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Introduction to Polish Genealogy: Surnames and Name Changes

Strategies and resources to research your Polish family history.

Name Changes

Surnames developed as a cultural necessity to distinguish one person from another, and follow a descriptive naming pattern which can give you more information about your ancestor. Polish surnames were generally formed by combining a suffix to a root word. Some of the most common suffixes include:

  • -ski, -cki, -zki and the feminine versions -ski, -cka, -zka
  • -szyk, -czak
  • -ek, -ik, -yk
  • -arz, -erz, -acz

Polish surnames can often be classified with the following categories:

1. Patronymic and Matronymic Surnames: Among the easiest to recognize, these names are created by combining a first name with a suffix. 

  • Ex: Jan Piotric= John Peter’s son

2. Topographical and Geographical Surnames: Another common category of surname, many of these names developed to mark the place of residence for the original bearers

  • Ex: Jan de Dębina= John of the Oaks

3. Occupational Surnames: Names in this category reference the bearer's occupation or trade, or may be connected to associated objects.

  • Ex: Jan Sołtys= John the Administrator

4. Descriptive and Miscellaneous: Other surnames may have developed to reference a person's physical characteristics, or other verb or noun combinations.

To research your family's surname, there are many excellent Polish names dictionaries and reference works- a sampling of which are included in the further reading section of this page.  

Online Resources

 

Surname map

Retrieved from Surname Map of Poland

Online mapping tools can give you more information about the distribution of your ancestor's surname:

 

 

Name Changes

There remains a persistent myth that family names were changed as immigrants arrived at Ellis Island. While this is almost certainly not true, many families did choose to alter their names after they arrived in the U.S. for a number of reasons. Names may have been changed to sound more American, to have a better chance at employment, or to avoid prejudices. To perform research in European records, it is critical to have the correct versions of your ancestors' names in their original language:

1. Do not search by an Americanized version- convert the name back into Polish, and look up the German or Russian variants.

2. Try another vowel, ie Raducha or Reducha, Ryducha

3. Pay special attention to Polish letters which may confuse a non-Polish speaker. A diacritical l may look like a lower-case t in script

Further Reading