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Poland Catholic Records Microfilms

by Peter Gwozdz

7 July 2007

This document describes the contents of LDS microfilms of Roman Catholic records in Poland. Most of the records are from the 19th century. Quite a few are older. Very few are early 20th century records.

This is not an introduction to Polish Genealogy. For background information, consult introductory web sites.

This is the first of a set of three documents.  This is the general introductory document.  There is a separate document for details on the microfilms from Northeast Poland.  There is a separate document for details on the microfilms from South Poland.

There are many links to jump around in these three documents. Other links go out onto the web. Use the Back button on your browser to jump back to where you were reading.

I submitted my genealogy results to the LDS online data base.  There are no names of ancestors in these three documents. Use LDS for my findings.

These are my notes. I originally wrote this as a reminder document for my use. Here, I post my notes to others with similar genealogy interest. I hope they save you time getting started. I am not an LDS or Catholic representative, so any errors or omissions are mine.  Send comments to [email protected].

Time Line



Poland was a large, powerful country before 1772.  Few records have survived.  Very few from the 1600’s.  Most of those that survived are now on microfilm.  Latin records.  Short paragraph format



First Partition.  Russia takes a northeast section of Poland (now part of Lithuania).  Austria takes the south of Poland (also called Galicia).  Prussia (Germany) takes the far west (northern part also called Pomerania)



Austria institutes the Table format for records in south Poland.  Still Latin.  This format continues to be used in south Poland to modern times with little variation



Second Partition.  No change in south Poland.  Russia and Prussia each take more of Poland



Third Partition.  The remainder of Poland is conquered and divided between Russia, Austria, and Prussia



More microfilm records are available for more recent years.  My personal estimate is that about 20% of the births, marriages, and deaths from 1800 Poland can be found on the LDS Microfilms.  I base this rough estimate on my hit rate for finding records for my ancestors, and from discussions with other people



Napoleon introduces the “Napoleonic” format in the north of Poland.  Polish. Long paragraph format with lots of detail. Many records survive and are on microfilm



Russia outlaws the Polish language.  Records in the north switch from Polish to Russian Cyrillic. Same Napoleonic style



More microfilm records are available for more recent years up to about 1880, but fewer microfilms after about 1880.  My personal estimate is that 60% of the births, marriages, and deaths from 1880 Poland can be found on the LDS Microfilms.  Probably another 20% are intact books in Europe but not filmed



Very few Poland microfilms available from LDS beyond 1900.  Parish churches have many records 1900 +.  Some have been moved to civil offices.  For later years, church records become less complete as civil authorities take over primary record keeping responsibility



End of World War I. Poland emerges again as an independent country.

LDS Microfilms

Each microfilm has a unique identification number.  Many microfilms have data for only one town, but many microfilms have data for more than one town.  You can search for microfilms by number or by the name of the town.  Actually, the data is for a parish, but the parish town name is used for indexing and searching.  There is more information below in this document about the LDS Microfilms.  You may click directly to the LDS Library Place Search.


A microfilm is divided into "Items." Usually but not always, an Item is the photographic record of one book, or "Volume." An Item almost always starts with an LDS standard header image. The header has a large font number for the Item. The header has filming date, town & date of records, birth vs marriage vs death, etc. Next often comes a photo of the book jacket of the Volume. Some Items have a photo of the library index card for the Volume. The index card is usually a typed list of the years included in the book, but some Items have a hand written note.  Then the book pages. Usually, each image of the film is a pair of facing pages. At the end of each Item there is almost always an LDS end trailer very similar to the header. The header and trailer are often black with white lettering. A long blank space between Items facilitates jumping from one Item to the next.  The header and trailer font for the Item number is large enough that you can read the Item number on the film with your bare eyes without magnification.

Quite often a film runs out before the end of a book with an image note “TO BE CONTINUED” at the end of the Item.  The data usually continues as Item 1 of the microfilm with the next sequence number, with an image note “CONTINUED”.

Most Items headers have roll numbers and/or film numbers that I have not tried to figure out.  I suppose data from original rolls of film is separated and spliced to make the microfilm masters.

I use words like “not always” and “usually” because some older microfilms have unusual format.  Also, some microfilms were purchased by LDS so the format of course varies on those.  The words “header” and “trailer” are my own informal terms;  I understand librarians call those images “title boards”.

Page Numbering

Usually, pages in a volume are numbered, at the top. Sometimes every page is numbered. Sometimes only right pages are numbered; the left page then is considered part of the previous right page. Often, the page numbers are obviously with a different pen, no doubt at a different time, so there remains a possibility of missing pages if the book was numbered after a rebinding.


The basic unit of information is a record. We are concerned here with the “vital records” of three kinds of events:  Births, Marriages, and Deaths.  In fact the birth records are actually records of baptisms.  A 4th kind of record is sometimes available, a Banns record.

In the microfilms for Poland, in most cases, an Item is one book with one type of record from one parish, for a range of years.

Before 1777, each Polish record is a short paragraph. More detail is coming up below on the short format.

In mid 1777 the south Poland format changes to a table.  The tables always have data in vertical columns, labeled at the top.  Each record is a few horizontal lines of script in the table.  If you wish, peek at a table now, and use your browser back button to come back here.

In north Poland, a much longer format Napoleonic paragraph is introduced in 1808.  For an on-line example, see http://www3.vistatech.net/~jack/birth.htm.

In north Poland the records are almost always numbered.  In south Poland numbers are rarely used before 1830 and usually used after about 1850.  The record numbers are used in sequence for one year (1, 2, 3 … like checkbook numbers), so when available they are a nice assurance that pages are not missing for the records in that year.

The quality of records varies greatly.  Some books are in excellent condition with excellent penmanship.  Other books were burned or exposed to water so that only a fraction of the area of each page survives for the microfilm image.  One might expect older books to be in worse shape than more recent books, but that is not a valid generalization;  I have seen microfilms of books from before 1700 that look great.  Of course many books have been lost so there are missing years and missing books.

Some books are copies;  therefore many towns have duplicate microfilm records for some years.  In general, copies tend to be in better physical shape than original records, but there are many exceptions.

Accuracy also varies.  One way to check accuracy is to compare books in cases where duplicate data is available.  Another way to check accuracy is to assemble all the records for one family and look for inconsistency of detail.  The error details that are most obvious are house numbers, ages, maiden names, and given names of parents and grandparents.  My general impression is that, as expected, the sections of books with good penmanship tend to have fewer errors.

The amount of information in a record is not standard.  The amount of information varies from place to place and from time to time.  In general, there is progressively more information for more recent years, but there are many exceptions.  For example, a typical birth record before 1772 would have the name of the child, the full name of the father, the first name of the mother, and the full names of two witnesses.  By 1850 it is common to find the full names of all 4 grandparents in south Poland birth records.


When available, an index (Polish “Rejestr”) can save a lot of search time.  North Poland records usually have an alphabetical index for each year.  South Poland records do not usually have indexes.  A few south Poland parishes have alphabetical indexes for combined groups of years.  Most indexes are just alphabetized by first letter, so you need to scan the entire section for the first letter of the family name of the person you seek.

Latin, Polish, Russian

There are many web based translation aids.  See Translation Tips for a partial list.  These 3 documents of mine are not intended as translation tutorials.

Russian, Austrian, and Prussian Parts of Poland

Please refer to the Time Line above.  During the 19th century (1800’s) Poland did not exist as an independent country.  Poland was divided up between Russia, Austria, and Prussia (now Germany).  This is important, because the record keeping details are very different between the 3 sections. For more information, consult the Web Sites for Beginners in Polish Genealogy.

I provide separate documents with more details for the Russian Northeast Poland and for the Austrian South Poland.  This document provides a general introduction for both.  Most of my comments in this introductory document are valid for all the Poland microfilms, I suppose.

Sorry, I have no experience with the Prussian west side of Poland.  My ancestors are from the north and from the south.  However, I notice that web pages and books have lots more information on the west of Poland (much of it in German).  I have read that many of the record books from the west of Poland have been moved to Germany, where many have been filmed by LDS.

I do not know what to say about the borders.  No doubt my documents Northeast Poland and South Poland are only partially correct for the regions near the borders between the 3 parts.  My experience is with two specific areas:  My northeast observations are for the region just north of Warsaw, probably true for most of northeast Poland.  My south observations are for the region between Tarnow and Rzeszow, probably true for most of south Poland.

19th Century

Most of the Poland LDS Microfilms are from the 19th Century.  Records less than 100 years old are generally not filmed although some have been.  Records more than 200 years old are less common because few record books survived.  Accordingly, my other 2 documents emphasize the19th century.  This introductory document has some details below on the older records (short Latin paragraph format), which I suppose are similar throughout Poland.

For Northeast Poland there is an overlap 1808 to 1825 where duplicate records were kept in both the old short Latin format and also the longer Napoleonic Polish format.

For South Poland there is an abrupt change in 1777 from the older short Latin format to the Austrian table Latin format, so I consider 1777 - 1799 together with the 19th century.


OK, that’s 2 ways to divide the records:  by the 3 regions and by the century.  There is a third way to divide the records of Poland:  by religion.  My ancestors were all Roman Catholics, so I have very little experience with records that are Jewish, Lutheran (also called Protestant, or Evangelical), or Russian Orthodox (also Ukrainian Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Eastern Rite Catholic).

I have read that the Catholic Church in 19th century Poland was responsible for keeping records for all religions.  However, the films I have studied are all 100% Roman Catholic (including very few convert baptisms) so I cannot comment on the records for other religious groups.  While searching for microfilms on the Place Search I have noticed the Items for other religions listed.

Most Poles in the 19th century were (and now are) Roman Catholics.


Summary:  My 3 documents discuss the records of Poland before 1900.  Only Roman Catholic records are covered.  Two of the three sections of 19th century Poland are covered in detail by the other two documents.  This document is an introduction.  This document also discusses the oldest records throughout Poland.  Emphasis is on microfilmed records, but I do have a few comments on books that have not been filmed.

My Style

As you see, my style is a series of topics.  If the order does not seem logical to you, it is not intended to be a logical progression.  The order is important things first, details later.  I expect the reader to start out reading in order, to use frequent click jumps, to quit early, and to come back on another day.  The topics up to here are brief descriptions that I wish I had seen when I first started to use the microfilms.  From now on it gets more detailed, with discussions that I do not expect you to need until you have used the microfilms for awhile.  Background information is available as click links.  When I use these documents for reference and reminder, even I need to use key words with the browser “Find” function.  In other words, my style is intended for web browsing.

On the other hand, people have emailed me to say thanks, that they printed my entire document for reference.  You are welcome to do so, for your own use.  This is not permission to publish.  I reserve the copyright for future publication.

One lady emailed thanks for my original web document.  She referred to it as “college level genealogy”.  Thanks, I like that characterization.

If you are having trouble digesting all this, you really should consult  Web Sites for Beginners in Polish Genealogy for more discussion.

These web documents of mine have many examples of unusual genealogical twists.  If you read this as your first genealogy tutorial, you may end up discouraged.  Don’t quit.  Believe me, it is usually not that difficult.  My intended audience is folks who have already done a little Polish genealogy and would like to see a discussion of the finer points.

Background Information vs Original Observations vs More Advanced Books

Books are available with Polish Genealogy information.  Many good ones can be purchased online from PGSA.  I particularly recommend the book by Gerald Ortell:  “Polish Parish Records of the Roman Catholic Church”.  Ortell’s book has a lot more details, with emphasis on south Poland.

Many of my comments in these 3 documents are my own observations, which I obtained by studying the microfilms, and which I have not found documented elsewhere.  I am fairly certain that there is no English Language book more detailed on the subject of Polish Catholic Records than Ortell’s, because I have asked many people who should know, such as authors of other books and librarians at LDS. 

There may be good Polish Language books on this topic.  I do not know.  There are many Polish Language reference books available through the LDS Microfilms.  I have also browsed a few Polish Language references in libraries in Poland.  My ability to read Polish is not good enough to do an exhaustive study.  If you know of a Polish Language book that describes the 19th century records in more detail, please let me know and I’ll try to study it to improve this web site, and to add proper references.

Meanwhile, some of the topics in these 3 documents get a bit tedious, because I feel the need to document why I report certain things that are not published in books, to my knowledge.  I hope I make clear what in these documents is a summary from books and the web, vs. what is my own.

Missing Pages and Missing Books

This topic is general observations of mine of microfilms of books from both north and south Poland:

Some books have several pages obviously missing from the beginning or from the end of the book. I bet the book was left unprotected for many years with no binding. The top and bottom were damaged, and then the book was rebound, I figure.

Other books have sections obviously missing; it seems these books were rebound from the remains of one or more books.

It is not very unusual for pages to be out of order.  It may perplex you if the page numbers are in order, but a month or so of data is missing, then turns up on a page later in the book.  Remember those page numbers were probably added by a librarian who rebound that book,  because it had deteriorated into a bundle of loose pages.

Duplicate film images are very common.  That is not a mistake.  One image is dark, and the next image is light.  The photographer does that when a page is partially stained.  The dark image is for reading the light part of the page and the light image is for reading the dark part of the page.  It works.

Sometimes the photographer misses a page. I estimate the miss rate is less than 1%, but more than 0.1% (a few misses per thousand pages). Normally, the LDS photographer inserts a piece of paper saying "Missing Pages" when pages are really missing, and the sequence ends with the left side of one page, and starts again on the right side of another page. A miss by the photographer jumps from the right side of one page to the left of a page 3 pages later. It is obvious when the pages are numbered. The edges of pages often have individual marks and tears, which help to verify missing film images if you can see the edge of the missed pages.

In quite a few cases, I see pages that were not photographed. I am not always sure about this, but I have figured out a few reasons:

1. One situation is where the book had blank pages and the photographer just forgot to insert the usual "Blank Pages" note.  I can see that sometimes groups of blank pages are there because the record keeper initially split the book up for various villages in the parish, but the book was not used long enough to fill up all the pages.

2. Another reason for pages at the end of a book is data too recent to allow microfilming.  I know this is sometimes true, because I have seen the last image of an Item, with data on the left, and a blank white paper on top of data on the right, where I can read the year and village above the blank paper.  This is tantalizing, because it tells me that the book definitely has newer data that was not filmed.

3. Another situation for a visibly unfinished book at the end of an item:  A few books seem to have data from various towns that are not in the same parish.  Different parts of the book end up on different microfilms.  Maybe this is a parish that was split up;  maybe these are copy books where someone combined parishes;  I am not certain about this 3rd explanation.

4. In one example from Szelkow, the first 179 pages of a book were not filmed. You can see them sitting there in the first image edges. I emailed the LDS library about this. The librarian pointed out that the "Tight Binding" typed message flag on the first image tells him that the photographer could not film the first 179 pages without damaging the binding of the book.  The index was filmed, where I found ancestor names.  I wrote to the Plock library.  It took 15 months, 2 letters with generous donations, I phone call, and a change of librarian to get photocopies of the 3 records that interested me from this book.  I do not write this to criticize;  I understand librarians have other tasks to do.  I suppose they authorize the microfilming in order to be relieved of answering letters.  I report this story to remind the reader that genealogy takes a lot of patience.

5. I found one microfilm with a missing index page. Szelkow 1884 marriages. I know that index is in the book, because I have notes from that index page when I studied the actual book at the Plock archive.

My main message with these examples is that yes, there are missing pages and missing books.  Watch for this.

At Wadowice Gorne parish in south Poland, the pastor brought me some 1800’s records that were a jumble of loose pages from a book whose binding had broken. It took me more than an hour to reassemble the book for him, and of course some pages are missing.

The parish of Nowa Wies west of Ostroleka in northern Poland has no records from the 19th century. The pastor tells me that the church burned during World War II and the fire destroyed the record books.

You may have heard the stories of Russian soldiers (or German soldiers) using pages of record books for cigarette paper.  I heard that story all over Poland.  I think it’s exaggerated.

How many of the 19th century Polish records are available in the LDS Microfilms?  In the Time Line above, I estimate about 20% in 1800, about 60% in 1880.  You will find more than this percent of your ancestors, because you only need one record to locate someone, and, counting births of children, most individuals have a dozen or so records.  Also, this rough estimate is an average.  The records for some parishes are all on film.  The records for some parishes are completely missing.  Most parishes have at least a few of their records on film.


Some books are copies.  Here are two reasons to be aware of copies:  First, copies do tend to have more errors than originals.  When both are available, it is nice to compare.  Second, when only microfilms of copy books are available, that is a hint that perhaps the originals might still be at the parish church.  For missing pages and missing years, it might be worth while to write a letter to the parish.  LDS makes the films at large archives, which may or may not have the originals.  On the other hand, if all the books in the films for a parish are originals, a letter to the parish is not expected to fill in missing data, but perhaps an archive may have copies.

Some record books are obviously originals.  The pen and ink quality change often from record to record, or in small groups of a few records.  Most records have the signature of the priest, so when two priests are making entries into a book, the handwriting changes from record to record.  An occasional signature of a witness stands out.  Very few Poles before 1900 could write, but many books have their original “X” marks, each with a distinct wiggly character.  It is a pleasure to see your own ancestor’s mark.  Finally, originals are typically in bad shape from frequent reference use, with dark stains at the corners from hundreds of licked fingers.

Some record books are obviously copies.  Some have a note stating that they are copies.  The pen quality and handwriting are uniform.  Usually, the signatures of the various priests are in identical penmanship and all the X’s are uniform.  When the pen quality or penmanship does change, it is for a large group, like a full year.

For some record books, I cannot tell if they are copies.  It seems to me (not certain) that some copiers feel obliged to try to copy the signature handwriting.  I have seen books that seem to be originals in some sections but seem to be copies in other sections.  I can think of logically possible confusions;  for example:  If a junior priest is in charge of writing the records for other priests, then the original will look like a copy.  I shall not list all the logical possibilities that occur to me.  I always wonder what the record keeping practice was in a particular parish that I study for a particular time.  The reference books are not very helpful, because the recording practice probably did vary widely.

It seems to me that the word “transcript” and the word “copy” mean the same for 19th century Poland record books.  (Of course the microfilm itself is a photographic copy;  I am discussing the actual books here.)

A “Bishop’s Transcript” or “Ecclesiastical Transcript” is one type of formal copy.  Another type of copy is a “Civil Transcript”.  I read about these on the web and in books, and discussed them with other researchers.  My report on this topic is tentative, because I am concerned that book & web writers may know about types of copies from other countries at specific times, and not know what in fact was the practice in specific parts of 19th century Poland.  I have read that Polish Catholic priests were charged by the government with the task of official civil record keeping.  I have read that local priests were obliged to make copies for the bishop.  There were inspections, from time to time, I have read.  (I give no reference in this paragraph because I have never yet seen any reference;  genealogy books & web sites seem to make statements about recording practices without any reference to back up the statements.)  I have never seen a listing of the recording rules for the various parts of Poland for various times.  If such a listing exists, I would not believe that the Poles actually followed the rules.  (No slander intended.  I am very proud of my Polish rule-ignoring heritage.)

I do notice that some record books have standard format short paragraphs from time to time with a signature and date.  Those paragraphs are usually scribbled, and I cannot translate all those difficult Latin and Polish words.  I often see words announcing that this is a civil record.  I sometimes find a word that means “copy”.  I find words that imply that this is the original, but no statement to that effect.  I have not noticed any mention in the actual books about a copy to be sent to the bishop.

The LDS Library classifies the Poland LDS Microfilms of civil transcripts separately, with the Polish word “Kopie” which means copies.  That is why, when you search by place name, many town names come up with two categories of records.  One category has the word “Kopie” and the other does not.  I discussed this with an LDS librarian.  He explained that “Kopie” is intended for civil transcripts.  He explained that LDS makes no distinction for Poland between the bishop’s transcripts and the originals.  He also explained that librarians have “Uniform Title” rules for classifying works, and there may be ambiguities from place to place and time to time.

I am still confused about the record keeping practices in 19th century Poland.  What I report is my most recent understanding.  I have not had time to compare all  my recent understanding to the microfilms.  No doubt I will become more confused before I figure it out.  The details are covered separately in my discussions for the north and for the south.  Here are my 2 brief summaries:

Summary for the south of Poland:  It seems to me that those books with the standard paragraph mentioning copying are civil transcripts, catalogued as “Kopie”.  I found many instances of duplicate books where the “Kopie” look like actual copies of what appear to be originals.

Summary for the north of Poland:  It seems to me that there are duplicate originals 1808 - 1825, one in Latin and one in Polish.  The Polish ones are catalogued as “Kopie” by LDS, but they cannot be copies of the Latin, because the Latin records have less information.  Some of those Polish records do seem to be copies, but I have not seen an example of two identical record books in North Poland.

Comment:  The books that I study the most, Wadowice Gorne in the south, have duplicate records 1787 - 1791.  They look like copies.  They are not classified as “Kopie” and they do not fit into any category that I have heard.  Each book has details that the other does not, so neither is a copy of the other.  The discrepancy rate between the two for ages of bride and groom is usually a few percent except it is greater than 50% only for 1787, when most errors are one year, so I conclude that the original did not have ages for that year and that the 2 copying scribes somehow independently figured out the ages, perhaps from birth dates and erroneous mental subtraction.  I take the trouble of explaining this example to communicate my impression that at least some of these books may not fit any standard genealogical category.

Amount of Information

The amount of information in a record is not standard.  The amount of information varies from place to place and from time to time.  In general, there is progressively more information for more recent years, but there are many exceptions.  In this and the next few topics, I have some general comments about record information.  In my other 2 documents, I return to this in more detail for north vs south, which differ.

Before 1750 very few individuals in one parish had the same name.  By 1850 it was common to have multiple instances of the same name in a given parish;  sometimes even two married couples have identical names.  The population increased, and there was a trend to larger parishes.  Extra information is provided for more recent years.  The net effect for us:  it is generally only a little easier with time to figure out who is who.

The handwriting of individual priests can be recognized in originals, and some priests do tend to provide more information than others.  A rare example from 1777 - 1783 Wadowice Gorne in my experience:  the birth records indicate if the female witness (godmother) is single or married, and the name of her father or husband.  That’s neat.  I actually found a 6-great grandfather:  I have a 5-great grandmother who was born before the records started, and her records do not name her father.  So I searched these older records until I found a record where she was the godmother before she married, and her father’s first name is recorded there!  This example is very unusual, however.

It is common for the information in a book to suddenly increase or decrease at a point in time with a change of handwriting, indicating that the new record keeper was more or less ambitious.

I noticed one terrible plague year where the death record information decreased through the year, as the handwriting became scribbled and the general quality became very sloppy.  I doubt I would have done a better job under the circumstances.


Minimum information for birth records before 1750:  baptism date, first name of child, full name of father, first name of mother, full names of witnesses (godparents).  Additional information which gets progressively added until about 1850:  birth date, mother’s maiden name, village name, house number, age of parents, first name of grandparents, maiden names of grandmothers.

Death dates are sometimes mentioned in the birth record, particularly for children.  Look for a cross, perhaps what looks like a + sign, with maybe the death date added in a different pen and hand;  this indicates someone else added the death date when it happened.

Occasionally the person’s marriage date is penned into a birth record;  I have seen them in the margin, too. 

Rarely, a date added to a birth record is obviously not a death or a marriage.  That may be the date of a birth certificate request.  This one was explained to me by the local pastor when I saw it in an old book in Poland.

Illegitimate Births

Illegitimate births are indicated as such. No father is named. I did spot very few examples with the biological father's name, but usually the idea seems to be that there is no father. I found one declaration of paternity record in a baptismal record book. That boy had been born and recorded as illegitimate, his father had married his mother a couple years later, and then, 20 years later, his father recorded this unusual record, just before the son’s marriage record appears in another book. So do not despair if you cannot find your ancestor’s record. Keep looking!


Minimum:  Both names for groom and bride and two witnesses.  Also some indication for both groom and bride if this is a first marriage or if there was a previous marriage.  Again, more information for more recent records, like age, parent names and the name of a prior spouse.

Sometimes the birth date is there.  I am pretty sure that indicates the record keeper went to trouble of looking it up, not that the couple told him.

A remarriage of a widow does not always mention the name of her previous husband.  It took me a long time to realize that at least in south Poland before 1800 a widow’s family name in a record is usually the family name of her prior husband.  I always thought one name should mean the maiden name.  I just recently realized this, so I do not know for which years in which places this was the practice.  Watch out for widows with only one family name recorded.  The format “Mary daughter of John Szymanski a widow” makes it clear that Szymanski is the maiden name.  The format “Mary Szymanska a widow” is ambiguous.


The Banns are the official announcement that a couple plan to marry.  Three readings of the banns, in church, were required back then.  The priest was required to keep a record of which dates the banns were read.  Few Banns books survive, but when available they are useful records, particularly when the actual marriage records are missing, since the banns record usually includes the marriage date.  Sometimes the dates for reading of the banns are added to the Marriage record, too.

The banns and sometimes the marriage record refer to the marriage contract, which was a civil contract.  I have not studied these, and I do not really understand the custom.


Minimum:  Full name of the person who died.  Witnesses are not always named for death records.  Age is usually given, but not always.  The father is usually named for death of a child, but not always.  Again, more information for more recent records, like parent names or name of spouse.  Watch for words that indicate if the spouse is living.

We appreciate it when the death of a woman provides both her married family name and her maiden family name.  Many records have only one.  I am pretty sure that a married woman was supposed to be recorded with her married family name, the family name of her husband.  I have seen a few exceptions.  The death of one ancestor of mine has only one family name written with no indication of her marriage status.  That name, I figured out, is neither her maiden name nor the family name of her current husband, but the family name of her first husband.  To prove it I had to check the records of all women with those names.  One more rare confusion to watch for.


Nineteenth century Poles were not as aware of their age as we are.  Both my grandfathers got their birth dates wrong (day and month, not just year) on some of their official US documents.  I have many examples from the microfilms where I arranged all the records for one individual and compared the recorded ages.  Where parent age and age of witnesses is recorded, I have examples of more than 20 records for one individual.  The discrepancy of recorded age vs actual age is sometimes as large as 10 years.  On the other hand, I have examples of other individuals whose age is always correct.

Nevertheless, recorded age, when available, can be useful for identification if there are 2 individuals in town with the same name but very different age.

Death ages of old people are notoriously exaggerated, as everywhere in the world.  Some are accurate, but in my experience about 80% are recorded as much older than calculated from the birth record (when available and definite).

As expected, ages at marriage tend to fib a little, with the person recorded as older for people less than 20 and as younger for widows and widowers over 30.

Feminine Name Inflections

Polish language books explain that the family name of Polish females is inflected to indicate if she is married or single.  The books may mention that there are many different ways of doing this.  It is very confusing.  The books may not mention that even Poles get confused by name inflections.  I remember my parents’ generation arguing about proper inflections of names.  For the 19th century Polish records, I have not been able to figure out any “always married” inflections.  It seems to me they are all inconsistent, being sometimes used for unmarried young women.  I have noticed “always single” inflections, such as “-cionka”.  My notes are not good enough for the web;  check out the Translation Tips web sites.   Some records avoid feminine inflections by using a format like “Mary daughter of John Szymanski”.

Summary (from my experience with north and south Polish records before 1900):  When a marriage or death or witness record for a woman does not mention her status, one of the diminutive inflections tells you she is unmarried, even if she is old.  On the other hand, the various adult inflections tell you nothing unless you can find a pattern for that particular record book by studying the book as a whole.

Family Name Spelling and Inflection

There are good books and web sites on Polish family names, with Translation Tips.  I’ll restrict myself here to a brief inspirational summary:

Polish spelling was not standard in the 19th century.  For example, my name appears as “Gwozdz” and as “Gwosc” in the records.  These two spellings sound the same in Polish.  There are supposed to be accents (if your computer software will display Gwóźdź and Gwość).  I have seen all possible combinations of my name with 1, 2, or 3 accent marks.

Poles use various inflections, or variations for names.  I remember my parents’ generation arguing about “proper” inflections.  It is my judgment that they took delight in the variations, ambiguities and arguments.  In the past, those variations were even more common than now.  For example, in the 19th century records, my Kolodziejczak ancestors are also recorded as Kolodziejczyk and Kolodziejski.  That “l” is usually but not always crossed as “ł” and of course the “ł” is often indistinguishable from a “t”.

There is no clear cut way to draw the borders between (a) various spellings, vs (b) various inflections, vs (c) different names.  For example, my mother’s maiden name, Iwanowicz, is considered a valid Polish name even though it is the Russian equivalent of Janowski.  Then there is the very common hybrid name Iwanski.  All 3 names literally mean “Johnson”, but all 3 are considered different.  But how about Iwanczyk, Jankowski, and Janocki?  There may be dozens of variations that form a continuum between distinct names.

I don’t think there are any short cuts.  I study each record book for my ancestry, to try to understand the limits of name variation for each family name in each book.  It is a straightforward exercise when I have, for example, a couple with unusual first names and many records that display variation but are clearly the same couple.  In other cases, however, I end up with lingering doubts and uncertainties trying to determine if a particular record is using a variation of my family’s name or if it is for a different family.

Name Changes and Aliases

Apparently, it was not very uncommon to use a first name “around the house” that is different than the name of record.  This caused me some confusion finding the records of my grandparents’ siblings.  A parish priest told me this is still the case with some old folks in Poland.  I never ran into a clear cut first name variation in the record books, but then, I would not spot it in the records if the alias was only used “around the house”.

I have seen birth records with double first names, like Antoni Jozef, but I never tracked the records of one of these to see if that person used both names later.

I have many ancestors whose death or birth record I cannot find, even though it should be there in the film.  I have identified records that do not match up with anyone.  I look for proof that one of those might the ancestor that I seek, with a first name change.  So far, this technique has never panned out for me.

Alias family names were used.  I have seen them recorded with the Latin word “alias”.  For example there was more than one Gwozdz family in my ancestral village that used the name Knap.  To confuse the issue, there was at least one family that used the name Knap exclusively;  I do not know if these are Gwozdz related.  Some of my ancestors’ records have the name Knap crossed out, as if the recorder was having difficulty remembering which Gwozdz people use the alias Knap and which do not.  OK then, I just look up all the Knap records and work a little harder to determine who is who.

I do not know how often people changed their family names.  That would be very difficult to spot in the records.  I did spot one instance.  One ancestral family (in Szelkow, north Poland) used the names Bajtko and Bajtczak before 1800.  Most Poles would consider Bajtko and Bajtczak as valid inflections of the same name.  After about 1800, the family switched to Banasiak, which is clearly a different name.  It was not a clean switch.  Not everyone in the family changed at the same time.  Some did not change, and there were people not related with the same names.  I spent a very long time working up a proof before I came to a single convincing record that I’ll use here as an example:  Apolonia Bajtko was married 25 Feb 1820.  The first witnesses is Jozef Bajtczak, brother of the bride.  The second witness is Jozef Banasiak, uncle of the bride on her father’s side (the Polish word “stryia” is used for this relationship).  The priest who wrote the record felt no need to explain why they were all using different family names.  I have plenty more records for these people that add to my conclusion that most of this family changed their family name.

Unknown Names

Many records indicate that the name of a person is unknown.  Most commonly it is a maiden name, but you will see this also for given names.  Rarely the name of the person of record is indicated as unknown.

I started to study these to try to distinguish when this means that (1) the person has no name, vs (2) the name was unknown at the time of the record vs (3) the name was illegible at the time of copying of the record.  The only rule that I have at this time is that the word used in the record can be misleading.

An example is the word “beznazwisko”, which literally means “without family name”.  Certainly that word should be used for people who in fact do not have a family name.  For a long time I thought that is what the word always means.  However, I now have a significant example where the word “beznazwisko” was used to indicate that the name was unknown to the person making an index.  I feel obliged to document this, since it is my own finding and a linguistic surprise.  You should skip the rest of this paragraph if you have no interest in the details.  I saw this word used in an index (Szelkow, north Poland, deaths circa 1800), alphabetized under the B’s.  The index is in Polish, but it is an index for one of those old Latin record books.  This particular book looks like it is a copy.  I studied 18 examples of records indexed under the family name “Beznazwisko” and it became obvious that most if not all of them probably had a family name.  Only 3 of them have the Latin phrase “ignoti cognomenis” = “unknown family name” and those 3 died at age 18, 40, and 50.  That 18 year old virgin was born in the late 1780’s when all names in the birth records have family names.  3 of the 18 are illegitimate children.  2 are infants with only the mother’s first name and no mention of legitimacy, which is unusual.  3 of the records have a clear large space in the record where the name of the husband (“vidua consors Laberosi” followed by space) or parents (“Leg. Con:” followed by space) is obviously missing.  This may be a copy of a scribbled name in the original record book, and the copier is indicating that the name is illegible.  On the other hand, I have seen spaces for names in original records, so perhaps the copier is exactly copying a space.  Not obvious what.  Only 6 of the 18 records are for old individuals 60 to 90 years old with only a first name and no explanation, but 1 of the 6 has the word “Nobilis” and of course we feel certain that a noble person would always have a family name.  As a whole, the indexed “Beznazwisko” do not disprove the speculation that there were a few old folks without family names in the parish.  However, the proposition is not supported, either.

Another word is “niewiadomego” which means “unknown”.  Usually I see “niewiadomego nazwiska”, which means “unknown family name”.  Again, in copy books, it is usually ambiguous if the name was unknown at the time of record vs illegible at the time of copying.

In south Poland unknown names are usually indicated by “N.”, which I presume is the abbreviation for niewiadomego.

Here is a unique example, a death record, 1817, the deceased is:  “Jozef Niewiadomego Nazwiska, 44, ….. Imiona i Nazwisko Jego Rodzina Niewiadome”.  This is:  “Joseph unknown family name, age 44, … given names and family name of his parents unknown”.  That record also states that Jozef was living in the house of the first witness.  I wonder:  (a) Maybe he was a mentally ill individual who wandered through town and became ill only a few weeks ago near the home of the good Samaritan witness.  (b) Maybe he was the last of the familynameless descendants of serfs still working on the land of the witness.  (c) Maybe the names are illegible on the original record and this long sentence refers to the mind of the writer of this copy.  The record does not explain, other than to assure the reader with the standard Napoleonic final sentence that this record was read to the witnesses.  I can think of many other logical interpretations.  I’ll just mention one more:  (d) Maybe the priest who wrote the record was writing from memory and fibbing about reading the record to the witnesses.  For all I know this book is not really a copy but an original batch transcription from the pastor’s scrap papers, and he read to the witnesses from the scrap paper, but he lost the piece of paper for Joseph.

The most reasonable explanation for that last example is that the witness did not know the deceased for whatever reason.  However, I have many other examples of where the witness must have known the name.  I have many examples where the deceased of record is an old woman with unknown maiden family name and the witness is her husband;  in one of those the second witness is the son of the deceased.  In these cases the most reasonable explanation (in my mind) is that “niewiadomego” is a word used by the scribe copying the book to indicate illegibility of a maiden name known to the witnesses.

I have asked Slavic linguist how “beznazwisko” and “niewiadomego” were used in 19th century records.  I have asked for documentation or reasoned opinion of how an illegible name should have been rendered in a copy book.  Linguists are very interested in my findings, but so far no one has provided a definitive explanation.  If you the reader know of a definitive study, please let me know so I can update this topic.

You know, I really should stress that the vast majority of records do not have such problems.  When there is a problem with the name it is usually only a mother or grandmother’s maiden name.  Genealogy is not really very confusing.  I am documenting some “watch out for this” issues.  I wish I had read these kinds of comments when I got started.  It would have saved me a lot of time, once in awhile, I figure.

Persons Without a Family Name

We wonder which one of our ancestors actually picked the family name.  There are many excellent books and web sites about family names.  References are vague about exactly when the last of the family names were chosen.  Of course they are vague, because of course the date of final name assignment must have varied from place to place in Poland.  I suppose there may be a reference book somewhere that has a list, arranged by section of Poland, for the date when the government or church issued an edict that everyone must have a family name.  However, in my mind, I would expect to find a few records of people with no family name for at least another generation after such an edict.  I suppose there were old folks in the villages oblivious (or contemptuous) of edicts.  I would expect the priest writing the record to avoid confrontation by writing “niewiadomego” for the names of old folks with no family name. 

That name change that I used as an example earlier was particularly tantalizing to me.  Those ancestors changed their name about 1800 from Bajtko to Banasiak.  Their grandfather, deceased before the records start, is named in the records of their parents as Benedykt.  One book translation of Banasiak is “family of Benedykt”.  It would seem that the family selected a moniker that honors their grandfather.  I am tempted to speculate that the old man did not have a family name, and that the prior Bajtko name was a temporary experiment.  However, I have no proof that there were people in the late 1700’s without a family name in that parish.

I have notes for old records that seem to be for individuals with no family name.  However, from the previous topic, you can see that I do not trust my notes because of the ambiguity of the words used in the records.  I told people over the years that “Beznazwisko” was indexed in 1800, proving some people did not have a family name in 1800.  Then I researched the records and found I was wrong.  I had to tell everyone to ignore what I said.  Just the same, I’ll state my best tentative summaries:

Observation for north Poland:  I have seen many records from around 1700 of marriages, where only first names were used.  It seems to me that multiple marriage records without family names (in one section of a book) means that some peasants were not using family names, and the recorder so no need to explain.  It is my impression that some north Poland villages had up to 10% of the population without family names back around 1700.

Observation for south Poland:  I have studied 1600’s record books for 3 parishes in south Poland.  I have studied several parish records for the 1700’s.  I have no unambiguous examples of records of people without a family name from south Poland.  I have read that the Austrian culture in the south was more structured than the Russian culture of the north.  My impression is that virtually everyone had a family name by 1700 in south Poland.

Microfilm Copies in Poland

I have read, in LDS pamphlets, that LDS makes extra microfilm copies for the libraries that let them microfilm books. I was told that LDS acquires copies of some films that were made by the local library. I asked about that when I visited libraries in Poland. One librarian, in Tarnow, acknowledged that he has LDS film copies, and I viewed them on his film reader. At the Plock Diocese Archive and at most parishes that I visited, the priests did not know about LDS microfilm copies.

Parish Rectories and Diocese Libraries

Many parish rectories (a rectory is the home & office of the local priests) have records from 1880+. I visited a few parishes and studied the records. On the subject of records older than 1880, I noticed a distinct north to south difference:

I found no records before 1880 at the half dozen or so parishes that I visited north of Warsaw. Every priest assured me that all the books more than about a century old were sent to the diocese archive library.  That is the Plock diocese library, where the librarian assures me that LDS filmed everything.  I spot checked the Plock indexes against the LDS Microfilm index and it seems everything is available on microfilm.

In the south, on the other hand, I have visited about a half dozen parishes in south Poland and they all have record books from the mid 1800’s, and 2 of them have records from 1784.  For those particular 2 sets of books I did not find copies at the diocese archive and/ or the regional civil archive, and they are not available on the LDS Microfilms.  An LDS Librarian explained to me that LDS has not filmed at parishes, but only at large archives.  In some cases the local parishes temporarily sent record books to the archive to be filmed and returned, I am told.

Summary:  I have experience with one diocese in north Poland where it seems everything before about 1880 is available on microfilm, and I have experience with 3 dioceses in south Poland where I found 19th century records at local Parishes that are not available on microfilm.  I doubt this generalization can be extended to most of the north vs south;  it is more likely a diocese specific observation.

Civil Records Office

Some Church Records have been moved to the government Civil Records Office. Apparently, this was done some years ago by the Communists. The records in question are mostly after 1885. I understand that LDS has not been filming these because they are mostly not old enough. I read all this in LDS pamphlets. People in Poland verified. I visited civil records offices in Poland. The clerks are discouraging. I sweet talked only 2 of them into letting me study the old record books. As expected, the building is labeled "Gmina..." and the office room is labeled USC, or "Urzad Stanu Cywilnego."

Writing Letters

Introductory web sites give advice on writing letters to parishes and to civil records offices.  Polish Genealogy Web Sites have details and addresses for the Warsaw central archive and for regional archives.  Here is an example of a direct link:  http://www.pgsa.org/ArcLibMus.htm.

Do not Expect Enthusiastic Response

The Introductory web sites may not explain that many letters go unanswered.  Except for the government archives, very few places have someone assigned and motivated to answer genealogy requests.  I usually send money with letters, but I suspect that many of my letters get opened in the Post Office and probably are discarded after the money is pocketed. 


I have visited more than a dozen churches, about a half dozen government recording offices, and a few each diocese archives and government archives in Poland.  Only the government archives had anyone officially in charge of questions about old records for genealogy.  I have met the occasional young enthusiastic priest who is eager to help me at first sight, but usually I am met with reticence.  Two priests out and out lied to me and said they have no records, when I knew they did.  I always persisted and eventually they all helped me.  Even those two fibbers.  To be fair, I am sure they all have been burned by someone who seemed trustworthy ending up stealing pages or books.  I have the feeling that there are problems, perhaps with government or church officials, which I do not know about and which the priests prefer not to explain to me.  Most priests know about the Mormon church and the sacraments associated with genealogy;  some priests think it is neat;  some do not.  The government recording offices have very restrictive formal rules and I have only been able to sweet talk 2 of the clerks into bending the rules.  Donations are not appropriate at government offices, but you really should make a donation if you visit a church or diocese archive.  All Polish priests will turn down donations, but I have only met one Polish priest who said no a second time when I insisted, and even he looked away as I left my money with his lay assistant.  If you are Catholic, I recommend making a donation to have a Mass said for your ancestors.

No Master List of Poland Record Books

The catalogue for LDS Microfilms is excellent.  However, there are more record books in Poland that have not been filmed.  I read that some were moved to Germany during Word War II.  There is no exhaustive list of what record books exist.  I present this statement as an opinion, because I cannot find a reference to quote with a basis other than opinion.  This statement, that there is no master list, is not just my opinion;  librarians in Poland have stated the same to me.

The Warsaw archive has a listing of 20th century records, and where they are located.  That listing seemed very good when I saw it in 1998.  However, the Warsaw archive could tell me very little about what exists from the 19th century.  They could not verify the existence of some books that I have personally studied at my ancestral village.  The Warsaw central archive did not (in 1998) even have a listing of the 19h century holdings of the regional government archives.  Many regional archives have record books from the 19th century and older.  Some of these have pretty good booklets that list their holdings.  But listen to this:  at Pultusk in 1998 I bought their archive booklet for a few bucks.  When I returned in 2001, I asked if I could buy an update and the librarian assured me they never published such a booklet.  When I took my 1998 booklet out of my brief case, she asked if she could please make a copy for her own reference!

There is a web site index of archival records in Poland;  here is a direct link:  http://www.archiwa.gov.pl/?CIDA=376.  If that direct link does not work, search for “SEZAM” in Google or another web search engine, and look for a link to archives in Poland.  Warning:  SEZAM is very difficult to use, and I am not qualified to give instructions.  The SEZAM site index is not complete, but I have found it helpful.

Other Types of Records

I have seen and read about other types of records, such as military records, legal records, and land records.  I do not have enough experience with these to warrant a web discussion.

Old Latin Records

OK, time for a change of style.  I just finished a series of general interest topics concerning all the Poland Microfilms.  Next comes a description of the format used in Poland for records before the 19th century;  the short Latin paragraph format:

Reminder:  In Northeast Poland the short Latin format was used until 1825.  The longer Napoleonic format was introduced in 1808.  There are duplicate records 1808 - 1825.

In South Poland there is an abrupt change from the short Latin format to the Austrian Table format in 1777.

My experience is from two very specific regions in Poland.  I suppose this Latin short format was used throughout Poland, but I do not know.

Description:  It is always a script paragraph, usually 2 to 7 lines long.  The record for nobles are longer than for commoners.  Typically 5 to 10 records per page.  The record always starts with the day, written as a number, not script.  It is written in the first person, so the priest identifies himself.  Usually, he uses an abbreviation to indicate it is the same priest, writing his name only for the first record of the year, or for the first record of the page, or for his first record in a series when there are 2 or more priests recording in a book.  Next, it says if the record is a baptism or marriage or birth, even though almost always the records in that section of the book are the same kind.  Next comes the name of the person who was born or died, or the 2 names of the couple marrying.  Last comes the names of the witnesses.  There are a lot of other Latin words that connect the paragraph into sentences.

Latin dictionaries and word lists are available on line and as books, so I will not provide a list of words here.

All the words are Latin except the family names, which are Polish, so it is not very hard to scan the records looking for your family name of interest.  Remember that the names at the end of the paragraph are the witnesses, not the person of record, who is in the middle of the paragraph.  First names are in Latin.

The month appears at the record when the month changes, if not in every record.  Latin months are always script, and they are similar to the English month names.

Watch out for the “7ber” abbreviation;  it means September, not July.  Similarly, 8ber = October, 9ber = November, and 10ber = December.  In Latin this throwback to the old Roman calendar when December was the 10th month makes literal sense.  (It may seem like a silly point, but actually, our English is also inconsistent:  compare the English “octagon” to “October”, and “decade” to “December”.)  After years of seeing these abbreviations I still make transcription errors with them.

The year and the day of the month are always numerals, not script, even in north Poland, where the later Napoleonic format requires that numbers be written out in script.  Some books have the year at the top of each page, which is nice, but the practice was not widespread.

I have studied a number of microfilms of these old Latin records.  I think they are all originals, not copies, but I am not sure that is a valid generalization.  They tend to be very messy, in some cases illegible.  But hey!  It’s a kick finding records of your ancestors way back in the 1600’s.

Here are some details for what to expect:

Births. The mother's maiden name is given in some years' records but usually it is not given. Godparents, one male one female, are named at the end; rarely a married woman as godmother has her maiden name given.

Marriages. Parents are usually not named. Only a mention of the Banns reading, not dates. Two or 3 male witnesses named at the end.  Ages of the couple are not usually mentioned.

Deaths. Maiden name of a married woman usually not mentioned. Unmarried females may be indicated by the word "virgin." Parents are rarely mentioned for an adult. No witnesses.

Introductory Web Sites (General, not Poland)

Another change in style now:  Next come a series of web links, gathered here for reference.  A lot of the links in my 3 documents jump to here.  My intent is that they be available at a click.  You can always use the back button to get back to where you were reading.  Web links are displayed with the full address, in case you wish to print this.

Where to begin?: https://sites.rootsweb.com/~rwguide/lesson1.htm

LDS getting started page: www.lds.org/site_main_menu/frameset-global-fam_his.html

Yahoo list of sites to get started: http://dir.yahoo.com/Arts/Humanities/History/Genealogy/Beginners__Guides/

Web Sites for Beginners in Polish Genealogy

PolandGenWeb: https://sites.rootsweb.com/~polwgw/howto.html

Polish Roots: http://www.polishroots.com/genpoland/start.htm

For more advanced sites, type “Polish Genealogy” (use the quotes) into Google, or Yahoo, or any web search engine.

Polish Genealogy Sites Home Pages

PolandGenWeb: https://sites.rootsweb.com/~polwgw

Polish Roots: http://www.polishroots.com

Polish Genealogical Society of America:  http://www.pgsa.org/

PGSA has books that can be purchased online:  http://www.pgsa.org/publications.htm

Web Sites for Poland General Information

Official Poland Web site: http://poland.pl/.  (The Polish language version is polska.pl.)

Poland On Line: http://www.polandonline.com

Yahoo - Poland - general info list: http://dir.yahoo.com/Regional/Countries/Poland/


Modern Poland with the new 1999 provinces: https://sites.rootsweb.com/~polwgw/polandgen.html; click on the province to go directly to the province detailed information.

Map of Poland with the old 1960's provinces used by LDS Microfilms: http://www.bartold.com/genealogy/lds-poland.html

Lots of maps: http://www.polishroots.org/geo_maps.htm

My favorite for finding towns in Poland is http://mapa.szukacz.pl/, but it is all Polish, so if you are intimidated by maps in Polish you should use one of the English language map sites;  here is a direct link to a MapQuest click map for Poland.

Huge atlas site with provinces, geography maps, historical maps, partitions, etc:  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Atlas_of_Poland

Translation Tips

Click here for Polish and Latin translation tips and on line dictionaries: https://sites.rootsweb.com/~polwgw/trans.html.

LDS also has a helpful translation aid: Polish Genealogical Word List

PGSA has a great Acrobat pdf document by Hoffman for translation help in Polish, Latin, Russian and German:  http://www.pgsa.org/TransTips.pdf


The Mormon Church is also called Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS). LDS produced and maintains an Online Data Base (next subject). LDS produced microfilms as part of their library. Their web site home page for the church is http://www.lds.org. Their genealogy research home page is http://www.familysearch.org.

LDS Online Data Base

I submitted my findings to a data base maintained by LDS, called Pedigree Resource File. Pedigree Resource File is regularly updated. The delay is only a few months between electronic submission of data and availability on the web. There are more than 150 million records in the Pedigree Resource File as of March 2007.  Names of individuals in the Pedigree Resource File are indexed on the web, with reference to CDs that can be ordered for the detailed data.  There are 130 CDs.  Data can be viewed as pedigree charts.  With the CDs, the data can also be viewed as descendancies, and with additional data such as references.

LDS also has several other genealogy data bases. I’ll not go into detail, because it only takes a few clicks to find descriptions at the LDS site.  All the data bases can be searched individually or as a group from the search engine, which also includes data from other web sites. Click direct to the LDS search engine here: http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/frameset_search.asp.

LDS Library

I submitted my family genealogy book "The Gwozdz Family Tree." It is indexed in the on line LDS catalogue. It is also available on microfilm.

Click here for information about the LDS Library: http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHL/frameset_library.asp. Most of the books of interest for genealogy have been microfilmed, and are available, next topic:

LDS Microfilms

LDS has produced more than 2.5 million genealogy microfilms. Microfilm copies can be rented at local LDS Libraries, where volunteers will show you how to use a film reading machine. Microfilm indexes have been available for years at the local libraries both on microfiche and also as part of a CD ROM set for personal computers. The LDS Library catalogue is online, and it includes the microfilms. Click here to search the Library Catalogue: http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHLC/frameset_fhlc.asp.

To find a local LDS Library, check the yellow pages or click here: http://www.familysearch.org/eng/Library/FHC/frameset_fhc.asp.

To look for a microfilm of records for a specific town, use Place Search, which is a button on the catalogue page, or click direct here: http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/fhlcatalog/supermainframeset.asp?display=localitysearch&columns=*,180,0

I learned a fast trick for the Place Search:  Since Polish town names are very different than the names of towns in other countries, I noticed that there is usually no need to enter the province or even the word "Poland." I noticed that if I only type the first 4 or 5 letters of the town name, I get a list of all towns starting with those letters. (Typing 2 letters does not work.  Typing 3 letters usually produces too long of a list.) Usually, for Poland, there are not too many on such a list, so I can quickly click to the town of interest.

Reminder: I show the www address so that it prints for reference on paper.  The links without www address just jump around in these 3 documents. Use the Back button on your browser to jump back to where you were reading before you clicked away.

Getting Started with the Microfilms of Poland

To use the microfilms for Polish records of your ancestors, you need to know the place and date.  By “place” we mean a city or town or village.  By “date” we mean the approximate year of a vital record, best if in the late 19th century.  If you do not have a place name, see the Polish Genealogy Web Sites for hints on how to search for the place:  in your family records, and in your local civil records, and in immigration records.  Those web sites have good tips on how to make sure you have the correct place name in Poland, since the same name is often used for more than one place.  Maps are available.

Once you know the place name, you should check the Place Search to see if microfilms are available for the right range of years.  If yes, go ahead and rent a film and start searching. 

It helps to understand the Provinces, Counties, and Parishes, particularly if you run into difficulties.  However, you may not need that kind of information to start.  The LDS Library identification uses the following 4-name format for places in Poland:  Poland, Province, Place (County).  If you type in a place name, the province and county come up on the web response page if there are microfilms available for that place.  When you click for more information, the parish is usually identified.

What to do if Your Ancestral Place is Not Listed

To find the records for your ancestor, you need to know the place name of the Parish, which is the town or city where that ancestor attended church.  Check a map.  Type into Place Search the names of the cities and towns near your ancestral place.  It is possible the Parish was in another town near by.

Check a few neighboring towns.  You may need to identify neighboring parishes later anyway.  If an ancestor’s marriage record is missing, the marriage may have been in another town.  If an ancestor’s birth record is missing, the parents may have moved from another town.  Also, parish boundaries change;  if your ancestor lived in a village between towns, the records might switch at one point in time from one town to another.

If you identified the correct parish but microfilms are not available, or not available for the years of interest to you:  Write a letter to the parish, or to the civil records office, or to an archive.

I have visited parishes in south Poland that have record books back to 1784, which have not been filmed. I inquired by email to LDS. It was explained to me that LDS has only been filming at major archive sites in Poland. This is still happening. Just because your town of interest does not show up on the LDS site does not mean record books do not exist.  I have more discussion above in the topic Parish Rectories, and below in the topics Parish and Diocese.

In fact, LDS may have filmed the books years ago. There can be a long delay between filming and cataloging. My worst case: one film that I study has a May 1987 filming date.  It was not on the microfiche index in 1998. It appeared on the web Place Search in 1999.  I do not know any way to check which films are stuck in cataloging limbo. One LDS experienced librarian assured me that even he does not understand all possible places films can get held up.  Genealogists must be very patient.  What the heck;  the records have waited more than 100 years for you;  they can wait one more year.

In other words, once you identify a place of interest to you, if there are no LDS microfilms for that place, you really should check again once a year or so.  You never know when something might turn up.  If your town does have microfilms, you still need to check every year or so, because the list of films for that town may grow.

Is there a simple way to determine when new films get added to the catalogue?  Not really.  The LDS help pages do not answer this question.  There is no “recent additions” list, although one might be added someday, I suppose.  I print paper copies of the “Film Notes” page for the towns of interest to me.  Then, once a year or so, I compare my paper copy to what comes up on the web.

The copyright date on the web pages refers to the form, not the data.  You cannot tell if information is new from the copyright date.

In the past, I noticed that the film catalogue was updated as a batch about once per year.  There was an update along with a change in format in the summer of 2003.  A note on the LDS News web page explains that the catalogue is now updated daily.  Just the same, I speculate that Polish microfilms probably get added as a batch project every once in awhile.

Speaking of printing LDS search results, the nice table usually does not print properly, so the LDS data result page offers you a method to print the data without the nice table.  I found that if I (1) mouse click somewhere in the table, then (2) print with a restriction to only page 1 or only pages 1-2, then the table prints fine, at least with my computer.

Microfilm County List

It is helpful to figure out the county for your places of interest.  If you found your place, the county is that name in parenthesis at the end of the place identifier that  comes up with an LDS Place Search.  If your place of interest does not have microfilms available, it will not come up on a Place Search.  You can find the county name by studying web sites and maps, but frankly, it is probably easiest to just take any map and type into Place Search the names of towns and cities around your place of interest.  At least some will come up.  The county is that name in parenthesis.  The county name is the name of the town or city that is the county seat.

Type the county name into Place Search, and a list comes up with all places in that county for which LDS has microfilm information.

Microfilm Province List

For each Polish province, there is also a list of all places that have LDS microfilms available. (Provinces and counties are the next topics, below). This list is tougher to find:  Do a search for the province, then click on View Related Places. Or from any town result, click on View Related Places to get to the province capital and click again on View Related Places to end up at the Province List. A province list is very long and tedious to use. There are hundreds of towns in such a Province List.  One use of these lists:  you can glance down the list to see the county names, which are in parenthesis.  Another use:  There are still a few “place identifiers” missing their county name;  these can be found on the province listing;  LDS is fixing all these incomplete place labels, so by the time you read this they may all be fixed.

For the Warsaw province, Thom Bartold made a helpful list of LDS microfilms by county for the web at http://www.bartold.com/genealogy/lds-heirch.html.

Reminder: Use the Back button on your browser to jump back to where you were reading before you came here.

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Polish Provinces

The next few topics are brief summaries of information that is available elsewhere on the web, with a few of my own observations mixed in:

A Polish province is called a "wojewodztwo" abbreviated "woj." often translated "viviodship." They are like small US states. The Polish provinces are very confusing. The country has been rearranged into new provinces many times over the years. The last change was on 1 Jan 1999 when Poland was divided into 16 new provinces. Maps are available. Sorry, LDS uses an even older province arrangement, so the previous 1990's provinces are no help to microfilm searches. LDS has a microfiche set of a Gazetteer for Poland, dated 1967; this is the arrangement that the LDS microfilm system uses. Microfiche set 6,000,369 - 383. Spis Miejscowosci Polskiej Rzeczyposlpolitej Ludowej. I use a local LDS library that has the fiche set, so it is convenient for me. This 1960's gazetteer is not really needed for LDS web work. When you do a search, the full 1960's address is reported. Just the same, a map of 1960's Poland is available for reference.

LDS uses a dual format for south Poland in the 19th century.  The second format considers Poland as part of the Austrian Empire.  Place names come up with two address identifiers.  Click either identifier to get to the same film index information.

Polish Counties

A Polish county is called a "powiat" abbreviated "pow." They are like small US counties. Powiats are further divided into "gmina." A gmina is sort of like a Midwestern US township. LDS microfilm search results for Poland use the format: Poland, 1967 province, the place name, (1967 county/powiat name in parenthesis). The gmina is not used.

Until the recent 1999 reform, a province was named after the large city capital of that province. The 16 new province names are not city names. It is still true that almost all counties and gminas are named after the city or town that is the capital.

In the 2 parts of Poland that I study, the counties and gminas are rarely reformed. Poland province reforms usually just rearrange the counties.


Each Roman Catholic church is named after a saint, but LDS uses the name of the town. The church region is called a parish, or "parafia." A large city may have more than one parish. Most 19th century parishes have one or more towns and a  few villages and hamlets.  To find the records for your ancestor, you need to know the name of the town where that ancestor attended church.  Vital records before 1900 in Poland were kept by the parish priest.

I assume you know the name of at least one village or town or city in the region of your Polish ancestor.  If not, then this web page is no help;  you need to check out introductory web sites and introductory Polish genealogy sites for tips on how to figure out a place name for your ancestor.

Although it is not really necessary to figure out the boundaries of your ancestral parish, it is sometimes helpful to identify your parish of interest, and also the neighboring parishes.  For example, if an ancestor’s marriage record is missing, you may get lucky and find the marriage in a neighboring parish.

New parishes are formed from time to time. That involves a regrouping of the villages in the region. This is not very often, but be aware that the time line of records of a town or a village may jump from one town to a different town without any comment in the microfilms. Watch for the village names.  Some books have the village for each record.  Some books identify the village at the top of each page.  Some books only list the villages once in a while here and there.  If your village disappears at a point in time, it might be because it was assigned to a new parish in a town near by.

It is not uncommon for a village or town between two parishes to be split into those two different parishes.  You may need to check both parishes.  It is not really extra trouble, because after all, marriages are often in adjacent towns anyway, so you really should check the records for the next closest parish, particularly if your ancestors lived in a village on the edge of the parish.

I do not know how common it was for people to attend a parish that was not the official parish for their village.  I have not seen this, but I figure if it happened it would be very difficult to spot.  It no doubt happened, and I suppose the frequency varied from time to time and from place to place. 

Sometimes (not always), parish priests in Poland kept the records for each town in a separate book.  Sometimes (not always), when a new parish was formed in Poland, the book of old records for that town was sent to the new parish.  Usually (not always), LDS indexes the older books under the name of that new parish.  That can make it very confusing today.  For example: your ancestors’ town may have a parish that was formed, say, in 1911, and LDS might have very complete microfilm records for that town starting in 1787.  You might conclude that 1787 is the year for the oldest records available.  However, the home parish (the one your ancestors attended before 1911 in this example) might have record books from before 1787 that include all the towns of the original parish, including your ancestors’ town.

A small percentage of the Polish towns that are described by LDS web index entries as a “parish” in fact do not have a church.  Sorry, but this is not considered an error by librarians.  It is very difficult for librarians to determine which towns have parishes, and which do not.  And anyway, new parishes form all the time, and you cannot expect librarians to continuously change index notes.  If a town has a nice fat record book, and if the parish is not named on the book jacket, or on the first few pages, a librarian might just call that town a parish in the index description.  Do not let this confuse you.  Just remember that a town may or may not be a parish, regardless how the data for that town is indexed or identified.  Determine the parish name using other research sources, discussed in the next topic.

The web search engines, like Google & Yahoo, are great.  You can enter a Polish town, and if it has a parish, there is a pretty good chance a parish web site will come up as a search result.  This is new in the past few years.  I’m impressed with how quickly Polish parishes are constructing web sites with all kinds of information, including pictures of the church.  The site might have a history, and a list of towns and villages.  These web pages are almost always in Polish, but if you click around you might figure out what you need to know without even knowing the language.

Frankly, it is not really necessary to know the parish, if you just check whatever microfilm records are available for adjacent towns.  In fact, I personally found one of my ancestor’s records that way, before I knew how to figure out parishes.


A group of parishes is called a Deaconship (Dekanat), usually named after the city or large town where it is administered. A group of deaconships is a Diocese (Diecesia), again named after the city of administration. Each diocese has a bishop in charge. It is not very important to know all this for the LDS microfilms, which are not arranged by the church hierarchy.  However, the diocese publishes information on the parishes.

PolandGenWeb has a nice help page on parishes and dioceses.  Get there from the home page if you like that “frame” index on the left side, or click directly here:  https://sites.rootsweb.com/~polwgw/parish.html.

Most Polish dioceses these days have very nice web sites with parish indexes and links to parish web sites.  That PolandGenWeb reference in the last paragraph has a link to a map to help you to figure out the proper diocese.  Along with a link to the diocese page, GenWeb alerts you which Polish phrase to click on for the list of parishes.  Once you get to that list, you do not need to understand Polish to figure out the address for your parish of interest.

If the web information is insufficient, each diocese publishes history books and diocese reference books. These books describe each parish, including date of founding. Most church buildings are even described, with a picture. (These older parish histories are short versions of what many parishes post today on the web.)  These books are very useful to figure out which parishes are missing from the LDS microfilms in the region of interest to you.  They are all in Polish.  Most are available through the LDS Microfilms. 

I use the microfilms of diocese books because they are arranged by deaconships, which are smaller geographical units than a diocese.  The diocese web sites do not group parishes by deaconship.  By the time you read this some web sites might have deaconship parish lists.  I suppose complete click maps of parishes will show up some day.

Two excellent inexpensive booklets are available both on microfilm and for purchase through PGSA.  One has all the parishes of Poland as of 1772, by Stanislaw Litak.  The other has all parishes as of 1984, by Lidia Mullerowa.  Both have maps, compiled by Zofia Zuchowska.

Probability of Finding Ancestors

The chances are quite good of tracing a Polish family tree.  In the Time Line, I estimate that 20% of the Polish vital records from 1800 are available on microfilms, and I estimate that the percent available increases with the years, hitting a maximum of about 60% in about 1880.  However, not all records are needed to trace a family tree.

Those % numbers are very rough estimates based on my personal experience.  I did do a rough statistical check, by using diocese book maps (mentioned in the previous topic).  Picking a few parishes at random, I checked the LDS library web site to get an impression of what percent of records are available.  My results are consistent with my rough estimates in the time line.  That “statistical check” is not worthy of detailed publication, because it was brief, and it was only a parish check, not a place check;  it is very difficult to determine which villages and towns have data included somewhere in the parish records, as explained above.

Anyway, the probability of tracing your Polish ancestors is much larger than 20% or 60%.  Each individual has several records.  Not all are needed.  Remember, each ancestor has more than just birth, marriage, and death records.  Each ancestor is always mentioned at the birth of a child, often at the marriage of a child, and sometimes at the birth of a grandchild.  In addition, if you look carefully, you will find most ancestors are named often as godparents and as marriage witnesses.

In the microfilms, I personally found the names of 12 of my 16 great-great grandparents, 22 of my 32 three-great grandparents, and 35 of my 4-great and 5-great grandparents.  Contacting the parish for records that have not been filmed, I completed the list of all 16 great-great grandparents, along with 8 more three-great grandparents and 15 more names for the next generation.  Sure, this has been a big project over a span of a decade, but it demonstrates what is out there to be found.

Actually, both my grandfathers are missing from the microfilms.  By bad luck, both their birth record pages are missing.  By good luck, their sibling birth records are available.  Sibling names are known to my family, and from that I found my great grandparent records.

The % of records available varies greatly from place to place.  It is my impression that south Poland has more complete records than North Poland.  I found 29 of my 32 four-great grandparents from the south, but only 6 of my 32 from the north.  The % of course varies from parish to parish.

Reminder:  my ancestors were Catholic commoners from the northeast and south of Poland.  I have little experience with the west of Poland.  I have little experience with non-Catholic records.  I have little experience with nobles.


Thanks go to my daughter Holly who got me started in genealogy research.

My cousin Joseph Armata helped me gain expertise when I got started back in 1993.  Joe, a Slavic linguist, continues to help me understand unusual words and phrases.  Many of the “dictionary” explanations in these web documents of mine originally came from Armata.

The LDS librarian in charge of eastern European cataloguing has been very patient and helpful answering my email questions.  I hope this web page repays the favors.

Daniel Schlyter has written many help documents for Polish genealogy.  His pamphlet “Essentials in Polish Genealogical Research” is distributed by PGSA.  I am pretty sure that the first help pamphlet that I found, which has no author, was condensed from Schlyter’s documents.  Schlyter does not receive many citations, because most help documents refer to the original sources named by Schlyter.  Many of the sources mentioned by me in this web page came to my attention either through Schlyter or through documents that probably got the source lead through him.

Web Document History

The original version was posted 23 Feb 2000 for northeast Poland.  It has been updated about annually.  The Feb 2003 update split the original document into 3 documents.  The Feb 2004 update describee the new county lists, and rewrote the sections on Provinces, Counties, and Parishes.  The 2007 update is minor corrections and additions, including deletion of expired web references and addition of a few new ones.

Pete Gwozdz

Hi. I'm the author of this web document. I live in the so called Silicon Valley in California. My father's parents come from Wadowice Gorne and Wisniowa, near Mielec, between Tarnow and Rzeszow. My mother's parents come from Sypniewo, near Gasewo and Szelkow, just north of Warsaw. I have a university home page.  My web site www.gwozdz.org has a study of my family name, Gwozdz.  Gwozdz.org also has my research results concerning my family’s ancestors.

Send comments to [email protected].

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© Copyright 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 Peter Gwozdz.  All Rights Reserved.
Permission for reproduction of this article was granted PolandGenWeb by Peter Gwozdz
originally Feb 2000, and again for the update July 2007.  Thank you, Peter!

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