CEIL WENDT JENSEN, AUTHOR/ARTIST, JANUARY 31, 2007
While we non-Poles trip and tumble over multisyllabic Polish names, we tend to forget the tremendous pride that these names can inspire in those that carry them. Regions, towns, even homesteads may be represented within the cz’s and jtk’s, and folks with identical, or even similar surnames often find comradery and sometimes, DNA in common.
Ceil Wendt Jensen is not in this elite group of vowel-challenged twelve-letter surnames, and she bristles when folks suggest that she can’t be Polish with such a German-sounding moniker.
“One of my grandmothers,” she’ll say instantly (and maybe a bit indignantly!), “was Cecilia Wojtkowiak Przytulska (1890-1977) and the other was Agata Zdziebko Wendt (1872- 1908).”
Ceil is definitely ‘in the club.’ As further proof, she is author of three ‘must-have’ books about Polish Detroit *, and after thirty years as an art teacher, she is a professional genealogist with a mission to help her fellow Polish Americans find their roots in Poland… she frequently finds records so intact that she can trace her clients’ families back to the seventeenth century.
“Genealogy is extremely important, not only for Poles, but for everyone. As the saying goes, ‘You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”
Wendt Jensen’s own fascination with her personal history began in 1964, when she was required to do a school project in which she interviewed her father. He unearthed a treasure trove of old documents, immigration papers, even a billfold from Ellis Island. For Ceil, then a grade-schooler, the experience fomented a lifelong love of her Polish heritage. It was, however, only after her father passed away that she was inspired to take her interest to professional levels. Of particular interest to her are the cemeteries of Mt. Elliott and Mt. Olivet, wherein many thousands of Polish Detroiters find their final resting place.
“Mt. Elliott is Detroit’s oldest surviving cemetery—it was started by the Catholic Irish community in 1841. About five thousand Polish Americans are buried there. Mt. Olivet opened in 1888, and of the three hundred thousand people buried there, maybe half are of Polish origin.”
She is endless respectful of the stories behind the tombstones in these cemeteries, imagining the hardships endured by those eager, but often culture-shocked immigrants. ”When Poles prepared to journey here, they told each other that in America, ‘the fences are draped with sausages’… That was their version of, ‘the streets are paved with gold!”
Wendt Jensen is about to release her fourth book, called ‘Sto Lat’. Anyone with Polish roots recognizes this title as an upbeat song often sung at weddings and birthdays, translated as, ‘May you live one hundred years…” She refers to the book as “a modern approach to Polish Genealogy…”
“My family, in many ways, represents the positive effect that the Poles had on Detroit, and in return, the positive effect that Detroit had on us. My grandmother signed her immigration papers with an ‘x’, her son became a lawyer, and now, her nieces and nephews have PhD’s…”
* Ceil Wendt Jensen’s fabulous books are: Detroit’s Polonia, Detroit's Mount Elliott Cemetery, Detroit's Mount Olivet Cemetery and the soon to be released Sto Lat.
Available at: http://mipolonia.net/polonia/