The geographic location of your forefather’s birth may not be in the same country as it was known a century ago. Maybe he spoke German, but his birth record was written in Italian. Although this site focuses on the former kingdom of Hungary, much of the information found here may be applicable to countries beyond the fuzzy borders of central Europe, as they may once have been part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire.
Over time, national borders have been redrawn. Wars and territory disputes led to changing place names, and in some cases, the language used in vital records switched entirely. It’s helpful to review European history to understand why a great-grandparent may have had three different countries listed for his place of birth on immigration records, census documents, and draft cards.
I won’t go into great detail here about each country, but for further reading, below are a few articles worth reading:
By fuzzy borders, I mean the lands that comprise modern-day central Europe are not universally agreed-upon. The map below represents the region, as defined by the World Factbook, 2009.1.
The Collins English Dictionary defines central Europe similarly as:
an area between Eastern and Western Europe, generally accepted as comprising Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland
The German organization, Der Ständige Ausschuss für geographische Namen (The Standing Committee on Geographic Names) has a different opinion, defining central Europe as the areas shown in blue, below. 2
Der Ständige Ausschuss’ map includes Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and parts of Romania, Italy, Croatia, and Ukraine.
Returning to the historical aspect of these fuzzy borders, if we take a look at the territories over time, we can see how things get a bit confusing. Below is a map of Austria-Hungary in 1914, with modern-day place names for reference.
As an example of how changing place names can affect genealogical research, I present the death certificate of my great-grandfather John Jaworski. When I began researching John, this was the first document I encountered with his name on it. I knew where he and his family lived and where he died, so this record tells me his place and date of birth. Sort of.
John died in 1955 and his place of birth is listed as Poland. His son was the informant, and John’s wife was still living, so I assumed the information was fairly accurate. If the informant was not well-acquainted with the deceased, details on this document could be entirely incorrect or simply incomplete.
In 1918, John and his wife Mary had a son who only lived a few days. Baby Walter’s death certificate lists his father’s place of birth as Austria-Poland. This tells us John was likely not Prussian, but probably from Galicia.
The next document wasn’t as easy to locate, but it was very useful. I visited the Carbon County, PA archives and found John’s immigration records on microfilm. Below is the clearest image I could capture.
This is John’s naturalization petition from 1914. His birthday is listed as December 25th, 1881 and It says he emigrated via Rotterdam, Holland on the vessel Nassau on September 12th, 1901. I have yet to locate John’s manifest (not every passenger list survived the years), but there are enough details on this document to verify his birthplace.
The red line shows Falkowa, Hungary. A quick search reveals Falkowa is now a village near Nowy Sącz, Poland.
Zooming out, we can see Falkowa would have once been part of Austrian Galicia. It’s about 90 km southeast of Kraków. With this information, I was able to move to the next step and begin searching Polish records.
“Changing” birthplaces appear frequently in central European genealogical study and can be a troublesome obstacle for some just getting started. By learning a bit about the events that shaped national borders, we can more easily figure out where our ancestors came from. We may also gain a better understanding of why they left.