Unknown Wrocław: State Archives

This office is probably visited most frequently by foreigners in Wrocław. They arrive even for a few days to look for information. Among them there are genealogists, historians, archeologists, political scientists, sociologists, ethnographers, linguists, geographers, geologists, natural scientists and economists. The biggest treasure of the State Archives in Wrocław is 15 km of records.

On one side there is the J. Zwierzycki Boulevard (Bulwar Zwierzyckiego) on the Oder river, and on the other side there is ul. Pomorska. On the corner, there is a huge building with two basement levels that dates back to the 1930s. Today the State Archives occupy the building together with the University of Wrocław. In People’s Republic of Poland, there was another neighbour: the Provincial Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party. Inside the building, we come across a labyrinth of corridors and dozens of rooms and large stores, which would be a suitable location for football matches if they did not contain any collections. It takes a couple of days to look behind all doors. Our guide was Remigiusz Kazimierczak, the deputy director of the State Archives (Archiwum Państwowe) in Wrocław. For a number of hours, he and the personnel of the archives patiently removed from shelves and drawers the most interesting things in the archives: parchment rarities, unique maps and plans.

Ancient rarities

The oldest 13th-century Wrocław documents and maps date back to the reign of Silesian Piasts. 15,000 parchment documents refer to Wrocław. The oldest Wrocław document is the foundation of the city dated the 11th of December 1261 with five stamps, issued by Duke Henry III the White and his brother Władysław, an archbishop in Salzburg (sons of Henry the Pious). The oldest document in the collections is the Foundation of the Cistercian Order in Lubiąż issued by Duke Bolesław I the High in 1175, with the oldest preserved stamp in Silesia.

‘700 years ago, parchment from the womb of an unborn calf’s mother was used for the most important documents. They have survived in perfect condition until today, with unfaded distinct writing and vivid colours. Documents in the worst condition date back to the Communist period – the poor-quality paper that was used in those days crumbles in hands today,’ explains Roman Stelmach, the head of a division in the State Archives in Wrocław and one of the oldest employees, who has worked there for 40 years.

Nobel Prize winners in the State Archives

The store of German records contains, among others, books of the registrar’s office. You can also find birth or death certificates of pre-war Wrocław artists and Nobel Prize winners, such as Max Born, who was born in Wrocław on the 11th of December 1882.

‘Hardly anyone knows that he is the grandfather of the famous Australian singer and actress Olivia Newton-John,’ says Jan Drozd, the head of a division in the archives.

Why were Prussian and German documents not sent to Germany after the war?

‘According to the archival principle, documents should be kept in the archives of the territory in which they were produced,’ stresses Remigiusz Kazimierczak.

For this reason, the archives are visited, among others, by pre-war Wrocław inhabitants from Germany or Austria who look for birth certificates or other documents concerning their ancestors.

Collections of archives can be useful for determining the amount of pension

Most of the users of the science laboratory are genealogists and historians, but the place is also visited increasingly often by lawyers, archaeologists, political scientists, sociologists, ethnographers or linguists. Among guests there are also researchers who do not specialise in human sciences, such as geographers, geologists, natural scientists or economists. Archival documents are also used for official purposes. Documents are made available for free.

‘On the basis of preserved documents, the archives attest periods of employment (during the period of Communist rule in Poland) and compulsory work for the Third Reich during World War II. Moreover, the archives confirm the right to property left in the former Eastern Borderlands for repatriates from these territories on the basis of records of the former State Repatriation Office, prepares reproductions of birth, death and marriage registers, and so on,’ says Remigiusz Kazimierczak.

26 km of records

The State Archives in Wrocław and their branches in Jelenia Góra, Kamień Ząbkowicki, Legnica and Bolesławiec are one of the biggest archives in Poland. Their collections amount to almost 26,000 metres of current records (over 15 km being stored in Wrocław), including over 65,000 parchment and paper documents and almost 122,000 maps and plans, hundreds of thousands of books, a huge collection of stamps, and photographs. The collections are digitised and copied to electronic data carriers.

The archives are usually used for storing records produced more than 30 years ago. In the case of birth, marriage and death certificates, it is 100 years. All records designated for permanent storage are collected here.

Why are the archives located at Pomorska?

That was a coincidence. The building at ul. Pomorska survived the war in an intact condition. But it was not the first relocation in the history of the archives. They were established in 1811 in connection with the dissolution of religious orders in Silesia and the need to secure a huge quantity of archival items that had been collected by monasteries over the centuries. The archives were a part of the Central Library, which was also established in 1811, and were located together with it in the building of the monastery of the canons regular of the Blessed Virgin Mary on Wyspa Piaskowa in Wroclaw. In 1847, the archives were relocated to Dom Stanów Śląskich (House of Silesian States) near the current Pl. Wolności square. At the beginning of the 20th century, they were removed to a new building near the current Pl. Grunwaldzki square.

‘The biggest catastrophe during the over 200-year history of the archives occurred in the last months of the siege of Festung Breslau, when the building was partly demolished, and records remaining in lower storeys were destroyed. The losses comprised from 10 to 95% of selected units. Around 80% of parchment documents and a large part of cartographic collections were lost,’ says Remigiusz Kazimierczak.

The State Archives are open to everyone. Collections are available for use free of charge. The institution acts similarly to a library – you place an order and wait for documents. The archives are open from 9:00 a.m. till 6:00 p.m. from Monday to Friday and from 8:00 a.m. till 1:00 p.m. on Saturdays.

Jarek Ratajczak