Thursday, November 21, 2013

Digging into Lemko and Ukrainian Family History in Poland

1852 Austrian map for Siemuszowa, Galicia

Dobra, Sanok, Lesko, Krosno, Nowy Sacz. These are all places that I had never seen until the last few years, but they captured my imagination a long time ago. My paternal grandparents, Mike Gburyk and Julia Czerepaniak, were born and married in the small village of Siemuszowa just north of Sanok in southeast Poland. They came to America shortly before World War I and eventually settled in Coal Country in Eastern Pennsylvania near Minersville in the 1920's.

Mike's death from injuries sustained in a coal mine accident in 1924 and Julia's reluctance to share much with her children about their past in Sanok region, left me with a real hunger to find out more about our family history. Unlike doing genealogical research in English for other U.S. national/ethnic groups like the Poles, Germans, Italians or the Irish, the path of Lemko and Ukrainian genealogy is definitely not well trodden. But the sources do exist both in the U.S. and in Poland and Ukraine and the effort is definitely worth it.

My work began informally in the 1970's with questioning close relatives about what they knew of our family past and started in earnest in the early 1990's with regular trips to the Family History Centers of the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) in New Jersey.  My success fully bloomed with the availability of the Internet in the late 1990's, which has proven to be an invaluable resource for anyone intent on filling out the branches on their family tree and understanding the circumstances of their lives in Eastern Europe.

First: Know Your Lemko And Ukrainian History
So where do you start? If you are of Lemko or Ukrainian descent and don't know anything about their complex history in southeast Poland, or you want to pass on your heritage to your children and grandchildren who were born in the U.S., your first stop should be a trip to the public library to get a good book or two that can fill in the details. You should know right up front that historically there have been competing claims to the land of Lemkivshchyna. Both the Poles and the Russians have struggled over it. The Ukrainians consider it the western-most part of their own ethnographic territory. It was part of Galicia in Austria and later located in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The locals at various times have called themselves Rusyns, Lemkos, Rusnaks, Carpatho-Rusyns and Ukrainians. The early 20th century Ellis Island U.S. immigration records refer to arrivals from this region as "Ruthenians", which is what they and many others who lived in the province of Galicia in Austria-Hungary were called. Lemkos have been coming to the U.S. as early as the 1870's and they have left their mark on many of the old industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest as well as in the coal patches of Pennsylvania and the mining towns of Minnesota. Today their descendants can be found throughout the U.S.

Several good sources for historical detail on Lemkivshchyna include: "God's Playground: A History of Poland, Volume I," by Norman Davies; "The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999," by Timothy Snyder; "The Lemkos of Poland," edited by Paul Best and Jaroslaw Moklak; and, "Ukraine: A History," by Orest Subtelny. On the Internet, clicking around in, offers a wealth of information not only about Lemko history, religion, politics and culture, and points to various sources for further genealogical digging. For information on the various waves of Ukrainian immigration in the U.S. including the Lemkos, you should read "The Ukrainian Americans: Roots and Aspirations," by Myron Kuropas.

Where to Begin Your Search?
The most important initial source for tracing your own family history is your close relatives. Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles can each have a piece or two of your genealogy puzzle. It is useful to do personal interviews with each of them and then enter the information in a PC genealogy software program like Family Tree Maker. This enables you to develop a permanent record of all your digging stored in one single database on a PC. And, don't forget to periodically back up your family file onto an external hard drive or a thumb disk just in case you have an internal hard drive failure at some point!  Going through official family records is also very important. Birth, death and marriage records as well as applications for citizenship, deeds, mortgages and military records all contain important facts about family history. If possible, scan these documents into a PC and store them on a CD-ROM for the reference of future generations as well as for easy distribution to the rest of your family.

Civil records book Siemuszowa 1777-1784

How Far Back Can You Go?
Despite the ravages of World War II and the tragedy of Operation Vistula (Akcja Wisla) (1947) which violently tore most Lemkos away from their ancestral homeland in southeast Poland, a wealth of records still exist that document the history of individual families at least back to the 18th century. In 1993, Ivan Krasovsky published a book (in Ukrainian), "Surnames of Galician Lemkos in the 18th Century" that lists the names of Lemko families appearing in the first Austrian Census (Cadastre) of 1785-1788 taken after the partition of Poland when Galicia was transferred to Austria. The introduction to this key work (in English) can be found on the here.

A dictionary (in English, Polish and Ukrainian) listing all Lemko names covered in Krasovsky's book with their corresponding village names appears here.

Alternatively, if you already know the current Polish name for the village of the ancestor whom you are researching, you can go here. ("Lemko Village Resource Guide")

This interactive, alphabetic list of Lemko village names can be searched to yield a list of all the Lemko family names in your ancestral village at the end of the 18th century. Click on the reference number link to the left of your village on this page and you will find the names of the families listed in the Josephine (i.e., during the reign of Emperor Joseph II) Austrian Census as well as facts about the number of Greek Catholics living there in the 19th and 20th centuries.

If your relative is not listed on this site, it is still possible that they lived in your ancestral village in 1785. A copy (on microfilm) of the Austrian Josephine Cadastre for your village can be obtained directly from the Central State Archives in Lviv, Ukraine. The process can take several months (when I obtained my copy in the late 1990’s it cost about $US50).  It is definitely worth the effort since you will get a copy of an original historical document that details both the individual family and economic history of your village in the 18th century.  Here is the contact information for the Lviv Archive.

1785 Austrian Cadastre for Siemuszowa
Working with the Polish Archives and the LDS
Despite the widespread destruction and chaos of World War II, the Polish archives are remarkably intact and accessible. You can search individual villages here in the data base of the Polish State Archives.

This will help you know whether your records are in Sanok or Przemysl.  Once you know this, then e-mail the appropriate archive directly in English.  They will let you know how much your search will cost.

Contact information for the Przemysl archive is here.

The Przemysl archive can be an important first step since copies of many of the Greek-Catholic metryky books that document the births, marriages and deaths in Lemko villages are now stored there as well as deportation records for Akcja Wisla.  The archives in Sanok can also be another important source for your search.

The cost of researching these parish registers greatly depends on how much information about your particular ancestor you can provide.  

It should be noted that the LDS Church has actually microfilmed some of these Greek-Catholic Lemko metryky books in whole or in part. Records contained in them do not go back farther than 1750 and, in many cases, only go back to the early 1800's and are no more current than 1860 or 1870. You should enter your specific village(s) here to find out what is available through the LDS.

If you are lucky enough to have your village parish register already on microfilm, you can obtain a copy on loan for a very small fee ($7 for a one-month rental) from the main LDS archive in Salt Lake City to read at your local LDS Family History Center. The location of these reading rooms throughout the world is available here:

Locating Relatives Lost during World War II
The ethnic cleansing that took place in southeast Poland during and after World War II determined that most Lemkos could no longer live in their ancestral homeland. As a result of Operation Vistula (Akcja Wisla) (1947) and the so-called "voluntary" deportations of Lemkos that took place before it, you might not know where the descendants of your family live today. Lemkos and Ukrainians were sent East into Ukraine and North and West in Poland and forcibly resettled in various places near Olzstyn, Szczecin, Gorzow Wielkopolski, etc. If you have any information at all about a lost relative (date of birth, married name, last place of residence, etc.) and would like to try to reconnect, please refer to the web site of The International Tracing Service and the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) located here.

Creating A Family Tree
Once you document your ancestors and compile the available information on a PC program such as Family Tree Maker, you can then print out a very detailed family tree in a professional way. Try to limit the size of these documents to two foot by two foot or a maximum of three foot by three foot in size so that they are still easily portable and printable. It does take some editing to get your family tree in good shape for printing, but it is well worth the time spent. Professional desktop printing services like those at Fedex-Kinko’s or Staples will produce a good copy from an electronic file for about $6-$8, or slightly more if you want it laminated and depending on the size. The end result of your efforts is a beautiful document that shows in a visual way the history of your family.

Even if you don't print out a family tree, you can put important documents, your family tree and perhaps a short narrative about your family history on CD-ROM.
CD-ROM is a very efficient and inexpensive way to distribute the fruits of your genealogical digging. Also, you might want to consider setting up a small family Web site yourself both as a way of disseminating your information globally and to develop contact with distant relatives with whom there has been no contact for many years. Another possibility is self-publishing services to produce a hard copy book. Self-publishing services are now available that will take your MS Word and PDF files and produce a book for you in hard or soft cover. Consult your local phone directory for such services near you.

The Fruits of Your Labor
Documenting the history of your Lemko or Ukrainian family in Poland takes a lot of time and patience and you might hit a few dead ends along the way. Persevere and you will be amazed at how much information exists on our your ancestors. And today, with the help of the Internet and other organizations like the archives in Poland and Ukraine, the LDS and the ICRC, it is easier than ever to achieve success. If you need specific help along the way to get around a dead end, please feel free to contact me at:  Happy digging!

Copyright (c) 2013 by Michael J. Buryk. All Rights Reserved


  1. An excellent and comprehensive guide. Thanks. My ancestors are also Lemko, from Mecina Wielka, started in Mahanoy City and then settled in Olyphant PA.

  2. Thank you. This is some good advice. I have already begun researching my relatives from Wola Nizna and Polany Surowiczne.