What you will find in this article:
- What is Western Galicia?
- How do I know my ancestors arrived from Galicia?
- Some important considerations before researching in Galicia
- Brief history of vital records
- Most important archives
- Interesting online resources
- Other sources
On our YouTube channel there is also a short video recorded by my colleague Aleksander Zawilski, who is talking about the similar matters. You can watch it here:
What is Western Galicia?
Galicia is a geographical and historical region with a complex history. The definition of the territory has changed over time. We use the term Galicia as a part of the Habsburg Empire that was taken from Poland during the partitions. More or less it covers the historic regions of Red Ruthenia (in today’s Ukraine) and Lesser Poland (in today’s Poland). In 1848, the Austrian authorities introduced a new administrative division of 79 counties. 29 were in Western Galicia and 50 belonged to Eastern Galicia. The border was set between the San and Wisłok rivers, with Jarosław, Przemyśl and Sanok (in today’s Poland) belonging to the Eastern Galicia.
For practical reasons and methods of conducting genealogy search nowadays, we will not be focusing on this division into Western and Eastern Galicia, but I will stop at the contemporary Polish-Ukrainian border.
Part one will focus on this part of Galicia, which is in today’s Poland.
This will include the following places (counties):
In today’s Poland there are also some regions, which were not a part of Galicia, but were under Habsburg rule, or the lands that belonged to Galicia only for a short time. These regions are:
- Austrian Silesia with Bielsko and Cieszyn
- A part of Orava region, which was included in Poland after the First World War
- A part of Spisz (Spiš): over a dozen villages East to the Podhale region, with Niedzica (also within the Polish borders after the First World War)
- A part of today’s Lubelskie province, so called “New Galicia”, which was a part of the Habsburg Empire after the Third Partition of Poland (1795), but during the Napoleonic Wars became part of the Duchy of Warsaw in 1809. Then following the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the region became part of Russian controlled Congress Poland
How do I know my ancestors arrived from Galicia?
If you were not able to identify the exact village from which your ancestors came, there are some leads found on passenger lists that should draw your attention to this region. The column for place of origin may state “Galicia” or “Halycia” or “Austria”.
Maybe your ancestors identified themselves as “Górale” (mountain people)? Basically the whole mountain region in Poland was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but not necessarily within Galicia proper. Beskid Śląski, Spisz and Orawa regions were under the Habsburg domination but were not in Galicia. If they identified themselves as Ruthenians/Rusyns/Lemko people, they were members of an ethnographic group which lived in Galicia. If they were Greek Catholic (Eastern Rite Catholic), it also might be a clue, but keep in mind that Greek Catholics also lived in other regions along contemporary Poland’s eastern and southern border.
In some old family letters, photographs or histories the names of some larger towns may appear. (See the list above). It is also important to remember that the towns might be named in different languages, for example Lwów/Lviv/Lemberg/Львів or Kraków/Cracovia/Krakau, jid. קראָקע Kroke.
In many cases, before you can focus on research in Poland, you will need to do research at home by collecting some vital records, obituaries, censuses, draft records and naturalization petitions, professional certificates etc. Often marriage records in the USA—especially ecclesiastical marriage registers—list the bride and groom’s place of origin.
Some important considerations before researching in Galicia
As in other parts of old Poland, Galicia was a multicultural society which included Roman Catholics, Greek (Eastern Rite) Catholics, Jews, Germans, Armenians (mainly in Eastern Galicia), as well as other groups.
It is important to remember that in this area of contemporary Poland civil registration was not common until 1945. All vital records were created and kept by church institutions —Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. Also, Jewish records were kept in separate registration districts. In short, there are separate books for each religion and the vital records for different religions might be located in different archives. Many families were mixed (between different Christian confessions), so it is worth checking all denominations for one village.
Records from Galicia are kept locally in the parish archives, state and church archives and local civil registries. Those charged with keeping the various records are obliged to transfer books older than 80 (marriages and deaths) to 100 years (births) to the appropriate state archives. However, since one book may contain records from a wide range of years, very often local offices still store books which begin in the 19th Century.
A key step before starting the research is to identify the correct parish or community. This is a broad topic and we’ll come back to it on our blog someday. In this text I just want to show you how many different institutions keep vital records from such a relatively small area.
Brief history of vital records
After the partitions new legal regulations regarding keeping the records were introduced. The earliest regulations were applied to the lands occupied by Austria. The so called “reformy józefińskie” (the reforms of Emperor Joseph II) were introduced from 1780 to 1790. They included administrative, church, judicial, social, agrarian, school and military reforms. One of the goals of this reform was to subordinate church institutions to the state. In the whole territory of Galicia from 1782 a law stating that the priests have the status of the civil officials was introduced. This law also covered other Christian Confessions as well as Jews. The basic regulations for keeping vital records were included in the imperial patent of February 20, 1784. Of course, Catholic parishes had been required by the Council of Trent (1575) to keep baptismal, matrimonial, and later, burial records. Although these records served as substitutes for civil vital records, their purpose was ecclesiastical—to record the reception of the Sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony, and later, to record Christian burials.
We are rarely lucky to come across such earlier books. One of the oldest books that survived is, for example, from the St. Mary’s Church in Kraków (from the 16th century!).
A new formal way of recording events appeared in the format of a table. Each priest was obliged to keep three separate books, one for recording weddings, the second for births and the third for deaths. Records were to be kept in Latin, separately for each village belonging to the parish. This was a new regulation, as the older books contained entries from all villages together. The record was to be entered without delay by the same priest who blessed the marriage, baptized the person, or conducted the burial rite. Preparing a sketch on a loose sheet was forbidden. using shortcuts and crossing out a record or a portion of the record were also prohibited. Appropriate corrections could have been done only with the written consent of the authorities. There were detailed instructions included in each book (births, marriages and deaths). In later years additional ordinances and rules were added.
In a nutshell, it all means for us genealogists, that having ancestors from Galicia, can be a kind of privilege. Working with books in tabular form is easy and pleasant. You do not need to be fluent in Latin to read them. Vital records from Galicia usually mention a house number, the social status or profession of people and many other useful details. In birth records there are not only names of parents, but also grandparents, sometimes including the maiden names! In general, the later a record was created, the more details it should contain. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, some records even contained the names of the great grandparents, dates of birth, dates of the parents’ marriage etc. In death records we might usually find the cause of death, which might tell us something about everyday life, common diseases or epidemics. It also contained the age of the person, but we should keep in mind it might be inaccurate.
Also, it is important to remember that priests were obliged to keep duplicates of each book.
However, research in former Galicia is not such a fairy tale as it might seem at first. There are a number of challenges: most of all, the biggest part of Roman Catholic records are available only in the church archives (Diocesan Archives and local parish archives). Most of these institutions do not have clear, consistent rules for sharing their collections. Usually, it depends only on the individual, personal decision of the parish rector or the director of each institution. The resources available in State Archives are copies of the parish church records. As I mentioned, at the beginning there was no civil registration in this area until 1945. After World War II, the state administration took books from churches (usually from 1890, sometimes older). In some parishes priests have made copies, but in other parishes copies are lacking. Sometimes, the records were also taken from the church archives (i.e. records from many Krakow’s parishes were moved from the Church Archive to the State Archives).
Very often the vital records from one parish are scattered in different archives: Some years might be available in the Diocesan Archive, others in a State Archive, while others may be found only in a parish archive or civil registry office. Therefore, it is important to know what records are available and where the records are housed, and to have a clear research plan and precise research goals. In some cases the order of visiting each archive will matter.
Below I will present for you the most important archives from the described area and try to summarize their resources, focusing on the vital records, and indicating some other collections, that might be of interest.
Most important archives
The main advantage of the State Archives is that they have rather consistent rules for sharing their collections, common to all offices. Of course, some are more friendly and cooperative than others, but the general guidelines and structure are clear.
Also, the State Archives do not have summer breaks (usually they are open in July and August, in contrast to the church archives).
State Archives have a common website, index and search system: https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/en/strona_glowna This website contains all resources of the archives and gathers records from all kinds of institutions. To search for vital records there is a bit confusing. For searching the vital records, there is another, maybe more user friendly, database called “PRADZIAD”: http://baza.archiwa.gov.pl/sezam/pradziad.php?l=en .
The area of Western Galicia is covered by the following State Archives:
State Archive in Bielsko-Biała
This is a branch of the State Archive in Katowice. The office in Bielsko-Biała was reopened following renovation and is the most modern archive in southern Poland. It has the collection of records from previous archives in Żywiec and Oświęcim.
The vital records (mainly from 1890 only): from Sucha, Radziechowy, Cięcina, Żywiec, Rajcza, Bielsko (only from 1900), Stryszawa, Andrychów (from 1859), Rudzica (from 1780!) and more.
There are also Evangelical and Jewish records from Bielsko.
National Archive in Kraków
The archive has a large collection of vital records from the region, cadastral maps from the area of Bochnia, Brzesko, Chrzanów, Dębica, Kraków, Limanowa, Myślenice, Nowy Sącz, Tarnów, Żywiec. The maps are scanned and available online, however the additional documentation (“operat”) and indexes of the house numbers and land owners are mostly available in physical format and must be accessed in Kraków or in its branch in Spytkowice (about 20 miles from the center of the city).
The National Archive in Kraków has several offices scattered in the city and in the surrounding area, but in 2020 they start renovation works and move to a new, modern office. We have to be prepared that starting from early summer of 2020 until 2021 (or longer) this archive will be unavailable.
In Kraków, there are also some vital records from the parishes in Kraków as well as the town books and censuses from Kraków, Kazimierz, Podgórze, Skawina from the late 19th and the early 20th Centuries.
The archive has also several branches:
In Nowy Sącz: List of groups.
In Bochnia: Special greetings to the wonderful and very helpful ladies working in this archive, this is one of our favourite archives in Poland! List of groups.
In Tarnów: This is also a very friendly archive. List of groups.
State Archive in Rzeszów
This archive has a large collection of civil records from the Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic parishes from the area of Rzeszów (some documents start from 1786, but others only have records beginning in 1890 or later). The records are also available online!
State Archive in Rzeszów, Sanok branch
The Archive collects materials from the area of Bieszczady mountains, Brzozów, Jasło, Krosno, Lesko, Sanok and Gorlice (until 1975). The most interesting for us are the civil records from the Greek Catholic parishes, for example from Cisna, Łopienka, Krzywa, Rymanów, Bóbrka, Brzozów, Lesko, Ustrzyki, Tarnawa, Jasiel and many, many more. There are also some civil records from Roman Catholic parishes, but mainly starting from 1890.
State Archive in Przemyśl
They have a big collection of Greek Catholic records from the end of the 13th century(!) until 1946, as well as some Roman Catholic and some residual Lutheran and Jewish records.
The archive also has an important collection of the cadastral maps – scanned and available online.
They also have an important collection of town and village records from the period before partitions.
The Archive of the Bielsko-Żywiec Diocese
The most mysterious one on our list 🙂 Everyone is talking about it but no one has ever seen it 🙂 Their resources are not available to the public, however there is a digitization project in progress. Before the end of 2022, they are planning to publish online records from the 41 Roman Catholic parishes from the area (together with other valuable documents, including some collections of the old Lviv diocese, the so called “Baziak archive”. More about this in the second part of the article about Eastern Galicia). Fortunately, the vital records from many parishes from this area (including Bielsko) are available in the Archdiocesan Archive in Kraków.
The Archdiocesan Archive in Kraków
One of the most friendly and easily accessible Church Archive. They do not offer research on request, but have a reading room with over a dozen seats. The reading room is open from Tuesday till Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., however there are some closed periods (in Summer or during important church holidays). It is good to follow the news on their website or FB profile.
This is one of the richest collection of the historical sources from the 15th century, but what is most interesting for genealogists is the collection of the Roman Catholic records from many parishes in Lesser Poland.
The Diocesan Archive in Tarnów
Another extremely important archive for this area. They have a big collection of copies of parish record books from the diocese, as well as parishes which had belonged to the Diocese of Tarnów until 1992 when they were removed from the Diocese of Tarnów and were attached to the dioceses of Sandomierz and Rzeszów.
The list of the books is available online. The reading room is open from Tuesdays to Thursdays (except holidays) from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. As some records are available only on microfilms, it is recommended to book the reader in advance.
The largest portion of their resources has been microfilmed and is available at LDS Family History Centers.
The Diocese Archive in Przemyśl
This is another extremely important archive, but also difficult to access. The director is only willing to cooperate with several researchers. Others are not permitted access to the archive’s records. We are lucky that we are working with one of them, but still his capacity and availability is limited.
The archive has Roman Catholic records from over 300 parishes, mainly starting from 1826.
What is worth mentioning here is that the Church archives have copies, while the original books are usually still kept in the parishes, so there is always hope to reach them in one way or another.
Local civil registries
What is important to remember here is that records less than 100 years old are not available to the public due to the general data protection regulations (for death and marriage records this is 80 years). So, it is quite common that they refuse to show books which include some newer records or they refuse to give any information at all. What might help in this situation is to have some documents proving that you are related to the person you are researching.
How to check which civil registry is the right one for your ancestral village? I usually use Wikipedia. For example: if you wish to find the registry for Miechowice Wielkie, a village north of Tarnów, you just check this in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miechowice_Wielkie and check its administrative district/gmina (in this case it is in Wietrzychowice.
Then you search (for example using Google) USC Wietrzychowice (Urząd Stanu Cywilnego is the civil registry). Unfortunately, the only way to obtain some information from the civil registry is to call or email them. The good news is that more and more often we encounter really nice and helpful officials. It is possible that the administrative district for one village changed over time, but the local officials will know best where to direct you. Also, they often know each other and communicate between the local offices.The bad news is that in most cases the whole communication will be in Polish, so contacting them on your own will be difficult if you do not know the language.
Interesting online resources
Several websites which might help you in your research:
This database is extremely helpful to identify the correct village and its parishes in different confessions. It mainly includes villages in East Galicia, but also quite a bit of its western part, including many eastern counties of Krakowskie voivodeships.
This website is useful not only for those of you who are researching their Jewish roots! They have great maps https://maps.geshergalicia.org/ , inventories and towns database, which might also help you to identify the right ancestral place: https://www.geshergalicia.org/towns/.
Although there are not many online records available for Western Galicia, there are some indexes, from over 100 parishes from małopolskie province and over 100 Roman and Greek Catholic parishes from the podkarpackie province.
It can be helpful—especially for someone who does not read Polish—in determining the parish to which a particular village belonged. It was published in the early 1930s but most of the data included fits the 19th Century. The main advantage for anyone who is not familiar with the Polish language is that the information is found in the columnar format. The first column on the left gives city, town and village names in alphabetical order and the last column on the right gives the location for the Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox parish to which the place belonged.
During our tours and research projects with our guests we mainly focus on the vital records, which I have described above. However, sometimes we are not able to access the relevant time frame or we have already checked all existing records and want to reach for more. Sometimes there is some confusion in the vital records, but there are other sources that might help to clear the situation. Those sources are sometimes older than the Austrian vital records, and might come even from 16 or 17th centuries:
- Banns – useful if there are no marriage records available
- Status animarum – the register of the parishioners, sometimes such documents can be found at the local parish offices
- Town and village records, censuses
- Notary and court documents, such as the inheritance and guardianship acts
- Galician schematism, containing the organizational chart of the administrative authorities of the specific region or country. The Galician Shematisms included lists of names of officials as well as other types of information, e.g.lists of landowners. The schematism was published annually and can be found online or in libraries.
- School records – there is a nice collection of the school records in the state archive in Przemyśl
If you are interested in the Genealogy Tour in former Galicia, see our website with all details and contact information. If you are interested in our Galicia Tour; all details can be found here.
If you need assistance with your research, we would like to offer our genealogy services.
If you would like to watch some educational videos, visit our Polish Genealogy Academy.