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What issues can cause difficulty in finding and interpreting records?

Discrepancies in names and ages on records

For a variety of reasons, there are often discrepancies in names and ages as they are recorded in 19th century and early 20th century Polish records for the same person.

  • The information recorded by the clerks on the records was only as good as the information provided by the witnesses.  
    • While the witnesses would typically have first-hand knowledge of the information set forth on birth and marriage records, they would be less likely to have knowledge about a deceased person who died at an advanced age. 
    • On some occasions, a person might have had an incentive to misstate his or her age.
  • The handwriting on records is often quite difficult to read, which can result in mistakes or inconsistency in the transcription of records by modern-day researchers, especially by those who are not native speakers of Polish or Russian.

Issues with names

  • Not only did clerks often use variant spellings of names on records, but there are sometimes variations in spelling as between the names as written on records and as written on the indices kept by the clerks for such records.  
    • Sometimes, the same name is spelled in more than one way on the same record. 
    • Basically, spelling doesn’t matter in 19th century records.  
  • Polish Jews sometimes had two names preceding their surname.  
    • Sometimes, the first name was a given name and the second name was the father’s given name (a patronym), but on other occasions both the first and second names comprised a “double given name.”
    • Some Polish Jews sometimes used only the first or second name of their double given name, and were not always consistent as to such use.
    • The records sometimes report both names in a double given name, but it is not uncommon for some records (and indices) to report only the first name, or only the second name, or both names in reverse order – and to do so inconsistently.
  • Records sometimes used different variants of the same name, perhaps reflecting Hebrew names, Yiddish names, or local secular names.  
    • For example, the same man might be identified on Polish records as Lejb, Lewek, Lejbuś, or Lejbka.  
  • Because personal names are inflected in Polish, given names may appear in different forms, depending on where they appear in the record.  
  • Polish- and Russian-language records include gendered surnames, but modern-day indexers typically convert female surnames to the masculine form. 
    • For example, even though a woman’s surname on a record might be shown as ending in “-ska,” it will typically be indexed as “-ski.”  
    • While records for a woman or girl might show a surname with the suffix “-owa” or “-owna” (referring to the surname or the given name of her husband or father, respectively), such records are often indexed without such suffix.
  • Sometimes, where people were known by more than one name, the records will separate the alternate names with the word “vel,” or the letter “v.” 
  • Death records sometimes contain the names of multiple surviving children.  
    • It is often difficult to tell on death records whether two consecutive names reflect two different children, or a child with a double given name.

Issues with ages

  • Clerks often rounded off ages or estimated ages based upon a person’s appearance.  
    • It is not uncommon for records from the same year to provide ages for the same person that vary by a decade or more.    
  • Ages in Napoleonic-format vital records are typically fully written out in words, rather than in Hindu-Arabic numbers.  
    • That can lead to errors by modern-day extractors whose native tongue is not Polish or Russian.  
    • For example, in Polish there are some words for numbers that may be incorrectly reported because they can appear somewhat similar when written in cursive – e.g., jeden (one) and siedem (seven), and dziewięć (nine) and dziesięć (ten).
  • Death records typically report ages in years (lat), months (miesiące), weeks (tygodnie), or days (dni), and sometimes use special designations for one-half year (pol), one-and-a-half years (pol tora), or quarter-years (kwartały).  
    • On occasion, persons extracting records may miss one of these terms, and thus record an incorrect age. 

Issues in transcribing or transliterating from Polish or Russian

  • The Polish language includes nine accented characters that can cause issues in transcription and transliteration.  For example: 
    • The character ł, pronounced as “w,” can easily be mistranscribed as the letter “t,” rather than the letter “l.”  
    • The character ą is pronounced as “on” (or as “om” when followed by “b” or “p”). 
    • The character ę is pronounced as “en” (or as “em” when followed by “b” or “p”). For example, the name Mędel is pronounced as “Mendel,” and might be transcribed as either Medel or Mendel.
  • In Polish-language records, the letters “i” and “j” are often used interchangeably.  
    • For example, the same man’s given name may be indexed as Icyk or Jcyk (or even as Ick or Jck). 
  • In Polish-language records, some names are alternatively spelled with the letter “h” or the letters “ch,” which sound similar in Polish. 
    • For example, the same person’s name may be indexed as “Hana” or “Chana” (or as “Hanna,” “Channa,” or “Anna”).
  • Because of differences between the Polish (Latin) and Russian (Cyrillic) alphabets, some names can be spelled differently when transcribed from Polish or transliterated from Russian into English.  
    • Because the Russian language lacks a letter for the “h” sound, the letter “g” is often used as a substitute.  For example, the surname spelled “Horowicz” in Polish will start with the letter “G” when transliterated from Russian into English.
    • The Russian language lacks the letter “x,” instead using the letter combination “ks” to denote the same sound.  (For example, the surname spelled “Wexler” in Polish will be transliterated as “Weksler” from Russian into English).

Name issues resulting from format of records

  • Birth records almost always show the child’s given name without a surname, instead providing the name of the child’s father. 
    • During the period prior to the general adoption by Polish Jews of surnames in the 1820s, it will often be unclear whether the child’s surname is the father’s listed surname, or is instead a patronymic based on the father’s given name. For example, the son of Berek Moskowicz might have been known by his father’s surname Moskowicz and/or by the patronymic surname Berkowicz (son of Berek).
  • Birth records typically identify the father by given name and surname, but may or may not identify the mother by maiden name and/or married surname.  
  • On marriage and death records, the names of the father and the mother appear next to each other.  
    • When the mother’s maiden name is omitted, the names appear in the format [father’s given name] and [mother’s given name], followed by [father’s surname, which should be identified as the couple’s surname].  
    • When the mother’s maiden name is included, the names typically appear in the format [father’s given name] and [mother’s given name], followed by [mother’s maiden name preceded by the letter z] and [father’s surname, which is identified as the couple’s surname]. 
    • Occasionally, this naming convention may cause confusion and result in children being indexed under their mother’s surname rather than their father’s surname. 
  • Birth records typically identify the father as the first name on the record, followed by the names of witnesses and the mother’s name before providing the infant’s name (without a surname).
    • Where the father was not present for the recordation of the birth, his name will not be the first name on the record, and the index may incorrectly identify the first man on the record as the infant’s father.   

Name issues resulting from use of patronymics rather than hereditary surnames 

  • It is especially difficult to research Jewish records from Poland from the mid-1820s and earlier, because although some Jews in Poland had adopted surnames by that time (permanent surnames were first required by law in Congress Poland in 1821), many others used patronymics.
  • Patronymics are names that identify a person as the son or daughter of a father (i.e., Berek, the son of Lewek Moszkowicz, might have been known as Berek Lewkowicz).
  • Patronymic names are created by adding one or more suffixes to a father’s or grandfather’s given name, such as:
    • -owicz = son of
    • -ówna = daughter of
    • -owa = wife of 
    • -owiczówna = daughter of the son of
    • -owiczowa = wife of the son of
    • -ów = of (plural)
  • Sometimes, patronymic names became true hereditary surnames (i.e., Berek, the son of Lewek Moszkowicz, might have been known as Berek Moszkowicz upon adopting his father’s patronymic name as a surname).
    • Often, patronymic names were replaced with other surnames. 
    • Conjectured Surnames – Sometimes, there are records that can be used to tie surnames to the previously used patronymics.  
      • In some towns in the 1820s, there are records that identify persons by using both a patronymic and a surname (which may often have been recently adopted). By using those dual names along with age and occupation, it may be possible to identify the surnames ultimately adopted by people who are identified only with patronymics. These are called “conjectured surnames,” and are indicated in JRI-Poland transcripts using square brackets (i.e., “[SURNAME]”). These “conjectured surnames” do not appear in the original record, but have been conjectured by indexers/transcribers of a town’s records.  

Records for this period – often referred to as “patronymic records” because many Jews in Poland had not yet adopted surnames during that period – are generally not searchable through JRI-Poland’s search engine, because of the issues caused by the lack of surnames.

Issues caused by Jewish naming patterns

  • Jewish naming patterns can cause significant issues in tracing one’s family tree.  
    • In 19th century and early 20th century Poland, there were a limited number of popular Jewish given names.  
    • There were also a number of common Jewish surnames, including surnames that were based on patronyms (e.g., Moszkowicz, for son of Mosiek), geographic origins (e.g., Brzezinski, reflecting origins in Brzeziny), and status as a Cohen or Levite (e.g., Kon and Lewi).
    •  Accordingly, it was common for Jews to share the same given name and surname with a substantial number of other Jews.
  • Jewish families in 19th century Poland tended not to move far from their hometowns.  
    • As a result, it was common for multiple brothers or cousins with the same surname to live in the same town or in nearby towns.  
  • Because of the Ashkenazi custom of naming children after deceased relatives, each of these multiple brothers or cousins would typically have a child named after the same shared parent or grandparent.  
    • It was not uncommon for there to be multiple children with the same name to be born in the same town or nearby towns within a year or two of each other, each of them named after the same relative who had died recently.
    • Accordingly, it will be necessary to review birth, marriage, or death records to identify the parents of each identically named child. 
    • Ages, occupations, spouse’s names, and/or hometowns will also be of use in distinguishing between multiple persons with the same name.

Late-recorded records

  • Births were not always recorded when they occurred, especially in the latter part of the 19th century. These are called “delayed registrations.”
    • Thus, the fact that a birth was recorded in a particular year does not necessarily mean that the child was born in that year.
  • Sometimes, couples simultaneously recorded the births of multiple children at a single time.  Those records will appear in the indices with consecutive akt numbers.
    • Unless the records have been fully extracted, it will be necessary to get and review the records to confirm whether the children share the same parents, and to determine when the children were born.

Unidexed and unavailable records

  • Research is especially difficult when one is unable to find birth, marriage, or death records, either because the relevant records no longer exist, or have not yet been indexed, or because such events were not civilly recorded.  Sometimes, births, marriages, or deaths can be confirmed through alternative sources.
    • For example, Books of Residents and the Łódź registration cards from 1916-21 may identify entire families, providing information concerning parents and children, birth dates, and birth towns and/or hometowns.
    • Birth records identify fathers and mothers, and state whether or not they were married (which they almost always were, in 19th century Congress Poland).
    • Information concerning deaths can be determined through sources that index tombstones.
    • Current Polish government privacy laws prohibit the release of: (1) marriage and death records that are less than 80 years old or (2) birth records that are less than 100 years old.
      • JRI-Poland typically does not have access to records until they are transferred to the Polish State Archives from each town’s Civil Records Office, which may not happen for years after the records are eligible for transfer under the privacy laws.
      • It takes a significant amount of time to index and/or extract the records after transfer.

Julian calendar vs. Gregorian calendar

While some countries (including Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ruled Galicia) adopted the Gregorian calendar before the start of the 19th century, regions ruled by Russia – including Congress Poland, and the Pale of Settlement gubernias within the regions indexed by JRI-Poland – continued to use the Julian calendar through 1918.

  • During the 19th century, the Julian calendar was 12 days behind the Gregorian calendar, i.e., January 1, 1900 on the Julian calendar was January 13, 1900 on the Gregorian calendar.
  • As of 1901, the Julian calendar was 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar, i.e., January 1, 1901 on the Julian calendar was January 14, 1901 on the Gregorian calendar.
  • Beginning by the late 19th century, records from the Russian Empire often included both Julian and Gregorian dates (with the Julian date listed first).
  • As a matter of genealogical convention, the Gregorian date is used on trees when available.
  • The discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars will sometimes explain discrepancies between the date shown on pre-World War I records from Poland and the date shown on records from countries using the Gregorian calendar.
Updated on November 21, 2020

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