A Step-By-Step Guide to Using Geneteka: Part I

A little over a year ago, I wrote a tutorial for using the popular Polish vital records database, Geneteka, and I’m happy to report that many users found it very helpful. At that time, Geneteka had recently made significant changes to their user interface, and my primary goal was to address those changes. Consequently, the tutorial wasn’t as comprehensive as it could have been, especially in regard to locating scans of indexed records discovered through the database. With that in mind, I decided it was time for a major revision. This version is definitely more comprehensive, but now it’s also exceptionally long for a blog post. For that reason, I decided to break it up into three posts which I’ll publish over the next few days. This first installment provides an introduction to Geneteka, a walk through the search interface, and some information about how Geneteka’s search algorithms work. So without further ado, here is my “Version 2.0” of a user’s guide to Geneteka.

What is Geneteka?

Geneteka is a database of nearly 25 million (as of today) Polish vital records that have been indexed by surname and given name, from parishes and registry offices which are grouped according to the contemporary province in Poland in which they lie. Geneteka is part of a family of websites sponsored by the Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne (PTG), which is the Polish Genealogical Society. All of these sites are created entirely be volunteers, and they’re hosted online by membership dues paid to the PTG and donations from users. Geneteka is also an evolving work in progress, and indexing requirements have changed since its inception. Therefore it’s important to realize that some indexes are more limited than others in the information they provide, and the differences in information included in these indexes will be discussed in more detail in this tutorial. Each of Geneteka’s “sister sites” is wonderful in its own way, and several of these will probably be discussed in future blog posts. (One of these, Metryki, was already discussed in a previous blog post.) But today, let’s focus on Geneteka.

Geneteka’s home page appears in Polish by default. However, you can easily switch the language to English by clicking the American/British flag, circled here in red.

Geneteka main page

This main page offers an interactive map where we can click on the name of a province of interest, as well as a search box near the top right, where we can type in the name of a parish to see if records for that parish have been indexed here. Some indexes for locations in Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine are also included, as well as an additional category called Pozostałe (“Others”) that includes indexes from a few places in Russia, a church in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia, and St. Stanislaus Church in Buffalo, New York. Below that search box, there is a list of Polish provinces. Click the name of a province to search for records from that entire province, as an alternative to clicking it on the map. To the right of the list of provinces, there is information on the number of parishes and civil registry offices that have been indexed for each province, as well as the total number of indexed records. From this we can get a feel for how good the coverage is for each particular area. For example, there are fewer than 350 parishes and registry offices that have been indexed for the Lesser Poland province (województwo małopolskie), with about half a million vital records, whereas there are over 1,800 parishes and registry offices indexed for the Mazovian province (województwo mazowieckie), with more than 6.6 million records. Note that even though the city of Warsaw is located in the Mazovian province, there are so many vital records from the city itself that these records are included in a separate category.

Malopolska vs. Mazovia

It’s important to remember that Geneteka is still a work in progress. New indexes are being added weekly, all created by volunteers, who are the unsung heroes of the genealogy community, and to whom we owe an enormous debt of gratitude. However, many parishes have not yet been indexed at all, or have not yet been indexed for the particular range of years needed for one’s research. Therefore I still recommend that you determine your immigrant ancestor’s place of origin first, using records created in his new homeland, rather than trying to make the leap back to Poland by checking Geneteka first. It’s all too easy to attach spurious ancestors to one’s family tree by haphazard searches in Geneteka, especially if the surname is common, or there is a lack of identifying information such as parents’ names for the immigrant ancestor.

As a side note, if you’re interested in checking the most recent additions to the Geneteka database, you can click the link that says, “Nowości w serwisie/News,” circled in red, and it will take you to a page that provides specific information on this.

News

For example, on the day I’m writing this, indexes were added for the parishes of Białotarsk and Grudusk. Both of these parishes are located in Mazowieckie province (MZ), and for Białotarsk, the new information consists of expanded entries (rozszerzenie) for indexes that existed previously in a more limited form, covering births (U), marriages, (M), and deaths (Z) from 1845-1848 and from 1850-1852. The indexer was Bożena Prymus (thank you, Bożena!). If you wish to search the updates for a specific province, you can do that using the drop-down menu.

News details

An introduction to the search boxes

With that introduction out of the way, we can move on to the nitty-gritty. Let’s take the example of a search for ancestors in Mazowieckie province. We click “Mazowieckie” on the map or in the list of provinces on the home page, and arrive at the search screen for indexes from parishes and registry offices in Mazowieckie province.

Mazowiecki search screen

Remember that you can switch the language at any time, on any screen, using the appropriate flag icon at the top, which is very convenient for those who might not be completely comfortable with searching in Polish. As an alternative to clicking the flag icon, people sometimes try to use Google Chrome as their browser and then right-click on the page to translate it, or they attempt to translate the page by copying the URL into Google Translate. While either of these methods will work to some extent, they are not recommended because they produce the unfortunate side-effect of translation of certain surnames and place names, which can make the search results difficult to interpret. Try looking for the Polish villages of “Helmets” (Kaski), “Vineyard” (Winnica), and “Tenement House” (Kamienica) on a map! Page translation using the flag icon will eliminate these undesirable side-effects.

Let’s start by taking a look at each of the search boxes at the top on the left. As we examine the first one, “Teren” (Polish) or “Province” (English), we see that, although we already selected the province, Mazowieckie, on the home page, there’s a drop-down menu which will allow us to switch provinces at any time during the search, which is handy if your ancestors lived near the border between two modern-day provinces.

Province drop down menu

Next, we see the search box for “Parafia” or “Parish.” The default search covers “Wszystkie Miejscowości,” or “All Locations.” Again, this only means all the parishes or registry offices whose records have been indexed for some time period and placed in Geneteka. It does not suggest that the locations that appear in the drop-down menu are the only parishes or registry offices in that province, nor does it even suggest that these are the only indexed records that exist for a particular parish or registry office. There are other indexing databases that are more comprehensive than Geneteka for particular parts of Poland, such as Lubgens for the Lublin area, Projekt Podlasie for the historical Podlasie region, or the Poznan Project for marriage records (only) from the historical Poznań region. (For a more complete list of databases of indexed Polish vital records, please see here.)

Parish drop-down menu

Next, we come to the “Osoba,” or “Person” fields, where one is prompted to enter a surname (at minimum) or a surname and given name. Below that is the option for “oraz” (“or”), where we can enter a second surname (“nazwisko”) and given name (“imię”). This is an exceptionally handy way to drill down to the most relevant results, since it allows you to enter a mother’s maiden name. However, there are a few caveats about using this technique, which we’ll discuss later on.

At the top right, we see that we can limit our search results by specifying a particular range of years (“Zakres lat”). Below that is a list of further options (“Opcje”) which include “Wyszukiwanie dokładne,” or “Exact Search,” “Wyszukaj jako para,” or “Relationship Search,” (literally, “search as a pair”), “Nie wyszukuj w rodzicach,” or “Skip Search in Parents’ Column,” and each of these options has a small “i” next to it.

infodots

If you hover your cursor over these “i” infodots (hover, don’t click!), additional information is provided by way of explanation. However, in some cases it’s still not clear exactly what those explanations mean until you play around with the website a bit, or read this tutorial. I’ll offer some examples to illustrate the use of these options as we progress.

The next two options are fairly self-explanatory. There is an option to perform a search for a target parish and then include additional parishes within a 15-kilometer radius (“Wyszukaj również w pobliskich parafiach (15km)”). Obviously, if you start with the default search, which is for all locations, this feature is disabled because it’s not relevant. Furthermore, these “additional parishes” are once again limited to parishes whose records are indexed in Geneteka. Selecting this option will not identify every parish that ever existed or exists today within a 15-kilometer radius of the target parish. Finally, there is “Wyszukaj tylko indeksy z ostatnich X dni,” or ” Search only indexes added in past X days.” If you’d like to use this, you must first check the selection box before you attempt to change the search interval. Another info dot explains that this option limits the search to recently added, updated, or corrected indexes within the chosen time frame.

Starting a search: What’s in a name?

Let’s start with a real-life example: searching for my great-grandfather, Joseph Zielinski, anywhere in records from Mazowieckie province. If we’re going to research Polish ancestors, it’s important to recognize that their original Polish given names might not be the names that they used in America. For example, the name Joseph is spelled “Józef” in Polish, Thomas is “Tomasz,” and Adalbert (or sometimes Albert) is the usual translation for the Polish name “Wojciech.” My preference is to input the correct Polish version into the “Imię/Name” box when starting a search. However, the developers of  Geneteka anticipated this issue to some extent, and provided an option to search by certain English given names. Therefore a search for “Joseph,”  “Thomas” or “Albert” in the given name field will produce the same results as a search for “Józef,” “Tomasz,” or “Wojciech.” However, this only works to a point, since there are many traditional Slavic names like Stanisław, Czesław, and Bronisława which lack direct English translations. Morevoer, there are names like Pelagia and Petronilla, that are the same in English as they are in Polish, but weren’t popular in English-speaking countries in the 19th and 20th centuries. Polish immigrants who bore these names typically chose a different name to use in English, and the names they chose were entirely personal, possibly bearing some vague phonetic similarity to their original name, but not necessarily. Thus, Stanisław could become Stanley or Stephen, Czesław could become Chester or Charlie, and Bronislawa could become Bernice or Bertha, while Pelagia and Petronilla could be Pearl or Polly. Consequently, searching for these English names will not produce results, or will produce erroneous results. This underscores the need for solid research in U.S. documents prior to beginning your search in Polish databases so you know what your ancestors’ names actually were. Note that diacritics aren’t important in either the surname or the given name field, so you can type “Jozef Zielinski” and still find results for Józef Zieliński. Assuming we add no other identifying information, here’s what that search would produce:

Jozef Zielinski search results

Let’s take a moment to examine these results so we can understand how results are reported. There are three separate tabs for viewing births, marriages and deaths. Births are presented first, by default. Since we didn’t narrow the range of dates at all, results begin in 1707 and continue for 29 pages, through 1916, with such an impressive number of results owing in part to the popularity of the surname “Zieliński.” Reported data include, from left to right, the year of the record (“Rok”), the record number (“Akt”), the given name and surname of the person named in the birth record (“Imię”and “Nazwisko”), the given name of his father (“Imię ojca”), the given name and maiden surname of his mother (“Imię matki” and “Nazwisko matki”), the parish where the event was recorded (“Parafia”), the specific village within the parish where the event took place (“Miejscowość”), and remarks (“Uwagi”). Remember that for rural areas, one Catholic or Protestant parish typically served a number of small villages. Births and deaths typically occurred at home, but then the child or deceased was brought to the parish for baptism (after a birth) or a funeral (after a death). This is why the specific village might be different from the parish in the case of birth and death records. Since marriages always took place in the church (usually in the bride’s parish), there are no additional columns for specific villages in which the bride and groom resided, although this information may optionally be linked to the “i” infodot in the “Remarks” section.

Births, marriages and deaths

Note also that each column heading has next to it a pair of small blue triangles. These allow you to sort the results according to that column, in either ascending or descending order. By default, results are sorted by year, starting with the oldest records first.

Year

However, if we wish to alphabetize search results according to given name, for example, we could click the top blue triangle in the given name column, and the results would be presented as shown below:Given name

Geneteka offers another option for sorting results via the search box located in the upper right corner.

Search

This feature can be used to search for all entries that mention a specific surname, for example, or a particular place. It’s worth noting that if you use this option, diacritics matter. A search for “Dabrow” will return no results, but a search for “Dąbrow” will return results that include this string of characters in any field.

DAbrow

Thus, results include the subset of births which mention given name “Józef,” surname “Zieliński” and also “Dąbrowska” as the mother’s maiden name or Dąbrowa as the place of baptism.

In practice, I don’t use these sorting features much. I prefer to set up the search with sufficient restrictions in other fields that I am able to drill down to the results that are important to me without having to do extensive searching through pages of results. However, others might prefer different methods, and it’s good to know that these options exist for searching and sorting your results, in case you ever need them.

Zielińskis and Zielewskis and Zieleks, oh my! A look at Geneteka’s search algorithms

Let’s take a closer look at the way Geneteka’s search algorithm performs by starting with a broader search for “Zielinski” in Mazowieckie province, with only the surname and no further restrictions.

Zielinski results

The results include a whopping 347 pages of births, but as you start to look through them, you’ll notice a few things about the results that are returned. First, both male and female names are included in the results. The algorithm truncates the final i/a in surnames which exhibit masculine and feminine forms, so that a search for either form will produce results for both forms. There’s one exception to this rule, and that’s for names ending in –dzki/-dzka. For this reason, a search for “Grodzki” will only produce results that reflect the masculine form of the name, and “Grodzka” must be searched separately.

The second thing you’ll notice is that results include not only the surname Zieliński/Zielińska, but also Zielinski/Zielinska — a surname which exists in Poland, but is much less popular and is considered to be “incorrect.” This confirms that the search engine ignores diacritics, as mentioned previously, which is a significant help to English-speaking researchers who might not be aware that their target surname originally included them. In the majority of cases where the spelling “Zielinski” exists in these indexes, it’s because the diacritic was missing in the original record. This is most likely because the priest was a bit sloppy and did not include the kreska (the Polish name for the acute accent on the n), or it was faded and unreadable, rather than that the indexer was sloppy. Indexers are instructed to record surnames and given names exactly as they appear in the record, rather correcting them to their modern spellings. Moreover, if you find that your family name was spelled without a diacritic on a particular record, it does not suggest that your family exhibited a strong preference for spelling the name that way. Many of our ancestors were illiterate, and even if they were not, consistency in surname spellings was just not a priority back then as it is today.

So far, we’ve established that a basic search ignores both diacritics and gender. However, it does more than just that. Closer inspection of the search results reveals additional surnames such as Zielek, Ziła, Zielewska, and Żulińska. These surnames appear because Geneteka’s search algorithm has a built-in flexibility regarding letter substitutions commonly found in old records. For example, “e” and “ew” are treated as equivalents, so that a search for “Olszewski” will also produce results for Olszeski. Other pairs of equivalents include “oy/oj” (so Woyciechowski equals Wojciechowski), “ei/ej” (so Szweikowski equals Szwejkowski), and “sz/ś” (so Szczygielski equals Ścigielski). Since Geneteka ignores diacritics, however, surnames containing certain phonetic equivalents such as “rz/ż” must nonetheless be searched separately, e.g. Zarzycki and Zażycki. Geneteka’s search algorithm also takes into account transliterations between Polish and other languages, so a search for the German surname Schmidt will produce results for Szmit, Schmiedt, Schmit, Szmitt, etc. Also, names ending in “e,” “y” or “a” are truncated, so a search for “Mishke” will return results for Miszke, Miszka, Mischke, and Mischka.

In my next post, I’ll discuss searching with two surnames, using the infodots in the “Remarks/Uwagi” column, searching within a specified parish, using the “Parish records collection/Katalog Zasobów Metrykalnych” link, and using the “Relationship serach/Wyszukaj jako para.” Stay tuned!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2018

3 thoughts on “A Step-By-Step Guide to Using Geneteka: Part I

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