Polish Genealogy: Origin of Surnames in Poland

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It seems that the interest in finding ancestral roots is growing worldwide. In the time of computers, Internet and easy communication, it is much easier to find information, but only if you know how to access it.

Many people ask me in their posts to the Polish Culture Forum or in e-mails how to find their roots. My website is devoted to preserving Polish culture, nevertheless I decided to write this article to explain some aspects of searching for your roots. Sometimes people know the name of the city or village their ancestors came from, sometimes they know only their family name when they start their research. In some cases the last names might have been modified after leaving Poland. In this situation I and other people in my forum who know the Polish language can help just by guessing what the real last name sounded like, and whether this last name is very common in Poland or not.

If the last name is very common (Kowalski, Nowak, Kozłowski, Witkowski, Dąbrowski) there is no way to predict from what region of Poland this person came. Sometimes the last name can indicate the geographical region. For instance, some last names come from certain areas of Poland because they originate from a dialect (for instance, the last name "Musioł" as well as the maiden name of my mother "Gwioździk" originates from the Silesian dialect). Some last names are typical for a certain area because they were used as nicknames in the past, for instance, the surnames "Gasienica" or "Bachleda" are typical for the Tatra Mountains region. Some last names originate from the towns or settlements (like "Czarnocki" may originate from the settlement "Czarnoty"). Last names with ending "icz" were popular among Poles in the East (with ending "icz", like Mickiewicz, Stankiewicz). Some Poles have of course last names of foreign origin. Probably German last names are the most common or maybe the easiest to distinguish. Many of them were polonized. For instance the last name "Rajchel" is the polonized version of "Reichel".

The last name may also indicate the status of the person. There is a difference between the names of noble origin or peasant origin. Noble and aristocratic names usually have the end "ski" or "icz" in the eastern part of Poland. But this may be deceitful since even people among my large family changed their last names and a peasant "Kowal" could modify it in the next generation to "Kowalski" without being from any noble family. But this should not worry anybody: we are all brothers, aren't we, especially since the only difference between an impoverished Polish nobleman and a Polish farmer was that the first wore a sword.

written by Jagoda Urban-Klaehn, January 2001 (article #23)
updated by Nancy Maciolek Blake, September 2005

The next article will describe Origin of Jewish Surnames in Poland

Here is an excellent book (second edition, revised, about Polish Surnames: Origins and Meanings by William F. Hoffman

The book below may be helpful in finding your Polish roots. It is written by Rosemary A. Chorzempa and entitled:
Polish Roots

If you are looking for your Polish roots you should learn some Polish. I recommend a book written by Alexander M. Schenker, entitled:
Beginning Polish

Please, check also books about Polish genealogy from Amazon:

Here are links to the other articles in this series:

Find Your Ancestors: Search by Surname and Province

Origin of Jewish Surnames in Poland

How to find the Family Nest

How to use mapa.szukacz.pl to find a location in Poland

How to find your Ancestors, Final Remarks

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