How to look for ancestors? Family interview

In a couple of days most of us will sit at a table with family and friends. Festive time is good not only for feasting and playing board games, but also for reminiscencing those that are gone, watching family photographs and making surprise visits – it might be a perfect opportunity for collecting the information on our ancestors. 

How to get down to it? Below you will find the first steps from which it is good to start at the beginning of your genealogical adventure.

Zaręczyny Jakuba Mandelbauma i Miny Starobiniec

The engagement party of Jakub Mandelbaum i Mina Starobiniec , Warszaw/ Source: private collection

Set a goal

At the beginning, set your goal. Ask yourself a question – who and what do I look for? Motivations can vary – perhaps you wish to learn the names of your ancestors, discover the fates of an uncle who was never heard from again, or find the house in which your grandma spent her childhood. Perhaps there was a tale about a lost fortune, noble or Jewish origins, and you would like to get to know the truth, or perhaps you would like to learn anything as nobody ever wanted to go back to the things past?

Write everything down in a notebook – tick off the completed tasks and add new ones 😊

Zacznij od siebie

Prawdopodobnie wiesz więcej niż Ci się wydaje. Weź kartkę i rozrysuj sobie swoje drzewko. Zacznij od siebie, swojego rodzeństwa, rodziców, wujków, cioć i tak dalej, aż do momentu, w którym jedyne co możesz postawić to znak zapytania.

Postaraj się zanotować wszystkie szczegóły – imiona, nazwiska, daty urodzeń, ślubów i zgonów. Dodaj dodatkowych krewnych, z którymi rodzina jest blisko, a z boku zapisz też wszystkie rodzinne plotki, legendy, sekrety, o których czasem się szeptało. Losy wojenne, adresy, ukończone szkoły i zawody – każdy szczegół może się okazać później bezcenny.

Talk and ask

The next step includes family interview. Some interviewees will tell stories for hours, others will certainly be silent as the grave. Some may even get offended that we dig up what should long be forgotten. For some people, returning to the past may be a traumatic experience – in such a situation we should respect if we get a refusal, and we should give up and go back to the topic some other time. Sometimes what you need is time.

In an optimist scenario, you will find a person who wants to share the story of their life – take advantage of that! Make notes, record the speech, ask a lot of questions. The more detailed they are, the better. More something like “What did your house look like?” Who was your neighbour? How many brothers and sisters did you have? Did you have a dog or a cat? Rather than saying generally “Tell me about your life”.

A good question is key to success. Even the language we use for communicating may play a vital role. I remember when a couple of years ago I had a meeting with an elderly man from abroad. His grandsons wanted to learn about their ancestors from Poland and they were waiting for him to begin sharing his story. I slowly started asking him about various things – all in vain. He did not remember anything, he knew nothing. He seemed to be very lost.

Only when I asked the same questions in Polish, the language he did not use from the end of the war, suddenly it triggered an avalanche of memories. It is good to similarly help yourself with family mementoes and photographs, if you have such things.

Even if somebody from your family interviewed the oldest members, do it once again. It may happen that your grandma will tell you more or will reveal some unknown secret because you inspire the biggest trust, or she associated you with something.

Leon Kaziński in Nowe Miasto nad Wartą, July 6th, 1932/ Source: private collection

Collect documents

Look through documents in your family home, also ask the people you interview for them. Take photographs, scans, make notes and write everything down in one place on the computer, because later you may find yourself doing the same discovery for the fourth time (true story – it happened to me more than once in the case of my own family). 

You may happen to find a birth certificate, a diploma, cuttings from a newspaper, letters, pieces of paper with seemingly “accidental” names and addresses. Collect and describe everything, and then store it in a specially prepared binder. Be a detective. 

Indeks Ruty Mandelbaum

Ruta Mandelbaum’s student record book/ Source: private collection

Ask Google

Use one of the most accessible information tools – Google search engine. That tip may seem silly or obvious, but I learned from my own experience that it is worth to pay some more attention to it. 

By putting the searched phrase (in this case for instance the name and surname and the place of birth of an ancestor) in quotation marks – you can find incredible treasures. In this way I discovered the photograph of my great-great-grandparents on an archival Allegro auction. The subject of the auction was the letter Przewodnik Katolicki issued on 5 June 1927 which contained the information about the golden wedding anniversary of Ignacy Mackowiak and Ludwika Samela from Chocicza.

Zdjęcie Ignacego i Ludwiki Maćkowiak z Chociczy

Ignacy and Ludwika Maćkowiak from Chociczy / Przewodnik Katolicki, 5 June 1927

I hope that family meetings and stay at home will bear fruit in the form of multitude of new names, surnames and anecdotes. I am keeping my fingers crossed and I encourage you to share your new discoveries in comments.

It will be a great basis for further genealogical steps which I will describe in subsequent articles.


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The final report consists of  copies of documents, translations, maps and a summary. I describe the whole process, explain the connection between certain people, mention the sources and the historical context. I also present further possibilities.

Sometimes a specific act may not be found for various reasons – migrations, gaps in the records, destruction of documents in a fire or during wars. In such cases the price doesn’t change as the same amount of effort is put in a research regardless the final result.

The reports may differ more or less depending on the place where the family came from (e.g. documents from the Prussian, Austrian and Russian partitions differ in form, language and content).

Based on the gathered information (yours and mine), I will prepare a plan and a quote – if you accept it, I will ask you to send me the down payment and I start the research. Usually it takes about 1 month and if takes longer, I keep you updated.

I will reply to your inquiry within 3 working days and this part is free of charge. Perhaps I will ask you a few additional questions or will present a research plan.

The more details you provide, the more things I can discover so I please share everything you know, especially:

  • Names and surnames of your ancestors
  • Places of birth and residence
  • Dates of birth, marriage and death
  • Information about siblings, cousins and other relatives
  • Emigration details
  • Family stories

And most importantly – if you have little information, don’t worry. I will find a solution in such situations as well.