German SIG

Welcome! The German Special Interest Group, led by Sylvia Elchinger, meets the first Tuesday of most months at 7pm, virtually via Zoom while we’re still social distancing. Come join us! Watch your GRIVA newsletter for registration links a week or two before each meeting.

January 2022 – Handwriting and Records

Thanks to all of you who sent is samples of records that were giving you trouble for various reasons. We’ll be doing a similar exercise for the May meeting, so send your samples to by 4/15/22, and we’ll try to make sense of it all.

For anyone who has looked at old German records, of course the biggest challenge is probably not the language itself, but rather the handwriting. So we looked at the three types of fonts that you might encounter in any given document.

The first is Fraktur, which is that “gothic” type with all the extra squiggles.

Fraktur type

Viewed alphabetically in a chart like this, it might seem fairly straightforward. But when you’re looking at words in sentences, maybe at a document where the ink is smeared for part of the page is faded, suddenly there may be some challenges! Things to look out for in Fraktur:

  • Upper-case B, P, and V may look similar
  • Upper-case A and U may look similar
  • Upper-case I, J, and T may look similar
  • Lower-case k and t may look similar
  • Lower-case f, l, and the long s may look similar
  • Lower-case r and x may look similar

The next font to consider is Kurrentschrift, which is the handwriting you’ll see in all those church registers through the early 1900s.


What you see in this chart is, of course, the ideal. And if you’ve ever looked at a single document in German handwriting, you know that the reality is far more challenging. Everyone has their own handwriting, just as we do today, with the added twist of unfamiliar letter shapes.

The third font type is Sütterlin, which was prevalent in the early 1900s, until 1941. After this date, Germany used what is termed “Latin” handwriting, i.e. the same as we use today.


There are a lot of things to look out for in both of the latter fonts. Consider each group of letters below, and compare them to the chart above. It’s easy to see why it can require some effort – worth it! – to decipher the handwriting.

  • c, e, i, m, n, r, u, v, w, x
  • mm, nn, u
  • a, o
  • b, d, l
  • f, h, s
  • k, t
  • g, j, p, q, y, z
  • ck
  • sch
  • st
  • ss
  • sz
  • N, St
  • B, C, L
  • K, R
  • 1, 7 8

For instance, the only thing distinguishing the c and the i is the dot above the i. The only thing distinguishing the n and the u is the little arc above the u. And that little arc is not to be confused with a straight line above an m or an n – that straight like indicates that the letter below it is to be doubled. Look at the word Zimmermann (carpenter) and you’ll see why a writer would want to use the shortcut of the straight like above the m and n. Also look at how similar the e and the r are, or even the e and the n. One trick that might help is to count the “peaks” of the letters – an m has three peaks, an n only has two, an i only has one. So those four peaks together at the end of the word should be 2 n’s, rather than mi or im or un, because there’s no dot or arc above either of the letters. Simple, right?

There are numerous script generators available for each of these fonts:

How can these help you? At a very basic level, use the script generator to write out the name of the ancestor you’re looking for. This can make it easier to spot the (sur)name among all the other handwriting on the page. You can also use these tools to write out key words for the type of document you’re searching. For a birth record, you might want Vater/father, Mutter/mother, Sohn/son, and Tochter/daughter.

Which brings me to another helpful aid – FamilySearch word lists. FamilySearch has created genealogy word lists for many languages. For our purposes, the most helpful would be the German and Latin word lists. If you’re researching in another country that used to use German but now uses a different language, e.g. Poland, you can also search for those word lists on FamilySearch.

Other resources that can help you with your German research:

  • If I can You Can Decipher German Records by Edna Bentz. I would probably rank this as THE most helpful volume you can have when doing German research. Ms. Bentz spent years collecting and recording variations in the formation of each upper- and lower-case letter in the Kurrentschrift alphabet. That alone is worth the price of this volume. Also in this volume are symbols for the days of the week (page 19 in my edition), occupations, illnesses, ecclesiastical calendar, and more.
  • German-English Genealogical Dictionary by Ernest Thode. If the FamilySearch word list isn’t enough, try this comprehensive volume of definitions.
  • Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents by Roger Minert. This volume not only describes the handwriting, but also examines each of the major types of entries in church registers – birth, marriage, death.
  • Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting by Katherine Schober. Useful volume that goes into more detail about some of the handwriting challenges I listed above.
  • German Church Records – Beyond the Basics by Kenneth L. Smith (out of print – check WorldCat for library availability).
  • BYU German script tutorial
  • FamilySearch 3-part video lesson and 10-part paleography seminar

December 2021 – no meeting

November 2021 – Rheinland-Pfalz

This month we discussed the current German state of Rheinland-Pfalz, which (like Hessen last month) has deep roots and a long history. At the time of the Holy Roman Empire, there were up to 45 separate entities in this area, from duchies and principalities, to independent cities and bishoprics. The specific areas that were covered this month include the following:

Because of its geographic location, this was an area that was hard-hit by wars over many years. The 30 Years’ War from 1618-1648 and the ensuing plague epidemic wiped out two-thirds of the population. Rulers anxious to repopulate and get their economies moving again invited people from other places to settle here. Swiss, Austrians, Italians, and Huguenots were among those who came. From 1689-1697, King Louis XIV of France invaded the area and burned much of it – resulting in tremendous property loss, but also a loss of records that might have been valuable to us as genealogists. In 1707 the War of the Spanish Succession had much the same result.

In 1709, for various reasons, there was a mass emigration of about 14,000 people from this area to England. Some of these emigrants then moved on to settle in the Hudson and Mohawk valleys of New York; others settled in Ireland. In later years, emigration was not only to North America, but also to the east, with settlements founded in Galicia, Russia, and Hungary, among others.

To counter the loss of people to other countries, some rules put in place rather draconian measures. For example, a person with an estate valued at more than 200 guilders was forced to pay one-fifth of their assets in order to leave. If they left without permission, they were likely to forfeit their entire estate.

There is no shortage of information about emigrants from the Palatine. This is a short list to get you started:

Other opportunities for research in the Palatinate include the following:

  • Pfälzische-Rheinische Familienkunde e.V. – this organization offers a Pfarrerlexikon (directory of Lutheran ministers), and well as a three-part Mühlenlexikon (directory of mills, miller families, and milling technology and terminology). Other digitized works are available to members only.
  • Westdeutsche Gesellschaft für Familienkunde e.V. – offers a database of death notices dating back to 1582 (although realistically, most are from the 19th and 20th centuries), as well as an emigration database with over 105,000 names from 159 sources. Their digital library is a benefit for members only.
  • Ortsfamilienbücher – there are a dozen or so OFBs for the Pfalz available online at Compgen. However, there are also many more printed volumes for you to explore here.
  • Adressbücher – or city directories are available from several sources, including FamilySearch and Dilibri. A list of digitized volumes can be found here.
  • Military conscription records – may be a way to find those elusive ancestors for whom no emigration records can be found. Some of these are available at FamilySearch, others can be found at the Landesarchiv Speyer. These records are usually organized by “class” – i.e. records for the year 1809 will be for people born in 1790-91, or whatever the age criteria was at the time.. You may also find lists of deserters or people who did not show up when they were drafted in a local Amtsblatt or similar publication.
  • Amtsblatt – has been mentioned numerous times in conjunction with emigrant information. People generally placed an ad in this type of publication to take care of their debts before leaving the country. But as mentioned above, the Amtsblatt may also be a source of information about military matters. A third possibility is listing of estate matters – who the deceased and heirs are. Many of these can be found at Dilibri under the subheadings Journals and Newspapers.
  • Staatskalender – this is not a calendar as implied by the name, but rather an annual volume summarizing anyone in a government or (royal as opposed to judicial) court capacity in the respective area.
  • Institut für Pfälzische Geschichte und Volkskunde
  • Landesarchiv Rheinland-Pfalz – civil registration
  • Landesarchiv Speyer – civil registration
  • Apertus – portal for Pfalz archives
  • Dilibri Rheinland-Pfalz – address books, maps, newspapers
  • Landesbibliothek Rheinland-Pfalz
  • Rheinland-Pfalz – GenWiki portal page
  • Deutsches Wörterbuch by Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm (Uni Trier)
  • Pfalz-related books on Google Books
  • Palatines to America

October 2021 – Hessen

Our focus for October was the current state of Hesse (English version) or Hessen (German version). As you are probably aware, at a minimum from seeing the name on various census reports, there used to be numerous entities with Hesse in the name – e.g. Hesse-Darmstadt, Hesse-Nassau, Hesse-Kassel, Kurhessen. At one time or another, there were duchies, principalities, electorates, and other names for these territories. As genealogists, our goal is to understand both the geographic boundaries and the timeframes for each. This is a challenge!

The states that were covered in this presentation include the following, with links to Wikipedia for greater details. Most of the maps that were used in the presentation can be found at LAGIS. A family tree for the House of Hesse can be found here.

Many early emigrants came from this area. in 1709, there was a mass emigration of about 13,000 people to England. These came from the Palatinate area, but also many from the various Hessen territories. Some of the transplants to England then later moved to the colonies, especially to settlements in New York State. In the 1700s, many emigrants left in search of more and cheaper farmland. In the 1800s, they also left because of the many political upheavals, especially the Revolution of 1848. Records that may have been created in these periods include the following:

  • 18th century
    • Abzugsgeld (tax to leave)
    • Manumissions (release from serfdom)
    • Church registers
    • Notarial records
  • 19th century
    • Official emigration records
    • Newspapers (official notices of departure, lists of army deserters, summons to heirs)

The best places to find emigration records for Hessen are the Hessisches Landesarchiv (with instructions) and the LAGIS website. Both have links to the Auswanderer-Nachweise (emigration database), with over 223,000 entries. Other possibilities include:

Of course there is a special category of emigrants from Hesse, and that is the Hessian soldiers who fought for the British in the American Revolution. Between 30-34,000 troops were recruited, not all from Hesse though. It is estimated that some 5000 troops stayed in the US or Canada after the war. The best place for finding information about these soldiers is HETRINA, but other possibilities are:

Available online records include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Church records – FamilySearch, Ancestry, My Heritage, Archion, Arcinsys, LAGIS, Matricula
  • Civil registration 1874-1927 – FamilySearch, Ancestry, LAGIS
  • Court records  – FamilySearch
  • Military records – HETRINA, Hessen Regiments
  • Naturalization and citizenship (Bürgerbücher) – FamilySearch
  • Ortsfamilienbücher – FamilySearch, CompGen
  • Newspapers (Anzeiger or Amtsblatt) –digiPress, EuroDocs

Of course, there are many resources available to the individual researcher, depending on the town or area in question, so it’s impossible to list them all in this short blog entry. Some resources to consider as a starting point include the following:

September 2021 – Baden-Württemberg

This month kicked off our series on the history, geography, and research opportunities in the modern German states. I’ve started with Baden-Württemberg, because that’s where I was born. In the coming months, I’ll be going through other German states based on the feedback you provided in our recent interest survey. In October, I’ll be reporting on Hesse.

BW is a conglomeration of three historical areas in southwest Germany – Baden, Württemberg, and Hohenzollern. Each has its early roots in the Holy Roman Empire, and underwent minor geographical changes over time, but had numerous shifts in government, from duchy to margraviate to electorate to kingdom to democracy. Follow these links for more information about each:

BW may be important to you as a researcher, because more emigrants came from this area than any other in Germany. Earliest emigrants left from ports in the Netherlands or France. Starting in the mid-1800s, more emigrants got passage from the ports in Hamburg and Bremen. Some of those later passengers may have had a stop in England before completing their journey to America. FamilySearch provides a great deal of information about these emigrants here specifically for BW, and here more generally for German emigrants before 1820. Werner Hacker is a German author who has written extensively about emigration from Germany; many of his works are available at FamilySearch. Also of particular interest is the database provided by the Landesarchiv BW, called Auswanderung aus Südwestdeutschland, or Emigration from Southwest Germany. The website is available in English and German, and is easy to use. Remember to look for those emigration notices in newspapers, just like our legal notices today. These are often found in newspapers that have Anzeiger or Amtsblatt in the title.

In terms of records availability, again, FamilySearch provides us with a nice summary of online records here. As always, records at FamilySearch are free to access, but because of licensing agreements, you may have to visit your local Family History Center or affiliate to view the records. Ancestry is also building its collection of German records, but to date does not have as much as FamilySearch. A great source for evangelical (i.e. Lutheran, Reformed)German church records – not just for BW – is Archion. This is a fee-based service that regularly adds more locations to its database. Catholic records may be found at Matricula, a free website with records from many countries in Europe. Here are some other research opportunities to explore:

  • Church records – FS, Ancestry, My Heritage, Archion, LA BW
  • Civil registration as of 1876 – FS, Ancestry
  • Court records (marriage protocols) – FS, Ancestry
  • Military records – LA BW
  • Naturalization and citizenship (Bürgerbücher) – FS, Ancestry
  • Ortsfamilienbücher – FS, CompGen
  • Newspapers (Anzeiger or Amtsblatt) – LA BW, Baden list; Württemberg list; digiPress

If you want to research in German archives, the Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg is a good place to start, with over 16.6 million digitized pages. They make you work to find them, though! They do have a page specifically for genealogy, with pointers for areas of research. The page is in German, but just click your right-hand mouse button, scroll down the pop-up menu to the “Translate this page” option and Google will do the work for you. Catholic church records in Baden have been digitized and are available from LA BW. Jewish records for Baden, Württemberg, and Hohenzollern have also been digitized are are viewable at the LA BW.

Another offering of the LA BW is the LEO website, which allows you to search their holdings by town, person, or object. The CompGen website also offers wiki pages for Baden and Württemberg, with historical background and lots of great links. The LA BW isn’t the only place to look for online records. You should also check out the Württembergische Landesbibliothek (State Library) for digitized records such as Adressbücher,  Lehrerbuch (teachers), Leichenpredigten (eulogies),  and Pfarrerbuch (list of pastors 1525-1930). University libraries (e.g. Tübingen, Heidelberg, Mannheim, etc.) may also have special collections of digitized works.

If your emigrants are more recent, you may run into the German data protection laws. Birth records newer than 110 years, marriage records 80 years, and death records 30 years will not be accessible in any archive. So you may have to send a request to the local Standesamt for the records that you need; you’ll have to show that you’re a direct relative of the person in question. The best way to find contact information for the Standesamt is to type in the name of the town followed by .de, for example Every town in Germany has a website that lists current events and contact information for the various government offices. Some websites are more detailed than others, but it’s a good starting point. the website is a portal that can also take you to individual towns.

German SIG Posts from previous meetings…

…can be found under the header “Previous German SIG posts, which is a drop-down from the German SIG tab.