Researching Polish ancestry can be a difficult endeavor that requires patience and knowing where to look. Dr. Elana Broch, Assistant Population Research Librarian and amateur genealogist, has done years of research on her Polish lineage, even visiting Poland to try and find primary documents to answer her family history.
One of the most important things to recognize about Polish ancestry is Polish history. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Poland as a country often did not exist. Parts were under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ukraine, Germany, and Russia. Therefore, depending on the time period, document languages and location names may have changed depending on who was in power. Additionally, if you are looking for Jewish ancestry, family and town names may be Jewish or Yiddish, adding yet another layer to deciphering someone’s lineage. JewishGen has a wonderful Communities Database that is worth looking at even if you did not have Jewish Ancestry. The database maps the location names over time so you can better understand where records may be and in what languages. Additionally, Poland was a crossroads of conflict in World War 1 and 2 so many records were destroyed, leaving gaps in civil registration collections and vital records.
On the bright side, the Mormon Church, responsible for Ancestry.com (subscription) and FamilySearch (free) have digitized countless Polish related records during their mission trips so some (but not all) records are available through those sites. It is highly recommended to check Ancestry and FamilySearch first to see what information and records you can find on your Polish ancestors before moving forward. The best place to find information would be the United States and specific state censuses, which during the later half of the 19th century and forward, list places of birth and all of the names within a household, rather than just the head of household. This information can be critical in tracing a relative back in Poland, but remember, that if the place of birth was listed as Russia or Germany, they may have actually been living within the borders of present-day Poland.
If you have exhausted these resources and are looking to find records in Poland, be aware that there are multiple archival institutions and locations, depending on what you are looking to find. Also, you will need to write to the specific archive or employ a professional genealogist in Poland to obtain the records as a vast majority of their records (outside of those digitized on Ancestry.com or FamilySearch) are not digitized. The Central Archives of Historical Records (AGAD), are the official repository for materials that are no longer under Polish privacy restrictions. This includes birth records that are over 100 years old and marriage and death records over 80 years old. Additionally, the AGAD contains information from Ukraine. The Civil Registry Office (Urząd Stanu Cywilnego) contains vital records that are still protected under their privacy laws. There are many regional archives where most records are currently housed, which is why it is critical to determine the location an ancestor lived to accurately determine which region or district archives to contact. Lastly, there are local parish or archdiocesan archives that will contain important genealogical records such as baptism and marriage records.
The Polish Archives does have a searchable website that comprises of 4 different databases, however all of the information is in Polish, which means you will need to use a translation service such as Google Translate or a browser extension that can translate the page for you. While some of the filters and headings are in English, all of the collection titles, descriptions, and notes are all in Polish.
It is highly recommended to check out the FamilySearch Wiki on Poland Genealogy to help determine what records to look for and where to find those records. For more information on the presentation or help with Polish genealogy, please contact Elana Broch at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a copy of the presentation, please visit https://www.njstatelib.org/assets/PolishArchivesPresentation.pdf.