Thursday, 31 December 2015

And Who Might You Be?

Are you planning on going to Germany in 2016? 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 31, 2015 in my blogpost “Finding your Ancestor’s Grave (Or Not)” which you can find here But finding relatives actually isn’t that easy either.

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.

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 them 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?
Enjoy your trip! 


  1. A big (and friendly) hello from Germany. I'm sorry that you obviously had bad experiences trying to contact your family members over here, but let me assure you not all Germans react this way...

    I think a huge problem is that many Germans don't speak enough English to communicate about a topic like this, and they feel simply overwhelmed. Most of us have had a few years of English in school, but we hardly ever have the opportunity to practice it in conversation.

    It's true that we love our privacy, but we generally don't reject people who approach us in a friendly (= non-demanding)way. It's obvious that you guys would love to obtain information, but be a little more patient. Would you give your family data to someone you don't know at all? Probably not.

    Another thought I had when I read this post: It's not true that Germans aren't interested in their family history. It's like in the US: Some people are, some people aren't. You can't force anyone to share your passion. There's a very active genealogy community here, and it grows bigger. I started researching my family history almost 20 years ago, and I know a lot of people who are digging in archives and really are specialists in their own fields. When you've located living ancestors, maybe it's worth giving a try to contact one of the many "Heimatforscher" (local historians) we have, especially when your relatives live in a small town. The local historian may actually know your family in person and can tell if they might be interested or not. I come from a small town, and I've been working on this small town's genealogy for years, puzzling together all the families that lived there from about 1652 until 1945. All of this is information that isn't private at all as it comes from parish registers and official records, so I'm absolutely willing to share if someone asks.

    A third (and last) thought I'd like to mention is that when it comes to dealing with Americans, Germans often feel confronted with clichés and prejudice. Many Americans still mix up German and Bavarian, which we either think is funny or it simply gets on our nerves, and we're all a little bit touchy when it comes to mentioning Germany's horrible Nazi past. I myself feel the urge to explain to Americans that no, I am not "like that", and I was born in 1973! We all know what happened, so there's no need to remind us... And in a discussion about family history, there is a certain chance that this topic might come up. But with a bit of sensitivity it should be possible to talk about this as well.

    I've visited the US many times, and though I love going there and visit the friends I have, I can still tell certain cultural differences, and that's okay. Try to approach Germans open-minded, and we'll do the same.

    Good luck with your research and a happy 2016!

    Angela Schwentker

  2. ... or maybe in our database with 3023 german graveyards:

    Best regards


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