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Finding old family records while in Poland

Hi, all. Growing up, my grandmother, who came to the US in 1906 as a two year old, used to teach me German phrases and tell me her family lived in Silesia, but being a kid, I didn't ask much more. (Now I wish I had) After her death, I found her family's immigration information on Ellis Island website, and her passenger record said she was from "Sabotsin". Doing more sleuthing, I surmised that Swiebodzin, Poland (in the area that was often referred to as Silesia) was the actual town. We are planning a trip to Central Europe for this fall, during which, I have put aside time in Swiebodzin, which is on the train line from Krakow to Berlin. She did not have a birth certificate or any other family records. What is the possibility of finding any records while I am there? Is it probable that many records might have been lost or destroyed during the wars?

Posted by
865 posts

I'm sorry to disappoint you, but something is not right here. First of all: if your grandmother was German she wouldn't have used the Polish name of the town. Some places in Silesia had two names, a German and a Polish one, but these places were in Upper Silesia, which is the most eastern part of Silesia. Swiebodzin however isn't in Upper Silesia, not even in Silesia. When your grandmother left the name of this town was Schwiebus and the region was called Neumark. She definitely would have used the German names of town and region.
If she really was German, told you she was from Silesia, and used the name "Sabotsin", it was a place in Upper Silesia, probably a very small place with a strong Polish majority, otherwise she would have used the German name of the place. But a German name probably didn't exist. Keep in mind that around 1900 German (and Polish) nationalism was very strong, and issues like town names were very important.

Posted by
66 posts

Thanks for the input, Martin. I probably should have explained better. She herself did not call it "Sabotsin", that was the way the immigration agent at Ellis Island spelled it on the passenger records. I'm not sure who gave the agent the town's name. The agent also changed the spelling of her first name and shortened the family's last name. She never referred by name to an actual town that she lived in. She called herself German because her mother was born in Rosenberg, Germany. I don't have a birthplace for her, so Swiebodzin is my closest link to any place the family might have lived. My real question though was, what is the chance than any records survived the wars? Do I just sightsee there or should I attempt to speak to someone at city hall for any records that might be there?

Posted by
4948 posts

Anne - not an expert in these things, but my understanding is that birth/marriage/death records are usually found in churches there.

Posted by
865 posts

Thanks for the input, Martin. I probably should have explained better.
She herself did not call it "Sabotsin", that was the way the
immigration agent at Ellis Island spelled it on the passenger records.

Yes, but as long as this place wasn't firmly Polish, like parts of Upper Silesia or West Prussia, no one would have used a Polish name. It can't be Swiebodzin, because this town had no Polish name around 1900 (only in the Middle Ages and after 1945). And if you go to the wrong place you can't find traces of your family. So, first you have to know where you family comes from.

She called herself German because her mother was born in Rosenberg,
Germany. I don't have a birthplace for her, so Swiebodzin is my
closest link to any place the family might have lived.

Rosenberg already makes much more sense. There were two Rosenbergs in Silesia, and both are in Upper Silesia. In this region the towns often had a German majority (or at least a strong German minority), while the villages around the towns were Polish. The two Rosenbergs in Upper Silesia are now called Olesno and Rostkowice. I guess "Sabotsin" is a tiny village in this area.

My real question though was, what is the chance than any records survived the wars?

This again depends on the region and place. The records usually survived WW2, but afterwards Silesia was turned upside down. Germans were expelled (95% of the population), and the region resettled with Poles. Poles were Catholic, and German and Protestant records weren't their first priority. Sometimes they remained in place, sometimes they were moved to archives somewhere else, sometimes they were destroyed. Upper Silesia was Catholic and mostly Polish, chances that these records survived and stayed where they belong are much higher than in Lower Silesia.

Posted by
12091 posts

Anne,

If you know for sure grandmother came from Silesia (Schlesien), then that narrows the search. You say the birthplace was Rosenberg, Germany in the Germany with the 1914 borders. That's way too vague. There was also a Rosenberg in West Prussia, (Westpreußen) directly east of Marienwerder, which is also part of Poland today. First of all, I assume you have the correct province; was the next larger town ever mentioned so that the search can be more narrowed. What about religion? If the family was Catholic, then most likely she/her family came from Silesia.

Posted by
1994 posts

When we were doing some research in preparation for a trip to Ireland, the website ancestry.com was incredibly helpful. I know my brother also obtained telephone help from them, even though they knew we were Catholic not Mormon.

Given the importance of baptismal records, it's worth spending time at the local churches. Even though many records in Ireland were destroyed during times of religious persecution, I was amazed at what we found. Also, after Mass one day in the parish of my grandmother's tiny home village, I met some people… one of whom had been babysat by my grandmother, and ultimately bought the house where she grew up. That evening, he took us to visit that house. And she had come to the US before 1900, and never really maintained contact with anyone in Ireland. It is amazing what Providence arranges for us.

One other resource that we found really helpful was the local police (although I don't know if that would be different in Eastern Europe). We stayed at a B&B run by the former chief of police, and he put us in touch with relatives who were still living there. It was amazing to reestablish contact after more than a century.

Posted by
106 posts

Anne,

You might want to contact Ancestral Attic - www.ancestralattic.com. We used them in 2012 to help us track down records from my husband's grandmother. We did have pretty specific information about the town she lived in, which allowed us to narrow down our search to the 2 catholic churches in the area. Ancestral Attic was fantastic though. We were given a tour guide who did a bunch of work prior to our arrival - contacting the church to make an appointment, etc. Once we arrived, our tour guide picked us up at our hotel and drove us to the town. She spent the whole day with us going to the church, going to the local government office, etc. Having her with us was invaluable, as once you get into the small towns, the ability to speak English is limited.

Also be aware that the churches only hold the records for a certain amount of time. They are then transferred to wherever the closest government record depository is. I can't remember the exact number of years, but if your grandmother was born in 1904, those records are definitely stored away and not in the church anymore. My husband's grandmother was born in 1916, and we were right on the edge of her records being moved.

Hope you are able to track things down! Even if you aren't, Poland is a beautiful country. I didn't have enough information to be able to track down the ancestors in my family, but I still had a wonderful experience being in the country where I came from.

Christine

Posted by
865 posts

Also be aware that the churches only hold the records for a certain
amount of time. They are then transferred to wherever the closest
government record depository is.

No, Catholic church records go to the diocese archive, Protestant records to the next parish office, and civil registers to the closest government record depository. At least that's how it should be. But we are talking about former German territories here, nothing there is like it should be. Protestant church records often don't exist anymore, and civil registers are often incomplete.
You always have to keep in mind that the entire population was exchanged, and after WW2 Poles rightfully hated everything German, and they are Catholic.
I can tell you my experience, since my entire family comes from Lower Silesia: the Protestant church records of the village are lost, the Catholic church records incomplete and stored locally, the civil registers almost complete and at the next bigger town. The former house of my family, a 17th century half-timbered farmhouse, a ruin now, the Protestant church destroyed, just like the cemetery, mausolea with open coffins, the epitaphs on the Catholic cemetery broken in the middle, the two castles ruins too. The village survived WW2 without any damages. A terrible revenge indeed. It was shocking and I will never go back.

To the OP: you first have to find out where your family exactly comes from. If you know this you can find out if these records still exist, and where they are now.

Posted by
12091 posts

@ Martin...What is the nearest town in Lower Silesia to this village?

Posted by
242 posts

Hi,

I can sympathize with your desire to learn more about your grandmother on your trip, but the advice given here is generally good. I consider myself a pretty good genealogist but the records in Poland are VERY challenging. Most of them are not indexed or even online so you need to do quite a bit of work before you leave. You might try to go to your nearest Family History Center which is sponsored by the LDS church and ask for their help on renting the microfilm for your ancestor's village. They may exist but likely will require you go page by page, like any diligent genealogist. You really need to know the village and parish.
I recently went to Poland and spent a day trying to find my husband's grandparents' records and remaining family. Our helpers did make contact with the priest who at first did not allow us to come, but then one of the "cousins" who is in the funeral business started talking to him and then an invite was extended. No one spoke good English in this village so our driver was a golden person to us. The priest did find the grandfather's birth records from 1893 and we are fortunate that it is in the Latin format with columns. Yours may be in the Napoleonic format of narrative paragraphs which would be a nightmare to attempt. I was able to take it home and with the notes from the cousin, was able to go back two more generations. We also found out that one ggrandmother was illegitimate so her records were miniscule.
In short, the records are probably there but you will not be allowed to look at them yourself and the priest may or may not have any desire to help you. You won't know until you try. Always offer $ and if you can find good info on the parish and they have an email, try to send a message indicating you are willing to compensate them for their time.

Be sure to check out familysearch.org to see if they have any documents. There were a few towns that were microfilmed and are on ancestry.com but it is my understanding (verified by a person from ancestry.com) that the Polish church/government stopped all microfilming projects from the LDS church when they learned that the LDS church members does genealogy to seal or baptize their dead. So, there are lots of records sitting in limbo, so to speak...
Good luck. I'm trying to learn to research the records from Poland but have made very little progress. Those who have some experience share mostly frustrations and dead ends. My hope is that this part of Europe will improve their records, but I imagine they have other priorities.

Posted by
242 posts

One more thing: church records in Poland are generally one of three types:
Latin- columns (usually found in the area called Galicia which was part of Austria)
German- narrative- found in the areas closer to Germany
Russian- Cyrillic alphabet- good luck- found in the areas closer to the Russian border.

Posted by
12091 posts

@ Martin...thanks for the name of the town in the former Niederschlesien. In 2001 my train stopped north of Jelenia Gora at Legnica, the former Liegnitz, a well known historical place, after leaving Wroclaw.

Posted by
242 posts

Did your grandmother get naturalized on her own after she arrived? The naturalization papers have the name of the town/village. My grandfather did and my grandmother did not probably because she was embarrassed and illiterate. One suggestion is to do some "collateral research" looking for your grandmother's siblings. Try to find her death record in the USA as that will also give you some clues. Just an FYI- some of the stories we were told may not be true or dates may be modified because they were hiding something, likely for good reason- no judgment here! Also, it is a myth that the Ellis Island inspectors changed the immigrants names. Most immigrants wanted to "Americanize" their names and the workers at EIsland often spoke the language. The name on the original manifest back in Europe had to be the same as the one on the Ellis Island info. The inspectors there just interviewed the passengers verifying that the immigrant was not lying and changing info was one way to get pulled aside for further interviews. Your grandmother, like mine may have been totally unschooled and couldn't read or spell and was at the mercy of others who attempted to write down their names.

Posted by
865 posts

In short, the records are probably there but you will not be allowed
to look at them yourself and the priest may or may not have any desire
to help you.

My experience is actually much more positive. All Poles I met were very helpful, you just have to contact them in advance. I always write a nice letter in Polish (first), English and German and try to arrange a date. In most cases they answer pretty quickly, and the people I met were always friendly and helpful. Just try to speak a few words Polish and be humble. I never offered money, but usually give a small gift.
No, the real problem is to find out were the records are kept. Thankfully you can find informations about former German places on the German Internet.

In 2001 my train stopped north of Jelenia Gora at Legnica, the former
Liegnitz, a well known historical place, after leaving Wroclaw.

I know Legnica quite well. Sadly a rather ugly city with just a few places of interest, like the cathedral. BTW: this is also one of the cities of Lower Silesia that survived WW2 relatively well (around 1960), but was destroyed by the Polish Commies (Legnica today).

Posted by
161 posts

My mother's side of the family came from that area, and my mother's mother spoke several languages including Polish, German, Ruthanian, and Russian.

Posted by
242 posts

This question is for anyone: have any of you heard of being allowed to just "have at" the books at a parish church office in Europe? The priest who helped us was kind and the three who could speak Polish spent a lot of time over the "illegitimi" mark with no father named in the church records. I wasn't going to be horrified since I've seen that before with some of my ancestors. I would have loved to have taken a few books out and just looked through them to find the previous generation but we didn't have the time at that visit.

Posted by
66 posts

Update: On ancestry.com I found my grandmother's application for naturalization. I knew she'd gotten her citizenship, since I have that original document. But the application listed her hometown as Tarnowitz, Germany, which today is Tarnowskie Gory, Poland. The "Sabotsin" on all of the family members' Ellis Island papers is still a mystery (she was only two, so her mother must have told the clerk the name of the town of last residence), but now I can visit her real hometown/birthplace. We'll spend three or four days in Krakow, and Tarnowskie Gory is only 125 km away.

Anne, I am also going to Poland end Sept to Oct to search records, I don't speak polish, but german and english, I 've already got some info from POZNAN PROJECT, they have marriage licenses with name of bride, broom and their parents listed by Parrish, this is a free web site, you can also request from polish archives for a fee, Ancestry.com did not help me at all, very little on microfilm, but there is enough interest in german-polish community to put as much on record/internet as possible, also prior german provinces might also have some records store in archives in Berlin, try it if nothing else you can take pictures of these old places and write a little story, that is what I'm going to do if I cannot get any new info. Have a good trip,
Ursula

Posted by
242 posts

I just received the microfilm of my grandparent's parish in Niwiska, Poland. I ordered it from familysearch.org. I started just yesterday and found my great grandparents on the first page I looked at. Going through these old records is tedious but the only way to get to the records outside of a visit there. I'm hoping to make enough connection to justify another trip back there.

Researching these Polish records is not for the faint of heart. The info may be out there but I have researched so many dead ends. The records I'm looking at are in Latin and Polish and are in columns, which is the best an American can hope for.