Finding Your German Cousins

Are you planning on going to Germany in 2017? And are you looking for the graves to visit and for cousins to say hello? Things might turn out to be a bit difficult for both.


I wrote about the difficulties of finding your German ancestor’s grave on August in my blogpost “Finding your Ancestor’s Grave (Or Not)”. But finding relatives actually isn’t that easy either.


Germans  and  Privacy

The main reason for the difficulty of finding German relatives simply is privacy. Not only are the privacy laws in German very strict and it is complicated, time consuming and sometimes simply impossible to find information on living people. But even when you manage to find them, you might not be able to get in touch with them or even be invited to their house. The reason for this is that Germans like to keep their privacy. They like to stick with their own family and friends and are rather reserved with getting in touch with people they do not know. And most of them simply aren’t looking for new found cousins, be it first, second or third.

Another reason is that in Germany genealogy is a more or less exotic thing to do. Remember, Germans usually stayed put and think they know where they come from. There simply doesn’t seem to be a need to know more and dig deeper. Therefore, most Germans aren’t even aware that they have relatives abroad. It happens quite often that I find relatives but they simply are unfriendly and hang up, making it very clear that they aren’t interested.

Often, there are no relatives in that area, their ancestors simply moved and their descendants are impossible to trace. The earlier emigration took place, the harder it is to find relatives.


With A Little Bit Of Luck

But there still is hope and it is in fact possible to find relatives that know about the emigration and welcome you to Germany (which does not mean to their house). These are some examples where I found family members:

The emigrating ancestors had come from a small village close to the Dutch border with a very active Historical Society. They had information on everything a genealogist could ask for and knew directly which family member had emigrated and what became of the siblings. And as it was a Historical Society of a small village, many of its members were related. It only took one phone call and the research was more or less completed. And within 2 months about 200 family members from all over Germany met and welcomed their new found family member from America!

The emigrating ancestors came from a small village in Baden. I found out that there was a journalist living in the village, who also wrote about the old houses in this area. He agreed to meet my client and it turned out that they were distant cousins.

The family moved overseas in the 20th century; therefore the memory of them simply was alive and the remaining cousins knew about each other and wanted to meet (but not in their home). I was only able to find them, because I turned every (and I mean EVERY!) stone around.

Once, I found the name in an online family tree; a sibling had married into this family. The researcher had more information and put me in touch with the lady who had provided him with that part of information. It turned out that she not only was a distant cousin of my client, but also a genealogist and archivist who had actually wondered what had happened to the cousin who all of the sudden vanished.

So, you see, it is possible to find relatives, but you really need time, know your way around, be creative, and, most of all, you need luck! Without luck you will not be able to get there!


But even without meeting your relatives, you will meet a lot of kind and friendly people in Germany. And who knows, maybe it turns out that you are related?


Finding Your Ancestor’s Grave (Or Not)

Many of my clients come to Germany to find their ancestor’s graves. Unfortunately, in Germany graves are cleared after a few decades (20 to 30 years) to make room for new graves. Therefore, you will hardly ever find graves of your ancestors, who died some 100 years ago.

Berlin-Friedrichshain, Friedhöfe Friedenstraße / Landsberger Allee ©Angela Monika Arnold

Also, sometimes when a grave is cleared, the name is mentioned on a family gravestone, but this does not mean that this person is actually buried there. Actually they might even have been buried in a different town.


If the family had a large monument next to a cemetery wall it is often kept and sometimes even sold to other families who keep it and pay for the maintenance; they either use it as a place of burial for their own family or just to see to it that it is saved.

Berlin-Friedrichshain, Friedhöfe Friedenstraße / Landsberger Allee ©Angela Monika Arnold


Also often graves of famous people are taken care of by the municipality, this grave, for example, is kept as a grave of honor.

Therefore, before you come to Germany, it may be wise to check with the local church or, if the cemetery belongs to the local community, with the so called Friedhofsamt. You will find the way to contact them through the website of the municipality. Some municipalities (for example Berlin) do charge a fee for this kind of information, others do not. Also be aware that it might take time until they answer, in some parts of Berlin it can take about 6 months as they have to take care of burials as well, which, obviously, has first priority.

Berlin-Kreuzberg, Friedhöfe vor dem Halleschen Tor ©kvikk



The cemetery is gone

Sometimes the cemetery has seized to exist. In the past the cemetery often was close to or even next to the church. The graves were marked with either stones or wooden crosses that simply were destroyed due to the weather and then removed. Later a new cemetery was set up but the graves were not moved so you will be walking over unmarked graves.


The church of Groß Leppin, Brandenburg ©Ursula C. Krause


Historical Cemeteries

However, sometimes, if you are lucky, a new cemetery is set up and the old one in not cleared and falls into a deep sleep. Maybe the grass it cut, maybe some stones are removed, but you will still see that there once was a cemetery.

The old cemetery of Groß Leppin, Brandenburg, situated on the Mühlenberg ©Ursula C. Krause

Jewish Cemeteries

It is different for Jewish cemeteries. These graves were principally not cleared, however, many Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and destroyed during the Third Reich. Sometimes the cemetery ‘simply’ was destroyed and the tombstones knocked over, sometime the tombstones were taken and used for road construction (which was actually done with Christian German tombstones in Poland after the war). Today, many people are involved in saving the Jewish cemeteries and honoring those who were once buried there and most cemeteries are under preservation.

Berlin-Weißensee, The Jewish Cemetery ©mazbln


Even if you do not find the graves of your ancestors, do take a look at the local cemetery, often they are a beautiful place to sit down and simply take a break from all the noise and the hurry.

Stahnsdorf, Südwestkirchhof ©A. Savin

Bye Bye, Brick Walls – No, It’s Not (A Brick Wall)



Sometimes, when researching your German ancestors you reach a dead end. You have some information and checked all the sources; you have thought it through thoroughly. But you just don’t know what else to do. You have reached a brick wall. Or at least that’s what you think.



But things aren’t always the way they seem. Sometimes you are just a small step away from solving your problem and being able to find the answers you are seeking. It can simply be a misreading or a translation error that has been pointing you in the wrong direction. It might be that the information you’re looking for is there but you just don’t know about it. Maybe you are just searching the internet with the wrong search term and once you know the right word you can find out more. And maybe you simply need a tiny piece of advice to open closed doors. But where to turn?


Just Ask!

There are two places (of many more) where you can easily find help. One place is the mailing lists of the many German genealogical societies where you can place a request. Most of the lists are bilingual and all of them are free of charge. You can see what lists there are and if they are open to the public under this link; then just click on the list name and scroll down to register.

The other place is facebook with it’s many German genealogy groups. Katherine R. Willson has created a list with all genealogy related facebook groups and you can download it here:


No, It’s Not!

So what you think is a brick wall often simply isn’t one and you can easily find out more about your German ancestors by simply seeking a piece of advice from other researchers.


Do you want to know more about overcoming your brick walls? Read how knowing what information civil records hold can help! Find out more under And the Walls Came Tumbling Down!

Bye Bye, Brick Walls – And the Walls Came Tumbling Down



Sometimes we feel that we stand in front of a brick wall with no way of pulling it down. Actually we often think there is a brick wall, but there still is one or the other source we have not looked at. Let me share with you how one of our alleged walls came tumbling down!

We were searching for the ancestors of a couple that married in 1899 in Gerresheim, today a part of Düsseldorf. We did have a so called Heirats-Bescheinigung, a confirmation of marriage. This record provided us with the following information:

  • Groom: name and date of birth in Eisenstein in Bohemia, his occupation: stoker
  • Groom: his parent’s names and his father’s occupation: glassworker
  • Bride: name and date of birth in Trechel in Pomerania, her mother’s name (it was an  illegitimate birth)
  • The date of marriage


Marriage Confirmation, issued by the Standesamt Gerresheim on 12 January 1889,

Photo Private collection of D. Abel


We checked Eisenstein (today Železna Ruda I in the Czech Republik) and Trechel (today Trzechel, Poland) and found interesting information; but it remained unclear what had become of the groom’s father and the bride’s mother, her husband and her half-siblings. They had vanished from earth. Where could they have moved? And how on earth did the bridal couple end up in Gerresheim, when they had been born many hundreds of kilometers away?


Map Germany, by google maps


I first took a closer look at the town of Gerresheim. This town had one main employer – the Gerresheimer Glashütte, once the biggest glassworks in the world with up to 8000 employees. The workers and their families came from all over Germany, especially from Northern Germany and Pomerania.

With the groom working as a stoker, he might have worked at this foundry. With his father being a glassworker this would not be unthinkable. And maybe his parents lived there as well? And who knows, maybe so did the bride and her parents?

The Marriage Certificate

There was one record that could answer this question: the marriage certificate. You might wonder why, as we did have the marriage confirmation and knew all there was to know. But the marriage certificate holds much more information. I sent a request to the City Archive of Düsseldorf and when the record arrived, it took less than a minute to make our brick walls come tumbling down.



Marriage Certificate, Standesamt Gerresheim, Marriages, 2/1899.

©Stadtarchiv Düsseldorf


This record gave additional information to what we already knew.

The Groom: he lived in Gerresheim.

The groom’s father: he died in Mitterteich, a town in Bavaria, not far from Eisenstein; Mitterteich was known for its glassworks as well.

The groom’s mother: lived in Eisenstein

The Bride’s mother: she died in Gerresheim



But the biggest surprise were the two witnesses.

The first one was a young glassmaker, and the other one actually was the bride’s youngest half-brother, a glassworker in Gerresheim as well.

So, it did seem as if at least the family of the bride did reside in Gerresheim. And as only the oldest half-brother had been born in Trechel, the family might have moved to Gerresheim when the bride was a child; her siblings might have born here. And, maybe, who knows, the bridal couple had met through her brother or other family members.

Next Steps

What will be our next steps? We will search the vital records of Gerresheim for family members to find out who was born, lived and died there.

Also, we will check if there is a Melderegister (Register of Inhabitants) that will give information on when the family moved there. And, if we are lucky, there still is an archive of the Gerresheimer Glashütte.

This is how we had our alleged brick walls came tumbling down just be ordering one single record!


Find out more about civil records in my blogpost 110-80-30!


This blog post was first published on the blog of the In-Depth Genealogist on 26 January 2016.





Do What Bob Does!



Before starting your research in Germany, it is good to learn a little bit about Germany. It can be very helpful to know more about the country your ancestors came from. You should take a look into German geography so that you know your way around. Knowing German history isn’t bad either same for  German customs.

Where to start?

However, it isn’t that easy. Where to start? Reading books on these topics is highly recommendable and there are many great books available. But sometimes reading a book feels like a big obstacle. You need to find a book that gives the information you want and most of us have so many other things to do and taking an hour to read a book on German history every once in a while simply isn’t possible. So the books remain unread. But what do you think about my friend Bob’s idea? This is what he does.

Do what Bob does!

We post a picture of Germany on our facebook and twitter accounts every day. It is called “Good morning from Germany” and it shows a building or a landscape of todays’ Germany. And every morning Bob starts his day with looking up information on the place or the building I posted. It takes so very little time and thanks to the internet, information is so very easy to access. Usually Wikipedia has a lot of information that mostly is correct. And when you look it up on google maps you will even know where the town is situated. You will find out so many things like the local history, how the town looks and how to get there. Maybe you even get interested in this area and do some more reading? Maybe you get lucky and we post a picture of the place your ancestor lived? It only takes a few minutes every morning to get to know Germany! Meanwhile Bob sure knows his way around! So, do what Bob does, visit our facebook or twitter page and start getting to know the country your ancestors once lived!

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