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Writing to Poland

Vital Records in Poland
by Warren Blatt

· Writing the Letter
· Interpreting the Reply
· Why your request might not be successful

You can write to the Polish States Archives headquarters in Warsaw in Polish, English, French or German — The archives' International Relations Division, which handles all foreign correspondence, will translate your request into Polish and forward it to the appropriate regional archive.

Writing the Letter

Local USC (Urząd Stanu Cywilnego) offices, which hold the records less than 100 years old, most likely do not know English, so for best results you should write in Polish.  For guidance, see:

  • the Polish Genealogical Society of America's Polish Letter Writing Guide.
  • the Polish Letter Writing Guide at the Polish Roots website.
  • The LDS have published an 8-page "Polish Letter Writing Guide" (Research Guide #36339), available for 50 cents, and also available online in PDF format.
  • Korzenie Polskie: Polish Roots.  By Rosemary A. Chorzempa.  (Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1993), pages 231-238.
  • In Their Words: A Genealogist's Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin, and Russian Documents. Volume I: Polish.  By Jonathan D. Shea and William F. Hoffman.  (New Britain, CT: Language & Lineage Press, 2000), pages 134-138.
  • A Translation Guide to 19th-Century Polish-Language Civil-Registration Documents, by Judith A. Frazin.  3rd ed. (Chicago: JGS of Illinois, 2009), pages 28-41.

Interpreting the Reply

You will always receive a reply in Polish.   For assistance in interpreting the reply, see the excellent article "Translating Letters from the Polish National Archives" by William F. Hoffman, in RODZINY, Journal of the Polish Genealogical Society of America, XVIII:2 (August 1995), which was reprinted in Landsmen VI:1 (Summer 1995), and also reprinted in Shea and Hoffman's In Their Words: A Genealogist's Translation Guide to Polish, German, Latin and Russian Documents. Volume I: Polish. (New Britain, CT: Language & Lineage Press, 2000), pages 138-148.   This "Guide to Reading Letters From Archives in Polish" is now also available online.

Why your request might not be successful

Your attempts to obtain records by writing to the Archives and USCs may not always be successful.  Here are some possible reasons for a negative response or lack of response,particularly from the various local USCs.  Thanks to Stan Diamond, Michael Richman, Lauren Davis and Morris Wirth for these tips:

  • The Jewish civil registers (for the applicable town/years) were, indeed, lost.

  • You have the wrong town.  Statements from family members that their parents came from "Kielce", "Radom", "Lublin" or "Warsaw", etc. may be misleading.  They may have been from that gubernia (province) or area, but not necessarily from the gubernia capital city with the same name.  Broaden your search to other towns, and try to determine the specific town of origin from other documents.

    Or you might have the wrong town because there is more than one town with the same name.  Provide province/gubernia/district information, or the name of a nearby town, if possible.

    People living in villages registered events in a nearby larger town.  Even some fair-sized towns registered all their events in a larger town during certain periods.

  • You provided an Anglicized spelling of a surname, which bears little resemblance to the spellings in the Polish records.

    Example: To a Polish-speaking person, the name spelled "COHEN" would sound more like "TZOKHIN".  (See guides to the Polish alphabet and Polish pronunciation). An inexperienced Civil Records Office manager or employee would not look for "KON" or "KOHN" or "KOEN" or "KAAN" or "KOCHEN", which is likely the way that this name would be spelled in Polish-language records.

  • You did not provide the Polish version of the given name, which is the way the name would appear in the registrations.  "Harry", "Jennie", "Louis", "Fannie", "Morris", "Ida", "Max" and "Lena" are not names that were ever used in Poland!   Supply your relatives' Yiddish given names -- those are the names recorded in Polish civil registers.

    You should give alternate possible spellings of your surnames and given names.  Inexperienced clerks would not know that "Jankiel" is equivalent to "Jakob", etc.

  • Your family changed their surname after immigration, in spite of what you've been told.

  • Your family never got around to registering the event, or the registration was delayed a number of years.  It is not unusual to find births registered two, three, or even ten or more years late.

  • The manager of the USC to whom you wrote is not sufficiently versed in Russian to quickly spot the Cyrillic rendition of the name.  Civil records in the Kingdom of Poland were kept in the Russian language (Cyrillic alphabet) from 1868 to 1917.

  • The inherent problems of using the indexes.  The annual indexes compiled by the original clerks could be incomplete, missing altogether, or contain errors.  Examples of typical index errors include: surname and given name transposed, entries mis-alphabetized, etc.

  • The recipient did not understand what you were asking for, because your letter was not in Polish, or because you asked for so much, it was confusing.  Thus, your letter was not given attention.  Keep it simple.  In small towns, the office is run entirely by one person, who is unlikely to know English.

  • You've written to the wrong place.  The vital records for a town are sometimes split between two or even three different branches of the Polish State Archives, and the 20th century records are probably still in the local town's USC Office.

  • The archives or USC never received your letter.  Mail does get lost from time to time, in the United States, in Poland, or somewhere in between.

  • The USC could not afford stamps to reply to your genealogical inquiry.  You should enclose an International Reply Coupon (IRC), available from your local Post Office, and explain its use.

Vital Records in Poland Polish-Jewish Genealogy — Q & A
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Compiled by Warren Blatt, August 1998, Updated Dec 2001, May 2003, Apr 2011.
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