Monday, 20 February 2017

German family history from Poland

Significant numbers of Germans have been migrating to Australia since the 1830s. In 1838 some “Old Lutherans” landed in Adelaide seeking the right to worship the way that they believed in. The same year, the pioneer Presbyterian minister, John Dunmore Lang, brought a party of German missionaries from Berlin to Brisbane. As well, on 23 April 1838, the barque Kinnear arrived at Sydney carrying six German families, the first German vinedressers in Australia. They were from the Rheingau area of Hesse.

At the end of World Wars 1 and 2, large areas that had been under German control were lost to its neighbours. In the east, these became part of Poland, Russia and Lithuania. After World War 2 in particular, millions of people who were considered to be Germans were expelled from these areas.

One of the problems in researching family history from these areas involves name changes. Throughout this region some people considered themselves German while others considered themselves Polish. Naturally many places had both a German and a Polish name. For some, the German and Polish names were pronounced similarly but spelled differently. The town of Stuhm (German) or Sztum (Polish) is a case in point – some knowledge of German and Polish pronunciation helps here. For some, the names might be translations of each other. The village of Schönwiese (German) or Krasna Łąka (Polish) – describing a meadow – is an example. In others, the names were quite different – for example the city of Breslau (German) in Silesia is now Wrocław (Polish), and the former capital city of East Prussia, Königsberg (German), is now Kaliningrad (Russian). A further complication is that some of the places where the German name was too “Polish” were changed in the Nazi era. For example, Pachutken (German) or Pachutki (Polish) was changed to Tönigesdorf in the 1930s.

Most likely, for those of our ancestors who were born before the disruption of the World Wars, the names of the places of birth that were recorded would be the German names rather than the Polish names. This is a problem because the names to be found in today’s atlases and road maps are the Polish (or Russian or Lithuanian) ones.

Given such a problem, is it possible to research any family history from this area? As with all German research, it is necessary to identify the civil registry office (the Standesamt) that was responsible for registering births, marriages and deaths, and/or the church parish that was responsible for recording baptisms, marriages and burials. A number of websites are available to assist in this process:
·      Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs- lexicon … was a two-volume publication from the first decade of the 20th century, listing almost every locality in the German Empire of the day. An easy way to use this invaluable resource is by the Meyersgaz website (see which shows the relevant entry and provides an explanation in English of the significant abbreviations. The Standesamt at the time of publication is listed, and sometimes the Catholic or Protestant parish and Synagogue. As well, it is usually possible to view an historic map and overlay this on a modern map.
·      Kartenmeister (see is a website set up by Uwe Krickhain which lists almost every location within the former German eastern territories, together with details of the Standesamt and the Catholic and Protestant parishes and Synagogue.
·      Ehemalige Ortsgebiete (Former Eastern Territories – see is a website giving the names by which different towns and villages were known at key times over the past 100 or so years.

Putting this to use
A friend was interested in finding out about his mother’s birthplace. He had been told it was Escherlin in what is now northern Poland but had been in Pommern (Pomerania) and that the town had undergone a number of name changes. Furthermore the church records had been destroyed.

Unfortunately the Meyersgaz website had no entry for Escherlin and neither did the Kartenmeister site, but the Ehemalige Ortsgebiete site noted that it was known as Gryzlin in the district of Löbau before World War 1. 

The Meyersgaz site then showed that Gryzlin was a Rittergut (an estate) and that further details were available under Grischlin, Gryzlin being the former name. Grischlin was in the Kreis (county or shire) of Löbau in the Regierunsbezirk (government district) of Marienwerder Provinz Westpreussen (West Prussia); its Standesamt (civil registry office) was 4.7 km away at Jamielnik, it had a population of 279 and was the seat of a Protestant parish. 

Between the World Wars, Grischlin lay in the Polish Corridor, which gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea, and was named Gryźliny under Polish control. The Ehemalige Ortsgebiete site showed that in 1939 under German control, Grischlin was named Escherlin and after World War 2, once again under Polish administration, Gryźliny.

So my friend was correct, Escherlin had been renamed many times, although for at least some time it had been in the Prussian province of West Prussia not Pomerania.