The BEST Guide to POLAND
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Witamy, Guest
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10 Dec 2017  #4,531

My maiden name is Ryba. I believe my grandfather was from southern Poland and came to America in late 1800's. Interested to know if Ryba was ever considered a Jewish name?

DominicB - | 2,602    
10 Dec 2017  #4,532

It's a fairly common name that was used by many unrelated Polish families all over Poland, especially southern Poland. Were any of them Jewish? Perhaps. Without documented evidence, guessing will get you nowhere. And documented evidence is going to be extremely difficult or even impossible to find unless you have a concrete place of origin for your grandfather.
11 Dec 2017  #4,533


Very interesting, but I am not sure this can explain why Poles within Polish territory would use this surname.
( Polonius' explanation refers to non-Polish outside of Poland.)
kaprys 1 | 1,427    
11 Dec 2017  #4,534

As I pointed out before, people might have been called Polak as opposed to Litwin (Lithuanian) or Prus ( Prussian) or in any other circumstances that led them to use that surname. That's just a guess. I don't know how old the other two surnames are.

I have come across several Polaks in Poland and I somehow doubt they're all originally Jews.
12 Dec 2017  #4,535

Yes, Kaprys, I agree that it makes little sense that the explanation for emigrants would apply to native Polish in Poland.
12 Dec 2017  #4,536

Are all surnames derived from MAK- referring to the poppy plant?
DominicB - | 2,602    
12 Dec 2017  #4,537


No. Many are derived from personal names like Maksym or Makary, or from other words like "makry", the Ukrainian form of "mokry". See Stankiewicz:
kitty1124 - | 3    
12 Dec 2017  #4,538

Hi there! I'm trying to get some more information re: the surname Benisz. It seems like my (Catholic) family likely came from the Sosnowiec area of Poland, but I'm also seeing (Jewish) people from the same name from Hungary/Ukraine around the same time. It doesn't seem like the surname is all that common, so I'm wondering if these lines are connected and possibly what may have been more predominate (?) as a religion/culture (Jewish/Catholic). Thanks!!
12 Dec 2017  #4,539

Thank you for the link, Dominic, pozdrawiam.
kaprys 1 | 1,427    
12 Dec 2017  #4,540

Benisz is probably a polonised version of German Boehnisch or Behnisch. It was probably derived from Benjamin or Benedict.
There's also a Silesian family called Benisz with their own coat of arms. They were originally called Bieniasz, then Boehniasch.
Not sure about the Hungarians ;)
Anyway, there are loads of surnames that were used both by ethnic Poles and Jews.
OP Polonius3 1,015 | 12,527    
13 Dec 2017  #4,541

Poles within Polish territory would use this surname

The Polak nickname would have most likely been coined to indicate some odd Pole living in a predominantly German, Ukrainian, Lithuanian or Jewish community of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and it got passed down to his descendants. When he or his descendants moved elsehwere, the nickname-turned-surname stuck and by then had become just another name with no special meaning. If you have an appointment with your dentist Dr Baker, you probably don't ask him how many loaves has he baked that day. The original John Baker did bake bread for a living but over the generations, etc., etc.
15 Dec 2017  #4,542

It's a reasonable explanation, but still seems unlikely, in my humble opinion, given the large number of families with this name. Were all of their ancestors ethnic minorities living in predominantly foreign communities on Polish territory? And why would Poles be taking on a nickname Polak given to them by foreigners on Polish territory? (an honest question)
mafketis 16 | 5,706    
15 Dec 2017  #4,543

My guess is that family names were often created on the fly, so a single Pole among a lot of Germans (or whatever) might be so used to being referred to that way that when they have to think up a family name for a census or church or whatever they just supply what other people call them.

Lengyel (Pole) Cseh (Czech) Szlovak (Slovak) Horvat(h) (Croat) and Szerb (serb) all seem to be relatively common family names in Hungary and were probably formed in similar ways...
Bieganski 17 | 920    
15 Dec 2017  #4,544

And why would Poles be taking on a nickname Polak given to them by foreigners on Polish territory?

The existence of the surname Polak in Poland doesn't imply it is a redundant ethnic self-identification or was foreign directed.

Serfdom did exist in the Poland up until the 18th century. Although there are accounts of land-owning magnates and szlachta regarding themselves as ethnically distinct from the peasantry who labored for them these nobles were largely Polish themselves along with Lithuanians and some of Ruthenian origins (the latter two groups which became Polonized themselves).

Despite the existence of a large social strata back then the nobles were not foreigners. Given the common usage of Polish as well there is no basis for anyone in the upper echelons of Polish society back then referring to any of their labors as a Polak and Poles in turn adopting this as a surname given to them.

There were also periods when Poland was under foreign occupation such as by Austro-Hungary, Russia, Germany and then the Soviets. But the seizure of Polish territories by these alien hegemonies occurred when surnames were already well established in Poland. These aforementioned occupying powers were not Polish speakers themselves and there is no evidence that they ever held such social and economic influence that they were in a position to refer to any natives Poles as a Polak and then Poles obsequiously adopting the term as a surname.

The surname Polak likely stretches further back in antiquity. Since "pole" is the Polish word for "field" the adoption of Polak could have been completely innocuous such as to refer to someone who worked in, owned, or resided in or near a field. For instance, it could have been given or adopted to distinguish two people named Jan one who lived within a village and one who lived outside it in the surrounding fields.

In other European countries people have similarly simple topographic surnames such as Field (in English), Feld (in German), Champ (in French), Campo (in Italian), etc.
mafketis 16 | 5,706    
15 Dec 2017  #4,545

The surname Polak likely stretches further back in antiquity. Since "pole" is the Polish word for "field"

When did the ethnic group start identifying as Polacy (as opposed to Lechici or whatever they called themselves earlier)?
Bieganski 17 | 920    
15 Dec 2017  #4,546

Both terms are noted as being used in the Middle Ages.

Other non-Slavic languages today such as Turkish, Hungarian and Lithuanian still refer to Poland and Poles with references to a Lechia.

The name Lech itself survives today as both as first name and surname in Poland.

As far as if there ever was an actual transition of self-identification from Lechia to Polacy one could put it around the 10th century when the Christianization of Poland was recorded but surely it predates this.

And since the word "pole" (i.e., field) is similar among all Slavic languages then the use of the name among Poles would predate the 10th century and is now lost to antiquity.

Linguistic and social context would be necessary as well. Polacy has a literal ethnic-tribal element to it where as Lechia has a sentimental foundation myth to it.

It may seem odd or redundant today but when the surname Polak first came about people at the time would have likely have understood that it had a local topographical reference rather than an ethno-nationalist one.

The guest enquiring about the existence of the surname Polak in Poland shouldn't believe it was originally done by someone to demonstrate that they were more Polish than other Poles or that there was ever a need for a Pole to prove his ethnic heritage either to foreigners or when among foreigners or that it was imposed by foreigners onto a Pole for social reasons.
mafketis 16 | 5,706    
15 Dec 2017  #4,547

The guest enquiring about the existence of the surname Polak in Poland shouldn't believe it was originally

Yeah, that's very reasonable.
kaprys 1 | 1,427    
15 Dec 2017  #4,548

How about a non-Silesian/Cashubian etc joining a Silesian/Cashubian (or any other) community? He was a Polak as opposed to others.
One of my great grandfathers was called Węgrzyn - quite a popular surname in Poland. I looked up the etymology of the surname and apparently it was used not only to call people from Hungary but also anyone from the south.

Polak might have evolved in a similar way.
Bieganski 17 | 920    
15 Dec 2017  #4,549

Perhaps. But in the case of a non-Kashubian Pole joining a Kashubian community it is more likely the surname would have been in adopted in Kashubian itself, i.e., Pòlôch.

Sure, there is a possibility that Pòlôch could then have translated back as Polak. But the distribution of the surname Poloch and Polak are not highest around the Kashubian speaking region of Poland.

Statystyka: Liczby do nazwiska 'Polak'
W Polsce są 21534 osoby o nazwisku Polak.

Statystyka: Liczby do nazwiska 'Poloch'
W Polsce jest 240 osób o nazwisku Poloch.

Notably though the surname Polok is highest around Silesia.

Statystyka: Liczby do nazwiska 'Polok'
W Polsce jest 3807 osób o nazwisku Polok.

Silesians are a proud bunch and rightfully so given the rich history of the area. However, its history still doesn't lend to the idea that a Pole from elsewhere in Poland would ever be compelled to have to identify as such either in Polish or in the regional Silesian dialect. The region changed hands too many times between Poles, Germans, Austrians, and even Prussians and ultimately Soviets for them to hold cultural sway whereby Poles would have to self-identify by using their surname as a label.
kaprys 1 | 1,427    
15 Dec 2017  #4,550

Spellings changed. Once I met a woman called Hudzik. I asked about the spelling of her surname as I had come across several Chudziks before and she said her grandfather or great grandfather used Hudzik while his brother was Chudzik.

I guess it happened more around the 1900s and before. So Silesian Polok or Cashubian Poloch might have changed into Polak.
People also migrated more than we think. Tracing my own family history I found out my nineteenth century ancestors came from świętokrzyskie and podkarpackie -I live quite far from both. Who knows where their ancestors came from as I also have forementioned Węgrzyn and probably Szlezak in my family tree.
mafketis 16 | 5,706    
15 Dec 2017  #4,551

her grandfather or great grandfather used Hudzik while his brother was Chudzik.

A long time ago I knew someone with a different last name than the rest of her family (she would have been born in the 1970s) whoever registered the birth at the hospital spelled the name wrong (let's say using ż instead of rz or the reverse). the family looked into having it legally changed but ultimately decided it would be more trouble than it was worth (communist bureaucracy......).
Bieganski 17 | 920    
15 Dec 2017  #4,552

So Silesian Polok or Cashubian Poloch might have changed into Polak.

Yes, the surnames Polok and Poloch may have developed locally centuries ago and within those communities and then to Polak in modern, standard Polish.

Whichever spelling of the surname, it shouldn't be assumed to have been used exclusively to identify an ethnic Pole among them. Rather it could have been used by any Kashubian or Silesian person as well who owned, lived or worked in, around, or on a field. Any local field and not just Poland proper.

Or vice versa. Using your example of the changing name of Hudzik and your original hypothesis of a non-Kashubian/non-Silesian Pole joining these communities he may already have had the surname Polak for generations and then simply changed the spelling to accommodate regional usages at the time. Again the name Polak was likely already being used and it too was more likely to have been based on an association to a local field rather than to identify with the first Polish tribes, the Kingdom of Poland, or any of the RPs.

Further to the guest poster's original enquiry, today any spelling of Polak assures that it is word of Slavic origin that is still common throughout Poland. Any variant of the name signifies long and deep associations with Poland's ancient history and an intimate link with the land itself rather than being redundantly descriptive of one's ethnicity.
kaprys 1 | 1,427    
15 Dec 2017  #4,553

It was just an assumption on my part.
The origin of Polak might have also be connected to 'pole' as you pointed out.

That's the thing with the origins of surnames. In most cases, we can't be 100% sure.

BTW, going through some parish books I came across both Ślęzak and Szlęzak in the same parish, probably related - I guess it all depended how the priest wrote it down.

I guess that applies to lots of surnames.
16 Dec 2017  #4,554

Thank you, Bieganski, your explanation seems to make the most sense of all.
Dirk diggler 7 | 3,085    
16 Dec 2017  #4,555


Slezak could also be silesian couldn't it i.e. slezanie??
gumishu 11 | 4,846    
16 Dec 2017  #4,556

Slezak is Czech/Moravian for Ślązak/Silesian/Schlesier

and Śląsk/Silesia/Schlesien is Slezsko in Czech
kaprys 1 | 1,427    
16 Dec 2017  #4,557

I guess the origin of the name is connected with Ślęza, Slezanie or Slazacy. Notice the difference in spelling within several decades.
OP Polonius3 1,015 | 12,527    
17 Dec 2017  #4,558

given the large number of families with this name

Let's not forget the element of class and fertility. Poor peasant families with 12-16 kids (only half of whom survived to adulthood) were once not uncommon. Amgnst townsfolk 3-4 offpsring were more common and the survival rate was higher, but on balance they were still outnumbered. Another factor to consider is that centuries ago most people, being largely illiterate, did not consciosuly change their names' spelling. It got changed for them by the way some priest or clerk chose to write it down, and during the partitions by non-Poles of the occupation forces. Don't recall if this was a Prus short story, but there was a scene where a peassnt tells a Prussian clerk his name is Słowik (Nightingale). The Prussian replies: "Czlowik? Das heißt Mensch," (He did not disitnguish the sound of słowik and człowiek.) In America, WASP Ellis Island officials also had a hand in mucking up Polish surnames.
delphiandomine 86 | 16,477    
17 Dec 2017  #4,559

Polonius, while I'm aware of the mess that they made on Ellis Island of surnames, what about the American tendency to completely mispronounce names that are still in their original form?

I've heard "Marchewka" as "Mar-chew-ka" for instance, among other travesties.
OP Polonius3 1,015 | 12,527    
17 Dec 2017  #4,560

American tendency

The blame lies mainly with the name's bearer. The average American cannot be expected to know all the orthographic quirks of Polish, Hugarian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Albanian, etc. It is up to the name owner to set the outsider straight. If he/she meekly accepts the anlo-mangling, then it serves them right if people call them Rob-loose-key (Wróblewski) and Dumb-cow-ski (Dombkowski),

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