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Pursuing Polish

There are a number of ways to do research on your Polish ancestors, and the Internet has enabled many of them to become available to the North American-based researcher.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
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Word Count: 1901 (approx.)
Labels: Ethnic 
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No Polish jokes here. Poland is a proud country with a very long history. Because of its location, many of its neighbors have seen fit to invade it and, therefore. create a very involved mish-mash of records in varying languages. Here follows a quick overview of doing Polish research. The real history of the area is very complex.

Catholic records will basically be in Latin, but might also be in Polish - except in the southern area that was held by Austria for a while, where the records might be in German. Or some are in Russian. Poland does have the equivalent of states in the U. S. Until the late 1990s Poland had 49 provinces. At that time, they were reorganized into 16. The older provinces usually had a city with that name, but that is no longer the case.

As is often the case in Europe, knowing the precise area is essential to find older records. One way to find out where people came from in Poland is to ask the older relatives. Many Poles came to the U. S. about 1900 or shortly thereafter, and lived there until the 1970s. So there could well be living descendants who remember hearing about the old country. Except, as some of them have said, if it was so wonderful why did they leave?

Another way to find places of origin in Poland is to see if they left records with places of origin, in what is called Polonia, or the Polish populace of an area. Many cities have Polish celebrations and strong parish ties to the old country, even today. I am most familiar with Western New York, and today there are celebrations and festivals, and even tours back to Poland, often led by priests in a predominately Polish parish. Googling Polonia will show the dispersal of Poles across the USA and Canada. Try fraternal organizations such as the Polish Cadets. Even cemetery headstones might have towns mentioned.

Passenger records of people who emigrated may or may not exist. Many Poles left through Hamburg, where records have been kept, But many more left through Bremen, Germany, where authorities destroyed the records to save space – plus both of those were bombed by the Allies during WWII. And from about 1820 to about 1880, little information had to be kept in passenger lists. Towns of birth or origin are very seldom found in those records. Remember that women automatically became citizens if their husband were naturalized, and you may not find separate records for them.

Kinds of records. In the USA or Canada, we might expect to find vital records, naturalizations, church parish registers, city directories, newspapers, and school or even fraternal organizations. Here again is a caution. If the older handwritten records were done in a flourishing handwriting style, the records could be misfiled very grievously. I am thinking of a name beginning with J that was filed under T, because for all the world it does look like a T. Except, I knew it was a J since I knew the man personally. But was his first name Ludovicus (Latin), Ludwik (Polish), Ludwig (German) or the name that he used in America and by which I knew him, Louis? He appeared under all of these in various records.

Kinds of records overseas. Vital records might have been taken in any of several languages (Latin, Polish, Russian or German). Censuses were often done down to the parish level, and reading various sources indicated that there was no effective national census until 1921.

Also, remember that if your ancestors left 100 years ago or more, they may have been the last of their name left in that location if it is small.

And yes, there are quite a few genealogical societies in Poland itself. I found a very useful web site with live working links at Genealogical Societies in Poland. Also see the Federation of East European Family History Societies (FEEFHS): Poland Genealogy Resources. And the Genealogical Society of Great Poland "Gniazdo"

Web Sites

It's hard to overemphasize how the Internet has made finding information much easier and quicker; plus being able to send e-mails to another continent without thinking of time or the postage cost. Examples follow:

Polish Wikipedia. This is not the English version but the one available off the top Wikipedia page as a choice. Trying a web site in Polish can prove illuminating,. I was looking for information on the tiny village of Momina, which the Spis miejscowoci Polskiej Rzeczypospolitej Ludowej (Gazetteer of the Polish People's Republic), described as a village of "50 souls". (It now has climbed all the way up to 160). The Polish version of Wikipedia has pictures of the main church there, as well as other pictures. Trying the little village of Spytkowice shows that it has a web page with a lot of information.

As an aside, I printed the information about it and showed it to an old Polish-American woman whose parents were born and married there. She broke into tears at being able to actually see the pictures of the place that her parents had come from. And this was but a month before she passed away. True story.

There is also a Polish GenWeb series of sites, just like the ones for the USA that we are familiar with. For example, the Genweb for Lublin, in English.

The census depends on which power took it and when, as to what survives and kinds of information is included. Some of the books included in the bibliography go into great detail about what is available. Suffice it to say that it's not at all like the U. S. census, taken every ten years.

Trying the Catholic Directory for the above-mentioned Momina yields the actual mailing address: St. Woiciech Bishop and Martyr, Momina 17a 7-413 PL.

Another thing to consider is that Polish is a Slavic language. For the most part it uses Roman characters, but also has several extra diacritics which change the sound of the words – and when a native English speaker writes that down for the census, they can get mangled.

Case in point: a patron once told me that Sebastian Kolodziej (diacritics omitted) had his name pronounced in English by the family as Se-bast-chin Ko-wudd-jee. So far so good (seriously). But in a census he is rendered as Sabata Koloc. It gets worse. It is written and indexed backwards, so that the index shows a man named Koloc Sabata. It gets worse-er. His daughter Wladyslawa (pronounced by the family as Vlad-ee-shwa-vuh), born in the U. S., was known her whole life as Charlotte. She spoke only Polish until she was 16, as the parochial school and high school was conducted in Polish, even though the family was living in the USA. Why mention this? Because you find a reference to a name which is mangled unmercifully. Then someone is born with a Polish name, and known for 90 years by her English name.

There was a woman who married the erstwhile Mr. Kolodziej, and had seven children with him. He died in the flu epidemic in 1918, and she remarried quickly, (not surprisingly, as all the children has been born 1908-1917), to another man, with whom she had 7 more. Sometimes the first seven were known by their birth fathers name, and sometimes by their stepfather's name. And do not even get me started on the redoubtable Bronislawa Niedzialowski, who married yet another man whose name is in serious need of a vowel (Wawrzyniec, pronounced in English by them as Vahv-zheen-yets). Nothing at all wrong with that, but the opportunities are rife for misspelling.

So, checking the records available for someone requires being open to a lot of variations.

Parishes and Archives

Many records are found not only in the original churches but also in local archives. As many sites have advised, if you do go to Poland you must prearrange your visit or you will not be able to get access at all.

There is the wonderfully named SEZAM, pronounced by English speakers as Shazam!, which has descriptions of archival materials on several archival levels. One is known as civil records (PRADZIAD).

Links are:

Vital records and civil registers PRADZIAD

The PRADZIAD database search engine

But the following are NOT filmed by the LDS yet. I ran these as samples, since they are tiny little villages. Those villages do show up on maps, in the Polish version of Wikipedia, and even in the LDS catalog of films. But NOT these records, which DO appear in The PRADZIAD database

Spytkowice has church records from 1890-1906, but they have not been filmed yet. You must go to Poland to the archives to see them. Ditto for the little village of Momina, whose church records from 1888-1897 are in a local archive, but not anywhere else.

Why is this important? Possibly you may hire a Polish researcher to visit these archives for you, and their knowing that the records you seek are in this database will shorten their research times, and thus your costs.

Trying Spytkowice in the FHC catalog yields only a German language record from when Austria was in control of the area – and that is only the Austrian Army hospital records from the early 1800s.

Additional Web Sites

  • A brand new purchase of a major Polish genealogy site was just announced: bought That's a major web site for research in Poland. Its banner across the top of the web page translates as, "Get closer to your loved ones." See Dick Eastman's blog, for more details. When I surfed to the site, it was all in Polish, which I cannot read. But trying some searches did yield results. At any rate, there are close to 6 million family tree profiles on the site, and sometime in 2011 they will be moved to

  • Polish Genealogical Society of America - web site.

  • Newberry Library: Polish Genealogy - a site from the Chicago library famous for its genealogy collection. Also has a downloadable Polish Genealogy guide.

  • Polish Roots - this web site has informative links and a frequently published web-zine known as Gen Dobry (as the web site points out, it is quite the pun, as it is "a play on words, based on the Polish greeting "Dzien dobry." That expression, pronounced roughly "jen do-bree" and meaning "Good day," is a standard way of saying "Hello." So "Gen Dobry!" is sort of a shameless cross lingual pun, as if to say "Good genlealogy)." Good reading too.

  • FamilySearch Wiki: Poland Genealogy - a guide from the LDS research site.

Selected Books

Please remember that many pages in these books still show Internet searches, and when you click on the result you may get a page missing error. Any book that is even ten years old is also going to have that problem.

Sto Lat: A Modern Guide to Polish Genealogy, by Cecile (Ceil) Wendt Jensen; 2009 (highly recommended. Her grandparents arrived in Detroit in the 1880s and 1890s from Russian Poland, West Prussia, Posen, and Galicia, and she knows whereof she speaks).

Essentials on Polish Genealogical Research, by Daniel Schlyter, 1993 (Mr. Schlyter was with the Family History Library for over 30 years, and is a professional genealogist).

Polish Roots, by Rosemary Chorzempa, 1993. (She was a national director of the Polish Genealogical Society of America. The 1993 book means that it does not have a lot of Internet sites, but is a classic in the field).

Tracing your Polish Roots, by Maralyn Wellauer, 1979 (Maralyn Wellauer-Lenius is an internationally known author, columnist, and professional genealogist).

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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