When Polish history complicates the genealogical research

Polish history is pretty complicated. The central location in Europe and the partly flat territory made Poland a significant transit hub between the ‘Western’ and the ‘Eastern’ world. The bad part of it is that most of the European wars had a serious impact on our country. What is especially important for a genealogical researcher there was a long period in the history in which Poland literally disappeared from the map of Europe. We call it the partition time. And yet, the partitions and everything that came together with them can be very misleading for the genealogists.

Many Poles, often the whole families, left to America on the edge of the nineteenth and twentieth century. It dates back then to the period between 1795 and 1918, when the whole Polish territory was under the administration of the three neighboring states: Russia, Prussia and Austria. I bet that many of you were wondering how come your ancestors, for whom there is no doubt that they of the Polish background declared ‘Austrian’ nationality? The thing is that ‘Polish’ nationality simply did not exist then. At least formally. What was the link then for the farmers from the area of Krakow to Austria in the eighteen hundreds? The answer is: none. Expect their official country of origin. Most of them knew no word in German and had no connection to the Austrian culture. And you can say the same about people from the territories occupied by Russia and Prussia as well.

Would it then be necessary to understand the language of the occupants when it comes to your genealogical survey? Unfortunately, yes. German, Russian and – sometimes – Latin, as an official language of the Catholic Church, are necessary to understand most of the census records from the territory of Poland dated to the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. The serious complication appears when it comes to the names. I am sure that many of you found the English-like versions of your Polish ancestors names ‘broken’ or at least transformed from their original sound. The thing is that the occupant administration would very often change the native forms of the Polish first and last names as well. Therefore sometimes your great grandparents would not recognize themselves under the names given in their birth records. Let us give the name ‘John’ as a good example for that. If John was born in Austrian Galicia, the Catholic administration would call him ‘Iohannes’. If Prussia was his birthplace the name would appear in the state registry as ‘Johan’. Finally, in so-called ‘Congress Kingdom’ (part of Poland occupied by Russia) they would put Иван (Ivan). Nevertheless our Polish John would always consider himself ‘Jan’.

Is it all Pandora’s box then when we speak about the research in Poland? Well, it is not that bad. You can easily find several hints online as well as practical tutorials how to understand the old census records. Help from the local researchers can not be overestimated either. Sometimes you would have to involve the specialist to read and interpret the old, hand-written text, but with the use of internet and the websites like ours it seems to be easier than ever.