Finding vital records in Poland can be a little confusing to the uninitiated, and sometimes even to more experienced researchers. I’ve written about obtaining copies of vital records by writing to the archives in a previous post, but today, I wanted to give you a general overview of vital records in Poland. Understanding how and why they were created can give you some insight into determining where to look for them. In my next post, I’ll discuss the implications of all of this, and provide some examples for you.
Vital records, by definition, are records of life events — primarily births, marriages, and deaths — and the keeping of vital records began with the Roman Catholic Church. At the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Church decreed that, “The parish priest shall have a book in which he shall record the names of the persons united in marriage and of the witnesses, and also the day on which and the place where the marriage was contracted, and this book he shall carefully preserve.”1 Additional rules regarding the sacraments of marriage and baptism were set forth at this time, with instructions to the priests about recording those sacraments. In 1614, Pope Paul V further defined the rites pertaining to the administration and recording of sacraments in his Rituale Romanum (The Roman Ritual) and introduced a requirement for priests to record deaths in their parishes as well. At the same time, priests were required to maintain a register of souls (Liber Status Animarum) in their parish, for the purpose of ensuring that all their parishioners were receiving the sacraments as appropriate and were being duly catechized. These parish census records later came to include additional information about each household in the parish, such as home addresses, and the ages and relationships of household members.
Over time, civil authorities came to recognize the value in these vital records as well, primarily for their use in documenting the local population for taxation and conscription. Civil vital registration was introduced in different parts of “Poland” at different times, depending on which empire was in power in a given time and place. During the years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, church records were the only vital records in existence. The very earliest church records are more informative for the nobility than they are for peasants, as surnames for peasants did not come into general use until the middle of the 18th century in some places. Following a series of three partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795, “Poland” disappeared from the map as an independent political entity, and the lands which had formerly been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were divided up by the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian Empires.
Civil Records in Austrian Poland
In 1784, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II gave official status to Catholic parish registers, and authorized Catholic priests to act as civil registrars for vital events pertaining to all people in their parish, regardless of faith. At that time he also prescribed the use of the columnar format for parish registers, and the use of individual records books for each village within the parish, replacing the practice of combining vital events from every village within the parish into one parish register. These records were required to be kept in Latin. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that legal authority was granted to Protestants and Jews for the maintenance of their own vital registers, independent of those maintained by the Catholic Church. A duplicate copy of the parish vital register was created at the end of each year, and was required to be sent to the civil authorities.
Civil Records in Russian Poland
Meanwhile, in another part of “Poland,” Napoleon introduced the practice of maintaining civil vital registers in the Duchy of Warsaw, starting in 1808. The format of these civil vital records, prescribed by his Napoleonic Code, was quite different from the earlier Latin church records. They were written in Polish, in a very flowery, legalistic style, and often included quite a bit more information than the Latin church records. When the Duchy of Warsaw was incorporated into the Kingdom of Poland (“Congress Poland“) in 1815, the Napoleonic format continued to be used. In 1826, the true Napoleonic format was replaced by a modified form, and at the same time, other religions were granted the authority to maintain their own civil registers distinct from those created by the local Catholic priest. Civil records from this period were written in Polish until about 1868, when Congress Poland, which was a Russian puppet state since its inception, was absorbed entirely into the Russian Empire, erasing any semblance of autonomy that existed previously. Both church and civil records were required to be kept in Russian from this time, making the two types of vital records virtually indistinguishable. The use of Russian continued until the emergence of the Second Polish Republic in 1918, when civil records were recorded in Polish once again.
Civil Records in Prussian Poland
In Prussian Poland, parish vital registers were created in duplicate starting in 1794, based on a proclamation by Emperor Friedrich Wilhelm II, with the original being reserved for the church and the copy being provided to civil authorities. Both Catholic parish priests and Lutheran ministers were required to send these transcripts (Kirchenbuchduplikate) to the local courts. In 1874, civil registration began in Prussian Poland that was independent of any churches. People were required to report all births, deaths and marriages to a civil authority (Standesamt), the territory for which might be different from the territory of the local Catholic or Protestant parish. Records were kept in German.
Civil Records since 1945
Since the end of World War II, civil registration in Poland has been carried out in local civil registry offices. Each township (gmina) has its own registry office, or Urząd Stanu Cywilnego (USC) which creates and maintains official birth, marriage, and death records, as well as civil divorce records. Official recognition was also given to civil marriages that take place independently from church ceremonies. Until recently, any vital records that were less than 100 years old were protected by Polish privacy laws, and only immediate family or direct descendants (with proof of relationship) could request copies. However, since 2015, a new law was enacted that makes marriage and death records available as archival documents after only 80 years, although births are still protected for 100 years. Records older than 100 years are supposed to be transferred from the USCs to the appropriate state archives, and stiff penalties are in place to ensure that this happens on schedule. However, in cases where the births, marriages and deaths are all bound in the same volume, it might happen that the USC retains possession of the volume for 100 years, but provides copies of the marriage and death records after only 80 years, as permitted by law.
In my next post, I’ll discuss some implications of these historical practices and how they influence where to find vital records, and after that, I’ll give some examples of vital records from each partition.
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© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz, 2016