzecka.
© 2016 Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz