How to start your own genealogical research
Collect in one place all personal and family documents containing information about your family members. These may include:
- copies of vital records,
- school report cards,
- documents related to university studies or work,
- newspaper cutouts (such as obituaries),
- property deeds.
Older generations and distant relatives may have interesting documents and information. They may be happy to share them with you, and talk about their memories and mementos.
Important! When spending time with your relatives, make sure to note down all relevant information, and scan or photograph any documents they may show you.
Of particular importance is information about your relatives’ date and place of birth, baptism, marriage, death or funeral, their professions and religion. Such information can narrow down your search to local institutions: vital records offices, parishes, state and church archives.
Archival materials should be stored in the archive closest to where the materials were created. Find out where and by whom the document you are looking was written. You can start by determining the name of the city your ancestors lived in.
Remember! Place names may not be unique (such as Wólka and Nowa Wieś), which is why it is a good idea to determine the parish, municipality or district as well. This will help you to more quickly determine where your documents are stored.
Useful information can be found in such sources as the late 19th-century ‘Geographic Dictionary of the Kingdom of Poland and Other Slavonic Countries’.
If you are conducting your research in a State Archive, you can always ask one of our archivists for hints on how to proceed.
You can also request the assistance of professional genealogists, genealogy businesses or hobbyists passionate about the subject, or ask around on various online forums.
Which sources to look for
Genealogical research makes use of a wide range of archival material types, including vital records, parish and church records, census data, court files and notarial acts.
In Polish lands, secular birth, marriage and death registries were kept during various periods – depending on the laws introduced by the partitioning powers – Austria, Prussia and Russia.
Remember: It was not until after World War II that Poland implemented a uniform, general and secular vital records keeping system (via the decree of 25 Sept 1945). That is when our vital records offices were established, which currently create and store:
- birth certificates and records related to registering births – for 100 years;
- marriage and death certificates and records related to their registration – for 80 years.
Vital records offices can issue copies of birth, marriage and death certificates. After the time limit listed above, state offices may transfer such records to the State Archives. If you are looking for the birth certificate of someone who is older than 100 years and/or death and marriage certificates which are more than 80 years old, you may have to check the appropriate local State Archive.
The oldest parish records date from the 16th century. They contain information about baptisms, marriages and deaths.
Parish record books may contain a wealth of relevant data:
- Baptism certificates: date of birth, personal data of the child’s mother and father, godfather and godmother.
- Marriage certificates: marriage date, names of the newly-weds and their age, personal data of their parents and of the witnesses.
- Death certificates: date and place of death, age, name of the deceased, their marital status, personal data of their widow/widower and children, as well as the date and place of the funeral.
Parish records are maintained to this day. You can continue your search by visiting the archive of a church or whichever other religious organization your ancestors were members of.
A great deal of genealogical data can also be found in various other books kept by parishes. These include lists of parishioners, parish announcements, confirmation registries, lists of schoolchildren attending religious education classes, and rosary circle and charity effort documentation. Some parishes also used to maintain lists of individuals living on plots belonging to the Church.
Various types of censuses can also contain data relevant to your genealogical research.
Population censuses – Poland’s first population census dates back to 1791. In 1808 and 1810, general censuses were conducted in the Duchy of Warsaw, and then in 1897 in the Russian Empire, which made frequent use of books listing permanent and temporary residents. From 1869, permanent and temporary residents of the Austrian partition had to be registered by the municipality offices. In the Prussian partition, lists of residents known as Seelenliste were kept by individual municipalities. The first general census conducted in independent Poland took place in 1921.
Tax registries – for the purpose of collecting taxes, relatively complete lists of residents required to pay their dues were compiled. These were primarily members of the Polish noble class. Such tax registries were either stored separately or included in court books or municipal records.
Residence records – you can find a wealth of information about your relatives in 19th and 20th-century residence registration records. These contain the first and last names of parents, their professions and positions, dates of birth, nationalities, origins (where they arrived from), places of residence, as well as information about deregistration and moving.
Other censuses – various censuses targeted specific social strata, professions, nationalities and religions (such as censuses of students, conscripts, foreigners, voters, soldiers, insurgents, political party and public organization members).
Forms – forms filled out for the purpose of censuses and applying for identity cards and passports are also a valuable source of information. Such records are stored by the State Archives.
The Central Registry of Forms of Issued Identity Documents from 1952-1997, which is kept by the State Archive in Warsaw, constitutes a unique set of data. It is a collection of forms filled out by individuals who applied for an identity document between 1952 and 1997.
For the purpose of researching old Polish noble families, it is a good idea to reserach court and land records. These not only contain the names of property owners, but also information about their relatives, witnesses, debts and obligations, guarantees, testaments and liabilities.
Court records were also kept for villages founded under the German model, and later for all villages which had their own village government. Older rural court records consist predominantly of entries relating to property, receipts, testaments and dowries. Newer records are dominated by criminal cases.
On the other hand, 19th and 20th-century court records contain information about parties in proceedings and witnesses – both in civil and criminal cases (inheritance, first and last name changes, presumptions of death).
Particularly information-rich are records kept by repressive partitioners, Nazi and Stalinist institutions from the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as labor and concentration camp records.
A wealth of useful information, particularly about nobles and burghers, can be found in mortgage registers from the 19th and 20th centuries. Such registers usually contain a list of all owners of a property. Their most valuable elements are inheritance entries – they contain information about all heirs and their spouses, as well as about how they are related to the deceased owner.
The information you are looking for may also be found in notarial records. Such records usually comprise deeds of purchase and sale, leases, deposits, prenuptial agreements and testaments.
Due to Poland’s difficult history – particularly the wars and partitions – many Poles were forced to emigrate, and a great deal of documents remain scattered.
If you are looking for information about what happened to your relatives during and after World War II, you may find it useful to research the registries of the State Repatriation Office, which comprise lists of names of people who were relocated and settled in various parts of Poland.
For information about your relatives who went missing during World War II, try the State Information and Search Office of the Polish Red Cross.
Regular army records, as well as records related to underground military organizations (Home Army, People’s Army, National Armed Forces), as well as insurgent records can be found in military archives (such as the Central Military Archives).
The largest collection of data on the victims of the Third Reich is stored at the Arolsen Archives International Center on Nazi Persecution in Germany. A great deal of information about individuals who were persecuted in the east was collected by the KARTA Centre, and is now available from the Institute of National Remembrance. The institute also keeps documents related to courts, law enforcement institutions, special forces and certain other German and Polish underground institutions which operated in Poland during World War II.
Documents which left the Polish borders are stored by Polish expatriate archives and institutions operating abroad. You can start your search by contacting the management of these institutions, and enlist the help of Polish consulates as your intermediaries
Genealogical research in the State Archives
The State Archives offer the opportunity to research archival materials in their reading rooms, as well as digital copies of such materials via the Search the Archives website. The website also has access to data from the PRADZIAD database of parish and vital records, which relates to registries stored by the State Archives and certain dioceses.
Do you have questions about your research? Contact a State Archive by mail or e-mail.
Need more information? Contact us – our Archival Science Department will be happy to answer your questions.
Large collections of digitized copies of census records can also be found on the Genealogy in Archives website. Make sure to also try searching in other databases.