Long Live The Beischreibung!


On 1 January 1876, vital records were introduced in the entire German Reich. There had been different kind of vital records in different parts of Germany before, but now they were all standardized and there were Offices of Vital Records (Standesamt) all over Germany. The information recorded in birth, marriage and death registers changed through the years, but what never changed was the principle that no changes were allowed to be made in the record itself. If changes were needed, there was the possibility of adding a so called Beischreibung, a remark, mostly in handwriting, sometimes as a stamp, next to the official text. The default text was only two thirds of the sheet, there was one third free space to add further information. This is how it remains until this very day.

Here you can see a great example why this space was needed. It is the birth certificate (Geburtsurkunde) of my great-grandfather Reckling, born on 24 October 1879 in Driesen in the County of Friedeberg. For some reason, there were difficulties with giving him a first name. Weren’t his parents able to agree on a name? It took six days alone to register his birth. It would have been easy, his father Adolph Reckling, being the mayor of Driesen, only needed to go downstairs. When the child finally was registered, no name was stated. The certificate only says “a child, which not yet has received one name”. Almost two months later, on December 18, a Beischreibung was added, stating that the  child had received the first names (definitely more than one!) Adolf Paul Jacob. This, of course, did not really comply with the regulatory requirements, but if you were the Mayor and the Standesbeamter (clerk) was your brother-in-law, things obviously tended to be more laid back.


What kind of Beischreibungen are there? In the old birth certificates we mostly find the information on acknowledgement of a child born unehelich (out of wedlock). Sometimes, the parents married and the groom/father acknowledges the child, sometimes we only find the acknowledgement itself. It could take days until the Beischreibung was added, but it could take years as well.

I once found a Beischreibung stating that a mother of an illegitimate child came back to the Standesamt one week after having given birth in a private maternity home, claiming her child really was hers. This, of course is a bit strange as she was listed as the mother anyway. But we then found out, that she did come from a small town, went to the next big city to give birth (probably anonymously) and might have given the child up for adoption. But as we then found out that the child was brought up by her childless sister, we think that this decision was made after the child was born and so the mother needed to claim the child back, so to say. That at least is what we think might have happened.

This is another example: on 30 December 1890 little Anna Ida Emma Jahnke was born in Berlin-Kreuzberg (StA 5a). Her mother, Emma Laura Rosa Jahnke, was unmarried. On August 18, 1891 she married Carl Friedrich August Wüst at the same Standesamt and he officially acknowledged the child named Anna Ida Emma, born on December 30, 1890. The Beischreibung also includes information on the number of the marriage certificate (829/1891; read 829 aus/from 1891). With this information, you can easily search the marriage certificate that will then give information on the parents’ date and place of birth and their parents.

2_Beischreibung Acknowledgement Jahnke_1891

Sometimes there are name changes which are stated in the Beischreibung.
The name with the spelling used in the record is legally binding. Should there be a misspelling in the record (for example Sophie instead of Sophia) or should the name be changed, or should another first name be added, this needs to be stated in the birth certificate. Without this, the name is not official and is not to be used. However, the name change will only be documented upon a judicial decision, so you might want to try finding these records as well. Anyway, you will find that often they simply go with the name they like most, despite any rules and regulations.

In the Eastern part of what was the German Reich before 1918, there were people of Polish, Russian, Lithuanien etc. decent, who had their name Germanized at the end of the 19th century. You will find this in the Beischreibung of their birth and marriage certificates. After WW2 some German families, who remained in Poland etc., changed their names to a Polish spelling.

In 1938, the Gesetz über die Änderung von Familiennamen und Vornamen (Law on the Amendment of Surnames and Given Names) forced those of Jewish faith or who were considered as being Jewish to carry the additional given name Sara (females) and Israel (men) (I have even seen Bela for a female lately). This was added as a Beischreibung to the birth and marriage records. However, some clerks seem to have been able to ignore this order, some did as they were told right away. It was first in 1953 that these name changes were cancelled and this was added to the former Beischreibung.

3_Beischreibung Sara_1938 and 1953

We really get lucky if the record does include other data, like the marriage and the date of death, especially if it did not take place in the town they were born. This information should have been added to the records, but de facto it is not often the case, mainly because the Standesamt that holds the birth certificates simply does not get the information. Remember that not only did large parts of the German Reich before 1918 did not belong to the German Reich in its size after 1920 and after 1945. Not to forget that until 25 year ago there were two German states, who sometimes found it hard to communicate.

This Beischreibung gives the information that the child born in 1899 was married for the second time in Berlin-Kreuzberg on 12 Dec 1939 and the record is to be found there under the number 4611/1939. No information on the first marriage though…

4_Beischreibung 2 Marr_1939

This Beischreibung in a marriage record gives information on the death of the groom. He died on 6 January 1939. He was then registered at the Standesamt he died (not the Standesamt of his residence!) and the clerk then sent a postcard to Standesamt where the marriage took place.
The death certificate would then be found at the Standesamt in Berlin-Kreuzberg under the number 120/1939. By the way, the groom was born in 1897 and the marriage took place in 1920.

5_Beischreibung death_1939
What we see quite often is the Beischreibung of a divorce, which naturally is found in the marriage certificate. When the Scheidung (divorce) is legally binding, the court gives this information to the Standesamt where the marriage took place. It gives the date and the court/place the divorce took place. When finding this Beischreibung you might want to check one of the persons listed remarried.

6_Beischreibung Divorce_1924
Therefore, it sometimes can be worth getting the birth/marriage/death certificate as well, even if you already have a church record. Not only does this record hold different information than the baptismal/marriage/burial record does, it might even have a Beischreibung that may hold a surprise!

The records (except for the birth record of Adolf Reckling) are taken from the collection of the Berlin birth, marriage and death records available at www.ancestry.com.

Things Would Never Be The Same


Today Protestants all over the world celebrate Reformation Day. It was on October 31st in the year 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg. At least this is how the story goes.
But that’s not really what I want to write about. I want to take this opportunity to introduce to you my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Adam Reichardt also known as Adamus Ricardus, one of the first Lutheran pastors in Germany. He was born in the town of Sangerhausen, not far from Martin Luther’s hometown of Eisleben, in 1525. He was baptized catholic but as the reformation came to Sangerhausen in 1539, he probably became a protestant. He enrolled at the University of Vienna in Austria on the fourth of April 1550 and became a Schulmeister (teacher). But he received a call from his home land to help establish the new Protestant Church.
As the majority of the population in that part of Germany had taken over the Lutheran faith, there still was a lot to do. Mainly there was a desperate need of pastors. Like Adam Reichardt there were other teachers who wanted to become a pastor but there were applicants with other occupations as well, like sextons and craftsmen and even a servant had applied, not to forget the catholic priests who had converted. All of them were ordinated, often only after having received some kind of theological “crash course”. It would take years until there were enough pastors with a proper theological education for every parish.

Adam Reichardt was ordinated in Wittenberg on Friday, November 16, 1552 and became the pastor of Immenroda, where he stayed for one year. He then left for the parish of Niederröblingen/Helme.


In 1574, it was time to move again, this time he took over the parish of Ösmunde, close to the city of Halle. His predecessor and first evangelical pastor had been Matthias Piscator (Fischer), a pastor who had studied theology and had been ordinated by Philipp Melanchton. These two pastors should change community life in this parish and formed the new, evangelical church. The statue of the Virgin Mary was removed and the pilgrimages to this church were put to an end. Also, they were several changes they made in the church itself: the altar stone from catholic times was removed and became a step to the new altar and all parts of the old altar except of the figures of Johannes and Maria were removed. Due to the increase of population and parish members, they needed more space and therefore decided to build a gallery, which was completed in 1582. You an still read his carved initials. AR P 1581 –  Adamus Richardus Pastor 1581


Adam Reichardt remained in Osmünde for the rest of his life, retired in 1600 and died two years later. He was the founder of a long dynasty of pastors and wifes of pastors that ended with my great-grandmother Marie Harder, wife of a pastor in Friedeberg, Neumark.

But I do not want to let you go without a song that was sung in the church of Osmünde at the time of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, the Pastor Adam Reichardt: Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott , written by Martin Luther, who wrote the Ninety-Five Theses and nailed them on the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg (or did otherwise), 498 years ago on this very day. And things would never be the same.


It’s not a B. It’s an Eszett.

UntitledThis is a ß – many of you have probably seen this strange letter before. Some of you might even have ancestors with a name spelled with this letter. Most of you will know it from the spelling of the words Preußen (Prussia) and Straße (street). Those of you who visited the Octoberfest in Munich had a Maß Bier (one liter of beer), or maybe two Maß. There only is a -ß in the lower case, not the upper case (or better: there is, only that hardly anyone uses it). There is no word that begins with a –ß, at least to my knowledge.

Many think it is a B but it is not. It is an eszett, a sharp s, the ligature (connection) of a long -s and a -z.

For Germans the rules when to use the eszett and when to use the –ss are rather simple, but unfortunately although they are simple, most Germans do not know how to use them correctly.

  • The eszett is used after a long vowel, for example a Maß , Straße or Spaß (fun).
  • The eszett is used after a diphthong, for example Preußen or the surname Geißler.
  • The –ss is used after a short vowel, for example Hass (hate) or Muss (must).

Okay, so if not even Germans can use it correctly, how can those who do not know any German?

Well, we wouldn’t be German if we wouldn’t have a rule for that as well:
If you do not have an -ß on your keyboard or you simply do not know how to use it, you are allowed to use the –ss.
And if you work with a surname and would like to stick with the correct pronunciation, just add the –ß by using Alt+225.

If your ancestors were from the German part of Switzerland you got lucky. The Swiss have decided to drop the eszett and stick to the –ss instead. But if your ancestors came from other German speaking parts of Europe you will have to go with the eszett.

But even if you don’t know anything about this letter, isn’t it simply wonderful?


Save the Dots!


dots grün_ohne

Many of you surely have noticed that the German language provides three letters unknown to most non-German speakers. German has three more vocals: Ä, ä, Ö, ö and Ü, ü. That is an A with two dots, an O with two dots and a U with two dots. These letters are called A, O, U – Umlaut. They can also be spelled Ae, ae, Oe, oe and Ue, ue; actually it is more or less the same as an Ä, Ö, Ü (I don’t want to go too deep into linguistic details).

These letters are letters of their own, so to say. They are not identical with an A, an O and a U. Dropping the dots simply is a spelling error and the word might even get a different meaning.

When dropping the dots, all of the sudden the Bürger (citizen) turns into a Burger (burger, unknown in the good old days) and the town of Münster in Westphalia becomes the town of Munster in Lower Saxony. The famous composer Georg Friedrich Händel finds himself as simply Handel (commerce) and Mr. Gläser (glasses) is Mr. Glaser (glassmaker).

But actually it not only can be a misspelling, it can even be misleading and make your research more complicated. While today, directories list the o and the ö, a and  ä and u and ü together, they did not always do so.

Just take a look at the Berlin directory of 1880:
You will find Glaser listed between Glapiak – Glaser – Glatz on page 268, while
Gläser/Glaeser is listed between Glaenzer – Gläser – Glagau on page 267.

So you see, it is worth sticking to the dots on the Ä ä, Ö ö and Ü ü or at least replacing them by an Ae, ae, Oe, oe, and Ue, ue. That way Münster stays in Westphalia and Händel stays the famous composer Händel. And you will make many Germans happy seeing the language of poets and philosophers spelled correctly.

Please – Save the Dots!



It’s a Thin Line

Karte Thin LineAs a genealogist I love collecting information and I love to find out more about my client’s and my own ancestors’ lives. But every once in a while, I come to a point where I have to cross a line, a thin line. It is the line that is called respect. It is when I need to invade someone’s privacy or when someone refuses to talk about things I would like to know.

Being German I live in a country with strict privacy laws. I am automatically forced to stop research at the certain point, when there simply isn’t any source available for relatives not related in the direct line. But it is more than following rules, it is about respect.

Lately there has been a discussion on when pictures of gravestones should be published on the internet. While those who collect the pictures and make them available online set a period of one year until publishing, many relatives are upset with finding this information online in general.

In my lectures on the Grandchildren of War, I teach the Baby Boomer generation how to find out more about what their parents and grandparents did and had to go through during the Third Reich and World War 2. Most of their ancestors refuse to talk about it, leaving their children alone with many things they feel they need to know.

Some participants want to force their parents into talking about what they know and went through. Many of them mean well, because they think that it will do their parents good as many of them are suffering of PTSD or at least seem to carry a heavy burden. But they also think that they have a right to know in order to understand why they became who they are. Some think that they have a right to know what had happened.  Others think that one should not force anyone to talk about things that might be painful or that they would like to forget.

We have long discussions about this. And often it leaves the participants helpless and confused on what to do. Should they do research and confront their parents with what they found? Or should they not tell them? Or should they not search at all?

There is no answer on what to do, what to ask, what to collect and what to put online. And there is no answer on what information to pass along to the following generations. Rules and regulations will guide us, but in the end the answer is up to one and each. It is about our own values that tell us when to cross the thin line or not.

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