The Importance of  Polish Immigration Story to Polish Research

Taking your first step in finding Polish records can be very challenging. At the beginning of my research, I found it essential to review the history of Polish immigration to America: when, why, where, and how. Understanding this aspect of Polish history was critical to my success because knowing the immigration story helped me find the seemingly hidden records for my Polish ancestors.

Poles in America

The first Poles arrived in America at Jamestown in October 1608. They were among the craftsmen the Virginia Company hired to produce materials such as export glassware and make tar and resin needed to repair arriving ships. In addition, our history books mention Polish military leaders Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko and banker Haym Saloman having crucial roles in the American Revolution. Finally, although I have not found any reference of other Poles in Colonial America, there were probably small numbers of Polish workers, intellectuals, and sons of noblemen who immigrated.

The first significant events that affected Polish emigration were the three partitions of Poland between 1772 and 1795 when Prussia, Russia, and Austria carved up Poland, and it disappeared from world maps. However, few Poles fled  Poland after the partitions, and generally, the refugees who could afford to leave went to European countries. The farmers, who made up the large waves of later Polish emigration, could not leave because the nobles would not allow it. However, pressure to leave grew as the new rulers of Polish partitions did not treat their Polish subjects as full citizens and gradually enacted policies that had significant adverse effects. Accordingly, their policies helped build the Polish national unity that we see today.

The first wave of Polish emigration began in the 1850s when Poles left Silesia to settle in Texas, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Their documented histories listed that they left due to the harsh poverty, high taxes, military conscription, and social discrimination at the hands of their Prussian rulers. Poles also began emigrating from other Prussian areas in the late 1860s after the German Empire enacted the Kulturkampf Laws meant to eliminate the Polish culture in Prussian-controlled lands. The laws banned the Polish language from schools and newspapers. In addition, traditional Polish songs and dances were forbidden. In 1886, the Prussian Colonization Policy forced Poles to sell their lands to Germans recruited to re-settle in these new “German” lands. Polish farmers were now day laborers and could not find steady work. Emigration was the only solution to their growing poverty. Records show that over 400,000 Poles left between 1869 to 1899 from German-controlled Poland. Passenger lists indicate most left in family groups.

Polish emigration in the Russian and Austrian partitions began in earnest in the 1880s and generally affected the younger generation because of a lack of jobs. Investors did not build factories in the Polish partitions because they had seen the past uprisings by the Polish people and had fears of future turmoil. Farms could not be sub-divided when the father died. Only the oldest son inherited the land. Owning land became the key to economic stability. Without jobs or land, the younger sons had to leave. Also, fathers had to find the “right husband” for their daughters, someone with the prospect of inheriting the family farm. The other alternative was sending them to relatives in America to find work or a husband. Passenger manifests indicate that most Polish emigrants from the Russian and Austrian partitions were single men and women. This mixture differed from the family groups leaving the German partition.

With the lack of opportunities in rural Poland, and growing unemployment in the cities, emigrating to the United States became an attractive alternative. Letters from earlier immigrants and advertisements circulated by the shipping companies further fueled thoughts about leaving.

Once in America, Polish men worked in the mills and factories that were driving America’s economic growth in cities and areas such as Chicago, Buffalo, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Milwaukee, and New England. They worked at the hardest jobs that nobody else wanted. Single Polish women also worked in the factories or as servants until they found a husband. Also, some Poles were able to buy farms in America.

Many emigrants left Poland to earn money in America and then returned home to buy Polish farmland. As a result, almost a third of the Polish immigrants returned home after a few years in America. Nevertheless, the majority of the Poles found it hard to abandon their new home once they saw how much better their life was staying in America. These are the immigrants who are our ancestors.

Learn your ancestor’s immigration story. Identify their challenges. Write and preserve their family stories to honor your Polish heritage for future generations.

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German Genealogy: Finding the German Records

My new book, “German Genealogy: Finding the German Records,” is now available on Amazon.com. If you have German ancestors, it will help you. Six steps needed to find your ancestors: 1. Identify their original German name 2. Find their approximate birth year 3. Find town names for clues 4. Find possible German locations 5. Find the German records 6. Translate the German records

https://www.amazon.com/German-Genealogy-Finding-Records/dp/B0B45L3VVY/ref

Hiring a German Researcher

You may consider hiring a professional researcher when you reach a brick wall. I have used this option when I could not find a birth record for my grandmother and a marriage record for my great-grandparents. I also asked a researcher to track down living descendants of my grandparents’ siblings to find pictures and stories of the family left in the old country.  

Since this is an expensive option, you need to be careful to hire a researcher with suitable qualifications. You also need to be specific in the information you request. However, I found that paying the right researcher was a bargain compared to the travel costs to perform the research myself in Germany. Also, I was excited when adding the new information to my family history

There are two associations of professional genealogists with German members that should be capable of doing the needed German research – one based in America and another in Germany. The American-based group is the Association of Professional Genealogists (APG), with a few German members.

Website for APG – https://www.apgen.org

The German-based group of German-speaking professional researchers is called the Verband deutschsprachiger Berufsgenealogen. The English translation of the group’s name is Association of German-speaking Professional Genealogists. The German group’s website can be read in German, English, or French.

Website – http://www.berufsgenealogie.net

Things to do when hiring a researcher:

  • Request references from prior clients and check them before hiring a professional genealogist in Germany.
  • Also, ask for a research plan.
  • Discuss fees and payment options
  • Remember, the researcher expects to be paid for their efforts, not their results. Therefore, there is no guarantee the researcher will find the information you requested.
  • Your request must have enough information to give the researcher a chance at success. Better researchers have learned to ask questions to focus their research on providing the best results to their clients. 
  • Also, use researchers who are knowledgeable in the area of Germany, where the records originated. The documents you need may be in church and local government archives that may not generally be open to the public. Hiring someone familiar with the local archives is critical because outsiders may not be able to obtain the same access a locally known researcher can get.

Payment

Your discussion of payment should be part of the upfront negotiation with your researcher. The discussion should include agreeing on the amount and how to transfer the money overseas. The only payment method available when I started in the early 2000s was with a foreign bank transfer that cost between $50 to $100 for each transaction. Today, most foreign researchers are accepting payments using the following methods:

  • PayPal – you can use a credit card or bank transfer to PayPal, and they will charge the payee a transaction
  • XOOM – you can pay Xoom with your credit card, and they deposit the money into the researcher’s bank account. You pay $9.99 for each transaction, so try to combine as many payments as possible into one transaction.
  • TransferWise uses a system similar to Xoom but with a lower transaction fee (starting at $3.00). However, this service warns that they use an average currency rate, so you may pay more dollars to get the correct euros to your researcher. But, TransferWise predicts that you should save about 5% on the overall transaction.
  • Western Union – requires cash to be paid to their agent and a small transaction fee (for example, $8.00 for $150 to Germany)
  • Credit cards – some researchers have begun accepting credit cards as payment, and they absorb the higher transaction fee for foreign money transfers.

My decisions on hiring a researcher were based on:

  • How vital was the document or information?
  • My evaluation of the researcher to do the job
  • The convenience of the payment option
  • Finally, the cost versus the importance of the information

Example #1:

Early in my research, I contacted the church where my grandmother was baptized, requesting a copy of her baptismal record. I received a response from a local church member requesting $150 to find the document, translate it, and send me a copy. I declined the offer and decided to try later because I already had the birth date and names of her parents. Furthermore, I only wanted a copy of her baptism to have a physical record.

Since my original request, the records have been made available online to researchers in Poland. Ten years later, I received a copy of the document from another researcher and copies of the birth records of her siblings for $100.

Example #2:

I contacted a researcher in Romania in 2011 to find the marriage record for my father’s grandparents. He quoted a cost of $30 for the document and $120 for travel expenses, including an overnight stay. The marriage document and translation I received were a bargain for the $150. The information unlocked the mystery of my father’s family history and led to many more documents and family stories.

Eight years later, I found the marriage document in a new database on Ancestry.com, but I had already completed most of my father’s family history by that time. I shared my 2011 results with most of my relatives in 2012, and they were excited to hear the new details of their Szabados ancestors. I am glad I could unlock the mystery because some family members died before I found the records on Ancestry.com. Additionally, a few others have started to write a family history for their family branch. Unlocking that mystery in 2011 probably created excitement for them to begin researching their family history sooner.

Memories of Celebrating Easter

What are your memories of Easter when you were young? How are you capturing your family stories?

My first memories are an image of Sister Valentine marching us first-graders to a pew in the church on Ash Wednesday to receive the ashes on our foreheads from the priest. Over the next few years, the Dominican Sisters at St Patrick’s Grade School taught us the symbolism for Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday in our religion classes. However, living with my Polish grandparents when I was in grade school, I realized that celebrating Easter had significant meaning for them, especially my grandmother. The importance of Easter for her seemed to go beyond attending the masses, Easter egg hunts, and the food on Easter Sunday.

After writing my grandmother’s story, I now see our focus during the Easter season should go beyond the merrymaking of Mardi Gras or celebrating Fat Tuesday with the Polish jelly-filled donuts, Paczki. Of course, reflecting on the tenets of our faith during Lent and celebrating the Easter week liturgy is essential, but it is also a time to be with family. Therefore, it is crucial to record and save our family memories before losing them. Easter was an important celebration for our Polish ancestors, and I find it exciting when I connect to them through writing the family history.

I try to bring back memories by reflecting on how our family followed Lenten traditions. For example, how did our meals change – more fish, less meat. What did I give up for Lent? Of course, my fellow grade-schoolers and I always promised to give up candy, but later I began attending daily mass, the Stations of the Cross and doing specific good deeds as I matured.

My memories of Easter identify Lent as a private time. The general emphasis of Easter relating to my family memories starts with the end of Lent and the arrival of Palm Sunday. I helped Grandma collect palms on Sunday and later saw she had woven them into crosses and hung them around the house. This Polish tradition encouraged good health and the protection of the house. What traditions did your immigrant ancestors follow after Palm Sunday?

The week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday is a flurry of activities and memories. I attended Mass on Holy Thursday and Good Friday and watched the rituals associated with these ceremonies, culminating with the extended reading of the gospel on EasterSunday. Sometimes I was in a pew with my family, and other times in the choir loft singing with my classmates. Often, I was one of the altar boys attending to the priests.

Did you have an Easter egg hunt for the children? Were the eggs decorated a solid color or have traditional Polish designs? For Poles, the egg symbolized fertility and played a critical role in many Polish celebrations. In the 1800s, the Poles gave elaborately decorated and ornamental Pisanki eggs as gifts. Unfortunately, the small Polish community where I grew up did not continue this practice. I learned of this tradition only after beginning my family history research.

The crucial time for our family history was gathering at the family feast on Easter Sunday. Do you remember what was on the menu? Of course, you do. Are you saving grandma’s recipes? For our feast, traditional Polish foods were not available. So my grandmother cooked a Polish ham instead. Today my favorites are Kielbasa (Polish sausage) and pierogis (meat or cheese-filled dumplings), but when I was young, our Polish community was small, and it was rare to see these foods on our table.

Who attended the feast? How large was your family? Who were the storytellers? This gathering is the best time to make new memories and the best source to collect the family stories that need to be saved. Unfortunately, I did not take the time to preserve these stories until after my parents and grandparents had died.

Today, I write down notes of family stories as soon as possible. Sometimes, I jot them down in quiet corners on Easter or when I get home. I find that taking notes at the table or using a recording device destroys the moment’s atmosphere. I write the narrative within a few days and then send a copy to the storyteller for corrections. Everyone knows I am writing the family history and seem to expect they will appear on its pages. Stories about the Easter celebrations of my Polish ancestors give me a different perspective of them, and my visions of them seem to come alive. Capture the stories and let your children and grandchildren see their ancestors.

Celebrate St Patrick’s Day by Remembering Your Irish Ancestors

Who were the first Irish immigrants in America?

Why did they immigrate; when did they leave; how did they get here; where did they settle?  

Some historians point to the Scotch-Irish, who began arriving in Philadelphia about 1713. Most were born in Northern Ireland, but their ancestors came from Scotland. King James I of England recruited their Scottish ancestors from Scotland’s lowlands to resettle the Irish land that the English King had confiscated in 1608 from rebellious Irish Ulster nobles. The first Scottish immigrants began arriving in Ulster in 1609. However, the Scotsmen felt disappointed with the reception from the Anglican English and the Catholic Irish. They had difficulties assimilating into their Irish lands.

The Catholic Irish resented the Scots because the English Crown gave the Scots land confiscated from the deposed Irish Lords. Further English authorities discriminated against the Scots by not giving them equal rights after inviting them to Ireland. English laws also required the Scots to pay tithes to the Anglican Church of England, even though they also paid tithes to their Presbyterian churches. This double discrimination caused tensions to grow, and the Scots began a mass exodus within three generations after arriving in Ireland. In the early 1700s, the Scots started leaving Ireland for the Pennsylvania and South Carolina Colonies in America to enjoy the religious tolerance and the vast new lands that the colonies offered.

Small groups of Irish Catholics also came to the American colonies in the early 1700s from the southern Irish counties. They left from the ports of Cork and Kinsale along the south coast. They were answering the invitation from the governors of the English colonies of Virginia and Maryland. The governors hired agents to recruit European men because their colonies needed workers to build their settlements, clear the land for farming, and produce goods for export.

The Scotch-Irish immigrants receive more recognition as early Irish immigrants because of their numbers and contributions to the settlement of western Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Appalachian region of America. The Catholic Irish were in the colonies in the early 1700s, and in the mid-1800s, they began coming to America in large waves.

If you are researching your family history, finding the origins of your Irish roots is crucial. Study the phases of Irish and United States history that affected immigration to America.

Remember that each immigrant has a unique story. Many Irish immigrants kept the details of their stories hidden in their hearts and memories. It was very personal and painful to discuss with anyone. Our challenge is to dig out as many details of their immigration saga as we can for our family history. Match some reasons for immigration to parts of their stories and then merge them with the rest of your family’s oral history.

Our immigrant ancestors laid the foundation of our roots in the United States. Our lives would be much different if they did not endure the challenges of emigration from Ireland. Do not underestimate their contributions. They performed vital roles in the development of America. Many of them cleared fields on the frontier and worked on farms. Many Irish were unskilled and toiled constructing the canals and railroads or in factories. Yet, their lives became building blocks in the growth of their new country.

The voyage and arrival process was a tremendous challenge to our ancestors, and understanding what they overcame should give more respect for their lives. I had a very different picture of my grandparents after identifying the challenges they overcame to settle in the United States.

Hopefully, your efforts will bring your ancestors’ story alive for your future generations.

German Names in Genealogy

A crucial factor in finding our ancestor’s records is knowing the correct name to use for our searches. However, even if we search the correct source, we may not find them because we do not recognize the name.

As we work backward when searching American records, we may find a document that should belong to our ancestor but has a slightly different name – either surname, given name or both. We need to be patient when we encounter these variations. Look for other details in the document to confirm this belongs to our ancestor and save the name for future reference. I have found that passenger lists and naturalization papers indicate the name closest to the original German name.

Also, do not be confused by the myth that immigration officials changed the names. They did not change any immigrant’s name at arrival. If you found your family changed their name, the immigrants probably modified their name after arrival due to problems with pronunciation and spelling of their names in their daily life.

Here are some tips to help sort through the variations we find in the records.

Surname variations in American Records

Phonetic Spelling – Most of the surname spelling variations occurred as clerks wrote the name as it sounded in English. The clerk did not speak German, and many immigrants had heavy accents. Also, they may have been illiterate or changed to minimize future problems. Simple examples of this substitution are:

  • Miller for Müller
  • Wineberg for Weinberg.

English Translation – During World War I, many Germans anglicized their names by substituting the English translation such as :

  • Kieffer to Pine
  • Feuerstein to Firestone
  • Fassbinder to Cooper
  • Schwaiger to Shepherd
  • Zimmermann to Carpenter

Since many immigrants could not read or write, phonetic spellings of names are very common. This practice is one explanation of the name change.

Names with Umlauts – If the German surname contains an AE, OE, or UE, it will have an umlaut over these letters in its German spelling. Including the name with the umlaut in your search criteria will help find your records in German databases.

My biological father’s surname may have been changed using both types of variations and includes an umlaut. German records list the family name as Wüertemberger. However, it was altered on Colonial and early American records to Whittinghill. One cousin pointed out that “berg” in German translates to mountain or hill. Therefore, when we say the name Wüertemhill with a heavy German accent, it sounds similar to Whittinghill.

Other practices that may confuse:

One situation causing name confusion in American records was the practice by the German immigrants of using both an anglicized name and their German name. The immigrants listed an anglicized name on civil records such as census and land records. However, they continued to use their German name within the German community. For example, their German name may be found in church records, German-language newspapers, and rosters of clubs and fraternal groups.

Another confusing situation found among immigrants occurs when different branches adopt different spellings for the surname. For example, among my Wuertemberger family in America, multiple branches have adopted similar but different surnames such as Whittinghill, Wurtenberger, Whittenberg, Wattenbarger.

German Given Names

I have also found that given names can cause confusing search results. In Germany, children were given multiple names at baptism – usually two but as many as four. The first name is a spiritual name, such as a favorite saint’s name, although biblical names were preferred among protestants after the reformation. Also, some families would repeat the first name for multiple children. The second or middle name was the name that was generally used to call or identify the person. The middle name was usually determined using various patterns each family had used to name their children after specific family members. If the child received more than two names, the additional names were of the parents or other relatives. Often the child dropped these additional names as they matured.

In American records, our ancestor may have used their middle name, and this practice initially confused me on a few occasions. However, in German documents, we will probably find them in records with two names, with the middle name being the name we are accustomed to seeing.

Below is a sample of a pattern German families used for naming their children:

          Sons                                                            Daughters

1st son after the father’s father
2nd son after the mother’s father
3rd son after the father
4th son after the father’s father’s father
5th son after the mother’s father’s father
6th son after the father’s mother’s father
7th son after the mother’s mother’s father
1st daughter after the mother’s mother
2nd daughter after the father’s mother
3rd daughter after the mother
4th daughter after the father’s father’s mother
5th daughter after the mother’s father’s mother
6th daughter after the father’s mother’s mother
7th daughter after the mother’s mother’s mother

If an infant died, many parents would name the next child born of the same gender with the name of the child who died. However, seeing two children with the same name does not always mean the elder child died. So always look for a death record.  

Another practice that may confuse us when searching church or civil records is the language used in creating the record. Changing borders has caused our German ancestors’ civil records to be created using German, French, and Polish, depending on location. As the various provinces and principalities fell under the rule of different countries, the language used in records could change. Church records may be in one of these three languages but I usually find Latin. Below are a few examples of how language changes the spelling of given names:

GermanLatinFrenchPolish
AlbrechtAdalbertusAdalbertWojciech
ElisabethElisabethaIsabelleElżbieta
FranzFranciscusFrançoisFranciszek
GeorgGeorgiusGeorgesJerzy
Johann (Hans)JoannesJeanJan
KatharineCatherinaCatherineKatarzyna
LorenzLaurentiusLaurentWawrzyniec
LudwigLudovicusLouisLudwik

The last example of name variation I have seen in my research is the use of nicknames such as Anny for Anna or Anne. For Barbara, I have seen Barbel, Bäbi, and Barbola.

Be flexible with the spelling of the surnames and given names – you will probably find multiple spellings. I save all of the variations and refer to my list as I research.

We Need Gazetteers to Find our German Birthplaces

Gazetteers

A gazetteer is a dictionary of place names and should be used with a map of the areas we are researching. They help us pinpoint a specific place and associate towns with the jurisdictions. It is an essential reference for information about places and place names. It typically contains information concerning the geographical makeup of a country, region, or continent and the social statistics and physical features, such as mountains, waterways, or roads. Gazetteers describe towns, villages, churches and states, rivers and mountains, populations, and other geographical features. They usually include only the names of places that existed when the gazetteer was published and often their former names. The place names are generally in alphabetical order, similar to a dictionary. They can also provide interesting facts about the community and help us to know where to look for additional records.

Gazetteers may also provide additional information about a town, such as its:

  • Boundaries of civil jurisdiction.
  • Longitude and latitude (modern versions).
  • Distances and direction from other cities
  • Schools, colleges, and universities.
  • Denominations and number of churches.
  • Major manufacturing works, canals, docks, and railroad stations

Gazetteers have existed since the Hellenistic era in Greece. The first known gazetteer of China appeared in the 1st century. With the age of print media in China by the 9th century, the Chinese gentry became invested in producing gazetteers for their local areas as a source of information as local pride. Geographer Stephanus wrote the earliest European gazetteer of Byzantium, who wrote a geographical dictionary in the 6th century, which influenced later European compilers of gazetteers in the 16th century. Modern gazetteers can be found in reference sections of most libraries as well as on the Web.

Meyer’s Orts

The best gazetteer for German towns is Meyer’s Orts and Verkehrs Lexicon des Deutschen Reiches. The English translation of the title is Meyer’s Directory of Places and Commerce in the German Empire 1912. Dr. E Uetrecht compiled it in 1912. It includes all areas of the pre-World War I German Empire. Overall, this gazetteer contains more than 210,000 cities, towns, hamlets, villages, etc.

There are two difficulties when using Meyers Orts. One is the effort needed to correctly decipher the Gothic script used in its printing. The other is the numerous abbreviations the publishers used to save space. Making a copy of the list of abbreviations at the beginning of Volume I will be helpful when trying to read the town entry.

Some local libraries have a copy of Meyers Orts on their shelves. It has been available at Ancestry.com under Meyers Gazetteer of the German Empire. However, it is now available in a very user-friendly version at MeyersGaz.org.

This digital version of the Meyers Gazetteer is easily searchable, and we can enter standard letters. We do not have to enter diacritics to get results. Another available helpful tool is entering a wildcard. When using a wildcard, we do not have to know the accurate spelling of the town. The first letter, a wildcard, and the ending will generator possible choices. The website offers a helpful help guide at:

https://www.meyersgaz.org/help/help.html

The website shows a copy of the original narrative in the gothic script, a modern-day map, and the details of the description in a readable format. We can also access a page that shows a list of nearby churches by denomination and distance. We can also toggle between the modern map and a 19th-century version from the German map collection, Karte des Deutschen Reiches. The older map may show spelling closer to the list we collected from the older documents. This website is relatively new, and they are working to make improvements.

The town names are listed alphabetically in three volumes:

  • Volume I: A-K
  • Volume II: L-Z
  • Volume III: Supplement (contains additions and corrections)

Each entry contains a paragraph of information. If all of the information is available, it will include the following things and appear in the following order:

  • Name of place
  • Place type
  • Name of state to which it belongs
  • Government district
  • Population
  • Post Office and other Communications information
  • Railroad information
  • Courts
  • Consulate
  • Embassy
  • Churches
  • Schools
  • Institutes
  • Military
  • Financial
  • Business Institutions
  • Trades and Industries
  • Shipping Traffic
  • Local government services
  • Dependent Places

We find another critical group of information when clicking on the Ecclesiastical tab. The tab gives us a list of nearby towns with churches and gives us clues on where to look for our ancestors’ baptismal, marriage, and death records.

Kartenmeister 

Another online database to find our ancestor’s German towns is Kartenmeister at http://www.kartenmeister.com.  The search results show variant spellings of the place name, GPS coordinates, a link to a Google map, and historical population estimates.

This database contains towns located east of the Oder and Neisse rivers. In addition, it includes towns within the borders of the eastern German provinces in the spring of 1918. This database contains the following provinces: East Prussia (including Memel), West Prussia, Brandenburg, Posen, Pomerania, and Silesia. The website is beneficial because most towns have Polish names on current maps.

It currently lists most towns or points of interest, such as mills, bridges, and battlefields. As more information becomes available, this database will be updated.

We can search this database in several ways or criteria.
1. German name
2. Older German name
3. Kreis/County
4. By the next larger town (this is a proximity search.)
5. Today’s Polish, Russian or Lithuanian name.

JewishGen Gazetteer

The JewishGen Gazetteer (formerly called ShtetlSeeker Town Search) is under the databases tab on Jewishgen.org. It contains one million localities in 54 countries in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. For each locality, the search results for each location will display:

  • The place-name(s), with the native name in bold
  • GPS Coordinates — latitude and longitude.
  • Country in which the locality is located today

The GPS coordinates are invaluable in finding the town on a map and confirming it belongs to our ancestors.

It uses the Daitch–Mokotoff Soundex system for approximate spellings of place names, and this should give a list of towns with possible spelling variations. It is an excellent website to use first when we believe the town names may have incorrect spellings. It does not matter our family was not Jewish. It only matters their village was located in the area this database covers.

Web page addewss: www.jewishgen.org/communities/loctown.asp.

Type in our town names in the search box, and the results will usually list multiple towns that may be possible locations for our ancestors. Look for towns that match the province and county information we find. Locate each likely town on a map to see if the other town names we found are close to one of the possible towns in the results list. I use this site for possible locations and then use other sources to eliminate a location from the list or confirm a location may be the birthplace. The actual proof is always finding our ancestors’ birth and marriage records.

Additional German Gazetteers:

Where do you start your German research?

To find our German ancestors, we need to know their Germanic name, the name of the town they left, and the approximate date (at least the year) of their birth or marriage in Germany. Does this sound like an easy process?  I find that it normally has many snags. If we are lucky, our family papers include documents from the old country that point to our ancestral home. Family oral history may also point to a town, but the name passed down maybe a large city in the area they left or the name given is a phonetic spelling. If your immigrant ancestors did not save copies of documents from the “Old Country,” you will need to find U.S. documents that list clues to the town’s name or area. First, the best strategy is to initially search for current records for family members and follow the paper trail back from the most recent ancestors to those who immigrated. Our journey is more challenging because German immigration happened from the 1600s to the 1900s, and older documents do not include the details we need or they have been lost. In addition, the earlier arrival dates generated fewer documents that we can use even if they are found. Even with these challenges, be persistent and diligently search for the information.

My research had many challenges and few documents that produced relevant town names. However, I successfully found German birth records for three of them. My first success developed from a village name listed in the 1920 U.S. census record. Typically, the birthplace column on the census lists only the country, but the enumerator also recorded the village name. This location was later confirmed by exchanging information with someone who grew up in this German village and verified that the family had indeed lived there until 1890. The second success came from information gleaned from family stories. Unfortunately, parts of the story were wrong and contained the phonetic spelling of the villages, but my persistence did yield the birth records for the two immigrants who left in 1850. The third example was more difficult because it was based on Y-DNA results. The descendants of my only match listed a possible birthplace for their ancestor that gave me a clue to a small area near the Rhine River. Searching online databases, I found possible birth records for both immigrants (mine and theirs) in a small village near the town they had listed for their ancestors. Even though the town they listed was a mistake, it was an important clue because the correct village was in the district named for the large town they had listed.

Collect as many place names as possible from the documents, oral histories, and any other source we can uncover. Gather all the place names found on documents related to our direct ancestors because they are clues. Also, save the place names on records for siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins. For example, if their passenger manifest listed their destination as a friend, include this person in your research since they also came from the same place. Treat these place names as clues because they are usually not spelled correctly, and many town names have multiple locations. Look for your clues in various documents and the stories told by your older relatives. After we have a list of place-name clues, we need to find our ancestral home on a map. Finding multiple names from our list near one another should point to the most likely location of our ancestral home. Visualize you are working on a jigsaw puzzle, and the town names are the visual clues you need to put your puzzle pieces together.  

Researchers can encounter many confusing pieces of information. One factor causing much of the confusion is that speaking German does not limit the location of our ancestral home to being within the borders of present-day Germany. There are German-speaking people in Austria, Switzerland, Alsace (now part of France), Parts of the Czech Republic, Luxembourg, Denmark, parts of the western portion of present-day Poland, and some parts of Russia. Before 1871, they listed their origins as Prussia, Bavaria, Rhineland, or other Germanic states. If we are lucky, they recorded their origin as one of the smaller states such as Duchy of Saxe-Altenburg Hanover because we would have a smaller area to search for the specific village. We may also be confused because towns located in border areas may have multiple names based on the multiple languages spoken in the area. As an example, the city of Stettin is also known as Szczecin in Polish. Be careful because the differences for smaller villages will be harder to distinguish. The spelling of the village name may vary because of how it is used in a sentence, and knowing German grammar may help recognize the correct spelling.

You need to Identify:

  • The general area that they left
  • The name of the village or town
  • The name of the town where the church or civil records were recorded
  • As many town names as possible to confirm where to look

Envision a map of the area around your ancestor’s birthplace, and each clue you find is a piece of the jigsaw puzzle that has a picture of this map on it. Once you fit all of the clues together, the image on the jigsaw puzzle comes together, and you will be able to recognize where the area is located.

Enjoying my Polish Christmas Feast and Staying Safe

Wesołych Świąt

Many of my ancestors are Polish and celebrating holidays are essential to the lives of Polish families. They used the calendar of holidays to set the rhythm for activities during the year. Christmas was a favorite because it seemed to be a magical time. The festive activities surrounding Christmas helped brighten the atmosphere from the dark days of the winter. Family, relatives, friends, neighbors, and strangers seem to become kind, friendly, and generous.

This year with the threat of Covid-19 still looming around us, our holiday celebrations may seem even more critical to our lives as we pray to return to normal activities. Will the magical feeling we get from celebrating Christmas with our family make this return to normalcy possible? Or will family gatherings bring unwanted results? Vaccination minimizes but does not prevent the spread of Covid. We need to have a balance between celebrating with our families and practicing safe contact. How can we carry on the traditions of our Polish ancestors and still stay safe?

Decorating the house inside and out can quickly and safely get the family into the Christmas Spirit. The decorations can give our family the warm, welcoming feeling of Christmas as soon as they drive up to our home. However, inside the house, the risk of transmitting Covid-19 increases, and we should take steps to minimize this risk.

Here are my common-sense suggestions:

  1. Do not travel long distances to attend the family party. Everyone needs to stay close to home – different states and different counties follow different rules and cause confusion.
  2. Schedule your family gathering at a large enough house to maximize social distancing in the sitting areas. Do not congregate in one room such as the kitchen.
  3. Add tables to increase elbow room at the tables when eating
  4. Deliver food, beverages, and presents a few days before the gathering. Avoid last-minute shopping.
  5. Minimize who handles food, dishes, and utensils
  6. Minimize who handles Christmas presents
  7. Before the party, ask family members if they have Covid-19 symptoms and vaccination status. The non-vaccinated and those who have symptoms should stay home
  8. Ask family members who have attended holiday parties at work or with friends at bars or restaurants to wear masks or stay home
  9. Have masks available for all family members to wear if they need to.
  10. Have hand sanitizer dispensers available at multiple places at the party and encourage their use
  11. Inform family members about these practices in writing before the party

These may seem like extreme measures, but they will minimize the risk of transmission of the virus at your party. I feel they are needed because I would be devastated if a family member became infected with the virus at my family celebration.

Even with the above practices, you can still enjoy the festivities. Focus on enjoying a traditional Christmas meal with all the favorite foods from past Christmas meals. What will you serve? I have memories of cheese, sauerkraut pierogi, fish, ham, mushroom soup with noodles, herring, boiled potatoes, dumplings with plums and poppy seeds, stewed prunes with lemon peel, and a fruit and poppy seed cake. Today, our feast includes kiełbasa, sauerkraut, red cabbage, cucumber sour cream salad, pierogi, and a poppy seed cake. This menu has far fewer items than a traditional Polish Christmas table but still satisfies our appetites and produces leftovers. It includes traditional Polish foods and tries to honor the memories of our ancestors.

Bring out the family photo albums and scrapbooks. Try to create an atmosphere that encourages everyone to remember family stories. If there are small children, read Christmas stories to them. Sing a few Christmas carols to bring the group together. Take pictures and write down the family stories.

Best wishes, and I hope you follow many of my suggestions. Have fun but stay safe.