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Poland has had a complicated history. And that’s a boring historical fact. What’s not boring is how that history affected the names of all sorts of places. In certain regions of what is now Poland, people sometimes lived in three different countries, all within the span of a lifetime, and without ever leaving their home town. Each time when a place got new sovereign overlords, the first thing the new honchos did, was to impose a new national language. That in turn resulted in a change of the local name.
Anybody, who’s ever tried to research their Polish genealogy, knows how annoying this whole name changing business can be.
Hirschberg – Jelenia Góra
Allenstein – Olsztyn
Breslau – Wrocław
And the most infamous of them all: Auschwitz – Oświęcim.
Those are just the biggies that immediately come to mind. There are tons of others.
So, let’s say, you have some ancient papers that claim your ancestors came from Marienburg. Actually, mine did! And they’re not even all that ancient. My mother was born there right after WW2, but before the town reverted to its Polish name of Malbork. If you were looking for a Marienburg somewhere, you’d end up in Bavaria, most likely!
To add to the confusion, Malbork used to be spelled Malborg, and some older Poles might still write the name that way. So, you have one place and basically three different names! Fortunately, if your ancestors came from Marienburg/Malborg/Malbork, consider yourself lucky. Though the town is rather small, it’s also very well-known and easy to locate. Why? The castle!
Built by the Teutonic Knights (it took them more than 200 years to finish the job!), the Malbork castle is Europe’s largest Gothic fortress. And a mighty impressive one, I have to add! UNESCO thought so too, and in 1997 added the castle to its list of World Heritage Sites.
However, if your ancestors were not lucky enough to come from a World Heritage Site, sooner or later you will run into problems. Not only the names of places changed, sometimes from Russian to German, back to Russian, and finally to Polish, the spelling might not be consistent either (as we saw with the Malbork/Malborg example). What used to be two words, might now be just one (for example: Stara Wieś – Starowieś, which by the way, means “an old village”), or vice versa.
It can be quite confusing, yes I know. So, if you have a question about a Polish (or what you think could be Polish) place, leave me a comment! I will try to look into it and explain here in future posts. I’ll do my best, but no promises, though! But it just might help others, who are searching for their Polish roots.