Notes by Chris Geanacopoulos
"It is not all that difficult." "You can do it." "Always persevere!"
These were recurring themes in Leslie Huber's presentation "Jumping Over Hurdles in German Research," part of the Society's general meeting on March 11, 2009 at the Brewster Ladies' Library Auditorium in Brewster, MA. Although her presentation focused mostly on German research, Ms. Huber said the principles apply to research in neighboring countries as well.
The first hurdle to overcome according to Ms. Huber is finding the town in which your ancestors lived. "You need this town name to access parish records - the key to German research," says Ms. Huber.
When searching for the town name, look in family records and compiled genealogy records such as online family trees, the IGI, published family histories, county histories and similar published works relating in some way to your ancestors. Ms. Huber suggests that U.S. records, especially church, vital and naturalization records are more likely to contain the information you need. Be sure to check obituaries and census records as well.
Immigration records are another important source for fining the town name. Ms. Huber suggests looking in compiled sources such as Germans to America, U.S. Passenger Arrival Lists (for example, Ellis Island), European Departure Lists (most notably Hamburg), and European immigration indexes (if you already know the state).
For finding immigration records of any nationality, not just German, Ms. Huber highly recommends Joe Biene's site: Emigration & Immigration Records - Passenger Lists, Naturalization Records at http://home.att.net/~wee-monster/ei.html. In addition to links to online sources of records, this site also provides research guides covering passenger lists, ports, immigration and naturalization records, and ships.
"Beware of hometown pitfalls," warns Ms. Huber. "The town name given in the record might not be the actual town of birth you are looking for." Instead, she relates, the record could really be indicating the nearest large town, the name of the country or state, or your ancestor's most recent residence. The town may not be in existence anymore, or the town name given is a translation. Maybe the town was too small to have a name of its own. Ms. Huber mentioned one of her own ancestors who consistently listed his town incorrectly - she still doesn't know why.
To help with the Hometown Hurdle she suggests the LDS Germany Research Outline. Another source she suggests for tracing immigrant ancestors is Tracing Immigrant Origins, by Genealogy Research Associates
Now that you have a town name, you need to locate records. "Find where your ancestors went to church," says Ms. Huber. "Not every town had its own church, so you must find out what parish included your ancestors' hometown."
She recommends consulting historical gazetteers, especially Meyers Orts und Verkehrs Lexikon des Deutchen Reich ("Don't let the German scare you," she says.), which covers Germany as it existed from 1871-1918. It will tell you where the town was located and if it had a church. The gazetteer is available even without a subscription at Ancestry.com, and she suggests checking the LDS How to Use the Meyers Gazetteer. Another source for maps she recommends is www.progenealogists.com/germany/. "Not all, but many German states are included on this fabulous Web site," she says.
The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has many of the German parish records available on microfilm. She recommends that "for a small fee you can order these to your local family history center to use." For other online records Ms. Huber notes, "There are many immigration sources available online, but there are few German parish records online. Expect this to change in the future." In the meantime she advises trying Google.
Ms. Huber suggests that if you can't find the records any other way, you can write a letter. It helps to have your letter translated in to German or the native language of the area you are writing to. "This is the easy part," she says. You can use the LDS Letter-writing Guide. She also advises including in your letter a donation and a return envelope for best results.
Locating the address, however, can be more involved. "Different states do things differently. For parish records you should try writing to the local church first." Finding the postal code in Germany is much easier now than it's been in the past, according to Ms. Huber. She suggests looking up the postal code online at Deutche Post (English).
"How's your German? Not quite up to fluent? Don't worry. Fluency isn't required for genealogy research," Ms. Huber encouraged her audience. She emphasized that it is important to become familiar the structure and format of the records. "It's a lot easier to make sense of the records if you know what to expect and what kind of information is included."
She suggests consulting the LDS Germany Research Outline or German Church Books, by Kenneth Smith for an introduction to the records. From these sources you can learn the typical record formats. "Parish records generally follow predictable patterns. They are often in tables or at least in paragraphs with consistent formats," she adds.
Finding a translation resource is also very helpful. Ms. Huber suggests trying the LDS Word-List. Online translation services such as www.freetranslation.com can help with the sense of the text, but she cautions, "These work well for single words - not so well for longer phrases." Finally one could buy a good dictionary. Ms. Huber recommends The German-English Genealogical Dictionary by Ernest Thode.
A genealogy friend or an expert at a research library might also help with translations. Ms. Huber advises hiring a professional for more complicated documents.
"The final hurdle, handwriting, often combines with language to make a double hurdle," says Ms. Huber. "There's no magic solution for working with handwriting, but you can do it!"
The first step in getting over the language hurdle is understanding Gothic script, which was used in Germany until 1941. "Learn how the letters were made so you can recognize them," she advises. She suggested as an aid the LDS Handwriting Guide: German Gothic.
She offered some helpful strategies for getting through any foreign text: take it one letter at a time; look for clues in the context; recognize a pattern; find the letter in another place where you recognized the word it was in; use a magnifying glass; and locate a better copy of the record (a different repository, a different filming run, etc.).
Don't be afraid to ask for help. Her final advice on making it over the language hurdle was, "If you get stuck on a word or two, take the document to a friend or to a genealogy group and see if someone can help you. For more complex documents, consider hiring someone."
At the conclusion of her presentation Ms. Huber took questions from the audience.
As part of her presentation handout, Ms. Huber listed these additional German resources to know about:
Leslie Albrecht Huber maintains her own Web site at http://understandingyourancestors.com, devoted to Western European and German genealogy research.
See the Presentation Notes Index for summaries of other presentations given at the Society's monthly meetings.