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

Yesterday I posted the first installment of an updated, more comprehensive tutorial for using the popular Polish vital records database, Geneteka. In that post, I provided an introduction to Geneteka, a walk through the search interface, and some information about how Geneteka’s search algorithms work. Today 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 search/Wyszukaj jako para.”

Searching with two surnames

Let’s return now to our search for my great-grandfather, Józef Zieliński, anywhere in Mazowiecki province. If you recall, there were 29 pages of results from our first attempt to find him by inputting only his given name and surname. Let’s assume that I do a little more research in U.S. records and discover evidence that he was born between 1890 and 1895. That immediately reduces the results down to a mere 3 pages.

Jozef Zielinski range of years

If I do just a bit more research to procure his marriage record or death record from U.S. sources, I can discover his parents’ names: Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna Kalota. This is the most powerful bit of information we’ve discovered so far, because it allows me to zoom in immediately on my great-grandfather’s birth record.

Jozef Zielinski birth

Voilà! Instant gratification! If I want to discover all the children born to this couple, I can search again, leaving out Józef’s given name. (For that matter, inclusion of his mother’s given name is not necessary here, so I’ll leave that out, too.) Remember to remove the restriction on the range of years, however, unless you have a very good idea of your ancestor’s position in the birth order in his family.

Zielinski Kalota

Geneteka is a thing of beauty, truly. Even if I never bothered to accurately determine from U.S. records that my great-grandfather Józef Zieliński was from the village of Mistrzewice in gmina Młodzieszyn, in Sochaczew County, I could have discovered that instantly based on indexed records in Geneteka. Of course, it still makes sense to gather all the information that you can from U.S. records first, as further evidence for the soundness of your conclusion, and to guard against the possibility that there were two men named Józef Zieliński, both born in Poland in the same approximate time period to fathers who both happened to be named Stanisław and mothers who both happened to be named Marianna Kalota. Although that seems highly improbable, it might be more possible if the mother also had a very popular surname such as Nowak or Kowalska.

If we click on the “Marriages” tab, we can look for marriage records that involve these two surnames.

Zielinski Kalota marriages

This result illustrates another feature of the basic search: results will include either of the specified surnames in any field. In the first result, the groom had the surname Kalot (discovered by the search algorithm since the final “a” is truncated) and his mother’s maiden name was Zielińska. In the second result, the groom was a Zieliński, and the maiden name of the bride’s mother was Kalota. Since the other names in these records don’t match well with existing evidence for my family, and since these marriages took place in the parishes of Brzóza and Leszno rather than Mistrzewice or Młodzieszyn, we can conclude that neither of these results is relevant to our search.

Moving on to the death records now, we see that all of these results are relevant and correspond to 8 of the 10 children of Stanisław and Marianna Zieliński whose birth records were discovered previously. (If you’re interested, the sad story of the Zieliński family is here.)


There’s one final point I’d like to make about searching with two surnames before we move on, and that is, sometimes less is more. In older Polish records, particularly marriage and death records, it’s not unusual for a woman’s maiden name to be omitted. So if you’re searching for marriage records for all the children of hypothetical couple Jan Kowalski and Jadwiga Lis from the parish of Różan, it’s quite possible that a marriage record will exist for one of their sons (let’s call him Piotr), in which he is described only as “son of Jan and Jadwiga, the spouses Kowalski.” If you restrict your search too much by specifying both surnames, Kowalski and Lis, and both given names, Jan and Jadwiga, you’ll miss Piotr’s marriage record. The search engine won’t find it, because the indexer could not possibly have included Jadwiga’s maiden name in the index since it wasn’t mentioned in the original record. One the other hand, if you search for records containing (1) surname Kowalski, given name Jan, and (2) given name Jagwiga (no surname), Piotr’s marriage record should show up. The other technique that would be helpful here would be to check the box for “Wyszukaj jako para/Relationship search,” but we’ll discuss that further tomorrow.

Using the infodots in the “Remarks/Uwagi” column

Focusing now on the various buttons in the “Remarks/Uwagi” column, we see that the page showing birth records mentioning Zieliński and Kalota has three infodots in the “Remarks/Uwagi” column, “i,” “Z”, and “A,” in addition to “Skan.” However, the page showing death records that mention these surnames only has “Z” and “A” infodots, and only two of the records are linked to scans. This is a pretty typical result for Geneteka, and it arises because of the way Geneteka is created. As mentioned in the introduction, Geneteka is an evolving work in progress, and indexing requirements have changed since its inception. Therefore some indexes are more limited than others in the information they provide. In this case, the birth records are as complete as one could wish for, including all information necessary to determine the relevance of a record to one’s research, and a link to the scan. Some of the death entries are slightly less complete, since they’re missing the “i” infodot and the “skan” link, but they’re still pretty good. However, you may encounter indexed entries in Geneteka for which very little information is available beyond the parish, the year of the event, the record number, and the name of the key participants (baptized or deceased in a birth or death record, names of bride and groom in a marriage record). The lack of parents’ names found in some indexes makes it more difficult to determine if a record is relevant to your research or not, but any information online at all is better than nothing, and even such “bare-bones” indexes can be helpful finding aids when going through parish records. If your entry of interest is complete except for a link to a scan, there are often places where these can be found online. (For one example of how to do this, please see this post on using the FamilySearch catalog.)

So what do those infodots tell us? Starting with the “i,” if you hover over it, additional information about the record is revealed. For example, the “i” infodot for Franciszek Zieliński tells us that he was born 16 September 1886 (the little “r” that appears after the year stands for “roku,” the Polish word for year, and is merely an artifact of the translation process.)

i infodot

Other types of information might be available via the “i” as well, such as the towns where the bride and groom lived in a marriage record, whether or not the bride or groom was married previously, or whether the information provided in that entry came only from the sumariusz or skorowidz (internal indexes created by the priest within the book itself), rather than coming from a reading of the actual record. You may also see “i” infodots located in other places in an indexed entry, such as near a name. In such cases they’re usually there to indicate the existence of an alternate name under which the person was known, such as a maiden name in the death record of a married woman, or an alias, usually indicated by “vel” (meaning alias).

The “Z” infodot provides information about the archive that holds the original record which is indexed for a particular entry. In this case, originals are at the Grodzisk branch of the State Archive of Warsaw, and the archive’s address is also provided.

Z infodot

The “Z” button acts not only as an infodot, but also as a link: hovering over it will provide information, but clicking it will take you to the archive’s website. Note that in some cases, the Z will tell you only that the record came from “Archiwum Parafialne,” or the parish archive. That means that these records were indexed because the parish priest permitted the volunteer indexer to go in and index the books on site. In order to get copies of the records, you need to contact the parish, or find a professional researcher in that area. However, in most other cases copies of these records can be obtained in some other way, such as in an online repository like GenBaza, FamilySearch, etc. Just because the information in the “Z” infodot states that a record was obtained from, say, the Archiwum Diecezjalnym w Płocku, doesn’t mean that the only way to obtain a copy is by writing to the archive. Many records from both state and diocesan archives in Poland have been microfilmed or digitized by the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon Church), and are available online or are viewable at your local Mormon Family History Center (FHC). The final infodot, the “A,” reveals the name of the volunteer indexer to whom we owe our debt of gratitude.

Searching within a specific parish

In our ongoing example with the family of Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna Kalota, we discovered that all of the births and deaths for their children were recorded in either Mistrzewice or Młodzieszyn. In fact, it’s clear that the family lived in Mistrzewice the entire time, although it appears that the village was transferred to the parish of Młodzieszyn sometime between the baptism of Władysław in 1897 and the baptism of Jan in 1899.


We might predict, then, that Stanisław and Marianna were married in or near Mistrzewice circa 1885, before the birth of their oldest child in 1886. However, no marriage records were found for this couple anywhere in present-day Mazowieckie province when we searched for records mentioning both their surnames. Why might that be? The answer can be found by careful examination of the range of records indexed for each parish. To illustrate, let’s go back and repeat our search for surnames Zieliński and Kalota in Mazowieckie, this time using the drop-down menu in the “Parish/Parafia” search box to limit the search to results from Mistrzewice parish. When we do that, the results are displayed with the handy graphic, shown below, which gives us a timeline of the range of years available for indexed records.

Parish search bar

If we switch over to marriages, we see that marriage records for Mistrzewice are indexed from 1855-1863, with a gap in 1864, then continue from 1865-1893, followed by another one-year gap in 1894, and then finish with 1895-1898. Since we anticipate that Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna Kalota were married circa 1885, their marriage record should appear in this index if they married in Mistrzewice, but it does not. So where did they marry? Probably someplace nearby, so let’s repeat the search using the “Include search in nearby parishes (15 km radius)/Wyszukaj również w pobliskich parafiach (15km)” option.

Mistrzewice marriages

When we repeat the search with that box checked, the display will tell us exactly which indexed parishes were searched, and their distance from the target parish.

Nearby parishes

However, there’s still no marriage record. Why? Well, in this case, further research revealed that Marianna Kalota’s family was from the parish of Młodzieszyn. Since it’s customary to marry in the bride’s parish, the answer to the problem is apparent after a quick check on the availability of indexed marriage records for Młodzieszyn.

Mlodzieszyn marriages

Stanisław and Marianna married circa 1885, and marriage records for Młodzieszyn are not indexed until 1889. Unfortunately, the State Archive has no earlier records for this parish beyond what’s indexed in Geneteka, nor does the diocesan archive, and the parish website states that records exist only back to 1945. Apparently, I’m out of luck with that marriage record. However, this example demonstrates the importance of paying attention to the range of years that’s indexed for your parish of interest, because it will absolutely influence your results.

Using the Parish Records Collection/Katalog Zasobów Metrykalnych

There’s another handy feature associated with that timeline graphic that’s worth mentioning. This is the “Parish records collection/Katalog Zasobów Metrykalnych” link, circled here in red.

Parish records collection

When you click that link, it takes you to a page with information about the selected parish in the Katalog Zasobów Metrykalnych, which is one of the sister sites to Geneteka sponsored by the PTG. (You can also access the site directly, without going through Geneteka, here.) Theoretically, this page is only available in Polish, as indicated by the lack of an American/British flag icon.

Mistrzewice in KZM

In fact, you really don’t need to know a whole lot of Polish to be able to use the site as-is. However, if you’re really uncomfortable this way, there are two options for translating the page into English. The first is to use Google Chrome as your browser, then right-click anywhere on the page and select, “Translate to English,” as shown here.

Translate to English

The second is to copy the URL, and then paste that into the “input” box in Google Translate for Polish to English translation. The URL won’t appear to change, but if you click on the URL in the “output” box, the page will appear in English.

Once we do either of those things, we see that this page has some great information about the parish, including the parish name (Sts. Stanisław and Dorothy), the year the parish was founded, and some information about the old Województwo (province) in which the parish was located prior to the administrative reform of 1998, when Poland reorganized its 49 provinces into the 16 provinces that exist today. Knowing the old province can be useful for looking up the parish at sites like Baza PRADZIAD, which use the old administrative designations to distinguish between parishes with the same name. Similarly, information is provided about the new province and powiat (county) in which the parish is located today.

English version for Mistrzewice

We also see a very helpful note about which portal(s) contain indexed records for this parish, as well as which books are available from the archives. In this case, the only records that are available from the State Archive branch in Grodzisk Mazowieckie are already indexed in Geneteka, so no further information is provided in these boxes about available birth, marriage (“oath”) or death records. There’s also a note explaining that the parish ceased to exist in 1915, which isn’t strictly true. As mentioned previously, the parish functions were transferred to Młodzieszyn in 1898, but the church in Mistrzewice was destroyed by a fire in 1915, which is probably what was meant here. In any case, let’s look at another example, the parish in Kowalewo-Opactwo, Wielkopolskie province, to see an example of a Katalog entry for a parish that’s currently active.


The parish of Kowalewo-Opactwo (which translates as Kowalewo Abbey) is in the historical Poznań area, so marriage records from this parish are indexed in the Poznan Project, in addition to being indexed in Geneteka for the range of years noted. The parish itself only has records since 1916 (births) or 1947 (marriages and deaths), as shown here, underlined in green, so you could presumably write to them to request a copy of a recent record, and they might be willing to comply, within the restrictions imposed by Polish privacy laws. (Under current Polish privacy laws, access to birth records is restricted for a period of 100 years from the date of the event, and access to marriage and death records is restricted for 80 years. Only immediate family or direct descendants can request copies of records dated within this interval.) Finally, this tells us that the Archdiocesan Archive in Włocławek has additional marriage records from 1828-1866, which implies that there’s an extra year’s worth of marriage records available that’s not indexed in either Geneteka or the Poznan Project.

While the information available in the Katalog can be extremely helpful in identifying the repositories in which one might find records for a particular parish, it’s important to realize that you should still do your own research. In this case, the entry fails to mention the LDS microfilms/digitized records that cover births, marriages and deaths for the period from 1868-1879 which were created from original records held by the State Archive in Poznań. Additional records (1880-1889, and 1910-1914) are also available online at Szukajwarchiwach. There are also these microfilms of parish records for Kowalewo that go all the way up to 1979, covering births from 1916-1958, with a gap from 1936-1944, as well as marriages from 1947-1956 and deaths from 1947-1979. Since such recent records are clearly protected by the aforementioned Polish privacy laws, it’s unlikely that these will be digitized any time soon but could nonetheless be researched in person or by proxy at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Despite these occasional flaws, it’s convenient to have so much parish information in one place, which is why it’s worth clicking that “Parish records collection/Katalog Zasobów Metrykalnych” link on the Geneteka search page for your parish of interest.

Using “Relationship search/Wyszukaj jako para”

The remaining search options that we haven’t discussed in depth include “Relationship search/Wyszukaj jako para,” “Skip search in parents’ column/Nie wyszukuj w rodzicach,” and “Exact search/Wyszukiwanie dokładne.” To illustrate the first one, let’s give Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna Kalota a break and use the example of Stanisław’s parents, Michał Zieliński and Antonina Ciećwierz. Let’s pretend we have no idea where this family was from, and want to search in all of Mazowiecki province. Since it’s possible that there will be records for this family that don’t mention Antonina’s maiden name, we’ll try searching according to just Michał’s name and Antonina’s given name. As noted previously, Zieliński is a popular name, so that strategy will yield a lot of results to wade through.

Michal and Antonina results

Moreover, as mentioned previously, this search will return results for these names in any field. So for example, the first birth in the list is for Antonina Kucharczyk, daughter of Michał Kucharczyk and Zofia Zielińska — not what we’re searching for at all. However, Geneteka gives us the option to tie Michał Zieliński together with Antonina and search for them as a pair. If we repeat the search with the “Relationship search/Wyszukaj jako para” box checked, our results are much more targeted.

Michal and Antonina as a pair

With this box checked, every birth record that is returned is a child of Michał Zieliński and a mother named Antonina. In all of the instances shown here, the mother’s maiden name was included, so we probably could have narrowed the search just by specifying that piece of information. However, if we switch over to the page of death records from this same search, we see that there is, in fact, one death record we would have missed if we’d specified that maiden name.

Waleria Zielinski death no mother's maiden name

Sure enough, the death record of Waleria Zielińska from 1900 did not mention her mother’s maiden name, and so we might have missed it if we’d been too rigid in our search methods.

Tomorrow, I’ll offer some examples of using the final two search options that require a bit more discussion, “Skip search in parents’ column/Nie wyszukuj w rodzicach,” and “Exact search/Wyszukiwanie dokładne.” Then we’ll get into the various options for finding scans, based on the repository to which the “skan” button is linked. See you then!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2018

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

A Step-by-Step Guide to Finding Digital Images in the FamilySearch Catalog

Recently, I discussed the use of Catholic church records for discovering the place of origin in the Old Country for one’s immigrant ancestors. Many people seem to be put off by the idea of obtaining church records from parishes in the U.S. because it may require some extra effort — letter writing, phone calls, or personal visits to the parish. However, in some cases, it’s possible to find church records — and many other types of records as well — online, at FamilySearch. The key is to know how to search the site to get the most out of it, and many beginners just don’t know how to do that. So today, I’d like to demonstrate the different results that are obtained by using two different strategies to find records in FamilySearch, and to explain how to access browsable images for those who may be unfamiliar with the process.

Even if you’re new to genealogy, you may have heard of FamilySearch. FamilySearch is the search portal for records gathered by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons). If you’re really brand new to genealogy and have never visited their site before, then you should begin by registering to create a free account.Search box

Once you’ve created an account and are logged in, you can begin by clicking the “search” icon at the bottom, near the center of the page.

Searching Indexed Historical Records at FamilySearch

There are a number of different ways you can use this site to search for records pertaining to your ancestors. Most people begin by using the “Search Historical Records” interface, shown here:Search Historical Records

This is a great way to see what indexed records might be available, but it’s important to remember that it only taps into records that are included in indexed databases. To give you an example of what this strategy will find and what it will not find, let’s look for a baptismal record for Zofia/Sophia Klaus, born in Buffalo, New York in 1891. If I enter that information into the search form, as shown above, here’s what results:

Sophia Klaus, search results

Notice that the top search results include hits from two databases, the Social Security Death Index and Ellis Island passenger arrivals, but no birth records. These aren’t all the results, however. These are just the search results that were determined to be the best matches according to the search algorithm. If we want to view the results another way which allows us to drill down to birth records more easily, we can click the “Collections” view at the top (shown in red in the image above) rather than the “Records” view which is the default display format. Once we click “Collections,” the results are broken down into various categories, such as “Birth, Marriage & Death,” “Census & Lists,” “Migration & Naturalization,” etc. Since we’re looking for a birth record, we’re only interested in results from that first category.

Birth Marriage and Death

The image above shows collections in which an approximate match was found for our Zofia/Sophia Klaus. Notice that the top five “Birth, Marriage & Death” databases are all death records and obituaries. While this may be helpful in locating a birth date (based on a death date) it’s not going to give us an actual birth certificate or baptismal record. For that matter, it helps to realize that, prior to about 1915, there was no full compliance with the law requiring birth registrations in New York State , so we’re better off seeking a baptismal record for someone born in 1891, rather than a birth certificate, in any case. Although the top five databases weren’t much help, maybe we can find something for Zofia in another collection? Let’s try clicking on “Show all 9” (circled in red in the image above) to see what they’ve got.

All 9

The result? Nada.

Searching Browsable Scans at FamilySearch

At this point, many family historians might conclude that FamilySearch doesn’t have any baptismal records for Zofia/Sophia Klaus. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. In reality, FamilySearch offers a vast wealth of genealogical records that have not yet been indexed, but can nonetheless be viewed online as browsable scans. How do we find those records? We search the Family History Library (FHL) catalog, which can be accessed by going back to that “Search” option at the top, and selecting “Catalog” from the drop-down menu.

Catalog search

Once we click “Catalog,” it takes us to the page shown below, where we can search for a place name, in this case, “Buffalo.” Various options are offered for places with “Buffalo” in the name, but if we type anything further (e.g. “New York”) it narrows the options until we’re only looking at one place.

Buffalo, NY

Once we’ve clicked on the desired place (in the green box), we can see all the types of records that are available from the Family History Library pertaining to Buffalo. We’re interested in church records, near the bottom of this image:

Church records

I know that Zofia/Sophia Klaus was the daughter of Polish immigrants Andrew/Andrzej and Marianna/Mary (née Łącka) Klaus, who were Catholic, so she was likely to have been baptized in an ethnic Polish Catholic parish. When I click on “Church records,” I have a variety of options for records from a number of different Christian faiths. If I didn’t know which parishes in Buffalo were founded by Polish immigrants (and which of those parishes were in existence by 1891), a quick internet search could probably assist me, and might in fact lead me to this list of Polish parishes in Western New York, offered by the Polish Genealogical Society of New York State (PGSNYS).

Once all the collections in the catalog which pertain to Polish parishes have been identified, I could search through all of them, looking for baptisms circa 1891 in order to find Zofia. However, a better strategy would be to try to determine which parish the family might have belonged to based on their address in city directories around the time of Zofia’s birth. Cutting to the chase here, let’s take a look at records from St. Adalbert’s Basilica in Buffalo, which we find in the list of available parish records:

Church records St. Adelbert

This is perhaps the only confusing part in this process. I’ve had people come to me saying, “But I clicked ‘Add’ and it didn’t do anything!” At this point, you want to click on the title of the collection, “Church records, 1887-1916,” do not click where it says, “Add.” When you click on the title, you come to this page:

St. Adalbert's

Once you arrive here, it’s important to realize that the good stuff is at the bottom. Don’t click “Add to Print List,” just scroll down on the page, as indicated by the red arrow. Once you scroll down, you’ll see the following:

Film notes

The first thing you should look at is the part that says “Notes,” because this tells you precisely what the film contains — in this case, “Microfilm of original records at St. Adalbert Basilica Parish, Buffalo, New York.” The language of the records is usually noted here (in this case, Latin), as is other helpful information, such as the fact that most volumes include an internal index. This means that you won’t have to search page by page to find your ancestors — you can consult the internal index created by the priest within the parish register itself, and then find the relevant entries pertaining to your ancestors. Finally, the film notes specify the exact range of years that are included for each type of vital event — births, marriages, and deaths.

Below the Notes, there is a section called “Film/Digital Notes.” This tells you the original microfilm number for this collection, as well as the corresponding DGS number (digital folder number) for the images. On the far right, there is a camera icon. This indicates that the images are freely available online, from any computer. Sometimes you’ll see an icon depicting a camera with a key above it. In those instances, access to the images is restricted, and they must be viewed at a Family History Center (FHC). Although this restriction may seem like a nuisance, the situation is really no different than in the “good old days” of microfilm rental, since travel to the FHC was necessary in order to view the microfilms, too. However, in this case we’re really lucky, because we can peruse church records from St. Adalbert’s at 2 am if we wish, wearing our favorite jammies in our comfiest chair.

Once you click that “camera” icon, you see an array of thumbnail images:

Film images

Note also that the DGS number, the image number, and the total number of available images in the collection are noted in the upper left corner. You’ll want to make note of these in your source citation, which is your trail of breadcrumbs for locating the record again should you or another researcher wish to understand how you found the record in the first place. (If you’re not sure how to cite online images like this, Elizabeth Shown Mills explains it all here.)

By browsing through the thumbnails, you can locate the internal index, and ultimately, find the baptismal record for little Zofia/Sophia:

Zofia Klaus

By now you may realize that the catalog can also be used to find other types of genealogical records, including vital records from places in Europe. The important thing to remember when doing a place search in the FHL catalog is that you need to search for the name of the place where the records were created, rather than searching for the name of the village where your ancestors was born. These two places are not always the same. In Russian Poland, for example, the local Roman Catholic church maintained both church registers and the civil vital registers for Roman Catholic residents within the parish, so it is the parish name that should be searched in the FHL catalog. The parish which served a particular village can be determined by checking a gazetteer, and I’ve provided a list of some good ones here.

As an example, let’s suppose that I have evidence that my ancestors came from the village of Wierzbno in Słupca County in the former Kalisz gubernia (province) of Russian Poland. I won’t find that particular village in the FHL catalog, because Wierzbno was not the seat of a parish. Even worse, I will find 3 places called Wierzbno in the catalog, but none of them will be correct because all of these results pertain to places by the same name that are located in other parts of Poland. Searching for my ancestors in these records will be a complete waste of time.


However, if I check a gazetteer (in this case, Volume 2 of the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego, published in 1877), I see that the village of Wierzbno in Słupca County belongs to the parish of Kowalewo (indicated below, with a small typo, as “Kowalew,” — an issue which can be resolved by looking at a map).

Wierzbno in SKP With this information in hand, I can go back to the FHL catalog and check for “Kowalewo,” select the result for the Kowalewo that’s in Słupca County, and find both the original church records (księgi metrykalne, written in Latin) and the copies created for the civil authorities (kopie księg metrykalnych, written in Polish until 1868, and then in Russian).

Kowalewo records

As noted previously, clicking on the title of the collection will bring up the full list of films available. In the case of the księgi metrykalne, we see that none of these microfilms have been digitized. Unfortunately, the Family History Library discontinued their microfilm rental service last year due to the rising costs associated with supporting this outdated technology, and in light of the progress they’ve made with digitizing their vast collection of microfilms. They hope to digitize the remaining microfilms by 2020, but in the meantime, these microfilms are only available at the main Family History Library in Salt Lake City. If you’re desperate to obtain records from these microfilms right now, your best option would be to hire a researcher in Poland who could obtain copies from the Archdiocesan Archive in Gniezno for you, since the film notes state that this is the archive which possesses the original records. Alternatively, you could hire a researcher in Salt Lake City to access those microfilms for you, or try some of the other strategies suggested here.

The situation regarding access is much more promising with the civil records (kopie księg metrykalnych) for Kowalewo, however. The “camera + key” icon tells us that each of the seven microfilms has already been digitized, although they can only be viewed at your local FHC. When viewing, you’ll want to pay attention to the item numbers, underlined in red in the image below, because it often happens that the same roll of microfilm or digital folder contains records from different parishes in Poland.


Thus, in order to access Akta urodzeń, małżeństw, zgonów 1876-1879 (birth, marriage and death records from 1876-1879) from Kowalewo parish, you’ll have to skip ahead through the images in the digital folder until you get to Item 15.

Sometimes it happens that one finds records for one’s family in an indexing database like Geneteka, but the indexed entry is not linked to a scan. (If you’re researching Polish ancestors but are not familiar with Geneteka, please see this tutorial.) This does not suggest that no scan is available online. Rather, since Geneteka is created by volunteers, and new scans are being added regularly at sites like FamilySearch, Szukajwarchiwach, etc., it may just be that the volunteers have not yet had an opportunity to put links in place.  Therefore, the FHL catalog should always be one of the sites you routinely check when you look for scans for indexed entries found in Geneteka.

An example of this is shown here. Geneteka contains an entry for the marriage record of Wincenty Tomaszewski and Franciszka Czapkiewicz who married in Chrostkowo in 1858.


No scan is linked to this entry, so should we assume that this record has not been digitized somewhere? No. A search of the FHL catalog reveals that both church and civil records are available for Chrostkowo. As was true with records for Kowalewo, accessibility is a mixed bag, with some records being available for viewing only at the FHC. On first glance, it appears that our 1858 marriage is going to be one of those records with restricted access, since we anticipate that it will be included in the collection, Akta małżeństw 1846-1889.

Akta malzenstw

However, if we keep scrolling down that page, it becomes clear that there is sometimes overlap or redundancy in the microfilmed/digitized collections from the FHL for a particular parish. In this case, our 1858 marriage record is freely accessible in the collection, Akta małżeństw 1846-1863.


From that point, it’s not too difficult to locate marriage record #25 from 1858, which was accurately described in the Geneteka index as the marriage record for Wincenty Tomaszewski and Franciszka Czapkiewicz, whose names are underlined in red in the image below.

Tomaszewski marriage

At this point, you may be wondering about the reason behind the difference in accessibility for different collections of records from the same parish. The answer to this question often lies in the Notes within the FHL catalog entry. In the case of civil records for Chrostkowo parish (Kopie księg metrykalnych, 1808-1889), the microfilms were made from original records which are held by three different archives: the Geheimen Staatsarchiv in Berlin, the Katholischen Kirchenbuchamt in Munich, and the Archiwum Diecezjalne in Płock.


In order to place scans online, the LDS must negotiate terms with the owners of the records. Some archives don’t mind if the scans are freely available, but others will allow the LDS to place them online only under more restricted access conditions. From a practical standpoint, most of us don’t really care which archive owns the original records, as long as we can access them one way or another. However, it’s important to be aware of this potential for redundancy in the available collections, and the consequent need for close examination of the Film/Digital Notes in the FHL catalog entry for your parish of interest before concluding that a trip to the FHC is necessary.

As you can see from these examples, there’s much more to FamilySearch than just the indexed records. By utilizing the the catalog, you may discover collections of browsable scans that will allow you to break through your brick walls with unimagined ease. As always, I wish you the very best of luck with your research, and if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments. Happy hunting!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2018

On the Merits of Church Records

I have a guilty secret. Church records aren’t always the ultimate source when it comes to identifying the place of origin of our immigrant ancestors. They’re like the little girl in the old poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — the one with the curl on her forehead. When they are good, they are very good indeed, and when they are bad, they are horrid.1 (Horridly disappointing, at least.) In the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook, we often hammer home the importance of checking church records for our immigrant ancestors. That’s especially important in the case of Roman Catholics, which describes the overwhelming majority of Polish immigrants, because Catholic church records often specify the precise place of birth for the bride and groom in a marriage record, the place of birth of the deceased in a death record, and even the places of birth of each parent of the baptized child in a baptismal record. For example, here is a best-case scenario — the marriage record of Polish immigrants Waleria Majczyk and Jan Kłusek, who married at St. Hyacinth’s Church in Lackawanna, New York in 1913 (Figure 1).2

Figure 1: Extract of record from St. Hyacinth’s Church, Lackawanna, New York for the marriage of Jan Kłusek and Walerya Walczak (sic), 7 May 1913. 2

Waleria Majczyk & Jan Klusek 1913 (part 1)

Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that the priest erroneously recorded the bride’s surname as Walczak instead of Majczyk. The third column heading for this record reports “Datum et Locus Baptismi” and the information given in this column tells us the parishes in which the bride and groom were baptized. In this case, the groom, Jan Kłusek, was baptized in “Swiniary, Kr. Pol.” and the bride, Walerya Majczyk was baptized in Gracanów, Kr. Pol. The notation, “Kr. Pol.” refers to the Królestwo Polskie, or Kingdom of Poland, which was the official name for the Polish puppet state that was under Russian rule. The next column reports the names of the parents of the bride and groom, and then after that, we have the column “Domicilia” which reports the place of residence of the parents of the bride and groom. This reveals that Jan Kłusek’s parents were living in Oblekon, Kr. Pol., while the bride’s parents were living in Rostów, Kr. Pol. This is pretty remarkable, when you think about it, because this single document gives us two geographic points of reference for locating the birthplaces of both Jan and Walerya. It’s especially nice to have two points of reference, since these place names are slightly misspelled — the bride’s village was Rostowa, and her baptismal parish was Gradzanowo, which is phonetically similar to Gracanów, and the groom’s village was Oblekoń (missing only the diacritic) in the parish of Świniary. But even despite the misspellings, with just the information from this one church record, it’s a straight shot back to records in Poland.

Baptismal records from St. Stanislaus Church in Buffalo are also a thing of beauty, and as a bonus, they’re already digitized on FamilySearch, so there’s no excuse not to check them. Here’s the baptismal record for my great-grandmother, Genowefa Klaus (Figure 2).3

Figure 2: Extract of record from St. Stanislaus Church in Buffalo, New York for the baptism of Genowefa Klaus, born 28 September 1897.3Genowefa Klaus birth 1897 marked

The column headings are cut off in this image, but this tells us that Genowefa was baptized on 3 October 1897, was born on 28 September of that year, and was the daughter of Andrzej Klaus of “Maniewo (sic), Gal.” and Marya Łącka of “Kołaczyce, Gal.” The abbreviation “Gal.” refers to the region of Galicia, which was a crownland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is divided today between southeast Poland and western Ukraine. Andrzej Klaus’s hometown is slightly misspelled here — he was born in the village of Maniów in Dąbrowa County. However, it’s easy to deduce the correct location based on evidence from multiple baptismal records from this parish, since several of his children were baptized here. Once again, church records prove to be a home-run in terms of finding evidence for place of origin of immigrant ancestors.

Here’s another example, this time from the death record of Apolonia Bogacka, a Polish immigrant who died in Buffalo, New York, and was buried from St. Stanislaus Church (Figure 3).4

Figure 3: Extract of record from St. Stanislaus Church in Buffalo, New York for the death and burial of Apolonia Bogacka, who died 16 April 1906.4Apolonia Bogacka death 1906 marked

It’s obvious from the column headings that the parish adapted the preprinted register pages to suit their own needs, for which we can be grateful, since parents’ names and birthplace are arguably more useful information from a genealogical standpoint than the name and address of the nearest relative. Apolonia Bogacka was about 84 when she died, and her parents’ names were apparently not known to the informant. However, it’s useful to infer that her maiden name was Prusiecka, which is the feminine singular form of the plural surname recorded here for her parents, Prusieccy. (The Polish language exhibits a great deal of grammatical inflection, and the endings of both given names and surnames will change depending on grammatical context.) Moreover, this entry reveals that Apolonia was born in Chełmno, which was at that time in Prussia but is located in Poland today.

At this point you may be wondering if Catholic church records are generally useful in noting the place of origin of immigrants, or if Polish Catholic priests were particularly conscientious in that regard. In the course of my own research, I’ve found that the ethnic character of a parish has no relationship to their sacramental record-keeping practices. For example, Figure 4 shows the baptismal record for Augustinus (“John”) Wagner from Old St. Mary’s Church in Detroit.5

Figure 4: Extract from baptismal record for Augustinus Wagner, born 3 May 1856 in Detroit.5Augustinus Wagner 1856 p 1marked

St. Mary’s was not an ethnic Polish parish, but nonetheless, this record tells us the place of origin of both parents of the baptized child. The baby’s father, Henry Wagner, was from “Roßdorf, Chur Hessen” which is a reference to Kurhessen, properly called Kurfürstentum Hessen, or the Electorate of Hesse, a German state also known as Hesse-Cassel. The baby’s mother, Catherine Grenzinger, was from “Steinsolz, Alsatiae,” which refers to the village of Steinsoultz, located in the Haut-Rhin Department of Alsace, France. This is the kind of precise evidence for place of origin that is necessary in order to make the leap back into European records, so it’s clear why church records are so valuable for researching immigrant ancestors.

However, if we’re being honest, it’s not fair to say that church records will always come through with that kind of information. If all the children of my great-great-grandparents, Andrzej and Marya Klaus, had been baptized in the neighboring parish of St. Adalbert’s, instead of being baptized at St. Stanislaus, I might have had a more difficult time determining where Andrzej and Marya were born. Here’s the baptismal record from St. Adalbert’s for their daughter Zofia, who was born 3 December 1891 (Figure 3).6

Figure 3: Baptismal record from St. Adalbert’s Church in Buffalo, New York, for Sophia Klaus, born 3 December 1891.6Sophia Klaus 1891

See those empty lines after “ex loco”? That’s where the priest might have done me a favor if he’d recorded the place of origin of each of the parents more specifically than just “Galicia,” as he wrote for Andrzej. Unfortunately, he did not. Likewise, in this marriage record for Stanisław Lewandowski (“Edward Levanduski”) and Antonina Budzyńska, the priest provided very little information (Figure 5).7

Figure 5: Marriage record from St. Stephen’s Roman Catholic Church in Middleport, New York for Eduardus Levenduski (sic) and Antonia Budzinski (sic), 12 May 1896.7Levinduski Budzinski

The marriage record, written in Latin, tells us only that, after three publications of the banns, Edward Levenduski, son of Michael Levenduski and Elizabeth Rotka, was joined in marriage with Antonia Budzinski, daughter of John Budzinski and Catherine Lukomski. The record goes on to mention the witnesses’ names, but that’s it. It’s short and sweet, with no mention of where either the bride or groom was born. Interestingly, there is also no mention of this being a second marriage for Edward, whose first wife, Mary (née Woźniak) Levanduski, had died 7 months earlier. That’s another detail that one might typically hope to see in a marriage record, which was unfortunately omitted here.

The record for the remarriage of another immigrant ancestor, Jacob Boehringer, also fails to reveal his place of origin (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Marriage record from St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church in Buffalo, New York, for Jacobus Boehringer and Theresia Fuchs, 25 October 1866.Jacob Boehringer and Theresa Liebler marriage 1866 marked

This was a second marriage for both Jacob Boehringer and Theresia (née Liebler) Fuchs. Their parents’ names were mentioned, which was ultimately very helpful in allowing me to confirm Jacob’s place of origin in Germany, after I determined it using other resource strategies. However, the record itself offered no indication of the birthplace of either the bride or the groom.

Finally, Figure 7 shows the baptismal record for Elizabeth Walsh, who was baptized in the cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in St. Catharines, Canada West (present-day Ontario). Although her father, Robert Walsh, was an immigrant from Ireland, no mention is made of his place of birth or that of the child’s mother, Canadian-born Elizabeth Hodgkinson (recorded here as “Hutchkison”).

Figure 7: Baptismal record from the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in St. Catharines, Ontario for Elizabeth Walsh, born 21 May 1854.Elizabeth Walsh baptism marked

This record was a huge disappointment, along with the baptismal records for the other Walsh children which I was able to discover in this parish. My great-great-great-grandfather, Robert Walsh, is one of my most stubborn brick walls, because I have not been able to discover his place of origin in Ireland, nor have I even been able to determine his parents’ names based on existing Canadian records. I had really hoped that church records might give me a clue about Robert’s place of birth, so it would have been great if Fr. Grattan had come through for me back in 1854 when he recorded the baptism of little Elizabeth Walsh. Alas, he did not. So I guess church records aren’t much good after all, huh? Based on the representative sampling from my research that I’ve shown here, there’s perhaps a 50-50 chance that a church record might tell you the place from whence your immigrant ancestor came.

And yet….

Even in darkness, there is often a glimmer of light. The page opposite the baptism of Elizabeth Walsh contains this marriage record for Patrick Powers and Mary Bennett (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Marriage record from the Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria in St. Catharines, Ontario, for Patrick Powers and Mary Bennett, 27 May 1854.Irish marriage record

This record reveals that Patrick Powers was a native of Ballyguran (sic), County Waterford in Ireland, and that his bride was a native of Newport, County Mayo, Ireland. The name “Ballyguran” suggests the townland of Ballygarran in Waterford County, and interestingly, Patrick was noted to be the son of James Powers and Catherine Walsh. Now, at present, I have no idea who these people are, or if there’s any connection between this Catherine Walsh and my Robert Walsh. Walsh is ranked 4th in most popular Irish surnames, and it would be foolhardy for me to think that every Walsh who migrated from Ireland to St. Catharines was related. That way madness lies. And yet, chain migration is a real phenomenon, and cluster research strategies could potentially be leveraged here to break through that brick wall in the absence of direct evidence for Robert Walsh’s place of birth. Perhaps it’s possible to find a link between these two families, or to study all these early church records for Walshes in St. Catharines and see if there’s a common theme or pattern in their recorded places of origin. Hope dies last.

That’s pretty much the point of looking at church records. Hope dies last, and if there’s even a 50-50 chance that the records will reveal your immigrant ancestor’s place of origin, it may be worth the extra effort it sometimes takes to obtain them. If you’ve already got abundant evidence for place of origin, and the pastor is reluctant to provide digital photos of the original parish records, perhaps you can do without them. But a good genealogist leaves no stone unturned, so if it’s at all possible, you should really take the time to examine church records. You’ve got nothing to lose, and you might even discover an ancestral village along the way.


Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. “There Was a Little Girl,” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org, accessed 21 March 2018.

2 Roman Catholic Church, Queen of Angels parish (merged from the former parishes of St. Hyacinth’s, St. Barbara’s, Our Lady of Grace,  and St. Michael the Archangel), (Lackawanna, Erie, New York, USA), Records from St. Hyacinth Church, 1913, Marriages, record for Jan Kłusek and Walerya Walczak (sic), May 7, 1913.

3 Roman Catholic Church, St. Stanislaus Parish (Buffalo, Erie, New York, USA), Baptisms, 1874-1903, 1897, #620, baptismal record for Genowefa Klaus, born 28 September 1897, FamilySearch, http://familysearch.org, FHL film no.1292864/DGS no. 7897436, image 1074, accessed 21 March 2018.

4 Roman Catholic Church, Transfiguration Parish (Buffalo, New York), Deaths, 1893-1917, 1906, p. 20, #20, record for Apolonia Bogacka, accessed as browsable images, FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org,” Church records, 1893-1982,” FHL Film no. 1292859, DGS no. 7900112, image 567 of 955, accessed 21 March 2018.

 5 Roman Catholic Church, Old St. Mary’s Parish (Detroit, Wayne, Michigan), Baptisms, 1856, #116, p. 219, record for Augustinus Wagner. “[Record number] 116, [date of baptism] 4 Maji, [date of birth] 3 Maji, [child’s name] Augustinus, [father and place of birth] Henricus Wagner Roßdorf ChurHessen, [mother and place of birth] Catharina Grenzinger, Steinsolz, Alsatiae, [godparents] Augustinus Wagner et Gertrudis Wagner, [residence] Detroit, [minister] P. Beranek.”

6 Roman Catholic Church, St. Adalbert’s Basilica (Buffalo, Erie, New York, USA), “Church records,” Baptisms, 1891, p. 69, record for Sophia Klaus, FamilySearch, http://familysearch.org, FHL film no.1292864/DGS no. 7897436, image 1074, accessed 21 March 2018.

7 Roman Catholic Church, St. Stephen’s parish (Middleport, Niagara, New York, USA), “Church Records, 1878-1917,” 1896, Marriages, p. 16, record for Edward Levenduski and Antonia Budzinski, 12 May 1896, FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org, FHL film no. 1378522/DGS no. 8273181, image 132, accessed 21 March 2018.

Roman Catholic Church, St. Boniface Parish (Buffalo, Erie, New York, USA), “Church records, 1849-1899,” Marriages 1849-1899, 1866, #22, record for Jacobus Boehringer and Theresia Fuchs, 25 October 1866, FamilySearch, https://www.familysearch.org, FHL Film no. 928704/DGS no. 7585930, accessed March 2018.

Roman Catholic Church, Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada), “Parish Registers, 1852-1910,” 1854, #88, baptismal record for Elizabeth Walsh, accessed as “Ontario, Roman Catholic Church Records, 1760-1923,” browsable images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org: 21 March 2018), path: Lincoln County > St Catharines > Cathedral of St Catherine of Alexandria > Baptisms, Marriages 1852-1860, image 28 of 104.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2018

A Beginner’s Guide to Polish Genealogy, Revised Edition

Back in 2016, I wrote up a quick list of search tips for beginners in the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook, to give some direction to our group members who were just getting started with their genealogical research. Recently, we’ve had some comments from members who pointed out that these search tips are now a bit outdated, since they reference things like microfilm rentals from the Family History Library, which have been discontinued by the FHL in light of the increasing scarcity of raw microfilm and the emphasis on offering digital images of genealogical records. So, this seemed like a good time to give the whole list an overhaul and a bit of reorganization. Bear in mind that although these search tips were originally written specifically for research into Polish ancestors, many of the same principles apply no matter what ethnicity your immigrant ancestors were.

Tracing your family back to Poland is as easy as one, two three

There are three basic steps involved in tracing your family back into Polish records:

  1. Gather evidence from U.S. records to establish the place of birth of your immigrant ancestor. This assumes your Polish ancestor migrated to the U.S., but of course if he did not, then you use records from the country in which he settled.
  2. Use one or more gazetteers to determine the parish or registry office which served that village.
  3. Identify the repositories that hold records for this parish or registry office. These repositories might include state archives, diocesan archives, the parish itself, the local civil registry office (urząd stanu cywilnego), or most likely a combination of all of these. These records may or may not be digitized or microfilmed, but you can always hire an onsite researcher to access records for you if they are not available any other way, and it might not be as expensive as you think (see “Tips for Hiring a Professional Researcher in Poland”).

Even experienced genealogical researchers often need help with steps 2 and 3 if they are not experienced with research in Polish records in particular. For that reason, it’s wise to join us over in the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook and we can assist with those questions. However, for the purpose of this guide, I’ll focus on just the first step, which is gathering evidence from U.S. records to establish the birthplace of your immigrant ancestor.

Interview family members

Now, if you’re scratching your head and asking yourself, “Was it Dziadzia who was born in Poland, or was it his father?,” then the first step might be to make a few phone calls to older family members and see what they remember. Gather all the information you can, because you never know how some small detail might become relevant at a later point in your research. (For one example of this, see my story about “The Old Mill.”) Additional hints for interviewing older family members can be found here. If all your older family members are deceased, don’t panic. Their paper trail is still there, and that’s what we all use to document those family stories anyway. However, you should still write down your own memories and stories about earlier generations of your family, and talk with any cousins who are still living to see what they remember. Armed with this information, it’s time to go online!

Check out sites for “one-stop shopping”

There are a number of great sites that can help you begin to gather documentation for your family. My two favorites are FamilySearch and Ancestry, but additional sites like Fold3, My Heritage, Heritage Quest, GenealogyBank, etc. can all be used quickly gather some basic documentation like census records, passenger manifests, military records, possibly vital records and naturalization records, and more.  FamilySearch is free and can be accessed from any computer; you only need to register to use the site. Many of the other databases can be accessed at your local public library (if you’re in the U.S.) or at a LDS (Mormon) Family History Center.  Another common strategy for using the subscription-based sites is to sign up for a free 2-week trial, locate and download as many records as possible in that 2-week period, and then cancel the subscription before the two weeks are up so there is no charge on the credit card.

Please note that the information available on these sites represents only the tip of the iceberg for what’s out there.  Many of the documents you’ll need are still sitting in churches, courthouses, archives, and libraries, waiting for you to discover them.  In this era of immediate gratification via the internet, people sometimes begin with the unrealistic expectation that somewhere, someone out there has done all the work for them.  While this might be true (to a point) if your ancestors have been living in the U.S. since Colonial times, it’s much less likely to be true if your ancestors arrived here from Poland just a generation or two ago.  Don’t forget that genealogy still requires patience, persistence, time, and good-old fashioned research done with letter-writing, phone calls, and personal visits, if possible.

Do your homework in U.S. records before attempting to trace your family in Poland

It’s a common mistake for people to find one document with a place of birth on it (most likely misspelled) and to try to use that to begin tracing their family in Poland.  Be patient.  In many cases, there are multiple towns and villages in Poland with the same name — think of researching a U.S. place called “Springfield.” So it’s a good idea to obtain several documents with information about an immigrant’s birthplace so you can compare them before trying to research in Poland.  It’ll save you time (and maybe money) in the long run. It’s also advisable to be suspicious of family stories that an ancestor came from a large city, like Warsaw, Kraków, or Poznań. Most of our ancestors came from small villages, but it was common for an immigrant to approximate her place of birth to the closest large city when describing her hometown to an American audience that was unfamiliar with Polish geography (see “Grandma Said She Was From Poznań: Decoding Stories About Ancestors from Poland”). Don’t worry too much at this point if there are apparent conflicts between the place of birth as it’s recorded in different documents. It may be that one document refers to the village, another refers to the gmina (an administrative level similar to a township, composed of several villages) and a third refers to the county. A good gazetteer can help you make sense of all of this, or we can help you in the Polish Genealogy group.

Which types of documents are most useful for identifying an immigrant’s place of birth?My personal top three go-to sources for this information are church records, passenger manifests, and naturalization records. However, it’s important to think broadly here and leave no stone unturned. Place of origin might be recorded in a newspaper death notice (especially a newspaper published in the immigrant’s mother tongue, like the Dziennik dla wszystkich from Buffalo, New York, or the Dziennik Chicagoski from Chicago, Illinois), on a grave marker (see “The Final Clue: Tracing the Wagners Back to Germany”), on a draft registration, in a Social Security application, in an application for a life insurance policy, in a letter or some other document handed down through the family, etc. For now, let’s take a closer look at those top three sources.

Church records

The vast majority of ethnic Poles were Roman Catholic, and Roman Catholic church records are often very good about including specific place of origin for Polish immigrants, beyond just something broad like “Russia,” “Prussia,” “Austria,” “Galicia,” or “Posen.” (If you’re not sure why an ethnic Pole would be likely to be recorded as being from one of those places, please see “Those Infamous Border Changes: A Crash Course in Polish History”). While church records can’t be guaranteed to contain that all-important place of origin, they come through often enough that it’s worth the extra effort to obtain them. Moreover, these places were probably recorded by a Polish priest, so they’re likely to be spelled more or less correctly.  In addition to obtaining marriage and death records for Polish immigrants who married in the U.S., you should also obtain baptismal records for the U.S.-born children of your immigrant ancestors.  These frequently contain an “ex loco” portion that will tell you where the parents came from. It’s important to be thorough, since the priest may not have recorded precise place of origin on every record pertaining to your family. So for example, if you know that your great-grandmother’s sister also immigrated from Poland and married in the U.S., get her church marriage and death records, as well as your those for your great-grandmother. Similarly, get copies of all the baptismal records, not just for your own direct line of descent.  Documents from collateral lines can often provide that critical breakthrough you need.

If you don’t know what parish your ancestors attended, you can usually determine this based on their address(es) as reported in census records and city directories. Parishes had defined geographic boundaries (and they still do!) and people were less likely to “shop around” for a parish they liked, as is often the case today.  Group members in the Polish Genealogy group can often assist with identifying the correct parish, so ask if you need help. Before you write to a parish, check the Family History Library catalog to see if records for that parish are available. A small percentage of U.S. Catholic church records have been microfilmed/digitized by the LDS, but it’s definitely worthwhile to check first.

If you do need to write to the parish, keep in mind that the primary function of the parish staff is to meet the spiritual needs of their congregation, not to fulfill genealogy requests. Make sure to enclose a donation for the parish, and be prepared to wait a while. It’s best to request only a few records (1-3) at a time, keep your letter brief, and be as specific as you can. If you’re requesting a marriage record, for example, obtain the civil equivalent first – that way, you already know the exact date of the event. Be sure to ask for a clear digital photo or photocopy of the parish register, rather than a typed extract, which Catholic parishes sometimes provide as proof that a sacrament was administered in their parish. Explain that the original record may contain information that’s vitally important to your search, so you need the full, original record. If they hesitate due to “privacy concerns” suggest that they cover up the other entries on the page with a sheet of paper, so that only the key entry (and the column headings, if there are any) are showing. Be polite and respectful — churches are under no obligation to provide copies of their records, so it’s an act of kindness if they choose to do it.  It’s okay to follow up with phone calls, e-mails or letters if a decent interval (4-6 weeks) has gone by and you still have not received a reply. When you do receive your records, remember to send a thank-you note.

Passenger Manifests

Passenger manifests can be searched free at the Ellis Island database, which contains manifests from passengers who entered the port of New York between 1892 and 1957. Prior to the construction of the Ellis Island Immigration Station, immigrants who arrived at the port of New York were processed at the Castle Garden inspection station, which was in operation from 1855 to 1892. Access to indexed records in the Castle Garden database is also free, but the manifests themselves can only be obtained via one of the subscription-based sites like Ancestry. Be aware of the fact that some of the later manifests from Ellis Island cover two pages, and an immigrant’s last place of residence might be recorded on the first page, but his place of birth (potentially different from his last place of residence) might be on the second page. In addition to the port of New York, many Polish immigrants arrived in the U.S. via the ports of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston, in addition to some more minor ports of entry. Some immigrants may also have arrived through Canadian ports. More information, including links to additional indexes for passenger manifests, can be found here. Digital images of passenger manifests for these other ports of arrival can be found on Ancestry,

Naturalization records

It’s important to note that not every immigrant chose to become a U.S. citizen. Immigration and naturalization are two distinct processes, and naturalization has never been required of those choosing to live and work in the U.S. If your immigrant ancestor naturalized, this will be indicated on U.S. census records. The 1900, 1910, 1930 and 1940 censuses all asked about the year of immigration to the U.S., and whether or not the person was naturalized, and the 1920 census additionally asked for the specific year of naturalization. If your ancestor naturalized prior to 1906, his records are less likely to indicate specific place of birth information, beyond stating the country of which he was formerly a citizen. However, with the creation of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in 1906, changes were introduced in the way naturalization was handled by the various courts, and new, standardized forms were implemented which were much more detailed than the forms that were in use previously.  As a result, naturalization records dated after 26 September 1906 are very likely to tell you precisely where your immigrant ancestor was born., as well as date of birth, date and port of arrival in the U.S., the name of the ship on which he traveled, the names and dates of birth of the immigrant’s spouse and children, and more. Note that prior to the Cable Act of 1922, a woman’s citizenship was a reflection of her husband’s (see this article on women and naturalization for more information).  So if your female immigrant ancestor stated that she was naturalized prior to 1922, it was very likely a derivative naturalization through her husband or father, and you’ll want to check their naturalization records to discover her place of birth, instead of searching for records in her name.

Naturalization records can be found in a variety of ways. Sometimes they’re available online and you can find them on Ancestry or in the FamilySearch catalog. If your ancestor naturalized in a county court, as many of mine did, you can visit, call or write to the county courthouse to obtain a copy of the record. I’ve been able to request many naturalization records through the mail this way, at a very low cost. However, you may need to check other sources, such as the National Archives, or request an index search from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. If the 1940 census states that your ancestor was still an alien at that point, then he would have had to register as such when the U.S. began creating alien case files in 1944. You can search for your ancestor’s A-file by entering his name into the search box in the National Archives Catalog.

Using indexed records from Poland

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you may have difficulty in determining your immigrant ancestor’s place of birth. Maybe his church marriage and death records don’t state a specific place of origin, and neither do his civil records. Maybe he immigrated and naturalized early on, and those documents don’t specify his birthplace precisely. Perhaps you know only a general region from whence he came, such as Warsaw or Poznań. In cases such as these, it’s sometimes possible to take a shortcut and locate his birthplace using indexed records from Poland. Thanks to volunteer indexing efforts in Poland, more and more indexed vital records are coming online every day, and these can be leveraged to great advantage to jump-start your research. However, it is still important to gather information from U.S. records first — at minimum, you should know your immigrant ancestor’s name, approximate date of birth, and parents’ names. Parents’ names can usually be determined using a marriage record, death record, or Social Security application (SS-5 form; see here for details). It’s also very helpful to determine at least generally where he was from. Knowing the partition of Poland in which he was born is helpful, but more specific regional information, e.g. West Prussia, “Warsaw,” “Kalisz,” etc., is preferable. The more you know about your immigrant ancestor before you begin, the less likely you are to start barking up the wrong family tree, especially if you’re working with a common surname.

So where can you find indexed vital records from Poland? That depends to some extent on your region of interest, and a more complete list of indexed and digitized records can be found here. But these are a few databases that top the list:

For all of Poland: Geneteka

For the Poznań region: Poznań Project (marriage records only), BaSIA (has births, marriages and deaths)

For Pomerania: Pomeranian Genealogical Society database

For the Lublin area: Lubgens

For Polish records indexed by FamilySearch (as of today, this includes the Tarnów, Radom, and Lublin areas, as well as some BillionGrave and Find-A-Grave indexes): FamilySearch

For the Dobrzyń nad Wisłą region: Szpejankowski and Szpejankowski Family Portal

For the Podlasie area: Projekt Podlasie (Note that you must register with this site — it’s free — before you can search their indexes.)

For the Częstochowa area: Częstochowa Genealogical Society database (Note that you must register with this site — it’s free — before you can search their indexes.)

For Volhynia/Wołyń: Metryki Wołyń


Remember that there is no, single, comprehensive database that includes every birth, marriage or death that ever occurred anywhere in any place that was known to have an ethnic Polish presence historically (wouldn’t that be nice!), so if you don’t find your ancestors in one of these indexes, it doesn’t mean their records were destroyed. It means you need to go back to using the paper trail to deduce exactly where they were born, identify the parish that served that village, and determine where the records are for that parish — those three steps I mentioned at the very beginning.

Hopefully these links, strategies and tips will help you get your research off to a good start. The Polish Genealogy group is also a great asset, and volunteers are ready to help you at every step of the way. So what are you waiting for? Let’s find those ancestors!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2018


I Found Records for my Ancestors’ Parish! Now What?

I spend a fair amount of time each week helping budding genealogists in the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook. Frequently, we assist people by locating collections of vital records for their ancestral parishes in digital archives, but after that, it’s up to the individuals to use those records. And I sometimes get the sense that people aren’t really sure how to make the best use of those collections, after they’ve found a record or two for their family. So I’d like to take this opportunity to explain how I milk a collection of vital records for every drop of usable information.

Verify that this is the correct location for your family.

The first step is always to connect the parish to your family by finding one record — say, your great-grandmother’s birth record — that is unmistakeably correct. If all the U.S. data point to the parish of Gradzanowo Kościelne as her baptismal parish, and you know her parents’ names and her approximate date of birth from U.S. records, then you should be able to find her baptismal record. Note that our ancestors’ years of birth as they were reported in U.S. records are not always correct. Most U.S. records for my 2x-great-grandmother, Mary Klaus, suggested that she was born circa 1872, but her birth record proves that she was born in 1866. Despite the discrepancy in years, the record is unmistakeably hers, because the parents’ names match those reported on her marriage records, the day and month of birth match exactly with what was recorded on her death record, and multiple U.S. records indicate that she was born in Kołaczyce, Austrian Poland, which is where her baptismal record was located. So don’t be afraid to check several years before or after the year that you think your ancestor was born — or in the case of Mary Klaus, make that 6 years.

Skip back to the good stuff, if you can’t resist the temptation….

Using a different example, let’s say that I found the birth record for my husband’s great-grandmother, Helena Majczyk, in the parish records of Gradzanowo Kościelne in 1892 (because that’s true). It was unmistakeably her birth record, since her parents’ names, Stanisław Majczyk and Aniela Nowicka, matched those that Helena reported on her marriage record. I knew that Helena had one sister, Waleria, born circa 1889, and Helena’s death notice also mentioned that she was survived by “brothers and sisters in Poland.” Those siblings are all interesting to me, sure. But the first question in my mind was, “who were the parents of Stanisław and Aniela?” This question could be answered easily by finding their marriage record, but I didn’t know which sibling was the oldest. If Waleria and Helena, born circa 1889-1892, were the oldest children in the family, then the parents were probably married circa 1888. But if those “brothers and sisters in Poland” were older, and Helena was the youngest, perhaps born when her mother was 45, then Stanisław and Aniela might have been married as early as about 1863. I decided to take a chance and start searching marriage records in this parish beginning in 1889. Bingo! I found the marriage record for Stanisław Majczyk and Aniela Nowicka in 1888. In this case, I got lucky. Had Waleria and Helena been among the youngest children in the family, I might have had a longer search.

The marriage record revealed that the bride, Aniela Nowicka, was a local girl born in the village of Bojanowo, just a few kilometers away. She was the daughter of Antoni Nowicki and Jadwiga Krogulska. Her birth record should be found in the records for Gradzanowo parish, so that part would be easy, if I want to skip back and locate that quickly. There’s only one hitch, which is that online records for Gradzanowo at Metryki only go back to 1875. Since Aniela was born circa 1869, I won’t be able to find her birth record from the comfort of my home. However, when I get a chance to get to the Family History Center, I can access the additional records that they have for this parish back to 1808 and find her birth record.

The marriage record further revealed that the groom, Stanisław Majczyk, was the son of  Józef Majczyk and Katarzyna Smiadzinska.  However, Stanisław wasn’t born in the parish of Gradzanowo Kościelne. He was born in the village of Bronisze circa 1861, based on his age reported in the marriage record. The Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich, or Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavic Countries, describes two different places called Bronisze, one in Russian Poland, near Warsaw, and one in East Prussia, neither of which is especially close to Gradzanowo Kościelne. Moreover, mapa.szukacz mentions two contemporary places called Bronisze, as well as three additional places that have “Bronisze” as part of their name, such as “Rutki-Bronisze.” And the Skorowidz Królestwa Polskiego mentions two places called Bronisze that were both in Russian Poland. It will take some time to sort all this out and determine which Bronisze is most likely to be Stanisław’s. Unfortunately, the priest who created this record didn’t do us any favors, since he neglected to record the name of the parish in which Stanisław was baptized. However, additional clues might be found in the current record collection. Maybe Stanisław had siblings who also moved to Gradzanowo, and records for them would point to the particular village of Bronisze where the family originated. The only way to find those records will be to carefully examine all the records for the parish.

 …. but be sure to go back and do a thorough search of all the records, year by year.

Which brings us back to this step. Even if you can’t resist the temptation to skip ahead and find the most exciting records for your direct line, it’s important to take the time to fill in the rest of the family tree. In this case, online records for the parish go up to 1907, so I decided to start with that year, and work my way backwards in time. Initally my surnames of interest were going to be Majczyk and Nowicki, but the discovery of that marriage record expanded my list to include Smiadzinska and Krogulski. Since the Majczyk and Smiadzinski families did not originate in Gradzanowo, I realized that these surnames would probably not be especially prevalent in the records for Gradzanowo, but I planned to keep an eye out for them nonetheless. I began a spreadsheet in which to record information on each person with those surnames that I discovered, including such details as parents’ names, dates of birth, death and marriage, spouse’s name, etc.

At this point in the research, it’s unrealistic to expect to understand how all the people you’ll find will fit into your family tree. However, as you progress further in your research, family groups will begin to emerge from the raw data, and relationships will clarify. At that point, you can move people into your family tree. Is this painstaking work? Sure it is. Is there a better way? Not unless your parish has already been indexed on a site such as Geneteka.

Assuming your parish has not been indexed in a digital database, does that mean you have to read through every record in the book? Maybe, maybe not. Vital registers from this era in Russian Poland typically contain indexes created by the priest after each section (births, marriages or deaths), for each year, and you can begin by looking for your surnames of interest in those. Of course, errors sometimes do exist in these indexes, so ultimately you may still need to check each and every record if you can’t find what you’re looking for. And in cases where the priest did not create such an index, you have little choice but to skim through each record.

This is the point at which many fair-weather family historians seem to get cold feet. “Where are the census records for Poland,” they ask, “so that I can identify the names and birth years of the children in this family, and only search vital registers from the years when they were born?” For reasons discussed previously, census records from Poland aren’t as generally available as they are in the U.S., although there are definitely places that one can look for them. However, a thorough analysis of vital records in this manner is arguably preferable to only checking for individuals named in census records, anyway. U.S. census records offer us decennial “snapshots” of the family group over time, but it’s entirely possible (probable, even) that there are children in any given family who were born and died in between census years. Those children were more likely to be recorded in the birth and death records, however. By working my way back through the records like this, year by year, I can be certain that I’m not going to miss a birth or death for my family, assuming that the parish priest/civil registrar did, in fact, create records for these events.

Since it’s such time-consuming work — a true labor of love — it’s very important to keep a research log, indicating the date of research, which records you searched, and for what surnames, and what the findings were. That way, if life gets in the way as you make your way through the indexes and you have to stop researching, you’ll know where you left off. It’s a good idea to make a note of additional surnames that appear in the index that are similar to your target surname. Surname spellings were not consistent until the 1930s, approximately, so you might see a number of different variants used for your ancestors in old records.

Sometimes, it makes sense to go as far back as you can on your direct line so that you’re aware of the primary surnames for your family in a particular town or parish. In the present example with my research in Gradzanowo Kościelne, let’s say that I want to trace Aniela Nowicka’s direct line as quickly as possible. The key is to find her birth record, and then see how old her parents were at the time of her birth. In reality, finding Aniela’s birth record is still on my research to-do list for 2018, but for the moment, let’s suppose that we find a birth record for Aniela in 1869 which states that her mother, Jadwiga née Krogulska, was age 32 at the time of the birth, and her father, Antoni, was age 38. (Remember that this is completely hypothetical.) We can use this information to predict when Jadwiga and Antoni would have been married. In the 19th century, based on my personal research experience, Polish women were typically married around age 18-23, although in rare cases I’ve seen brides as young as 15. The woman’s age is usually more useful for estimating a marriage date than the man’s, since (in my experience, at least) there was more variability in a man’s age at the time of his first marriage. Therefore we can guess that Jadwiga was born circa 1837, and was married circa 1855-1860. Her marriage record will tell us her parents’ names, and once we know those, we’re all set to go looking for her birth record. Of course, we could also look for her birth record circa 1837 without knowing her parents’ names, but there may have been more than one Jadwiga Krogulska born circa 1837 in that parish, so it’s safer to determine her parents’ names first, if at all possible. Once we find Jadwiga’s birth record, we can guess what year her mother was born, and then repeat the process of finding marriage and birth records for Jadwiga’s mother. Using this strategy, it’s sometimes possible to skip back through several generations in a family quite quickly.

An exhaustive search of vital records is a useful strategy for pretty much any vital records collection (church or civil) in a place where your ancestors lived. Civil marriage records for my ancestors in Buffalo, New York are not online, but both the indexes and the records themselves (1878-1935) are available in the basement records room of the Erie County Clerk’s Office, and these records can be immensely helpful in establishing family groups for immigrants with a particular surname of interest. For example, when I began my research into my husband’s Szczepankiewicz ancestry, his grandfather Steve told me that his own father, Michael Szczepankiewicz, immigrated from Poland along with four brothers: Joseph, Bernard, Alexander, and Felix. While one might think that Szczepankiewicz is such an uncommon surname that all the immigrants to Buffalo with this name are related, that’s not the case. By searching marriage records, it was immediately apparent which Szczepankiewicz immigrants to Buffalo were siblings of Michael Szczepankiewicz, and which ones were unrelated. (It also turned out that Grandpa’s memory  was only partially correct, as the immigrant brothers of Michał Szczepankiewicz were Władysław, Józef/Joseph, Bronisław/Bernard, Adam, and Aleksander/Alexander. A sister, Marcianna, was also discovered on a passenger manifest, traveling with Bronisław to their brother Władysław in Buffalo, but she was not found in the marriage index. Felix turned out to be a brother of Grandpa’s mother, not his father.)

But wait! There’s more!

So now let’s say you’ve gone through a particular collection of vital records, as far back as they go, and you’ve successfully identified all your direct ancestors, as well as their siblings, and you’ve also found marriage records for all of those siblings who remained in the same locality and whose marriage records were therefore present in this same collection. Congratulations! At this point, you will have identified many new surnames that you weren’t aware of when you began the research — married surnames of sisters of your ancestors. If you really want to be thorough, you need to go back through those vital records again, looking for all those new surnames. Creating an expansive family tree in this manner is highly recommended, especially in this era of genetic genealogy, when we’re all trying to understand how our DNA matches relate to us. If you focus only on surnames in your direct line, you’ll be less able to work out relationships with matches whose trees don’t go back as far as yours.

Good research in vital records isn’t especially difficult, but it is time-consuming and requires some patience and perseverance. When researching in Polish records, other types of documents may be more difficult to come by, so it’s especially important to wring every last drop of information from a collection of vital records. The good news is that your hard work will be rewarded with the satisfaction that comes from creating a soundly researched, well documented family tree. So what are you waiting for? Get in there and start digging!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017






Anatomy of a German Marriage Record

In my last post, I wrote about my excitement over my brand-new copy of Hoffman and Shea’s recently published German genealogical translation guide, In Their Words: A Genealogist’s Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin and Russian Documents: Volume IV: German. I decided to test-drive it using a marriage record from the Bischöfliches Zentralarchiv Regensburg that my friend Mente Pongratz obtained for me a while ago. While most of the documents he obtained were in Latin, there were a few that were in German, and I’ve been saving the German-language ones for this moment. These documents pertain to my Meier family from the village of Obertrübenbach, presently located in Cham County, Oberpfalz, Bayern (Bavaria),. I’ll have to introduce you to my Meiers in the next post, but right now, I want to focus on the process I use when I begin to learn to read genealogical records in an unfamiliar language.

The marriage record in question is for Johann Meier/Maier and his bride, Anna Maria Urban, who were my great-great-great-grandparents, and it comes from the Catholic Church in Roding, Bavaria. Let’s start by looking at the entire document (Figure 1a and b).

Figure 1a: Left page of marriage record for Johann Maier and Anna M. Urban, 27 October 1857.1 The entry pertaining to them is the second one from the bottom.

Johann Meier & Anna Maria Urban 1857 p 1.jpg

Figure 1b: Right page of marriage record for Johann Maier and Anna M. Urban, 27 October 1857.1 The entry pertaining to them is the second one from the bottom.

Johann Meier & Anna Maria Urban 1857 p 2

Remember that I’m starting from the same place as many of you. I have no prior experience with reading, speaking, or writing German, and I’ve never made any serious attempt to decipher records in that language until now. I do have some prior knowledge about the names of my ancestors, and I’m going to leverage that advantage as far as possible. As I looked at this for the first time, my first thought was that learning the cursive letter forms is going to be almost as bad as learning Cyrillic. The letter forms used are an old German cursive script called Kurrent which is sufficiently different from our cursive script that it’s not just a matter of reading bad handwriting. The printed text at the top is in a typeface called Fraktur, which is sufficiently similar to our “Old English” Gothic typefaces that it shouldn’t pose too many problems. That said, one of the first things I should have done when I obtained this document as a hard copy from the archive was was to scan it immediately and open it up on my computer, in order to zoom in on the text, rather than trying to work from the hard copy. Since I didn’t do that, I struggled for a bit with the fact that the Fraktur 𝕭 (B) is almost identical to the Fraktur 𝖁 (V), especially when viewed at a small size. This made it difficult to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary.

Take It From the Top

Let’s start with looking at the column headings on the left page:Johann Meier & Anna Maria Urban 1857 p 1 top crop

The first thing I did was to check Hoffman and Shea’s section entitled, “Marriage Entries and Certificates: Columnar-Form Original Entries in Registers” to see if this exact form was reproduced. Unfortunately, it was not. However, this section provided a good starting point for me to decipher many of the words found in the column headings without having to resort to the glossary in the back every time. The first column reads Trauung-Tag, or wedding date. The second column is Bräutigame Tauf- und Zuname, Bridegroom, given- and surname. Easy enough so far. In the third column, you’ll notice that the Fraktur 𝕾 looks rather different from our S, and the final 𝖉 in the first word looks almost like a 𝖇, and I found myself referring frequently to Hoffman and Shea’s handy German alphabet chart on page 1, where they show Fraktur, Cursive, and Roman letters all side by side for comparison. However, it’s clear from the examples in the book that the first word in the third column is Stand. and then Religion is easy to read.

The glossary at the back of Hoffman and Shea’s book defines “Stand” as “position, class; (marital) status; occupation; state,” making it clear that the word could have multiple meanings. Moreover, there’s a period after Stand. in this document, so I briefly entertained the idea that perhaps this was intended to be an abbreviation for Standesamt, which is the civil registry office. Now, as it turns out, Hoffman and Shea spell it out on page 232 that, “What we see under Stand will usually be occupation.” However, since I was skipping around in the book, I managed to miss that part initially, so I had to prove this for myself. To rule out the possibility that maybe Stand. meant Standesamt, I checked the Meyers gazetteer for Obertrübenbach, which reported that the Standesamt was in Obertrübenbach itself.  I knew I should be able to locate this word in this document, since I knew that Wenzel Meier’s family came from Obertrübenbach. Sure enough, in the entry for the marriage of Johann Maier and Anna Maria Urban (second from the bottom), “Obertrübenbach” appears in the 4th column on the left page. Since the writing in the 3rd column is completely dissimilar, we know that Stand can’t mean Standesamt in this context. 

Further examination of the entries in this third column reveals that only one word was recorded in most cases (sometimes hyphenated), and the word katholisch does not appear to be written in any of the columns. This makes sense; in a register from a Catholic parish, presumably all or most of the brides and grooms would be Catholic, so perhaps religion was recorded only in cases where one party was of a different faith.  I spent a few minutes wondering whether any of the entries in this column could possibly be ledig (single, unmarried), but then I skipped ahead to the column heading a few columns over, and realized that it reads, Ledig oder Wittwer, dessen gestorbenes (geschieden) Weib, or “single, or widower whose wife is deceased (or separated).Although the glossary defines geschieden as “separated,” in this context I think we can understand it to mean “divorced.” This column heading is interesting in light of the fact that this is a Catholic parish register and the Catholic church does not permit remarriage after divorce. Taken together with the previous column heading that mentioned stating the religion of the bridegroom, I wondered if this might imply that this form was created for use by a variety of religions in Germany, in an era when church records were recognized as legal documents, and I made a mental note to look up the date when civil vital registration (independent from church registration) began in Bavaria.

Since marital status was covered in Column 6, I finally arrived at the conclusion that “Stand” in column 3 must refer to the bridegroom’s occupation. After much back-and-forth between the alphabet chart showing the letter formations in Kurrent, and comparison of all the other entries, I concluded that Johann Maier must be a Häusler, which Hoffman and Shea define as, “cottager, peasant with a small house and garden and a livestock (e.g., a goat), but not enough to support a family.”

The next column heading is Landgericht, Aufenthalts-Ort, meaning, “District Court, place of residence.” This is where the word Obertrübenbach was recorded, which helped me determine the context for Stand in the previous column heading. Next comes Eltern. Bei der Mutter auch der Geschlechts-Name. This is translated to mean, “Parents. With the mother, also the Family Name.” So what we should see in this column are the names of the groom’s parents, with his mother’s maiden name specified. I was able to make out Johann’s father’s name, Christoph, and his mother’s name, Walburga gb. (geboren, i.e. née) Meinzinger. Did it help that I already knew what these names should be? Absolutely. But when you’re just starting out, using every scrap of information available to you is fair game.

The next column heading was also discussed previously, as it’s the one that reads, Ledig oder Wittwer, dessen gestorbenes (geschieden) Weib. In this case, Johann Maier was recorded as ledig, single. After that, the column heading is Geboren wann? wo?, which we understand to mean, “Born when? Where?” Apparently the priest saw no need to record any of the wheres, but he did record Johann’s birthdate for us, 27 July 1827.

Here Comes the Bride

The next columns pertain to the bride, starting with the column that reads, Der Braut Vor – und Geschlechts-Name, which is, “The Bride, given and family-name.” In the relevant entry, the bride’s name is recorded as Anna M. Urban, but her Stand doesn’t make sense to me. The first part of the word looks exactly like Häusler as it’s written in the groom’s column, but it looks like it ends in “𝖘𝖙,” i.e., “Häuslerst.” This isn’t possible. Häuslerin would be a female Häusler, but those final two letters clearly aren’t “𝖎𝖓.” I left this alone for a while and moved on, but after further consideration, I’m wondering if perhaps those final letters really are “𝖘𝖙,” and this was intended to be an abbreviation for Häuslerstochter, “daughter of a Häusler.”

Having completed the first page, I anticipated that the second page would be a little easier since many of the column headings are the same for the bride as they were for the groom. The first column on the right page is Landgericht Aufenthalts-Ort, although this time the word bisheriger, meaning “previous” or “up until now” is inserted after Landgericht. Anna Maria’s residence prior to her marriage was noted to be Kalsing. Her parents, described in the next column (identical column headings to corresponding column on groom’s side), were Johann and A. Maria gb. Ederer.  The next column, which reports whether she was single or a widow, states, led. — possibly abbreviated because by now, the priest’s hand was no doubt cramped from the effort of writing such tiny letters with any degree of precision. Anna Maria Urban was noted to have been born on 11 October 1832 in Kalsing.

We’re in the home stretch, with just four columns to go. The next one up has the heading, Pfarrer Stellvertreter, “Parish Representative,” implying that this column should name the priest who performed the marriage (who might not be the pastor himself). At this point, I had no more lifelines, in that I didn’t know in advance what the name should be here. My best guess was that the first letter is a P, and the last two letters are “-it” or possibly “-is.” Poppit? Poppis? The middle two letters that seem to be repeated contain a downward stroke that suggests either the letter p, g, or z; it doesn’t look like y, f, or h. I tried playing with versions of this surname on a German-language surname distribution site, and even on Google. My new best guess was that the surname might be Kappis, but the fact that this surname does not exist in Cham County today doesn’t bode well for that hypothesis. There’s also the fact that the capital “K” in “Kalsing” and in Klessing (3rd entry from the top in the first column on the second page) is formed quite differently from the first letter in the priest’s name. At this point, I decided to move on again and maybe come back to this name.

The next column is for the witnesses, with given name, surname, occupation, and place of residence. Again, I was without a safety net. The first witness was easy, Georg Maier, but the next line was not so easy: F???? m. (?) and then a word that looked like it might be “Obertrübenbach,” but with half the letters randomly omitted from the middle. Sigh. My guess was that the word beginning with F was an occupation, and maybe what looks like “m.” was actually im (in), so this phrase might describe Georg, rather than indicating the name of a different person. The third line in this column appears to be “Math. Pongratz,” and as this realization dawned on me, I realized that the first letter in that priest’s name really must be P, although I still can’t find a valid German surname that seems to fit that pattern.

The next column, Weltliche Heiraths-Lizenz, refers to a secular marriage license. I had no idea what the initials here are supposed to indicate; they seemed to be “L.R.” in most cases. It would be interesting to know if a secular marriage license could be obtained for further documentation of this marriage. I made a mental note to ask one of my friends who is an expert in German genealogy for more information on the entries in this column and their implications for further research.

The final column, Getraut mit oder ohne Dispens in den Graden, mit oder ohne Denunziationen, seemed to translate as, “Married with or without dispensation in degrees, with or without denunciation,” and some Roman Catholic canonical context is needed to understand this. My sense is that it relates to the need, or lack thereof, for a dispensation for the marriage due to consanguinity, since this need is determined by the degrees of separation in the relationship between the bride and groom. Denunciation in this context seems to refer to the reporting of known impediments to the marriage to the priest beforehand, in response to the announcement of the marriage banns (see “Denunciation of impediments,” here.) So in the case of most of the marriages recorded on these pages, there were no impediments to the marriage that were reported, and therefore there was no need for any dispensations. The one exception to this is the 8th marriage record down from the top (immediately above the record for Johann Maier and Anna Maria Urban), for Wolfgang Niklas and Elisabeth Niklas. Given their shared surname, they were probably relatives by blood or marriage, whose marriage would necessitate a dispensation. I considered trying to decipher the script pertaining to the dispensations, but I felt that I’d banged my head on a wall long enough for one day.

That’s a Wrap

So after all this, my best (first) attempt at translation can be summarized as follows:

  • Wedding date:  27 October 1857
  • Groom’s Name:  Johann Maier
  • Occupation:  Häusler (cottager)
  • Place of Residence:  Obertrübenbach
  • Parents’ Names:  Christoph and Walburga née Meinzinger
  • Marital Status:  single
  • Date of Birth:  27 July 1827
  • Bride’s Name:  Anna M. Urban
  • Occupation:  Häuslerstochter (daughter of a Häusler)
  • Place of Residence:  Kalsing
  • Parents’ Names:  Johann and A. Maria née Ederer
  • Marital Status:  single
  • Date and Place of Birth:  11 October 1832 in Kalsing
  • Parish Representative:  Pa??il or Pa??it (?)
  • Witnesses:  Georg Maier, ?? in Obertr???h, Math. Pongratz.
  • Secular Marriage License:  LR (whatever that means)
  • Marriage dispensation with or without denunciation:  Not applicable

I never did come to any resolution with bits of it, but I can always ask a German friend, or post the record in the Genealogy Translations Facebook group to get help with those little bits, and to have them correct my translation. Even without those options, it’s okay to have small bits remain unresolved. I used to do this all the time when I was translating Russian records, before I discovered Facebook genealogy groups. Now, with a few more years of experience in reading Russian records, I sometimes come across those early translations in my research notes and fill in the little bits that I couldn’t decipher the first time around. Now that I have my first German translation behind me, I know that it can only get easier from here!

If I Can Do This, So Can You!

So what are some general tips to keep in mind when learning to translate documents in a foreign language? Here are seven pointers:

Always look at the entire page, not just a single record.

I think this one ought to be obvious, but it’s really critical to familiarize oneself with all the examples of handwriting on the page.

Use the familiar to decode the unfamiliar.

Find something you recognize on the page — any words that you can recognize or predict based on your prior knowledge, or about what you’ve been told the document says (for example, from an indexed entry) — and use these words as your Rosetta Stone to understand the nuances of the handwriting of this particular writer. Since there are multiple forms of the letter “s” that are possible in Kurrent, for example, does the writer consistently use the same form? Or does he use them all interchangeably?

Use maps and gazetteers to help understand the places mentioned.

A good exercise for me will be to go through the list of places of residence mentioned in this document and see if I can translate them based on the names of villages close to Roding.

Formulate hypotheses and test them.

When you think you’ve deciphered a surname found in a record, test your theory by plugging it into a German language surname distribution database. If the surname exists in Germany today, you may be on the right track, and you score bonus points if the surname is also found in your county of interest. Similarly, if you think you’ve deciphered the priest’s name, try Googling the history of the parish to see if this particular priest was mentioned. Note that Google.de will provide different (and more appropriate) results than English-language Google, and for Polish records, Google.pl is the preferred search engine. You may need to translate your search terms first using Google Translate, which is an approach that is always fraught with peril when working with inflected languages, so keep your searches simple.

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

The more you work with foreign-language records, the more things will start to make sense to you. Especially with different letter forms like Cyrillic and Kurrent, it seems like a certain amount of time has to be spent in the beginning in staring at alphabet charts, committing the letter forms to memory and learning the sounds that each letter makes.  Be patient with yourself. You’ll get there.

Get help when you need it.

Learning to translation foreign-language records is an investment in yourself, but you don’t have to go it alone. The global genealogical community is a very generous one, and there are people who are willing to help you along the way. If you get stuck, you can always post the record and your translation attempt in the Genealogy Translations group on Facebook. Volunteers in that group, or in one of the groups targeted to your ethnic group of interest (German Genealogy, Polish Genealogy, etc.), can usually provide insight into archaic terms and offer historical context to help you understand the record, in addition to merely offering a translation.

Have fun!

Deciphering genealogical records can be quite an enjoyable puzzle, and you’ll gain a useful skill that will help you in your research. I’m really excited to continue my practice with German records, now that Hoffman and Shea’s German genealogical translation guide is here. While you won’t see me offering assistance to others with German translations any time soon, I’m confident that regular practice, the day will come when I can pick up a German document written in Kurrent and read it without having to look up any words in the book. And if I can do that, you can, too!

Note: The first round of edits is in! Apparently I was systematically misreading 𝖇 and 𝖉 in this document, too. I’ve made those changes in the text above. Thank you, Mente. Every correction is a learning opportunity.


1 BZAR, Roman Catholic Church, St. Pancrus parish (Roding, Cham, Oberpfalz, Germany), marriage record for Johann Maier and Anna M. Urban, 27 October 1857, vol. 27, pg. 3, MF 573.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017


5 Strategies for Finding Living Relatives In Poland

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 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 registry documents located in the “Files” section in Polish Genealogy on Facebook. 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, the Polish Genealogy group on Facebook has had its share of serendipitous cousin connections, so be sure to search the group’s history for your surnames and places of interest, in addition to adding them to the group’s surname registry files 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









The New Face of Geneteka: A Tutorial

If you haven’t stopped by the popular Polish vital records database Geneteka lately, you’re in for a real treat. Our friends at the Polskie Towarzystwa Genealogiczne (PTG, the Polish Genealogical Society) have made some significant improvements to the search interface, making a good thing even better. This seems like a good time for a tutorial on how to use Geneteka, for those of you who might be unfamiliar with it. I’ll highlight some of the improvements along the way, for those of you who already have some experience with this database.

What is Geneteka?

So what is Geneteka? As mentioned, it’s a database of Polish vital records that have been indexed by surname, 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 PTG. Each of these “sister sites” is wonderful in its own way, and several of these will probably be discussed in more detail in future blog posts. (One of these, Metryki, was already discussed in one of my previous blog posts.) But today, let’s focus on Geneteka.

At Geneteka’s home page, not much has changed. Here’s the page with English chosen as the language:


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. 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 300 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 1,700 parishes and registry offices indexed for the Mazovia province (województwo mazowieckie), with close to 6 million records.

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.

Starting a Search

With that caveat 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, and arrive at this screen:language

Immediately, a number of changes are apparent to those who have used this resource previously, but let’s start at the top. In the past, if one wished to use the site in English, it was necessary to change the language at the home page.  If a search was begun within records for a province, and one tried to switch to English, one was returned to the home page and all search results were lost. Now it’s possible to switch languages at any time during the search process, which is very convenient for those who might not be completely comfortable with Polish.

Next, we see that it is now possible to search using both a person’s surname (Nazwisko) as well as his given name (Imię). Note that diacritics aren’t important here, 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:


As you can see, there are over 25 pages of results, because as it happens, Zieliński is a very common Polish surname. As you look through the results, you’ll notice that the search algorithm is also designed to return not only the target name, but also names that are phonetically similar. This can be very helpful because surname spellings weren’t always consistent until perhaps the 1930s. However, if you only wish to see results for “Zieliński,” you can check the box for “Exact Search”/”Wyszukiwanie dokładne” and only results for “Zieliński” will be returned. Note that you still don’t have to enter correct diacritics even with an “exact” search: typing “Zielinski” will still give you results for “Zieliński.”

It should be noted that the “exact search” feature will also produce gender-specific results in cases where a given name is not specified. For example, if I search for “Zieliński” with no given name specified, I get even more results, but they’re for both Zieliński and Zielińska, as well as approximate phonetic matches. Searching for “Zieliński” with the “Exact Search” box checked will not only eliminate phonetic matches, it will also eliminate results for feminine surnames. Obviously, as soon as I specify a given name, I’m also excluding results for the opposite sex.

Results can be narrowed in other ways as well. At the top near the left, there is an option to narrow the range of years for which results are returned.

Jozef Zielinski 1885-1995.png

So by entering both a given name and narrowing the range of years, we’ve already cut our search results down to a mere 5+ pages.  Progress!  Of course, one of the best ways to narrow results is by using a second surname for the search. In this case, I know my great-grandfather Józef Zieliński was the son of Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna Kalota. So even if I don’t narrow the range of years at all, if I just enter his mother’s maiden name in the second search box, I can immediately zero in on his family.


Note that I didn’t bother to specify both his parents’ given names, even though I knew them. That’s because making a search too specific can lead you to miss documents that actually are for your family, but might have been recorded incorrectly (e.g. mother’s name written as Anna instead of Marianna). Some priests were much more careful about those details than others, so a good researcher must learn to critically evaluate all the data in a source to determine whether such an error is likely, or whether the evidence points to some other explanation, such as a second marriage.

Understanding the Search Results

Let’s take a closer look at how these results are displayed:zielinski-kalota-closeup

The first thing we notice — another recent improvement to Geneteka’s search interface — is that results for births, marriages and deaths appear on separate tabs, so it’s no longer necessary to search each type of vital event separately. The search algorithm is looking for any vital records which mention both surnames, Zieliński and Kalota, in any of the indexation columns. Note that records which might mention one of these names as a witness or godparents will not be returned, because at present, indexers are not instructed to include those data on the spreadsheet. On the births page, the results consist of baptismal records for the children of Stanisław Zieliński and Marianna Kalota. The columns report the year and the record number for each entry, as well as both the parish, and the place within that parish, where the vital event occurred. In this case, we see that the first six births were recorded in Mistrzewice, while the last four were recorded in the neighboring parish of Młodzieszyn — even though the next column tells us that each child was still born in Mistrzewice.

So how do we interpret that? Does this change in parishes suggest that our ancestors could pick and choose what parish they baptized their child in, much as we do today?  No. It’s important to remember that Roman Catholic priests were also civil registrars in those days. Each village was assigned to a particular parish, and when a birth or death occurred in that village, villagers were required to report it to the parish in which the event occurred. In this case, it’s a bit of an historical sidenote, but this article explains that the parish in Mistrzewice was closed in 1898 and the village was transferred to the parish of Młodzieszyn. The timing explains perfectly the results we see here, wherein Władysław Zieliński was born and baptized in Mistrzewice in 1897, but his brother Jan was born in Mistrzewice and baptized in Młodzieszyn in 1899. So, if you see a sudden change in parish but the entry indicates that your ancestors’ village has remained the same, you may want to investigate the history of the parishes in that area to detect a reassignment or the establishment of a new parish.

Getting back to the discussion of Geneteka search results, you’ll notice that there are some little yellow “infodots” in the “Remarks/Uwagi” column on the far right.  If you hover your cursor over each of them, additional information is revealed. For example, in the first entry for Franciszek Zieliński, hovering over the “i” reveals his exact date of birth, 16 September 1886.frank-zielinski-dob

Similarly, hovering over the “Z” indicates the name of the archive that holds the original record which was indexed here. In this case, originals are at the Grodzisk branch of the State Archive of Warsaw. This is not to suggest that the copies might not also be found some other way, such as at one of the online repositories, or on microfilm from the FHL. In this case, there is a “scan” button which we can click to obtain a scan of this vital record. Hovering over the “A” reveals the name of the volunteer indexer to whom we owe our debt of gratitude.

Let’s take a look at the results obtained under the “marriages” tab for this same search.zielinski-marriages-closeup

It’s evident here that neither of these marriages pertains to my family. The basic search algorithm looks for the names “Zieliński”and “Kalota” or approximate phonetic variations thereof, in any data field from the original indexing spreadsheet. So in the first instance, it picked out a record for which the groom was Jan Kalot and his mother was Marianna Zielińska, from a marriage that took place in 1839 in the parish of Brzóza. In the second case, the algorithm returned the marriage record from Leszno for a groom named Jan Zieliński and his bride, Apolonia Osińska, whose mother was Franciszka Kalota. This is where another one of Geneteka’s new search options comes in very handy. Suppose you’re looking for a Zieliński groom and a Kalota bride, and you want the algorithm to ignore any results with those surnames in the fields for parents of the bride and groom. In that case, you can tick the box for “skip search in parents column/Nie wyszukuj w rodzicach.” If this search is repeated with that box ticked, there are zero search results, as expected. However, in other cases, it could be used to refine the search hits and reduce the extraneous results that are reported.

Let’s take a look at the results returned under the “deaths” tab before we move on to a further discussion of the new search tools. zielinski-deaths

These results aren’t too different from what we’ve seen previously, but you’ll notice that under the “remarks” column, there’s no “i” column that provides the precise date of death. In fact, as you explore Geneteka in more detail, you’re likely to notice that the content of each index varies quite a bit. Some indexes have scans attached, some do not. Some include only the names of the baptized child, the deceased, or the bride and groom, along with the year, the parish, and the record number, but no other identifying information, such as parents’ names. This is because Geneteka is an evolving entity. In its early days, these digital indexes were created from the year-end indexes that the priests made within each parish register. Presently, there is more of an emphasis on making the indexes as complete as possible, utilizing information from the records themselves.

Obtaining Scans

Having successfully identified some records of interest, how do we obtain those scans? Obviously, we start by clicking the “skan” button, but we also want to make note of the record number for the record of interest. For example, if we want to obtain the death record for Piotr Zieliński from 1891, we note the record number, 5, circled here:

Zielinski deaths

Now we click “skan,” and we’re taken to this screen:deaths 1891 In this case, the index entry is linked to a scan within the Metryki database, although some indexes are linked to scans in Szukajwarchiwach or possibly elsewhere. In the middle of the screen, where it says “Pliki” (“Files”), the scans are arranged according to the record numbers they contain. So for example, the scan entitled “01-02” holds death records 1 and 2 from Mistrzewice in 1891. Since Piotr’s death was #5, we want to click on the next file, circled here, which contains deaths 3-6. Clicking on that file takes us to the next screen, which is the scan of the record book itself.

piotr zielinski death

Since Mistrzwice was in Russian Poland and this death occurred after 1868, all records are in Russian. However, as was typical for vital events in this period, names of key participants were written first in Russian, then in Polish, so the viewable portion of the record shown here includes his given name in Russian, Петръ, as well as his full name in Polish, underlined in red. Two useful icons are circled above, on the left in this image:  the “ladder” icon takes us back to the preceding page, where we can select a file to view, and the “floppy disk” icon on the right will allow us to download a copy of this image.

Searching Within a Specified Parish

Since we know that my Zieliński family was from Mistrzewice before 1898 when the parish switched, it’s possible to choose to view just the records from that parish by selecting the parish from the drop-down menu below the province name. This is not a new feature, but we now have the additional option of changing the province while keeping all the search parameters the same, instead of having to change the province, then retype all the search parameters. Here is the result of a basic search for “Zielinski” just in the parish of Mistrzewice.Mistrzewice

Note that timeline bar that I circled in red. This tells us exactly what marriage records have been indexed for this parish. Although this information was included previously in the “parish” drop-down menu, it’s nice to have the graphic depiction. The bar will change as you select births or deaths if different ranges of years have been indexed for those vital events. It’s very important to pay attention to these ranges of years for indexed records, because more often than not, this explains why we don’t find a particular vital event in Geneteka, even when we know that event took place in a particular parish. In some cases, such as this example for Mistrzewice, all existing records for a parish have been indexed on Geneteka. If a record is not found there, it no longer exists. However, in other cases, the problem is merely that the record has not yet been indexed but is still available if you know where to look.

Sometimes it happened that our Polish ancestors moved around a bit within the general area of the ancestral village we originally identified. To address this issue, Geneteka offers the option to include in the search all parishes within 15 km of a selected parish. For example, records from Mistrzewice told me that my great-great-grandmother Antonina (née Ciećwierz) Zielińska was the daughter of Jan Ciećwierz and Katarzyna Grzelak, and that Jan Ciećwierz was the son of Wojciech Ciećwierz and Katarzyna, whose maiden name was not specified. A search of Mistrzewice plus nearby parishes for surnames “Ciecwierz” and “Grzelak” produces four records for my family in Mistrzewice, but also a marriage record for Jan’s sister, Marianna Ciećwierz, to Karol Grzelak in Mikołajew in 1830.search-nearby

The actual parishes included in this search, as well as their distance from the specified parish, are shown here. Again, remember that there might be additional parishes within a 15 km radius of the target parish, but if they aren’t indexed, they won’t show up here.

These particular search results illustrate another issue to consider when designing search strategies: the earlier records are less likely to mention a mother’s maiden name. Even if you have a hint of a maiden name from one document or another, it’s better to leave it off and search according to given names. So let’s say we want to follow up now on that hint about Mikołajew and search for children of Wojciech and Katarzyna Ciećwierz. When we search in Mikołajew for children of surname “Ciecwierz” and given name “Wojciech” paired with given name “Katarzyna” we obtain the following:mikolajew-ciecwierz

So far, so good. We have 5 children born between 1810 and 1824, a reasonable range of years, to parents Wojciech and Katarzyna, all born in the village of Wyczółki within the parish of Mikołajew. But we have two different maiden names reported for the mother, Pietrzak and Szymaniak. Hmm…. did Katarzyna Pietrzak die after 1820 and did her husband remarry a woman named Katarzyna Szymaniak before 1824? And where is Jan Ciećwierz, my ancestor, the father of Antonina Zielińska?

The answer to the first question is another story for another day, but the answer to the second question offers a nice opportunity to illustrate another search tool offered by Geneteka, which is wildcard searching. A wildcard is a character that can be used to replace other characters in a search string. Geneteka allows the use of the asterisk (*) to replace one or more characters in a search term. (The use of “?” to replace just one letter is not supported, however.) There are definitely times when it’s advantageous to search this way, but understanding when that is requires a bit of a deeper discussion about Geneteka’s search algorithms.

Geneteka’s Search Algorithms and Wildcard Searches

The indexers at Geneteka are instructed to record surnames as they are written in the record, without making an attempt to standardize them according to modern spelling rules.  Consequently certain letter combinations are treated as equivalents, so names with an e/ew, such as Olszeski and Olszewski are equivalent, as are oy/oj names like Woyciechowski/Wojciechowski, and ei/ej names like Szweikowski and Szwejkowski.  Similarly, search results include common phonetic substitutions, such as changing “sz” to “ś” such that searching for “Szczygielski” will include results for “Ścigielska,” and “Szcześniak” will include results for “Sciesniak.” Although “ż” is phonetically equivalent to “rz,” Geneteka does not equate “z” with “rz,” because it ignores diacritics so it “sees” z, ź and ż as equivalents. Consequently, names like “Zażycki” and “Zarzycki” need to be searched separately.

Since the original records indexed in Geneteka might be in Polish, Russian, German or Latin, the indexers must be familiar with those languages, and the search engine must be able to handle transliterations between these languages.   Therefore we find that the German “ü” is interchangeable with “u”, “fitz” with “fic”, etc.  A search on the name “Schmidt,” for example, results in a wide range of phonetic equivalents:  Szmit, Schmiedt, Schmit, Szmitt, etc.  In addition, the search engine truncates names ending in “e”, “y” or “a,” so searching for Mischke will result in Miszka and Mischka.

Going back to our present example, this means that Geneteka’s search algorithm automatically equates “Ciecwierz” with “Ciećwierz” and reports results for each, as in the above example. However, some approximate phonetic matches might nonetheless be missed. So if we repeat the search using “C*” instead of “Ciećwierz,” we find my missing ancestor:jan-ciecwierz

Ta da!  There’s Jan’s birth in 1815, which fits precisely with the year of birth suggested by his death record from Mistrzewice.

What’s immediately apparent here is how many variant spellings of Ciećwierz and related surnames are not returned by Geneteka’s search algorithm, including Czetwirz, Ciecwierski, Cieczwierz, etc. Additional careful research, including full review of the documents themselves from the diocesan archive in Łowicz, is needed before I can state with confidence which of these records pertain to my family and which don’t. But without doing a wildcard search, I would have missed out on finding many of these.

Now suppose I want to find marriages for children of Wojciech and Katarzyna Ciećwierz in Mikołajew or in any of the surrounding (indexed) parishes. If I repeat this search, checking the “search nearby parishes” box, I get the following:marriages search not as a pair

Some of the results returned are marriages for grooms named Wojciech C* and brides named Katarzyna, but results are also returned for marriages in which the groom’s father was Wojciech and the bride’s mother was Katarzyna, or the bride was Katarzyna and her father was Wojciech, etc. — not what we’re looking for. To eliminate these stray hits and help us focus on the results we want, there’s a new feature, “Relationship search/wyszukaj jako para,” which allows us to search using the specified names as a pair.  When we repeat this search after checking this box, the results include only those marriages between a groom named Wojciech C* and a bride named Katarzyna, or those marriages for which both Wojciech C* and Katarzyna were named as the parents of either the bride or the groom.

Marriages search as a pair

Finally, for those of you who find searching in Geneteka to be addicting, there is a new feature which allows you to search only indexes which have been added recently (past day, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, or 31 days).

Recent additions

In my case, repeating this search with that box ticked indicates that none of these indexes which include my Ciećwierz ancestors have been added recently, so apparently I’m late to the party, just now tripping over these ancestors who have been waiting here for me, deep within the wonder that is Geneteka.

“Ask not what Geneteka can do for you….”

Hopefully this discussion will give you a better idea of how you can search Geneteka effectively to find your ancestors in Poland. Of course, no discussion of Geneteka can be complete without a final word of gratitude to the volunteer indexers and the PTG, and also an appeal to those of you who find this tool as helpful as I do. If you’re competent with reading vital records in Polish, Russian, German or Latin and want to give back to the genealogical community, please consider volunteering to index records for Geneteka yourself.  Most volunteers index records from their own parishes of interest, which is why it’s not possible to submit requests for particular parishes to be indexed. Indexing instructions are provided.. ”

Maybe you don’t feel comfortable with indexing, or don’t have the time?  You can still help out by making a donation to the project.  Although all the records for both Geneteka and its sister site, Metryki, are indexed or photographed by volunteers, the PTG still must pay for server space to host these online, and those costs add up.  If we hope to see this valuable resource remain online and free to everyone, donations are needed, and every little bit helps.  Happy hunting!

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

Those Infamous Border Changes: A Crash Course in Polish History

Newcomers to Polish genealogy often start with a few misconceptions.  Many Americans have only a dim understanding of the border changes that occurred in Europe over the centuries, and in fairness, keeping up with all of them can be quite a challenge, as evidenced by this timelapse video that illustrates Europe’s geopolitical map changes since 1000 AD.  So it’s no wonder that I often hear statements like, “Grandma’s family was Polish, but they lived someplace near the Russian border.”  Statements like this presuppose that Grandma’s family lived in “Poland” near the border between “Poland” and Russia.  However, what many people don’t realize is that Poland didn’t exist as an independent nation from 1795-1918.

How did this happen and what were the consequences for our Polish ancestors?  At the risk of vastly oversimplifying the story, I’d like to present a few highlights of Polish history that beginning Polish researchers should be aware of as they start to trace their family’s origins in “the Old Country.”

Typically, the oldest genealogical records that we find for our Polish ancestors date back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which existed from 1569-1795.  At the height of its power, the Commonwealth looked like this (in red), superimposed over the current map (Figure 1):1

Figure 1:  Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth at its maximum extent, in 1619.1polish-lithuanian_commonwealth_at_its_maximum_extent-svg

The beginning of the end for the Commonwealth came in 1772, with the first of three partitions which carved up Polish lands among the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian Empires.  The second partition, in which only the Russian and Prussian Empires participated, occurred in 1793.  After the third partition in 1795, among all three empires, Poland vanished from the map (Figure 2).

Figure 2:  Map of the Partitions of Poland, courtesy of Wikimedia.2partitions-of-poland

This map gets trotted out a lot in Polish history and genealogy discussions because we often explain to people about those partitions, but I don’t especially like it because it sometimes creates the misconception that this was how things still looked by the late 1800s/early 1900s when most of our Polish immigrant ancestors came over.  In reality, time marched on, and the map kept changing. By 1807, just twelve years after that final partition of Poland, the short-lived Duchy of Warsaw (Figure 3) was created by Napoleon as a French client state.  At this time, Napoleon also introduced a paragraph-style format of civil vital registration, so civil records from this part of “Poland” are easily distinguishable from church records.

Figure 3:  Map of the Duchy of Warsaw (Księstwo Warszawskie), 1807-1809. 3duchy_of_warsaw_1807-1809

During its brief history, the Duchy of Warsaw managed to expand its borders to the south and east a bit thanks to territories taken from the Austrian Empire, as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4:  Map of the Duchy of Warsaw, 1809-1815.4duchy_of_warsaw_1809-1815

However, by 1815, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Duchy of Warsaw was divided up again at the Congress of Vienna, which created the Grand Duchy of Posen (Wielkie Księstwo Poznańskie), Congress Poland (Królestwo Polskie), and the Free City of Kraków.  These changes are summarized in Figure 5.

Figure 5:  Territorial Changes in Poland, 1815 5territorial_changes_of_poland_1815

The Grand Duchy of Posen was a Prussian client state whose capital was the city of Poznań (Posen, in German).  This Grand Duchy was eventually replaced by the Prussian Province of Posen in 1848.  Congress Poland was officially known as the Kingdom of Poland but is often called “Congress Poland” in reference to its creation at the Congress of Vienna, and as a means to distinguish it from other Kingdoms of Poland which existed at various times in history. Although it was a client state of Russia from the start, Congress Poland was granted some limited autonomy (e.g. records were kept in Polish) until the November Uprising of 1831, after which Russia retaliated with curtailment of Polish rights and freedoms. The unsuccessful January Uprising of 1863 resulted in a further tightening of Russia’s grip on Poland, erasing any semblance of autonomy which the Kingdom of Poland had enjoyed. The territory was wholly absorbed into the Russian Empire, and this is why family historians researching their roots in this area will see a change from Polish-language vital records to Russian-language records starting about 1868.  The Free, Independent, and Strictly Neutral City of Kraków with its Territory (Wolne, Niepodległe i Ściśle Neutralne Miasto Kraków z Okręgiem), was jointly controlled by all three of its neighbors (Prussia, Russia, and Austria), until it was annexed by the Austrian Empire following the failed Kraków Uprising in 1846.

By the second half of the 19th century, things had settled down a bit.  The geopolitical map of “Poland” didn’t change during the time from the 1880s through the early 1900s, when most of our ancestors emigrated, until the end of World War I when Poland was reborn as a new, independent Polish state.  The featured map at the top (shown again in Figure 6) is one of my favorites, because it clearly defines the borders of Galicia and the various Prussian and Russian provinces commonly mentioned in documents pertaining to our ancestors.

Figure 6:  Central and Eastern Europe in 1900, courtesy of easteurotopo.org, used with permission.6europe_map_large

Although the individual provinces within the former Congress Poland are not named due to lack of space, a nice map of those is shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7:  Administrative map of Congress Poland, 1907.7  (Note that some sources still refer to the these territories as “Congress Poland” even after 1867, but this name does not reflect the existence of any independent government apart from Russia.)polska_1907_adm

The Republic of Poland that was created at the end of World War I, commonly known as the Second Polish Republic, is shown in Figure 8.  The borders are shifted to the east relative to present-day Poland, including parts of what is now Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus.  This territory that was part of Poland between the World Wars, but is excluded from today’s Poland, is known as the Kresy.

Figure 8:  Map of the Second Polish Republic showing borders from 1921-1939.8rzeczpospolitaii

During the dark days of World War II, Poland was occupied by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  About 6 million Polish citizens died during this occupation, mostly civilians, including about 3 million Polish Jews.9  After the war, the three major allied powers (the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) redrew the borders of Europe yet again and created a Poland that excluded the Kresy, but included the territories of East Prussia, West Prussia, Silesia, and most of Pomerania.10, 11 At the same time, the Western leaders betrayed Poland and Eastern Europe by effectively handing these countries over to Stalin and permitting the creation of the Communist Eastern Bloc.12

To conclude, let’s take a look at how these border changes affected the village of Kowalewo-Opactwo in present-day Słupca County, Wielkopolskie province, where my great-grandmother was born.  This village was originally in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but then became part of Prussia after the second partition in 1793.  In 1807 it fell solidly within the borders of the Duchy of Warsaw, but by 1815 it lay right on the westernmost edge of the Kalisz province of Russian-controlled Congress Poland.  After 1867, the vital records are in Russian, reflecting the tighter grip that Russia exerted on Poland at that time, until 1918 when Kowalewo-Opactwo became part of the Second Polish Republic.  Do these border changes imply that our ancestors weren’t Poles, but were really German or Russian? Hardly. Ethnicity and nationality aren’t necessarily the same thing. Time and time again, ethnic Poles attempted to overthrow their Prussian, Russian or Austrian occupiers, and those uprisings speak volumes about our ancestors’ resentment of those national governments and their longing for a free Poland. As my Polish grandma once told me, “If a cat has kittens in a china cabinet, you don’t call them teacups.”


1Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth at its maximum extent” by Samotny Wędrowiec, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

Rzeczpospolita Rozbiory 3,” by Halibutt, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

3 Map of the Duchy of Warsaw, 1807-1809,” by Mathiasrex, based on layers of kgberger, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0., accessed 9 January 2017.

4“Map of the Duchy of Warsaw, 1809-1815” by Mathiasrex, based on layers of kgberger, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

5 “Territorial Changes of Poland, 1815,” by Esemono, is in the public domain, accessed 9 January 2017.

6 “Central and Eastern Europe in 1900,” Topgraphic Maps of Eastern Europe:  An Atlas of the Shtetl, used with permission, accessed 9 January 2017.

7 “Administrative Map of Kingdom of Poland from 1907,” by Qquerim, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

8 RzeczpospolitaII,” is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed 9 January 2017.

9 Occupation of Poland (1939-1945),” Wikipedia, accessed 9 Janary 2017.

10  “Potsdam Conference,” Wikipedia, accessed 9 January 2017.

11 Territorial changes of Poland immediately after World War II,” Wikipedia, accessed 9 January 2017.

12 “Western betrayal,” Wikipedia, accessed 9 January 2017.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017