Silesia / Schlesien
Looking at a picture book of Silesia, one cannot help but be impressed by the massive forests and mountains, the wealth that was poured into palaces, the master craftsmanship that constructed the cathedrals and churches. Architecture aficionados will delight in the range from ornate baroque to austere gothic. Silesia was known for mining, timber, textiles, and glasswork. It is clear from the gold ornaments unearthed around Breslau, that there was already a high level of culture in the area in 300 AD. New settlers came in from Saxony, Thuringia, the Rhineland, Bavaria, Franconia and the Netherlands
One must remember that Lower Silesia is in the north and that Upper Silesia is in the south. Administratively, there was the Liegnitz region in the north, the Breslau region in the middle and the Oppeln region in the south. Silesia became part of Prussia in 1742. When researching Silesia it is important to consider the current events that caused someone to move there, or to leave there; not just in Silesia itself, but in the regions surrounding it. Over the centuries the land was claimed by Poland, Bohemia, Hungary and Prussia. Wars between the Holy Roman Empire and Sweden, and Prussia and Austria waged over Silesia. In 1241 Silesia joined forces with other central European powers to resist the Mongol invaders.
From 1425-1435 Hussites (Bohemians and Moravians, religious reform followers of Jan Hus) ravaged the land. Breslau’s position on the Oder River allowed merchants to bring in their wares from as far away as Lithuania. After WWII all of Silesia, except two and a half western counties, were given to Poland.
Archives and Records
http://www.archiwa.gov.pl/ (Polish or English Language)
Silesian research is different than Pomeranian in that this area was predominately German Catholic. I found the, "missing," LDS church books for the family villages were still with the parish priest. One could try writing a letter in Polish to the parish priest for the records but - I think it would be difficult to get a reply for several reasons:
The GGS collection of Germanic Genealogy Books at Concordia University in St. Paul, MN has 6 books specifically on Silesia genealogy, all are in English.
Rental Cars: Rent your car in the U.S. when you book your trip. If you wait until you are in Germany to rent a car, you will learn most rental companies will not allow their cars to be taken into Poland or any Eastern European countries. Auto theft is rampant in these countries. We rented through our travel agent before leaving home and had to pay an extra fee as more insurance is required. Make sure the name of every Eastern European country you plan on visiting is named on the contract. When we went to pick up our car at the Hamburg train station, we were told at the car rental desk that we could not take the car into Poland. I got out my copy of the contract and pointed to the rider in the policy, and the gentleman sighed and said, "Yes, I see," and we were on our way. When in the Silesia area, park only in gated lots and preferably, gated, guarded lots. The parish priests we visited had us bring our car into the parish gates, especially at dusk and after dark. No cars are safe so take precautions.
Personal possessions: Use common sense. Do not take or wear expensive, flashy jewelry. If you don't need it, leave it at home. Unless you are taking a photo, keep cameras, video cameras, tape recorders in a bag, not out in the open and around your neck especially in the larger cities. Our guide advised us never to give any money to people begging on the street.
Translator/Guide: Unless you can speak Polish it is absolutely necessary to have a translator/guide with you. If you are traveling that far to find family records and information, you must be able to communicate with parish priests, people at the archives and in the community. Also try to learn some words of Polish before leaving home, i.e. please, thank you, good day, etc. and use them. It is appreciated and it helped, "break the ice," and gain access to information I was seeking even though I had a translator. Our translator/guide had a cell phone with her, which was necessary to notify priests if we were detained or had to reschedule. As we were on the road going from village to village, it was also used to make reservations for rooms and/or dinner.
Maps: While in Poland I was able to buy highly detailed maps but they do not have the old German name for the small villages you may want to visit. I recommend buying maps before leaving home or in Germany as the best I have found for traveling in Poland is by the German company, Höfer- Verlag. They show the village name in both German and Polish. Our Polish guides did not know the German names or German history of the villages or area. Currently the only official North American dealer of Höfer Verlag maps is Genealogy Unlimited, Victoria, B.C., Canada. Customers in Europe should contact Höfer-Verlag directly in order to save postage costs.
Be aware that the Höfer-Verlag maps use the German name of the town or village as it was called in 1945 at the end of World War II. This name may not be the old, historic village name because in the 1930s the Nazi changed several village names because they didn't sound "German" enough. If you have trouble finding your German village on this map, use the website kartenmeister.com which usually lists the various historic names the village may have had during its history
Town/Village Name Changes: Use the web site kartenmeister.com to find the current Polish name and government district of a former German town or village that is now part of Poland. This web site will give you all the historic old German names, current Polish name, County/Kreis, Former German and current Polish province, the location by longitude and latitude, where the nearest Lutheran and Catholic Parishes were located, the location of the Civil Registry, etc. as well as connecting you to a Google Map showing its current location on a Polish map.
Have an itinerary: Before leaving home, make a list of every place you plan visit, what you need to accomplish at each stop, records you want to look for, what photos you want to be sure and take, etc. It is easy to get sidetracked while traveling and checking this list throughout your trip will keep you focused.
Go prepared: Know exactly which archive has what records and their current hours. Be aware of any closings for special holidays during the time period you will be visiting. Know what church records and/or civil records have been microfilmed and for what years by the LDS church. Don't waste your time looking at records that have been microfilmed by the LDS church which you can peruse at a local LDS library near your home. If you go to Poland to specifically do family research at village churches, you need to know the religion of your ancestor and be aware that the old German parish books may not exist as many were destroyed during the war. If your ancestors were Lutheran, any existing records will NOT be found in the now Polish Catholic parishes. All of the German Lutheran church books that survived World War Two were to be sent to Polish State Archives. Existing Lutheran church records may be at any number of these Polish State Archives. Some of these records may also be found at a German State Archive or at the Evangelischen Zentralarchiv in Berlin.
If your ancestors were German Catholic, these records are usually still in the now Polish Catholic parish. When your translator/guide makes the appointment with the priest, have them ask if any German Catholic records still exist for the parish, what the records are (church history, baptisms, confirmations, etc.) and the years for each. The priests at the parishes we visited usually wanted to know a date and specific event we were seeking ie. baptism, confirmation, marriage, burial. Be sure the translator/guide you are hiring has this information when they make the appointment for you. They should also have this information on hand when they call to confirm your time of arrival.
Make Appointments: You must have advance appointments at the archives and usually through the director of the archives. Make your advance reservations and have a confirmation before leaving home. If you are hiring a translator/guide, this person could make the advance reservations for you, check on records you want to research, etc.
This is the same for parish priests. Make appointments if you want to see and photograph the inside of their church/churches. Note that many parish priests have 3-4 churches located in different villages unless it is in a larger town. When appointments are made, and also when you arrive, check with the priest how much time they can spare for you to see the church and possibly, if it was a former German Catholic parish, to search the old German Catholic Church books.
Researching German Catholic Church Records: The Silesian area where my husband's family was from was predominantly German Catholic. The LDS church had not microfilmed the church books for his ancestor's churches but these Catholic records were still in the Polish Catholic parishes.
Be aware there may be two different sets of books at a parish if there are two Catholic churches in town. In larger churches that encompassed some small villages, the records may be combined by date of occurrence or they may be in the back of the book in a separate section, or in their own book. Make sure the priest is aware of which village records you are seeking as well as the family name. We spent valuable time searching through the church books only to find the small neighboring village we wanted records for had its own pages of records in the back of the main church books. The priests are required by the Polish government to not let any "foreigners" look through their church books unattended. This became necessary after people either stole complete church books and/or sliced pages out them. The priests must take time out of their busy day to sit in the room while you search for your family records. The Polish priests are extremely busy as most have parishes in several villages. Be gracious and appreciative of their valuable time. The old books are not in the churches but in the parsonage so remember you are not only interrupting their church services and other duties but also their mealtimes and daily lives. You are an invited guest into their home. Do not snack or bring drinks into their home. If you are offered lunch or supper, be sure you wash your hands before returning to search the records. Parish priests now have churches in several villages where they give mass, etc. If there is a church school within their parish, they are also administrator and even teacher. We found them extremely busy.
German Script: You should be familiar with the old German script and be able to read your family names and basic information in the entries. If you are fortunate to have a translator/ guide who is able to read the records that is an asset, but as you are the person who has done the research on your family, you will see and catch family names that may be collateral lines. Also two or more people searching the records will save valuable time for the priest. I am a novice in reading the old script but was much more proficient than the guides we have used. The priests sat in the room but did not assist us. They were busy with their own parish duties. I don't think most of them could read the old German script.
Research Time for German Catholic Church Records: Keep your visit with the priests as short as possible. We didn't see any church secretaries. In the larger parishes, the priests had housekeepers but they were busy with their duties, making dinner, cleaning, gardening, etc. Come up with a system to search as quickly as possible. We ran our fingers down the pages looking only for the family surnames. Only then did we read just enough of the entry to confirm they were our family line and tagged the page with a slip of paper. There were four of us, including our translator/guide, searching through the books as quickly as possible and it still took hours because of the number of books we found in each parish.
One complaint we had from a priest is that people call and ask to search for family records saying it will only take a few minutes and then stayed for hours. Imagine working full time and then having to stop everything you are doing to baby sit foreigners while they look for old family records for hours and still have your own work to do for the day after they leave. If it were not for our translator assuring a priest that we would work quickly and be done by noon, he would not have permitted us see any of the old German church records. If you find a lot of family records, consider hiring a researcher to come to the church at a later date to do the research rather than spending a couple days at the parish and alienating a priest so that he will never again give permission for people to search the church books.
The church books are not stored in the churches but in the priest's home. Some priests only brought out the books for the years and event I requested but we saw stacks of other church books in the cabinet. They may have been old German records from other parishes under their jurisdiction or they may have been Polish records for the church after 1945. In two parishes we visited, the priests brought out all the parish books they had in their possession for us to look through. At another parish, several books were waiting on a table for us. Unfortunately we were never told that these books were only what the priest could carry at one time. These books were not in any particular order and when we returned two years later to question the priest about the gaps in the records, we discovered there was another 15 parish books still sitting up in the attic where the parish books were kept. Instead of seven children in the family, there were 15.
Searching these records is very time consuming because of reading the old script, the number of books in the parish and because of interruptions. One afternoon a priest had three masses at three different villages. He was in a dilemma as he was not to leave the books unattended. He was kind enough that instead of asking us to leave, he telephoned a church member to come to his home and sit with us. At another parish, everything stopped because the priest had a wedding ceremony to perform, so we attended the wedding and when he was able to return to the parish, we continued our research.
Copying Records: We did not find any parish that had a copy machine. Instead our guide asked permission for me to photograph, without flash, my family records. The person in our group least able to read the old script, became our photographer. When we finished quickly scanning a book for family names and tagging the entries, our "photographer" took the photos of the tagged pages while we searched the next book. Most of the parsonages were quite dark inside. We either used a wide windowsill to take the photos in natural light or used a lamp. Our guide explained how we were being careful with the old records by not using flash and the priests were happy to bring a lamp to the table.
Visiting/Photographing the Church: If a priest says he has only an hour or two for you to search the records, do not spend your time researching the records and then ask or expect to see the inside of the church. Mention you would like also like to see the inside of the church upon arrival and let the priest set the time during your visit when it is convenient for him. If there is more than one Catholic Church in the town, both churches are probably under his jurisdiction. If you want to see the inside of both churches, again mention this at the beginning of your visit or when you make the appointment. The priest may then be able to arrange for someone to open the other church for you to photograph. Don't expect him to find someone at the last minute. Be understanding if he is the only one who can open the church and he doesn't have time. If you are lucky enough to see the inside of the church, be aware it is difficult to do justice to the beautiful old churches using only the internal flash on your camera as we found most of them quite dark inside. An external flash on the camera would be better to photograph the ceilings and walls.
Donations: When visiting a church or checking for German Catholic records, always offer a donation to the priest for his time and assistance. These offers were usually refused but when we asked if we could make a donation to the church and these were usually welcomed and accepted by the priests. If your offer is rejected, accept it, and don't insult them by insisting. Remember you want your visit to pave the way for those who come after you to see their family records.
Leave a business card: We found out someone from Germany had been to the same parishes researching the same family names only two weeks before. The priest had not kept any record of the person's name and we have no knowledge of living family in Germany. If you have a personalized card or something with your name, address and e-mail upon it that you can leave with the priest, it may be advantageous to you. But remember the priests do not need extra work and it is not their duty to keep track of visitors or make family contacts for you.
Photographing family villages: Allow enough time to take photographs of family villages and the countryside. Searching church records takes a lot of time. We ended up rushing from one appointment to another and missed getting photos of the villages. There was no time to take photographs when arriving in the village as we didn't want to be late for our appointments but by the time we finished, it was after dark.
Thank you notes: A thank you note to the parish priests you visited is always a nice touch. (Be sure your guide helps you get their complete name and address during your visit.) If you have Polish currency left after your trip, you may consider including these Zloty's in the thank you card to a parish priest. If you promised anything to anyone, do it promptly after arriving home. One priest asked if I could send him photos of the inside of his church as he had never seen any photos of his church. My only regret is that I didn't have more light when I photographed the beautiful frescoes on the walls and ceilings.
Scheduling Your Time: Allow extra time for traveling from village to village as well as locating the church. Allow extra time to see and photograph the villages not just the church. If you are researching German Catholic records, allow extra time for the unexpected - a mass, wedding, etc. which may interfere with your research time.
Security: Churches in Poland are not immune from theft. At one of the parishes we visited, a window had been broken and cherub and angel statues had been stolen off the altar. Another priest who had confirmed the marriage record of an ancestor a month earlier, refused to let us enter the parish ground upon our arrival. Our guide had telephoned early in the morning to let the priest know we would arrive on time for our appointment, but could not answer which family names we wanted to research as she did not have the papers in front of her. When we arrived at the parish, the priest met us with his Doberman pincher dogs and would not let us in. We left empty handed after leaving a small donation for his time. It was only because our guide was persistent in phoning him the next two days, giving him the name of the parishes we were visiting, that this priest finally consented to our visit. We found out later that the priest had become fearful when our guide could not recall the family name on the phone and then we arrived as a carload of four adults. (Our guide, my husband, daughter and myself.) He was afraid we were there to rob the church and parish. When the priest finally allowed our visit, my husband and daughter stayed in the car outside the gates and as this helped ease his fears.
Money: We used cash machines at gas stations and banks in Poland to obtain Zlotys. We carried two different cards from two different banks in case one card would not work. Be sure to let your bank and credit card company know what countries you will be visiting before you leave home or your cards may be frozen and unusable. Even before Poland joined European Union, our guides preferred to be paid in Euros not Zlotys.