10 Must-Knows to Decipher Your German Ancestor’s Name

Deciphering names in genealogical documents can be a bit of a challenge. After all, you can’t just look in the dictionary to see if your transcribed name is correct. Having a grasp on the German naming system, therefore, can be very helpful for your research. Remember these ten facts below, and understanding those German names will become much more simple!

  1. “in” on the end of a last name is usually just a grammatical marker, indicating that the person with that last name was a female. My last name, Schober, may have been written “Schoberin” on a church record or certificate. When I am translating from German to English, therefore, I simply leave off the “in” of the last name, as it is a mere suffix to show that I am a female.This record reads “Jgfr (Jungfrau – Miss) Johanne Friederike Caroline Probstin”. Her last name would actually be Probst.

2. A straight line over a letter in a name will usually mean that the letter below is an “n” or an “m”, and that it should be doubled. You may see this on names such as “Anna” and “Johann”, and in last names as well. The “n” in Johann has a line above it. This means it should be doubled, and written as  “Johann”.

3. Names were sometimes written in the “normal” Latin script (the script we use) instead of the old German handwriting. You may have a document that’s written entirely in the old German script, but with your ancestor’s name written in  a script that looks like our modern cursive. 

Here the name August is written in the normal Latin script – no “swoops” above the “u”, a regular cursive “s”, etc.

4. If you see a name underlined in your document, that means that this name was the Rufname, or the name your ancestor was called. Below, the child listed is “Johann Gottfried”. As “Gottfried” is underlined, this would have been the name his family called him.

5. In older documents, you may see the Latin suffix “us” on a male name: Jakobus, for example, instead of Jakob. This is the same name, so it is important to recognize both variations in your records.

6. If an older sibling died in childhood, their name may have been used for the next child born (assuming it was also a boy or a girl).

7. Children were often (but not always) named after their godparent or baptismal sponsor. If you can’t read the name in the child’s column, look to the godparent/sponsor column to: 1)See if it could be the same name, and 2) To see if that name is easier to read there.

8. “chen”, “lein”, “l”, “el”, “erl”  are diminutive suffixes in German (the final three are more common in Bavaria and Austria). A young Barbara, for example, may have been called “Bärbchen”. This would be the English equivalent of writing “Danny” for “Daniel.”

9. Spelling was not always the same from record to record. You may see the name Schmitt in one record, Schmidt in the next, and Schmid in the third. Knowing the different variations of names and spelling can be very helpful, as it allows you to broaden your search for your ancestor. See Think Like A German: Spelling Variations in German Documents for more information. 

10. If you aren’t sure if a first or last name exists, google “name guess + Vorname” or “name guess + Nachname) and see if any results come up. “Vorname” means “first name”, and “Nachname” means “last name”. This will show you if your transcription guess exists in German.

Above, I typed in “Kunigunde + Vorname” to see if Kunigunde is a name in German. Looks like it is! 

Now that you know some tips about the German naming system, it’s time to go out there and find the names of your ancestors. Enjoy filling in that family tree!

My Church Records Aren’t Digitized – Now What?

While FamilySearch and Ancestry, along with Matricula and Archion, offer wonderful resources for finding your ancestors’ church records, there are still many, many church records that have not been digitized yet. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost! 

If you can’t find your ancestors’ church records online, you can reach out to the physical church in Germany and see if they can help you find your records. 

Not sure what church your ancestor belonged to? Scared to write to a foreign country? Don’t know how to contact the church? Read on to find out what you can do. 

Please Note: Before you can take action on the steps below, you will need to know your ancestor’s hometown in Germany. Some previous blog posts that may help you are:

Before You Cross The Pond: Five Places to Find Your Ancestor in America 

The Top German Words to Find Your Ancestor’s Hometown 

Finding Your German Parish Contact Information: Protestant Churches 

To find your Protestant parish information in Germany:

  • Go to https://www.ekd.de/en/Gemeindesuche-161.htm
  • Type in the name of your ancestor’s town in the Ort (town) search box.
  • Click Gemeinde suchen (search parishes).
  • If there are multiple parishes in that town, the website will provide you with the highest-ranking parish.
  • Write your request to the e-mail address provided (see how to write at the end of the article). 
Protestant Churches in Germany

Finding Your German Parish Contact INformation: Catholic Churches

  1. To find your Catholic parish information in Germany:
  • Go to https://www.dbk.de/bistumskarte.
  • Type in your ancestor’s town in the Adresse oder Ort (address or town) search box.
  • Press Suchen (search).
  • Click the red marker on the map.
  • Write your request to the e-mail address provided.
Catholic Churches in Germany

Contacting State Archives

If you are unable to contact the church, you can also try writing the state archives for your ancestor’s region. Fortunately for us, government archives often kept duplicate records from churches. 

If you want to find the archive for your ancestor’s region, simply google Landesarchiv or Staatsarchiv (state archive) + whichever region your ancestor came from (Example: Landesarchiv Baden). 

Once on the archive’s website, look for the Kontakt tab to find an e-mail address to which you can write. 

Translating Websites to English

Do those German websites overwhelm you? No problem!

If you use Google Chrome, you can simply right click with your mouse, and press “translate to English”. This will then provide a  machine-translated version of the website for you. The translation may not be perfect, but it will still give you a good idea of what the website is saying.

If you are not a fan of Chrome, you can copy and paste the website link into Google Translate, and then click on the new link Google Translate provides. This also gives you a machine-translated version of the page. 

Writing to the Church or Archive

If you don’t speak German, don’t let that stop you from writing an e-mail to Germany. FamilySearch has a wonderful German Letter Writing Guide that you can use to help you.

If you write to the church in German, they will likely reply to you in German as well. In that case, you can use the translation tool DeepL.com to help you find out what was written. 

However, more and more people are using English professionally in German nowadays. If you do want to write in English,  I would say that you could, but perhaps offer a brief apology for not writing in German upfront. We don’t want to assume that everyone speaks English!

Map Guide to German Parish Registers

If you prefer book resources, I would highly recommend Kevan M. Hansen’s Map Guide to German Parish Registers. This book series, which covers parishes in towns in specific regions of Germany, can be found by a simple Google search through a number of retailers.

Best of luck finding your ancestors’ records! For more information on locating and reading German church records, check out The Magic of German Church Records

How I Found a Mystery Prussian Town – And How You Can Too!

   I was translating a document recently – and that handwritten town had me stumped. I could not read that word for the life of me. Adding to the challenge was the fact that we (my client and I) did not know what part of the German Empire the record had come from. So what to do?

Time to pull out the detective hat! In the video below, I walk you through my step-by-step process of finding what that mystery handwritten town was – a town that was so important for my client’s research. It was a very fun challenge – with a successful ending! Check out how I was able to do it below – and how you can do it in your own research:

Auswanderungsakten: How an Emigration Record Got Me Across the Pond! (Guest Post by Stephen Wendt)

One of the most difficult challenges that genealogy researchers encounter in German genealogy is the inability to discover the last place of residence for a particular line back in the homeland.

When I first started researching my Wendt immigrant ancestors years ago, I was fortunate to have learned the name of their last place of residence early on in my journey. The family research passed down to me was that my Wendt ancestors were either from modern NE Germany or Poland (near historical Stettin). I wanted to know exactly where in the homeland they came from!

Brandenburg Breakthrough!

To that end, I entered basic family information into the database on Ancestry concerning my second great-grandfather, Christian Wendt. Within seconds, I experienced an unforgettable, genealogical epiphany!

The Ancestry result was an indexed entry based on German emigration records, known as “Auswanderungsakten” from Brandenburg, Prussia. In other words, I had just encountered a primary-derived entry of Christian’s (imminent) emigration, that of his permission to leave Brandenburg, Prussia to America.

The entry on Ancestry matched Christian’s known birth date. Moreover, it disclosed his full name, the year that he emigrated to America, as well as the exact village and its associated historical Kreis, or district, of his last place of residence back in the homeland. Consequently, this amazing development got me across the pond!

While this remarkable discovery made all the difference, I wanted to see a copy of the original Auswanderungsakt. I did not have to wait very long. While the Family Search microfilm/microfiche loan service was still taking place, I was fortunate to view a copy on microfiche!

Exploring the Brandenburg Auswanderungsakten

While sifting through the microfiche from Family Search of a copy of what was described differently-albeit slightly-as Auswanderungskartei (or emigration card file) for instances of the Wendt surname, I came across a record of interest. It was for a Wendt family who was from the village of Damme in historical Kreis Prenzlau. The card listed a certain Martin Wendt, a working man, who was 48 years old. He emigrated with consent in 1846 to America, along with his wife, Marie-Dorothee geb. (née) Sprenger and four children. Initially, I had asked myself where  the names of the four children were. How did Christian, my second-great grandfather, possibly fit in with this family? By advancing further through the microfiche, it did not take long to discover the names of those four children themselves!

As it turned out, the Wendt Family from the village of Damme consisted of Christian’s parents and sisters. The birth dates listed on the other part of the card corresponded to that of Christian and his sisters. Thus, by digging deeper, my quest to learn more about this particular Brandenburg record resulted also in tracing the Wendt line back another generation. At this point in my German Genealogy journey, I was in Prussian Genealogy heaven! I had discovered, then, that not only did I have German roots, but I had Prussian roots as well.

Ancestral Location on Meyers Gazetteer

If you know of a particular historical place name that was a part of the German Empire and wish to locate it, I strongly recommend using Meyers Gazetteer. It provides the historical, jurisdictional details that you would expect from a gazetteer. Moreover, in a majority of cases, it displays a corresponding historical map of what a particular location would have looked like during the period of the German Empire.

To locate a place name on Meyers Gazetteer, choose this link here: https://www.meyersgaz.org/.

Using the aforementioned Damme, Kreis Prenzlau example, one can view where my Wendt immigrant ancestors had resided decades earlier on a map from the German Empire era.

Prussian Genealogy on Facebook

Prussian Genealogy on Facebook is a global and supportive community with around 14,000 members. I created the community as an extension of my passion for Prussian genealogy and for the purpose of helping others just starting out or wishing to dive deeper into this fascinating area of genealogy.

The Prussian Genealogy community also promotes German and Polish Genealogy, DNA, History, Culture and other aspects as they relate to historical Prussia. The community would not be where it is today were it not for the help of the many members in the group who have made and continue to make a difference in the lives of those who wish to better understand their Prussian roots! 😊

To apply to join the Prussian Genealogy community, known officially as Prussian Genealogy / German & Polish Roots, DNA, History & Culture, choose this link here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/prussiangenealogy

German Genealogy Translations on Facebook

The Germany Genealogy Translations group on Facebook is dedicated exclusively to assisting members with their German Genealogy translation requests. The volunteers generously take time out of their busy lives to assist members with their requests.

To apply to join the German Genealogy Translations group, choose this link here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/germangenealogytranslations

German Genealogy Word List

Arbeitsmann – working man

Ausgewandert mit Consens – emigrated with consent

Auswanderungsakten – emigration records

Auswanderungskartei – emigration card file

Ehefrau – wife

Kinder – children

Kreis – district

Jahre – years

German genealogy can be fulfilling, fun and even a little frustrating at times. If you are having trouble finding out the last place of residence for your German ancestor back in the homeland, consider searching for an emigration record and other relevant records as a part of your research strategy.  Discovering and locating the ancestral location, especially before German Unification, is important in the pursuit of records on the other side of the pond. May you experience similar genealogical breakthroughs!

Stephen Wendt, MLIS, holds a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from K.S.U. He is a professional genealogist and speaker. At the virtual IGGP conference coming up in July, Stephen will be presenting, “Searching for Your Elusive Prussian Ancestors: A Case Study.”

Stephen founded Tree Tidings Genealogy and assists global clients with their Prussian and German research. You can learn more about his business at his website: https://www.treetidingsgenealogy.com/

You can follow him at the Prussian Genealogy and Heritage Facebook Page as well: https://www.facebook.com/groups/prussiangenealogy

9 Fun Facts to Decipher German Vital Records

  1. The bolded letters in the top corners of the certificates tell you what type of certificate it is:
      1. A = Birth
      2. B = Marriage 
      3. C = Death

2. Birth and death certificates are usually one page. Marriage certificates are always two pages. Be sure to “turn the page” so you don’t only download the first page of your marriage certificate. The first page lists information about the bride, groom, and their parents, while the second page lists the witnesses and includes the signatures of all parties. 

3. The first handwritten word on each certificate is the town where the document was issued, followed by the date the document was issued. This date could be the same day as the event (birth, marriage, death) or one or several days after. For marriages, it should be the same.

4. For birth and death certificates, the first person listed on the certificate is the person reporting the event. 

5. For marriage certificates, the person listed in spot #1 is the groom. The person listed in #2 is the bride. The people listed in #3 and #4 are the witnesses. 

6. The typed words “der Persönlichkeit nach ____ bekannt”, with nothing written on the line before “bekannt”, means that the person’s identity is known to the registrar. The typed words “der Persönlichkeit nach [type of identification] anerkannt” means that the person’s identity was verified by a certain document shown to the registrar.

7. The occupation will be listed before the names on these vital records. Example: “der Schneider Johann Schmidt” (the tailor Johann Schmidt) 

8. The place of residence can be found after the typed words “wohnhaft zu”.  

9. The typed word “am” (“on the” for our purposes here) signifies that a date will follow. The dates are written day-month-year on these certificates.

I hope these fun facts help you work with your vital records! Luckily, half of these forms are in the typed Fraktur font, so they are a bit easier than forms that are completely in the old German handwriting! For more help, with marriage, and death record forms, vital record cheat sheets are available in the shop. Good luck!

Five Must-Know Google Hacks for Deciphering Your German Documents (Webinar)

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Description: Come learn my favorite Google tricks for deciphering that tricky German handwriting!

In this brand-new webinar, you’ll learn how to tailor your search phrases to pull up the exact results you need, how to add in specific German search words to get even more accurate results, and many more hacks to have you deciphering those records in no time!

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5 Overlooked Resources for Eastern European Genealogy Research (Guest Post by Lisa A. Alzo, M.F.A)

When tracing Eastern European ancestors, it is no secret that church registers and civil registration of births, marriages, and deaths are the most popular and useful sources for extracting important genealogical information. However, there are other record groups to be searched that may prove useful for gleaning additional details, especially in the absence of church and vital records for your locality. This article will discuss five other key resources you might be missing.

Before You Search

Remember there are two key pieces of information you need to have before you can successfully trace your ancestors in the old country:

  1. You must learn the immigrant’s original name.
  2. You will need to obtain the specific name of the town or village of origin from searching records created for or about the immigrant after arrival, and then using maps, atlases, and gazetteers to pinpoint current and historical locations.

Search Strategy

Many one-of-a-kind resources (letters, photographs, and other ephemera) exist in libraries (especially those with dedicated Slavic/Eastern European collections), historical societies, ethnic genealogical societies, and museums located throughout North America. You will also want to extend your search to similar repositories in Europe. Accessibility and availability will vary by country and local area. Privacy laws may apply.

Below is an overview of some of the most overlooked resources.

1. Census Records.

As you probably learned from exploring US or Canadian census records for your ancestors, the prime value of census records is for grouping families together. In Eastern Europe, censuses were usually taken for tax and military conscription purposes. Searching census records can be hit or miss depending on the country, the region, and whether or not registers have been preserved. Because of shifting borders and the destruction of records during wartime hostilities, only relatively small portions of certain record groups survived in many instances. Therefore, you should check registers of births, marriages, and deaths (not census records) first, opposite of what genealogists typically do when looking at North American records for their ancestors. However, locating a family in a census record can help you place them in a particular location at a specific time period. Check the FamilySearch Wiki by country and look for a Census Records tab.

Figure 1: 1869 Census Record for Andrej Verbovszky Family Source: "Slovakia Census, 1869," images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QS7-L99V-FZS2?cc=1986782&wc=QZ77-BX7%3A323642201%2C323900301: 3 November 2015), Sáros > Milospuszta (Milpoš) > image 59 of 75; Bytča, Banská Bystrica, and Nitra Regional Archives.accessed 29 December 2020.

2. Military Records.

Military records are often considered a secondary resource because they are not easy records to locate. To find military records for the various armies in the Austrian, German or Russian empires, you will first need to understand the history of the time period in which your ancestors lived, as this determines whether your ancestor served during the Partitions of Poland, the Austro-Hungarian rule over the Czech and Slovak republics, etc. Next, you will need to know how the process of conscription worked and the regiment/military unit your ancestor served in. Finally, you will need to become familiar with the types of records (e.g., muster sheets, personnel sheets, military citations), which vary by regiment and period. Two excellent sources for research advice include, A Guide for Locating Military Records for the Various Regions of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Carl Kotlarchik , and several excellent articles available from The Foundation for East European Family History Studies including the “Russian Central State Military Historical Archive” and “An Introduction to Austrian Military Records” by Steven W. Blodgett.

3. Land Books, Cadastral Surveys, and Tax Lists.

Land records, cadastral surveys, and tax lists are other documents that can provide additional clues about your ancestors. While often difficult to track down, land records may serve to fill in some of the generational blanks in a family tree, and tax lists can offer a glimpse into an ancestor’s financial and social status. Land records are primarily used to learn where an individual lived and when he or she lived there. They often reveal family information such as a spouse’s name, heir, other relatives, or neighbors. You may learn where a person lived before, occupations, and other clues for further research. The primary advantage of using land records is that they go back further in time than the parish registers of births, marriages, and deaths. Often, the same land was passed from generation to generation. Land records may be deposited in various archives, so you should check with the archivist to make sure you’re searching in the correct places. Cadastral maps were created to determine the economic potential of manors. Maps of manors depicted the actual configuration of farms, with bodies of water, roads, and other natural objects. The maps are accompanied by description books, which describe garden plots, fields, hay lands and pastures, and more. Just as we do, our ancestors paid taxes, and documentation from this process can be another potential source. In some countries, you will find revision lists that contain personal data on household members. Consult the FamilySearch Catalog, or check with state, regional or local archives.

4. Emigration Documents/Passports.

Most genealogists look for incoming passenger lists, but in some instances, there may be documents such as emigration lists, permissions to emigrate and records of passports issued. The information in these records may include the name, age, occupation, destination, and place of origin or birthplace of the emigrant, but if you don’t find them among family documents, they can be difficult to locate and typically reside in state or regional archives. Some countries kept records of those who left. Ancestry.com has Hamburg Passenger Lists, Handwritten Indexes, 1855-1934 and S., Passport Applications, 1795-1925 searchable online. To view a variety of passport documents, check out the Flickr Passport Photos collection by user mákvirág.

5. Town or Village Histories.

Individual towns or villages may also have published histories. These sources can come in book form or published or town or village websites. Search for the town or village name on Google, as your ancestors’ names could be mentioned in these narratives. While it could be a challenge to obtain a copy if you don’t have any living relatives in the town or village, you can always try contacting the local historian or mayor or check if the village has a page on Facebook. For example, my maternal grandfather’s family is mentioned in a book (Dejiny Osturne) about Osturňa, Slovakia, that was published by historians there. I also recently learned of a book about one of my other ancestral villages, Kučín, which mentions my book Three Slovak Women, and my 2010 visit there!

Figure 2: Cover of Dejiny Osturne

Keep in mind that records are organized by location so be sure to check all parishes, archives, and local register and mayor’s offices in the ancestral town or village. While some record sets may be available online, others exist on microfilm or in print form, through FamilySearch or country-specific archival and other websites, so be sure to check back periodically for new or updated collections.

Lisa A. Alzo, M.F.A., is a freelance writer, instructor, and internationally recognized lecturer, specializing in Eastern European research and writing your family history She is the author of 11 books and hundreds of magazine articles. Lisa works as an online educator and writing coach through her website Research, Write, Connect, https://www.researchwriteconnect.com and developed the Eastern European Research Certificate Program for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies.  Visit https://www.lisaalzo.com  for more information.

10 Must-Knows When Starting German Genealogy (Guest Post by Kathy Wurth)

From Katherine: I first met Kathy several years ago, when I was in the beginning stages of moving my German translation business into the genealogy field in particular. Kathy and her colleague Cindy were  kind enough to meet up with me in St. Louis , hear about my business, and give me some insight about working in the genealogy field. At that meeting, I was also fascinated to learn about Kathy’s business – Family Tree Tours – and her genealogy group, Germans in St. Louis. Through both of those ventures, Kathy has gained a depth of knowledge about German genealogy – knowledge which she has kindly agreed to share with us today. Enjoy!

10 Must-Knows When Starting German Genealogy 

A few months back, I asked my German research group to give some examples of what they wished they had known when they were starting out with their German genealogy.  From their answers, we’ve come up with quite a helpful list! Below, find ten facts of German genealogy research you should know before you delve in to the world of your German ancestors:

#1. ALWAYS LOOK AT CHURCH BOOK RECORDS (at home and abroad).

Church books are the most important resource you will have to find more information on your German immigrant. Since many immigrants went to German parish churches when they came to the States, and the pastors did the books in the style of the Old Country, you have a good chance of finding a place of birth in a marriage, baptism, confirmation, or death record. Once you find your ancestor’s hometown, your next step is to look at the church books in Europe to verify your family was actually from there. You can then trace additional generations back and see if a previous generation originally came from another village.

To learn to work with German church records, see The Magic of German Church Records by Katherine Schober.

#2. THERE waS NO NATIONAL CENSUS IN the eighteenth OR nineteenth CENTURY IN GERMANY.

Germany was not a unified country until 1871, and they have no census like we know it. There are census records in a few places, but there is likely no indexed census to find where your ancestor lived.  However, Ancestry.com does have a few censuses for Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Lübeck city.


If your name is written Mueller in the U.S,  it could be Müller in Germany. If your name is written Droege in the U.S., it could be Dröge in Germany. Search for both of these surname versions when looking for your ancestor. 


Here is a link for a German Word Lists:  https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/German_Genealogical_Word_List


Here is a link for a Latin Word Lists: https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/Latin_Genealogical_Word_List


Try not to assume or be adamant that your people ALWAYS spelled their name one way. You must try to search all variants of your surname. It is also important to remember that in the nineteenth century, many Germans had three names (a Christian name, a second name (call name), and a third name, followed by the surname.  They may have written any one of those names on documents.


Google German maps in different time periods (like 1815 or 1874) to see what area your German state (Prussia, for example) encompassed.  This may be the hardest wall to break to find what specific area of Germany your ancestor came from. You will have to continue to search U.S. documents to find an individual town name. 


This is one of the most asked questions from people going on our tours and I hate to have to disappoint them when I tell them that there are few nineteenth-century gravestones left. The grave plots in Germany are leased to the family for 20-30 years. At that point, if they don’t renew the plot, it can be leased to a new family. You will have to check church books for a recording of your ancestor’s death. In some cases, we have been a little lucky and found a few old graves, but this is not common.


If you have a hometown name, you should also make sure to find it on a map! You will need to know a state (Bavaria, Baden, Hessen, etc.) and a Kreis (County) since there are many towns with the same name in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.  You should always prove you have the right town by searching the church books there for your ancestor’s name and birth/baptismal date.


Please do not only search online. My biggest recommendation is to go LOCAL. Try contacting the local genealogy or historical society in the town or county your ancestor lived. Often, these societies may have indexes, records, and resources that are not online anywhere.  The locals are also more familiar with surnames and may have insight that would help you with your search.  Also, if there is a local public library, they may have a history/genealogy department that would be able to help. Call or e-mail them!

What other tips would you add for beginning genealogists? Let us know in the comments!

For more information on German research or heritage travel, please get in touch with us at info@familytreetours.com  To see our 2021 tours, see our website www.familytreetours.com .

Kathy Wurth is a researcher, speaker, volunteer and owner of Family Tree Tours, a heritage travel company, specializing in ancestral trips to Germany and Ireland and other European countries.  She is a member of several Genealogy societies and leader and founder of the Germans In St. Louis Research Group in St. Louis, MO. Kathy has been leading tours since 2007 and has helped hundreds of people visit their ancestral hometowns. 

Genealogy Beat the Clock: Black Friday Extreme Deals

Sign-Up Link: Genealogy Beat the Clock Event 

Click “Going” on the event page to join the event and get access to the extreme deals contest

What: Beat the clock – and your fellow attendees! This Black Friday, there will be the highest discounts ever offered on the below genealogy products: one new offer every ten minutes for sixty minutes. At 11:00, 11:10, 11:20, etc., the new extreme deal will be posted in the event, and the first ten people to write their name under that post will get the exclusive discount!

Don’t miss out on these once-a-year German genealogy deals to take your German research to the next level. Exclusive offers on:


– Reading the Old German Handwriting Online Course ($100(!!) off)

– The Magic of German Church Records Book, Signed and Personalized (30% off)

– Tips and Tricks of Deciphering German Handwriting Book, Signed and Personalized (25% off)

– Premium Vocabulary Article Package (50% Off)

– Journey into German Genealogy Lecture Video and Handouts (50% Off)

– Birth, Marriage, Death Certificate Reference Guide Package (50% Off)

When: Friday,  November 27 – 11:00 AM Eastern, 10:00 AM Central, 9:00 AM Mountain, 8:00 AM Pacific

Will I see you Friday?

All products can be viewed at https://sktranslations.com/shop ahead of time. 

A Family’s Quest for Truth: Is Their Treasured Heirloom the Famous X-Rayed Ring?

Have you ever seen an image of the very first X-ray? Look at the fourth finger. What do you see?

If you guessed “ring”, you are correct. When German physics professor Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen discovered the X-ray in November 1895, the first image he took was of his wife Anna Bertha’s left hand – with her engagement ring prominently displayed for the world to see. Upon seeing the ghostly image , Bertha is said to have exclaimed, “I have seen my own death.” 

Fast Forward 120 years...

In 2017, I received an e-mail from a new translation client named Allison Stabile. She and her cousins, Frank Wilson and Paul Heidorf, all descendants of the Röntgen family, were on a quest to prove that the golden ring that had been passed down by their relatives for generations was the ring – the ring in the x-rayed image of Bertha’s hand that had become famous throughout the world. 

All signs pointed to the fact that it was. The interior of the ring was engraved with the name F. Röntgen (you’ll soon see why an F…) and the date 1869.  Family lore and photos of Bertha and other ancestors showed a very similar-looking ring on the women’s hands throughout the ages.  But Frank, Allison, and Paul wanted to be absolutely sure.

The ring, engraved with the name F. Röntgen and the year 1869

The ring's journey through time

Frank Wilson received the ring from his Aunt Julia (Louise Grauel’s granddaughter) in 1979. At that point, he determined to prove the ring’s connection to the famous x-ray once and for all. 

Through Frank’s extensive research, he came to believe that the ring was made at a workshop in Emmerich, Germany in 1839, as it was there that his great-great-grandfather Ferdinand Röntgen married Henriette Catharina on April 30, 1839 (there’s our F!). 

Ferdinand Röntgen, uncle of X-ray discoverer Wilhelm Conrad Rôntgen

After Ferdinand’s wife’s death in the 1860s,  Frank believes that Ferdinand passed Henriette’s ring on to his beloved nephew, future discoverer of X-rays Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen. When Wilhelm and his fiancé Anna Bertha were engaged in 1869, it was this special family heirloom that he gave to his bride-to-be.

Close up of engravings in the ring
Anna Bertha (known as Bertha), posed with her engagement ring on her finger, sometime between 1869-1872. This is the first known picture of the ring.

After Bertha’s death in 1919 – during a time of economic hardship in post-World War I Germany – Frank believes that Wilhelm Conrad had the ring sent back to its original owners, specifically to his cousin Louise Grauel, now in America. She had emigrated with her brother Johann Heinrich and her father (Wilhelm Conrad’s uncle) Ferdinand in 1872. As you can imagine, this ring was extra special to Louise, as it had originally belonged to her mother, Henriette. 

As time progressed, this special family keepsake was passed down through the generations, until it eventually made its way from an aunt to Frank himself in 1979. 

The original recipient of the ring, Henriette Catharina (Louise's mother)
Louise Röntgen Grauel, seen with the ring on her pinky finger in 1929

The Quest begins

After he came into possession of the family heirloom, Frank was ready to prove its authenticity – and that required going back to the land where the ring had come from.
Over the years, Frank researched the life of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, and then made multiple trips to Europe following in his famous relative’s footsteps. Röntgen’s physics laboratory at the University of Würzburg, Röntgen’s birthplace of Lennep, Germany, and Röntgen’s hometown of Apeldoorn in the Netherlands were just a few of the stops on his research trips. Frank also journeyed to Utrecht and Zürich, the cities where Röntgen had received his education. Along the way, he consulted with various experts – antique experts, goldsmiths, engraving experts, and more –  to assist him in his quest for verification. The Röntgen Museum in Lennep and the Deutsches Museum in Munich also became frequent points of contact as his quest continued. 
Cousin Allison joined Frank in searching for clues in Lennep, Germany in 2017 (Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen's birthplace)
Antique specialist in The Netherlands assisting with the ring

So what did the experts say?

While each expert assisted Frank in their own way, it was an expert goldsmith in Switzerland who told Frank that the ring had actually been resized in the late nineteenth century – which fit perfectly with the theory that the ring given to Bertha had originally belonged to someone else with a different-size finger. Henriette, perhaps?

An engraving expert then informed Frank that the ring engraver was likely not an expert himself and that he had probably been working without a magnifying glass. Based on detailed examination of the engraving, it was this expert’s opinion that the “1869” portion of the engraving had been done by a different engraver or with a different engraving tool – thus supporting the fact that the “1869” was added at a different time than the name “F. Röntgen”.Could it have been for Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s engagement to Bertha? 

Following these findings, multiple experts recommended that Frank have a DNA analysis of the ring performed. This could help solve things once and for all.

It was that path that Frank decided to embark on next. 

Many tests were carried out on the ring in Europe.

in the meantime...

While Frank was hard at work getting clues about the physical ring itself, Allison Stabile, Frank’s third cousin and great-great-great-granddaughter of Uncle Ferdinand Röntgen, was busy herself.

Allison – whose middle name is Röntgen – had hundreds of documents and photos in her possession, family keepsakes that had been passed down to her through her family line.  She met Frank on Ancestry.com while trying to identify certain shared ancestors in photos. But shared ancestors weren’t the only thing these two Röntgen cousins had in common…

After years of online contact, Frank and Allison finally met in person in November of 2016, researching with fellow Röntgen descendant Paul Heidorf in the archives at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. On that trip, Frank proudly showed Allison the famous ring – and more.

In addition to the ring, Frank showed Allison two forks and spoons that had been passed down to him from his Aunt Julia. These spoons, with hallmarks proving they were made in Amsterdam in 1842, were from the 1842 Amsterdam wedding of X-ray inventor Wilhelm Conrad’s Röntgen’s parents. Their monogram (RF, for Röntgen and the wife’s maiden name of Frowein) was carved on the back. More impressed with the ring than the spoon, Allison didn’t give them much thought, until…

Röntgen descendants Allison Stabile, Paul Heidorf, and Frank Wilson researching together at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio (2016)

Two years later, Allison was sorting through all the family heirlooms that she herself had received. Her eyes widened in shock as she stumbled upon two familiar-looking silver spoons. She turned them over –  that same R and F were on the back! They were from the very same Dutch set that Frank had showed her two years ago! 

While neither Frank nor Allison know how the spoons came to America or how the set got separated and divided up among two Röntgen family lines (who might never have met each other without Ancestry.com), this coincidence between the third cousins made Allison and Frank feel even more united on their journey to prove the ring’s origins. 

One of the 1842 Dutch spoons from Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen's parents' wedding in 1842

But let’s get back to the mystery of the ring…

With Frank searching for physical proof on the ring itself, Allison started looking for written proof. After all, she had those 19th-century letters and photographs from the Röntgen family in her possessions. Could the ring have been mentioned within those old German pages?

And that’s how I got involved. With the letters in German and the old German handwriting, Allison couldn’t read them herself. Through a series of referrals, she found my website, and I was so glad she did. The family’s quest to find the ring’s origins sounded like an exciting challenge to me!

I made sure to tell Allison what "ring" looked like in the old German handwriting, in case she happened to stumble across it when sorting her letters!

Starting in 2017, I began translating multiple letters for the family – beautiful handwritten letters from Friedrich, Wilhelm Conrad’s father, and Ferdinand, Wilhelm Conrad’s brother. While the discoverer of X-rays was mentioned in the letters (at one point, his father said they were moving back from Holland to be closer to Wilhelm Conrad in Germany), dozens of translations produced no mention of the ring itself. Back to the drawing board.

While we haven’t found any mention of the ring – yet!-, I’ve really enjoyed translating Allison’s special letters and learning the history of the Röntgen family. 

A cruel twist of fate...

With the letters not producing any written clues, Frank and Allison turned back to the physical ring itself. In 2019, Frank again set off to Europe, ready to follow the experts’ advice and have the DNA in the engraving of the ring tested in Switzerland. Perhaps DNA could prove the ring’s origins once and for all.

Unfortunately, it was not to be.

When Frank awoke from a nap on the train ride from Düsseldorf to Switzerland, the ring – along with some cash – had vanished from his nearby backpack. The thief had only left the ring’s plastic bag behind. 

Frank acted quickly, immediately reporting the theft to the local police in Düsseldorf. But despite the quick action, the police were unable to locate the thief. The ring was gone. 

But There's Still Hope...

For years, Frank, Allison, and Paul have been working diligently to trace the origins of their beloved family possession, an item that also has immense meaning to the scientific community. In fact, once the ring’s origins were proven, Frank was planning on donating a replica to the Röntgen Museum in Lennep, Germany, so that the entire world could share in this ring’s special story. But before he could do so, the ring was cruelly stolen – and the thief likely had no idea what he had taken from the family.

Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. In the last few months, interest in the Röntgen ring story has provided the cousins with a glimmer of hope. When I was in Salzburg last summer, author Alexandra Nagele became interested in the family’s story and decided to interview me about my work with the Röntgen letters and the ring itself. That article was published in the Salzburger Nachrichten, the main newspaper of Salzburg, this past September. Through that recent article, other newspapers have expressed interest in the fascinating saga and more articles are forthcoming. 

Perhaps, with enough media attention and getting the word out, the ring will resurface someday – and people will be able to recognize and return it when it does. 


The article in the Salzburger Nachrichten Newspaper, September 2020
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen
Retired neurologist Frank Wilson, who has done an incredible amount of research on the history of the Röntgen ring and Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen himself

Will you help to spread the word about the missing Röntgen ring? Share the story on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with your community and genealogy groups. The more people that know about the ring’s fascinating history, the more chance of it being found and returned someday. You never know what can happen when we all work together.