Have you hit a brick wall? Is your one German ancestor giving you more trouble than you could ever have imagined? Luckily, there’s another source available – one you might never have considered. Thank you to Garth Wunsch for sharing his journey of using these fantastic sources with us!
How German City Directories Helped Me Find my Great-Grandfather
I’m seventy-five years old, which I seldom think about, but today is still the first day of the best half of my life… and at the rate my genealogical research is going, I may well need that next three score and ten… well actually, fifteen, to solve all the riddles my family history has posed.
Genealogy is strictly a hobby, so no professional letters after my name, no book credits, no public speaking… and in fact this is the first published article I’ve written outside my own genealogical society in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. So this is an amateur’s story using “ancient” city directories (German: Adressbücher) from Eastern and Western Europe. I was amazed at what they have to offer…
It all started with Grandma…
My interest in our family history began with a Q & A between my paternal grandmother and myself. Grandma was doing her usual thing… working at something or other around the giant flat-topped Findlay cook stove, the heartbeat of the home in pre-electricity Anywhere. Although that encounter was well over forty years ago, I still have the original notes I scribbled with a red pencil on buff newsprint!
Fast forward four decades…I’m attending one of our monthly genealogical meetings, and I come across a magazine left behind for us by another member. The feature article, on using the World Wide Web to research your German roots, included a website that I hadn’t seen before. I decided to check it out – and was very glad I did.
A Trip Back in time…
Once at the computer, I type in the link, and find myself inside thousands of pages of old German Fraktur text. I was, in effect, looking through pages and pages of digitized city directories spanning many decades of Berlin’s residents. In addition to names, these directories included:
- People’s addresses
- Who else lived in the building
- People’s occupations
- Double-index between name and address for businesses and individuals
Could my great-grandfather Adolph be somewhere in these historical pages?
To access these Berlin city directories yourself:
2. Click on the telephone and address book image.
3. Click on the little German flag at the top right, and it will switch to the British flag – and English text (no need to do this if you are fluent in German).
on the trail of my great-grandfather…
In 1900, the population of Berlin was 1,888,848 – a lot of names to go through! Luckily, the directory only listed the “heads of households”, so this narrowed down the search a bit at least…
From my Q&A with grandma forty years before, I knew that Adolph (the name he went by – and the only name I had for him) was a baker by trade, that he lived in Berlin, and eventually married the young Fräulein that delivered the baked goods every morning – the baker’s maid.
In the surname section, I began my painstaking struggle with the text, looking for our last name of Wunsch. I searched through the W’s, moving 50 pages at a time, until at last I landed in approximately the right spot.
But suddenly, those upper case W’s looked like fancy English M’s to me! Perusing page after page of Fraktur font had “fraktured” my brain and I had trouble remembering W’s looked so different! Because of that, I actually skipped past the name Wunsch on my first go. It appeared to my English brain as Munich. I was confused, how did I end up back in the M’s?
Then it dawned on me – again – hey silly, this is Fraktur and that is a W. So back I go, looking for that Fraktur Wunsch, and there it was!
I Found the last name, now what?
While the city directory is organized alphabetically by surname, under the surname, there are no rules. It appears they were just typeset in random order . So how to find Adolph?
Luckily, I only had six A. Wunschs’ to choose from. One was a female with her married name. (Useful tip… if a female is listed, she’s likely a widow, and you get her married name too). That narrowed my search down to five.
Recall I mentioned that occupations were listed in these records? There was a miller and and a cigarette maker… and my German isn’t good enough to figure out the rest… but thanks to Google Translate, I knew that “baker” was Bäcker. To my great good fortune, of the five names listed, there was only one Bäcker. I had him!
And the best part…
Based on the “A’, the last name, the location, and occupation, it had to be him, but what was that W before the A? I called up Gerry Rosenfeld, my German-speaking friend and a fellow researcher, to share my great discovery. Gerry had an Ancestry subscription, so off he went, and in twenty minutes called back with info on Wilhelm Adolph Wunsch. Everything matched with my great-grandfather, especially his birthdate!
Discovering this W was crucial to my future research – I could now use the name Wilhelm Adolph Wunsch to find more information on my great-grandfather (For more information on German names, see here).
And find it I did! Knowing his name was Wilhelm Adolph Wunsch allowed me to find his long-sought marriage certificate below:
I trust this little story will encourage you to keep up your search and find your own German ancestors!
1. City directories can provide you with the name, address, occupation, housemates, and business information of your German ancestor.
2. To access city directories, either use this link for the Berlin directories or type in the German word “Adressbuch + city name” to see if you can find your town’s address book.
3. The first names may be in random order under the alphabetized surname. Knowing the names are in random order is useful to remember if you happen to be searching a really long surname list, such as Schimidt. You just never know where your Schmidt is on the list…never give up!
4. Keeping a discovery journal as you make your great genealogy finds may be very helpful for future research (for yourself and other family members).