SOUTH RIVER – While cleaning out a garage, a cousin of Mary Lou Peters, a former resident of South River, discovered a box with several items belonging to Peters’ grandmother – one of which was a Christmas postcard addressed from Kleczew, Poland to South River, New Jersey.
Intrigued by the discovery, Peters and her daughter, Paula Zackeru, felt compelled to dig deeper into their family history.
Although familiar with Polish traditions, both Peters and Zackeru had limited knowledge about the lives and experiences of their ancestors.
“I grew up in South River with all my cousins. My great grandmother and grandfather had emigrated from Kleczew, Poland. They brought us up as a very close family with a lot of Polish traditions that we followed. … As we’re getting older – I’m 73, my cousins are getting older and we have children and grandchildren – I don’t know of anybody that went back to Poland. Now, being able to travel around the world, being retired, it just drew me to find my family roots,” Peters said.
Unsatisfied with the limited information available on Ancestry.com regarding their ancestors, Peters and her daughter decided to go the extra mile to trace their ancestry back to Poland.
“I went to the New York City travel show a few years ago and my daughter Paula, who is a travel consultant, I told her I met these people from a travel group named Real Poland and I said, I want to go. I’m going to do this. I want to know where my ancestors came from,” Peters said.
However, what initially started as a two-person journey, soon turned into a friend and family affair. Through word-of-mouth, friends and family learned of the upcoming trip and decided to join them.
Ultimately, four generations with 18 people in total decided to embark on a mission to discover their heritage.
In 2019, preparations for the trip began, but were ultimately postponed in 2020 as countries across the world were implementing travel restrictions due to the pandemic. Despite facing several dilemmas that threatened the trip, Zackeru and Peters still felt determined to reach Poland, even if nobody else joined them.
“My mom and I said that even if nobody else wanted to go, we were going. Honestly, this was just such a crazy thing that happened. Of course, last year was cancelled and then I rebooked it for this year. … When we put out the final notice to say it’s back on, every single person said, ‘I’m in,’ ” Zackeru said.
Peters added, “I feel blessed that I was inspired. I was determined, especially when COVID hit and we had to cancel our trip, that somehow, I was going to do this.”
After overcoming numerous cancellations, the group arrived in Poland, eventually traveling to Kleczew on their heritage journey.
“When we make it to Kleczew and we go to the church were my great-great grandparents were married, the tour guide started talking to a groundskeeper who called the church caretaker and mentioned our family name. Next thing you know, 30 minutes later, we’re sitting in the living room of our ancestors having tea,” Zackeru said.
According to Peters, most of her great grandmother’s sisters emigrated to the United States, except for the youngest, whose name was Josephine. This led to the unexpected, but pleasant surprise of finding extended family in Poland, a discovery that Zackeru attributes to good timing.
“It was really all about being in the right place at the right time. … The family was so welcoming, and we talked for hours, and we met two different sets of family while we were there,” Zackeru said.
The group quickly found themselves entrenched in Polish culture. Led by a local tour guide described as charismatic and knowledgeable, they visited landmarks and made connections to a history and people that once seemed distant and unfamiliar.
“We did so much … we attended a mass, we made gingerbread, we had a pierogi making class, we went to a Chopin concert in a beautiful sanctuary in Warsaw, we went to a Highlanders show in the mountains of Zakopane … we visited a world heritage site, Malbork Castle … we learned a few words and we really indulged in the entire culture,” Zackeru said.
Although some time has passed since returning from the trip, Zackeru and Peters are still amazed by the journey they had, describing it as unforgettable and amazing.
Little did they know that the simple discovery of a Christmas postcard addressed from Kleczew, Poland, would create a domino effect that led to the discovery of their heritage, culture, and most importantly, extended family. It’s a testament that the most trivial or seemingly insignificant discoveries can sometimes lead to the most life-changing experiences.
“For us, it was the first time that any of our family had ever went to Poland. We really enjoyed all the history … the architecture, the food, the culture, religion and the people. Up until our trip to Poland, it just was all hearsay … it was really important to just experience it firsthand and to ask questions of the people in Poland and to learn more about the history and traditions that continue on,” Zackeru said.