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Polish last name questions

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  • Polish last name questions

    I'm half-heartedly trying to put together my Polish mother-in-law's family genealogy and due to the death of one of the elders, I have been gifted many of the original baptismal/marriage documents. I've always had trouble with pinning down the names: one person says it's this and another says it's something else. Looking at these documents, now I see why. For example, take my mother-in-law's grandmother:

    Born 1879, baptized Frances Cybula.
    In 1907, on her first born's baptismal (Ted), she is listed as Frances Cybulski
    Frances's mother died in 1913 and her gravestone bears the name Zofia Cebulska.

    Why so many spellings? Is there diminutive versions of names, or married versions? For other Polish members, I believe misspellings and Americanization is to blame:

    Frances married Josef Szelbracikowski.
    Their first born, Theodore (my mother-in-law's father), is listed as (Szelbracikowski) Shalbrak - the true name was actually written in parentheses, everyone called him Ted
    On Ted's marriage certificate, his name is listed as "Shelbrack"
    Ted's first born's baptismal, shows "Shelbrick"
    Ted's brother spelled the name "Shalbreck"

    I know that much of this is due to the Americanization process but is there also a Polish cultural reason behind name changes?

  • #2
    Hi Littlebit!

    I have the same issue on my mother's side which is also Polish.

    Your mother-in-law is actually consistent:

    Frances Cybula --- Latin name from Catholic records
    Frances Cybulski -- ski is for a male but in US women used the male surname
    Zofia Cebulska -- the "real" Polish name.

    Wow you have a "whopper" of a name (Szelbracikowski) on the Polish side like me.

    I found out my Sebasovich ancestry was actually Szebeszowicz in Austria now modern day Poland. We always though they were Poles who spoke Ukrainian , but they are actually Polish Lemkos. The true spelling of the name is in the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet which resulted in other variations like Shebesowitz and Sebasowicz. The family lived in a Polish community in the US and were avid Catholics which added to my confusion. The really funny thing is I certainly have many Jewish matches on that side so I'm pretty confident some of the confusion may involve an unknown Jewish ancestor who hid their identity.

    So the result is due to the language and cultural differences in names and possibly even an alphabetic and/or religious difference resulting in a huge variation of Polish names.

    I highly recommend the FREE Research presentations from the LDS on Poland. Note: I personally do not advocate the LDS but they do have really good FREE genealogical info.

    Last edited by thetick; 28 October 2012, 12:54 PM.


    • #3
      Thanks, thetick, I knew I couldn't be the only one. So, it's some mixture of language/spelling translation issues, Catholic latinization, female/male versions, and Americanization. I know with Ted and his brother, they spelled Szelbracikowski as Shelbrack and Shalbreck, switching the a's and e's. Knowing them, it was an inside joke driven in part by competitiveness between the 2 and partly because they knew it was misspelled either way...why not?

      Btw, Ted married Isabel Zdrojewski. On their marriage certificate she is listed as "Strike" and I can only guess that Zdrojewski must somehow sound like "Strike" when spoken. Her mother was Josephine Malek...something tells me that was shortened!


      • #4
        I think I can understand how the -witz and -wicz can relate. But I am wondering more about the differences in these types of things, because I see in records the following surnames that are more than probably related:

        In some records, my Polish family surnames appear as SAJDAK. This is how the surname was initially spelled when many of the families immigrated to the US as well (some later changed the J to an I).

        But I also see females in the same Polish towns that have -OWNA at the end (for example, SAJDAKOWNA, instead of SAJDAK.

        Does anyone know what the significance of this -OWNA appendix is?

        Another question ... I have, apparently, Jewish ancestry in my tree somewhere. When searching through the Polish Catholic records at, I see many spelling variations of this surname ... SIDAK, SAYDAK, SAYDOK, etc. And when plugging in that surname at Jewish Gen, I get other variations such as ZADOK, TSADOK, etc. Is there any possibility that these could all be variations of the same surname?
        Last edited by DeeTyler; 31 October 2012, 10:48 AM.


        • #5
          One more question ..

          I have a link to another person here who ties into this surname, and whose ancestors came from a town within two miles of my ancestor's home town. This person shows as anywhere between a 3rd and 5th cousin, depending on whether she matches me, my brother, or our first cousin.

          I have been able to trace this relatives ancestors back to 1750 at but cannot yet find how we tie into it (at least, as far as their indexes of the Catholic Church records go. At least I know what films to order though).

          Eventually, her ancestry does indeed tie back to surnames that appear to be used by (at least) some Polish Jews ... Urban, Wegiel, and Bak to name a few. Are these also clues to a possible Jewish connection back in the 18th century or earlier?
          Last edited by DeeTyler; 31 October 2012, 11:11 AM.


          • #6
            Apart from variant anglicizations and just plain misspelling, there are some standard Polish and Slavic suffixes that may have been assumed or dropped almost on whim.

            Historially permanent surnames seem to have had deep meaning for only a handful of magnate families. Before the early 20th century, ordinary families would probably have only used a surname in the very limited context of official administration by hated German, Swedish or Russian invaders. Understandably, consistency was not a super big priority.

            Surnames referencing some ancestor were very specific as to the bearer's gender--just as Gaelic and Icelandic surnames are today. It would make no sense to call a woman 'Stankewicz' or 'son of little Stanislaw'--so they might call her 'Stanekowna'.

            I'm sure immigration officials didn't care to sort through these sorts of finer points of Polish nomenclature, so it's understandable that they usually just insisted everyone call themselves by the masculine form, on the theory that the oldest male was the head of the household anyways.

            -ski (man), -ska (woman) adjectival ending, usually associated with the family's geographic origin.

            -wicz (man): son of

            -owna (woman): daughter of

            Also, there are probably dozens of diminutives forms you should be aware of in surnames that reference basic name of some ancestor. They might get added or dropped from time to time, and probably some of them are regionally specific. Like 'little' Stanislaw can sometimes be rendered Stanek or Stanczyk.


            • #7
              Thank you Frederator, that makes sense.

              Ah ... so it seems I might have multiple connections to this surname. One beginning with my paternal grandmother, and another allied line that ties back into the surname in the 1700s.

              This will be a fun tree to trace if I can ever find my great grandparent's birth records. Know the towns, very definitely. I wonder if there are censuses available?


              • #8
                Thank you Frederator, very helpful. You said:
                Like 'little' Stanislaw can sometimes be rendered Stanek or Stanczyk.
                Earlier, I noted: Her mother (Isabel's) was Josephine Malek...something tells me that was shortened! Malek = Stanek Appears Josephine was little Malek-something. Now to figure out the something!


                • #9
                  Aha!!!!!!!!!! Wow, this is a huge find. Rereading this thread it dawned on me that I didn't just solve the Malek question (Thanks again, Frederator) but also the original Ted (Szelbracikowski) Shalbrak problem.

                  Malek - Stanek - Shalbrak...these are all diminutive versions of their father's surname. So Shalbrak was "little" Szelbracikowski. Either due to loss of cultural practices/identify or for convenience, it stuck. Then was consequently misspelled, many times over. But now the Shalbrak makes sense!


                  • #10

                    You are sort of lucky to have such a rare name as Szelbracikowski in your line. It's probable that all people of this surname are related!

                    From what I can tell, I think it is of Kashubian origin. The earliest record I've seen of it relates to an August Szelbraczykowski who lived in Portage, Wisconsin in the mid 1800's. Lots of German forenames in that family, and the few references to similar names in contemporary Poland are all from the Gdansk area.

                    Kashubs are a minor ethnic minority closely related to be distinct from Poles, but I don't think many modern people make such fine distinctions today. Their Slavic language is a bit different, and historically they were (generally) seen as more sympathetic to the pre-WWI Prussian political order.

                    I hope that doesn't surprise or upset you. The Prussians themselves were ethnic Slavs gradually Germanicized during the Middle Ages. Their place and family names are filled with giveaways as to their Slavic origins--the -ow, -au, -itz, -ke suffixes and so on.

                    My grandmother was a German born in Ukraine whose family almost certainly came from Prussia, and I'm sure that my own handful of distant Kashubian matches relate to me through her. From what I can tell, intermarriage was fairly common and to this day a small number of Polish Kashubs are Lutheran.

                    Because the name is so rare, I really don't have a firm grip on its meaning. However, I am inclined to think that it refers to some old place name around Gdansk that doesn't exist any more, instead of the name of some ancestor. I can't find any Christian names beginning with anything like 'Szelbracz', and intuitively it seems a bit much to add 3 suffixes to such a rare name--czyk, -ow, and -ski.


                    • #11

                      I'll admit that I find the political history of Poland a little confusing, what, with all the shifting borders and whole provinces being constantly traded between Prussia, Saxony, Austria and Russia.

                      It sounds like you've nailed down the specific town your ancestors came from, so that's a big help. You should be able to readily find a knowledgable specialist genalogicial society that can point you in the right direction.

                      You may have to try quite a few different search terms, though. I'd start by looking for the name of the village, gmina and vovoideship in Wikipedia to get a flavor of its specific political history.

                      It might not hurt to try the German, Polish language versions of wikipedia, too, and then working through them with Google Translator. Those articles often list important information that the English language version skips--like listing alternative names for the same town, or tidbits of historical knowledge that can differentiate similarly named places from one another.

                      The name Sadjak that you mentioned is very interesting to me. I've known a number of people of that name, and from what they tell me it comes from a kind of nickname. 'Zajac' is the Polish word for 'hare'--like a rabbit.

                      But since you mention the Jewish things, it's probably worth noting that it sounds a bit like the Hebrew term 'Tzadik'--which was a sort of title for a religious scholar or clergyman. From what I can tell, it was a title that carried a lot of prestige--assuming that it wasn't applied to a man as a sort of ironic nickname.


                      • #12
                        Thank you again for your response, Frederator.

                        Yes, there is a very interesting Jewish history in the area. The small village that my great grandfather came from is Gruszow Wielki, in Malopolskie. The surname then traces back to Dabrowa Tarnowska (information at JewishGen calls it Dombrowa, Galicia). The synagogue there appears to have been recently restored to its former glory. It's beautiful!

                        From the information on that page, there was a Chasidic dynasty there. My great grandfather was born in 1878, and at that time it appears as though the population of Dabrowa Tarnowska was about 60% Jewish (and 80% Jewish about the time he emigrated). There are several surnames listed on that page and I don't see any of them connecting to my Sajdak cousin's family as of yet. But there are MANY of the Sajdak surname in that village.

                        I love mysteries and challenges. This is proving to be a very interesting one as I am learning a lot from it!
                        Last edited by DeeTyler; 31 October 2012, 07:27 PM.


                        • #13
                          Frederator, I cannot tell you how helpful your have been from me. You said:
                          From what I can tell, I think it is of Kashubian origin. The earliest record I've seen of it relates to an August Szelbraczykowski who lived in Portage, Wisconsin in the mid 1800's. Lots of German forenames in that family, and the few references to similar names in contemporary Poland are all from the Gdansk area.
                          First, my mother-in-law is PL9 and DOD867, and on MDS plots it was clear she was not the average Pole. Polako was trying to help me, even asking if there may have been non-Polish ancestry. I asked her, but as far as she was concerned, the answer was "no." The best clue I got so far was "Sorb" on MDLP World/Gedmatch Kit #M061234:
                          1 Sorb 2
                          2 Belarusian_V 3.09
                          3 Swedish_V 3.4
                          4 Polish_V 3.97
                          5 Ukrainian 4.41
                          6 Ukrainian-Center 4.41
                          7 Ukrainian_V 4.48
                          8 Ukrainian-West 4.48
                          9 Russian_cossack 4.83
                          10 Slovakian 4.84

                          Secondly, her entire family is from Wisconsin: Rhinelander, Stevens Point, and Polonia (which is in Portage county). Many now live in Milwaukee and elsewhere, but originally, Northern Wisconsin.

                          I think I will do much more research on the Kashubian origin angle and see if I can find any connection to August Szelbraczykowski. Many thanks, again.