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A Visit to the AGAD Archives

by Valerie Schatzker

I have recently returned from Warsaw where I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to do some work in the AGAD (Archiwum Glowne Akt Dawnych) and briefly visit the Urzad Stanu Cywilnego, the two archives in Warsaw which keep Galicia birth marriage and death records. I would like to share this experience with you and help you understand what a treasure these records area and how important they are to understanding Jewish history in Galicia.

The AGAD archives are housed in a lovely, old (probably rebuilt), small palace very close to Old Square in Warsaw. The rooms are bright and pleasant to work in and the staff, although mainly not fluent in English, is most helpful. The security is strict. One is not allowed to take large bags or materials other than a pencil and notepaper into the reading room.

Permission is given to people to search the records for their families only. I would hope that if historians at some time wished to see the records they might be given permission since there is much demographic information that would be of interest to Jewish history in the area

Books may be ordered from the stacks before 1:00 p.m. in order to be in the reading room on the same day and are offered to the researcher one at a time. Many of the books I ordered were refused because they are in very bad condition. In a discussion with the chief archivist, I was told that the neglected state of the books was apparent when the AGAD received these books from the former lands of Poland. The archive has not had money to restore and microfilm them, although it hopes to be able to do this in the near future.


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I wish I had had more than three days to work there. There were so many leads I would like to have followed for my own research. But I limited myself to some of the available books from Drohobycz, Sambor and a couple from Rawa Russka and Sokal.

The metrical books of births, marriages and deaths are large volumes. The pages are numbered, as is each record, which is entered by hand in a section ruled out horizontally across two pages. In a few, especially earlier, death records, the entries are brief and occupy a section of a single page. The vertical columns on each page indicate the information that could be filled in by the clerk for each birth, marriage or death. In the earlier books these headings are in German, but closer to the end of the nineteenth century they are written in German and Polish.

Since earlier entries are also written mainly in German and later ones in Polish, it helps to be able to read these languages. I am fluent in German and have a smattering of Polish, enough to be able to navigate through the records; I find the old German script difficult to read, however.

It is fascinating to see how an entire book or large sections may be written by one clerk. After a while, one begins become acquainted with each clerk’s personality. Some wrote in a very elegant and careful script, some scratched their information on the page, leaving inkblots or forgetting to dip their pens in the ink frequently. I am grateful to the careful ones, who tended to put more information in the columns, and impatient with the sloppier ones, who tended to write only the most necessary facts. I have not seen enough books to know this for certain, but it seemed to me that the earlier entries were made by less well-schooled clerks and that the quality of clerk improved as the decades passed.

I scanned the pages of these books rapidly because I wanted to cover as much ground as I could. I wished I could have stopped many times to dwell on some of the fascinating details. Causes of death such as “exhaustion” or “excessive thinness” remind one of the limitations of nineteenth-century medicine. My cursory scan noted the many young infants and children who died and marveled that some people lived to ripe old ages when health care was so primitive.

Patterns could be observed. Because I had once visited the archive in Lwow where I was able to look through books from Drohobycz and on this trip was able to see many more, I came to feel that I was getting to know the Jewish families of this town fairly well. I observed how families tended to marry with the same families, how many married couples shared the same family names, how some families, tended to use only one midwife and how the wealthier families, the lumber barons and oil magnates would cement alliances through their children.

It was interesting to see that a few families had undergone marriages recognized by the state while most had not done so. This began to change at the end of the nineteenth century. In the birth records of the so-called illegitimate children, especially those born to the wealthier families, there are many witnessed statements testifying at much later dates to the legitimacy of the child in question, probably in order to secure inheritance or for other legal purposes. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, it becomes apparent that a civil marriage is important and one sees older couples, no doubt married for many years, recorded as having a marriage ceremony. In one line of my husband’s family I found the marriage record of his great-grandparents a few weeks after the marriage record of his grandparents.

My work was very successful. When I started this genealogical journey to find my husband’s family, I knew very little. He and his mother, both survivors of the Holocaust, never discussed their murdered family because the subject was too painful. Now, because of my research in Warsaw, I have the names of great- great-grandparents in four lines of the family.

The information I found in the AGAD archives is of inestimable value to researchers. The information in the marriage records of one town may also connect with other towns when a bride or groom came from another place. I myself discovered information in the books on Drohobycz about a branch of the family from Rzeszow.

I hope that all these records will soon become available to researchers through JRI Poland‘s efforts to index them. It seems, however, that some of the towns whose books I saw have not yet joined this campaign.

A visit to the Urzad Stanu Cywilnego is very much different. The section which deals with the records of the former Polish territories, like former Galicia, is now no longer located in the center of Warsaw but is accessible by the subway system. This archive is the repository of recent records, those under 100 years old, and is part of the state service for providing valid metrical records. The people who help you there are not archivists. They have little time to help you read a record and from my own experience, seem not to be able to do the kind of research needed to find family records unless they are supplied with a fairly exact name, date and place of origin. One is not allowed to peruse the record books alone since any information on the page other than that of your family is protected.

A very helpful lady found some time to help us read a few important family records, but it was apparent that she would not be able to help us with all of them. The Urzad Stanu Cywilnego seems to be reluctant to photocopy the records.

For Jewish families who lost relatives during the war, the contents of this archive are very important and yet the least accessible. It is to be hoped that some way can be found to have access to these records without compromising the privacy and rights of living citizens and families. There must be thousands of names in these books of victims of the Holocaust, for whom the issue of privacy has become moot.

Comments by Mark Halpern

Valerie Schatzker’s article is an excellent description of the Polish archives. It mentions the JRI-Poland efforts to index those records.

The AGAD Archives project, which I coordinate for JRI-Poland, is moving forward. The project covers all the vital record holdings of the AGAD Archives, including records for 87 Administrative towns in the former Galician territories of Lwow, Stanislawow, and Tarnopol. Almost all of these towns (84 of them) are now in western Ukraine. Sixteen towns’ records have been indexed and another 33 other are on a priority list awaiting indexing. Due to Poland’s strict privacy laws, records less than 100 years old are housed at the USC (civil registration office) and are not available to JRI-Poland for indexing. For more information about the AGAD project, please refer to our website at www.jewishgen.org/JRI-PL/agad/index.htm.

Following is the current status of the towns Valerie mentions in her article that are part of the AGAD project:

  • Drohobycz: Not yet on the Indexing Priority list. For further information please contact Town Leader Carole Glick Feinberg at feincgs@cs.com.
  • Sambor: On the Indexing Priority list (#31 of the 33 towns on that list). Thanks to Town Leader Rochelle Kaplan for her efforts in ensuring the indexing of Sambor records.
  • Rawa Ruska: Not yet on the Indexing Priority list. Nobody has stepped forward as Town Leader to coordinate activities. Please contact me if you are interested in coordinating the initiative.
  • Sokal: Not yet on the Indexing Priority list. For further information, please contact Town Leader Josef Herz at josef@jaherz.com.

The indexing of the vital records housed at the AGAD archives means that researchers will be able to perform their research from the comfort of their own home using the JRI-Poland online database www.jewishgen.org/JRI-PL/jriplweb.htm. They will also be able to order a copy of the record from AGAD for $11 per record. Copies will be made from all the vital record books that are housed at AGAD.

To help ensure the indexing of your Galician town’s records, please consider a contribution to the AGAD project. Information on contributing is available at www.jewishgen.org/jri-pl/agad/visa.htm.


Gesher Galicia is a non-profit organization carrying out Jewish genealogical and historical research on Galicia, formerly a province of Austria-Hungary and today divided between southeastern Poland and western Ukraine. The research work includes the indexing of archival vital records and census books, Holocaust-period records, Josephine and Franciscan cadastral surveys, lists of Jewish taxpayers, and records of Galician medical students and doctors - all added to our searchable online database. In addition, we reproduce regional and cadastral maps for our online Map Room. We conduct educational research and publish a quarterly research journal, the Galitzianer. Gesher Galicia is also organized for the purpose of maintaining networking and online discussion groups and to promote and support Jewish heritage preservation work in the areas of the former Galicia.

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