Genealogy research in Central and Eastern Europe has come a long way in the past decade. It used to be that locating a church or civil registration record required much effort and long waiting times. Your options for accessing records were: 1) traveling to perform onsite research in archives, 2) spending a fortune to hire a professional to do the research for you, 3) writing a letter and hoping the registrar’s office or priest would understand and answer your questions or 4) hoping records for your ancestral village were included among those microfilmed by The Genealogical Society of Utah and made available through the Family History Library.
Today, the landscape for researchers has changed, and there are more options for tracking down grandma’s baptismal document or great-grandpa’s Austrian military service record. Here are three ways to get the records you need from foreign archives.
- Start with FamilySearch. FamilySearch.org has a growing collection of church and civil registration records from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and other localities. First, check out the Digital Collections. From the FamilySearch home page, click the magnifying glass labeled Search, then click “Browse All Published Collections.” Choose Continental Europe and scroll to find the country you’re searching for (e.g., Slovakia). You can also type an ancestor’s name in the search boxes on the left-hand side, click on a map for a location, or if you know the name of the specific collection, start typing the first few letters of the name in the Collection title box; matching choices (such as Slovak, Church and Synagogue Books, 1592–1910) will pop up underneath.
Be sure to read the directions! When you get to the collection’s page, read the description carefully to understand what exactly is included. Click the “Learn More” button to access related FamilySearch Wiki articles on a particular collection or topic. Make sure you sign up for a free FamilySearch account and follow the FamilySearch Blog or subscribe to the FamilySearch newsletter to receive notifications whenever the collections are added or updated.
In addition, you will want to check the FamilySearch Catalog for microfilms you can view if you plan a visit to the Family History Library, or you can hire a researcher to view them on your behalf (Starting September 1, 2017, FamilySearch will discontinue its microfilm distribution services, which mean you will no longer have the option to order and view films at a Family History Center. Read more about it on the FamilySearch Blog). Start with a Place search to see if there are any church or civil registration records available. Although most localities will turn up this way, not all villages or towns had a church or synagogue for each religion. Often residents would need to travel to the nearest neighboring village. Once you find the location, click to see the microfilm catalog title, and you will be able to determine if the content is digitized and available. On the catalog title, under Format and next to the microfilm number, you will find a magnifying glass icon (indicating the microfilm is at least partially indexed), a camera icon (indicating the microfilm is digitized), and a film icon (indicating you will need to order the film). You can also search the catalog by keyword, subject, or film number (if known).
- Archival Websites. A number of archives have put some of their records online. The Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia, and Latvia, for example. You can use the FamilySearch Wiki for each country and click the blue "Online Records" button to see a table with a list of online records. You can also use Google, or another search engine to search for an archive, or consult websites for ethnic genealogical societies such as the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International, the Polish Genealogical Society International, East European Genealogical Society, or the Foundation for East European Family History Studies. Once you locate an archival portal, check for an English interface (look for the word “English” or the American flag symbol), and look first for any finding aids or help sections. Some sites require you to set up a free account.
- Commercial Websites and Other Online Portals. Those researching in Western European countries often find good coverage of church and civil registration records on subscription sites such as Findmypast.com or Ancestry.com, as well as other dedicated websites. However, those with Central and Eastern European roots often have to look a bit harder to find these records, but online collections do exist. For example, the JewishGen website has a large collection of databases and resources including the Jewish Records Indexing Poland project, and several Eastern European Special Interest Groups. Those with Czech Roots will want to explore Portafontium. For Polish researchers, the Poznan Projectand Geneteka are good resources. Facebook groups can also be helpful (groups exist for many ethnicities).
Finally, remember that not all records are online—and some areas are not yet included—so in many instances, you’ll still need to consult the FamilySearch Catalog for microfilmed records, contact churches or archives, or consult with a researcher based in that country for hard-to-get records and translation assistance. Professional firms can give you a quote. You can also check with an ethnic genealogical society, or ask for recommendations on social media. But the good news is that getting copies of your ancestor’s records from foreign archives and repositories is not as difficult as it once was 10 or 15 years ago, and more records are being digitized and indexed all the time. You should make it a habit to periodically check FamilySearch, archival sites and other sources for new and updated content.
For more tips on researching your Eastern European Ancestors watch these webinars in the Legacy library.
Lisa A. Alzo, M.F.A. is a freelance writer, instructor and internationally recognized lecturer specializing in Eastern European genealogy, writing your family history, and finding female and immigrant ancestors. She is the author of 10 books, including The Family Tree Polish, Czech and Slovak Genealogy Guide, and the award-winning Three Slovak Women. Lisa is a frequent speaker for Legacy Family Tree Webinars, and blogs at The Accidental Genealogist. She can be reached at http://www.lisaalzo.com.