“Grandma said she was from Poznań”: Decoding Stories About Ancestors from Poland

Most of us use family stories as the starting point for our genealogy research. However, the truth can sometimes get distorted, and it’s our job as family historians to sort out the historical fact from the fiction.  With that in mind, I’d like to offer some suggestions based on common misinterpretations, to help you decode those family stories and understand what Grandma really meant.

Story:  “Grandma said she was from Poznań.”

Analysis:  Most of our ancestors were from small villages, not big cities, so in all likelihood, Grandma didn’t mean she was from the city of Poznań proper.  Often an immigrant would generalize her place of birth to the closest big city under the assumption that her listener wouldn’t recognize the name of whatever small village she was actually born in.  We still do this today:  if I’m talking with someone who’s not familiar with Western New York, I might say, “I’m originally from Buffalo,” although it would be more accurate to say that I used to live in Williamsville, a village about 12 miles east of the city of Buffalo itself.  When I’m talking with another Western New Yorker, I can be more specific. In my family history, the Great-Grandma who said she was from Poznań was from the village of Kowalewo-Opactwo, about 48 miles east. Looking for her in records from the city of Poznań itself would be an exercise in frustration and a waste of time.

Story:  “On Great-Grandpa’s World War I draft registration, he stated that he was from Płock, but on his passenger manifest he said that he was from Bieżuń.  Which one do I trust?”

Analysis:  Both.  Sometimes our ancestors referenced a larger administrative division rather than the smallest one, just as I might sometimes say I was born in New York, rather than Buffalo.  Gather all the bits of evidence for your ancestor’s place of origin, then check a gazetteer to see if they can be reconciled.  In this example, the village of Bieżuń was the seat of gmina Bieżuń within the Sierpc powiat and the Płock gubernia of Russian Poland.  (A gmina is an administrative division similar to a township, serving multiple small villages, but smaller than a powiat, which is comparable to a county.  A gubernia is like a province.)  Consequently, any reference to Bieżuń, Sierpc, or Płock on documents pertaining to Great-Grandpa’s place of birth might be consistent with the same location.  Not sure which gazetteer to use?  Check out the section entitled “Maps, Phonetic Gazetteers, and Period Gazetteers” in this previous post.

Story:  “Grandpa was Polish, and he was born somewhere near the Russian border.”

Analysis:  As discussed in a recent post, Poland didn’t exist as an independent nation from 1795 until 1918.  So statements like this one, which presuppose that Grandma was born in Poland near the border with Russia, are immediately suspect.  In most cases, “near the Russian border” means somewhere in Russian Poland – either the Kingdom of Poland or the Kresy (the eastern borderlands that were part of Poland between the world wars). Similarly, “near the German border” suggests Prussian Poland, and “near the Austrian border” suggests Galicia.

In my experience, these “border” stories were an attempt to reconcile the apparent conflict between the fact of someone’s Polish ethnicity and his documented Prussian (for example) nationality.  Grandpa may have come from someplace solidly within Prussian Poland, not particularly close to the actual border with Russia, but nonetheless the “border” stories persist.  Since ethnicity has more to do with language, culture, and religion than with citizenship, even if Grandpa was a citizen of Prussia, we should not infer that he was ethnically German, for the same reason that I would not suddenly become an ethnic Mexican if Mexico were to invade the U.S. tomorrow.

Story:  “Great-Grandma’s passenger manifest from 1900 says she was 20, but the 1930 census says she was only 45. Therefore she must have lied about her age on the census.”

Analysis:  I always cringe when I hear accusations that ancestors lied about their age. Unless it’s something really egregious, I like to give Grandma the benefit of the doubt and assume that any discrepancy was an innocent mistake, rather than assuming an intent to deceive. In rural, agrarian society it just wasn’t necessary to know one’s birthdate precisely, and many of our ancestors didn’t know their exact birthdate, or they might remember the day, but not the year.  When evaluating records for your Polish ancestor, it’s not uncommon for someone’s reported age to be off by a few years in either direction.  This is as true in records from Poland as it is in U.S. records.  For example, many parish priests had a tendency to round the ages of declarants and witnesses, which is evident when all the key participants just happen to be 30, 40 or 50 with nary an odd-numbered age in the bunch.

Story: “Great-Grandpa Albert must have lied about his birthdate.  He said it was in April, but I found his baptismal record from Poland and he was actually born in September.”

Analysis:  This is a corollary to the situation described above, but with a twist.  Many Americans don’t realize that in Polish culture, name days were traditionally more important than birthdays.  Name days (imieniny) are the designated feast days dedicated to canonized saints within the Roman Catholic church.  For example, the feast of St. Adalbert is celebrated on April 23, so men named Albert/Adalbert or Wojciech (the equivalent of this name in Polish) would be celebrated on that day, regardless of when their actual birthdays were.  In practice, the feast day calendar sometimes influenced the choice of names given to a child, with parents naming their child after a saint whose feast day was on or close to the child’s actual date of birth.  However, your mileage may vary with this.  In some cases, multiple saints bore the same name throughout history, e.g. St. John the Evangelist, St. John the Baptist, St. John Kanty, St. John of God, St. John Nepomucene, etc., so the same name might have multiple feast days associated with it throughout the year.  In this case, there’s really no way of knowing just which Saint John was your ancestor’s patron unless it is specified in his baptismal record.

Story:  “I’d love to find Grandma’s birth record in Poland, but I’ve heard it’s no use, because all the records were destroyed in the wars.”

Analysis:  This misconception has prevented many a family historian from trying to explore his roots in Poland.  I’ll be honest — at one point, I fell for it, too.  Back in the earlier days of my research, I determined that my great-grandfather, Józef Zieliński, was born in the village of Mistrzewice, in Młodzieszyn township.  Thanks to the old Rootsweb genealogy mailing lists, I found another researcher who was also interested in the Zieliński surname in Młodzieszyn.  He’d been to Poland, visited the parish, and assured me that all records prior to 1945 were destroyed.  This was about 12 years ago, before it was easy to check online for availability of records in the Polish State Archives, and back before anything much was online, so I don’t blame that researcher at all.  He was going on the best information that he had, but it’s up to each of us to do our own due diligence.  At that point, I assumed that I would never learn anything more about my Zieliński family in Poland, and with a heavy heart, I moved on to other lines of research.

It wasn’t until 2012 that I discovered that some records for Mistrzewice and Młodzieszyn did survive the war, and were indexed on Geneteka. (If you’re interested, that story is told here).  Admittedly, the range of years covered by the surviving records is limited, but between these documents and some letter-writing to the local civil registry office (Urząd Stanu Cywilnego, or USC) in Młodzieszyn, I was able to add another 1-3 generations of ancestors (depending on the line) to my Zieliński family tree.  If I’d believed the story that all the records were destroyed and had stopped looking, I’d have missed out.

These are a few examples of common misunderstandings that I’ve heard from people as they begin to research their Polish ancestry.  What about you?  What are some misunderstandings that you had when you began your research?  What are the stories in your family that you’ve discovered weren’t quite accurate, once you dug a little deeper?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments!  In the meantime, happy researching.

Featured photo credit:  Detail of map, “Posen 1905”, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

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8 thoughts on ““Grandma said she was from Poznań”: Decoding Stories About Ancestors from Poland

  1. I’m trying to determine which, out of three places, my grandfather was born. Your articles are so helpful and often timely. This one is perfect. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s hard and you may have to learn the basics of 3 languages. But my advice to anyone is *Do your history rather than family history first! It will help give everything context and where to find records. And systems are sometimes slower than you may be used to. It all makes it all the more rewarding though.

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  3. All of your advice described my journey in Polish genealogy. I noted that death records from the 1780-1880’s often round the age to the nearest ten. All the researcher needs is to see a page of these ages before they get the message.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. From my experience it depends on the parish more than the time frame, as some priests seemed more concerned than others about accuracy with those details. But you’re right, a page or two of records is usually all it takes before one has a sense about the priest’s preference for rounding ages!

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