Pole Position
7/30/2014
Buffeted by history, Poland can be a challenging place to trace your ancestors. Here's how to rev up your research and put your Polish heritage in high gear.

Forget the Polish jokes. Americans of Polish descent — and there are more than 9 million of us — have a great deal of which to be proud. Our ancestors persevered against the Swedes, the Prussians, the Austrians, the Russians, the Germans and the Russians again, including a stretch of more than 100 years when Poland didn't even exist on maps and when speaking Polish was a crime. Today, we take pride in a Polish-born pope, relish our pierogi and kielbasa and enjoy seeing Poland take a place at the table with its former occupiers as a NATO member.

Poland's history is long and fraught with frustration, and family history researchers are likely to feel some of that same frustration when it comes to seeking their roots. The first king, Mieszko I, ruled in the 10th century. About the same time, the country became part of the Holy Roman Empire. Poland reached its height politically in the late 14th and early 15th century, when the Jagiellonian dynasty united with Lithuania and defeated the Teutonic knights, who had been called in as protectors. The Swedes invaded in the mid-17th century. Then, in 1772, Russia, Prussia (the rough equivalent of today's Germany) and Austria began the process of slicing up Poland. Despite that first partition, the Poles came up with Europe's first constitution in 1791; two years later, however, Russia and Prussia took more land and annulled the constitution. In 1795, Prussia, Russia and Austria erased Poland from the map.