Top 25 Milestone Words for Finding Your German Ancestor

Birthdays. Weddings. Funerals. While our German ancestors may have lived hundreds of years ago, the life milestones we deem important today held similar significance to our relatives in the past. For us family historians, using these milestones can be extremely helpful in piecing together our ancestors’ life stories. But what if you don’t speak German?

Below, I’ve gathered together a list of 25 of the most important milestone words in German genealogy. The German word is on the left, followed by the English translation on the right. An example of the word in the old German handwriting (Kurrentschrift) is also provided.* Knowing these German words, along with a bit of the old German handwriting, can be a great help in deciphering German records and discovering the mysteries of the past (and if you would like a professional genealogy translation, you can always contact me here).

* Keep in mind that handwriting varied by person, place and time, so the handwriting sample is only provided to give you an idea of how the word might look. See Twenty Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting for more information. 

25 Milestone Words in German Genealogy 

1. Geburt:                                              birth

2. geboren:                                           born; also means née when before a last name

3. Kinder:                                                children

 

4. ehelich:                                             legitimate

5. unehelich:                                       illegitimate

6. getauft:                                                 baptized

7. Taufe:                                                    baptism

8. konfirmiert:                                     confirmed

9. ledig (led.):                                        single, unmarried

10. verlobt:                                               engaged

11. Ehe:                                                      marriage

12. Hochzeit/Trauung:                       wedding

13. geheiratet/verehelicht/getraut:    married (as in the action “The man married the woman.”)


14. verheiratet:                                       married (as in the state of being married, “He is married”)

15. Frau/Ehefrau/Gattin/Weib*:      wife

*This word is related etymologically to our English word “wife.”

16. Mann/Ehemann/Gatte:              husband


17. Zeugen:                                              witnesses

18. Eltern:                                                 parents

19. Wohnort:                                            place of residence

20. geschieden:                                      divorced

21. Witwe:                                                 widow

 

22. Witwer:                                               widower

 

23. gestorben:                                       died



24. Tod:                                                      death

25. Begräbnis/Beerdigung:              funeral or burial

 

 

 

 

20 Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting

Researching your German ancestors? If so, I bet you have come across that spidery German handwriting, so beautiful yet elusive to our 21st-century eyes. But it doesn’t have to be so difficult. Below are 20 tips (combined, for your convenience, from my popular posts Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting and Ten More Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting) to help you put together the puzzle pieces of your past. And as always, if you would like the help of a professional German genealogy translator, contact me here. I would love to hear from you.

Twenty Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting

1. Identify letters by the clues they offer. While deciphering old handwriting can feel like solving an incredibly difficult puzzle, the letters themselves often provide nice little clues for us. For example:

*   “h” has a loop both above and below the line. It is easily identifiable in the word “Tochter” (daughter) below.

h tochter

*   “u” has a little “swoop” (my non-technical term) above it and “i” has a dot above it. Word of warning: sometimes the swoop or the dot can be slightly to the right of the actual letter itself. Notice also how everyone’s “swoops” can be slightly different, as seen in the real-life example of the word “gut” (good) below.

u i Kurrentschrift, old German handwriting

*   A straight line above a letter can mean that it is an “n” or an “m” and that there should be two of them. For example, “kommen” (to come) would likely be written with one “m” with a straight line above the letter. Word of warning: Sometimes the “u-swoops” are written as straight lines. Umlauts can be written as straight lines as well.

denn es

This example reads “den es” with a straight line above the “n”, which results in “denn es” (because it).

2. Use your insider information to differentiate between the letters that are agonizingly similar. Although I’m sure the inventors of Kurrentschrift weren’t trying to cause problems for 21st-century readers, they made some of those letters very, very similar to one another. However, if you are familiar with their subtle differences, you can beat the system.

*   “e” and “n”: The “n” (left image below) is written as one unit in a single stroke, while the “e” (right image) is written with two strokes. The “n” is more jagged-looking than the “e”, while the “e” is usually written as a more narrow letter. Notice how the “e” is more narrow than the “n” in the real-life image of “denn” above.

n e

*   “n” and “m”: My trick for distinguishing between “n” and “m” in a word is to count the points at the bottom of the letter. The “n” has three total points at the bottom, while the “m” has four. This sounds obvious, but when you have a word with “en” or “em”, all these letters start to look the same. It helps me to identify the “e”, separate it off from the rest of the word with a line, and then count the points at the bottom of the next letter to see how many there are. In the example below, the word is “mein” (my). You can identify the “m” at the beginning of the word by counting the four points at the bottom and the “n” at the end by noticing the two points after the “i.”

n m mein

3 . Love your letter “S”. Although “s” can be quite tricky, as there are at least three different ways to write it, it is usually pretty easy to identify as each version is somewhat unique from the other letters in the alphabet (none of this e-n-m difficulty).

s

These three letters above are all “s”. The first letter shown is used at the beginning of a lowercase word or a syllable (i.e. in “schreiben” – to write). The second “s” is used at the end of a syllable/word (i.e. in “es”- it). The final is the capital “S”, used for nouns (always capital in German) and names. See the word “es” in the example of “denn es” in Tip 1.

4. Know your abbreviations. If you come across a letter or two all by themselves, it could easily be an abbreviation. This website allows you to type the German abbreviation into its search machine to see what the German word could be. A very common example in genealogical documents is “u.” for “und” (and).

5. Keep your mind in the past. By this I mean – don’t let your brain automatically read the letters as it would a modern-day document. Many of the letters in Kurrentschrift look similar to our cursive today, but are not actually the same letter. It is easy for your mind to simply read them as the letter you learned in school, but don’t give in! The most difficult for me at the beginning was constantly thinking an “e” was an “n”.

6. Play hangman. Once you have identified as many letters in a word as you can, write them out, leaving a blank for the letter(s) you don’t know. With your knowledge of the context or of the German language, see if you can figure out what the missing letters are. I also find this website, WordMine.info, very helpful. It allows you to type in either the beginning or end of the word and then provides you a list of all the possible German words with those exact beginnings or endings.

FullSizeRender

In this example, I filled in the letters I recognized one by one, until only the tricky letter at the beginning was left. It was then obvious that this word must be “Geburtsschein” or “birth certificate.

7. Forget all you know about writing rules. Punctuation? Who needs it? Writing one word on one line? Not for our ancestors! Many historical writers simply did not use periods or commas. While this usually doesn’t make handwriting transcription too difficult, the lack of line rules does. What do I mean by that? In a letter or document, a word may start on one line, and then, without a dash or any type of punctuation, simply continue onto the next line. So if the letters at the end of the line do not seem to be forming any type of word, remember to look to the next line to see if the word continues there.

8. Google, google, google. I can’t imagine translating without it. With the possibility of old fashioned words in historical documents, you may not recognize every word you come across. If you aren’t exactly sure of your transcription, try typing variations of the word into Google search to see which version most frequently appears in other texts and see if they make sense within your document and for your current transcription. The same can be true for last names. Deciphering names can be difficult because there is no context to tell you if you are right or wrong. Try typing the name you think it could be into Google and see if other examples come up. If not, you probably have a letter wrong. This website is also a great tool, showing you the frequency of a last name in the different regions of Germany.

9. Become geographically-inclined (or just use Google Maps). If you know from the context of the document that a certain word is a city or district, but aren’t sure of the exact letters, use Google or Google maps to see if you can find a city that matches your possible transcription in the area where your document is from. The Google auto-correct “Did you mean….” is often very helpful.

10. Always let the document be your guide (Jiminy Cricket’s second piece of advice).

jiminy

Everyone’s handwriting is different, and a certain letter from an 1890 birth certificate may look completely different from the same letter in a World War II military record. If you are able to identify a letter in your current document, remember it, and then look for other occurrences of the same letter throughout the text. I recently translated a letter in which the “s” looked like our modern “r” (I know, I know, I said the “s’s” were easy-they usually are). Once I realized this was an “s” based on my hangman type game, I was able to easily identify other “s’s” in the document and therefore many other words.

11. Get hip with the lingo. Letter writers of the past often used the same phrases over and over in writing, just as we do in English today (“Thank you for your e-mail”, “Attached please find”,  etc.). Being familiar with these common phrases helps in transcribing the old handwriting, as it allows you to better recognize the rest of the sentence. Some phrases that you might find in historical German letters include:

Ich habe deinen Brief erhalten/bekommen. I have received your letter.
Seid herzlich gegrüßt. Literally: Be greeted affectionately.

English: We send you all our warm regards.

Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan. A German Saying: “What God does is well done”
Vielen herzlichen Dank. Many warm/heartfelt thanks.
Wir sind alle gesund. We are all healthy.

As discussed above, abbreviations also appear frequently in old German documents. The most common abbreviations include: “d.”, meaning “den” (the) before a date, as in “d. 2te February (the second of February), “u.” for “und” (and), and “geb.” for “geboren”, meaning “née.” For more help with German abbreviations, check out the post 19 Most Common Abbreviations in German Genealogy.

 12. Master the tiny details of the letters.  In tip number two, we discussed the minute differences between “e”, “n” and “m”. Unfortunately, these aren’t the only letters in Kurrentschrift that look almost the same. Other examples include:

*  “N” and “St” – These two letters are very similar and are often difficult for even a professional to tell apart. If you look closely, however, you can see that the bottoms of the two letters are (or should be) different. The “N” finishes with a swoop to the right, while the “St” finishes with the crossing of the “t” itself. However, in actual documents, this can still be difficult. The 1920s example of “St” in Stunde (hour)  on the bottom also finishes with a swoop to the right and thus even more strongly resembles an N. Here, however,  you can differentiate it from an “N” in the fact that the “t” is (slightly) crossed, as opposed to the “N” in “Nachmittag” (afternoon) above.

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 6.56.21 PM   Nachmittag
Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 3.11.59 PM   Stunden

*   “B”, “C” and “L” – If you look at the three capital letters below, you might be a little alarmed. They are incredibly similar. However, if you know the clues to look for, you will be able to tell them apart. The “C” (middle) is easy to differentiate  from the other two letters as there is no loop at the top. Just a simple stroke with a little downward hook at the top right. As for the “B” (left) and the “L” (right), the “B” is different in that it has a little straight line coming off the bottom swoop, much like our lowercase cursive b today.  Notice this line in the left word “Brief”  (letter) compared to the rather fluid finishing of the “L” on the right in the word “Liebe” (dear). “C” is not a very common letter in German, and is often only found in names, such as “Christian.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-06 at 6.35.44 PM
*   “v” and “w” –
These lowercase letters look similar, but are actually quite easy to tell apart. While they both have the loop on the right, the “v” only has one stroke before the loop, while the “w” has two.  Below, “v” is on the left, with a real-life example of the word “vielen” (many). “w” is center, followed by an example of the word “wird” (will). Finally, the last column shows both letters in the words “verkauft werden” (will be sold). Notice how the “w” has one more stroke before the loop than the “v” in this sample from an 1868 letter.

V

vielen

wwird verkauft werden

 

13. Understand the importance of occupations.  Just as one of our first questions for a new acqaintance is “What do you do?”, our ancestors also placed a great deal of importance on their occupations. Therefore, on any certificate, the occupation of a person was listed  before the person’s name. For example, a certificate may read that “the farmer Johann Schmidt appeared before the undersigned registrar”, with farmer (Bauer) preceding the name of the person involved.

The level of one’s occupation was also important. Occupation levels included:

“Lehrling” – apprentice

“Geselle” – journeyman (apprenticeship complete)

“Meister” – master

These levels, if listed, always follow the name of the occupation. For example, “Schuhmachermeister” is a person who is a master shoemaker. In the examples below, Friedrich Gottlieb Christian Eckhardt was a Schuhmachergeselle (first handwritten word, top image) before he was a Schuhmachermeister (last handwritten word, top line of bottom image).

Schuhmacher

Schuhmachermeister

14. Think horse-drawn carriage driver. Speaking of occupations, many occupations that were around in the past are no longer around today. Or, if the occupation is still around today, there may have been a different word for it in the past. This website provides an A-Z list of old occupations with their modern-day German translation. If you don’t speak German, you can find the old-fashioned occupation of your ancestor in the left column, and then use a dictionary to translate one of the modern day names in the right column. In my experience, one of the most common occupations for women seems to have been “Näherin” (seamstress), while one of the most common occupations for men seems to have been “Bauer” (farmer). Edna M. Bentz’s book “If I Can, You Can Decipher German Records” has a great list of old-fashioned occupations as well.

15. Expect the unexpected. By this, I mean that words may not be exactly as they are in the dictionary today. Just as our English speaking ancestors used words such as “thee” and “thou”, our German speaking ancestors used different words too. If you transcribe a word and have absolutely no idea what it means, it could easily be a word no longer in use. This website offers a great German-German dictionary (started by the Grimm brothers) for old-fashioned German words.

But what if you still can’t find your word? In that case, if you are certain of your transcription, it very likely could be a spelling mistake on the part of the author. As German spelling did not become widely standardized until the end of the 19th century, words in letters and other documents were often spelled “creatively.” While this can make deciphering certain words rather difficult, it is slightly easier if you are aware of some of the more common mistakes. Below, some examples:

*  a “t” might be substituted for a “d”

*   a “g” might be substituted for a “k” or a “ch”

*   an “f” could be substituted for a “v”

bad spelling

In the above example, the author of the letter writes “ich aich noch nigt” instead of the proper German spelling “ich euch noch nicht” (part of a sentence, literally “I haven’t…you yet.”) The “eu” is consistently replaced with “ai” in this letter and the “ch” with a “g”. Once you start to notice the common mistakes an author makes, you can identify these substitutions in other words in your document.

16. Keep on an eye on those Americans. If your German ancestors were in America, they might have included English words and place names in their letters. I’ve come across “Varmer” (farmer), “Kolorata” (Colorado), “daler” (dollar), and so on. So, if you cannot recognize a German word, take a step back and ask yourself if your ancestor could have been using some of their newly learned English.

17. Be street smart. The word for street in German is “Straße”, often abbreviated “Str.” If you know that a word in your document is a street, but can’t figure out which street it is, use this street-finder website to help you out. You type your ancestor’s city in “Suche im Strassenverzeichnis”, which then pulls up a map of the city and an A-Z list of street names. If you know at least some of the letters in your street name, this can help you recognize the correct transcription of the word.

18. Don’t be fooled by “normal” script. Names of people were often written in normal Latin script, just as the cursive script we use today. It is important to be aware of this fact – for example, you don’t want to see a letter “e” in a name and think that that is how an “e” is written in the rest of the document. Much the opposite – names were often signed one way, while the body of the document was written in Kurrent. This is especially true for church book registers.

In the example below, the author signs her name (Louise H) in “normal” script. You can see that there is no swoop above the “u” as in Kurrent, the “e” at the end of Louise is more like our cursive “e” than the Kurrent “e” that resembles our modern “n” and the “H” is nothing like the complicated Kurrent “H” that goes both above and below the line. However, in the rest of this document, the author would have used the Kurrent letters.

Louise H

19. Understand the system. If you know the information that should be on a document, transcribing is much easier. Luckily, certificates from most regions of Germany/Austria have similar formats, providing the same information for the people involved. Some information you can expect on birth, baptismal, marriage and death certificates include:

*  City, date

*  Person’s name, occupation, city of residency, religion

*  How the person was identified if previously unknown to the registrar (passport, baptismal certificate, military pass, birth certificate)

*  Parents’ names, occupations, city of residency, religion, if they are deceased

*  Witness’ names, occupations, city of residency, religion, age

*  Signatures of those involved, witnesses and registrar

FredMarriageCert

The First Page of a Marriage Certificate, Berlin 1888

For more information on marriage certificates in particular, check out 7 Tips for Reading German Marriage Certificates.

20. And finally, and most importantly, know when to take a break. You’ve almost finished your transcription, but there is  still one frustrating word that you cannot figure out for the life of you. You want to persevere and finish, but my advice is: don’t. Take a break, and things will often look much clearer if you stop and come back later. I’ve experienced this a number of times: The transcription is just about finished, but that one last word is baffling me. I take a break, come back  later or even the next day, and all of the sudden, the word is perfectly clear and I wonder how I didn’t see it before.  As a linguist and not a scientist, I can’t explain how that happens, but it amazes me every time!

With these twenty tips, you should be well on your way to finding your German ancestors. And if you would like a professional to translate your documents, I’d be happy to help – contact me at language@sktranslations.com. Until then, best of luck in your genealogy search!

 

Unbenannt

Image Credit: All original samples have been published with the permission of the client.

All Kurrentschrift letter samples are from the Kurrentschrift wikipedia page, except for “N” and “St”, which can be found here.

Six Reasons Why a Human is Better than Google Translate for Genealogy Documents

*This blog post originally appeared as a guest post  I wrote for Geneabloggers in 2016. Thank you to Thomas MacEntee for letting me repost it here.*

 

Katherine Schober, a German translator specializing in genealogy, offers her advice on the pitfalls of using automated translation programs.

In this day and age, we have everything at our fingertips. Want to know the score of a baseball game? Google it. Curious about a new restaurant in town? Look it up online. Want to know a word in a foreign language? Google Translate.

While it’s wonderful that everything is so easy nowadays, sometimes we need to be a little more careful. With the Google Translate tool in particular, you must ask yourself if it can really provide you with the information you need. Although the site is relatively decent at translating individual words, Google Translate is not recommended for anything more than that, especially in the field of genealogy. Why not? Check out these six reasons below:

#1: Many genealogical documents are handwritten.

This first point is rather obvious, but it should nevertheless be discussed. While the technology behind Google Translate is advanced, the site is simply unable to turn handwritten documents into translated text. “Well,” you might say, “why can’t I just type everything from the document into Google Translate?” My answer: In addition to the problematic translation results you may receive (see below), the handwriting in old documents is often very difficult to read. In German, for example, the script used in documents pre-1950 is completely different from the handwriting used in Germany today (so different, in fact, that most German-speakers themselves are unable to read it!).

Katherine Schober, a German translator specializing in genealogy, offers her advice on the pitfalls of using automated translation programs.

#2: Many genealogical documents contain outdated words that Google Translate does not recognize.

Just as English speakers don’t walk around exclaiming, “Thou art lovely!”, words in other languages have evolved as well. Unfortunately, Google Translate is simply unequipped to deal with the old-fashioned foreign words so common in genealogical translations. This is also true for occupations that no longer exist. I recently translated an 1882 marriage record in which the father was listed as a “Wagner” (the German word for ‘wagon-maker’). Type “Wagner” into Google Translate, and it simply remains “Wagner,” leaving you merely guessing at your ancestor’s profession.

#3: Google Translate often translates idioms and phrases literally, leaving you wondering what in the world your ancestor could have meant.

Some Google-Translate Examples of Idioms:

German Idiom English Meaning Google Translate
Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof. I don’t understand anything. I understand only station.
Wo sich Fuchs und Hase gute Nacht sagen In the middle of nowhere Where fox and hare say goodnight
Mit der Kirche ums Dorf fahren To make something more complicated Take the church around the village

And, if you put these three idioms together, you get this:

genealogy translations 02

Actual Meaning: Why make things more complicated? I am in the middle of nowhere and can’t understand anything.[1]

You can imagine your bewilderment if you are trying to translate a letter and believe your ancestor was somehow trying to accompany a church around an entire village while cavorting with polite woodland creatures. Makes no sense!

#4: Many genealogical documents contain obscure abbreviations that Google Translate ignores.

I recently translated a 1940 list of documents a bride needed for her wedding. As this was a list that she simply wrote for herself, she used many abbreviations throughout the text. When I type one such example into Google Translate, it looks like this:

German Document English Meaning Google Translate
Abstammungsnachweis b. Großelt. Certificate of Heritage from both grandparents (beider Großeltern) Pedigree certificate b. Großelt. (does not translate the two abbreviations)

Again, if you did not speak German, Google Translate would leave you guessing at what your ancestor had written down.

#5: A word in your document can have multiple meanings and Google can only pick one of them.

Take the English word “run.” “Run” can mean jog quickly (She runs in the park), manage (She runs a business), a tear (a run in your stockings) and so on (English With a Twist). How is Google supposed to pick the exact right meaning of the word for your document? Just as English words have multiple definitions, other languages do as well. One such word is the multi-meaning German pronoun “sie”, which, if Google chooses the wrong translation, can either change the meaning of your document or simply cause you a great deal of confusion. Such confusion is (correctly) illustrated by Mark Twain in his essay, “The Awful German Language“:

“the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them…think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.”

#6: Google Translate can make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Here are real examples of what Google Translate did with actual sentences I’ve translated from old letters:

German English Meaning Google Translate
Wenn ich Zeit zum schreiben hatte, so musste ich nach Frankfurt zu meiner Schwester, die mir Vorwurfe macht dass ich sie so wenig besuche. When I did have time to write, I had to go to Frankfurt to see my sister, who accuses me of not visiting her enough. If I had time to write, so I had to Frankfurt to my sister to give me reproach visit from me following so little.
Noch musste ich bemerken das in Ostpreussen eine Hungersnot ist, wofür in allen Städten und Dörfen Geld und Nährungsmittel gesammelt werden. I still need to mention that there is a famine in East Prussia, for which money and food are being collected in all cities and villages. Yet I had to remember this is a famine in East Prussia, are what is collected in all cities and villages of money and Nährungsmittel

If you only look at the Google Translate column, these translated sentences often make no sense or provide the completely wrong idea. For example, “this is a famine in East Prussia” sounds like the writer is part of the famine, when in fact she is just explaining that there is one in another part of the country. Not to mention the “villages of money.”

In conclusion, I do believe that Google Translate can help you with the meanings of individual words here and there. However, if you are serious about your genealogical research, value accuracy and want to learn as much as you can about your ancestors from the documents in your possession, hiring a translator is the way to go.

[1]  This is a very unlikely sentence, but was used to show how Google Translate deals with idioms.

Johanna’s 1921 Diary: Journey to America

I recently had the opportunity to translate a young woman’s diary. Year, 1921, name, Johanna, age, 27. As many other Germans, Johanna and her family had become very poor in the years after World War I.  Facing financial hardship at home, Johanna decided to try her luck in America, moving continents to marry a neighbor’s son living in the States. The below diary excerpts*, which her grandson kindly said I could share, reflect Johanna’s thoughts, experiences and feelings as she travels by steamship from Germany to New York. Take away Ellis Island, the old German handwriting, and her appreciation of butter instead of margarine, and it easily could have been written by a 20-something woman today…

     

My First Sea Voyage

On the Hansa! 12-7-21

The passengers were supposed to board at 12:30 in the afternoon on December 7, 1921. However, it was 2:00 before all the people had taken their spots on the small boats that were meant to bring us to the steamship. The band stood on the Hansa and played; – what, I can’t say, because I didn’t know the tune. The sailors were very kind and many women, like myself, were taken by the arm by two sailors and helped over the steps. But I think it was just the women who were traveling alone that they helped. Once on board, each person looked for their cabin and was assisted by the sailors, who stood by ready to help. 

At 4:00, the trumpet blew for coffee. Everyone went to the large, elegantly furnished dining room, where there was very good coffee and cake.  At 5:00, the table cards were distributed and we, both of my cabinmates (who are very nice young northern German girls) and I got a very nice table, where many young people had also been sat. At 7:00, the trumpet blew for dinner. There was pork, potatoes and rice; afterwards butter bread – not margarine, but very good butter – sausage and dip. After dinner, people went to the women’s room or the smoking room, or to the deck. I chose to go to the deck to get some fresh air before bed. After I strolled a while by myself, a man, an editor of a paper in Philadelphia who I had already met on the small boat, joined me. After we talked about various neutral topics, our conversation turned to the present time. I informed him about the misery of the German people, both collectively and individually, and asked him what was the cause of this misery? I received as an answer: “The Frenchman is the most at fault, he wants to completely destroy the Germans; but the time of reckoning will come for him too; because the leaves of time turn like night and day, then woe to him!” With these words, he spoke to my very soul, and the souls of many a German. We left each other at 9:00, wished each other “Good night” and went to our cabins.

December 8, 1921 At 7:30 there was breakfast, soft rolls, butter, marmalade, coffee. We, the residents of cabin 122, came to the table quite late and were therefore good-naturedly teased by the men, who were already finished. At 9:00 in the morning the steamship took to the sea. The ship band played again as the ship departed, which created a very nostalgic atmosphere. Those who remained behind were waving their white cloths, which, fluttering up and down, sent us final farewells from our homeland. Many tears were flowing; even from those who had wanted to stay strong.  At 12:00 there was lunch. It was: broth, roast pork, dip, fat peas, sauerkraut, apple compote, ice cream, fruit, coffee, cake, bread, butter. A lunch that couldn’t have been better at a wedding. For dinner there was once again roast, potatoes, dip, bread, butter, cheese, tea. (Coffee wasn’t served separately; it came right after lunch). After dinner, there was a wonderful concert from 8:30-10. (The ship hasn’t moved since noon today; as it is very difficult to get out of the harbor with the heavy fog and ice.) At the concert, “Deutschland, Deuschland über alles” was played. Everyone sang along, quietly at first, tentatively, then louder and louder until several hundred voices rose up: “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles!”[3]

 I am constantly being followed by a small man in a gray travel suit. Wherever I go, it doesn’t take long until he is there as well; always somewhere nearby. I didn’t pay attention to it yesterday, today I didn’t attach much importance to it either. But this evening he is being so obvious that I am scared to do anything. I will act like I don’t notice anything and stay out of his way as best as I can. Help me, good Lord!

12-10-21 Yesterday I couldn’t write. I stayed on the deck until noon. We sailed along the Elbe towards the North Sea. You could still see land on both sides, and several cities whose towers offered us the last compliments of home. Then came Cuxhaven; we left it behind and sailed farther and farther until you could only see the sky and the water. On the deck I met up again with a nice young person who I had met in the women’s room on 12-8. He introduced himself as “Weber” and told me that he had already been in San Francisco for 8 years, had come back firmly set on settling down for the rest of his life in Germany, but now was going back to San Francisco because life in Germany was too difficult. He also told me that he had had 5 new suits made in Germany, one of which cost 14 dollars. Very elegant suits, of course. In America he would have to pay up to 80 dollars per suit. Poor Fatherland, how everyone is leaving you. Your children must work 5-6 weeks in order to earn enough money to buy themselves a suit. Then, if they haven’t saved anything, they naturally cannot eat or drink or spend money on anything else. I stayed on the deck until 12:00, until the trumpet was blown for lunch, went to the dining hall and was excited to see that it was swaying. I ate the fish; then I suddenly felt so sick, I put the fish down, took some potatoes and started to eat them. But after the second bite I put the knife and fork down and ate a piece of dry rye bread. Then I got up and staggered up the stairs to my cabin, quickly grabbed a hat and coat and went to the deck, still eating rye bread. I staggered and if Mr. Weber wouldn’t have held on to me so tightly, I would have fallen down. He carried me to the cabin, where I immediately lay down in bed and fell asleep for a short while.

The small man in the gray suit said something to me yesterday in passing; but I don’t know what he said because I passed by him quickly. As soon as I was on the deck, he was there as well and watched as Mr. Weber brought me below. This morning, when I was with Mr. Weber, he found me on the deck and no longer had the smile on his lips that he always looks at me with, the smile that I am so afraid of.

The evening of the 13th. Now is the first time I can write again; as I was sick the last few days and was always in bed. I wanted to write so diligently; but when you are seasick, you just can’t. You feel so miserable and don’t feel like doing anything at all. Today the sea is moving quite a lot; but I’ve gotten used to the rocking and can tolerate it. There is always a concert on the deck in the afternoon. Today was the first time I could attend it. I have the impression that the people on the ship are not as ungodly as usual. On Sunday morning we were awoken with the trumpet playing a Lutheran church song. On one of the first days, when I asked an old man who had travelled frequently if we would have good weather, he answered me, “It completely depends on if we have many people who pray on the ship; because when I came over in August, we had two Catholic priests on board and therefore good, calm weather.” “You think it depends on that?” “Of course.”  

12-14-21 Today I don’t have anything important to write. I met a lot of people, including a rich Hungarian who is traveling to his brothers. He says they are millionaires in New York. He was a postmaster in Hungary and told me his life story. He is very serious, loves nature, believes and trusts in God alone, and loves his mother (who was taken from him 2 years ago) more than anything. With so many men here, one who is not like the majority of the others. We sat together for the entire afternoon and had a great conversation until the trumpet, signaling dinner, separated us.

I don’t think I need to be scared of the small man in the gray suit any longer. He has found other women. But when he does see me somewhere, he conspicuously skulks in our direction like a cat sniffing around its porridge.[5] To smile at me! In the evening I attended the concert again, which was again very nice.

12-15-21  The sea was once again very rocky and I had to hurry at breakfast (during which I only ate rye bread) to get up to the deck. When I am on deck, I read or watch the waves play. When friendly people come up to me to talk, then I talk to them willingly. Boredom is, after all, something that stimulates the mind. So this afternoon I looked for the Hungarian and spent time in his company until the evening. Several high-spirited people danced at the afternoon concert, including the small man in gray: It was amusing how he always danced with his partner exactly where I was sitting. Even though the promenade is long and I wasn’t sitting where the dancing was taking place, he was always exactly in front of me. If that’s fun for him, he can do what he wants.

12-18 Today is once again beautiful weather and we will soon see land. On the ship, everyone pays attention to the littlest thing. If one of the passengers sees some little possibility on the horizon, then everyone takes his binoculars to look at the specific spot and gives his opinion of what it could be. This is how it was, for example, at the concert today during which a violin solo was interrupted with, “Light!” Everyone sprinted on deck and left the concert. But unfortunately it was only a ship.

12-19-21 This morning we were woken up at 5:30 and everyone hurried as quickly as possible to the deck. We were at our destination, New York. Surrounded by ships from all the nations. The lights were still burning on the ships and the sun was rising in the sky, land on both sides. All of this made a big impression on me. I am in America, far away from my homeland and think that it can’t be possible! The weather is unusually magnificent. The sun is shining and it is therefore warm for once, also because of the fact that there is no wind. Unfortunately we won’t reach land today because Ellis Island, where we will disembark, is not yet free of passengers from the ships that arrived before us. But we just have to deal with it, it can’t be avoided.

*Some diary entries and sentences within entries have been removed for the purpose of this blog. 

[3] German national anthem.

[5] This is technically an idiom here: “wie die Katze um den heißen Brei schleichen”, which means “to beat around the bush”. In this context, however, I would guess she means it literally.

 

 

Image Credit:

http://www.ddghansa-shipsphotos.de/ockenfels300.htm

The Magic of German Church Books

German church books can be a gold mine of information for family historians. Before the 1870s, the churches, not civil authorities, meticulously kept track of their members’ births/baptisms, marriages, deaths and more (In 1876, five years after German unification, a law was passed legally requiring civil registry offices to keep records – the church then kept records only for their own interests and no longer for civil reasons). 

Before locating a church record, it is important to know the town where your ancestor came from, and ensure that you are looking for this town in the correct German state. Many towns in Germany have the same name, so knowing its exact location is important. You don’t want to waste time looking in the wrong church’s records!

Once you have verified the town, it is important to know where exactly you can find these church books. Their records, which can go back as early as the sixteenth century, can be found on familysearch.org, on microfilm at libraries with genealogy/history departments and on Archion.de (Protestant archives with over 200,000 church books being digitalized), to name just a few sources. And once you locate them, they offer a plethora of information. Below, see what you can hope to find in each of the various books:

  • Baptisms (Taufregister): Name of child, dates of birth and baptism, parents’ names, mother’s maiden name, legitimacy of the child, occupation of parents, town of residence, pastor’s name, midwife’s name, godparents’ names, etc. The baptismal register may also list the corresponding family book number.
  • Marriages (Eheregister): Name of person married, their occupation, age, parents’ names and occupation, whether the parents are still living, town of residence, spouse’s name, occupation and age, spouse’s parents names, occupation and whether they are still living, dates of marriage banns, date of marriage,  witnesses’ names, ages and occupation, etc.
  • Deaths (Totenregister): Name, occupation, residence, age,  cause of death, date of death, date of burial, surviving relatives, etc.

 

 

 

1851 German Church Book Entry

Of course, these records are usually written in the old German handwriting. If you need help with the transcription or translation, feel free to contact me here. Or check out Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting to try some transcription yourself!

Some records, depending on the region and the scribe, may have more or less information than others.  Confirmation and general family records may also exist in some parishes. 

Additional Information You Should Know about Church Records:

  • The entries were usually written in chronological order. 
  • Dates were written in Day-Month-Year format.
  • Some church records were written in Latin instead of German. Some use both languages. 
  • “-in” was sometimes added to the last name of women. For example, “Müller” could be “Müllerin” when discussing a female.
  • Spelling of names was not always standardized. A name could be spelled one way in one record and a different way in another record. Common letter variations include:
    • K/G 
    • B/P
    • F/V
    • D/T 
    • Vowel changes (ey – ay – ei, for example)

Now that you know where to look, go out there and start researching. There’s a wealth of information waiting for you!

Sources:

http://www.ancestry.de/kirchenbuch

https://www.archion.de/de/familienforschung/kirchenbuecher/

http://narafriends-pittsfield.org/gechurch.htm

Kathy Wurth at Family Tree Tours: https://familytreetours.com/

A Poem to Old Letters

While translating the book of my German family history, I came across a poem written by my German ancestor Wilhelm Müller (1881-1945), a pastor in Germany during World War I and World War II. The poem, entitled “Die alten Briefe”, or “The Old Letters”, spoke to me significantly, as it is old letters that I translate every day for clients searching for their own ancestors. Whether it be a letter from a German immigrant in 1863 discussing the troubles of the American Civil War, a letter from an 85-year-old man in 1920s Germany wondering how long he has left to live, or a 1940 letter from a mother admonishing her son overseas for not replying to her neighbor, each and every letter has its own story to tell. These people, usually no longer with us, come to life through their words written down so long ago, giving the letters a soul and life of their very own. In his poem below, my ancestor puts this idea to paper: (my  English translation):

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Wilhelm Müller, as a WWI chaplain on the French front, 1915

The Old Letters

I rummage through old letters

that have slept for decades long

about to toss them to the flames

I realized that was wrong

as I began to read

of all that once had been

I knew, I couldn’t do it

couldn’t burn these words of men.

How those yellowed papers

so warmly spoke to me

A soul shining through the page

I couldn’t let it be.

Letters from a mother,

seeped with her selfless heart

her endless care for children

apparent from the start.

I read her loving words

so loyal, kind and true

Such good they did to me,

my sense of safety grew.

And touching notes from children –

forming letters wide-eyed

Seeing their little faces

shining with joy and pride

and, the writing over

on paper oh so fine

I see their bitter tears as well

when missing a stroke or line.

Adoring letters of friendship

from old romantic days

swearing to a lover

to keep one’s heart ablaze.

How soon this passion fades away

as time does take its course

This token of remembrance

recalls the relationship’s source.

I cannot part with these letters,

which speak to my very soul.

These letters are the hearts of men

To the flames, they shall not go.

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Die Alten Briefe

Ich kramte in alten Briefen,

die seit Jahrzehnten schliefen,

den Flammen woll’ ich sie weih’n.

Doch dann begann ich zu lesen

von allem, was einst gewesen,

Da wußt’ ich: es kann nicht sein!

 –

Wie’s doch aus den alten Papieren

so warm und so traut zu mir spricht!

Sie haben ja eine Seele;

nein – ich zerstöre sie nicht.

– 

Da sind die Briefe der Mutter,

von selbstloser Liebe durchtränkt,

von nie ermüdender Sorge,

die nur ihrer Kinder gedenkt.

Und las ich die lieben Worte,

voll Andacht, wie tut mir’s so gut!

Ich fühl mich noch einmal nach Jahren

geborgen in treuer Hut.

– 

Und rührende Kinderbriefchen –

die Buchstaben sorgsam gemalt!

Ich seh, wenn die kleinen Gesichter

in freudigem Stolze gestrahlt,

wenn Ihnen das Schriftstück gelungen

auf Briefpapier herrlich geziert,

ich seh’ noch die bitteren Tränen,

wenn Ihnen ein Unglück passiert.

– 

Und schwärmende Freundschaftsbriefe

aus alter romantischer Zeit,

in der man begeistert geschworen

auf Treue und Unfehlbarkeit.

Wie schwanden die Ideale

dann vor dem erwachenden Blick!

Ein kleines Erinnerungszeichen

ruft alles Entzücken zurück.

– 

Ich trenne mich nicht von dem Briefen,

aus denen so viel zu mir spricht.

Sie haben ja eine Seele! –

Nein, ich verbrenne sie nicht.

7 Tips for Reading German Marriage Certificates

When researching your genealogy, marriage certificates can be a gold mine of clues to your ancestors’ lives. Names, occupations, places of residence and other interesting tidbits of information often fill the short documents to the brim. However, if you don’t speak German, deciphering these clue-filled pages can be a bit of a challenge (not to mention the difficulty of deciphering the handwriting!) But what if it didn’t have to be so challenging? Below, seven common phrases you might find on German marriage certificates and what they mean:

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1. “Vor dem unterzeichneten Standesbeamten”: “Before the undersigned registrar”.   This is often the beginning sentence of the marriage certificate, underneath the city and date it was issued.

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2. “der Persönlichkeit nach bekannt/der Persönlichkeit nach _______ anerkannt”: “His (or her) identity known”/”His (or her) identity verified by_________”. In the first instance (bekannt), the registrar personally knows the individual and does not need a form of identification. In the second instance (anerkannt), the registrar verifies the person’s identity with a form of identification, filling in the blank with the ID that was presented. It could be a passport, birth certificate, baptismal certificate, military ID, etc.

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3. “geboren den_____ des Jahres_____”: “Born on the (day, month) of the year____”. The year was usually written out in letters rather than numbers.

4. “wohnhaft zu”: “residing in/resident of”. This is then followed by the name of a city or town.

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5. “Sohn/Tochter des_____”: “son/daughter of the______”. This line is normally followed by the occupation of the father, the father’s name, his wife and his wife’s name. If the parents are deceased or if there is any other relevant information about them, it is also mentioned here.

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6. “Zeugen”: “witnesses”. The name, age and occupation of the witnesses, as well as how they were identified, are listed underneath the witness section (usually the second page of the marriage certificate).

7. “Vorgelesen, genehmigt und unterschrieben”: “Read aloud, approved and signed”.  The names of the newly-married couple, as well of the names of the witnesses, are signed underneath this phrase.

vorgelesen

With these tips, deciphering marriage certificates should become a little bit easier. And if you would like to consult a professional translator, don’t hesitate to contact me here – I would be happy to be of service.

FredMarriageCert

Behind the Scenes of Genealogical Translation

Happy International Translation Day! Today, September 30, is the feast day of St. Jerome, the first to translate the Bible into Latin and the patron saint of translation. On this special day, I would like to offer you a special glimpse into the exciting world of genealogical translation.

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St. Jerome (347-419/20)

 As genealogical documents are often hundreds of years old, translating historical documents is slightly different than translating “normal” documents. While modern-day texts can often present the translator with incredibly complicated sentences, genealogy translations are usually much more straight-forward and relatively simple – once you get the documents to the translation point. Getting there, however, is the challenge.

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 Just as my handwriting differs from yours, handwriting among our ancestors varied significantly, and some was much more legible than others! When I receive a text, therefore, the first thing I do is look at the legibility of that particular author’s handwriting.

The age of the document also plays a role in the appearance of the script. Seventeenth-century handwriting (top image below) looks very different than nineteenth-century handwriting (bottom image below). Although the older script is rather beautiful, it is more challenging for most genealogical translators.

1645 Death Cert     

19th-century

The quality of your document is also very important in genealogical translation. Most of the texts are sent as .jpeg images, and the ability to zoom in without the image becoming blurry is crucial. Why is that? As stated in Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, many old German letters are incredibly similar, making the ability to see each and every stroke even more significant. Notice the similarities of the letter e (left) and the letter n (right) below. Without the proper zooming tools, you may not be able to see the differences between these two letters when written in a word.

enmein

The word above is “mein” (my), full of similarly-formed letters m, e and n.

Once I’ve assessed the legibility of the script and the quality the document, I begin transcribing your text. Carefully analyzing each stroke, I start to decipher the script and type it in modern German. If I’ve worked with a particular author’s handwriting before, this process goes much more smoothly, as our brains are quick to recognize what they’ve previously encountered. However, if it is the first time I am seeing a certain person’s handwriting, the transcription process can take a little longer, as each person forms their letters slightly differently.

The transcription process can also be accelerated if I know certain words to look for. Before beginning each translation, I ask you if there are any names of people or towns that are relevant to your document. Names are the most difficult to transcribe, as there are many spelling variations and no context clues to fill in the blanks. Many times, however, a client has already done extensive genealogical research and knows that this letter is from his great-great grandfather Diocletian from the town of Oberbetschdorf. Rather than spending 15 minutes trying to figure out if a letter is an n or an e, knowing this information ahead of time helps me to spot-read a word (that being said, I always double check – sometimes there are surprises!).

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Once the transcription is complete, the fun part begins – bringing the words your ancestor wrote to life! In translation, we need to know much more than simply the definitions of words in a dictionary. Translators must take into account the various shades of meaning of a word (for example, does the author simply mean “happy” or does he mean content, cheerful, delighted, pleased, etc.?), idiomatic expressions (translating “it’s raining cats and dogs” literally into German would lead to a great deal of confusion in Deutschland) and intended audience and style of the text (is this a casual letter written to a son or daughter or is this a formal certificate recording a life event?). Finally, we need to make sure the text reads well in the translated language. Staying true to the original while making the text flow in a different language can be a challenge in the translation field, although it is a challenge most translators enjoy!

quote-translation-is-like-a-woman-if-it-is-beautiful-it-is-not-faithful-if-it-is-faithful-yevgeny-yevtushenko-32-29-15While I do not agree with his view of women, poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s take on translation is certainly true!

With the translation complete, I send it to you, the client. This often results in my favorite part of the job – hearing how this translation has broken down brick walls in your genealogical search or how happy you are to hear the words of your ancestor. I love a good puzzle as much as the next person, and helping you to learn about your ancestor is a rewarding experience that I truly enjoy.

10 German Words You Won’t Find in a Dictionary

Genealogy can be a fascinating journey. Finding your ancestor’s names, what they did with their lives and what their hopes and dreams were is an amazing process. That being said, genealogical research is certainly not without its challenges.

Delving into the depths of history is no easy feat, and it can be even more difficult if your ancestors spoke another language. In many cases, a bilingual dictionary can help you in your search for your family members. What to do, however, if a word is outdated and no longer in the dictionary? While contacting a translator can help you with this problem, sometimes it can be fun to try things yourself. Below, ten common German genealogy words you will not find in a German-English dictionary:*

  1. Ackermann – “farmer” (Today, the German word for “farmer” is “Bauer”.)

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2. Ökonom – “farmer” (In German today, this word usually means economist. In genealogical documents, however, “farmer” is the more common meaning.)

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3. Häusler – “cottager” ( a small farmer who lived in their own cottage)

ThatchedCottage

4. Hintersaß – “copyholder; smallholder or tenant”*

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5. Chausseewärter – “caretaker of rural roads”

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6. Heuerling – “self-employed farmers who usually received living quarters from the main farmer in exchange for farming”

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7. Weiland – “deceased, the late” (sometimes abbreviated “weil.”)

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8. Verlebten – “deceased, the late” (today the past tense of the word “spend”)

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9. Dermalig – “currently, at present”

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10.  Allhier – “in this place, here” (Used in certificates when describing where the person was from or worked)

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Helpful References for Outdated Words:

  • If I Can You Can Decipher Germanic Records, Edna M. Bentz: Edna provides a list of many old-fashioned occupations and illnesses, along with their English translations.
  • Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jakob und Wilhelm Grimm (German Dictionary by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm): While knowledge of German is required for this dictionary, they offer German definitions for many old-fashioned words.
  • Duden.de: This German-German dictionary has many definitions that German-English dictionaries do not. If you don’t know German, simply copy and paste the Duden definition into an German-English dictionary like this one.

Best of luck with your genealogy search!

*Based on Leo German-English Dictionary

*Definition by “Heath’s New German Dictionary: In two parts, German-English–English-German.” (1888)

 

Image Credit:

http://hewit.unco.edu/dohist/farmrnch/food/clothing/photo3.htm

www2.kenyon.edu

http://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/Ireland-genealogy.html

www.virginiaplaces.org

www.burnsscotland.com

shau.dvrlists.com

www.germany.travel

www.terapeak.com

www.highbrowmagazine.com

 

19 Most Common Abbreviations in German Genealogy

It happens to the best of us. There we are, happily transcribing our German genealogical document, when we’re suddenly confronted with two obscure letters. What in the world do they mean? In Ten Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting and Ten *More* Tips for Deciphering Old German Handwriting, I discuss how frequent abbreviations are in German genealogy. But it doesn’t have to be so difficult! Below, I’ve compiled a list for you of some of the most common genealogical abbreviations and their meanings:

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  1. u. –  “und” (and).

2. v. –  “von” (from).

3. b.v. –  “beide von” (both from). This is often used when describing the residence of two people on a certificate , stating that they are “both from here.”

4. d. –  “den” (the). Seen before a date, as in “d. 25.12.1924” (December 25, 1924).

5. geb. –  “geboren” (literally “born”, but often translates as “nèe”). Usually seen after a woman’s married name and before her maiden name.

6. led. –  “ledig” (single/unmarried). Usually before a name.

7. verh.“verheiratet” (married)

8. Wwe/Wwer“Witwe” (widow) or “Witwer” (widower). Seen in the place where an occupation would normally be, before a name.

9. männl. – “männlich” (masculine, male). Usually seen before the word “child” (Kind).

10. weibl. –  “weiblich” (feminine, female). See above.

11. ev. – “evangelisch” (Protestant). This can also be abbreviated “evan.” Along the same lines, “kath.” stands for “katholisch” (Catholic).

12. Pfr. –  “Pfarrer” (priest/pastor). Common in many church records and baptismal certificates.

13. weil. –  “weiland” (deceased or the late). This would always be before a person’s name.

14. ehel. – “ehelich” (legitimate, as in a child is legitimate). “unehel.” is therefore “unehelich” (illegitimate). These words are common in baptismal records.

15. Bez.“Bezirk” (district). Seen when describing where someone lives or where a document was issued.

16. d.d. –  “de dato” (on this date). This is one of the Latin abbreviations frequently used in German documents.

17. p.t. – “pro tempore” (temporary or acting in the place of).  Another Latin abbreviation, sometimes seen before a pastor’s name.

18. eod. – “eodem” (the same). Another Latin abbreviation found in genealogy documents.

19. ejusd. – “ejusdem” (in the same month or year). One last Latin abbreviation, usually denoting when someone was born, baptized, married, or had passed away.

So, German genealogists, don’t let those pesky abbreviations get the better of you. Use these helpful hints and share them with your fellow researchers using the button below. Together, we can conquer German genealogy!

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*If you would like professional transcription or translation help, contact me here. I’d love to hear from you.

Helpful Abbreviation Websites:

Use these websites to find the entire German word and then use a German dictionary to find the meaning.

Image Credit:

gazette.teachers.net

www.skipprichard.com