When one thinks of Pomerania, it is difficult not to recognize the historical significance of Stettin. It was once the regional capital of Pomerania. Today, the city houses some of the oldest and most important artifacts from German times. The city is still beautiful and vibrant with plenty of things to do along boardwalk. The archive in Szczecin, however, was the biggest disappointment. Even with months of research beforehand and duplicates of items requested, my own personal journey proved to be only half as fruitful as I would have suspected. Here is some advice before embarking on a research trip to the State Archives in Szczecin.
Before continuing, it is recommended to read Visiting the State Archives in Koszalin and Using Szukaj w Archiwach to Find Archival Documents first to familiarize yourself with archival procedures and compiling a list for your research. This guide assumes that concepts from those two earlier articles are understood before proceeding.
Preparing for Your Trip
The first step before planning to visit the archives is to determine which materials bear the most relevance to your family history research. After all, time is money. Time is also the most valuable currency on your trip. The Archiwum Państwowe w Szczecinie limits researchers to ten items per person per day. That number can be increased prior to arrival by emailing the archives at [email protected] and explaining the purpose of your trip. Polish archives tend to be more understanding and willing to make exceptions for foreigners traveling from the Americas, as they understand these trips are costly and difficult to make. Even so, plan for mistakes to be made and accept that not everything you request will be delivered. It is also recommended to send a spreadsheet of all items requested to the archives if for nothing more than peace of mind. Even though I did, it did not change the fact that numerous items I requested were not delivered.
The first step for researching at the Szczecin Archives is to submit a user request form. By using Google Chrome, one can easily right-click and translate the whole page. This makes filling out the form go quickly.
The next task is to order the archival materials through Szczecin from their website. Rather than filling out the form a hundred times, it is possible to add more items to the ordering list by clicking on the “zamów kolejną jednostkę archiwalną” button. I would recommend placing items in order of importance before ordering them. One of my frustrations was that I never knew which document would come next, despite spending several days categorizing them by importance.
These are key pieces of information to know before filling out the ordering form, using the document 65/233/0/2/9 (Aufnahmebuch der Schneidergesellenbrüderschaft Belgard 1773-1856) as a reference:
- Imię i nazwisko zamawiającego: your name.
- Numer archiwum: number corresponding to the archive. 65 for the branch in Szczecin, 67 for Miedzyzdroje, and 68 for Stargard. (65)
- Nr zespolu: collection number. (233)
- Sygnatura: signature number (9)
- Termin realizacji: first day of research in the archive. This is the most difficult to understand without being there. One should specify in an email to the archive’s secretary how long the visit is anticipated (from July 21 to July 23, for example). When I went, I arranged each set of books by day of my visit. That, however, proved to be rather unfruitful and more labor intensive than necessary.
My Experience at the Archive
There is a definite language barrier at this facility. The primary language is Polish. Whereas other archives have fluent English-speaking staff, only one person in Szczecin spoke very limited English. Additionally, only one of the managers spoke fluent German. Without the German-speaking manager, it would have been nearly impossible for me to converse about my intentions.
Arrive early at the archive to ensure yourself a seat. It is a popular archive for visitors, both Polish students and German researchers. The summer was a great time to avoid the calamity of peak hour business. With that being said, the research room was still exceptionally small for the size of their facility.
Parking by the archive is a nightmare. I wasted twenty minutes driving in circles through street lights that wouldn’t hold to look for parking spots that were all taken. Be smart. Book a hotel within 30 minutes from the archive and walk. It will save time in the long run.
Depending on which security guard is staffing the entrance, you will either be met by a very kind man who is willing to help or one who is rude, cold, and unkind. They both look rather similar. My first day of research, the kind and helpful man let my wife go upstairs with her zip-up because she was cold. A day or two later and we had a different door man. When I requested to be let in that day, he asked why I was there. I pointed to the sign and said, “Lesesaal,” which means “reading room” in German. He basically told me, “You’re the smart man with a cell phone, you figure out how to communicate with me.” He yelled at us and made us feel inferior, refused to let my wife bring up her pullover, and jeered at us when I nervously tried to use the locker.
Once led into the manager’s office, my wife and I stood in the entry waiting. I finally sat down. The manager did not so much as look up from his email to greet us. He continued hunting and pecking at the keyboard for several minutes before hitting the send button. He then turned to us and asked us why we were there. I answered him in German, saying that I was there to do research. He asked if I knew German, because all of the records are in German and if I don’t know German than I won’t be able to understand them. After muddling through yet another conversation, something finally clicked. “Oh, you’re the Americans. But you’re not supposed to be here until tomorrow.” I tried to show him the copies of previous emails with the archives, but he wouldn’t look at them. He reached for his glasses to take a look and then decided it was too much work to put them on and read it. He explained that the number of books I could read per day would be fifteen instead of the usual ten. However, the email they sent to me before leaving the U.S. stated that I could request twenty per day. It wouldn’t matter because so much time was wasted trying to get the most important records first.
Despite all of this, there were records there for me to begin with. As we began photographing, it became apparent that several of the records I requested were incorrect. My wife was photographing the first set for Wendisch Karstnitz, and I noticed 90 pages into it that the book was for Stolpmünde. The reference numbers should have been 4762, 4763, and 4765. Instead, I was brought books 3762, 3763, and 3765. I found out later that it would take two weeks for the books to arrive from their warehouse outside of Stettin. (There are numerous branches throughout the north of Poland. I would recommend seeing if books could be shipped to one of those branches instead of the main archives for a better experience.) This happened again on a different day. I requested the church book for Arnhausen and was given a small book for Quisbernow. The signature numbers matched, but only because the numbers on this book were for the old system of numbering. It took them several days to let me know that the book for Arnhausen was in restoration. (It has been there for two years.) You can read more about this fiasco on the page for the Quisbernow church book. Suffice to say that despite being right, one of the managers tried to convince me I was wrong and wasted half an hour of my time there by going through his email one by one rather inefficiently trying to find my request form. It would have been easier to just fill out a new request form.
The reading room was rather noisy at times when larger groups of people came in. One of the men doing research kept wheezing; after four days of doing research, my allergies were acting up. After seeing the good condition of books in Koszalin, my impression is that the books in Szczecin are not well-maintained. My hands turned black from the pages. One of the books literally turned to dust as I flipped the page, corroded with mold. Two other books were bound through the center. The manager made sure I was very aware that it was done during German times and that they were not responsible for it. I will admit, the manager warmed up to me more when I proved I was capable of reading and speaking German and could converse about more complex topics.
The reading room is also small for such a large archive. My wife wondered what the rest of the rooms were used for. Apparently, the archive can be busy. I did not experience that; instead, I wondered why there were so few people there.
Closing time was at 3:00 p.m., and they meant “please get out before 3:00 p.m.” Despite their website not making any sense to me, apparently where the U.S. extends hours in the summer because we know people are more able to do things, Europe is a different beast, limiting hours everywhere so people can “make holiday.” So rather than taking the translation to mean they were open until 6:00 p.m. during July and August, it meant they open every other month except those two for longer periods of time.
Even with all of the mishaps, I was able to make a few discoveries from documents requested. I am certain from my current research that if I were to make a second trip, I would be able to expand upon what I’ve discovered.
With all of this being said, research in Szczecin is inevitable. The facility houses so many crucial documents. I realize everything said here is rather negative, and I do not sound like a ray of sunshine. If you want to make the most of your time in Szczecin, here’s my advice:
- Plan to do other things while there. Szczecin is a beautiful city and most excursions can only be done during business hours, which are consequently the same time as when the archives are open. See everything: museums, churches, bell towers, tours, etc. The experiences are much more important than the research.
- Bring a written transcription (Google Translate) of why you are there and your purpose for research. Have a printed copy with you when you arrive.
- Take pictures of the books but do not read them there.
- Make sure you have both the new and old reference numbers for books on a spreadsheet. Cross off and number the spreadsheet in the order you photograph them.
- Waste no time conversing with the staff. If there is a mistake, state what the mistake is and what you need. Then move on. Time is too precious to waste.
- Arrive at the archive before it opens. It’s better to get there early and leave early than waste the best hours of the day. Plan to get most of your work done in fewer days.
I have also received the question as to whether my experience was perceived as an anti-German attitude. I’ll answer that succinctly: no. I believe the people at the archive have become so accustomed to working with German researchers that they’ve taken on the same attitudes of the German archives (strict closing times, they’re employed by the government and are limited in funding, there’s not enough help, one must speak the language to prove himself, et al.). Almost every single Polish person I encountered was friendly, caring, giving, kind, and willing to go out of their ways to help me. In fact, many hours planned for sightseeing were cut short because of local hospitality, giving me wonderful experiences that never would have been possible otherwise. (I have a jar of Johannisbeere jam in my fridge from the family who owns my cousin’s former house!) Make sure to leave plenty of time for extra things that pop up.