My babcia (grandmother) and her family came here from Poland near the beginning of the 20th century. I still don't know why they came here, but there were a lot of Polish emigrants coming around the time. Probably, like many of the others, they lived in very poor and rural conditions, with large families and high child mortality, with whatever government that happened to be running or occupying the area at the time seriously messing with them. They might have heard that there were opportunities for work as the United States became more entrenched as an industrial society.
I talked with my babcia a little bit about her roots when I was a small child. Of course, I wish we had talked more about it, because now she and all her brothers and sisters are long gone. I never tried to learn Polish except for knowing a few words that she would use around me (mostly Polish cuss words). I remember her telling me that her grandmother's last name was Czop (and she made a "chopping" motion with her hand to reinforce the pronunciation). I went to visit her once when I was a teenager and she introduced me to all of her brothers and sisters (and she had a lot!) except for one sister, and I met her on a later visit.
So a few years ago, I tried to find out more about my Polish roots. Of course, I started with family, and asked them everything they knew. Anyone who had actually come from Poland was long gone. There were some first-generation Polish-Americans born in the US, some of whom spoke Polish as they were raised in Polish communities. That seemed to be the norm at the time; nowadays it seems like most Polish immigrants I meet integrate themselves into more "Americanized" communities.
I found a scrap of paper that had my grandmother's birth town listed on it. So now I had a location. Of course I started on Ancestry.com for as much info as I could find on there. But they don't have a lot of information from Poland. I have posted an extensive family tree on Ancestry so if you are family or have some interest, I can invite people to my tree by email.
I found my grandmother's family on The Ellis Island Foundation website and found that my grandmother arrived with her siblings and her parents at Ellis Island in 1913 (so this coming year will be the hundredth anniversary of my family's arrival). They departed from Liverpool, England on the ship "Carmania" but I have no idea how they got to England. I had seen in a newspaper clipping from a Polish language newspaper from the 1940s that my grandmother and her siblings had a cousin in England; maybe somehow this is related, but maybe not. I think that since I had found this on the Ellis Island site, Ancestry also acquired some records that included this information because now I have seen it there too.
I found the book Polish Roots and read through it to find resources for finding family information. At the time, I did not speak any Polish at all. So I typed out some boilerplate letters in Polish included in the back of the book to various Polish civil and church authorities and was able to get some information that way. This book is an excellent guide to how to research your Polish roots.
Next, I started researching through the Family History Library Catalog to see if I could find any information on the microfilms that have been collected by the LDS Church. The way this works is that you can look up microfilms to be ordered through your local Family History Center. You can search for microfilms by area but you have to have some information about the area that your ancestor came from. You will mostly find records on births (akta urodzin), marriages (akta małżeństwa), and deaths (akta zgonów). They will be delivered there within a week or two and then will be there for a fixed amount of time. Sometimes the microfilm viewers to be used are limited so you might have to wait your turn but if it is busy the people there are pretty cooperative about taking turns. You might find that this process is hit-and-miss, but I was able to find a lot of good information on some of the microfilms. It is a slow and tedious process and not as immediately satisfying as when you can look information up online. Also, the records I looked at were in Latin, often with very poor handwriting, and some of the images are poor also, which can lead to some headache-inducing close scrutiny of the documents to try to figure out what they say. Some of the documents might be in Polish rather than Latin, but I have not encountered any yet for my family.
Most of the documents that LDS has are not yet online. However, there is a push to put them online, and they call for volunteers to look at documents and type transcriptions of them into databases that can be searched online. You can assist with this endeavor as a volunteer if you wish, through FamilySearch Indexing. I helped transcribe a lot of documents when the 1940 Census was released as part of this effort. You simply download a program to your desktop and pick images that you want to assist with transcribing; there are documents from all over the world. Once you become an experienced indexer, you can also become an arbitrator as well (I have also done this). What this entails is arbitrating contradictory results from indexers. Usually two separate indexers will transcribe an image, so there will be an "A" index and a "B" index. The arbitrator will look at any results that differ, compare them to the image, and either pick the one that looks most correct or enter a new value if neither looks right.
The last place I got a substantial amount of stuff was on my trip to Poland in 2010. I visited several church dioceses there, which were the custodians of records for most of Polish history, and was able to photograph some vital records there. At the time, my language skills were very poor, so I was not able to communicate very well (I was still at the "stroke victim" level that I discussed in this post). Therefore, I was mostly limited to the sources that I found in the Polish Roots book and anything that I otherwise discovered serendipitously. I took several pictures of my visit to Poland and posted them on my Facebook page. I have been able to trace some branches of my family back to the 1700s and hope that someday I will be able to find records that go back even farther.
Most of the records I have found for my family indicate that they lived in several small towns clustered between Nowy Sącz and Tarnów in Małopolska. This area is about 80 km southeast of Kraków. When they moved to the US, they settled around Chicopee, Massachusetts. There is a really good historical book about the Polish families that immigrated to this area called The Polish Community of Chicopee. They also lived in Holyoke, MA and Enfield, CT, as well as other towns around that area.
When my babcia lived in Massachusetts, she hooked up with a French-Canadian guy, my grand-père (grandfather). This inter-ethnic relationship was absolutely scandalous at the time and roiled both of their families. On top of that, there seems to be some question as to whether they were even actually married, and the only marriage record I have found for them was several years after their last child (my mother) was born.
A free resource is RootsWeb, which has a lot of family trees that people have posted online. I have posted a descendancy tree there from one of my ancestors at this link: Descendants of Wojciech Sobczyk. There is also a PolishGenWeb site on RootsWeb that has a number of resources, including some Polish Vital Records online, though this list of vital records is hit-or-miss and not very comprehensive.
One more book that has been helpful to me is A Translation Guide to 19th Century Polish-Language Civil-Registration Documents, available through the PGSA, which I bring up further on in this article. This book has a number of terms that were commonly used in civil and church vital documents, and explanations of how they were used, as well as examples of sample documents.
PolishGenWeb also has a list of Polish Terms commonly used in genealogical research. Other sites with Polish genealogy terms and phrases include: Family Tree Magazine, The Polish Genealogy Project, LDS, LDS again, and yet more from LDS,
There are a number of Polish genealogy societies in the US. One of the biggest is the Polish Genealogical Society of America (PGSA), which has a good resource center with useful links for genealogical information. Mostly this centers on Polish immigrants to the Midwest, particularly to Chicago, but a lot of their info is applicable to Polish immigrants to all areas of the United States. They also have a lot of good books on Polish Genealogy in their store. There are lists of other Polish genealogical societies at PolishGenWeb, most of which serve specific regions.
And here are a few more miscellaneous links. There is more info on translating documents at Suite101.com. There are more links to genealogical resources at Genealogy Links, and another resource is Polish Roots.
I hope to talk some more about my Polish genealogy quest in further posts, but I have covered a good deal of what you would need to know and where you would have to go if you wanted to explore your own Polish roots in this blog post. I would be happy to answer any questions if I can help lead you in the right direction in finding your Polish ancestors.