New: creating a database of place names

Everyone researching their Poznań/Posen ancestors has to face the mess with the place names.

My new proposal is to make it easier for all of us!

Let's compile the names of towns and villages appearing on 19th and 20th century maps of this area, as well as in official gazetteers, and create a comprehensive, searchable database that would help everybody identify the location where their ancestors once lived - and where the respective records can be found.

If you think this is a good idea that may eventually assist in your research, please consider supporting my efforts by a donation sent to Lukasz Bielecki via a direct PayPal link.
(Important: please type a "donation for the Poznan Project - place names" message at the very bottom of the Send Money form! Please do not make additional remarks and if you want to contact me about the project, please send me a separate email with details instead).

As an expert on the Poznan region, I think I am the right person to start this monumental project for the benefit of the entire community of people searching for their Poznań/Posen roots. Please help me, if you find it worth your contribution.

Read more about the new project:

Genealogical research in the Poznań/Posen region has always involved a particular challenge to everyone with ancestors from that area. The multitude of possible spellings for nearly every place doubles the usual difficulty of finding, identifying and understanding the records.

This situation is a consequence of the difficult history of this region in the last 250 years. In the 18th century it was a predominately Polish speaking province, even if with a well established German presence due to its westernmost location in the old Polish Kingdom before the Partitions of Poland (1772-1795). In the late 1700's, a massive influx of German speaking settlers began, and it continued even more so under the subsequent Prussian rule (1772/1793-1919 with a short break in the Napoleonic period). As a result, new villages were formed alongside older Polish settlements, with new names adopted, whereas established Polish place names were Germanized in many ways throughout all the 19th century and practically up to the World War One.

This Germanization process was fairly chaotic, a mixture of spontaneous attempts of the local German officials and clergy, and intentional orders of the authorities. In the early 19th century this happened mostly by adapting the traditional, i.e. Polish names to the German spelling and pronunciation habits, often resulting in a number of spellings used parallelly in various documents, before the authorities eventually decided in favor of a preferred spelling in an official gazetteer. In the second half of the 19th century, more and more places had their names formally changed to new German names, this time usually with no relation to the earlier Polish counterparts.

In the same time, substantial changes were occurring to the pattern of existing settlements themselves, due to the demographic processes of the 19th century: new manors and villages were created in sparsely populated areas, or sometimes older settlements would disappear. A large number of new names emerged in this process, many of them purely German, with no older Polish equivalents. The Polish speaking population started to invent Polish translations to them which were widely used in Polish language sources of the era. Some of them continued to be used after the region became part of Poland once again in 1919. Of course this political change also resulted in an official return to the Polish versions of place names all throughout the province, though due to the aforementioned transformations, many Polish names could only be re-invented, rather than restored.

The region then witnessed another, short-lived wave of Germanization, during the World War Two, when it was occupied by Nazi Germany and forcefully incorporated into the Reich. At the beginning, Prussian German names were restored, but soon the occupiers attempted a purge of any place names with Polish roots, and many places which already had German names, were now renamed into something even more clearly German. This included, of course, also all those traditional Polish-sounding names which the Prussians let remain in place before 1914.

To make maters more complicated, the spelling rules of both the Polish and German language were still not fixed in the 19th century. Therefore, a great deal of place names, even those which did not undergo forced changes, can still be found in a number of variants in older documents, before the authorities and local users agreed on an established spelling - which in most cases only happened in the 20th century.

All these facts have led to a situation where it is not uncommon that a single village may appear under several - sometimes up to a dozen maybe - various names and spellings throughtout the last 250 years: Polish, German, official, unofficial, spelling variants, forced renamings, often along with former parts which became integrated and so on.

For somebody who starts their research with the place of origin for an ancestor and tries to find it on a contemporary map - and obviously also figure out where the respective records may be found - this often means a tedious process with many traps and possible confusions. Needless to say, very general tools like Google Maps cannot be trusted, as they often just propose a location somewhere within Poland, while many places in Poland share the same name, sometimes even dozens of them do. If your place name is different from the one that is presently featured on the map for the same town, you will never find it via Google Maps or similar map services.

Existing Prussian gazeteers like Meyers or Gemeindelexicons could usually help you with German spellings if you are lucky to find a listing from the same era when your name was recorded. As mentioned above, the Poznan region is exceptional by the phenomenon of even official names changing very often. Databases of place names based on spelling variation (like ShtetlSeeker) would not usually take into account the fact that many places switched from a Polish name to a completely different German one, not just by a couple of letters - and often even more than once.

The Kartenmeister database of place names of the former German territories is the proverbial one-eyed man among the blind, as it usually matches German spellings with the present day Polish names of places, but it has some important shortcomings, too. Usually, it seems to include the 1900 official German name only, whereas many of those names were invented very late and were only in force for a decade or two. For 19th century research, however, the German spellings used, were typically phonetic adaptations of traditional Polish names, and precisely those spellings are missing from the Kartenmeister.

There exists one comprehensive source for the subject discussed, it is the historical dictionary of place names of the Poznan Province by Martin Sprungala, but it has been only issued in hard copy in German, so it is not available online. Also this material could be substantially improved and extended by a lot of other complementary sources, such as older gazetteers and maps, in particular from the 1800-1860 period. This would add a great number of spellings which do not appear in official lists but nevertheless can be found in vital records and other documents. It is exactly those spellings that often confuse researchers.

Being active as a genealogy researcher in the Poznan region for 30 years, I have accumulated a great deal of information on places and their names. This makes me possibly the only person who can venture that monumental task of compiling the existing sources on place names (certainly over 10,000), creating a searchable database and making it accessible to everybody interested.

Dr. Martin Sprungala, the author of the book mentioned above, died in 2023, and I view myself as the only person who could continue his work on Poznań/Posen place names. A few years ago, we discussed the idea of an online database, and he gave me the master file of his book, with a permission to use it as one of the sources of data. I think creating the database now - though it will probably take a couple of years - will be a homage to his memory and also a good way to make my own experience accessible to the genealogy community.

Lukasz Bielecki