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Description: Does the old German handwriting seem overwhelming? An obstacle insurmountable in your German genealogy journey? If so, it’s time to learn the top online resources that make deciphering that script much easier! Professional German genealogy translator Katherine Schober will show you the tools she uses every day to make working with those scary squiggles doable – and – dare we say it – actually kind of fun. Register now to save your seat today – limited spots available.
Learn how to extract your ancestor’s information from German church records – without needing to speak German!
If you are researching your German ancestors, it is more likely than not that you will run into church records at some point in your research. For years, it was the German churches – not civil authorities – who meticulously kept track of their members’ births, baptisms, marriages, and deaths. Filled with information such as your ancestor’s name, parents’ names, occupations, dates, relationships, and more, these records are an amazing find for any German genealogist. But there is just one problem – they’re not in English.
In this how-to guide, learn how you can extract the information you need from German church records – without having to decipher every word on the page. Complete with handpicked examples from real German church records, this book teaches you to:
Locate those valuable church records for your German ancestor
Take yourself step-by-step through baptismal records, marriage records, death records – in both column and paragraph format – to pick out the details of your ancestor’s life
Recognize the different spelling variations of your ancestor’s name and hometown
Understand what church record phrases, symbols, and abbreviations mean and how these can help your genealogy research
Convert names of commonly-seen feast dates into actual dates of birth, marriage, and death for your ancestor
Work with the best technological tools and resources to make your genealogy journey easier – and more fun!
Best yet, this book includes the German transcriptions and English translations of multiple sample records – as well as comprehensive German vocabulary lists with handwritten examples of these important genealogy words.
Whether you are just starting out in the field or have worked with church records for years, this book will teach you the must-know methods to unlock the mysteries of your ancestor’s past. Are you ready to get started?
“Before you say something, ask yourself: is it true and is it kind?”
“If someone is mean to you, kill them with kindness. It’s amazing to see how their attitude turns around.”
“Do a random act of kindness every day.”
These three ideas, wisdom imparted over the years by my mom, dad, and grandma, very much shaped my childhood. Kindness was the number one quality valued in our family, and there’s therefore nothing my brothers and I love more than a heartwarming story of people going out of their way to do something nice. Someone buying a coffee for the person in line behind them at Starbucks? Right up our alley. The lady at Trader Joes giving me free flowers for my mom on Valentine’s Day? Made our day.
This love for kindness (and honestly, who doesn’t like it when people are nice?) has found a wonderful home in the genealogy community. This past week at the RootsTech Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, I was overwhelmingly reminded of the kindness of the genealogy world. Whenever my mom or my husband texted me to ask how the conference was going, I would repeatedly reply with some variation of, “Everyone is so nice!” or “I feel so loved!”. And because I think we could all use a little more happiness in our lives – and because perhaps you like kindness stories as much as my family and I do – I wanted to share with you my experiences last week at RootsTech in honor of the wonderful community we are all a part of. Thank you to all the people mentioned in this article for making my week so special.
1. The Kindness of Fellow Speakers
The Monday before I left for Salt Lake was a bit stressful. I had taken the day off to get ready for the conference – get my hair cut, get my fliers made for my booth, mail a book at the post office, etc. – but somehow it still ended up being 9:00 before I started packing. And I had to leave for the airport at 5:15 the next morning.
Needless to say, when I get to Salt Lake, I realized I had forgotten a few things in the stress of last-minute packing – one of them being a bowl for all the candy I had bought for my booth. Now, I had forgotten a bowl my very first year of exhibiting, so I knew how hard it was to find one – even with a mall next door. I was not looking forward to having to do it again.
And this is where the first act of kindness comes in.
I suddenly remembered that in our RootsTech Speaker Facebook group, a nice local speaker had posted – to hundreds of us, mind you – that if we needed anything during the conference, we could text her and perhaps she could help us out as she was local. I decided to contact her with my forgotten bowl story, hoping I wasn’t taking advantage – like I said, she had posted this to hundreds of people – but sure enough, she responded right away and was able to bring me two perfect bowls from her own home. This kind offer to help people she didn’t even know really set the tone for my entire week…
I never even got to meet my bowl-hero! Due to scheduling conflicts, we just arranged pick up points. It was so nice for her to go out of her way to help a person she had never met.
Of course, that was not the only thing I forgot. As I use payments with Square on my phone, I usually bring a stylus for people to sign with. And in my packing stress, I didn’t even think to bring this small item. Normally I wouldn’t mind people signing my phone with their finger, but with all the sickness going around, I thought it best to avoid any additional germs – but where could I find a stylus this late in the game?
I put out an SOS to fellow speakers and exhibitors, knowing everyone was busy and might not reply. But Amy Johnson Crow went out of her way to not only give me an extra stylus she had, but also to bring it personally to my booth so I wouldn’t have to abandon my post during the busy conference day. The generosity – of both time and goods – of my fellow speakers really made me feel like I was part of a wonderful, caring community.
2. The Kindness of Strangers
But it wasn’t just fellow speakers who were so nice that week. Perfect strangers made my week so special as well.
For those of you who have been to RootsTech, you know how absolutely huge the Expo Hall is – getting from one side to the other is like the Oregon Trail of warehouses. So I was extra touched when one woman made her way all the way over to my booth – at the very far side of the Expo Hall – not to get anything for herself, but just to come tell me how much my presentation at RootsTech last year had helped her to advance her genealogy research in 2019. Her taking the time to tell me how my lecture on German church records broke down brick walls for her and her family truly made my morning. A kind word can really change someone’s day.
In addition to kind words, little acts of kindness can also be so meaningful. For those of you who see me at conferences, you’ll know that I am usually working my booth by myself – which makes it really hard to get away to get lunch, as that is the time when classes are out and people expect you to be there. Needless to say, I sometimes get a bit hungry waiting for the break to roll around. One nice man – who I had never even met before – was visiting my booth when he realized it was almost 2:00 and I must not have had lunch yet. He then dug around in his backpack and gave me his only box of raisins from his own bag to hold me over until I could get a break. And I didn’t even know his name!
3. The Clients Who Have Become Friends
As a genealogy translator who works from home, ninety-nine percent of my contact with clients is over e-mail. As a people-person and extravert, this part of the job does not exactly match my personality. However, through conferences such as RootsTech, I have been lucky enough to get to know several of my clients and German handwriting course students in person throughout the years – and they are the nicest people ever. This year at RootsTech, these clients were kind enough to 1) stop by and say hello (remember how big that Expo Hall is?!), 2) tell me congratulations on how my business has grown since they have known me (the fact that they noticed really meant a lot to me) , and 3) make a point to tell potential new clients browsing at my booth that that they would recommend me (gotta love clients who do your marketing work for you!). While these may have been small actions for them, it meant the world to me and allowed me to feel a sense of connection with them as well. Plus, amidst 24,000 attendees, it’s always nice to see a familiar face!
4. The Kind Surprises
One of my favorite things about conferences is getting to know the “genealogy regulars” – the people who attend genealogy conferences on a more consistent basis. This year, one of these regulars – a woman whom I had gotten to know and develop a friendship with last year – came to my booth and told me that she had brought me a present from her hometown of New Orleans. She then gave me a strand of rare black Mardi gras beads with the fleur-de-lis, the symbol of St. Louis (my hometown) on it, and a cute little purple dog made out of beads as well. The fact that this woman thought of me before the conference and went out of her way to bring me such a personalized present really made my day.
5. The Words of Motivation
As any speaker/vendor will tell you (and as I alluded to in the first section), as much as we love RootsTech, the weeks leading up to the conference can be a bit stressful. For most of February, I was working 24/7 to finish my new book, The Magic of German Church Records, and, of course, was working on preparing my presentation for RootsTech as well. The night before the presentation, I didn’t sleep as well as I had wanted, and woke up frustrated that I didn’t get a good night’s rest before a very important day.
I then logged in to check my e-mail, and saw a message from a client – who I had never met in person – telling me that he was going to attend my presentation that day and that he was very excited about it. He then wrote the exact phrase I needed to hear in my worried-about-my-lack-of-sleep state:
These two sentences were the exact bit of motivation I needed at that very moment of tiredness, and the fact that this person I hadn’t yet met took time out of his day to write me a motivating e-mail meant the world to me – and gave me the extra energy I needed.
After the presentation, countless people also took time out of their days to come to my booth and tell me how much they enjoyed it, which meant a great deal to me as well. After putting hours and hours of work into a lecture, it really means a lot to us speakers to know that it made a difference to you and will help you in your research. So thank you to all of you who made a point to stop by!
In conclusion, it was a wonderful week, and I left Salt Lake City with a smile on my face. Thank you to everyone who went out of their way to spread their kindness in my direction – as you see, it meant so much to me and I love the genealogy community even more now than I did before.
What about you? Did you experience any acts of kindness at RootsTech? Let me know in the comments – I would love to hear your stories.
Getting children excited about family history may sound intimidating, but the benefits they can experience from knowing their family history are worth every effort. Knowing family stories has been proven to result in higher self-esteem, resilience, a sense of place and security, a strong sense of control, lower levels of behavioral problems, and more successful family function (studies done by University of Wisconsin, Princeton University, and Emory University).
But how can we help children experience these benefits? According to Steve Rockwood, CEO of FamilySearch, our goal should be to help them “have a small discovery experience that invokes emotion…that’s what is going to spread…Discovery brings the spirit and emotion to it” (Trent Toone, “5 Questions with FamilySearch CEO Steve Rockwood,” Deseret News, 1 Mar. 2018).
This discovery experience will help inspire children to love family history themselves. So what should you consider when deciding what kind of discovery experience to create for your child or grandchild?
Try to remember what it was like to be their age. Make it fun and unique to them. Traveling to cemeteries and churches may not interest young children and may even bore them but a bedtime story would engage them and ingrain the stories of their ancestors into their minds. In contrast, adults may not get as much excitement out of a picture-matching game as they would attending or planning an ancestor night or planning and going on a trip to the homeland of their ancestors.
Do they like acting, drawing, cooking, organizing? Do they find maps interesting or do they enjoy music? Let their interests guide you.
3. Learning Style
We all have different ways that we learn best. The three learning styles are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Consider the individual learning style of your child and choose any idea that will cater to that style. Some children will gravitate toward hands-on games and projects, and others will lean toward reading books about the time period ancestors lived.
Once you have thought about these three key factors, you are ready to choose an idea and inspire! Here are three fun ideas to inspire your children or grandchildren to love family history!
1. Generations Project
Let the child choose an ancestor to connect with. Think together
about what you know about him or her. Where did they live? What did they do for
a profession or hobby? What skills did they have? What traditions did they
have? What did they eat?
Once you have learned this information about your ancestor, choose a project such as:
Learn something or do something that they did such as fishing,
using a washboard, knitting, gardening, going to an opera, or having a picnic
in the mountains.
Visit a place they lived or frequented such as a lake, the
ocean, or a park.
Do one of their traditions.
Make one of their recipes.
Children can consider what their ancestor may have thought
during the activity— for example, did they find the activity difficult or
relaxing? Was the place beautiful in their eyes? Was the recipe delicious?
2. Create an Ancestor Playlist
Psychologist Jill Suttie said, “Listening to music and singing together has been shown in several studies to directly impact neuro-chemicals in the brain, many of which play a role in closeness and connection… Playing music or singing together may be particularly potent in bringing about social closeness through the release of endorphins” (“How Music Bonds Us Together,” Greater Good Magazine, June 2016).
By listening to music your ancestors listened to and loved, these connections can even cross generations! Make a playlist of songs your ancestors might have enjoyed. You may be able to ask living relatives about the music that their parents and grandparents listened to. They may know specific songs or they may just remember a genre of music.
If there aren’t any living relatives to ask, then you can find out what music was popular during the time period and in the location of your ancestors. After you have the playlist together, listen to it in the car or at home and talk about the ancestors who liked those songs as they come on. No matter what the children think of the music, they will connect with their ancestor in a new way.
3. Play Games
“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning” (Diane Ackerman). There are so many games you can play to help children connect to their ancestors. Make a trivia game with fun facts about ancestors. This can be done in the form of Jeopardy, Trivial Pursuit, and Bingo. You can also make card games with the photos of ancestors and play games such as Go Fish and Memory. Make the difficulty level age appropriate. These games will make learning about ancestors fun and engaging!
Shenley was inspired to love family history when her mom told her stories and helped her diagram her family tree when she was a child. For the past 16 years, she has spent many hours researching, interviewing relatives, digging through old boxes and records, and sharing what she has learned with others. While homeschooling their three children, Shenley and her husband, Brett, incorporate family history as much as possible. She has taught family history classes to children, youth, and adults, and strives to inspire her family, friends, and everyone to love family history. Besides doing family history, Shenley enjoys going to the mountains, playing tennis, baking, reading, and traveling.
Disclaimer: This post is meant to share a piece of my client’s family history that he was kind enough to share – as well as to show how his different research methods can pay off. I absolutely do not condone or wish to glorify the actions taken by Sebastian Bauer in any way, shape, or form. – Katherine Schober
My Ancestor, the Serial Killer: A Story from Gary Haas
Sometimes there are extra notes scribbled in at the top or the bottom of your ancestor’s document. Usually rather small and written seemingly haphazardly, these comments can be rather daunting to translate, and it may be tempting to ignore them. But if you do decide to find out what they mean, you may just discover extremely juicy details of your ancestor’s past…
Gary, a retired accountant and family history researcher, did not ignore those scribbled two lines at the bottom of his ancestor’s marriage record. And he was very surprised by what he found.
Let’s Start at the Beginning…
Gary’s ancestors comes from Waldmünchen, Bavaria, Germany – and there are unfortunately few Catholic church records from there that have been digitized. Plus, the best documents about his ancestors were in German…for which he had limited skills. Gary knew that if he wanted to advance his family history, he would need to find a professional researcher who could locate the documents in Germany and who could translate them for him once she did.
Finding a Researcher…
On his quest for a researcher, Gary went on a trip to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. There, he was able to find and hire an internationally-known researcher who volunteered at the library. She was born in Germany, German was her first language, she could read the German script, and she made periodic research trips to Germany. Just what he was looking for!
Over in Germany…
Once over in Germany, the researcher started searching the Catholic diocese’s archives in Regensburg, Bavaria, Germany. There, she happened to find an 1803 document on the wedding of his 4x-great-grandparents, Sebastian Bauer and Barbara Schmidhuber, from Ast, Bavaria, near the Bohemian border. But the document did a bit more than just report on their marriage…
The Big Reveal…
While most of the handwriting on this document looked clear to Gary, the two lines at the bottom of the document were a scrawl – but they piqued his interest.
Luckily, the researcher was able to translate the priest’s extra comment at the bottom of the page – and you’ll never guess what it said:
Dieser erdrosselte sein Weib 1813 – 20. Apr. u. wurde geköpft in Waldmünchen.
In case you don’t speak German, this translates to:
This man strangled his wife on April 20, 1813 and was beheaded in
Well, that’s not something you find every day. Gary knew he had to find out more.
The Research Continues…
Through Google searches, Gary was able to find many articles on Sebastian’s beheading. One search of Google Books (a great resource for everyone – https://books.google.com/) even found a two-page newspaper article describing Sebastian’s confession – a wealth of information!
“Historical account of the crimes of Sebastian Bauer from Untergrafenreid, who was sentenced to death because of the murder of his wife and his old father-in-law:”
Even though Gary does not speak German, he was able to get a rough translation of this Fraktur article using Google Translate by taking the following steps:
While Google Translate couldn’t provide all the details, it did give him a simple understanding of the newspaper article’s content. He then had a professional translator fill him in with the intricate details….
What Led Sebastian to Murder? It’s All in the Article…
So what led Sebastian, a 38-year-old weaver and son of a tenant farmer raised in the Christian faith, to be executed for murder?
According to the article, it all started with his marriage to Barbara in 1803 – the record of which can be seen above. Two years later, in 1805, he apparently went into the woods with his 77-year-old father in law. In debt from drinking and gambling, Sebastian wanted his father-in-law’s money – sooner rather than later. He therefore hit his father on the back of the head with his stick, eventually killing him. He then drug the body behind the bushes and arranged him in a way that it would look like he had died of natural causes. He got away with his crime – at first.
Now, Sebastian and Barbara had six children – two of whom were living at the time of the execution – during their marriage. But at some point during this marriage, Sebastian became “friendly” with the oldest daughter of a tenant (for the purpose of this story, we’ll call her Johanna), and she got pregnant. Fearing the judgement of other people, and especially of Sebastian’s wife, the two tried to abort the baby, but to no avail. It was then that they made the plan to kill his wife.
They first tried by gradually poisoning her – but that was taking too long. Sebastian, and, as he claimed, Johanna as well, decided things needed to move more quickly. Weighing the decision in his mind all of Holy Week before Easter, he finally decided to strangle her in the night as she slept.
His first attempt – on April 19, 1813 – didn’t work. Barbara woke up, and was, of course, terrified. However, that didn’t stop Sebastian from trying the next night. On April 20, 1813, he strangled Barbara in her sleep. She was 29 years old.
In order to again make it look like she died of natural causes, Sebastian pulled her out of the bed and laid her on the floor. He then cried for help, acting so distraught that the neighbors said they truly felt sorry for him and for his loss.
Her 1813 death record states that she died of consumption – which goes to show that you can’t believe everything you read.
Two days later, Johanna moved in to his house. And less than two weeks later, the pair was married. But all of this began to make neighbors suspicious. His wife had just died, and two weeks later, he marries someone else? Furthermore, it looked like Johanna could be pregnant…
To quash these rumors that he may have killed his wife due to Johanna’s pregnancy, Sebastian and Johanna (again, according to his account) decided to try to abort the baby a second time. He went to several towns searching for rat poison, and eventually was able to purchase some for a few kreuzers. The next morning, while Sebastian was sleeping, Johanna took the poison. However, she began to throw up violently, and Sebastian tried to help her by giving her olive oil, milk, honey, etc. – but nothing worked. After 37 hours, both she and the unborn baby died.
Now Sebastian’s father-in-law, wife, and his new wife were all dead. Things were starting to add up, and people began to look at Sebastian with increased suspicion. The bodies of Barbara and Johanna were taken and examined by the authorities, and it became clear that the causes of death were strangling and poison.
After being discovered, Sebastian confessed to everything. He was sentenced to beheading by sword.
Apparently, the executioner’s first attempt was unsuccessful, causing Sebastian to jump up.
That’s not your average family history.
Yet Gary’s research continues…
Ten years after Gary’s shocking discovery about his ancestor, he had the chance to find out more. At Gary’s request, his cousin, who was in their ancestral area working on a book, teamed up with a woman from Wisconsin and her German husband, to continue researching this gruesome part of their family history over in Europe.
And guess who they found? The actual descendants of Sebastian’s executioner.
These descendants told them that executioners were at the lowest rungs of German society, and the fact the executioner botched the execution did not earn him any extra glory.
The team was also able to visit the community museum of the German town yielded what is purported to be the axe used to behead Sebastian (perhaps the sword was changed to an axe?)….truly a gruesome sight.
So what were Gary’s takeaways from his research project? He said:
It’s important to look at the entire document. Can you imagine if I had just ignored those two extra sentences at the bottom of the page?
I learned how important it is to know when to hire a professional to research and translate. While I can get the gist of the document with my limited skills, nothing beats a trained translator to get the full story. You never know what you’ll find in German records.
Thank you, Gary, for sharing your family story and your research strategies with us!
Contributor: Gary Haas
Gary Haas is a retired accountant who uses computer skills to research family and local history.
This post contains an affiliate link, which does not affect you at all, but does help support my business as I earn a small amount from qualifying purchases as an Amazon associate. This in turn helps me to continue supporting you with educational (I hope!) genealogy content.
Deciphering German records if you can’t speak the language can be a challenge, to say the least. While I am always here if you’d like the help of a professional, sometimes it’s nice to have quick and easy online resources you can turn to in a pinch. Below, find four popular online translation resources, and my thoughts on each:
Google Translate is perhaps the most well-known online translation tool. While Google Translate can work well for individual words (such as Bruder for brother) or very short phrases, you do need to be cautious when using it for anything else. In Six Reasons Why a Human is Better Than Google Translate for Genealogy Documents, I outline the shortcomings of this tool for genealogy. For the purposes of this article, however, the two most important factors working against this tool are:
Genealogy documents contain many old-fashioned words and idioms that this machine translation doesn’t recognize.
Google Translate can’t always tell the meaning of the word for the context that pertains to your specific document.
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. How is Google to know exactly what definition your document requires?
That being said, Google Translate is continuing to improve, so feel free to use this tool – just try to stick to individual words or phrases to give the site less room for error. And if you can, verify the definition provided with a second source.
In the example above, I was trying to figure out what the Latin phrase “natus et renatus est” meant in my German document. Google, for some reason, came up with “buttocks and revival”. Not sure where that came from – the phrase means “born and baptized”. So always take Google’s translations with a grain of salt!
Deepl.com is a relatively new translation tool, and I like it better than Google Translate. While it does have similar shortcomings to Google Translate in terms of genealogy documents, I find it to be more accurate overall. It’s actually helpful to use both together – copy and paste your phrase into Google Translate, and then copy and paste it into Deepl. Does one give you a better translation than the other?
If you are dealing with idioms, Deepl is definitely better than Google Translate. While Google Translate still tends to translate idioms word for word, providing you with a literal translation (cats and dogs are actually falling out of the sky, instead of it’s raining hard), Deepl will often provide you with the actual meaning of the idiomatic phrase.
Below, I typed the German idiom “Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof” (I don’t understand anything at all) into both tools. Google translated the phrase literally, giving you the result “I only understand train station.” This would make no sense to you as an English speaker, and could completely change what you think your ancestor’s document means. Deepl, however, recognized that the phrase was an idiom, translating it as “It’s as clear as mud” and providing you with an alternative below that “It’s all Greek to me.” One point for Deepl!
If you have a word or short phrase and want to be more certain of an accurate translation, then Linguee is the site for you. This tool shows you your German word or phrase translated into English by actual translators instead of machines. Upon clicking search, the site provides you with the word’s definition, as well as various sample sentences that include your word/phrase in a specific context (in both German and English). Scroll through the examples, and find which definition of the word best matches the context of your document.
Usually, the translation that occurs the most on the right side is the accurate translation, but make sure that it makes sense within the context of your own document.
Word Reference is a great online dictionary that often provides sentence examples for the word in question. Again, this helps you to understand if your word is being translated correctly in context. Notice how it provides various meanings and examples for the word “married” below.
In conclusion, we are lucky we live in an age where there are so many translation tools available on the Internet. However, it’s important to understand how each tool works, as this will allow you to make sure you are translating your German words as accurately as possible.
Discovering ancestral towns is a thrilling part of any genealogist’s research. But if you don’t speak the language, how are you supposed to know if a word is the name of a town or simply another foreign term? In the table below, find all the town-related words you’ll need to know when working with your ancestors’ German records – as well as what these words may look like in the old German handwriting!
The table starts out with prepositions that may come before the name of a town (all with slight variations in meaning, but which all can be translated with “from” if appearing before a town), followed by many words meaning “here” (many of which are old-fashioned), and concluding with some general town vocabulary that’s important for any German genealogist’s knowledge base. For more information on discovering your ancestor’s hometown, see 5 Tips for Deciphering Town Names on German Records. Best of luck!
*Please note: Due to font limitations, the “final s” of the old German handwriting could not be typed here. Any final “s” in German (an “s” at the end of a syllable or the end of a word), should actually look like this: