By Catherine Czercawska
I began to research this project many years ago. My father, Julian Czerkawski, had come to Britain with the Polish II Corps, aka General Anders’ Army, at the end of the war, and chose to stay here as a refugee. He had lost most of his family and his part of Eastern Poland was now Ukraine.
In the 1970s, I spent a year in Poland, working at Wroclaw University. This allowed me to get some first-hand accounts from those people who had survived the war, especially my great uncle and aunt, Karol and Wanda Kossak. My Polish and their English were equally limited, so we spoke in French. Later, I persuaded my father to write down all that he could remember of his childhood in that part of Eastern Poland called Galicia, in the city of Lwow (now Lviv) and in the countryside round about. This became a primary resource for my new non-fiction book, The Last Lancer.
Where to start your Polish family history research
The starting point for researching your Eastern European family must be to ask family members what they know, (although few of those most directly affected will still be alive) or what they have been told, even if they are first generation Poles born elsewhere, like myself. We all have family stories. You should also read the history of the region. Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands is an excellent, albeit harrowing, starting place. Bear in mind that borders have been and remain fluid. This was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so some records will be in German. For me, helpful organisations were as diverse as the Austrian State Archive, the Austrian Parliamentary Library and the Library of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.
Researching Polish family history online
Online research has become easier and I spent many hours following threads, pursuing leads. So much has been digitised: everything from old maps to church records, although many records have been destroyed by war. Don’t forget to use Google Street View to follow roads through villages where parents and grandparents once lived, but remember that Ukrainian placenames will be slightly different from the older Polish names.
Help from others
I had plenty of help from generous Polish friends, with good access to unusual records. It’s worth seeking out Polish interest groups online, for example the supremely informative Kresy Siberia Website (kresy-siberia.org) and its Facebook group, devoted to those millions of Poles deported to Siberia.
On the German side, the staff of the Bergen Belsen Museum were sensitively helpful and welcomed my enquiry, always seeking to add to their own records and commemorate people like my great aunt Ludka who was a victim of the concentration camps.
If your forebears were in the army, and came to the UK (often via Italy) the staff at the APC Polish Enquiries Office of the MOD will have records of their service and resettlement. These were enlightening, as much in what my father didn’t say as in what was officially recorded.
Don’t neglect your family papers, if you have them. Look on the backs of old snapshots for precious handwriting. My father brought a little bundle of documents and photographs with him, including his informative German identity card as a young man in occupied Lwow.
Finally, it is certain that your research will unearth many distressing stories. It is like doing a jigsaw puzzle of which you have only the sketchiest image and no edges. Sometimes the picture that emerges is heart-breaking. Do bear in mind that for those of us who haven’t lived through it, it is almost impossible to imagine the horror and chaos of occupation and the speed with which ordinary life can be turned upside down. We are seeing it now in Ukraine.
For more general Polish family research, this is a good starting point: familysearch.org/en/wiki/Poland_Websites
Listen to the podcast interview here: journeysintogenealogy.co.uk