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.

2022-2023 Meeting Schedule

Welcome back to GRIVA’s German SIG. We are continuing our tour of the German states, with the following schedule and registration links:

As you can see, the May session will require your input! Send samples of handwriting and/or records that you have questions about, and we’ll try to tease out some answers from them. Samples (with links if you have them) can be sent to no later than April 10, 2023. Please include “Your Turn” in the subject line. BTW, if no one submits samples, there will be no meeting for May!

March 2023 – Mecklenburg-Vorpommern

Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is one of the northern-most states of Germany today. The earliest mention of Mecklenburg is in the 11th century, when this area was ruled by the House of Mecklenburg. Over time, the region was split among competing descendants, but in 1701, the various smaller territories were reformed into the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. The latter was mostly to the east, but retained a small area of land to the west of Mecklenburg-Schwerin. For a time, both states came under Napoleonic rule, and were part of the Confederation of the Rhine. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, they were both elevated to the status of Grand Duchy. In 1871 they became part of the German Empire. In 1918 they became Free States in the Weimar Republic. After WWII, both states came under Soviet control and were joined with Vorpommern to form the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern; in 1947, the combined state was renamed Mecklenburg. In 1957, Mecklenburg was dissolved by the GDR and replaced with three districts. In 1990, after the wall came down, the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern was reconstituted, with minor border changes.

Pommern – or Pomerania – is an area that has variously come under German, Danish, Swedish, and Polish rule, among others. It is first mentioned in the 10th century. After the 30 Years War, in 1648 Pommern was divided between Sweden and Brandenburg-Prussia. Over time, Brandenburg regained most of the territory. In 1815 the consolidated area was then broken into two parts – the Prussian Province of Pomerania and the Province of West Prussia. These provinces likewise became part of the German Empire in 1871. After WWI, the area historically referred to as Pomerelia (the eastern portion) was returned to Poland. In 1945, all of Pomerania came under Soviet control, and the Oder-Niesse Line became the new boundary between Germany and Poland.

For most of its history, the area of Mecklenburg was largely agricultural, and in fact, the feudal system there was not abolished until 1820. Large areas of farmland were owned by a small group of nobles, to whom the serfs were obligated in numerous ways. When looking at various records – civil, church, census, and so on – the relative status of these land owners and tenants can be surmised from the vocabulary used to describe them:

  • Ritter- or Gutsbesitzer – wealthy men owned most of the land in M-V; an estate is called Gut or Hof
  • Gutspächter (or just Pächter) – tenant of the Gut
  • Hüfner – peasant with one Huf of land – enough to feed one family; also Halbhüfner (note that the size of a Huf – area of land measure – varies by region)
  • Kossate – peasant with even less land – e.g. quarter Huf
  • Hauswirth or Hausmann – peasant who leased land; Erbpächter has hereditary lease that is usually passed to the oldest son
  • Büdner – peasant with a small plot of land
  • Häusler – landless peasant
  • Knecht, Magd – landless workers
  • Taglöhner – day laborer
  • Arbeitsmann – (non-farm) laborer
  • Einlieger – subtenant who has no own house and no land
  • Holländer – dairyman

Because of the way this state was divided and reconstituted over time, you may have to look for records in German or Polish archives, depending on where your ancestor lived. Available records for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern include:

  • Church records – available from Ancestry and FamilySearch. The book Mecklenburgs familiengeschichtlichen Quellen (FHL #007717822, beg. Image 387 of 605) contains a list of available church records for towns in Mecklenburg-Strelitz and Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Jewish BMD records from 1813-1918 are available at Ancestry.
  • Civil registration – began in 1874 in Pommern, 1876 in Mecklenburg-Schwerin and -Strelitz. Records are available at FamilySearch and Ancestry.
  • Census – like Schleswig-Holstein, there are census records available for Mecklenburg-Schwerin for the years 1819, 1867, 1890, 1900 and 1919. These years are available at FamilySearch and Ancestry; some are also at MyHeritage. There are also a few very censuses from the early 1600s available at FamilySearch. Censuses were taken in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, but only statistical data survives – no individual names. Information presented in each year of the census varies.
  • Ortsfamilienbücher (or Local Heritage Books) – over 60 OFBs are available online at ComGen. Be sure to check for printed copies if you don’t find your town online.
  • Cemeteries – CompGen has a database of names from 284 cemeteries in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Remember that in Germany, graves are not forever; if a family fails to pay the rent for the plot, it will be “recycled” for someone else to use.
  • City directories – a list of digitized Adreßbücher can be found at CompGen.

Other general resources that may be useful for your research in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern include the following:

Between 1850-90, 146K people emigrated from Mecklenburg – out of an overall population of 420K. Not all of this number went to America, many went to other states in Germany or other countries in Europe. Many were from urban areas. Most left via Hamburg.

Emigration resources for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern include the following:

February 2023 – Handwriting – Your Turn!

Thanks to everyone who contributed records for the SIG this month. We had an interesting selection of cases, and hopefully you were able to pick up some helpful tips for your own research.

Anton Schön

This query came with a postcard from the early 1900s, but with little detail other than Anton’s name on the card. A helpful tool for surname research is Geogen, which shows the distribution of surnames in Germany today. A name like Schön is very widespread (think Smith or Jones), but for an unusual surname, it can be very useful.

Wittke birth and marriage records

In this case, there were questions both about the occupation listed for the man in the records, as well as the names of some of the towns mentioned in the individual records. One of the occupation words was Knecht, which means servant or laborer. In this case, it probably referred to a farmhand of some sort. The other word that appeared for occupation was Instmann, which is another word for farm worker, but can also refer to a pensioner. In order to verify the towns that were mentioned in the records, I used Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs, commonly known as Meyer’s Gazetteer. This gazetteer includes listings for places that were part of the German Empire prior to WWI, so this means it includes town that are now in Poland or France, for example. The online gazetteer not only includes the information in the original, but also adds a map and lists other parishes within a 20-mile radius of the specified location.

The other lesson to be learned from this particular set of records is about a peculiarity of the way some records were filmed by FamilySearch. In this case, the left- and right-hand pages of a birth record were separated by many intervening images – the person who did the original filming first copied all of the left-hand pages in the register, then all the right-hand pages. Maybe easier for them in terms of setup, but more challenging for us as researchers. The first clue that this might be the case in a film you’re looking at is in the FamilySearch catalog:

For example, these baptism entries include the notation r. & L. S., which means rechte & linke Seiten – left- and -right-hand pages. When you see this notation, it means that the right-hand page will NOT follow next after the left-hand page in the filming sequence. You’ll have to look further on in the film to find the rest of the record. In fact, in the last two entries in this example, you’ll actually have to go to another film entirely to get the rest of the record.

The other clue, in case you didn’t see the notation in the catalog entry, is the banner at the top or bottom of the record image:

Here, the word Doppelseite, which means the record is a double-page entry, gives us a clue that the second page of the record will not be the following image. The number 041 indicates the page in the original register, and the word links means this is the left-hand page. In order to find the rest of the record, you’ll have to scroll forward (or backward?) until you find the corresponding rechts image with the number 041. Be sure you note the line number of the person you’re searching for, so you can go to the same line number when you find the rest of the record.

Fleuter Family records

This query was a simple request to read the challenging handwriting in various family records. One thing to note in this series of records is the use of the word Jungster to refer to some of the female witnesses on the baptism record.

Normally, the word used to refer to an unmarried female in these records is Jungfrau or Jungfer, meaning “maiden”; the male counterpart is Junggesell, which means “bachelor.” My guess is that this is probably a local dialect word. Since I had never seen it before, I tried to look it up in the dictionary apps that I usually use ( and leo) without success. So I pulled out the big guns and went to, and much to my chagrin, had no luck there either. But don’t let this one instance stop you from checking out this wonderful website. It has over 40 German dictionaries, including some regional dialect dictionaries, with a meta-search capability that checks them all for the word in question. My favorite among these is the Deutsches Wörterbuch by Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm of fairy-tale fame. They not only collected stories, they collected the words that made them, and compiled this comprehensive dictionary that includes definitions as well as first-known usage of the terms.

Johannes Pirron

The document presented in this case seemed like it might be a marriage record, but wasn’t quite in the expected format, so it required a more careful look. It turned out to be a sort of oath of allegiance to the state, which had to be certified before the groom was allowed to marry. The regulation was from an 1818 law in the Kingdom of Bavaria, the text of which was found online.

In most cases, when we search for a German marriage record, the result in a church register will be a line across one or two pages, or maybe a single paragraph (depending on the timeframe of the marriage), or a two-page preprinted form in the case of a civil registration marriage. What was unusual in this case was that the marriage entry for Johannes included not only the two-page marriage record itself, but also all the supporting documents, including his and his bride’s birth registrations. In the FamilySearch catalog, this type of marriage entry will look like this:

The word Eheverkündigung means “marriage announcement” and the word Heiratsbelege means supporting documents for the marriage. When you see these words in the catalog, be sure to look at all the pages in the record for that marriage, not just the marriage certificate itself.

Max Fiedler

Often, there will be a notation on a civil record that was added after the original record was created. In Max’s case, there was a notation on the record of his first marriage in 1920, indicating that the couple subsequently divorced in 1928. There was a further notation at the bottom of the second page, indicating that his wife had remarried in 1940. When a record is indexed, whether it’s for FamilySearch or Ancestry or whoever, these side notations are not a part of the indexed information. So it’s important for you as a researcher to always look at the original record, not just the index, for any extra information that can be gleaned from it.

Based on the information in the marriage record, we know that Max was born on 1 July 1898 in Hamburg, and that his parents were August Max Fiedler and Annie Mason. The second part of this inquiry was to verify military records for Max in WWI. When we looked at the details in the Bavarian military records that were presented, it became clear that this was not the person in question. Although the names were the same and the birthdays were only four days apart, the birthplace, occupation, and parents’ names were not the same. With a name as relatively common as Fiedler, it’s important to examine all the details to confirm the identity.

If you have a relative who served in some branch of the German military, you can write to Berlin to request their service record. Note that records from the Prussian army were almost completely destroyed in 1945, only a few survive. Refer to the Bundesarchiv website for more information on what’s available and how to request records from them.

Reichert – Which Sontheim?

Our next case involved an error in the FamilySearch indexing process. One indexed record showed Ferdinand Reichert, born on 2 March 1834, to Johann Wendelin Reichert and Maria Cecilia Pfitzinger, in Sontheim, Münsingen, Württemberg. A second indexed record had the identical information, but the birth place was listed as Sontheim, Heilbronn, Württemberg. So which was correct? A review of the church records for Sontheim/Münsingen (evangelisch) revealed not a single Reichert entry. The Sontheim/Heilbronn records (katholisch) in fact included the correct birth record for Ferdinand. FamilySearch has since corrected the error on the indexed records. The lesson here is that FamilySearch is not infallible, but is responsive to feedback in order to make their database as accurate as possible.


This last query arose from an entry on a ship’s passenger list – emigrant Albert Leidecker was listed as going to see his Aunt Lena in Minnesota. Who was Aunt Lena and how was she related to Albert? After reviewing all the records, it turned out that Lena was not an aunt at all, but rather a first cousin once-removed.

The first document in the record trail was a page from a Familien-Stammbuch (link is in German, use Google Translate to find out more about the Stammbuch), that shows the marriage of Albert’s mother Rosa Kuntz, to Carl Leidecker. Rosa had no sister Lena, so we had to go back another generation to find some answers. Using Rosa’s parents’ names from the Stammbuch entry, we were able to find the marriage document for Johann Joseph Kuntz and Elisabetha Schäfr (note the absence of the “e” in this surname).

This 1856 marriage record, which had to be requested from the local Standesamt, yielded a bonanza of information – way beyond what’s normally expected in such a document. For the groom, it listed his birth date, his parents’ names, the fact that his father was present at the marriage, and the date of his mother’s death. This is mostly what we’d usually expect to see, but that fact that the mother’s death date was included is slightly more unusual.

On the bride’s side, however, the information just kept coming – her birth date and place of birth (different from the groom’s), her parents’ names and death dates for both, her paternal grandparents’ names and death dates for both, and her maternal grandparents’ names and death dates for both (one of which was listed in the format from the French Republican calendar!). Because various spellings were used for the Schäfr surname, the record goes into great detail to prove that these are indeed the same people.

We needed to go back another generation to find the missing link for Rosa and Lena. Lena’s father, Henry, was a brother of Johann Joseph Kuntz.

Because Rülzheim records only go as late as 1837, it will be necessary to write to the local archive or Standesamt to get later records for members of this family. The FamilySearch German Letter Writing Guide will be helpful in this process.

November 2022 – Schleswig-Holstein

Schleswig-Holstein is the northernmost German state. From the 1400s until 1866, it was under Danish rule. The First War of Schleswig occurred in the mid-1800s in a push for alignment with Prussia. At this point, Denmark retained both duchies. The Second Schleswig war happened after the death of Frederick VII in 1863. Austria and Prussia joined forces and this time were victorious over Denmark. Prussia took over Schleswig, and Austria took Holstein. This lasted until the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, after which Prussia took over both duchies and combined them as the province of Schleswig-Holstein. Over time, the Duchy of Lauenburg was also incorporated into the province, as was the Free City of Lübeck. In 1920, the northern portion of Schleswig was officially returned to Denmark.

Because of the intertwined history with Denmark, researchers will have to look both in German and Danish archives to find records of their ancestors. The records may be in Danish or in German. It is also possible, depending on the location, for records to be written in some dialect, e.g. Frisian or Low German.

Language will not be the only challenge – naming patterns are also of concern. Until 1771, Schleswig Holstein used patronymics – that is, a person’s last name was based on the father’s first name. So Peter Jensen is the son of Jens, and Peter’s son Hans is called Hans Petersen. Cathrin, married to Tim, was called Cathrin Tims; and Cathrin, daughter of Peter was called Cathrin Peters or Petersdotter. Although a 1771 law ended this naming practice and required a standard surname to be carried forward, it took some time for patronymics to die out completely.

Church records for Schleswig Holstein can be found at FamilySearch, Ancestry, Archion, and other sites. Check Die Kirchenbücher Schleswig-Holsteins for a summary of existing records for Schleswig-Holstein. This volumes lists BMD with years available, sorted by state, and parish within the state.

Civil registration records started in 1874 for this area. Some (Steinburg district) are available at FamilySearch, others (Flensburg) are at Ancestry. Check Danish archives for further availability.

City directories (Adressbücher) are available for Kiel (the capital of Schleswig-Holstein) for the years 1799-1990 (with some gaps), and for Lübeck from 1798-1993. Miscellaneous years for other cities are also available at the Staatsarchiv Schleswig-Holstein.

For the period when Schleswig-Holstein was under Danish control, censuses were created roughly every five years. Digitized censuses are available for 1769, 1803, 1835, 1840, 1845, 1855, 1860, and 1864. The 1769 census only lists the town and the number of people in various age brackets, similar to the US censuses from 1790-1840; it also breaks down population by occupation. Later censuses list every name in the household, as well as age, marital status, occupation, etc. For more information on how to research these censuses, see the FamilySearch tutorial, as well as 3 video lessons.

Census images can be found in various places online. Remember that if you don’t find your person in one place, look at one of the other sites to see if you can find them there.

Most emigrants from Schleswig-Holstein left between 1880-1893; between 1871-1925, more than 150,000 emigrated from Schleswig-Holstein. Emigration resources include the following:

Other resources for Schleswig Holstein research include:

October 2022 – Bremen

This month we took a look at the city-state of Bremen, including Bremerhaven, which played a significant role in the history of emigration from Europe. The city itself dates back to 787 AD, when it became the site of a Catholic mission. From there it developed into a center for trade, becoming at various times a member of the Hanseatic League. In 1827 the city bought land from the Kingdom of Hanover to create the port of Bremerhaven, and it is from here that emigrants departed.

In terms of emigration information, Bremen started collecting data about emigrants as early as 1832. Sadly, these records were all destroyed because of a lack of space! In 1874, a new law decreed that only the current year and the previous two years should be retained. Earlier records were then also destroyed. In 1909, the city started keeping records for every year again. But then came two world wars, and only a handful of records survive – 1907-1908, 1913-1914, and 1920-1939. The last passenger ship left Bremerhaven in May 1974.

Consult the FamilySearch Wiki for record types that are available online for Bremen and Bremerhaven, including the following:

General information about Bremen and its history and culture can be found at the following sites:

For emigration-specific information, use one of the following links:

September 2022 – Hamburg

Unlike the other German states that we looked at last year, Hamburg is in a special category of city-states, along with Bremen and Berlin. It was founded in the ninth century as a mission settlement, but grew from there to become an important port city. Along with Lübeck, it was one of the founding cities in the Hanseatic League, and rose to great prominence in shipping on the Baltic and North Seas. Over the course of its history, it was occupied by the Danish and by Napoleon. After WWII, it was part of the British Occupation Zone, and then became part of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949.

Today Hamburg is the second-largest city in Germany, and the third-largest port in Europe. It is the home of Germany’s oldest stock market, and the oldest merchant bank in the world.

In the second half of the 19th century, Hamburg became the second largest port for emigration, after Bremen. With the advent of railways and steamships, as well as reforms for emigration conditions, Hamburg became the embarcation point for more than 4 million people between 1830 and 1914. Ninety percent of Eastern European emigrants left via the port of Hamburg.

Starting about 1850, the port authorities were required to keep records of departing passengers on ships with 25 or more passengers. These records list the passenger’s name, age, other family members, hometown (not necessarily the birthplace!), and occupation.

Hamburg passenger lists are among the most important tools for finding the origins of emigrant ancestors. They come in two forms –

  • Direct – passengers who left from Hamburg and went directly to a destination city, e.g. New York, are listed here.
  • Indirect – passengers who left from Hamburg but stopped at another European port e.g. Hull/Liverpool, before continuing on to their final destination; about 20% of all travelers took the indirect route, possibly because the fares were cheaper.

Emigration resources for Hamburg include the following –

Civil registration records for Hamburg can be found at Ancestry:

Birth, marriage, and death indexes are available from Staatsarchiv Hamburg.

Other resources for Hamburg research include the following:

May – August 2022 – No meeting

April 2022 – Niedersachsen (aka Hannover)

The current state of Niedersachsen is made up of pieces of the former territories of Hannover, Braunschweig, Oldenburg, and Schaumburg-Lippe. As with other states that we’ve looked at this year, these areas evolved over time, and date back to the original Duchy of Saxony, about 1000 A. D.

Hannover was originally an Electorate, formally known as the Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg as of 1692. The electorate was legally bound to be indivisible (it could not be split among various heirs of the ruler), but it could add other land to its territory. The succession followed the rule of male primogeniture, which becomes significant later in its history.

Due to various royal intermarriages, George I of England inherited Lüneburg and Duchy of Saxe-Lauenburg in 1705. In 1719, he also purchased the Duchies of Bremen-Verden from Denmark. In 1803, the

Due to various royal intermarriages, George I of England inherited Lüneburg and Duchy of Saxe-Lauenburg in 1705. In 1719, he also purchased the Duchies of Bremen-Verden from Denmark. In 1803, the Prince-Bishopric of Osnabrück was added as well. Hannover changed hands several times during the Napoleonic Wars – in 1810 it was made part of the Kingdom of Westfalen, and in 1814 it was restored as the Kingdom of Hannover by the Congress of Vienna. After 1837, when Victoria became queen of England, Hannover was no longer part of the personal union with England.

In 1866, Hannover was annexed by Prussia. in 1885, it was divided into six Regierungsbezirke – Aurich, Hannover, Hildesheim, Lüneburg, Osnabrück, and Stade. After WWII, the state of Hannover was created under British administration, and in 1946, it was merged into the new Bundesland of Niedersachsen.

The Duchy of Braunschweig-Lüneburg existed as far back as the 1200s. After the Congress of Vienna, it became a sovereign state called the Duchy of Braunschweig. It joined the German Confederation in 1866, and the German Empire in 1871. After WWI, part of the territory was ceded to Saxony, and part became the Free State of Braunschweig. In 1946, it was merged into Niedersaschen.

Oldenburg was a duchy until 1810, when it was annexed by France. It consisted of three geographically disperse territories – Oldenburg, Eutin, and Birkenfeld. It joined the German Empire in 1871, and in 1918, became a free state in the Weimar Republic. In 1937, it lost Eutin and Birkenfeld, and in 1946, it was merged into Niedersachsen.

The principality of Schaumburg-Lippe was created in 1807, from an area that dates back to 1647. In 1871, it became part of the German Empire. In 1918, it became the free state of Schaumburg-Lippe. In 1945 it was part of the British occupation zone, and in 1946, it was merged into Niedersachsen.

Since each of these areas (and areas in the other German states as well) had different names depending on the type of ruler over time, I thought it would be helpful to add this table for clarification:

German TitleGerman AreaEnglish TitleEnglish Area
GrafGrafschaftEarl or CountEarldom or Countship

Niedersachsen today is the second-largest state by land area, and the fourth largest based on population. It regained some territory from the former East Germany in 1993.

Historically, the state religion was Lutheran. in 1842, Hannover granted equal rights to Jews, with four regional Land-Rabbinates. In 1866, the Lutheran Church of Hannover was formed.

Civil registration started at different times in each of these areas; records area available at Ancestry and FamilySearch.

  • 1876 in Schaumburg-Lippe
  • 1876 for Oldenburg (also 1799-1814)
  • 1876 for Braunschweig
  • 1874 for Hannover (also 1806-1811)

Between 1820 and 1930, over 700,000 people emigrated from Hannover; 95% of these went to North America. Emigration resources include the following:

Unlike Saarland, there are many online Ortsfamilienbücher available for Niedersachsen on the Compgen website. Printed volumes can be found here, if your town of interest is not (yet) online.

City directories for Hannover are available for 1798-1975 (with gaps). They are also available for 72 other locations in Niedersachsen.

Other resources for research in Niedersachsen include the following:

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.