September 25, 1555

Did you know that the year 1555 is one of the most important years for German genealogists, especially when you are looking for your German ancestors’ hometown? No? Well then let me tell you why!

Let’s just go back in time. When Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses in 1517, this did not only start a new religious movement, it also changed the balance of power in Germany (and even in Europe). There was no German Empire at that time, there was a political construct called Holy Roman Empire, led by the catholic Emperor Karl V and consisting of many sovereign countries and free cities. The sovereigns were princes, dukes, bishops and councils. The emperor, princes and dukes, who based their power on the catholic faith, had more or less absolute power.


And all of a sudden this power was questioned by the lutheran princes and dukes who had gained more and more influence and power. Don’t think that the fight for the “true religion” was about faith, it was about power and money. It led to riots and the Schmalkaldic War in 1546/1547. But even the settlement of this war did not end this conflict, it simply did not lead to the catholic side regaining absolute power as the Emperor Carl V had hoped for. Things had changed and there was no way back to how things were before.

The opposed parties needed to sit down and talk. Therefore, in early 1555, the catholic side and the lutheran Schmalkaldic parties came together and negotiated the terms on which they would be able to live in peace. Then finally, on September 25, 1555, 461 years ago, they adopted the Treaty of Augsburg. This so called “Peace of Augsburg” (Augsburger Religionsfrieden) not only established peace between the both opposing parties, it also was the beginning of the Lutheran movement as an official Lutheran Church.

Cuius Regio, Eius Religio

But why would this be of any interest for us today? It is because they agreed upon a policy that should still be noticeable until this very day. This policy was rather simple; each sovereign could determine the religion of their people in their territory, be it either the catholic or the lutheran (or reformed) religion. For our ancestors that meant that either they could stay if they were of the same faith of their sovereign, but if not, they needed to leave and look for a place to live in the country where their faith was the “official” faith. Some sovereigns tolerated other religions, most did not. This led to Germany being split into catholic and lutheran/evangelical areas.


And even today, with full religious freedom, we still find these areas to be mostly evangelical or catholic. Mecklenburg, for example, became Lutheran and still is, Bavaria remained Catholic and the majority of its population still is of Catholic faith.

And when you have ancestors but do not know where they came from, this will help you lower down the region where they might have lived. And this is the reason why until this very day, September 25, 1555 is of such an importance for German genealogists.


Do you want to learn more about how to find our more about your German ancestors? Don’t miss our next webinar Finding Your Ancestors’ German Hometown! Register today at Legacy Family Tree Webinars!


The Power of Words

The Power of Words_Marketing

Is there anything better than reading or listening to a well told story, especially to one on your own family? I doubt there is! And I am sure that it has always been the same, for every generation. I would think that many of you spent Christmas together with your loved ones and simply cuddled up in the sofa, talking, talking, talking….

And now imagine our ancestors sitting in the dark, their faces flared in the firelight. They tell stories on walking through the forest in the darkness, through the snow, listening to the wolves howling and coming closer and closer. Or about your great-aunt Freda who never smiled? Did you know that she was not allowed to marry the love of her life but forced into a marriage with a wealthy old man (thankfully she was widowed soon)? Or did you know that your Uncle Fredrick had to leave for America because he had an affair with a married women… but shush, don’t tell anyone…

It has been these stories that made us a Gemeinschaft that is somehow glued together not even by blood and gens but by who our ancestors were, what they experienced and what they passed on to us and what gave us our identity. That made us who we are, a family. But do we pass on these stories to those to come?

We all are genealogists, have hundreds of records in our files, thousands of names in our database, a lot of information about the place they lived in and their occupation. We have statistics on the number of children who were born and the number of children who died as infants. But do we have the stories about the mother’s grief? Or the father’s struggle to provide what was needed to keep his children healthy? And the disappointment of not being able to do so?

There are computer programs being able to write family stories for us, but are these stories the stories you would really like to listen to? Let me give you an example:

“Johannes Harder was born in Cossin, County of Pyritz, Pomerania, on 11 December 1901, baptized by his father, a Lutheran pastor, the next month. He was educated at home by his father, learned Latin and Greek. He worked as a land worker. In the summer of 1926 he was sent away by his father. On 02 Sep 1926 he boarded a ship in Hamburg and came to Quebec on 11 September 1926. He was allowed to return and visited his parents with his bride in 1929. He came back to Germany in 1969 and 1970. In his last years he lived in the Yukon. He died there in 1975 and is buried next to the church he had helped build.”

How about this one:
“John Harder had made up his mind: he would help build a Lutheran church in a town in the Yukon territory, now that he finally felt as if he had found the place to settle, after all these years of wondering around. Although it didn’t really look like the home he came from. Home, that was Germany, Pomerania, flat, no mountains in sight, wide fields of flax and grain. Not even mentioning the different climate (except for the cold winds!).
But although this land he had once called home, was wide it had always felt confining, there was something in him that always kept him on the move.
Maybe things would have been different, if his mother hadn’t died young, she had been ill for many years, had never really recovered after his little brother’s birth in 1910. He and his brothers had carried her around, upstairs and downstairs through the old cold drafty parsonage. They had always hoped that she would recover. But she did not and when he was 19, she died. He wondered if his father had ever really cared about her, she seemed to be useless for him as soon as she wasn’t able to do her job as a pastor’s wife. She had always been full of laughter. His father was so very quiet and intellectual, harsh and rigid, and demanding. John felt that he had disappointed him all the way, he was not the son his father had wanted him to be. He was everything his father disliked, not intellectual, always running around with the bad boys and, even worse, with the girls… And then, one day, after the scandal broke through, he was sent away, not to another part of Germany, no, across the ocean, as far away as possible from the small town he grew up. There were things a pastor could and would not accept!

And then he was free. But heartbroken and alone. He missed his 4 siblings, who were not allowed to get in touch which him (but did anyway). And he never lost the feeling of having to make it up to his father. In 1929 he was allowed to come back and visit his family, he even stayed for four weeks. And this time he brought something that he figured would make his father happy, his bride Gretha, who would soon become the second daughter in law. Hadn’t he done everything to show his father that he had learned and that he could now be proud of him? He grew older, became a father of four, enjoyed all that life had to give (and life had a lot to give), quit many, many, jobs and never seemed to be able to settle down. He didn’t even become a Canadian Citizen. And he never could get rid of the feeling of having disappointed his father; this feeling didn’t even stop when he learned that his father had died in a refugee camp after WWII. But in his late years he found something that would have made his father proud and would bring him inner peace. He would help build a Lutheran Church in the Yukon town he lived in. And so he did! And finally he had found the place to stay and settle down. He was buried next to the church he had built. In his new home that he loved, far from the small Pomerania village he was born.”

Now, which story would you keep in mind and tell to your grandchildren?

So, maybe it is time that we shut down the computer, take an old fashioned ink pen and start writing. And why not plan a family reunion? How about sitting together, all of you at the fireplace, in the dark, the faces flared in the firelight, telling the good old stories that made you who you are, a family?

Rootseekers would like to wish everyone

peaceful holidays with many unforgettable stories!

[and cookies and hot chocolate]




110/80/30 -, these numbers are not the latest women’s ideal measurement (thankfully!). And not my blood pressure either. I took these numbers from my German law book. They are listed in the Law on the Civil Registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths (Personenstandsgesetz, PStG). This law is about the German Civil Status Certificates which in German are called Personenstandsurkunden and are kept by the German Standesämter (Civil Registry Offices). It is all about birth, marriage and death certificates. Everything there is to know about civil registration is included in this law. And even things you don’t want to know are listed. Ugly things like how long birth, marriage and death certificates are under privacy law.

Under privacy law means not accessible to the public. For us genealogists this means that

– birth certificates cannot be publicly accessed for 110 years and
– marriage certificates for 80 years and
– death certificates for 30 years.

It means no public research is possible during this time. But does it mean that you can’t get any of your ancestors’ and relatives’ certificates?

The answer is easy. It is yes and no. Or to be more precise – it depends.

You either get it or you don’t

Let’s take a deeper look into section 62 subsections 1 and 3 PStG. That is the section that tells us who will get a certificate that is under privacy law.

1) The certificate is about you, meaning your birth or marriage certificate. You might not be interested in your death certificate, which leads us to….
2) The spouse or registered partner can get your birth, marriage (which is kind of his or hers as well) and your death certificate (in case you go before him or her).
3) The great-grandparents, grandparents and parents (ancestors) can get their children’s and grandchildren’s etc. certificates.
4) The direct descendants can get their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents certificates.
5) Siblings can get their siblings’ birth and death certificates if they can prove their rightful interest in this record.
6) Other people who can prove their legal interest can get certificates, which means they need to have a court order. This is usually the case with administration of an estate.

Be prepared that you need to prove your relationship through your birth or marriage record!

This means that you will not get your siblings marriage certificate, your cousin’s certificates, your aunt’s and uncle’s certificates etc. as long as they are under privacy law.

But don’t forget!

There is one regulation that most people don’t know about. It will give you a chance to get even more certificates of your relatives even though the records are under privacy law.

Birth certificates:
1) The person you are looking for has died more than 30 years ago.
2) The parents of the person you are looking for have died more than 30 years ago and you have proof (=a record) of both.
3) You have a rightful interest in getting the certificate.

Marriages certificates:
1) The person you are looking has died more than 30 years ago.
2) The spouse of the person you are looking for has died 30 years ago and you have proof (=a record) of both.
3) You have a rightful interest in getting the certificate.

So much for what the law says.

Let’s look at some examples. You want to do research on your grandmother and her parents and her many siblings, all born in Germany between 1904 and 1916. Based on December 2015 this is what you get and what you won’t get.



Now what about the time after 110 years, 80 years and 30 years? The certificates go public. You can send a request to the Standesamt and simply order it.

What happens to the certificates after they go public? Sometimes the records remain at the local Standesamt. Sometimes the certificates are transferred to the local city archive, county archive and respective state archive like it is done in Berlin. And sometimes you will get very lucky and ancestry or familysearch will digitize them and they will be available online.

Getting birth, marriage and death records does require a little patience. And most of all, knowing what 110/80/30 is all about.

Don’t Go For Second Best

Don’t go for second best – isn’t that what we always learn? Sometimes we just have to go by second best because there isn’t any other way to get what we want. And sometimes we go for second best because we’re not aware of that it is second best and that there is something better waiting if we just look around.

In the middle of the 19th century at the beginning of every new year, it was time for a Prussian pastor to sit down and do what he probably wasn’t too fond of doing. It was time to copy the church books as it was asked for (to put it nicely) by the Prussian government. And as copying machines or scanners hadn’t been invented yet, he simply needed to spend days and nights copying every single entry and every single page. He sat in the dark by candlelight, dipping the feather into the glass of ink hundreds of times, filling the blank pages. It was cold in January and sometime he might have even worn a winter coat and mitts. Some parishes were rather small with less than fifty entries for every year; then the task was easily fulfilled. Some had at least one hundred births year and many marriages and deaths which made it quite a task.

Copying one year at a time meant that he recorded the births, marriages and deaths for this very years and signed it. But there were some pastors who had avoided to copy the books for many years and when they finally were forced to do so, they copied many years of births, many years of marriages and many years of deaths. The year after they might have copied just this very year; the next year he skipped his duties to then record two years of births, two years of marriages and two years of deaths. This is the reason why it can be rather complicated to search for certain entries as you first need to understand the chronological order first. It may mean having to go through the entire book even though you have the exact date of birth, marriage or death.

When the copied book was full of names, baptisms, marriages and deaths, the pastor passed it on to the government so that they would know how many inhabitants there were, who they were and, most importantly, how many soldiers were to be expected. The copied church books simply had the function of vital records. The names of these books are Duplicate Church Books or Duplicates. In Prussia we find these books until October 1874 which is when the Offices of Vital Records (Standesämter) were established together with the introduction of Vital Records on October 1st, 1874. Finally the pastor could focus on his job!

As the duplicates belonged to the government, they today are kept at the state archives while the original church books are to be found at the local parish or at the church archive.

We are very lucky to have duplicates especially in Pomerania or in areas, where the original church records were destroyed in World War 2. Without them, we would not be able to find out more about our ancestors. And today, with many duplicate church books being available online at FamilySearch, we don’t even need to go to the archives.

There only are two things that make research with the duplicates rather tricky. First of all the duplicate might not hold all the information the original book does. You might have noticed that, for example, that the records from Pomerania often don’t show the same amount of information especially on the godparents in the birth records, and the marriage records often don’t show the parents of the married couple.

But there is another thing that is essential when doing research and that is the accuracy of the information the record holds. Imagine copying such a book yourself; how many hours would it take you and how many errors you would make? One per page? Maybe two? Or more? Are all the names correct, spelled correctly or have they been mixed up? Are the dates correct? 100% correct? Are all the entries there or did you overlook one of them? Now imagine that it was exactly the same for the pastor, sitting there in the dark by candlelight, in his winter coat and mitts, dipping the feather into the glass of ink and writing down what he reads. There are mistakes in the original records, but there are even more in the copies of these records. We are human, we make mistakes.

This is an extract of the duplicate church book of the Parish of Collin, Pomerania, Baptisms, 1870. Pastor Harder made a mistake with the date of two birth entries, one of the entries is the birth of his own daughter! That might have been the reason why he saw the error and corrected it. [Please forgive me, Great-Great-Grandfather Harder, I am just doing this for educational purposes.]

KB Collin_Geb_1870-crop

Therefore, the duplicates simply aren’t 100% accurate and can only be considered second best. If you do have records that are essential for your research and there still are original church records available, you might want to double check with the original if the information you have really is accurate. Because you simply should not go for second best!

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

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