Published: Pathways & Passages volume 23, number 1, winter 2006.
The Vital Records offices (called USC, short for Urzad Stanu Cywilnego) are a gold mine of information – but at the same time an obstacle, often difficult to overcome for researchers of genealogical issues. With the appropriate dose of dedication and determination everything is possible, even getting a glance at these registers preserved both by law and the protective hand of a clerk, but.
Let us begin with what the law states. The USC offices maintain registers in which are recorded all the birth (or baptisms if only this type of register was kept during the time period for which records exist), death and marriages, all which are less then a hundred years old. All matters regarding the availability of these registers for research and issuing copies obtained from their contents are governed by a law promulgated on September 29, 1986(see Government Regulations Gazette #04.161.1688) in article 25 we find the following “Vital Records, with the permission of the Registrar of Vital Records, can be made available for inspection to authorized representatives of government agencies as well as academic institutions”
What this mean, in reality, is that for those of us who are fascinated by the yet to be discovered histories of our families, we can only cast a longing gaze upon the locked cabinet that contains these treasures. Only if one treats the construction of the family tree as an academic project or assignment, gains the support of some university for this undertaking and presents the appropriate documents and an official request by some university to the USC Registrar is there any hope of gaining unfettered access to these records. In the official request it is necessary to give a title of the project or thesis and concretely outline the years of the records that are needed to complete the project. After receiving the requisite letters of recommendation and documents it is up to the Registrar who will render a decision if access is to be granted or not. If one is lucky enough to wade through all this formalities and regulations, one can only view the registers. Taking digital pictures of the records or making photocopies is strictly prohibited.
But let us return to the magic number of 100 years. The government made an assumption that nobody should be alive after 100 years of age (thank you Lord, for deviating from these government norms!) and that any privacy laws are rendered invalid after the passage of century. The Vital Records office by law obliged to turn all hundred year-old registers over to the State Archive system, where every citizen has free access to them. Just to make sure a genealogist’s life is just a bit more interesting, we can never be sure if the records of our Great Aunt Marysia, our grandmother’s sister, who made her debut on this earth in 1905, are in fact serenely resting on the shelf at the State Archives. Very often, the priest who served as The Vital Records Registrar kept his records in large, thick ledgers. If he started the register in 1905 and used it for the next five years – that is, to 1910 – we can be sure that our eyes will not cast themselves On Great Aunt Marysia’s birth certificate until 2010, even though the requisite 100 years have passed. We have to wait until the last entry in the register is 100 years before it becomes available in the States Archives.
It may be true that we are getting agitated unnecessarily over this state of affairs; or maybe not. After all, there are other archives – parish and diocesan archives where Ciocia Marysia’s record can be duplicated. Priests were required to make triplicate copies of registers. However it is well-known fact not all obeyed this regulation. Also keep in mind even if the copies were made, because of all the twists and turns taken by our turbulent Polish history, some registers were lost or destroyed. So at times, the USC is the only place we can find the much-needed building blocks to construct our families histories. We need to know what we must confront when we try to get this invaluable information.
Let us suppose that we are sure of our hypothetical Great Aunt Marysia’s year of birth and we both want and need to see her birth certificate to overcome a research problem or obstacle. This probably will not be possible because, as we just stated above, digital photos, photocopies are prohibited. Likewise, the clerk cannot show us an open register. She can only issue official documents taken from the register’s contents; and according to the law, we are basically not entitled to them. What are this “official document’s” issued by USC?
The certificates can be either in short form (odpis skrocony) or long form (odpis zupełny) formats. The long form is a pre-printed document onto which the clerk transfers detailed information from the registry entry (including any notations). Years ago, this was done by hand in pen, later by typewriter, and now in some cases by computer. By low, the certificates must contain the following information:
Birth certificate: Name(s) of child, date and place of birth, names and surnames at birth of the parents. For woman this obviously will be the maiden name but at times men’s surname will be different if they were changed for any reason whatsoever.
Marriage certificate: Name(s) and surnames of the bride and groom, their surnames at birth, their places and dates of birth (or age if this information is lacking in older records); the place and date of marriage. Woman may choose to keep their maiden names.
Death certificate: Name(s) and surname of the deceased, his or her surname at birth, date and place of death, date or year of birth, marital status, last permanent resident, names and surname of the spouse and parents of the deceased.
So much information! Sometimes it is all correct; but as in the U.S. – and everywhere for that matter – people knowingly or unknowingly provided errant information. At other times errors creep into these certificates because not every clerk possesses language skills to transcribe the information from original register entries written in German and Russian.
Now that we know a bit about the raison d’etre and operation of USC, we run on the wings of hope to the USC that is “ours” for Great Aunt Marysia’s birth certificate. Luck is with us if Marysia was born in a small community because we can expedite the matter right away. In larger cities, a formal request must be filed and we patiently wait, and wait. In our particular case, the locality is small and the clerk very understanding and sympathetic. We explain with trepidation why we are here: “My grandmother’s sister Marysia was born in 1905 and.
“The exact date? I do not know but is there an index in the volume?” It is good if the clerk is kind enough to look in the index because she really does not have to. Customers at the USC are expected to come armed with exact precise information. Unfortunately, this exchange of pleasantries and index searching has given the clerk time to think about the situation. Marysia’s record is there but even a surreptitious glance at it is impossible because the clerk’s hand is covering the page and she has ordered us to sit away from the desk so we cannot possibly read it. The end result – no access, because the clerk decided that the sister of your grandmother is not “immediate family”.
However, we have done our homework and know the law. Even better if we have a copy of the law with us! In the aforesaid Article 83 under point1, it states “certificates can be issued by court order, or the request of another government agency, or individuals who are direct descendants, or direct ancestors or the spouse of the subject of the record or legal representative.” Furthermore, point 2 of the aforesaid law tells us “a certificate can be issued upon the request of other individuals who demonstrate a legal interest in the matter, upon the request of a community organization whose statues and regulations delineate that the organization’s function is in the “common good and interest of the community”
In our case, we are not a representative of another government agency, nor do we qualify from the choices in the list of relatives. The relationship must be in a direct line and we are the direct-line descendant of our grandmother, not Great Aunt Marysia. So strictly speaking, we still are not eligible to get the certificate. We also cannot be a “legal representative” of Marysia because she would have had to give us power of attorney – totally impossible, as we did not even know she existed until five years ago when we began researching the family; and alas she has been dead for thirty years. So she will not be signing the power of attorney. What then are we left with vis-a-vis these regulations? What ammunition do we have to melt the glacier of laws that we must circumvent, laws which totally exclude those whose passion is genealogy?
A genealogy society!! It is a community organization with officers and dues-paying members and registered officially as such with government. It is an entity that can issue a membership card and write letters supporting our research, all rich with the kinds of stamps and seals that bureaucrats love. If we are not in Poland or belong to foreign genealogical association, what we need to do is to send a request with a certified translation attesting to the historical significance of our work. The decision to honor such a request rests solely at the discretion of the Registrar and a dose of sheer luck. And luck is just what we need in recent times. Registrars have become more restrictive and suspicious in the past few years. However, it still may be possible to get the document we desire. Once approval is granted, all that remains is paying a 22,00 PLN fee for a short form and 33,00 PLN for a long form.
USC employees are just like the rest of us. Some are more cooperative and friendly then others; some are more open and honest than others. Some may be in a better or worse mood on the day we visit. Some understand our passion for genealogy and are willing to assist us. I have had success in viewing “forbidden” registers, even though the person listed in the record was not a direct-line ancestor. The taming of the beast which is the USC is therefore possible; you just have to figure out a way.