Introduction to Metrical and Civil Registration Books in the Polish State Archives (Executive Summary)
By Hanna Krajewska
Translated from the Polish by Dr. George Alexander. Edited by Warren Blatt.
Reprinted with permission from Kielce-Radom SIG Journal, Volume 4, Number 3, Summer 2000
The term “metryka” was used with several meanings: as a book for entries of births, baptisms, marriages and funerals, thus, as a metrical book, but also as an individual document, a certificate, also as a collection of old lists and formal government documents.
The oldest metrical books in Poland come from before the decisions of the Tridentine Synod. [They include Roman Catholic individuals only. – Editor] These are a result of decisions of the Krakovian bishop, Thomas Strzepinski, about keeping records of newlyweds, metrica copulatorum of the Marian Church in Kraków in the years 1548-1585, and the parochial books of Bochnia from 1559. Keeping of death records by the Polish clergy was only required after the Piotrków Ritual of 1631. The Luck Synod of 1641 ordered that the parish priests personally enter the data into the books, and the Synod of 1733 decided that for greater accuracy, all pages of the metrical books must be numbered.
During the French Revolution, church offices were secularized and on the strength of the decree of the National Assembly of 20 September 1792, civil registration offices came into being. A decree also introduced the civil Code Napoleon of 1804, which determined the lay character of marriages, introduced civil marriage, allowed for divorces, and placed all marital cases under the jurisdiction of the Common Court.
After the partitions of Polish lands [1772-1795], the rules of keeping metrical books differed in each region.
In the Austrian region, parish priests of the Roman Catholic Church were named as civil registration clerks by the Imperial Patent of 15 March 1782. Thus, each priest, who kept civil registry, was subject to the jurisdiction of both the church and the state authorities. The data were entered in Latin, separately for each village that was a part of a parish. This was a departure from previous old Polish records, in which the entries of an entire parish were kept in one tome.
In 1787 a regulation was issued, that in cases of marriage between people of different faiths, the data were to be entered in books of both faiths.
The Imperial Patent of 15 March 1782 delegated to Catholic parochial priests the right of civil registration clerks also in relation to non-Christian faiths, among others, Jews. Israelite metrical books kept by the Jewish community were to have an exclusively private character. The Imperial Patent of 7 May 1789 introduced a new order to Jewish communities in Galicia. The conduct of Jewish metrical records was entrusted to the Rabbi. The Catholic priests were to exercise a periodic control and were to confirm the reliability of the entries. Only the decree of 10 July 1868 conferred on Jewish metrical records the force of legal documents. The above-mentioned decree of the Interior Ministry of 1875 transferred the conduct of metrical books to separate clerks, approved by the civil authorities, so-called “metricants”. Control was exerted by the appropriate administrative authorities, i.e., the district governors (Starostas). After having finished all entries for a given calendar year, the metricants also had the duty of providing one of two copies of the records to the Starosta’s office.
In 1891, a complete rearrangement of Jewish religious communities was finalized. Entries in metrical books were performed mostly in German and Polish. The headings of columns were often also in Hebrew or Yiddish.
In the German areas, the keeping of metrical books first began in the 16th century. Until the end of the 18th century, these books had an exclusively religious character.
The obligation to register births, marriages, and deaths of Jews in the years 1794-1812 was with their respective municipal town hall. These registries were kept primarily for the purposes of legal documentation. On 11 March 1812, there appeared a decree dealing with the issue of citizenship of Jews which divided them into two groups: naturalized and non-naturalized. To the first group belonged those who had prescribed wealth, had a stable occupation and proper address and who also decided to accept a surname. Thus, they were entered in a list of state citizens. On 30 March 1847, a regulation was issued dealing with civil court confirmations of births, marriages and deaths of Jews and dissidents.
This dual form of registry (civil – in case of Jews and dissidents, and religious – in case of all other citizens of the Prussian State) lasted until the second half of the 19th century. Uniform civil registration was introduced in Prussia in 1874. The keeping of the civil registration was entrusted to special civil registration clerks appointed by administrative authorities. In urban communities several districts were formed. Mayors or village elders served as civil registration clerks.
On 6 February 1875, a law was promulgated about lay registry of civil state in the entire Reich. It was valid from 1 Jan 1876. This law completely separated civil registration of the population from church affairs. It introduced an obligation to record births, marriages, and deaths of all citizens, regardless of faith, in three kinds of books. Introduced also were civil weddings as having priority over church weddings. Metrical books were usually kept in Latin or in German, civil registration books in German.
After World War I, on lands which remained after 1920 as parts of the German Reich these laws were modified somewhat by law of 1937. Significantly different were the acts pertaining to the marital unions; these were kept primarily in a somewhat different registry, in the so-called family book (Familienbuch).
Duchy of Warsaw (Księstwo Warszawskie) [1807-1813]
Article 69 of the 1807 Constitution introduced the Napoleonic Code in the Duchy of Warsaw, and with it offices and records of the civil registration. A decree of Frederic August, King of Saxony and Duke of Warsaw, on 27 January 1808 (to be valid from 1 May 1808), created civil registration records. On 18 March 1809, changes were introduced in nine articles of the decree. In principle, books were to be kept by civil clerks, but in view of the shortage of appropriately trained persons, this task was conferred on priests. The subsequent decree of the Saxon King of 23 Feb 1809 required also that the priests first keep the civil records and then perform their religious rites. To avoid conflicts that could occur between the duties of a chaplain and the duties of a clerk, presidents and mayors were given the right to perform civil weddings and divorces.
Kingdom of Poland (Królestwo Polskie) [1815-1918]
A decision of the Prince Plenipotentiary of 3 October 1825 assigned the keeping of civil registration records for non-Christian faiths (Jews and Moslems) to mayors or their substituting clerks. For Jews, there was an additional decision of the Administrative Council that rabbis, after having performed their religious rites, should enter the appropriate information into a civil registry. Supervision of these acts remained in the hands of civil clerks. The entries had to be made in the Polish language.
Priests as well as rabbis were obligated to keep books divided into three parts: births, marriages, and deaths. One copy of the book, considered as a duplicate (duplikat), was supposed to be closed at the end of each year and stored in the archive of the appropriate peace court. Another copy, considered as the original (unikat), was to be kept on site. This original was composed of three books (births, marriages, and deaths), entries were to be made until the book was filled. Both the original and the duplicate had numbered pages.
Births were supposed to be recorded within eight days of the baby’s entry into the world. This obligation was not frequently observed by Jews. Wedding records were written up after the ceremony in the presence of two witnesses. In cases of non-Christian weddings, a rabbi or an imam, after the performing the ceremony, went along with the newlywed and witnesses to the civil registration clerk to register the marriage act. Divorces and separations belonged to the jurisdiction of royal procurators.
Entries in the books of civil registration were at first kept in the Polish language, and from January 1st, 1868 in the Russian language, as per regulation of the Organizing Committee of the Kingdom of Poland. However, the legal rules pertaining to the form of the records remained unchanged.
The different rules existing in the areas of the three formerly occupied areas persisted in Poland during the twenty-year period between the [two world – Editor] wars. The rules were supplemented by decrees of the state authorities, opinions of the General Procurator’s office and by decisions of the Supreme Court.
A decree of 25 September 1945 introduced (from 1 January 1946) a national, common, lay, non-religious civil state registry, uniform for the entire country. This legal decree created new arms of the national administration – offices of civil registration. Administrative offices which stored copies of civil registration books and metrical books were obliged to pass them by 15 January 1946 to civil registration offices (Urząd Stanu Cywilnego). These, in turn, as per further regulations, were to transfer to the State Archives metrical books older than 100 years.
[Editor’s Note - At the time of transfer to the State Archives, the metrical books were generally finally available to the public. In 2015, a change to Polish Law allowed Marriage and Death registers to be made available to the public after only 80 years but maintained the 100-year privacy rule for Birth registers.]
To facilitate the searches of extant records, it was decided to prepare an Informator (Guidebook), containing a listing of all metrical and civil acts owned by the Polish State Archives. Preparation for this project, suggested by Hanna Krajewska, began in 1996. Completion was planned for two years. In 1997, workers in all state archives in which metrical and civil records are kept (a total of 70 archival locations) conducted a search of parishes, religious community offices, civil registration offices, courts, municipal offices and private property collections. As a result, thorough detailed information was obtained on the wealth of metrical collections and their variety. Information was entered into a computer base called PRADZIAD (Grandfather). The search conducted in 1997 included records which were in the Archives’ possession as of 31 Dec 1996, but in some archives also included acquisitions in 1997 up to the time of the search.
[Editor’s Note – Eventually the PRADZIAD system was incorporated into the “Szukaj w Archiwach” website of the Polish State Archives. Visit: https://www.szukajwarchiwach.gov.pl/en/. The website can also be reached through any JRI-Poland Town Card under the heading “External Resources”.]