Polish ancestry search

What is it? How to start with your Polish ancestors’ search? What all that information leading us to? How to explore your Polish heritage with documents?

Fot. 1 An example of marriage entry from Galicia, 1880.

To answer the above questions, it is necessary to reflect on the meaning of the term genealogy itself. According to the Polish PWN dictionary, genealogy is the history of a family written or preserved in the oral tradition. We can also define genealogy by categorizing the concept in the humanities system. According to the adopted assumption, it is one of the auxiliary sciences of history dealing with the study of family ties between people based on kinship and affinity between them. The third variant of the meaning of the word genealogy derives from the etymology of combining two words from the Greek words: geneos meaning lineage and logos meaning knowledge.

Before searching for information about ancestors, familiarize yourself with the types of sources for Polish genealogical research. These are archival materials, the most important of which are: metrical records, church books, censuses, files of judicial institutions, files of educational institutions, files of parties and associations, files of offices from the Old Polish period and files of institutions established to study nobility.

Fot. 2 An example of Russian Poland birth entry, 1873.

From the genealogist’s point of view, the primary documents for discovering information about ancestors are metrical records. This type of documentation was created because of decisions made during the Council of Trent in 1563 and became generally applicable in the second half of the 16th century. The Council of Trent made it compulsory to keep a register of baptisms and marriages. The purpose of this provision was the need to document that the persons who intend to get married are not too closely related. Over time, the form and content of records have significantly evolved. In the original version, only the date of baptism was given in the birth certificates. It was also impossible to find there an information about the maiden name of the child’s mother. All documents were of a church character and were drawn up in Latin. The situation changed at the end of the 18th century. Poland lost its independence, and its lands were divided into three partitions: Prussian, Russian and Austrian. Each of them had a different system of registration of civil status records. The biggest changes concerned the Russian partition, where a set of legal regulations and norms was introduced, specifying the way of keeping record books based on the Napoleon’s code. The church hierarchy has also become a civil registry officer by law. The records, on the other hand, gained a secular character.

Fot. 3 Prussian birth entry, 1888.

When starting research on your Polish ancestors, first, you should focus on much newer documents, which in many cases are still kept in the Registry Offices (USC). Pursuant to the provisions of law in force in Poland (the Act on Civil Status Records of November 28, 2014), marital status records are kept by the head of the Registry Office for the period of 100 years from the date of their preparation in the case of birth certificates and 80 years from the date of their issuing on the matter of marriage certificates and deaths. After this period, the head of the Registry Office is obliged to transfer the book to the appropriate Archive within two years. The situation becomes a bit more complicated when a given book contains metrical records from several or several dozen years. In this case, the period from the last entry in the book is counted. Each of us, however, has the right to apply for a copy of the act that concerns a direct ancestor, even if the statutory time for providing these documents has not yet expired. In order to obtain a birth certificate of your ancestor, please make such a request to the appropriate Registry Office, showing your degree of kinship or legal interest. After receiving the correct document, we have a lot of new information that we can use for further research. Depending on the type of the act, it may contain such information as: name and surname, date and year of birth / marriage / death, names of parents, names and surnames of godparents / witnesses and the name of the official drawing up the act. When we have full knowledge about a given ancestor, the next step is directed to the Archive.

You should be properly prepared to look for documents in the Archives. We all want it to become as much efficient and satisfying experience as possible. For this purpose, before visiting the files in the reading room, please familiarize yourself with the inventory of the archival set you are interested in. Most often it is divided into smaller units that are marked with appropriate signatures. In the case of metrical records, one book (containing entries from one or several years) corresponds to one archival unit. More and more documents from the State Archives are being digitized and made available online at www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl.

Fot. 4 Galician marriage entry, 1911.

Metrical records are also kept in the Diocesan Archives and parishes. This applies especially to the areas belonging to the former Austrian partition. Contrary to the Kingdom of Poland, the records were drawn up exclusively by representatives of the clergy and were not secular. The diocesan archives provide access to metrical registries. In the case of parishes, the possibility of viewing documents depends on the decision of the church authorities.

Metrics are not the only sources useful for genealogical research. Censuses, registers of permanent population and lists of parishioners (status of the animarum) also play an important role. The documents I am mentioning may be a supplement to previous searches, but also an alternative source of information, allowing us to recreate the fate of your Polish ancestors if the record files for a given area have not survived.

Almost every genealogical research is carried out according to the above pattern. It is a tedious process that requires a lot of self-denial and patience. At the same time, we get to know a lot of interesting historical documents (not only records) created by the state and church administration. Information gathered in this way can be used in many ways. In addition to graphic genealogical charts showing our ancestors along with the most important information from their lives, studies on the surnames we researched and a monograph on the places they came from are becoming more and more popular.