This article is part of the series “Are your German ancestors playing hide-and-seek?” about various reasons why you might not have found your ancestors yet. One of the possible reasons could be that there are missing sources.
Missing sources : church registers
Archiepiscopal registers in Germany often have hundreds of church registers, if not even more, depending on the size of the archdiocese. And yet there is a decent amount of missing registers which have disappeared for one reason or another. Floodings, fires, wartime, theft or simply carelessness are the reasons why thick tomes went poof or ended in smoke, sometimes even literally.
Since those church registers were originals and unique, there was nothing to replace them once they were lost. To prevent such losses the French administration during the French period in Europe decreed that every parish was obliged to copy their registers at the end of the year and send the copies to special civil archives.
If the primary source (original register of the native parish) is missing, you might be lucky to find a duplicate in one of the civil archives (Personenstandsarchive) to complete your family puzzle.
BUT… of course those copies are just that: copies, with the risk of missing, misspelled or mixed up information. If you find your immigrant ancestors’ data in two different registers and the information doesn’t exactly match, always pick the information from the primary source (the original church register of the native parish) and not from the secondary source (the duplicate in the civil archive).
Missing sources : civil registers
Civil registers and other non-parochial documents are usually kept in the Stadtarchiv. Wars, fires, floodings and other disasters spoiled or destroyed a lot of those as well. Especially World War II caused a lot of damage to the cities. Many a Stadtarchiv and their inventory was reduced to rubble and ashes. But it didn’t have to be a huge event like a war to damage documents as you can see below.
These church register duplicates, written in 1821 and 1822, were to be microfilmed in 1973. Time hadn’t been kind to these documents, so their content might be partially lost. In 1973 it wasn’t possible to open and microfilm them without damaging them past recovery. Maybe in the meantime experts already have been – or at some point will be – able to hopefully restore them without great damage. If such damage happens to either an original or duplicate source, the information will still be available in the undamaged copy. But what if both copies are damaged or even completely gone?
Not all hope is lost. In the 19th century many collections of documents have been kind of indexed. In German those single entries are called “Regest” (which is not equal to the English word regesta which in that case refers to papal documents). Such a “Regest” usally contains the date and place as well as a short description of what the source documented, along with the names of persons that were involved. A “Regest” is in fact a short summary, not a literal transcription. A bird (aka summary) in the hand is worth two (missing originals) in the bush, right?
Besides that a lot of priests, teachers and other studied people were historically interested and published local historical pamphlets and books in which they often included document transcripts. If the primary sources are lost due to disaster there might still be a chance of those fairly reliable secondary sources. Just ask the archival clerks if there are any books of that sort.
Find out if sources are available – or gone forever
Find the right place
- First of all you need to know which parishes and townships were responsible for your ancestors’ place of residence. “Meyers Orts- und Verkehrslexikon des Deutschen Reiches”, published in 1912/13, is a good help for that.
- An online searchable version of this Lexikon with historical maps can be found on the website “Meyers Gazetteer“. The gazetteer lists all places of residence during the German Empire 1871-1918 along with their respective state and other jurisdictions, places of civil registry offices and parishes if that town had them.
Find the available online sources
- Next step would be to check the Family Search Catalog if they list any church or civil registers for your ancestors’ place of residence and the appropriate parish resp. township.
- Even if there isn’t any registry listed on Family Search, not all is lost. Much of their microfilming in Germany was done decades ago, and many church registers have resurfaced since then.
Find the archives
- The people who should know if your desired sources are available are the archive clerks. So it’s best to ask them about sources. If you don’t choose the economic option of emailing the archives but opt to give them a call instead, don’t forget to replace the phone number’s leading zero with the international area code for Germany.
- You can find a list of (not only) governmental archives on the website “Archivportal D” with various options to search by “Bundesland” (German state), “Sparte” (archive type) and “Anfangsbuchstabe” (first letter). From there you’ll get to your desired archives’ webpages with their contact information.
- If you are looking for church archives you’ll have to search on the websites of the catholic church archives (usually the archiepiscopal archive) and the protestant church archives in Germany.
Find other available local sources
- If your desired source is not available any longer, ask the archive clerks if there are other sources that might include your ancestors’ information, like duplicates/copies or local histories. They also can counsel you on which other townships or parishes were responsible for your ancestors’ places of residence at a particular time.
- Contact them and ask about your desired church registers. At least the archivists should know whether that book still exists at all, and if yes where you can view it. They can also tell you where you can find possible church register copies if there are any.
Don’t give up hope
Of course a lot of church registers are gone for good because of tragic events like fires that devoured the church and/or the parochial house, whereever the registers were stored. In those cases the registers are gone for good, can’t change that.
there are registers that just are missing. Nobody knows where they are but there’s no documented event that actually destroyed them.
I know of a case when a reasearcher was told by the priest that a certain church register had been missing for decades, so it hadn’t been among those registers that had been microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah in the 1970ties. Even a thorough search of the archive shelves by the researcher and the priest hadn’t revealed its whereabouts. The researcher left the archive, dissatisfied.
Halfway home he had the feeling to turn back and speak with the priest again which he did. The priest was quite surprised but agreed to have another look in the archive – with the same result though: the church book wasn’t to be found. The researcher banged his fist in frustration against the antique roll-fronted filing cabinet where the other registers were stored.
His frustration was strong, his fist as well… the roll-front suddenly slid a bit deeper than it was supposed to. It now revealed the really tight narrow space under the lowermost shelf board. And now guess what they found there, covered with the dust of years or even decades?
When the researcher, a friend of mine, told me the story it gave me goosebumps – and still does.
The chief registrar of one of the big catholic archives told a story to the group of visitors I was in almost three decades ago. When he took over the office there were a lot of church registers missing. They had already been missing when in the 1970ties the Genealogical Society of Utah microfilmed every single register that was available. But since then he managed to find several registers that sometimes had been missing for decades.
How? He simply went to see the parishes’ cleaning ladies and asked them which places they considered to be difficult to access and in dire need of clearing and cleaning. And there he went, on his knees or even crawling on all fours if it was necessary. In nooks and crannies, tucked away in narrow spaces behind thick stone pillars, in dark and musty crawl spaces he found ’em, more than a handful of long missing church registers which hadn’t seen the light of day for decades if not longer.
The books were cleaned and rebound or restaurated if necessary. Excellent colour copies were made, missing parts complemented from the 1970ties black-and-white microfilm copies. So nowadays the researchers can work with the (sometimes even enlarged) copies while the originals are safely stored and preserved.
Something similar happened only a few years ago. The church registers of one of the biggest catholic parishes in our area were quite heavy tomes. So shortly before 1779 someone decided to keep separate smaller registers for each of the surrounding villages and small towns. Most of these registers still existed when the Genealogical Society of Utah started microfilming in the 1970ties.
One of the registers was missing though and hadn’t been microfilmed back then. But earlier researchers had been quoting from it so it had been there until a certain point in time.
Catholic parishes in Germany nowadays have troubles of finding enough priests for each and every parish. So they combine smaller parishes into bigger ones. In this context the archdiocese began to compile a comprehensive list of books and documents, scraps of history and other paperworks in all of their parishes. Digging out an old, dusty and ragged box from the depths of a cabinet the accountant found a pile of now outdated papers. Hidden among them: a nondescript booklet which might have been used for bookkeeping from the looks of it.
Well, it was a bookkeeping of some sorts: keeping the books of baptisms, marriages and burials between 1779 and 1813 for a whole village. 34 years of genealogical information of that particular village that had been missing for a long time. This had been a huge gap, spanning at least one, sometimes even two generations.
It helped me to finally prove the descendancy from a certain woman instead of guessing it might have been one out of two possible candidates. I actually sat there, stroking my thumb over the woman’s name and thinking to myself “Welcome in the family, Catharina”.
don’t.give.up.hope! If a register still exists somewhere it will be found one day – and with it all our ancestors who are waiting to be found.
Of course knowing that a certain register or book is simply gone forever due to fire, flooding or any other catastrophe doesn’t really help your research. But it’ll save you from wasting more time on a search. Note the fact in your research log so you don’t start wondering whether or not you’ve simply missed that source or what happened to it when you revisit your research in a few years. You will then have to dig up other possibilities. Maybe there are copies or excerpts in another archive? The archives’ clerks should be able to point you in the right direction.
What are your experiences with missing sources so far? Did you manage to find copies or something else that fills in the gap?
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