Researching Your Polish Heritage

Friday 22 December 2017

After spending 102 days at sea, the passengers of the Friedeberg finally reached Lyttelton in late August 1872. Among the passengers were a handful of Polish families from an area that is now western Poland.

Map of Poland

As that region of Poland was under German rule at the time, the families may not necessarily have identified themselves as Poles in official documentation. They may appear as Polish-Germans, Germans or Prussians which makes it a bit tricky to determine exactly how many Polish families were on board. On top of this challenge, some families, such at the Watembachs, had German surnames through marriage, which meant their Polish heritage is not immediately obvious from looking at a list. Other families had surnames which had been Germanised. In some cases surnames were further altered and Anglicised upon arrival in New Zealand. Anglicising or misspelling first names adds a further layer of complication.

Between the Waters: Canterbury’s First Polish Settlers highlights the experiences of four Polish families, the Kotlowskis, the Geirszewskis, the Szymanskis and the Watembachs, but of course there were many others who came on the Friedeberg. Below are a few resources to help you get started with researching your Polish heritage.

Polish History New Zealand website

The best place to start is the Polish History New Zealand website. The website highlights the experiences of the early settlers, such as those who came on the Friedeburg, as well as later immigrants. They are also looking for people to share their stories, so if you have more information to add, do contact them.

Canterbury Museum

Material relating to early Polish settlers in Canterbury Museum’s collection is very sparse. There is a brief mention of Augustus Kotlowski in the Macdonald Dictionary and a few genealogy notes for the Jablonskis, Scholkowskis and Priszkes in the Family History files. To book an appointment to view these Family History files, please email

MacMillan Brown Library at the University of Canterbury

The Macmillan Brown Library has a few books and one audio recording relating to early Polish settlers. To contact the Macmillan Brown Library to find out about viewing these items, email

The books include:

  • History of the Polish Settlers in New Zealand 1776–1987 by Jerzy Włodzimierz Pobóg-Jarowski. See here
  • Polish Settlers in Taranaki 18761976 by Jerzy Włodzimierz Pobóg-Jarowski. See here
  • 125th Anniversary of Fritz Reuter Polish Settlers in Taranaki 1876–2001 by the Polish Genealogical Society of New Zealand. See here
  • Portraits: Stories from Canterbury, New Zealand by Margaret Copland. See here
  • Portraits of the Pioneers by Margaret Copland. See here
  • The Immigrants, an audio recording of a dramatic interpretation of the experiences of Sarah Stokes and Rosalia Gierszewski written and performed by Margaret Copland. See here
Akaroa Museum

Akaroa Museum holds a number of items relating to the Kotlowski family, including two photos featured in the Between the Waters exhibition. To contact the Akaroa Museum to find out about viewing these items, email

The items include:

  • 2007.33.4 Documents relating to the Akaroa Secondary School Centennial
  • 2017.33.1 A photograph of Maria Kotlowski and her grandchildren 
  • 2017.33.2 Private Stephen Kotlowski’s World War Two Paybook
  • INV:627 Just the Tip of the Iceberg: Past pupils of Akaroa School. The book gives biographical details of past pupils
  • Photo:276 A photo of Maria Kotlowski’s picnic in 1904
  • Photo:801 A photo of the winner of the Candy Cup in 1929 which includes Leo Augustus Kotlowski

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