Jewish ancestry research is a very specific thing. You must remember about World War II, the Holocaust and Jewish history at all.
Initial steps you should take researching in Poland
In order to learn more about your Polish ancestry (regardless of religion and the time period you are interested in) you need to, most importantly, establish the location where they came from within Polish borders (current or historical ones). In other words – location is the key. Write down anything you know, ask your family members if they know/remember anything about your common ancestors’ history – names, dates, locations. Search through your family archive – in most of the cases your ancestors had to have any identification documents with them while emigrating from their motherland. This could’ve been metrical records – birth, marriage certificates, passports, etc.
If you are lucky there may be some letters that the family was exchanging in the past that may include useful information. The location could be provided in online records connected with their emigration – ship manifests or naturalisation records. Having the location you can have to verify to which local commune/parish/civil registry in Poland it belonged. A very useful source to establish that information is Familysearch Online Catalogue that will show you in which institution particular location records are stored and to which administration unit it belonged.
You can also use Wikipedia – most Polish locations are very well described in English too – you can learn about one history and its administrative affiliation. This can be also verified through the Geographical Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland, where you search for a particular location using an online search engine (http://dir.icm.edu.pl/pl/Slownik_geograficzny/) – although this one is only in Polish.
Finally – if you know what is the key location, you can use the Polish State Archives main portal: www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl to check (by location) in which State Archive the particular location records are stored – and, if these are available online.
Unique challenges encountered during research in these war-torn areas
The most challenging part is the fact that many of the records from both WWI and WWII are destroyed. Nevertheless there are a few institutions – both in Poland and in the rest of the world which take care of what has been saved. Due to the lack of the sources some of the information may be based only on what has been remembered by the witnesses of the history. Our memory is quite selective and subjective – especially when it comes to such traumatic events as wars. Although we have to list such institution like Yad Vashem – Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It is dedicated to preserving the memory of the dead, honoring Jews who fought against their Nazi oppressors and Gentiles who selflessly aided Jews in need, and researching the phenomenon of the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general, with the aim of avoiding such events in the future. The institute – among others, collects testimonials of people who personally experianced holocaust, or the others who they knew or heard of. Same kind of activities are being led by for example the Warsaw Rising Museum of 1944 that collects the sources and information on the history of the heroes and victims of the biggest uprising in Poland during WW2.
Another difficulty is that many documents that were issued by the occupants – Nazis or Soviets were being faked – especially as for the information regarding death camps prisoners (for example most of the death certificate issued in Nazi death camp in Auschwitz were listing untrue death causes – while the prisoners were being murdered, their records were stating that they died of heart diseases, nephrosis, accidents (unintentional injuries), etc.
It is also worth to remember that the documents regarding Holocaust, WWI and WWII are very decentralised. When you look for your Polish – Jewish ancestry from the WWII period you will have to look not just Polish organizations and databases (Jewish Historical Institute https://www.jhi.pl/en, POLIN – Museum of the History of Polish Jews https://www.polin.pl/en, Polish State Archives https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/). It will be worth to also check above mentioned Yad Vashem (Israel) https://www.yadvashem.org/ and others: Bad Arolsen Archives (Germany) https://arolsen-archives.org/en/, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USA) https://www.ushmm.org/, etc.
The biggest mistakes commonly made by individuals researching their ancestors in these areas
- People tend to assume that all information can be found in official documents – they are not aware how many of these did not survive and often you have to use indirect sources (such as one’s memory).
- Lack of basic Polish history knowledge – this can truly make your search more difficult.
- People often based only of the resources available on the Internet – it is worth to write an email to the institution connected with a particular event or issue regarding WW1 or WW2 history and ask for information which may not be digitized, indexed or published yet.
Specific challenges we should be aware of for Jewish ancestry research
Looking for Polish – Jewish ancestry is quite complex. Polish – Jewish common history dates back from early middle – ages. Throughout the history – administration was constantly changing, law concerning dissenters too, as well as the borders. Every new administration center means a different place of archival documentation storage. Also, through all the partitions time (1772 -1918), depending on the partitions, the documents were being created in different languages: Latin, German, Russian but also Yiddish. Researching your Polish – Jewish roots you have familiarised yourself with the basics of Poland’s history, especially the location from where your ancestors came from. That will make the whole genealogical experience much easier.
Available records for victims of the Holocaust
There are quite a few types of records available for victims of the Holocaust – both online and offline. In the places where Nazi death camps were created there are now usually museums or memorial centeres which usually have their archives – collect and share their documentation. For example the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz – Birkenau (http://auschwitz.org/en/) stores among others: lists of the names of prisoners newly arrived in Auschwitz, prisoner personal files, prisoner death certificates, disciplinary reports, with requests for the punishment of prisoners and much more. List of prisoners are also available online: http://auschwitz.org/muzeum/informacja-o-wiezniach/.
As mentioned before there is a huge testimonials collection at Yad Vashem Center: https://yvng.yadvashem.org/ available within a searchable database – The Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names.
Within ancestry.com you can find lists of displaced persons, in most cases
traveling from a resettlement camp to a final destination, often the US and lists of prosecuted, Kennkarten applications (which were the basic identity document in use inside Nazi Germany – including occupied territories).
What might appear very helpful as for victims of the Holocaust records sources are monographs, publications regarding a particular location and its historical background during the time of WW2. The authors/historians usually use all available sources to describe one place political and social history.
New discoveries or upcoming collections releases that we should be aware of
New discoveries are happening almost every day – mostly within family collections – people are doing old house renovation works and find hidden documents. What is really important is that the digitalisation and indexation process is progressing – new records and information are being published by memorial centers, state archives, and museums every day. It is worth to come back to these sites from time to time. The most shocking and sad discoveries are often connected with photos, for example the wrenching images and first-hand testimonies of Dachau recorded by U.S. soldiers brought the horrors of the Holocaust home to America (https://www.history.com/news/dachau-concentration-camp-liberation).
Jewish ancestry research in Poland - summary
The subject of ancestral research in Poland, with a focus on the time period leading up to World War I and World War II and the impact on Jewish records is a very wide and complex matter. In this text I have only outlined a few challenges, sources, institutions and information that may help you understand this part of your ancestors’ history better. Every family’s, town’s or even a person’s history has to be considered individually. Hopefully there are many online and offline sources that will help you find out more.