My 5 Favorite Books for Deciphering German Records

The Association of Professional Genealogists recently asked me about my favorite books for German genealogy, and it got me thinking – I should share them with you as well! I always include a slide in my presentations at conferences about the books I’d recommend, but I’ve never written them on the blog before, so I’d say it’s high time I did so. Check out the books that I use in my translation work below (in no particular order).

This post contains some  affiliate links, which does not affect you at all, but does helps 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. That being said, I personally own – and personally love – all of these books, and hope that they help you as much as they have helped me. I couldn’t translate without them!

My 5 Favorite Books for Deciphering German Records

  1. German to English Genealogical Dictionary by Ernest Thode

  

I only discovered Ernest Thode’s dictionary two years ago, and I wish I had known about it so much sooner. It would have saved me hours of Internet research trying to figure out what obscure and old-fashioned German words mean. Do you remember my blog post 10 German Words You Won’t Find in a Dictionary? Well, you actually will find a lot of those words in this wonderful dictionary! Focusing on genealogy-specific words, this almost-300-page dictionary is a must-have for anyone researching German records. It’s sitting on my desk as I type right now! 

2. If I Can, You Can Decipher Germanic Records by Edna Bentz 

 

Edna Bentz’ book was one of the first books I bought when I started learning the old German handwriting.  Filled with lists of genealogy terminology plus what these words look like in the old German script, this book is extremely helpful for someone beginning their German genealogy journey. From common abbreviations and months of the year to illnesses and occupations, this book will save you a lot of time and frustration as you decipher your documents. 

3. Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents by Rogert Minert

This book was the first book I bought when I decided to become a genealogy translator. Minert teaches you the individual letters of the German script, explaining how to recognize each one, and also provides numerous examples of various records with their transcriptions and translations. Truly a great resource for anyone looking to decipher records themselves.

4.  The Family Tree Historical Atlas of Germany by James M. Beidler 

This newest book by James M. Beidler is another must-have. Filled with over 100 full-color maps, this atlas is both incredibly beautiful and educational. The maps in the book allow you to see the border changes of Germany throughout the centuries – making it much easier to find your ancestors’ hometown and where their records may be kept. Plus, it looks pretty on a coffee table! (For more of Beidler’s great genealogy books, see here: www.JamesMBeidler.com). 

5. Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting by Katherine Schober

I can’t let you go without mentioning my own book, can I? Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting is everything I wish I would have known when I was first starting to learn the old German script. During those first few years of starting my genealogy translator career, I spent a lot of frustrating time on the Internet, trying to find the answers to all of my questions as I ran into them on various documents. This book summarizes all of those answers for you, which I hope will save you a lot of time and frustration yourself. It’s all of my best secrets, summarized in book form!

So there you have it! These are the five books that I have in my office right now, and every one of them is helpful in a different way. What about you? Do you have any of these books, or would you add any to the list? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

5 Tips for Deciphering Town Names on German Records

Your ancestor’s hometown is one of the most important finds you will make on your genealogy journey. Unfortunately, a town name can also be one of the hardest words to decipher on a historical record. Why? Because towns exist in the thousands, and, technically, the town name can be made up of any combination of letters that make sense within the German language. A bit overwhelming, to say the least!

So how do you go about deciphering the town name if you can’t read all the individual letters? Read on to find out all the tricks that I use when I am translating my clients’ documents:

1. take advantage of Google’s suggestion features

The first tip is the most obvious, but it is definitely worth mentioning. Try typing your transcription guess into Google Search, with the country or state where your document comes from after it (for example, type “Obertraun, Austria” into the search box). If an entry comes up, you then have verification that your transcription is correct.

If you are one or two letters off, however, Google’s “Showing Results For” or “Did You Mean?” features are very helpful. If you typed “Obertrun, Austria” into the search box, Google may correct you, saying “Showing results for Obertraun, Austria”. You can then double check the handwritten word on your document, along wit the location of Google’s suggestion, and verify that the suggestion is correct. If it is, mark it down, and continue transcribing. Nice when a search engine is so helpful!

 

2. use Meyer’s Gazetteer’s wildcard tool

If your town is in Germany (or used to be), then Meyer’s Gazetteer is the website for you. This collection of pre-WWI towns, villages, cities, estates, and more is a wonderful tool for deciphering towns – especially if you can’t read all the letters. Simply type the letters you recognize into the website’s search engine – and use an asterisk for the letters you don’t. Meyer’s Gazetteer will then give you a list of all towns with that letter combination.

Have a long list? Narrow your search by selecting the state (if known) where your document comes from (“Filter Results by Region”). You will then get a list of only the towns in that region, and can go back to your handwritten word and see if any of these towns match up with your word on your document.

3. Toggle the Meyer’s Gazetteer Map

No luck with the list? If you know another town name on your document (where the document comes from, the groom’s town name, etc.), then type that town name into Meyer’s Gazetteer’s search engine. Click on it, and it will take you to the entry for that town. Next, click on the map to the left of the entry, and the modern map will toggle to the historical map (pretty cool, right?). You can then drag the map around and see what towns are in the surrounding area. Does one of those nearby town names match up with your handwritten word? I have found a lot of town names using this historical map!

4. play with Google Maps

Just like the old-fashioned map on Meyer’s Gazetteer, Google Maps also works well for this trick. Type in the town you know related to your document, and drag the map around to see if any other towns nearby match up with your mystery word. (If you can’t find it on the Meyer’s Gazetteer map, try Google, and vice-versa – I sometimes have more luck with one, and sometimes with the other, depending on the town. Always good to have two options!).

5. Use the Record itself

Last but not least (although perhaps this should be first – it’s a good trick), use the record itself! More times than I care to admit, I have struggled and struggled over what a town name could be, only to find a stamp with that town name – in printed text! – at the bottom of the document. So before you start deciphering, scan your entire document, and look for other components of the document that might include the town name. These might include:

  • Stamps
  • Column Headings
  • Document Titles
  • Margin Notes (perhaps the town name is easier to read there)
  • And More – every document is different!

So there you have it! With these five tips, deciphering the towns in your German documents should become much easier and easier. And if you want more help reading the German handwriting, check out my new self-paced handwriting course here! You’ll be reading the script in no time.

Any other tricks that you use? Let us know in the comments!

Being Genetically German: Understanding the DNA Tests (Guest Post by DNA Expert Diahan Southard)

Good news: It is getting easier to be genetically German.

In 2007, 23andMe released the first commercial DNA test that could report on the origins of our ancestors on both sides of our family. At that time, they could break down your ancestry into just three categories: European, African, and Asian. And we were impressed. We were excited to get our hands on a technology that could see into our past and report information that may not have been previously known.

But now that DNA testing for origin information has become somewhat commonplace, we would scoff at a company who could provide so little information. That’s largely due to the fact that since 2007, our DNA testing companies have been setting aside significant resources towards improving their offering to give us more insight into our origins – and it’s working. 23andMe now boasts 175 population groups, a far cry from their original three. Even Family Tree DNA, who has the fewest population groups of the five major genetic genealogy companies, can break up the world into 24 pieces.

Where Does This Growth Come From?

Most of this growth comes in the form of companies increasing their reference populations. Reference populations are the groups of people the company is comparing you against. For example, when MyHeritage aimed to join the world of DNA testing, they turned to their vast customer base and their family trees and identified what they call their “Founder Populations”. These are individuals who have all four grandparents living in close proximity to each other.

Once identified, the DNA of these people is scanned for the unique DNA code that reflects their places of origin. Other DNA testing companies are following suit, gathering data from their own databases to help build their reference populations. Other strategies are to go out into the world and collect DNA from populations that are currently underrepresented. This has been a strategy of the company LivingDNA , as they have formed partnerships with other groups in order to build better reference populations.

Once a reference population has been selected and the DNA tested, it seems like it would be relatively easy to identify DNA that is specifically German, and then look for that same bit of DNA in anyone who was tested. Unfortunately, the process is much more complicated than that, especially when it comes to German DNA.

Why is German DNA Complicated?

Part of what makes genetically distinguishing a German from a Frenchman or an Englishmen is the simple fact that Germany is a very young distinction, culturally and geographically speaking. The area has long been a crossroads of cultures and people and therefore very difficult to pin down. In fact, out of our five major genetic genealogy testing companies (23andMe, AncestryDNA, Family Tree DNA, MyHeritage DNA, and Living DNA) you CAN’T be genetically German at either Family Tree DNA or MyHeritage. So even if you are 100% German, testing at either of these companies will only place you in a broad Northwest European category at best, or assign you to a similar region like Britain, possibly leaving you with the impression that this DNA stuff doesn’t actually work. At the other three companies, the way they are reporting German differs, so let’s explore each one in more detail.

23andMe

The official category at 23andMe is called French and German, so even then, they are hedging their bets. Of this category, 23andMe says, “This dataset includes people of Austrian, French, German, Belgian, Dutch, or Swiss ancestry. At this time, this dataset cannot be broken down further because the people in those regions mixed through history or have shared history, or we might not have had enough data to tell them apart. As we obtain more data, populations will become easier to distinguish, and we will be able to report on more populations in the Ancestry Composition Report.”

Despite this, you can still dig deeper into that category to find that they are attempting to further break down Germany into its 16 administrative regions by telling you which region(s) your DNA most likely fits into. In the image below, you can see that they have placed my mother in the Baden-Wurttemberg and Brandenburg categories. I know from our family history that she did in fact have ancestors in Baden-Wurttemberg. 


23andMe DNA Report

AncestryDNA

While Ancestry does have a specific German category, the real power is not in being assigned to the large region of Germany, but to their Genetic Communities. These communities are not based on reference populations, but on DNA matching. Because of this different technology, these categories are highly accurate. In the image below,  you can see my mother has been placed in the very specific Alsace-Lorraine & North Dakota category, which is exactly where her 3X great grandparents were born and where their descendants emigrated.

Ancestry DNA Report 

It is actually a bit mind-boggling that her DNA can determine something so specific about her ancestry. Remember, membership in this community is entirely depended on her DNA, not on her family history.

AncestryDNA has 12 Genetic Communities representing different migration paths into the United States and other parts of Europe. 

Ancestry DNA Reports

Living DNA

Living DNA currently breaks up England into 21 different categories, and their goal is to do that all over the world. They are neck-deep in their German project, which may not boast as many categories as their western neighbors, but still hopes to have significant improvements over their current offering. They do have a portion of this research almost ready, and I was able to run my mother’s sample through their new German dataset. In the old estimate, they didn’t really have a way to talk about German origins, but with the new data, my mom is 43.6% German, likely nearly spot on to what she should be. 

Living DNA Report

As time moves on and the databases grow, all of our companies will be improving their offerings, allowing us even greater resolution when it comes to our DNA and our origins. But of course, the best way to determine if you are genetically German is just to do genealogy! Finding the paper trail that leads back to your ancestor is still the very best way to explore your German heritage.

Have you had your DNA tested? What percent German are you?

About the Author

Frustrated with your genealogy research? Diahan is the teacher you need. Her 18 years of experience in genetic genealogy shows that after just one class, you will find yourself believing that you can understand this science, and likely will even be excited to go home and try it out. Diahan lectures internationally, owns Your DNA Guide, and writes for Family Tree Magazine and Your Genealogy Today. She has a passion for this work, a love for people, and the best husband ever.

 

 

Facebook @YourDNAGuide

Twitter: @DNAdiahan

Instagram: @diahansouthard

FREE Webinar: Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting

Frustrated with the old German handwriting? You’re not alone!

Come learn from professional German genealogy translator Katherine Schober how you can easily recognize certain letters in the old German handwriting, what those pesky abbreviations mean in historical documents, the spelling variations you need to know to decipher the words of your ancestors, and much more. If you’ve missed this presentation at conferences, now’s your chance to see a good part of it!

When: Thursday, July 25, 1:00 p.m. EDT

Cost: Free!

I want free German handwriting tips – sign me up!

 

Photo Credit; Teri Cusamano 

Lessons from Old Letters: Words of Wisdom Through the Ages

As a genealogy translator, I’ve translated my share of old letters. While many of these letters simply speak of family matters, farming information, financial issues, etc., every once in a while, sage words of wisdom seem to jump out at me from across the page. Of course, these words of wisdom are  meant for the letter’s recipient – but I choose to think of them as voices from the past, sharing their advice with all of us who may very well need it today.

Below, I’ve collected some of these words of wisdom from the letters I’ve translated the past few years. Dating from 1874 to 1945, on topics such as love, health, clothing, and life in general, it’s fascinating to see how, while the world around us has changed, humanity in general remains much the same. Read on and see what you think. What quote do you think most applies to us today?

On Love: 

1. Love is our most important weapon and nothing can resist it forever.

– Family friend to teenage girl, June 1920

Liebe ist unsere wichtigste Waffe und nichts kann ihr auf die Dauer wiederstehen.

 

On Relationships:

2. Since you’ve been friends for a year already, you should know where you stand. There is no reason for you to be treated like a toy; he’ll simply get rid of you one day if he so desires. If you aren’t courageous enough to have a serious conversation with him, and you think it will lead to you two splitting up, then the relationship was never a good one anyway.

-Mother to daughter, April 1940

Nachdem die Freundschaft schon bereits ein Jahr besteht, solltest du eigentlich wissen woran du bist, es hat doch keinen Zweck daß du dich Jahr u. Tag hinhalten lassest zum Spielzeug, u. wenn es ihm einfällt hängt er eines Tages ab. Wenn du den Mut nicht hast zu einer ernsten Aussprache u. denkst daß es daran zum scheitern kommt, denn ist das Verhältnis ohnehin doch eine Aussichtslose Sache.

 

On Health: 

3. We are all still healthy, which I wish for you all from the bottom of my heart – as health is the best thing in this world, better than money and property.

– Father to son, August 1924

Wir sind soweit noch gesund, was ich Euch von Härtzen Winsche thun, den die Gesundheit ist ja doch das Beste auf dieser Weld, beser den Geld u. Gut. 

 

On Children:

4. I was more with the children than ever and never enjoyed them so much, and never so clearly realized that now is the time to enjoy them, if I am ever going to – for they will soon, if they live, have other things that will take them from me. 

– Father reflecting on trip with children, June 1880

Original in English.

 

On Clothing: 

5. Always be well-dressed – people judge a great deal based on appearances.

– Mother to daughter, July 1939 

Gehe nur immer gut gekleidet, man urteilt viel nach dem Aüßern.

 

On Life: 

6.  It is only when times … are so hard and a person grants help to other people during such times that one can hope to be saved from the current bleak situation. We emerged from the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War; we will also need to raise ourselves out of today’s hardships if we don’t want to be completely destroyed.

– A suitor to his sweetheart, December 1919

[German no longer available.] Wir sind aus dem Wirrwar des 30 jähr. Krieges herausgekommen und werden auch aus dem heutigen Elend herausmüssen, wenn wir nicht ganz untergehen wollen.

 

7. Don’t despair. We’ve pulled through other bad times and we’ll pull through these times as well.

– Husband to wife, during World War II 

…nicht verzweifeln. Wir haben schon … andere schlimme Zeiten überstanden und werden auch dies überstehen. 

 

8. Keep your head up high and don’t lose your courage; just think, if something doesn’t work out, then you are gaining more and more experience.

–  Mother to daughter, October 1938

Nur Kopf hoch u. den Mut nicht verlieren u. denke wenn etwas nicht klappt, du bekommst immer mehr Erfahrung.

 

9. Don’t think that our life here on earth should always be filled with joy and pleasure; no, it wouldn’t be good that way. That would make us arrogant, because pain, displeasure and want – if they are not too great – simply test us, influencing both this world and the eternal afterlife; that is why we shouldn’t despair in times of adversity and why we shouldn’t be arrogant in times of happiness.

– Father to son, October 1874

Denkt nicht daß das irdische Leben allezeit nur Freude und Genuß gibt, nein das sollte nicht gut sein das sollte uns übermüthig machen, denn auch Schmerz Verdruss und Entbehrung wenn dieselbe nicht ja hart eintreffen stellen uns auf die Probe und entscheiden über ein dieseits und ein einigest Jenseits; deswegen in Widerwärtigkeiten nicht verzagt und in Glück und Wohlleben nicht übermüthig. 

10. In any case, my beloved, we are right to hope, as we are both still young enough and are only standing at the beginning of this uneven road called life.

– Marie Lustgarten to Isadore Colle, sweethearts, January 1898

In allen Fällen mein Geliebter, haben wir vor zu hoffen Recht, denn, wir sind beide noch jung genug und stehen daher erst beim beginne dieser unebenen Strasse, Leben genannt. – Irene Kaplan, January 1898, Marie to Isidor

And one final quote – while this isn’t exactly sage advice, it did make me laugh to think our stereotype of Germany hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years!

Germany in general is terrible regarding the drinking habits of the young and old, tall and short, rich and poor, everyone is yearning for beer, can’t live without beer, and is completely undone by beer.

– Man visiting Germany from America, July 1900

Es ist überhaupt mit Deutschland etwas Furchtbares betreffs des Trinkens Jung & Alt, Groß & Klein, Reich u. Arm, alles strebt nach Bier, kann ohne Bier nicht leben und geht noch völlig in Bier auf.

In closing, I leave you with 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”, seems to sum up this blog post on old letters well – Wilhelm writes of how important old letters are, and how we should treasure them for years to come.  See his poem (my English translation) below: 

 

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.