1. Archive


Ferreting German ancestors whose origins were on the wrong side of the Wall is now a possible travel experience, even a pleasurable one.

I traveled to the Pommern, the northeastern region in the former communist East Germany that adjoins and extends into modern-day Poland, looking for ancestors who had left their homeland in the late 1870s.

My foreign research experience began the morning I entered St. Bartholomew's Lutheran Church in Demmin. I was not prepared for the delight of Germany's wonderfully thorough church records, methodically recording the life events of its congregation stretching back for generations. Until just the past few years _ before the reunification of Germany _ the records of the churches of the formerly occupied provinces had been shrouded in mystery. But those I saw have survived intact and accessible, despite world wars and 40 years of communist occupation.

Not only that, but the villages in the Pommern also seem to have bounced back into the economic mainstream. There were none of the obvious consequences of technological exile and economic disadvantage evident in Russian villages I had just visited.

Rather, Demmin had full grocery stores, wonderful ice cream shops, typical beer gardens and shops selling various articles. Accommodations were clean.

Before you plan your plunge into pursuit of your own ancestors in the former German Democratic Republic, there are two essential prerequisites:

You must know the specific village where your relatives lived. Think local; in the old days, Germany was a collection of principalities and not a nation. Although archives exist for some records, the old church records are where they have been for the past couple of hundred years or so.

However, faced with all this straightforward, organized recording, you will need a means of translating old German script.

Once you have arrived in your ancestors' village, find the oldest church. I was in what had been the northeastern section of East Germany, where the churches are most likely Lutheran. Most Catholics lived more to the south.

Contact the church secretary, who likely will pull out record books dating back at least to the middle 1700s _ separate books for weddings and christenings. (At this point, it will be enormously useful to know the date of birth or marriage; the old books are only indexed by year and event.)

There, in fading brown ink, will be listed your great grandmother, with all four given names and all four godmothers for whom she has been named. Following each godmother will be her occupation or the occupation of her husband.

Likewise, you will find the same for your great grandfather: Little Johann Fredriche Wilhelm Carl Mueller's birth date and christening will be followed by the names of his four godfathers, for whom he is named. Then you learn what little Johann F. W. C.'s father's friends did for a living. One is a miller, another a tanner, one makes shoes, the fourth is a butcher.

All of this is revealed to you, providing someone can translate the writing. Sometimes a person on the church staff knows how to translate it.

In the St. Nicholas Lutheran Church of Gutzkow, established in 1100 A.D., that person turned out to be the young wife of the pastor. She spoke no English, but her husband did. Taking time out from renovating the 250-year-old parsonage, she pored through the ancient volumes with me while the pastor translated when a relevant name appeared.

The solution for those who prefer advance preparation to relying on luck: Edna M. Bentz has written an invaluable little book _ If I Can, You Can; Deciphering Germanic Records (1985), published privately in San Diegoin 1985. In addition to an alphabet in old German, it includes lists of examples of typical occupations _ in English and in old German _ and a list of illnesses, which is of interest when you get to the death records.

Your local bookstore is not likely to stock the book, but genealogical sections of urban public libraries may.

After you are finished with the records in the church, head for the oldest cemetery in town. You may or may not find ancestor tombstones _ in that part of the world, you get to keep your tombstone for only a limited number of years before your grave space gets recycled _ but you likely will find a building on the cemetery grounds in which burial records are kept. (Check this at the church; it may vary with the village.)

In the cemetery records building in Demmin, I was able to find the parents of the baby girl whose christening record I had just read _ the dates they died and the dates they were buried. The father and 4-year-old sister had survived the mother by four days. All but the 1{-year-old girl had succumbed to cholera during the great epidemic of 1861. A significant portion of the town died that year.

The records also told me that a 62-year-old man with the same surname was buried a week later just five rows over. Two years later a 67-year-old woman with the same surname was buried there, too. Were these the baby's grandparents? At least it was another clue.

If you go, you may need to pay a visit to your local library for an atlas with enough detail to locate your ancestors' villages.

Travel to and among villages within the former East Germany does not present major problems. If your genealogical interests are brief and you are sure of your information (village, names, dates), it would even be possible to do some research as a day trip by on punctual, clean train from Berlin. If your village is not on the railway line, there is a network of equally agreeable buses that connect various villages.

If your destination happens to be one of the many villages not served directly by a train, you would be better off to plan to spend a night in the closest town on a train route. Maps showing these routes are in Thomas Cook's European Timetable. Travel agents will have a copy.

Car rental is available in Berlin for those who prefer freedom of schedule and have limited time. However, a combination of trains, local buses and taxis are more economical.

Of course, it helps to speak German, but I managed half of this project by Berlitz phrasebook, along with a note written out by a German-speaking friend _ who had to be on her way back to Berlin after settling me into my Demmin hotel. The note said I was an American doing genealogical research and that I wanted to see the old church books.

A lot of research can be done by pointing to names and dates _ in the case of village destination, to maps, village names and clocks.

Barbara Jo Brothers lives in New Orleans.