Polish Immigrant Ancestors

Issue #45

Poland has always been a multiethnic, multicultural nation-state, and the lives and identities of Polish-Americans reflect that. Polish immigrants were a part of the first Roanoke colony in 1585. Two of the military heroes of the American Revolution were Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kościuszko, both of Polish descent. But the first significant wave of Polish immigration came not long after the American Revolution when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned by Prussia, Russia and Austria. This era saw Polish noblemen fleeing Europe as the forces of political power shifted in their native land. The second major wave of Polish immigrants arrived in the second half of the nineteenth century and up until the First World War, leaving Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia to take jobs in the rapidly industrializing American northeast in the steel and coal industries. At the end of that war the Second Polish Republic (or Interwar Poland) was created, forming a multiethnic state that included Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews. The third wave of Polish immigration began during this period, fleeing fascism, Nazism, and communism, and continued until the end of the Cold War. This week we explore a less well-known aspect of the Polish-American story: the history of Brooklyn’s Lipka Tatars.

The Oldest Mosque in Brooklyn is Polish

“I don’t want to lose our ancestry. The core of religion, the core of family — how it came across here and stuck all those years — it’s all got to mean something, and I don’t want that to get lost.” Marion Sedorowitz’ desire to preserve her immigrant heritage is common among Americans from all backgrounds. Sedorowitz is a descendant of Polish immigrants to the United States but, unlike the majority of American Poles, she does not trace her history in this country back through the archives of the Catholic Church. Sedorowitz’ family was an important part of Brooklyn, New York’s Powers Street Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the United States, founded in 1931. ​​“The place was packed with people,” Sedorowitz remembers. She attended religious services at the mosque as a child and is now a member of the mosque’s Board of Directors. “It was just amazing, how many people could fit into it.”

The first Muslims to arrive in significant numbers to the British colonies in America were enslaved people from the Senegambian region of Africa. Historians estimate that at least ten percent of the colonial enslaved population was originally Muslim (most converted to Christianity, the dominant religion in the colonies). Muslim sailors and explorers had also accompanied earlier European conquistadors such as Balboa and Cortez in their first voyages to the New World. Historically, American Muslims have always been a multiethnic religious group, with no one group (Whites, Arabs, Blacks, Asians, etc.) a true majority. 

The Poles who formed the Powers Street Mosque were part of a distinct group, the Lipka Tatars (or Polish–Lithuanian Tatars), descendants of 14th-century Muslim immigrants from what is now Turkey. In Poland they were known for their distinctive religious culture, including their beautiful wooden mosques, prohibiting pork but not alcohol from their diets, their use of protective amulets, and their special birth and death rituals that lead some scholars to consider Lipka Tatar a form of “folk Islam.”

A relatively large community of Lipka-Tatars settled in Brooklyn in the late 19th century and they founded the Association of Lithuanian Tatars in 1907, eventually purchasing the Powers Street Methodist Episcopal Church building in 1931 and transforming it into a mosque, making it the first group to buy real estate in New York City solely for the purpose of practicing Islam. The Muslim World Journal of 1935 claimed that it was the “only real mosque which exists today in America," but in fact in the 1930s there were several mosques established already in Indiana, Michigan, Maine, North Dakota, and in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where the Mother Mosque remains the oldest purpose-built surviving mosque in the United States, founded by Syrian and Lebanese Muslim immigrants in 1934. 

In 1937 Time magazine sent a reporter to the Powers Street Mosque. "Today the clean, shiny mosque looks like a Polish church,” the reporter wrote, “decorated in pink, yellow and blue, the Moslem star & crescent festooned with painted roses and daisies. This is natural since its swart, thick-accented Imam, Sam Rafilowich, son of an Imam in a Polish village, is a Polish Tartar, who arrived in the United States. 29 years ago. Most of his habitual worshippers are also Tartars, descendants of Tamerlane's hordes who entered Russia 600 years ago."

“Beautiful. Embracing. Comfortable. Safe. Loving. Family.” That’s how Aisha Ratkewitch, a blonde, blue-eyed American born in 1955, remembers her childhood in the Powers Street Mosque. “Our Muslim community, when I was growing up, we were very close. We were together. The mosque, upstairs when we had holiday prayers, was packed. It was packed. Upstairs, the women's section was all the way to the back room. The men’s section was packed all the way to the curtain. There were children, family, fun, and celebration together.” Ratkewitch’s childhood marked the highpoint of the mosque’s history, a time when the Lipka Tatar community of Brooklyn was still young enough to remain fairly intact as an ethnic group, yet mature enough to form its own institutions, such as the mosque. 

The older generations were excited to celebrate their history but, at the same time, “they didn't want to remember it,” says Ratkewitz. Her own parents immigrated as children, their families coming  “to have something better. And they didn’t want to dwell on it, and I guess that was healthy for them. They moved on and did what they had to do.”

As a result, the unique heritage of the Lipka Tatars began to fade from the public sphere, as children like Ratkewitch were raised speaking and reading only in English and their European homeland was cut apart and politically reorganized yet again, with various parts of the Lipka Tatar territory now divided between Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland. “As a kid you never think to ask your parents,” says Aisha’s husband, Steve. “And now that they’re gone, I wish I could go back and ask them about the history and more about the family.” 

Today, even in Poland the Lipka Tatars have a low profile. “We are a bit of a rabbit pulled out of a hat to surprise the world that there is a group like us, that is assimilated and devoted as citizens,” says Tomasz Miskiewicz, Mufti of Poland and Chairman of Poland’s Muslim Religious Association. “We are Poles.”

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, the Powers Street Mosque lives on, if tenuously. A new generation of the Ratkewitch family, led by Alyssa Ratkewitch, is seeking to draw more people into the mosque for community gatherings as well as traditional religious services, and the mosque continues to host funerals and weddings, almost all interfaith. “If [these changes] bring in people for services, I would be very happy,” says Alyssa Ratkewitch. “If it doesn’t, and it just remains a space that is a standing piece of history of New York and of Tatars, then that’s cool, too. I would accept both of those.” The Tatars of Poland held on to their traditions while living in a dominant Christian culture for hundreds of years and, with luck, the Lipka Tatars of Brooklyn will do the same.

Weekly Discoveries

  1. 150-year-old marriage certificate found at thrift shop to be given to couple's great-granddaughter.

  2. Recent updates to the New York State Birth Index, covering the years of 1881-1942, may prove beneficial to those whose ancestors resided or spent time in the Empire State.

  3. 2020 Census: 'Racial and cultural pride,' DNA tests shift responses on race, ethnicity.

  4. Old yearbook photos can make a great addition to your family history.  Your relatives may be included in the recently updated 20th Century School Yearbooks collection.

  5. Timelines are an integral part of genealogy research.  Learn more about this useful tool with the free virtual learning opportunity - Using the Timeline Grid: Practical Examples.

What’s in a Name?

There are approximately 9 million people  who make their home in the United States and identify as being of Polish heritage.  In addition, there are millions more who may not readily identify as Polish, but do have Polish ancestry.  In modern America, it has become popular to name children unique, non-traditional names; however, not too long ago it was commonplace to name children based on patterns, both in the United States and in European countries, such as Poland.

Having an understanding of the naming conventions and the unique language characteristics of the Polish can be beneficial when conducting family research.  As anyone who has spent time researching their Polish roots is aware, post-emigration spelling of the names can vary greatly from record to record due to phonetic spelling, transliteration or even to the assumption of a more “American-ized” version of their birth name.

Historically, Polish given names were commonly based on Roman Catholic saints and their respective feast days. A saint was assigned to each day of the year in Poland and it was custom that on that particular day, every child born was named for the associated saint. Based on this custom, the first name of an ancestor may be indicative of their date of birth.  For instance a child named Zofia, may have been born on the 30th of September (modern-day would be the 1st of August), as this day is represented by Wisdom (known as Sofia in Roman Martyrology) who died three days after the deaths of her daughters, Faith, Hope and Charity.  Zofia and other common Polish first names can be accessed here; the list also includes the known associations to saints and their respective feast days, as well as their English equivalents. This tradition is not true for every Polish-native ancestor, of course, but it can provide clues and help to narrow down date ranges for birth or baptismal record searches.

If you are lucky enough to make it across the pond and begin research in Polish records, you should keep in mind that the Polish vital records could have been recorded in various languages, in part due to the changes of boundary and governing rule. The four most common are, in no particular order, Latin, Polish, German and Russian. A single individual may have had records recorded in one, or even all four, depending upon the time period of the event and the specific record type. In these instances, the given name could vary greatly, yet retain the same meaning.  For example, the given name Wojciech in Polish becomes Adalbertus in Latin and Albrecht in German, requiring patience and diligence in record searches.

Surnames of the Polish were generally derived in one of four ways:

  • Descriptive surnames, sometimes referred to as cognominal, are based on the qualities of a person - for example, Młody (young) 

  • Geographical surnames, sometimes referred to as toponymic, are based on an individual’s location of residence, such as a village or town name, or the name of a topographic feature - for example,Górski (from Góra)

  • Occupational surnames, sometimes referred to as cognominal, are based on an individual’s trade or occupation - for example, Młynarski (miller)

  • Patronymic surnames, are based on the given name of their father - for example, Janowicz (son of Jan)

Polish surnames often include a root along with a suffix, one of the most common of which is -ski, or one of its variants -cki or -dzki. These suffixes can also be very telling in relation to ancient records.  Originally used by Polish nobility, the -ski suffix denoted either a possessive relation or a geographical location.  An individual from Kraków may have been named Krakowski, while a person from Tarnów may have carried the surname of Tarnowski and the Zaleski family may have been from Zalesie.  By the turn of the 16th century, the peasants also began using the once noble-exclusive monikers causing the loss of its original meaning and neutralizing the former association to the upper crust of society.  The commoners began attaching the -ski suffix to traditional surnames, turning Kaczmarek, which means an innkeeper, into Kaczmarski. 

One of the most popular cognominal names in Poland is Kowalski.  Would you like to venture a guess as to the meaning of this surname?  If you guessed Smith, you are correct.  The most common occupation and, therefore, resulting surname in many areas of the world is Smith, as the skilled trades “smiths” were extremely common into the 19th century. 

One of the most frequently encountered Patronymic surname suffixes is -wicz, as well as - czyk, or the more ancient -wic, which mean “son of.”  These surnames normally begin with a given name, such as Michał.  When joined with -owicz, forming Michałowicz, which means “son of Michał.” 

In addition to Polish surnames largely being made up of root word or name, in conjunction with a suffix, they are also either masculine or feminine.  For example, the masculine -ski becomes -ska in its feminine form, while in the same scenario -dzki becomes -dzka.. As a rule, a musculine surname which ends in -i or -y ends in an -a in its feminine form. This means that Aleksandra, the daughter of Isaac Kawolski, would be recorded as Aleksandra Kawolska, while her brother, Jakub, would carry the Kawolski spelling.  This custom is normally dropped when moving to areas where this is not common practice, such as the United States. After immigrating, females normally conform to the standard American practice of receiving the surname of their father, with the identical spelling, at birth, and after marriage, that of their husband. 

The Jewish people of Poland did not always have proper family surnames.  The practice was left up to the discretion of each individual, but most Jews in Poland used only their given name in conjunction with the name of their father; for instance, Mendel, the son of Isaac.  Generally this custom remained in place until mandated by law to adopt surnames, which happened at various times and locations throughout history.

One should also note that the Polish alphabet and accompanying sounds provide another layer of complexity, which can create issues in the recording of immigrants in American records. There is no ‘V’ in Polish and instead use a ‘W,’ which sounds like an English ‘V’  In these cases, Nowitski sometimes becomes Novitski, based on the English pronunciation. Another major difference is the ‘ł’ in Polish, is often replaced by the English ‘l,’ resulting in the Polish Michałowicz being recorded as Michalowicz.

As with any language, there are many nuances and intricacies to Polish and to Polishsurnames and the knowledge garnered from this overview of Polish naming conventions will hopefully provide you with some insight or possible new direction when researching your ancestors.  Best wishes!


Helpful Resource

Continue building your knowledge with the article Understanding Your Polish Ancestors: The Warsaw Uprising.

Past Issues Worth Reading


Ryan Schuessler, The World (https://www.pri.org/ : accessed 18 August 2021), “They gave her the keys to the mosque — and now she wants to open its doors to the neighborhood.” 

James H. Hutson, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 18 August 2021), “The Founding Fathers and Islam.” 

PBS (https://www.pbs.org/ : accessed 18 August 2021), “Islam in America.” 

Evan Taparata, The World (https://www.pri.org/ : accessed 18 August 2021), “More American than apple pie, Muslims have been migrating to the US for centuries.” 

Ryan Schuessler, Radio Free Europe Radio Library (https://www.rferl.org/ : accessed 18 August 2021), “Amid Tatar Renaissance In Europe, An American Mosque Turns To Its Roots.” 

“Ramadan,” (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,758343,00.html : accessed 18 August 2021), citing original publication in Time Magazine, unidentified issue; web page archived at Wayback Machine (https://web.archive.org/web/20071102160649/http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,758343,00.html : accessed 18 August 2021).

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska, Aljazeera (https://www.aljazeera.com/ : accessed 18 August 2021), “Muslim Tatars: The patriots practising a ‘light version of Islam.’” 

Catholic Online (https://www.catholic.org/ : accessed 18 July 2021), “St. Sofia.” 

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, digital images, Library of Congress (https://loc.gov : accessed 19 August 2021), digital image from original b&w photographic print, “Slebzak family (Polish) working on Bot[t]omley farm, near Baltimore, Md. They have worked here 3 years and one winter at Avery Island, Louisiana. All work except the very smallest. She hangs around the fields. Begin work about 4 A.M. and sometimes works until sunset. (See #838.) Location: Baltimore, Maryland.” taken July 1909 by Lewis Wickes Hine,, Digital ID: nclc.00011. 

United States Census Bureau (https://data.census.gov/ : accessed 18 August 2021), “People Reporting Ancestry,” table ID B04006. 

Susana Leistner Bloch, JewishGen, KehilaLinks (https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/ : accessed 18 August 2021), “Polish Patronymics and Surname Suffixes.” 

Mikołaj Gliński, Culture.pl (https://culture.pl/ : accessed 18 July 2021), “A Foreigner’s Guide

to Polish Surnames.” 

FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org), "Poland Personal Names," rev. 20:59, 17 August 2021.

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