Although this post is focused on Polish family history, many ideas in this blog post are very good reminders of basic steps to take in research in any location.
The first stage of your Polish ancestors’ search begins as everywhere in the world – you should put in order your private documents such as: birth certificates, confirmation certificates, school certificates, cards, diplomas, documentation connected to military service, studies, work, marriage, titles of ownership, old papers, obituaries, diaries, calendars, prayer books and books with inscriptions. There is a lot of useful information that can be gathered from family headstones too. You can verify gathered data by talking to older family members. What is more – it is recommended to record your oldest family members’ stories so you can go back to these at any time. Most of them will surely share their memories, photos and documents. While doing such interviews, it is good to pay special attention to geographical, language and religious details – 19th century citizens of the Polish area under the division spoke Polish, German and Russian. In many cases, such information is a great help in establishing the place from where the ancestors came from.
When you have already gathered your data it is very important to organize it in a certain way. To do so you can buy a professional program or use one available online. Genealogical data is usually stored in GEDCOM format – it enables you to use, manage and share your family information in each genealogy program. For Polish speaking researchers it is crucial to use the program with Polish letters. Examples of free programs with Polish: Brother’s Keeper, Fzip Family Tree, and in English: LifeLines or GeneWeb.
Before starting your proper Polish genealogical adventure and heading to archives it is good to get to know few genealogical or historical publications first.
Among many others in libraries you can find local press, regional publications, monographs of villages and institutions, old address and phone books and biographical dictionaries with specific personal data. It is very helpful to start your research with checking historical background of the times your ancestors have lived in. You mainly focus on the region they derived from as well as the place where they lived their lives. As in civil and church administration, both names and territorial divisions have changed over the years, so it would be good to find out to which country, region/voivodship, and parish your ancestors belonged. Social structure of the community they lived in may also be crucial for better understanding of who your predecessors truly were. These kind of preparations are very useful in planning the next steps of your genealogical research.
As names of cities and villages may be similar or even sometimes the same (e.g. Wólka or Nowa Wieś) it is very important to determine in which parish, community or county it is located. In order to locate the particular place it is good to use even such Websites as Wikipedia. The great majority of the articles about Polish villages, cities, regions areas etc. are also available in English.
Archival materials are stored according to their territorial and assembly belonging. Thus it is relevant for you to be aware who stored that data and when it was stored. That knowledge will make it easier for you to find them. Due to Polish complex history, documentation from previous ages that is now available in Poland may come in different languages such as Russian, Latin or German. Most of the documents you will come across will probably be manuscripts. That is why they are so hard to read and sometimes it is really difficult to gain any data from such documentation. In some cases you may count on assistance of staff members of the institutions responsible for gathering that documents.
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