It’s estimated that the Polish diaspora – those of Polish descent living outside Poland – number some 20 million. This means that many people are not aware of their Polish descent, or perhaps only have limited insights into their family’s history.

With Polish culture prevalent throughout the world, it’s natural that many want to learn how to find Polish ancestors, how to prove their genealogy and even if their Polish ancestry citizenship grants them any rights that they weren’t aware of.

In this guide, we will give you some useful advice for researching your genealogy tree to uncover your Polish roots, as well as how your Polish descent can help you today. We will also provide a quick overview on Polish immigration, which may provide further information behind the history of your family.

Key milestones in Polish history

The history of Polish immigration is a very complex one, tied to both the history of both Polish lands and of other countries. Depending on where you live, there may be various peak periods when Polish immigrants arrived in larger numbers.

However, in most parts of the world, immigration happened in two rather noticeable periods. These are by far not the only waves, as Polish immigrants have been found in all corners of the world as early as the 16th century, but these are the two biggest periods that come up when researching Polish descent.

The Great Emigration

Due to two failed uprisings in Poland – the November Uprising in 1831 and the January Uprising in 1863 – against the Russian Empire, many Polish citizens left Poland. Representing the political elite, army officers and others fearing political oppression or retaliation, as many as 50,000 Poles left during this period.

More specifically, these Polish immigrants moved to western Europe, notably France, Switzerland and Belgium.

World War II and the Second Great Emigration

Both during and after World War II, there were many Polish refugees seeking to avoid first German, then later Soviet, oppression in their home land. This led to Poles leaving in unparalleled numbers, and this period across World War II and the Cold War is known as Poland’s “Second Great Emigration”.

The United Kingdom had a particular influx of Polish culture and immigration at this point. At the start of the war, over a quarter million Polish soldiers and pilots, as well as their families, continued to fight under British leadership. The UK government’s 1947 Polish Resettlement Act later helped those that wished to stay.

What can you learn from this?

Even though what we provided was a quick glimpse into the history of Polish migrants, it shows that your Polish ancestry could come from any point in history. Polish migrants have been part of most countries’ history for centuries, so you may find that your Polish roots begin generations ago, not just in more recent years.

How to reconstruct your family history

When it comes to conducting Polish genealogy research, the best place to start is with living memory. In other words, start by talking to other family members and collecting any useful records they have. You should also use this opportunity to ask about your Polish roots and try to find any information that will be critical later.

Specific information that could prove useful at this point includes:

  • Names: Knowing the names of ancestors will help you research any missing details in your family’s history.
  • Home towns and places lived: When researching Polish ancestors, knowing where they were born and the places they may have lived is also crucial.
  • Dates: Knowing when and where your Polish ancestors may have been active is useful, but knowing roughly when will also help narrow the search.
  • Changed names: Did any of your Polish ancestors change their names? This was a common occurrence in many cultures, such as with Polish Americans arriving at Ellis Island, where names were changed to be easier spelt in English, or even changed to an English name entirely.
  • Religion: Whilst religion itself isn’t a criteria, knowing an ancestor’s faith, such as if they were catholic, protestant, orthodox or jewish, can help in searching for vital records.

Even some basic information in the more recent generations can help put your Poland ancestry research in the right direction. Knowing where your family originally arrived in your home country can help show you where to look next. For example, many Polish Americans can be found in Chicago, whilst numerous Polish Canadians can be found in Ontario. If you’re fortunate to be in such a position, city records can be an ideal starting point. If your ancestry points back to one of these Polish communities, you can focus your research on that region and time frame.

It can also be useful, if you’re interested, to use genealogy services and other companies that help you find relatives. This can put you in contact with other relatives, who may have additional information to help build your family tree’s ancestry.

Finding additional information

Outside of family knowledge, there are a few more places where you can gather information. The internet, of course, is a powerful repository of information, and you can search for any key names and details that you have. Genealogy services such as Ancestry, MyHeritage and JewishGen can also help. These are databases of genetic information, so you can find other members that have a blood connection to you, and can thus potentially help in your search.

However, when it comes to searching outside of known information, you will face a higher difficulty. Not all archives are online, for example, and you may also have to deal with records only in their native language.

Nonetheless, if you’re armed with knowledge of crude dates, locations and names, you can also look at local archives. Similar to genealogy, this may uncover additional relatives. This can not only further expand your exploration into your family’s Polish heritage, but also find lead to additional documents and record to help with your application.

How to obtain Polish citizenship through ancestry

If your family history has Polish ancestry, and you are of direct Polish descent, then there’s a chance you can qualify for Polish citizenship. The criteria does not automatically apply to everyone, but the Polish government recognizes individuals that:

  • Are directly related to a Polish citizen that was living in Poland at some point after 1918
  • This ancestor did not renounce or otherwise lose their Polish citizenship

If you are not sure at this point, you can also take our free quiz to see if you are eligible, based on family knowledge. If you are eligible, then you can start the process of gathering as many vital records as you can. Note that all of these will need to be in the Polish language (as will your final application) so most forms will need to be officially translated.

In particular, you should look for:

  • Birth records and marriage records: These can help identify parentage and if citizenship status has been passed down.
  • Identity documents and other records proving citizenship: You will of course also need documentation to prove your ancestors held Polish citizenship.
  • Local records: You may also need documents from national archives, parish registers and other local archives to prove that your Polish ancestors were recognized citizens. The likes of census records can also help confirm that your ancestor lived in Poland at the appropriate time.

This list is by far not complete, but it should give you an extensive idea of what you will need to collect. There are of course more caveats, as the particular cases of your family history can influence citizenship. For example, the Polish Citizenship Act of 1920 specifically enables legitimate children to inherit their fathers citizenship, whilst illegitimate children only inherited the mother’s citizenship. These, any many more criteria, can impact the passing down of citizenship to later generations. This is something that needs to be considered in your citizenship application – and an area that we can help with.

This is why we recommend researching your family history and Polish genealogy, as all of these details can prove useful later. We can then help you find all of the missing information. For example, when dealing with a Polish parish or governmental body, we can speak to them on your behalf to collect the relevant information. 

When searching through archives and other Polish institutions, it’s important to note that many staff may only speak Polish. This is another area where having a Polish speaking expert to help you can not only navigate the legal processes, but also the cultural language barrier. We can also provide sworn translations and ensure the final application is correct.

Benefits of Polish citizenship

If you’re of Polish descent and applicable, then Polish citizenship doesn’t just recognize your Polish heritage and connect you with your roots: it gives you the right to a Polish passport and additional benefits.

As EU citizens, Poles have the right to work, travel and live throughout the 27 EU countries. This gives Polish citizens a great deal of freedom and life choices, with visa-free access across many popular and economically powerful countries in Europe.

So, if you’re interested in exploring your Polish heritage and gaining official status as a citizen of Polish descent, let’s get started! In addition to your own research into Polish genealogy, you can also take our free quiz to see if you’re eligible for citizenship via Polish descent.

Are you by any chance of Polish origin? Find out if you are eligible for EU citizenship by taking the test below:

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