Off the Beaten Path: Finding Vital Records in the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek

For most genealogists, vital records create the backbone of a family tree, so it’s important for us to be able to locate the ones we need for our research. As a general rule, those of us researching Polish ancestors expect to find vital records in local registry offices, parish offices, state archives, and diocesan archives. However, it’s important to remember that sometimes, we find them in libraries or other repositories that are further from the beaten path. Once such library that’s recently come onto my radar, thanks to a tip from my colleague in Germany, Marcel Elias, is the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek, located in Herne, Germany.

Why Should I Care About This Library?

The Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek offers unique collections which can be accessed online, as well as those which must be accessed in person. As their website states,

“The collections of Martin-Opitz-Library, founded in 1948, cover the history and culture of Germans in East Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe. An emphasis of the collection is the historical eastern provinces of Prussia. It is the largest scientific library of this kind in Germany.”

The library holds church books—both Roman Catholic and Protestant—as well as a few civil registers, for a number of locations that may be of interest to those researching Polish ancestors. Locations include places in Warmia-Masuria, Silesia, Pomerania, Greater Poland, Galicia, and Volhynia, and online collections include both digitized scans (original sources) as well as abstracts and transcriptions (derivative sources). Many of the transcripts are found in the 62-volume collection known as the Hipplersche Kirchenbücher (Hippler’s Church Books). Dr. Erich Hippler (1892–1969) made complete transcripts of all the baptisms, marriages and deaths recorded from a number of parishes in the northern Warmia area, which encompass the period from 1485–1882. In some cases, the original books no longer exist, making these transcripts invaluable as a genealogical resource.

In many cases, the collections found in the Martin-Opitz-Library are complementary to those found in other repositories. For example, Roman Catholic parish books for Samoklensk in Kreis Schubin, known today as Samoklęski Duże in gmina Szubin in the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship, are available in several collections which span the period from 1750–1830. These records predate the collections available from FamilySearch, which are images of original records held by the Archiwum Archidiecezjalne w Gnieźnie (Archdiocesan Archive in Gniezno) and include vital records from 1831–1951. (The end date of that collection is nominal; in practice, birth records are protected by Polish privacy laws for 100 years, and marriage and death records are protected for 80 years, which might explain why the more recent collections have not yet been digitized by FamilySearch.) For the parish of Giedlarowa in gmina Leżajsk, Subcarpathian Voivodeship, in the former Galicia region, the Martin-Opitz library has a collection of baptisms from 1787–1827. In contrast, FamilySearch has no vital records for this parish, and the Archiwum Państwowe w Rzeszowie (state archive in Rzeszów) only has 19th-century records starting in 1852 (plus some 20th-century holdings). Although the Archidiecezjalne w Przemyślu (archdiocesan archive in Przemyśl) can often be counted on to have collections of Roman Catholic church books for parishes in this area, even they only have records for Giedlarowa dating back to 1826, at least according to the Ekstrakty Metrykalne w Archiwum Diecezjalnem Przemyskiem, which is an old catalog of the holdings of this archive created by Fr. Dr. Jan Kwolek and published in 1928. Besides the vital records, the Martin-Opitz-Library offers an interesting collection of postcards from Łódź with a focus on 20th-century images prior to World War I; a Galicia-German Archive, a collection focused on Volhynian Germans, assorted maps, and so much more.

Since this is a German library, you’re likely to find places referred to by their German names, and you may be wondering how to convert those names to their current Polish equivalents. There are two good options for that. The first is Kartenmeister, where you can search Uwe-Karsten Krickhahn’s database of locations according to their German names, and the results will include alternate names for each place in Polish, Russian, or Lithuanian. The second option is the Meyers Gazetteer, where you can search for a German place name, then view the results on the map, varying the transparency so that the default, historical map fades into the modern map, revealing the current place name.

How Do I Search the Holdings of This Library?

You’ll probably want to search both the digital offerings and also the library’s catalog. I found it worthwhile to browse to the genealogy collections from the main page, since that method permits a bit of an overview of some of the different collections along the way. The library’s homepage is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Homepage of the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek.

Although the site offers options for English and Polish as well as German, those translation features are a little glitchy, as of this writing. For example, if you’re viewing a page other than the home page and you select “English,” the site kicks you back to the home page, rather than translating the current page. Nonetheless, if you click on “More Collections” (boxed in green), and then choose “Digitale Sammlungen” (digital collections), as shown in Figure 2, you can eventually get to the site’s “Familienforschung” (Genealogy) page.

Figure 2: The library’s Collections page. Digital collections are highlighted in the green box.

At any point during this process, you can always cheat and machine translate the page using Chrome as your browser. Right-click anywhere on the webpage, and the box shown above the blue arrow in Figure 3 will pop up, offering you the option to Translate to English. Alternatively, stick with German and click on “Familienforschung” (Genealogy), boxed in green, or browse first to some of those other collections that may be of interest.

Figure 3: Location of “Familienforschung” (Genealogy) in drop-down menu of digital collections.

Figure 4 shows the machine-translated version of the Genealogy page. You can also shortcut the process by navigating to this page directly.

Figure 4: The library’s “Familienforschung” (Genealogy) page, machine-translated to English.

Once you’re on the Genealogy page, you’ll probably want to view “Church records,” unless your ancestors happened to be from Reinswalde/Złotnik or Rogsen/Rogoziniec, both in Lubusz Voivodeship, or Zimdarse/Siemidarżno in West Pomeranian Voivodeship, as these are currently the only locations for which civil vital registrations are available online.

When you select “Church records” (or “Kirchenbücher,” if you’re continuing in the German original), you’ll have options to view the special collection of Hippler’s Church Books from the Warmia-Masuria region, Warmian church book films, or further parish registers. The Warmian church book films include digitized vital records from two locations, Mehlsack/Pieniezno in the present-day Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship, and Tiefenau/Tychnowy in the Pomeranian Voivodeship. The further parish registers (“weitere Kirchenbücher”) consist of church books from 44 parishes (mostly Protestant) located throughout Poland today (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Subcategories within the Kirchenbücher collection, machine-translated into English.

Hippler’s Church Books and the Warmian church book films are really the highlight of this library’s digital offerings, in terms of vital records, because Dr. Hippler seemed to be intent on creating accurate transcriptions.

On Abstracts and Rabbit Holes: A Word of Caution

In contrast, one should exercise caution in using some of the books from the “weitere Kirchenbücher” (further parish registers). As an interesting example, I chose to examine the library’s collection of Roman Catholic church books, identified as being from Kazimierza Wielka from 1802–1845 (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Collection of church books from Kazimierza Wielka from the “weitere Kirchenbücher” (further parish registers) collection at the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek.

This collection consists of typed abstracts of the church books, as well as a 109-page alphabetized index of the individuals whose vital events are recorded in those books. Apparently, these abstracts are not complete, but were created selectively, aimed at identifying individuals of German descent, so the record numbers are not continuous, going from 4 to 6 to 54 and 55, as shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7: Abstract of births for 1827 from the Roman Catholic parish of Kazimierza Wielka, from the collection of the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek.

Unfortunately, I hit a snag when I tried to find the original records that were abstracted here. Roman Catholic books from Kazimierza Wielka (located northeast of Kraków in the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship) are digitized at GenBaza, which has images from the duplikat books (1810–1939), held by the state archive of Kielce (Archiwum Państwowe w Kielcach), as well as the unikat books (1690–1868) held by the diocesan archive in Kielce (Archiwum Diecezjalne w Kielcach). The duplikat books were created from the original church records (unikat) at the end of each year and stored in the archives of the district court, and for Kazimierza Wielka, many books from both the unikat and duplikat collections have survived. (More information on the practice of creating vital records books can be found here.) Unikat scans from the diocesan archive from 1690–1870 can also be found in Metryki, which makes them slightly more accessible than the scans in GenBaza since Metryki does not require a login. Moreover, records from Kazimierza Wielka are indexed at Geneteka (1670–1874).

With all those resources available online, it was easy to look up birth record number 4 from 1827 for Kazimierza Wielka from the unikat records of the diocesan archive in Kielce, and this is shown in Figure 8. That birth record was clearly not a birth record for Karoline Wilhelmine Emilie Bohr, as suggested by the typed abstract from Figure 7, but rather one for Błażej Czupierda, son of Kazimierz and Franciszka née Wrześniak.

Figure 8: Original church records from the Archiwum Diecezjalne w Kielcach for Kazimierza Wielka from 1827, showing birth record no. 4 with names of the parents and child underlined in red.

Figure 9 shows the duplikat version of this same record from the state archive in Kielce, and it, too, confirmed that the fourth birth recorded in 1827 in Kazimierza Wielka was that of Błażej Czupierda, not Karoline Wilhelmine Emilie Bohr.

Figure 9: Duplikat church records from the Archiwum Państwowe w Kielcach for Kazimierza Wielka in 1827, showing birth record no. 4 with the names of the parents and child underlined in red.

Since both of those original records agreed, the only logical explanation was that the parish had been misidentified. Mapa.szukacz.pl identifies 14 places within the borders of Poland today called Kazimierz. So which Kazimierz was the source of the abstracts held by the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek?

Closer examination of the other abstracted records in Figure 7 revealed references to other local villages that were presumably located within the parish, such as Krzywiec in no. 54, Rąbień in no. 55, and “Konst.,” in no. 4, where Karoline Bohr herself was born. Already deep inside the rabbit hole, I checked out Krzywiec and Rąbień in Mapa.szukacz.pl. There’s only one Rąbień in Poland and it’s near Łódź. Similarly, there’s a village called Krzywiec near there, and “Konst.” must be Konstantynów Łódzki. Lo, and behold, “Kazimierza Wielka” must be Kazimierz, presently located in gmina Lutomiersk, within Pabianice County, Łódź Voivodeship (Figure 10).

Figure 10: Map showing location of the parish of Kazimierz and nearby villages mentioned in birth record abstracts shown in Figure 7. Google Maps.

Having come thus far, I felt the need to confirm this location by finding the scan of the birth record for Karoline Wilhelmine Emilie Bohr, which was available online at Metryki (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Birth record no. 4 from 1827 for Karolina Wilhelmina Emilia Bohr, baptized in the parish of Kazimierz, which is presently located in gmina Lutomiersk, Pabianice County, Łódź Voivodeship (Figure 10).

If nothing else, this exercise really underscored for me the richness and abundance of historical records that are now available online, thanks to the efforts of volunteers from Polish genealogical societies and Polish archives. It also underscored the need for careful evaluation and understanding of source material for genealogical research.

Using the Catalog of the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek

As is true for most other libraries and archives, the digitized offerings available at the website of the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek represent only a small fraction of their holdings. To see what else they have that might be relevant to one’s research, it’s necessary to check the catalog. This can be accessed from the search bar at the top (“Suchen und Finden”) of the home page shown in Figure 1. Since this is a German site, I like to use correct German spellings for my search terms, as a rule. However, the search engine does not seem to be particularly fussy about diacritics. A search for “Kirchenbucher” came up with the same 1,779 results as a search for “Kirchenbücher,” and a search for “Krakow” returned results for “Kraków.” One thing that does not seem to be readily available is a complete list of parishes for which the library holds original books, whether digitized or not. Most librarians and archivists are extremely helpful, however, so a quick email is probably all that will be required in order to confirm the availability of collections that may be of interest.

Knowing where to find collections of historical documents that are relevant (or potentially so) to our research is important for all genealogists, and sometimes those collections may be found in places that are a bit off the beaten path. Poland’s tumultuous history and changing borders can make it even more challenging to locate records, and metrical books can sometimes turn up in surprising places, after being hidden from—or confiscated by—invading armies. When in doubt, professional, onsite researchers can be invaluable allies in our quest to locate records. In cases where originals no longer exist, derivative sources can help fill in the blanks. However, it’s important to evaluate them carefully, making an effort to understand why they were created, and by whom, and what originals were used in their creation. Hopefully some of you readers will be able to find your ancestors in these records from the Martin-Opitz-Bibliothek. If you do, be sure to let me know in the comments. Happy researching!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2021

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