by William F. Hoffman
[Author’s note – This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of Gen Dobry! And is reprinted with permission. Not surprisingly, some of the information in it is now outdated. I have left the text mostly unchanged, but websites that no longer work are crossed out, and sections no longer valid are in red. Please refer to the Afterword at the end for a few remarks that may prove useful.]
If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written on the subject of Polish surnames, you’ve surely seen me refer to the Słownik nazwisk współcześnie w Polsce używanych, literally “Dictionary of Surnames Currently Used in Poland.” This work, edited by Professor Kazimierz Rymut, was a wonderful development for those deeply interested in Polish names, because it was the first comprehensive compilation of surnames used by citizens of Poland. It was compiled from a 1990 database maintained by a Polish government agency, with data on about 93% of the population of Poland as of that year. It gave a total of all Poles by each name, along with a breakdown of where they lived by province.
So if you wanted to know what names were borne by Poles, and where those names were most common, this 10-volume set told you. It ran over 6,000 pages and covered over 800,000 surnames (a huge number of which, however, were either misspelled versions of other names, or extremely rare; the actual number of “real” names is considerably smaller). It was not exactly light reading; but for someone seriously interested in Polish research, it definitely had its uses.
When I cited data from this work, people often asked “Where can I get hold of this book?” They usually lost interest once I told them it was 10 volumes, in Polish, cost $200, and could only be bought from the publisher in Poland, the Instytut Języka Polskiego PAN in Kraków. Still, some organizations, and some intrepid individuals, shelled out the money and bought copies.
But for some time now the data from this 10-volume set has been available online as a searchable database. If you want to consult this source for yourself, go to this page: http://www.herby.com.pl/. But before you check it out, let me explain a few things that may make it easier for you to take full advantage of it.
Uh, OK, I’ve Got It — What Is It?
When I learned that this searchable database was online, I chuckled as I thought, “Oh, boy, wait till people start trying to make sense of this!” It didn’t take long. Soon the Polish mailing lists were full of people saying, “How do I use this?” and “What do all these numbers mean?” and “How can I get addresses for the people with this name?”
These are all legitimate questions, and I’m going to talk a little about each of them. I want people to use this site—it means they won’t be bothering me.
But please have just a little bit of patience. Some folks seem convinced all they have to do is type in the right URL, and a little Polish elf will jump out of their computer and tell them everything they need to know. Folks, it’s not going to happen! With this site, as with anything worth doing, you’re going to have to invest a little time and effort. Not a lot, mind you, and the results can be worth it. But magic it ain’t.
How Do I Use This?
You can go directly to the Surname Dictionary page at http://www.herby.com.pl/. If you want to do that, skip the next few paragraphs, down to where it says “Let’s Search for a Surname!” But if you’re patient and aren’t terrified by the thought of navigating through a little Polish, I recommend starting at the home page of the Center that provides this service:
First off, the top of the page reads “Ośrodek Dokumentacji Wychodźstwa Polskiego przy Domu Polonii w Pułtusku” — “Polish Emigration Documentation Center at the Polonia House in Pułtusk.” This is the official name of the center that put these materials online. It’s headquartered at the Dom Polonii [The Polonia House] in the town of Pułtusk, north of Warsaw. This is a splendid complex that includes a hotel, restaurants, conference center, etc.
Back to the home page, http://www.herby.com.pl/. The second line reads “Serwis heraldyczno- genealogiczny,” which is, of course, “Heraldic/genealogical service.” (Who says Polish is hard?) Next comes a line for choosing the different pages available:
- Strona główna — Main Page
- Genealogia, czyli jak szukać — Genealogy, or how to search
- Zasady heraldyczne, czyli z czego składa się herb — The Basics of Heraldry, or What a Coat of Arms Consists Of
- Wyszukiwarka herbów — Coat of Arms Search
- Słownik nazwisk — Surname Dictionary
At the moment we are mainly concerned with the last option. When you have a little time, though, you might want to take a look at the others. They’re all in Polish, of course, but if you’re patient and don’t mind wandering about a Website, you just might find a thing or two that will interest you. Those who’d like to know more about Polish heraldry and coats of arms, for instance, certainly ought to take a look at options 3 and 4. At the worst, you lose a few minutes. At the best, you might find Ultimate Truth! Well, probably not. But you never know….
From the main page, click on “Słownik nazwisk” and you’ll end up at the same place as if you had gone directly to the first address I gave (http://www.herby.com.pl/). That’s where you access and search the “Rymut database,” as some people call it.
Let’s Search for a Surname!
Look at the box below where it says “Proszę wprowadzić nazwisko.” That’s where you enter the name you’re looking for.
Now, here’s where you need a little instruction. Finding names isn’t as easy as you might think. This database uses proper Polish spelling. If that includes one of those characters used in Polish but not in English, you must include that character. Thus a search for Gorzynski will not find Gorzyński; searching for Dembinski will not find Dembiński or Dębiński. I have often seen notes posted online where researchers got the wrong data because they didn’t account for those Polish characters—for instance, finding the 378 Polish citizens under Wisniewski and missing the 104,418 under Wiśniewski.
Are you out of luck if you don’t know how to use the Polish characters? Not at all! The database allows you to search using the “wild card” characters * and ?. The symbol * substitutes for any letters and any number of letters; the ? substitutes for any one letter. So a search for GORZY* will bring up all names beginning Gorzy-. Or a search for ZIELI?SKI will bring up Zieliński (as well as Zieliłski and Zieliżski, as well as Zielinski without the accent—presumably all misspellings made when clerks keyed in the original data).
I personally recommend sidestepping the Polish characters by using the wild cards * and ?—it’s just easier. If you prefer, you can find the appropriate letter in the rest of the text on that page, highlight it, then copy and paste it into the search box. For the accented n or accented z, however you may have to search around on other pages at the site; I don’t see them on the database search page.
If you know how to use Multilanguage support in Windows to input Polish characters, you can do that, too. The point is, there’s more than one way to skin this cat!
What Do All These Numbers Mean?
The data that comes up gives the total number of Polish citizens bearing the name in question as of 1990, followed by a breakdown of where they lived by province (under “Rozmieszczenie”).
Abbreviations are used for the provinces.
Let me stress: the database from which this material was compiled was not comprehensive. It covered about 93% of the population of Poland as of 1990. Complete data was unavailable for some areas; here are the provinces in question and an estimate of how many people were not included:
Nowy Sącz: 325,300
93% is a lot better than nothing; but do keep in mind that a sizable chunk of the population was not included.
Now, back to the abbreviations for the provinces. To see what they stand for, from the search page, click on the place below the search box that says “Tutaj znajdują się objaśnienia skrotów.” It brings up a little window with the abbreviations. It includes the instruction “Zobacz mapę,” which means “See the map.” Clicking on that will bring up a map of Poland with the abbreviations. Clicking on “Zamknij mapę” closes the map. On the abbreviations page, “Zamknij wykaz” closes that window. In case you have trouble using the box that gives the province abbreviations, you might want to save this list somewhere you can find it easily:
BP: Biała Podlaska
Go: Gorzów Wielkopolski
JG: Jelenia Góra
NS: Nowy Sącz
Pt: Piotrków Trybunalski
ZG: Zielona Góra
Note that in the breakdown by province, the number for Wa, Warsaw, always comes first—unless no one by the particular surname in question lived in Warsaw province. Any province with no citizens bearing the surname in question is simply omitted.
Note also that after Wa, Warsaw, the abbreviations are in alphabetical order as figured by the names of the towns: Lu, Lublin, comes before Ło, Łomża, because plain L precedes Ł. In turn, Ło, Łomża, should come before Łd, Łódź, because plain o precedes ó. Similarly, Tb, Tarnobrzeg, should come before Ta, Tarnów (again, plain o before ó).
Often you can ignore the diacritical marks, but they are crucial in distinguishing Pl, Piła, from Pł, Płock. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve confused those two!
A Sample Name: Jaworski
So, let’s say you key in JAWORSKI, and you click on “Szukaj,” Search. You get this:
Jaworski: 44104. Wa:4814, BP:217, Bs:171, BB:826, By:1276, Ch:290, Ci:699, Cz:622, El:767, Gd:1220, Go:652, JG:917, Kl:548, Ka:2709, Ki:1847, Kn:818, Ko:634, Kr:1232, Ks:278, Lg:737, Ls:198, Lu:1228, Ło:71, Łd:1543, NS:228, Ol:779, Op:697, Os:479, Pl:707, Pt:336, Pł:839, Po:1090, Pr:138, Ra:2267, Rz:400, Sd:818, Sr:611, Sk:748, Sł:461, Su:173, Sz:1196, Tb:838, Ta:482, To:1587, Wb:832, Wł:853, Wr:1867, Za:470, ZG:894
This means in 1990, there a total of 44,104 Polish citizens bore the name Jaworski (but since 7% of the population was not included, there were surely more). The data after that is a breakdown of where those Jaworskis lived by province. What more is there to say?
Well, from my experience, there are a few comments in order. For one thing, you may ask—you should ask—what do the numbers mean, and where did they come from?
They indicate the number of Polish citizens who bore that particular surname as of 1990, according to the database maintained by the PESEL Government Information Center. PESEL is a Polish government agency that assigns a unique 11-digit identification number to every citizen at least 18 years old. (Thanks to Dr. Zbigniew A. Wielogorski of Warsaw University for sending me this information. See also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PESEL). In practical terms, it’s a lot like the Social Security number for U. S. citizens.
OK, so does the data above tell us 4,814 Poles named Jaworski lived in Warsaw? NO!!!! It means that many Jaworski’s lived in the province of Warsaw. People often miss this point. The figures for provinces include all the towns and villages in that province, not just the main city which served as its administrative center. We have no access to data on who lived in what town or village—just a total for the province in question.
Also, the provinces given were the ones in force when the data was collected in 1990—the 49 provinces that existed under the setup from 1975 to 1998. Beginning in 1999, all that changed. If you want to figure out how those provinces correspond to the current ones, you need to visit one of the sites online that compare them. Here is a good one:
Another point: do the numbers for Jaworski include Jaworska? Yes, they do. For surnames ending in -ski/-ska, -cki/-cka, and -zki/-zka, you can safely assume that the figure for the standard masculine form includes the feminine form as well. Thus Grabowski includes Grabowska, Zawadzki includes Zawadzka, Nowacki includes Nowacka, and so on.
But they dropped the ball on some of the less common adjectival names, such as those ending in -y and -a. For instance, they list Gumienna borne by 756 Poles, and Gumienny by 865. To be consistent, they should have combined them into one entry, since Gumienna is just the feminine form of Gumienny. But someone overlooked this. With names ending in -y and -a, therefore, keep your eyes open!
How Can I Get Addresses?
OK, so now you know what you’ve got. Now the big question: how do you get addresses?
The short answer is, you don’t. The long answer is, you get them the same way you would have if this database had never been put online: by research. Polish privacy laws do a pretty good job of keeping names and addresses, well, private.
In most cases, the question doesn’t arise anyway. One of the things you quickly learn from looking at this data is that the vast majority of Polish surnames are not concentrated in any one place.
Getting this data usually doesn’t tell you a thing about where your family came from. Surnames developed centuries ago, and with all that’s happened since then, there’s been plenty of time for people to move around. Even surnames that clearly refer to a specific, unique place name usually turn out to be scattered over much of the country.
And besides, if your name is Jaworski and you think your ancestors came from Warsaw, what good does it do you to know there were 4,814 Jaworskis in Warsaw province as of 1990. Even if you had their addresses, are you going to write them all? I don’t think so.
Still, having said all this, I must admit sometimes this data does indicate a concentration in one area. In such a case it would be great to have some way of getting an address. The hard way—the way you’ll usually have to do it—is to dig and dig till you trace your ancestors back to a specific area, then try to make contact with a priest or other person in that area who’ll help you get addresses.
Is there ever a short cut? Sometimes. If you find a name is highly concentrated in one area, or you know the exact area they came from, you have a better shot at getting addresses than if you just say, “Duh, my ancestors came from Poland.” One source that might be worth a look was mentioned in the July 2000 issue of the Polish-American Journal. In that issue the PAJ Answerman suggested one can find individuals or families “by contacting the one office in Poland that has on file the addresses of all people currently living in Poland: Centralne Biuro Adresowe, ul. Kazimierzowska 60, 02-543 Warsaw, POLAND.”
I have heard from people who have contacted this Central Address Bureau; so it can sometimes work. It’s kind of pointless for surnames that are common, especially if you have no way to focus on a specific area. But in instances where a name is highly concentrated in one area, or you know exactly where to concentrate your focus, that changes things. If this Central Address Bureau does provide you with addresses for folks with your ancestral name in your ancestral area, chances are decent those addresses belong to relatives. It’s worth a try.
The publication of the Słownik nazwisk books, and later the online access to the database, caught people’s attention and made them aware that this could be quite a helpful resource. As I said earlier, even if it didn’t tell you where your ancestors came from, it could help you spell the name right, which is certainly a step in the right direction. And some surnames are concentrated in specific areas, to the point that frequency and distribution data can give you a real lead.
When students write me to say they need info on their name for a school report, I always recommend they use this resource. A nice map like this can add a lot to a report. And it probably impresses most teachers! As for those of us no longer in school, a map of this sort can also add a lot to a family tree! So using the Genpol page may require a little practice, a little effort to figure it out. But it’s probably worth it.
The second major development after the publication of the Słownik nazwisk was Rymut’s decision to publish an updated version on CD-ROM, Dictionary of Surnames in Current Use in Poland at the Beginning of the 21st Century. Over the years Rymut recognized that the 1990 data was full of errors and omissions; and he also wanted to reflect the administrative changes that went into effect in 1999, dividing Poland into 16 provinces rather than the previous 49. He realized that printing another set of books would be very expensive. When I wrote and asked if he’d consider putting out a new version on CD-ROM, he told me he’d already discussed doing so with his colleagues. The PGSA helped provide financing, and in 2002 the CD was published—the Polish-language version by the Polish Language Institute, and the English version by the Polish Genealogical Society of America.
This new version used data from the PESEL database as of September 2002, and from working with it I’m convinced it’s much “cleaner,” with far fewer misspellings and bad data. It also breaks name distribution figures down not just by województwo (province) but also by powiat (county).
Bless his heart, Prof. Rymut gave me credit for the idea of doing a revised version as a CD. But I’m pretty sure he and his colleagues had already recognized the value of doing it this way. Financial considerations alone would have been enough to encourage an edition on one inexpensive, easy-to- handle CD, rather than 10 massive books, expensive to print and ship.
I think it is only fair to say that the CD version is not for everyone. If you just want some decent general data on a few names, the online version will do the job. The CD is invaluable for those who really get into some serious research, and need to look up lots of names and visualize where they are located. In which connection I should mention that the Genpol site I just talked about can generate a map with data from either version, the 1990 online database or the 2002 CD. The CD is not expensive—$25 for PGSA members, $35 for non-members but you may find the sheer size and scope of the data overwhelming, unless you’re a hard-core names freak like me! It’s nice to know you have options, however. The CD exists, if you think you want that kind of detailed information. If not, the online database will probably suit you just fine.
It’s odd to think that until 1992, no one really knew how many Polish surnames there were, or how common they were, or where they were concentrated. Professor Rymut changed all that. He did it for Polish scholars researching Polish surnames; he had no idea how much he would be helping folks in other countries who don’t speak Polish and aren’t even linguists! But over time he came to realize what a difference his work had made; and he was delighted to know he’d helped so many people, including those seeking the way back to the home of their ancestors.
Cześć jego pamięci. Niech spoczywa w pokoju — All honor to his memory. May he rest in peace!
No one who is on the Internet very often will be surprised to see that many of the links given above no longer work. Websites come and go, and as does their content. Material no longer valid is printed in red, and websites that no longer work are crossed out. I did not delete them, however, because you never know what methods ingenious people may find to resurrect old sites. The so-called Internet Archive: Wayback Machine, for instance, at https://archive.org/web/, can sometimes show you material long since deleted. If you are experienced with retrieving old content, the old URLs and information in red may give you something to work with. Otherwise, ignore it.
The situation with the Dom Polonii in Pułtusk described on page 2 has changed. The hotel, castle, and the Dom Polonii still exist, however. You can learn more about them here: http://www.zamekpultusk.pl/. As far as I know, however, the site http://www.herby.com.pl/ is no longer connected with them.
The first part of the section “How Can I Get Addresses” remains essentially true. It has become even harder, however, to get hold of contact information for individuals. Polish privacy laws have eliminated online telephone directories, as far as I can find out. The information on the Central Address Bureau is no longer valid. The best suggestion I can give is to read an article by Polish researcher Iwona Dakiniewicz, “How to Find Living Relatives,” available here:
If I understand correctly, this link lets you download the form you need to fill out:
If that long link doesn’t work, try this TinyURL and see if you have better luck:
As for the CD version of Prof. Rymut’s updated Surname Dictionary mentioned on page 8, it is unfortunately no longer available. As I write this, however, there is at least one website available that uses data from about ten years ago to generate maps showing the frequency and distribution of Polish surnames:
If you want to see data for the surname Jaworski, for instance, go here:
On the map, you can zoom in on the circle to get a more detailed breakdown of data. There is also a breakdown of data by district below the map. With some surnames, this data doesn’t really tell you much. But if the surname is not very common, or is highly concentrated in a specific area, the map and listing may provide a useful lead.
I only recently learned of another site offering similar information, but based on the 2002 PESEL data used by Prof. Rymut for the updated CD version of the Słownik nazwisk:
I have not had a chance to use this site much, but I like the maps and the details. I am also encouraged that this site states right up front where its data comes from. Some other sites in the past have been a little cagy about sharing that information, and I think a reputable source should always acknowledge where it got the data it provides.
Both these sites are in Polish and require correct Polish spelling of surnames, including diacritical marks. Online translators such as Google Translate and Deep-L will often render the text in comprehensible English. Such translators still have a long way to go to match a competent human – but they are improving.
Another source of surname help I often consult is Avotaynu’s Consolidated Jewish Surname Index:
This site allows you to search 42 different databases for surnames, and uses the Daitch-Mokotoff Soundex system to help bypass the vagaries of spelling. Also, don’t be misled by the tag “Jewish surname.” Many surnames were used by Polish Christians and Jews, and the same basic linguistic principles tended to affect the formation and spelling of names. A search for a specific name will often help you with name variations that might otherwise puzzle you, regardless of religion.
I hope you find this helpful, and good luck with your research!