Many of us family historians are eager to connect with distant cousins, for a variety of reasons. It’s interesting to share family photos and see what stories were handed down in a cousin’s family. It’s satisfying to reunite descendants of a family that has dispersed through time and across continents. If one is lucky enough to connect with cousins who are also interested in genealogy, it’s wonderful to have a research collaborators to share the thrills, challenges, frustrations and victories inherent to family history research. If a new cousin can be persuaded to contribute a cheek swab sample for DNA testing, it’s great to gain added insights into one’s genetic heritage by identifying matching DNA segments. And for those of us whose ancestors immigrated within the past few generations, sharing with cousins in the ancestral home country can be a wonderful way to learn how familiar cultural traditions are practiced in that country today.
Unfortunately, many family historians with Polish roots feel that it’s more difficult to connect with cousins in Poland than it is to connect with distant cousins in the U.S. Although there are always exceptions, genealogy as a hobby isn’t generally as popular in Poland as it is here. During the Cold War era, the Communist vision of a classless society did not encourge hobbies that might potentially lead to the discovery of noble ancestry. Moreover, the difficult economic conditions dictated that few people had time or money to spend on genealogy research. However, Poland’s increasing prosperity in modern times has brought with it an increased interest in genealogy research, and researchers may be surprised to discover that our Polish cousins are as interested in meeting us, as we are in meeting them.
With that in mind, here are five strategies that I recommend for identifying cousins in Poland today:
1. Check out those attics!
Your first step is to call up all the elders in the family to see if there’s any chance that correspondence has survived. Someone just might have saved a box of letters in the basement or attic, cherished remnants of correspondence with family in Poland. If the letters are in Polish and no one in the family speaks the language any longer, it’s definitely worth it to get them translated for clues. If you hit the jackpot and find an old address, compose a letter and have it translated into Polish, explaining that you’re seeking family who used to live at this address. Provide some details about your relationship and your desire to reconnect the families. Address the envelope to “The family of Antoni Kowalski” (specify the name of the family member who was at that address most recently) and add a note along the bottom of the envelope to the mail carrier, to please forward if the family has moved. If that doesn’t work, you can also try writing to the parish priest, explaining your dilemma and asking him to please pass your letter along to any of his parishioners who share your surname of interest and might be related to you. Similarly, the village head, or sołtys, is usually acquainted with everyone in the village (in small villages) or can determine how best to direct your letter (in larger ones).
2. Develop your own tree first.
When it comes to identifying living family in Poland as well as understanding DNA matches, it helps to have a well-developed family tree, which means spending time on researching collateral lines. Too often, family historians are so focused on tracing their ancestry as far back as possible, that they neglect thorough research into the families of each ancestor’s siblings. By tracing all those lines forward in time, you’ll know what surnames to look for, both in your ancestral villages, and in the family trees of your DNA matches.
3. Get your surnames out there.
Genealogy blogs are a great way to make your research interests known and make it easy for you to be found by distant cousins who are interested in family history. Utilize the old-fashioned message boards and surname registries like the ones at Rootsweb, or post your surnames and geographic places associated with them in the alphabetized surname spreadsheets which are common to many genealogy-related Facebook groups, such as the Galicia Family History Group, Polish Genealogy, German Genealogy, etc. You can also create an account at Genealodzy.pl, which is the home page of the Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne (Polish Genealogical Society, or PTG). Once your account is established, you can add your surnames and parishes of interest so that others can search for them from the site menu on the left of the home page.
4. Reach out in the right places.
Ancestry.com is not well known in Poland. Poles are more likely to use MyHeritage to host their family trees, so searching that site may produce better results when it comes to connecting with cousins. Many Poles have Facebook accounts, or you could try creating an account at NK (formerly known as Nasza Klasa, “Our Class”), a Polish social media site. The idea here is to search for individuals with your surnames of interest, who are living in or near the places associated with those surnames in your family tree. It may sound like a long shot, but it’s been known to work, especially if your surname of interest isn’t exceptionally popular. In addition, serendipitous cousin connections are not uncommon in Facebook groups, so be sure to join a few groups that are relevant to your Polish research and then search each group’s history for your surnames and places of interest, in addition to adding them to the group’s surname spreadsheets as mentioned previously.
5. When in Poland….
If you have the opportunity to visit Poland and would like to visit your ancestral villages while there, be sure to go with a genealogical tour guide or interpreter, since most of the elderly residents of the village, who might be most likely to remember your family names, will not speak English. The village sołtys should be your first stop, especially if it’s a small village, since he or she will be able to direct you to the homes of those who share your surnames. Be sure to bring some copies of your family tree with you, or at least the branch of the tree that’s relevant for that village, and some old family photos, as well as business cards or something with your contact information on it.
One of my favorite memories from my trip to Poland was meeting the widow of my 3rd cousin once removed, who was previously unknown to our family. After the sołtys gave us directions to her home, we knocked on the door, and when she answered, our translator explained who we were and that we were looking for relatives of my great-grandfather. She told us the names of her late husband, his father, and his grandfather, and recalled that the grandfather had worked for a few years in the U.S. before returning to Poland, although she didn’t recall where he went. Based on the information she shared at that time, I was sure we were related, although I was not able to obtain direct confirmation of the relationship until we were back home in the U.S. However, her Christmas card with opłatek and a warm note welcoming me to the family was something I will always cherish, and I continue to correspond with her daughter via e-mail.
Another great strategy shared by Dan Wolinski of the Polish Genealogy group is to leave notes on the monuments in the local cemetery. I thought this was really brilliant, and it worked out beautifully for Dan, whose note was discovered by a cousin while he was still in Poland, allowing an opportunity for a meeting. As with all these strategies, there are no guarantees, but if you happen to find a headstone with your surname of interest in the village cemetery, there’s a chance that the grave is being maintained by a relative. Write a note about the family you’re seeking, include your contact information, and have it translated into Polish by someone reputable. Seal it in a waterproof zipper-lock bag, tape it securely to the headstone, and cross your fingers.
When it comes to searching for relatives in Poland, you have little to lose, but everything to gain. If you try any of the strategies I suggest here, I’d love to hear how they work for you. And if you have any novel strategies that have been successful in the past, I hope you’ll share them in the comments. Happy hunting!
Note: William F. Hoffman, noted author, linguist, and editor for several publications relating to Polish Genealogy, made a further recommendation for places to list your surnames of interest. He suggested that the surname registry hosted by the popular Polish genealogical tour service, PolishOrigins, is another great place to put your surnames online so that others can find you easily. Thanks for the tip, Fred!
© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017