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

No Scan in Geneteka? No problem!

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: the lack of a scan linked to a record found in Geneteka does not imply that no scan is available online.

I was reminded of this recently while researching my Wilczek family. A search of marriage records from Mazowieckie province for children of Andrzej Wilczek and Anna Kornacka produced the results shown in Figure 1:

Figure 1: Geneteka search results for marriage records from any indexed parish in Mazowieckie province which mention Andrzej Wilczek and Anna Kornacka together.Wilczek marriages in Mazowieckie

While the first two marriage records are linked to scans, the last one, from Iłów parish, is not. Hovering over the “Z” reveals that the original record is in possession of the Archiwum Państwowe w Warszawie Oddział w Grodzisku Mazowieckim (Grodzisk Mazowieckie branch of the state archive of Warsaw). Although this seems to suggest that the only way to obtain a scan is to write to that archive to request a copy of the marriage record, the reality is that this record can be accessed online from either of two repositories, GenBaza or Metryki.

GenBaza

GenBaza, whose home page is shown in Figure 2, is a digital archive of Polish vital records privately hosted through the generosity of Tomasz Nitsch. Although the main site is found here, it’s necessary to register first at GenPol (Figure 3). Creating an account is free.

Figure 2: GenBaza‘s home page.GenBaza screen shot

Figure 3: GenPol‘s home page.GenPol home page

GenPol’s site can be switched to English by clicking the British flag icon shown under the login area, boxed in red in the image. To create a new account, click “Zarejestruj się” and follow the instructions. Note that if you want to view the GenBaza site itself in English, clicking “English version” in the upper right corner won’t get you very far. What’s shown in Figure 2 is the “English version.” (It states “Wersja Polska” in the upper right corner in the image because that’s what you click to change it to Polish.) Using the English version helps a tiny bit when it comes to viewing the scans themselves, but if you want to read the material on the home page in actual English, you’re better off translating the page via Google Translate by copying the URL for the page into the input text window, as shown in Figure 4, and then clicking on the resulting link in the output box.

Figure 5: Using Google Translate to translate web pages from Polish to English.Google Translate window

Alternatively, those who use Chrome as their browser can right-click anywhere on a web page and select, “Translate to English” as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Using Google Chrome to translate web pages from Polish to English.English translation via Chrome

Getting back to GenBaza, the nice thing about it is that fluency in Polish is not necessary in order to navigate the site and locate vital records. C. Michael Eliasz-Solomon wrote an excellent tutorial for using GenBaza at his blog, Stanczyk — Internet Muse, which I highly recommend. However, I’ll quickly walk through the steps I used to obtain a scan of that 1909 marriage record from Iłów that was indexed in Geneteka.

Records on GenBaza are arranged according to the archive which houses them, so some familiarity with the archival structure in Poland is helpful if one wishes to locate scans for a particular parish. To quickly determine which archive holds the records for a parish or registry office, check the PRADZIAD database. Although this database is no longer being updated, the version that existed in July 2018 is still available, and I personally prefer PRADZIAD’s display format to that of Szukajwarchiwach when it comes to determining the range of available records, but either site will do. In this case, however, when the object is simply to find a scan that’s already been indexed in Geneteka, we can determine the archive simply by hovering over the “z” in the indexed entry.

Once I’m logged into the GenBaza site, I select the parent archive from the list on the left (Figure 7). In the case of Iłow, the records are at the Archiwum Państwowe w Warszawie Oddział w Grodzisku Mazowieckim, so the parent archive is AP_Warszawa.

Figure 7: Root directory for archives with scans in GenBaza.GenBaza root directory

When we click on AP_Warszawa, we get a list of all the branch archives that operate under the umbrella of the state archive of Warsaw (Figure 8). From this list we choose AP_Grodzisk.

Figure 8: Directory of branch archives within the State Archive of Warsaw system.AP Grodzisk

This brings us to the list of available vital records collections from this archive (Figure 9). Remember that civil records from this part of “Poland” were maintained by each religious denomination separately starting in 1826, so denominations are indicated by abbreviations, such as “ew” for “ewangelickie” (Lutheran), “moj” for “mojżeszowe” (Jewish), etc.  Another important abbreviation which you will see in GenBaza is “gm,” which refers to “gmina.” As it’s used in GenBaza, this term designates collections of civil vital records created in the Duchy of Warsaw and the Russian partition between 1808-1825. During this period the local Catholic priest usually served as the civil registrar for everyone in the gmina (an administrative division comprised of multiple villages but smaller than a county), regardless of religion. Of course, the majority of collections in GenBaza are not designated with any of these abbreviations. and in these cases, the default seems to vary based on the collections themselves. For example, most of the undesignated collections from AP_Gdańsk—an archive which mainly holds records from places that were in the Prussian partition—are civil vital registrations,  which were introduced in the Prussian Empire in 1874. On the other hand, most of the undesignated collections from AP_Warszawa—an archive which mainly holds records from places that were in the Russian partition—are civil records for Roman Catholics, created at Roman Catholic parishes. These are generalizations, and your mileage may vary, so your best bet is to click around within a collection. The style of the records themselves will usually tell you about their origin.

Figure 9: List of vital records collections from AP Grodzisk Mazowieckie for which scans are available from GenBaza.AP Grodzisk parishes

From this list of parishes in AP Grodzisk, I can scroll down to find Iłów and then click on it, which brings us to the page shown in Figure 10.

Figure 10: List of scans available from Iłów parish.Ilow

The list on the left indicates eight collections of civil birth (U, urodzenia), marriage (M, małżeństwa) and death (Z, zgony) records created by the Roman Catholic parish in Iłów and dating from 1889–1927. There is also a collection of civil records created by the Lutheran parish in Iłów (“Iłów_ew”), and clicking on this link will open up to a similar list of vital records collections dating from 1834–1934.

The marriage record indexed in Geneteka for Franciszek Wilczek and Katarzyna Widyńska was number 22 in 1909, so it will be in the collection entitled “1890–1910 M_05.” Clicking on this link opens up the range of individual years shown in Figure 11.

Figure 11: List of individual years within the collection of civil marriage records from the Roman Catholic parish in Iłów, 1890-1910.Ilow marriages 1890-1910

Clicking on “1909” brings up the page shown in Figure 12, where we can select an individual image file to view. These are named according to the numbered marriage records contained on each, so marriage record number 22 will be on the image “_22-23.jpg.”

Figure 12:  Individual image files for 1909 marriages. 1909 marriages

Clicking on that image file brings us at long last to the image of the marriage record of Franciszek Wilczek and Katarzyna Widyńska which was indexed in Geneteka with no link to a scan (Figure 13).

Figure 13: Marriage record for Franciszek Wilczek and Katarzyna Widyńska, 7 November 1909.Franciszek Wilczek marriage in GenBaza

Since Iłów was located within the Russian Empire in 1909, the record is in Russian rather than Polish. However, it was common practice to write the names of the key participants first in Russian and then again in Polish. So even without an ability to read Russian, it’s possible to ascertain that this is the correct record by scanning through the text to find the names of the target individuals. In the example above, Franciszek Wilczek’s name, written in Russian and Polish (in the instrumental grammatical case, so Franciszek becomes Franciszkiem and Wilczek becomes Wilczkiem) is underlined in red. To download a copy of this record in full resolution, click the “Pobierz zdjęcie” button boxed in green.

Metryki

The second digital archive in which a scan of this marriage record can be found is Metryki.genealodzy.pl (Figure 14). A common theme is evident in the names of these digital archives, since both contain the word “metryki.” “Metryki” is just the plural form of “metryka,” which can mean certificate, registers or metrics. In other words, these are birth, marriage and death registers. Many researchers refer to Metryki.genealodzy.pl as “Metryki” and Metryki.GenBaza.pl as “GenBaza” for simplicity’s sake.

Figure 14: Metryki.genealodzy.pl home page.Metryki screen shot

Metryki is the work of the Polskie Towarzystwo Genealogiczne, or Polish Genealogical Society, and is supported financially by donations to the society. I’ve written previously about using this site, so again, a detailed tutorial is not necessary. However, typing  “Ilow” into the search box and selecting the records from Iłów, 1889-1910, results in that same book of marriages, 1890-1910, that is found at GenBaza. Further drilling down to marriages from 1909, and then to the image file which contains marriage number 22, results in exactly the same image of the marriage record for Franciszek Wilczek and Katarzyna Widyńska (Figure 15).

Figure 15: Marriage record for Franciszek Wilczek and Katarzyna Widyńska, 7 November 1909.Metryki marriage record.png

Since both Metryki and GenBaza offer the same image in this case, it makes sense to obtain the record from Metryki and avoid the hassle of having to log in to the GenBaza site (and then continue to log in periodically, since the site seems to require frequent re-logins). However, it’s important to recognize that, while there is some redundancy between these sites, the overlap is not complete, and each of the major sites from which one can obtain scans of Polish vital records (e.g. Szukajwarchiwach, FamilySearch, AGAD, AP Przemyślu, etc.) offers some unique collections that are not duplicated elsewhere.

Although Franciszek Wilczek’s marriage record was found in GenBaza and Metryki, the specific sites that might contain a particular scan will vary depending on the parish or registry office in question. Knowing which sites to check when no scan is linked to an indexed entry is sometimes a matter of experience. However, help is always available via Facebook groups, an assortment of which can be found in Katherine R. Willson’s indexed list. Of course, not every indexed entry without a linked scan has a secret scan lurking online somewhere. In some cases, indexes were created from parish or diocesan archival collections for which no online scans are available. In those cases, the best recourse may indeed be to write to the archive identified by the “z” infodot in the indexed entry. The good news is that an indexed entry in Geneteka means that the record exists somewhere, and with a little perseverance, it can be tracked down.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2019