Discovering our Ancestors' Travels and Travails

Using Polish Names

As much as possible, I try to use their Polish names for Polish immigrants and their children in my family history research. As language professor, author, and founding president of the Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the NorthEast Jonathan Shea explained, these are not necessarily the names found in vital records. Roman Catholic church records often use Latin names, but our ancestors did not speak Latin. Many records from the partitioned areas were in German and Russian, and although Polish people in occupied lands sometimes spoke other languages, Polish was their native tongue. When immigrants came to America, they would often use an English equivalent or Americanized versions of their names. When recording people, I look for their Polish names, the names given to them by their Polish speaking parents.

Many of our Polish immigrant ancestors came from places that were occupied by other countries before World War I. There were some boundary fluctuations, but in general, the north western parts of Poland were occupied by Germany, the central and eastern parts of Poland were occupied by Russia, and the south western part of Poland was occupied by the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Each of these occupying empires, in various ways, sought to minimize the Polish spirit and yearning for Polish independence.

Not only did the occupying forces require official records to be kept in German or Russian, in some cases the speaking and teaching of the Polish language and culture were forbidden. Ironically, some immigrants left their native land so they and their children could be more Polish, not less.

And for a short period of time, it often worked. Polish immigrant communities, called Polonia, grew in the Americas. My own ancestors immigrated to Buffalo, New York, but as we identified through DNA matches, their relatives moved to Polish enclaves in Illinois (especially Chicago), New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Minnesota, and California. In many of these places, immigrants could prosper and successfully raise their children without ever becoming fluent in English.

Their children, however, often embraced America and American ways. Some, like my parents, decided to only speak English to their children, so in just three generations, some of our Polish culture and history was lost.

In my family history research, I work to recover and reclaim this heritage. Our Polish ancestors had and gave their children Polish names. I include the other names they used throughout their lifetimes, but in using their Polish names as primary, I honor our Polish immigrant ancestors and the sacrifices they made to try to give us, their descendants, a better life.

The bonus is that identifying original Polish names can assist in tracking our immigrant ancestors back to Europe and enable us to learn even more of our family history in the “old country.”

Sources

  • Hoffman, William F. and Helon, George W. First Names of the Polish Commonwealth: Origins & Meanings. Chicago, Illinois : Polish Genealogical Society of America 1998.
  • Hoffman, William F. Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings. Chicago, Illinois : Polish Genealogical Society of America. 1993, Second Edition, Revised 2001. Third Edition, Revised 2012.

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