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Since When Is "Hoffman" a Polish Name?

As you'll notice, I work primarily on publications associated with Polish and East European genealogy. You may wonder why a fellow named "Hoffman" would be so interested in things Polish.

I first got interested in Polish genealogy because my wife's ancestors on her father's side were ethnic Poles living in the Warsaw area and in the Alytus/Olita area of Lithuania. Her cousin Thomas L. Hollowak (who runs Historyk Press and is very knowledgeable in the history of Baltimore's Polish community) asked if I could translate some letters in Polish for him. When I found I could do so, Thomas  mentioned me to Edward A. Peckwas, founder of the Polish Genealogical Society of America, who was looking for translators. Ed asked me to translate several items for the Society, was pleased with his work, and gradually relied on me more and more to help him with the Society's newsletters. This caused me to become more and more familiar with desktop publishing. In 1992, when illness forced Ed to retire, I became the Society's publications editor. Since then I have worked on numerous other societies' newsletters as editor, typesetter, layout artist, or some similar capacity, including Pathways & Passages, the Journal of the Polish Genealogical Society of Connecticut and the Northeast, Inc.

When I get a chance, I enjoy browsing through various Internet mailing lists devoted to Polish and Eastern European genealogy, and contributing to the discussion, if I feel I have anything to say worth hearing. I also try to find time to answer questions about the origins and meanings of Polish surnames (you can see some of my replies at http://www.polishroots.org/Research/Surnames/tabid/360/Default.aspx). As you can imagine, I have only limited time to devote to such responses, so it can often be months before I respond. I can NOT promise I will have time to answer you. But I will if I can.

I do want to add one thing: Hoffman is about as German a name as you'll ever find, but there are thousands of Polish citizens named Hofman, Hoffman, Hofmann, and Hoffmann. Over the centuries large numbers of ethnic Germans left their homeland due to war, religious persecution, and the like; many of them headed east. So we find people with German names in Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Russia -- you name it! If you want to trace your family history, and you start with surnames, you'd better realize one thing: they can be misleading! Don't make assumptions; check your facts!

I've compiled a list of observations I've made over the years, comments you might find helpful if you're just starting out tracing your family history. I've pasted them in below, grouped by category, so that you can refer to them if you wish.



While there are searchable databases online that tell you how many Poles bore a specific surname as of 1990 and 2002, I don't have access to further details such as first names or addresses. But there may be a way to get more info. Noted Polish researcher Iwona Dakiniewicz wrote an excellent article, "How to Find Living Relatives," in the Winter 2013 issue of Rodziny. The whole article is online here:


Among the information she gave is this:

If we seek information on such persons and have no knowledge as to where to look, then the matter is much simpler. You need only mail an application form, along with official papers proving you are related to the person sought, to the Polish national address office, officially called Wydział Udostępniania Informacji Departamentu Spraw Obywatelskich MSWiA (Ministerstwo Spraw Wewnetrzych i Administracji) [Information Disclosure Division of the Department of Civil Affairs, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration]:

  • Wydział Udostępniania Informacji Departamentu Spraw Obywatelskich MSWiA
  • Pawińskiego 17/21
  • 02-106 Warszawa

The application form is available online here:


If that link doesn’t work, try this one: <http://tinyurl.com/az9u3lo>.

Note that the page is in Polish, and the reply will be, too. That's because this is an official agency of the Polish government, and the official language of Poland is, surprise!, Polish. So it'd be a good investment to have a professional translator look over your application and make sure you got everything right. And remember, you do need to prove you're related to the people in question.

I doubt it will be easy. But if it puts you in touch with living relatives, it's worth it!



If you wish to see data on surname frequency and distribution in Poland as of 1990, you can search here.

The page is in Polish, and searching successfully can be a little tricky. If you need help understanding this data, I wrote an article on the subject, "The Slownik nazwisk Is Still Online," in an issue of Gen Dobry!, the free e-zine of PolishRoots (R), available here.

One thing about the database that puzzles many people is the large number of surnames listed with a frequency of 0. What that means is that the surname in question does appear in the database, but the data is incomplete. Many times it turns out that names with a frequency of 0 were misspelled; but they can also be legitimate surnames that happen to be rare. Typically they were the maiden names of women who had recently married, or surnames of people who had recently died. In any case, I know for a fact that there are many surnames that existed once in Poland but since have died out -- often because families bearing them emigrated.


If you'd like to see maps showing where places in modern Poland, go here. In the upper right, under the red box saying "Pokaz na mapie," is an empty box labeled "Miejscowosc." Type in the name of the place you're looking for, or the first few letters followed by *. Then click on "Pokaz." You'll get a map showing Poland with red circles marking the location of the places by that name currently in Poland. They're also listed on the right. In the list, click on the blue underline name for each and you get a map of each; or on the map you can click on each red circle. When you get the map of the area, you can zoom in (click on the yellow box that says "Zbliz") or out ("Oddal"), print ("Drukuj"), etc.

If you're looking for maps showing Poland's historical borders and how they have changed over the centuries, there are a number of good sites, including this one.



If you do get addresses for possible relatives in Poland and want to write to them, writing in Polish is more likely to work. These days a lot of people in Poland are studying English, so writing in English is less hopeless than it used to be; but let's face it, most folks in Poland don't speak English and won't understand a letter in our language. You could write a letter and hire a translator; or you could use the Letter Writing Guide here. It can help you put together a simple letter that a Pole will understand.



If you want some help with getting started, the Website of the Family History Library of the LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS, or Mormons) has excellent pointers on research fundamentals:


This page on PGS-Connecticut/Northeast's site is a good primer on the basics of Polish research:


Another good site discussing how to get started with Polish research is here:


You might also want to look for a copy of the book Polish Roots by Rosemary Chorzempa, Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore, 1993, ISBN 0-8063-1378-1. Many, many people have told me they found it enormously helpful, and it's not expensive -- $19.95 from Amazon.com, for instance.

Many people find it worthwhile to join one or more of the various Polish Genealogical Societies in the United States. There is a list of them here.

For Canadians in particular, I highly recommend the periodical East European Genealogist, published by the East European Genealogical Society. Of course, I'm hardly impartial -- I'm the editor. But you might find it helpful. You can get more info at the Society's website, http://www.eegsociety.org.

If you do find anything that points toward Ukraine as your country of origin, a new book just published can be a huge help. There's a review and more information here:

For Jewish researchers, there are many informative files here:

As you can see, whole books have been written on the subject of genealogy, so I can hardly hope to tell you much here. But I hope one of the sources I've mentioned will prove helpful. Good luck!



Polish names were often changed after Poles emigrated to other countries, where their names seemed odd, hard to spell and pronounce. Often the immigrants changed the names themselves, to make it easier for them to "fit in"; sometimes their names were recorded incorrectly on documents, and the mistake "stuck." The names might be changed a little, or a lot; there's just no way to predict which name will be recognizable and which will be mangled past all recognition. The result is that you cannot reconstruct the original Polish of Anglicized or mangled names, unless the changes were minor and it's immediately obvious what the name was. Even then, it's risky; you may jump to the wrong conclusion and go off in the wrong direction entirely. My wife's grandfather went by Holowak in the United States, and that is a legitimate name, used by Poles and especially Ukrainians; but it turned out he'd simplified the name, which was originally Cholochwosc! We were very lucky some of his letters survived to tell us what his name really was, or we could have spent a long time looking for Holowaks who were not, in fact, any relation!

There are three huge problems that complicate surname research, especially for people of Polish descent living in other countries:

1) there are literally hundreds of thousands of Polish surnames, most quite rare, many differing from others by a single letter, so that if you're one letter off you can be talking about a completely different name;

2) many surnames that once existed died out in Poland after families bearing them emigrated; surnames die out all the time just in the normal course of events, but emigration makes this phenomenon even more common; and

3) names of immigrants from central and eastern Europe were often mangled past all recognition when they came to North America. I've seen Niedzialkowski turned into Coskey and Indykiewicz turned into Endecavage -- God only knows what a specific surname might have been originally. If you're interested, you can read an article I wrote on surname mutilation here.

Sometimes a name was left unchanged, or was changed so slightly you can easily recognize it: Kovalsky could be a phonetic spelling of Polish Kowalski (however, it could also be the correct spelling of the similar Czech surname!). If a name is recognizable, I'll identify it. If it's not, I prefer not to guess; as guessing is usually a waste of time, and can even be counterproductive by leading you in the wrong direction.

Incidentally, please don't tell me your name was changed at Ellis Island. While the processing millions of immigrants could certainly give rise to mistakes, research experts I've talked to say it's just not true that lots of names were changed at Ellis Island.

Think about it. To get into the U.S. legally you couldn't just swim to Ellis Island. You had to take passage on a ship, which means you had to buy a ticket, which means you had to go from your home to where you could buy a ticket. In the German, Russian, and Austrian partitions of Poland one could not legally leave one's home district without applying for traveling papers, filled out on the basis of local vital records, which usually came from the baptismal certificate filled out at the local church. In other words, for emigrants a paper trail began when they first made plans to emigrate, and the data on those papers followed them right up to Ellis Island. Obviously misunderstandings and misspellings could creep in along the way -- but most of the time name changes turn out to have taken place AFTER the immigrant settled in America and realized his name marked him as a foreigner.

The error in the writing of the name may have taken place well before an ancestor came to Ellis Island -- most errors or changes did take place either before or after that point. The officials on Ellis Island almost changed names; they just wrote down whatever name was on the paperwork the passenger ships provided, or on any papers the immigrants had with them. Changes could take place, through simple human error, before that point; and changes were especially after that point, as the new immigrants tried to "fit in" and realized their foreign-sounding names were hampering their efforts.

So if you can't find your surname, why not? There can be numerous explanations. The name may have existed in Poland at one time, but was rare and died out, possibly after your ancestors emigrated. Or as I said, the form you have may be a distorted spelling of the original name. This happened a lot to immigrants from Eastern Europe. Non-Poles had a difficult time pronouncing and spelling their names, and this created a situation in which changes were likely, whether intentional or not.

Thus to the ears of English-speakers the name Dziegiel sounds a lot like Jingle; so often immigrants with that name decided to spell it Jingle because it was easier than insisting people spell it the right way. Or through simple human error the name may have been mangled by bureaucrats, census takers, and so on. We don't stop to think about it, but our names get misunderstood and misspelled all the time -- have you never received something in the mail where you thought "How on earth did they massacre my name so badly?" It's happened to me -- the simple name Hoffman once appeared as "Hataranny" on a piece of mail. (I'm still trying to figure that one out!)

Some people seem to think any and all surname changes had to be registered legally. Not true! The basic law in England and America is that you can call yourself anything you wish, as long as you're not doing it to evade the police or legal responsibility. If an immigrant realized other Americans couldn't pronounce his name and he was sick of trying to answer their questions, there was no reason he couldn't change it to anything he liked. Some years back, in the Chicago area, a judge's husband and mother were murdered by a Polish immigrant named Bartlomiej Ciszewski -- but if you read about it in the papers, you undoubtedly saw him called Bart Ross. That was the name he went by in the U.S., and that was the name he used in the many lawsuits he filed. As far as I know, he never changed his name legally; he just started going by a name that fit in better in the U.S.

You didn't have to go to court and change your name legally; with modern security measures it might be a good idea to do so, but until recently there was no need to worry about it. When people did do that, it was because of some pressing legal concern. Maybe they were set to inherit property, and they thought it would clarify things if they documented their name change legally. So if your grandfather did go to court and change his name legally, there may be records in the courthouse he would have gone to.

But don't be surprised if there are no records. It wasn't necessary in most cases, and immigrants generally didn't have a lot of money to pay lawyers to do something that wasn't necessary. They just started calling themselves something different -- no problem. So there may be no records. You'll just have to dig around and find documents that mention him, such as parish records, naturalization papers, census records, and so on, comparing data and documenting the names he went by.
In such instances, all I can do is advise you to trace the family back in the records, generation by generation, till you find something that gives firm, reliable information. For help with that, read the section above entitled "Research: Getting Started."



A large number of Poles emigrated to Brazil. I'm not fluent in Portuguese and have done no research connected with Brazil, so I have no business trying to advise Brazilians on their research. There is, however, a research guide on the LDS Family History Library Website designed specifically to help Brazilians; if you're interested, take a look here.



H vs CH

In Polish H and CH are pronounced more or less the same -- not quite like English H, but closer to the guttural "ch" in German "Bach." Since they sound the same, and the spelling of names in records before the advent of universal literacy was hit or miss, you could easily see the surname Charamut, for instance, spelled Haramut. The same person might be called Charamut in one record, Haramut the next. Both names would sound somewhat like "har-AH-moot," except as I said, that initial sound would be a little more guttural than English H.

It would not be at all rare for the C to be dropped once a family with this name moved to English-speaking countries. To English-speakers' ears the initial sound would approximate an H, so why not spell it that way? So even if the name was usually spelled CHARAMUT in Poland, it would tend to become HARAMUT in other countries.

I, J, and Y

In older Polish records it is very common to see the letters I, J, and Y used almost interchangeably. If you study the history of the Roman alphabet, it's not hard to understand why. But you can find that information if you're interested. Simply as a practical matter, keep this in mind as you search.


The Polish letter written as an L with a slash or crossbar is pronounced much like our W. It is possible, in a given instance, that a name with the slash-L might have been spelled phonetically with W. In most cases, however, non-Poles had no idea what to make of that character, so they just dropped the slash and went with plain old L. The only reason you need to keep the slash-L in mind is because Polish reference works alphabetize slash-L separately from plain L. This is also true of the other Polish characters with diacritical marks -- nasal a, accented c, nasal e, accented n, accented o, accented s, accented z, and dotted z. You might look up a name in a Polish-language source and find nothing because you're looking in the wrong place; it's listed, but many pages away from where you're looking for it.

V and W

Polish does not use the letter V; it uses W to stand for the sound we write as V. So if you're looking for an ancestor whose name is given in the records as, say, Vladyslav, you need to know Poles don't spell it that way: they spell it Wladyslaw.






If you have Jewish ancestry, there are a number of really outstanding resources available online to help you. I'd say the place to start is with http://www.jewishgen.org.

Their FAQ's, Family Finder, ShtetlSeeker, SIG's (special interest groups) -- all are excellent. Some other sites worth visiting are:

- the Consolidated Jewish Surname Index:

- Avotaynu, Inc., publisher of numerous works to assist Jewish researchers, including a free e-zine, Nu? What's New?:


- and Routes to Roots:


There are many other excellent resources, but I suggest starting with these. They will lead you to others soon enough.



When data on surname distribution indicates concentration in the former provinces of Bydgoszcz, Gdansk, and Slupsk, there is a good chance that surname is associated primarily with the Kaszubi, or as we spell it, Kashubs, a Slavic people who are closely related to the Poles but have their own customs and language (very similar to Polish in most respects). If you'd like to know more about the Kashubs, Google "Kashubs" and "Kaszuby."










People ask me all the time "What was my family crest?" Let me explain a couple of things.

For one thing, experts in heraldry have told me "family crest" is something of a misnomer. A noble family had a coat of arms, of which the crest is a part. I don't know anything about this -- as far as I can tell, my family was about as noble as your average warthog. I'm simply passing along what I've been told. Sometimes getting the terminology right can make a difference. It may be more accurate to refer to your family's coat of arms than your family crest.

Now, here's a point that people in America often miss: not all families had coats of arms! In Poland, only noble families had them (with very few exceptions). There are people who contact you and offer to sell you all sorts of items with your family crest on them. Keep your hands on your wallet, because you are dealing with thieves!  They don't have a clue whether your family was noble or not. They may be plain old con men; or the more scrupulous among them may have found your surname in some armorial somewhere. That does not mean your family was noble; at least in Poland, many surnames once exclusive to the nobility later came to be used by peasants as well.

The only way to find out whether your family was noble and had a coat of arms is to trace the family and establish direct descent from a recognized noble. Surname experts can't tell you; guys trying to sell you monogrammed items can't tell you. You have to trace your family history, or have someone reliable do it for you. If your family was noble, odds are decent you'll be able to establish that fact without too much trouble.

Now if you want to hang a pretty picture of a coat of arms in your den and pretend it's yours, I don't mind in the least. I've never understood why anyone cares whether their ancestors were noble; so I'm not going to criticize you. But if you do care about the truth, you need to know there were rules to this game (though, in Poland especially, they could be pretty chaotic!).

Here are some Websites in English with info that might help you:




The first two deal specifically with Polish nobility, and the last with nobility throughout Europe and elsewhere.

You might also try searching the archives of the mailing list Herbarz, or subscribing to it. This list is frequented by people very knowledgeable in the field of Polish nobility:


But please realize, you can't write and ask "My name is Kowalski, am I noble?" The only response you'll get is a tired "Do some research!" The more specifics you can give in your question, the more likely someone can point you in the right direction. As always, the lords help those who help themselves....



And my last big of sage advice: never give up! Tracing your family can be hard, and everything you need isn't necessarily online. Also, names were often changed along the way, making it even harder to find your roots. All I can suggest is that you keep digging, in hopes of finding a record filled out by someone who knew what he was doing and got the facts right. With any luck you can find something -- in parish records, census rolls, naturalization papers, ship passenger lists -- that gives you a good, firm handle on the surname and also on where the family came from. I say "with luck," but it's funny how luck seems to favor those who are too stubborn to give up....