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Introduction to Polish Genealogy: History

Strategies and resources to research your Polish family history.

Historical Context

In order to fully understand the history of our families, it is beneficial to know the history of the country they came from and the historical context of the communities they formed. This very brief history is just a short outline to orient you to the historical background of your family and ultimately to help you locate international records.

  • Study Polish history to understand records from the old country and learn more about your ancestors' lives.
  • Determine what country or state your ancestor's hometown would have belonged to during a particular time period (did your ancestor come from the Russian, Prussian, or Austrian partition?).
  • Seek out Polish local histories and resources in ethnic collections stateside to gain a better understanding of the community your ancestors lived in. 

Partition Period

The Polish state was divided up by its three neighboring countries: Prussia; Russia; and Austria beginning in 1772. These land seizures are also known as partitions, and mark a period of upheaval and confusion as three foreign governments were imposed on the nation. This period of time is important for your genealogy research as it is important to understand how the changing borders resulted in changing town names and distinct record-keeping styles. Understanding this history also provides important historical context which influenced the migration of the Polish people.

1. The First Partition began in 1772. Austria received the southern portions of Krakow, Sandomierz, a portion of Polish Silesia, and part of Podolia. Russia received Inflanty, and the provinces of Polock, Witebsk, Mscislaw and Minsk. Prussia took parts of Pomerania, parto of Wielkopolska, and Kujawy.

2. The Second Partition consisted of a massive seizure of land by Russia and Prussia, who seized 250,000 and 57,000 square kilometers of land respectively. 

3. The Third Partition took place in 1795, and all three occupying forces seized additional land, with Russia taking the most territory.

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Key Events in Polish History

Poland's tumultuous history will impact every aspect of your genealogical research. In addition to the three partitions of Poland, the other historical events you will need to understand are:

  • The Congress of Vienna:
  •  World War I: Europe's borders were redrawn and several of Eastern Europe's many ethnic groups gained independent nation status. Poland re-appeared as a republic.
  •  World War II: During the war, borders within the Axis area changed again. The borders of Eastern Europe were extensively redrawn at the war's end. 

Further Reading