Digging into Lemko Family History from the United States

Dobra, Sianik, Lesko, Krosno, Nowy Sacz. These are all places that I've never seen in my life, but they captured my imagination years ago. My paternal grandparents, Mike Gburyk and Julia Czerepaniak, were born and married in the small village of Siemuszowa just north of Sianik in southeastern 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 Lemkivshchyna, left me with a real hunger to find out more about our family history. Unlike doing genealogical research in English on other U.S. national/ethnic groups like the Poles, Germans, Italians or the Irish, the path of Lemko 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). My success fully bloomed with the availability of the Internet in the late 1990's, which has proven to be an invaluable resources 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 History

        So where do you start? If, like me, you are of Lemko descent and don't know anything about the complex and emotional history of this region, 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 these regions 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 http://www.lemko.org, will provide you with a wealth of information not only about Lemko history, religion, politics and culture, but also will point you 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 a floppy or a zip disk just in case you have a 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 it is 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.

How Far Back Can You Go?

        Despite the ravages of World War II and the tragedy of Operation Vistula (Akcja Wisla) which violently tore most Lemkos away from their ancestral homeland in southeastern Poland, a wealth of records still exist that document the history of individual families at least back to the 18
th century. In 1993, Ivan Krasowskii 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 Internet at http://www.lemko.org/genealogy/krasowskii/intro.html,. A dictionary (in English, Polish and Ukrainian) listing all Lemko names covered in Krasovskii's book with their corresponding village names appears at http://www.lemko.org/genealogy/krasowskii/.

Alternatively, if you already know the current Polish name for the village of the ancestor whom you are researching, you can go to
http://www.carpatho-rusyn.org/new/ ("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 and the cost is about US$50.00, but 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 18
th century. Information for obtaining this document and others appears in a comprehensive listing of archives for genealogical research in both southeastern Poland and Ukraine located on the Web at http://lemko.org/genealogy/addresses.html.

Working Backwards through the Polish Archives and
the Polish Consulate (New York City) and the LDS

Despite the widespread destruction and chaos of World War II, the Polish archives are remarkably intact and accessible. You can choose to contact the archives directly if you already know the current name of the province where your ancestral village is located. This page (http://lemko.org/genealogy/addresses.html) at the Lemko.org Web site has some addresses for regional Polish archives such as the one in Przemysl. The Przemysl archive can be an important first step since many of the Greek-Catholic metryka books that document the births, marriages and deaths in Lemko villages are now stored there. The cost of researching these parish registers greatly depends on how much information about your particular ancestor you can provide. A discussion of this appears on the above-mentioned Web page.
        It should be noted that the LDS Church has actually microfilmed some of these Greek-Catholic Lemko metryka 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 consult this Web page http://lemko.org/genealogy/galiciapl.html as well as the LDS Family History Library Catalog (FHLC), which is now online at http://www.familysearch.org/Eng/Library/FHLC/frameset_fhlc.asp for your specific village before writing to the archives in Poland. 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 ($3.75 for a 6-week 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 from a link on the page already mentioned.
        An alternative to writing directly to the archives in Poland is to utilize the document service of the Polish Consulate in New York City. For a fee of US$41 (January, 2005), you can obtain copies of an ancestor's birth, death or marriage certificate. An appropriate application is available for download here at the top of the page http://www.polandconsulateny.com/Documents/p4-1.htm . 
The marriage certificate will also show the names of both the husband's and wife's parents and the witnesses to their marriage. These documents are invaluable for pushing back the curtains the might obscure your Lemko ancestral past. However, you should remember that since the village parish registers (metryka) only go back for the most part to the middle of the 18
th century, you won't be able to dig up actual names of ancestors earlier than that period. For more information on obtaining birth, death and marriage documents and to confirm the current charge for this service from the Polish Consulate in New York City (233 Madison Ave./corner of 37th St.) you can call 1-646-237-2131, 2132, or 2133

Locating Relatives Lost during World War II

The ethnic cleansing that took place in southeastern 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 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, you can contact The American Red Cross, International Services Division in Fairfield, New Jersey. Norma Perez-Vazquez is Director of International Services (973-575-0880,

        Sherry Lieb, a volunteer who works on World War II lost relative cases, was extremely helpful to me for finding my Lemko relatives in Poland. After she interviewed me and we discussed the circumstances surrounding the forced resettlement of Lemkos, she spent three years working with the Red Cross and other agencies around the world to find my relatives. She successfully reconnected me with several Gburyk descendants in 2003 and some of us had a reunion in Poland in September of 2004. You can contact Sherry to discuss your particular situation with her at the Red Cross, 973-575-0880. Feel free to mention my name to her.

Creating Family Trees

        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 Kinko's or Staples will produce a fine copy from an electronic file for about $6-$8, or slightly more if you want it laminated. The end result of your efforts is a beautiful document that shows in a visual way the history of your Lemko 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 family 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 Lemko ancestors. And today, with the help of the Internet and other organizations like the Polish Consulate, the Archives in Poland and Ukraine, the LDS and the Red Cross, 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: Michael Buryk. Happy digging!

Copyright (c) 2005 Michael Buryk

Document Information

Document URL: http://lemko.org/genealogy/buryk.html

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Date Posted: April 29th, 2005
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I welcome questions and comments.