Successful Genealogical Correspondence and Travel to Germany

by Friedrich R. Wollmershäuser

Every year the regional genealogical association in Stuttgart of which I am a member receives approximately one thousand letters from overseas, from people who want to find their ancestors. There are perhaps twenty or thirty genealogical associations in Germany, as well as numerous archives and parish offices. This means that at least 10,000 inquiries pour in every year to a small and overworked population of genealogical researchers. Lots of letters don't get answered at all, many receive only printed forms in reply. This need not happen if the person sending the inquiry is aware of a few basic rules, which I am going to explain.

Every year many thousands of people from English-speaking countries visit Germany, and many of them want to visit the home-towns of their ancestors and try to do some genealogical research there. The time they have to spend is usually limited, and effective research may yield much better results than just roaming around among some archives. This article is intended to provide hints on the successful use of German archives and research places.

Contents of this paper:

  • Preparations at home - be critical to your sources.
  • Find the right addresses.
  • General hints for correspondence to Germany.
  • General hints for traveling in Germany.
  • Finding living relatives.

Preparations at home - be critical to your sources

Exhaust literally all local possibilities for finding information about your ancestors, before writing your first inquiry or planning a trip to Germany.

A wrong preliminary assumption can lead a genealogical researcher into a lot of dead-end research. Before planning a letter or trip to Germany, sort out all uncertain information which is not really proven and built up your research avenues upon what you know for sure.

Some frequent sources of wrong preliminary assumptions are:

(a) Over-confidence in census: census information about countries of birth is often incorrect.

(b) The assumption that all immigrants with the same family name came from the same place.

(c) Over-credulty in family details passed down by word-of-mouth, for example:

  • the emigrant was a nobleman who dropped his title on crossing to America or elsewhere
  • the emigrant was the illegitimate offspring of a nobleman
  • the emigrant was a democrat who had to flee after 1848
  • the emigrant formerly served in the bodyguard of the ruler
  • the emigrant's father was a mayor, professor, etc.
  • the emigrant was driven out for religious reasons (esp. in the Alsace)

Find the right addresses

The point is not to write a lot of letters to a lot of addresses, but to write one letter to the right address. In the same sense, there is no need to roam around at many archives and libraries, but just go to the one where the requested information is available.

First of all, identify the German place of origin where your ancestor came from. The following books can help:

  (Karl Ritter), Ritters Geographisch-Statisches Lexicon, 2 vols., 3rd ed. (Leizig: Wigand 1845/46) etc. until 9th ed. (same place and publ., 1905/06). - Contains all places worldwide.
  Die Postleitzahl. Verzeichnis der Postleitzahlen. (Bonn: Bundesministerium für das Post- und Fernmeldewesen, 1991). - Zip-code directory for present-day Germany.
  Müllers Großes Deutsches Ortsbuch. Vollständiges Gemeindelexikon. 24st ed. (Wuppertal: Post- und Ortsbuchverlag, 1991.) ca. 950 pp. - A detailed gazetteer for Germany

After locating the exact place, you may then contact one or some of the following places:

(a) Parish offices. In some parts of Germany, church-registers (with baptism- confirmation- marriage- and burial- entries) are kept at the local parish-offices, in other parts at central church archives or at the state archives. Local parish offices for places whose registers are in an archive will usually pass inquiries on to the archive. The smaller parish-offices have no secretary, and you may have to rely upon the help of the priest or minister. However, clergymen and their secretaries are not genealogists and can make mistakes. Many priests can't read the old handwriting, have no time to look through big volumes without indexes, and may already be swamped with inquiries. It is the responsibility of a priest or minister to take care of his community, not to translate his old books for foreign visitors, so please do not overstress the help of such a person. The larger parishes have offices with certain opening hours, and in some big cities there are offices just for keeping the church-registers (Kirchenbuchamt, Kirchenregisteramt). Some of the central church-archives no longer allow people to use the original church registers, but hand out microfilms. There are usually long waiting lists for the microfilm-readers, and instead of going there, you may more easily check the microfilms through an LDS library in the United States.

(b) Civil registration. Local civil registration offices have registers of birth, deaths and marriages from 1876, some of them from 1798 on, and will issue certificates from these registers to direct descendants. The place and date of the event to be certified should be known fairly exactly. These offices are usually open in the morning. In many cases, the entries in the civil registration registers are more detailed than those in the parish registers.

(c) Genealogical societies. Societies are groups of genealogists who get together in order to maintain a library, share research results and experiences, publish a journal, and introduce beginners to the practice of genealogy.

Some societies maintain alphabetical ancestral files and indexes to their library holdings. In this case they may quickly find information on other persons bearing a particular family name (although these are not necessarily your relatives).

Societies are not information offices or research agencies. You may write to a society for the address of a researcher or an archive, or to ask to put an advertisement for you in their journal. Many inquiries are passed on to members of the society or answered with form letters. German genealogical societies often don't care to have overseas members because they join for only a year or so, and cause the societies a lot of transaction costs when they don't renew their subscriptions on time.

There is an umbrella organization (the DAGV) in whose lists of members you will find the addresses and particulars of regional genealogical societies.

  Dieter Zwinger (comp.), Deutsche Arbeitsgemeinschaft genealogischer Verbände (ed.), Mitgliederverzeichnis 1989 und Satzung. Aktuelle Themen zur Genealogie, 9 (Neustadt: Degener 1989).

All inquiries addressed to DAGV will be passed on to the appropriate regional society, although you must count on some delay.

The offices of most genealogical societies are only open a few hours a week. If the place is not too crowded, somebody will take the time to analyze your research problem and give some good advice.

(d) Archives. The main function of archives is organizing their documents and looking after the people who come to look at the documents. Normally archives will answer written inquiries only with information about what documents they have; they undertake only limited research jobs and are expensive.

See the article "Before the parish registers start" for detailed information about the organization of an archive and the personal research in its files.

Addresses and information about archives can be found in the following books:

  Raymond S. Wright, et. al. Ancestors in German Archives: A Guide to Family History Sources (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2004). [Comprehensive and up to date; includes web pages for many German archives.]
  Verein deutscher Archivare (ed.), Archive und Archivare in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, 14th ed. 1985/86. (München: Verein deutscher Archivare 1986). [Addresses of archives].
  Wolfgang Ribbe, Eckart Henning, Taschenbuch für Familiengeschichtsforschung, 10th ed. (Neustadt: Degener, 1990).  [Pages 431-456 contain the addresses of the archives in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.]
  Minerva Handbücher Archive, Archive im Deutschprachigen Raum, 2nd ed. 2 vols. (Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1974). [Contains the addresses and information about the holdings of almost all archives in the German-speaking area.]

(e) Private genealogists. Private local genealogists (often retired people) can be very helpful and often ask only for reimbursement of their expenses or a small fee. Their names and addresses can be obtained from parish offices, regional genealogical societies, and from the following publications:

  Johann Glenzdorf (ed.), Glenzdorfs Internationales Genealogen- Lexikon. 3rd ed. (Bad Münder am Deister: Wilhelm Rost, 1984.) - A list of German genealogists with details of their research areas and names.
  Familienkundliche Nachrichten (a journal published every two months by Verlag Degener, Postfach 1340, W-8530 Neustadt/Aisch, Germany), consisting only of advertisements and read by almost all German genealogists.

(f) Professional genealogists. Good professional genealogists are swamped with requests and hard to find. Some (a very few) professionals just see genealogical work as a way of making a quick Deutschmark. Professional genealogists may also serve as travel guides if they are asked to do so. This is actually an expensive enterprise, but may make your visit much more effective than by searching your own ways.

(g) Family societies. One-name societies are not as common in Germany as in America: you can find them in the same way as you find genealogists (see above) or in the following book:

  Heinz F. Friederichs, Familienarchive in öffentlichem und privatem Besitz. Vol. 2. Genealogische Informationen, 6. (Neustadt: Degener, 1977.) - Actually a list of family archives, but also contains many addresses of one-name societies.

Usually you find a lot of help from those societies, and the German members will devote a lot of their time to make your visit impressive.

(h) Libraries. All you can expect from a library by mail is to get photocopies from journals and books if you can tell them title and page numbers. Libraries store printed books, and only some larger libraries have manuscript sections. The state libraries (Staatsbibliothek, Landesbibliothek) usually keep extended holdings of local and regional history books. Addresses of libraries in former West Germany are found in the following book:

  Deutsche Bibliothekskonferenz (ed.), Deutsche Bibliotheks- Adressbuch. Verzeichnis von Bibliotheken in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland einschliesslich Berlin (West). 2nd ed. München and New York: KG Saur 1976.

When you visit a library personally, you may at first go to their systematical catalogue and check it for books on your research field. Many libraries have a computerized book order system, and you need auser's card to place orders. These cards are usually issued on the spot, but you need to show your passport.

(i) Museums (most of them are closed on Mondays) are listed in the books:

  Klemens Mörmann (ed.), Der Deutsche Museumsführer in Farbe. 2nd ed. (Frankfurt/Main: Krüger, 1983)(holdings of an information on 1500 museums).
  Bertelsmann Museumsführer. Sammlungen zu Kunst, Kultur, Natur und Technik in Deutschland. (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Lexikon Verlag, 1992).
  Birgit Grosz, Museen in den neuen Bundesländern. 1992/93 ed. (Dortmund: Grafit, 1992) (museums on the former GDR).
  Handbuch der Museen/Handbook of Museums. Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Österreich, Schweiz. Lichtenstein. 2nd ed. (München and New York: KG Saur, 1981). (Museums in the German-speaking area, bilingual).

Many local Museums have built up collections that show the every day living conditions of earlier ages. In some open-air-museums old buildings have been restored. These places will give you a good insight into the physical environment of your ancestors.

This information is just for travelers. It does not make sense to write to a museum for genealogical information.

(j) Addresses in general. An excellent source of German genealogical addresses and information is the following book:

  Ernest Thode, Address Book for Germanic Genealogy. 3rd ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Heritage House, 1988.)

If the place is in present-day Poland, then the best idea is to get in touch with the Genealogical Society in Salt Lake City. On occasion an inquiry addressed to a Catholic parish office in Poland (in Polish or Latin) may get results.

General hints for correspondence to Germany

Your chances to get an answer are much higher if you avoid unnecessary work and trouble by observing the following rules:

  • Type your letters, if at all possible. You have a better chance of getting an answer of your letter is legible and businesslike.
  • Provide every detail you already know about your ancestors: name, dates (expressed in the order of day-month-year), exact place-name, religious denominations, year of immigration to America, Australia, or Canada and in the case of emigrating children, the name of the adult person(s) with whom they emigrated, and all other relevant information.
  • Ask precise questions: do you want an name, a date, a place, or all three? Long, rambling letters are less likely to be answered than ones that express the problem in a few words.
  • Don't abbreviate! Germans aren't familiar with foreign abbreviations.
  • If you can't decipher place names or names from the documents already have, enclose a photocopy. Don't send originals!
  • Say where you have already written for information, when, and with what success.
  • Put your return address and the date on the letter and every enclosure. Since you won't get an answer right away, give some address where you can always be contacted (especially if you are likely to move).
  • Set the maximum amount you're prepared to pay for an answer. This helps avoid unpleasant surprises.
  • Be sure to supply compensation. Government agencies are usually required to charge fees for searches or copies of records; churches (and church archives) have limited manpower and must often charge for their services too. Enclose 20 to 40 Euros (you can buy them from major banks, either as currency or as a bank check). Always ask how you can compensate them further for this or additional searches. [Do not enclose "International Reply Coupons" as was advised in the past. They are virtually never used in Germany. If you must send a personal check or money order, be sure to add at least $20 in addition to any fees, since the bank costs for cashing them are significant.]
  • When you write to a local parish office, say whether you have a clear indication that the person you are searching came from there, or whether you just suspect he did.
  • Use a separate sheet of paper for each question. Otherwise your inquiry can't be passed on to the different people who might be able to answer each question.
  • Unless your German is fairly good, write your inquiry in English. Good English is better than bad German. Avoid idioms and rare words. Most genealogists and organizations can understand English letters.
  • You can increase your chances of getting a detailed, early reply to your inquiry (or a reply at all!) by saying in your letter that the answer can be in German (you can get it translated quite easily). Many Germans can read English but not compose a detailed reply in it.
  • Take the trouble to write individual letters of inquiry: a duplicate inquiry does not inspire the recipient to take much trouble over a reply.
  • Many of the German form-letters provided by America genealogical publications are written in very poor German. A personal letter in good English makes a much better impression.
  • Avoid asking primitive questions (e.g., "Tell me something about the history of this region"). There is certainly a book (Encyclopedia Britannica?) or an expert in your country who can supply this sort of information more easily (and cheaply!). Be aware of the geography of the region you think your ancestor came from.
  • Don't be informal: say "Dear Sir" rather than "Dear folk" or "To whom it may concern". And supply a Mr., Mrs., or Ms. before your name so that a German person who doesn't know what gender of person "Jean" is, for example, can address you without embarrassment.
  • Say thank you! Acknowledge the work a German genealogist has done for you, even when it has proved unsuccessful. This will encourage him to do work for you or other overseas inquirers.
  • Pay your bills! Normally you pay for the research, not necessarily for the successful finding of your ancestors.
  • Don't be impatient! You may not believe it, but (as I said at the beginning) your letter is just one of tens of thousands of inquiries arriving at German genealogical addresses every year.

General hints for traveling in Germany

(a) Being in Germany as a tourist. Tourism in Germany takes place mainly in two kinds of areas: in holiday resorts for Germans (skiing areas, etc.) and in main tourist attractions for foreign (American, Australian, Japanese etc.) tourists (Cologne, Heidelberg, Munich etc.). In other areas, tourists travel like businessmen.

Information about traveling in Germany in general may be found in various printed guides, one of them being:

  Baedeker's Travel Guide Germany. (Stuttgart and Freiburg: Baedeker 1985). - Contains an introduction to the political structure of West Germany, its climate, history, art and music; has a great deal of practical information for tourists and carries descriptions of the various German regions and the major towns.

There are few motels along the German motor ways. Average hotel prices range from DM 70 to DM 150 a night for a room including breakfast. Hotel reservations may be made through your local travel agency (which will usually arrange more expensive places for you), through the central German reservations bureau (Allgemeine Deutsche Zimmerreservierung (ADZ), Corneliusstraße 34, W-6000Frankfurt 1, phone 069-740767, English spoken), or with the hotels themselves. Here is a selection of the major German hotel-guides:

  Varta-Führer Deutschland. (Stuttgart: Mairs Geogr. Verlag 1993). (lists 9000 hotels and 4000 restaurants).
  Michelin-Hotelführer Deutschland 1993. (Karlsruhe: Michelin 1985) (8000 hotels, 2000 restaurants).
  Aral Schlummer-Atlas 1993. Ein Wegweiser zu über 4000 Hotels und Gasthäuser. 16th ed. 1993. (Dortmund: Busche 1993) (Guide to more than 4000 hotels and restaurants, with more than 100 town plans and 16 pages of maps).
  Deutsches Jugendherbergsverzeichnis 1992/93. (Detmold: Dt. Jugendherbergswerk 1990) (List of German youth-hostels, with addresses and further information).

Outside of the main season and of the main tourist places, you will do just as well looking for a hotel sign at the roadside. Many of the smaller hotels and inns are not listed in the above mentioned guides.

Road maps, hotel guides, and other tourist guides are mostly bilingual, and some of them are available in English. It is possible to travel in Germany without speaking the German language, but it is recommended to learn a few words to understand signs of all kinds. Almost everywhere you will find someone who can translate for you, but please observe the following hints:

  • Speak slowly and clearly, and do not use idioms.
  • Spell slowly (not more than two letters a second).
  • When you feel you have not been understood, repeat your phrase in other words.

Using a public telephone is very simple in Germany, as you do not need an operator even for foreign calls. You simply put coins or a telephone card (Telefonkarte, available at every post office) into the machine and dial. People in Germany usually reply by saying their name or the name of their office, so you can identify if you have reached the right number. When your credit is expired, a sign will light up on the telephone and give you a few seconds to put more coins in. Some machines display your current credit. All German post offices have phone booths where you may place long distance calls and pay after you have completed your call.

(b) Transportation. Compared with the United States or Australia, Germany is a small country and you may travel anywhere within a day. There are various means of transportation:

  • By car. The easiest way is to rent a car. The major international car rental companies have branches in Germany, and you may get a reservation through your local office. You may borrow a car from a German friend. No special insurance arrangement is needed in this case, as in Germany cars are insured for every driver. To register a car on your own requires a fixed place of residence (fester Wohnsitz) which you will get by registering at an office called the "Einwohnermeldeamt", but don't forget to unregister when you leave; otherwise you will be traced as an illegal alien after three months. You may register the car either with a domestic licence plate (if you want to leave it in Germany) or with an international (oval) plate (if you want to export it). Insurance for an oval plate is much higher.
  • By train and bus. Germany has a dense railway network and the trains usually depart and leave precisely on time. Large cities in Germany are connected to each other by very fast "IC" and "IEC" trains that usually run once an hour during the daytime, and are connected with the outskirts by a quick and frequent urban train or subway system (S-Bahn). The countryside is served less effectively by slower trains and buses. All train connections and buses operated by the German railways are found in a thick book with their schedules: DB Allgemeines Kursbuch. Issued twice a year by Deutsche Bundesbahn. (with English explanation of signs and useful information for passengers). For all questions concerning railway travel in Germany you may contact one of the following offices: German Rail, Suite 118, Hudson Place, Victoria Station, London SW1V 1JL, (0044)4990578[?].DER Travel Service, 11 933 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025, phone xxx xxx xxxx. The Eurailpass entitles persons having their permanent residence outside Europe to unlimited first-class travel over the 100,000 mile national railroad networks of the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Germany, Rep. of Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland. It is also valid on some lake steamers and some of the private railroads. It cannot be purchased in Europe and is issued to children aged 4 to under 12 years at half rate. The Eurail pass is available from your travel agent or from the tourist offices of various participating European countries.

    For further information check: 
  Katie Wood, George McDonald (eds.), Europe by train: the complete guide to inter railing. (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin 1984), 411 pp., maps.


  • By bicycle in combination with train. The German railways offer cheap bike tickets if you load and unload your bicycle yourself onto the freight car (guard's van).
  • By hitch-hiking. This is mainly for young people. Ask others about their experiences. In some cities there are agencies (Mitfahrzentralen) that refer people who are looking for a lift to people who offer a lift in return for sharing the cost. Addresses and phone numbers of such agencies are found in the telephone directory. One young American genealogist had very good luck. When he tried to get a ride to the place where his ancestors came from, he was given a lift by the local genealogist and not only got free travel, but also lots of information about his ancestors. For further information see: 
  Ken Welsh, Hitch-hiker's guide to Europe: how to see Europe by skin of your teeth. (London: Fontana 1985). 412 pp., maps.


  • By taxi. This is the most expensive way. If you plan to do longer journeys, then arrange a special rate in advance. Many students work as taxi drivers, so it should not be too difficult to find an English speaking driver, at least in a city where there is a university. You may also prefer to use taxis within big cities, where due to the network of buses and trams it is often hard to get around for strangers.

Road-atlases (Auto-Atlas) are available in bookstores and gas-stations, they contain maps of Germany (scale about 1:300,000) and Europe, an index of places, and other tourist information. For more details you may choose between the Deutsche Generalkarte (scale 1:200,000) or the Topographische Karte (scale 1:50,000). Both are available from bookstores.

(c) The best seasons to travel. The best time for a genealogical travel is spring (April to June) and fall (autumn) (September and October). Watch out for many public holidays in spring. July and August are not recommended because many parish offices and smaller archives are closed for vacation and because you may suffer from the heat (Germany does not have much air conditioning).

(d) A visit to the ancestral village. Unless they lie close to a big city, many German villages have preserved their appearance over the centuries. The church and the town hall should still look the same as they did in previous centuries. With the help of the land register (Kataster), you may find out the house where your ancestors lived (Make sure that there was no change of house numbers in the meantime. Otherwise you will take pictures of the wrong building.). There may even be a record of the sale of your emigrant ancestor's estate kept in the local archives. The old house where your ancestors lived may be inhabited by Italians or Turks now, and they will not understand your interest in this buildings and may suspect you are a real estate broker and want to take their residence from them. There is no need to visit the local cemetery because graves are usually only preserved for about thirty years and the burial plot is then reused for another interment. This is not true for Jewish cemeteries.

(e) Plan your trip in advance. It is common for a visiting researcher who, after some hours of searching all over the town, finally comes into the state archives shortly before closing time and asks for the birth certificate of his grandfather John Miller who left Germany around 1880. He may be informed that vital registers for that period are kept by the church and the vital registration office (Standesamt), also that emigration records are not kept by this archive, that a certain knowledge of the German language is needed to work with such papers, and that the German place of origin must be known to start a search at all.

Such an experience shows that a research trip must be properly planned in order to gain all the desired information. You may gain initial information in the books listed below and then write to the places of interest some months in advance and ask if they have useful documents, books, or collections, and what their opening hours and vacation times are. You may order documents or books in advance, so they will be there when you arrive. Some archives demand a written application several weeks before the visit.

Finding living relatives

There is a widespread desire to find living German relatives, descendants of a brother or sister of an emigrant ancestor. This is a difficult job and can only be outlined roughly.

If the persons in question lived in a small place, then you maybe able to use the church registers and trace the descendants down to a person who is still living in or near the village. He or she may be able to tell you what happened to the brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts, and other relatives.

If the persons moved away, then it is more difficult. If you have no idea where they went to, then the fist choices would be the next bigger city and the United States. Probate records or death notices in newspapers may give you an idea about the descendants. The cities have files of inhabitants (Einwohnermeldekarteien) that provide information about individuals living there.

Telephone directories help to locate bearers of a certain family name. However, if you find someone with a given family-name, he is not necessarily a relative, because many family names are concentrated in certain areas. Practically everybody in Germany will tell you that a brother of his grand-father or great-grandfather emigrated to America, so this information does not mean a great deal.


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