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The National Institute for Genealogical Studies - LEADERS IN ONLINE GENEALOGY EDUCATION

Learning About German Compiled Sources

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at


By Michele Simmons Lewis,CG,  student


Ready to continue your advanced German courses with The National Institute for Genealogical Studies? German: Compiled Sources is  available and I just completed it.

Any genealogy class will tell you that compiled sources aren’t as good as original records and we should not use them for anything more than a clue. Though this is usually the case, it is less so when dealing with German compiled sources. The author of this course, Kory Meyerink, BS, MLS, AG, FUGA, explains the pitfalls of compiled sources but also explains why German compiled sources are more reliable than their US counterparts.

I was born in Germany and I can tell you that part of the reason this is true is that Germans are a disciplined and ordered people. It is an important part of their culture. “Ordnung muss sein!” (There must be order!). They have been keeping meticulous parish and civil records for centuries. They have officially recognized lineage book collections that began publication in the mid-1800s. They have special nobility lineage books that were first published in the mid-1700s. These books are based on records that may or may not exist today. Some of these German compiled sources will be your best evidence.

Researchers in Germany, though they may not source their findings the same way as what is expected here in the US, produce lineages and biographies that are normally sound and reliable. They just can’t help themselves, it is in their DNA. What you won’t find is the copy and paste mentality that some US “researchers” have. If you investigate any of the US “tree” websites you will see this copy and paste mentality. Sources for information are simply other trees that also lack source citations. This would make the average German researcher cringe.

Why is this important?  Sometimes the original records no longer exist or they not easily accessible to the average genealogist. FamilySearch has microfilmed many German records but there are some that are only available in Germany. Some of the German archives are starting to put digital images of the records they hold online but it will be many years before these collections are anywhere close to complete.

I am very lucky to have a close working relationship with a German researcher in Germany. We work on a One-Name Study together. She happens to be a graphic designer by trade so all her genealogy is produced in a graphical format. What you won’t see are source citations in her output but if I ask her where she got a specific fact she will check her detailed notes and be able to tell me. Germans do not document the same way as we do but their research is no less credible. Does this mean that I don’t think you should document your sources in an accepted format?  Of course not. What I am saying is using a German compiled genealogy can carry more weight than a US one.

This course will show you where to look to find these German compiled genealogies. Here is an overview of what you will be covering in this six-week course.

Module 1: Collections and Databases
Module 2: Family Histories & Biographies
Module 3: Lineage Books
Module 4: Periodicals
Module 5: Biographical Sources
Module 6: Local Sources

The accompanying text by Meyerink is excellent and will help you build your German reference library.

To register for this course, see The National Institute’s website . Click here  to  learn more about the German Records Certificate.



More About the Course German: Civil Registration Records

Glaentzer, Joseph Hubert birth certificate 1833. Photo by Michele Lewis. Used with permission

Glaentzer, Joseph Hubert birth certificate 1833. Photo by Michele Lewis. Used with permission

By Michele Simmons Lewis, Student

In the course German: Civil Registration Records, the first thing you will learn is what types of civil records the German-speaking countries generate and where you can find them. Finding them is not as easy as it sounds. Every local jurisdiction has its own Standesamt (civil registry office). You have to know exactly where your ancestor lived to find his/her records. Since I had already taken the German: Locating Places in Germany course this was familiar territory. German gazetteers like Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs will help you find the correct jurisdiction.

Civil registration started early on, as early as 1792 in some places, so this is a great source for birth , marriage, and death certificates (Geburtsurkunden, Heiratsurkunden und Sterbeurkunden). In the second module of this course you learn what sort of information you can expect to find in these records. German civil records are fairly uniform across the different jurisdictions and contain a lot of genealogical data. Many Standesamts used typeset, fill-in-the blank forms which usually makes them easier to read than church records of the same time period.

Many of Germany’s civil records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library (FHL). The FHL’s FamilySearch website is starting to upload some of these microfilms online as they are being digitized (check the Records collection for Germany). Don’t make the mistake of thinking that what you see on FamilySearch is all there is. You must also check the FamilySearch Catalog. You can order  microfilms and they will be sent to the Family History Center nearest you where you can view them. With my own family I have been very lucky. The Köln Archives has put digital images of their holdings online. They aren’t complete yet but this has been a goldmine for me because my family has been in the Köln area since the early 1700s. The records are not indexed as a whole but each individual book is indexed so that helps. The biggest problem is the one I mentioned at the beginning of this post; there are Standesamts for every local jurisdiction. Köln is a big city and it is divided up into many districts, each with its own Standesamt.

One really nifty thing you will see on German civil records that you won’t see on American ones is a chain of documents. For example, if you find a death certificate for someone, the Standesamt, year and page number for the person’s birth certificate will also be recorded. You can then use this information to find the actual birth certificate. You will also see these same links to births on marriage records. If you are lucky enough to have a family’s Stammbuch, the Standesamt, year and page number for all of the births, marriages and deaths will be recorded. A Stammbuch is a booklet of vital events that the family keeps. The entries are stamped by the local Standesamt.

Module 4 is very important because you learn about Germany’s privacy laws. These laws are very strict and they are different than what you might be used to. There are three different laws that govern civil registration records and you need to understand them all because it will save you some frustration. Getting to know your cousins in Germany will help you obtain documents that you would otherwise not be entitled to. This is only a problem for more contemporary records. The older records are accessible to anyone.

German: Record Repositories

In The Library by Serge Bertasius Photography/ Courtesy of

In The Library by Serge Bertasius Photography/ Courtesy of

By Michele Simmons Lewis, Student

I am really moving along through the German courses. I just finished German: Record Repositories. This course was not as intense as my last one, German: Reading the Records, but still very informative. I thought I knew how to navigate the Family History Library (FHL) catalog pretty well but when it comes to the German microfilms it turns out I didn’t know as much as I thought. There are several categories of films I had not paid any attention to because I didn’t think they were of any value.  One of those is the Inventories. The Inventories microfilms tell you what records actually exist. If you can’t find something, is it because it hasn’t been microfilmed or is it because those records were destroyed in World War II?  Knowing the answer to that question will save you a lot of time. Module 1 and 2 of the course outlines everything you need to know about what the FHL has and doesn’t have. Why the emphasis on the FHL?  Because the FHL went to Germany and filmed countless church and civil records and their collection is second to none.

Module  3 switches to the German Archives. When you say German Archives you aren’t talking about one entity. Germany has many archives. There are civil archives and there are church archives. There are archives at several different jurisdictional levels. There is a lot to know. You need to be familiar with how to navigate the various inventories (inventories again!) for these archives so that you will know what is available and where it is located. The German archives are slowly putting their holdings online. The Historische Archiv Köln (Historic Köln Archives) is one of the archives that has online holdings. Lucky for me most of my family was from the Köln area and I have been able to find many civil birth, marriage and death records there.

Module 5 concentrates on genealogical societies. There are German genealogical societies here in the United States and these focus mainly on immigration but there are also many genealogical societies based in Germany itself. Even if you are not fluent in German you can join a society that covers the area where your ancestors were from. Many Germans speak English and you can do some serious networking. Some of these societies have online databases you can tap into as well as other helpful resources.

Module 6 is all about corresponding with archives. Included in the materials is the FHL’s Letter Writing Guide which has all of the parts of a letter you will need so that you will get exactly what you want. You can mix and match the parts. You have the greeting, introduction, biographical information of your person of interest, genealogical requests, referral requests (if they don’t have what you need), payment, closing remarks, return address and follow-up. One of the assignments is to craft a letter for a document you need. The supplied materials make it easy. There is no reason to be afraid to write to an archive because they will understand your letter with no problem.

I have three more intermediate courses to complete and then on to the advanced courses!


Reading German Records


By Michele Simmons Lewis, Student

German: Reading the Records  is my favorite German course from The National Institute for Genealogical Studies so far. The first half of this course concentrates on teaching you how to write in the old German script. Actually forming the letters over and over again gets those letter shapes in your brain and you have a much easier time recognizing them when you are reading documents. The second half of the course is all about reading real records. There is a required book for this course, Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents by Roger P. Minert. This is an excellent book and has countless examples of documents along with transliterations and translations. Each document is fully analyzed pointing out certain things you need to be watching for such as common abbreviations and common phrases. This is one of those books you will want to read from cover to cover.

Grocery list. Courtesy of Michele Simmons Lewis

Grocery list. Courtesy of Michele Simmons Lewis

There is a little surprise in the class. German documents aren’t always written in German. You also have to learn how to read Latin and French. I happen to love languages so I was pretty happy to see these assignments. Now I have even more flexibility and these skills will help me in other areas, not just with German records.

This isn’t an easy course. The assignments include documents that look like they were written by a second-grader. (Did you think that only happened with English records?)  There are faded documents and some have the words cut off at the margin. These are the types of documents you will most certainly see when you are doing real research. The more practice you get with these less-than-perfect documents the less hair you will pull out of your head later on.

Here are two hints. You can buy the same font used in Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents (it is listed as a resource) from The name of the font is DS-Kurrent. It costs 20 €. You can use this font to see what words are supposed to look like.  You can also download a free font called Sütterlin that was designed by Professor Don Becker at the University of Wisconsin’s German Department. You will find it here The Sütterlin font is a little more contemporary and it wasn’t used for as long of a period of time but it is very similar. The letters are more rounded. This is the style of writing my mother learned in school just before World War II.

The second hint is to take the time to practice your writing skills. For example, I write out my grocery list in English but I write it using the German script. I then type out my list and see how close I came. I use Evernote quite a bit and some of my notes are in these fonts. You can write them out in a normal font and then change it all at once. The next time you look at the note you will be forced to read it in old German.  It is a lot of fun.  I think you will find the German: Reading the Records course challenging but it will be a favorite.

German: Church Records

Bu Michele Simmons Lewis, Student

Well that’s embarrassing. I just took the final exam for the German: Church Records course. I am not going to tell you what my score but I will tell you that this has been the hardest course (and exam) so far. I definitely need to go back over the material again. The text that accompanies this course is excellent. As a matter of fact, not only do you get the regular course materials but you also get German Church Books: Beyond the Basics by Kenneth L. Smith. There are 239 pages of text for this course.

Cologne Cathedral And Hohenzollern Bridge  by noppasinw. Courtesy of

Cologne Cathedral And Hohenzollern Bridge by noppasinw. Courtesy of

When examining church registers you can’t just skim through them looking for familiar names. This is a mistake that I have made in the past. You have to analyze every baptism, every marriage, and every death entry for the period of time in question and build all of the family groups. This is the only way you will be able to separate everyone out correctly. Sometimes the entry will have a first name and sometimes it will have a middle name or even a second middle name. At first glance you might think you are dealing with several people when you are really only dealing with one. The reverse can happen as well. “Anna” might be three different people and not just one.

For the final exam, you are given a parish register with baptisms, marriages, and deaths. You have to put everyone in their proper family group after analyzing all of the data and then you answer the questions. It isn’t easy but doing it for real isn’t easy either. When you take this course I suggest you reread the entire text before attempting the exam. If you do well on this exam tackling a parish register on microfilm will not intimidate you.

I am looking forward to doing this with my family. Several years ago I looked at a church register on microfilm from a parish in Köln (Cologne). I went through it and copied down the names and dates of the people that I knew belonged in my family and some that I thought might. After taking the German Church Records course I now know that I probably missed a lot of information. I will be looking at the same microfilm again but this time I will be copying down every entry during a certain time period. A lot of these German parish records have been indexed so that will help but I will still need to examine the original records.

I have started my first intermediate course, German: Reading the Records. This one is all about learning to read the old German script and typeface. So what is the best way to learn how to read the script?  Learning to write it yourself. The first half of this course concentrates on teaching you how write. I am having fun practicing by writing out my grocery list in the old script. The second half of the course is all about reading actual records.  I will be reporting back after I have finished this course.

Practice Your German Language Skills

Michele Simmons Lewis, Student

I have a tip for anyone working through the German courses. If you want some real life practice reading German documents I highly recommend that you volunteer as an indexer for FamilySearch. Not only will you be giving back to the genealogy community you will be putting what you are learning in the German courses into use and you will get feedback on how well you did.


Don’t know what Indexing is?  Here is some general information:

  • The Family History Library is digitizing their microfilm. They need volunteers to index the images to make them more user friendly for researchers.
  • You will download a small indexing program to your computer (FamilySearch will be switching over to a web-based indexing system soon). You can see what the program looks like and how it works HERE.
  • You can then select a batch and off you go!

“But I am worried that I won’t be able to read the handwriting and I will make a mistake!”

  • All batches are indexed by TWO indexes. If the indexers disagree on anything the entire batch goes to an arbitrator who will decide
  • There are batches for beginner, intermediate and advanced indexers
  • If you ever pick up a batch and it looks too difficult you can throw it back into the queue and pick up a different one
  • If there is something on a batch you need help with you can “share” your batch with another indexer or arbitrator for their opinion
  • After a batch has been arbitrated you will have the opportunity to review the batch and see what the arbitrator changed
  • You will be given your percentage of agreement with the arbitrators. As you gain experience you will see this number go up. This is a great way to monitor your progress

The #1 reason an arbitrator has to change an entry has absolutely nothing to do with how well the person was able to read the handwriting. The #1 reason an arbitrator changes something is because the indexer did not read the specific instructions for that project. Each project has its own set of instructions and they can be very different from project to project. I have been an arbitrator for a long time and I have to say it is a bit frustrating when I have to go through a batch and change a lot of things just because an indexer did not read the instructions.

New projects are added as when current projects are finished.

This is a win-win situation. You get practice using your new German skills and FamilySearch gets indexed digital images of their German documents that everyone can use.


Learning More About the German Language

by Michele Simmons Lewis, Student

I just completed my third National Institute for Genealogical Studies German course, German: The Language . I was looking forward to this one because I was wondering what the course could teach me considering that I am a native German. I was in for a few surprises.

“Deutschland, Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Volkszählung 1900,” index and images, FamilySearch ( : accessed 24 Nov 2014), Anna Abs, Blievenstorf, Blievenstorf, Neustadt; Mecklenburgisches Landeshauptarchiv, Schwerin [Mecklenburg State Archives, Schwerin]; FHL microfilm .

According to the course description found online, the course  covers the classification of German words, fundamentals of German grammar for family historians, and basic spelling conventions. The description states “One does not need to become fluent in the German language to be a good genealogist in German records. This course introduces the key information needed about the German language so researchers can be successful in reading German. Pronunciation of and writing in German is not generally necessary for genealogical research.”

This course begins by teaching the basic language structure and essential German genealogy vocabulary, and then you translate excerpts from actual documents. There are 16 translation assignments but before you start having palpitations, each assignment is pretty short. After you translate each section you will then get to see the translation from the instructor. You can put all of these together to make your own translation guide for each type of document to refer back to.

One thing that you learn very quickly is that once you know the basic root words you will recognize a lot of words in the documents. For example, any word that contains Geburt has something to do with a birth. I bought one of the recommended books, German-English Genealogical Dictionary by Ernest Thode and in it there are 34 compound nouns listed with Geburt in them. Since the other parts of these compound nouns are also common genealogical words you can figure out what a document is in no time. Schein is the word for certificate so Geburtsschein is a birth certificate. If you know that the word Tauf refers to baptism you can now make the word for baptismal certificate, Taufschein. Germans love their compound nouns and you can have a lot of fun with this. You will immediately know what the document is referring to even if you don’t understand it 100 percent. The translation assignments come from baptisms, marriages, burials, gazetteers, web pages, lineage books, emigration records, published books and biographies so you get a good variety. Practice is essential because just knowing the words isn’t enough. You need to be familiar with how the documents are formatted and worded.

Even though I speak German many of the genealogical words are not commonly used in everyday speech so I was not familiar with them. I definitely benefited from this course .

Continuing My Journey Through German Records

By Michele Simmons Lewis, Student

I chose Locating Places in Germany  as my second German course from the National Institute for Genealogical Studies  and I am happy I did. This course is packed with information to help you track down where in Germany your ancestor came from and how to locate the records for that location.

Thumb Tack On Map – Berlin by Mister GC/ Courtesy of

Module 1 explains some of the pitfalls when trying to identify where in Germany your ancestor came from. It is easy to make a bad assumption. Some towns have the same name as other larger jurisdictions and there might be more than one town with the same name. This makes sense considering we have the same thing here in the United States. There is an Appling, Georgia (town) and an Appling County, Georgia. Appling the town isn’t even in Appling County, it is in Columbia County. I live in Harlem, Georgia, not to be confused with Harlem, New York.  Another thing to consider is the name of the town could have changed when another country took over that area. The borders were constantly changing. To learn more about this consider taking Introduction to German Research for North Americans  which gives a great basic history of Germany and the jurisdictional changes. You can learn more about this course in my previous blog post.

Module 2 goes on to explain the different jurisdictional levels and it covers all of the German-speaking areas of Europe. Knowing the political divisions and at which level records are held will save you a lot of time.

Being able to read a gazetteer is an essential skill and that is covered in Module 3.  The most useful gazetteers are in German and you will need to be able to interpret the German abbreviations used. To make it even more challenging, the old gazetteers are in gothic typeface (Fraktur). Reading the entries is not an easy task even for me but this course gives you all the tools you need.

The most comprehensive German gazetteer is the Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs, 5th ed., compiled by E. Utrecht. This is available in its entirety for free on If you don’t already have an account you will need to register for a free guest login. I have to say, it is fun to try and figure out what the Meyers gazetteer is trying to tell you about a location. It is almost like putting a puzzle together. The reading materials for Module 3 provides all the tools you need to work it out.

Modules 4 and 5 cover the location specific gazetteers for Germany and the other German-speaking countries. These are important because unlike the Meyers Gazetteer they also contain the church/parish information you will need to locate church records.

Module 6 goes into more detail about when and why a place might have changed names. This module gives you specific resources you can use to track down a name change. These are available in book form or on microfilm/microfiche.

I have already started the German: The Language course. I am interested to see what I will learn in this course since I already speak German. Stay tuned.



Introduction to German Research for North Americans

By Michele Simmons Lewis, Student

So why would a native German take the German Records courses offered at the National Institute for Genealogical Studies? Most of the research I have done in the past 23 years has been in American records not German. I mistakenly thought that German family history research was pretty much impossible for those living in the United States. Although I was born in Germany, I came to the US when I was only six years old so I don’t have a good working knowledge of German geography or history. I do not know the laws that govern civil vital records, the traditions that govern the church records nor do I have knowledge about what records are actually available. These are the things I need to know, and the things I am counting on The National Institute for Genealogical Studies to teach me.

German Script by Ian Kahn/Courtesy of

Introduction to German Research for North Americans is my first course. In the first module, we learn the four essential things you need to know about an immigrant before you can do more in-depth research. I had the funniest problem with this week’s assignment! I needed to make a table of my German immigrant ancestors to include these four essential pieces of information. As far as I know I don’t have any German immigrant ancestors because my mother and I are the first immigrants. My family, both past and present, are in Germany so I contacted a genealogist friend of mine and borrowed a couple of her immigrant ancestors for the assignment.

Module 1 goes on to explain the seven key elements to German research. One thing that I was happy to read in the text was, “…German research is often easier than British, Canadian, or U.S. research.”  I was immediately mad at myself for not taking the time to learn about German research before now. At this point I was only in the first week of my first course and I had already learned more than the sum total of my previous knowledge.

A concise history of Germany and the history of German immigration is found in Module 2. The assignment for this module was to do some in-depth research on two of the events listed on the timeline provided in the materials. This assignment had a direct bearing on my own research. I have a Prussian document dated 10 Jan 1922 that was a puzzle to me. It is a declaration of citizenship to Prussia for my great-grandmother Emilie (Fiege) Weichert. She was living in the Marienwerder district where she was born and had always lived. Why did she need this citizenship document? Through the research I did for this assignment I discovered that on 10 January 1920, half of the Marienwerder district became part of Poland. I now know that this paper was necessary to show her allegiance to Germany instead of Poland.

There are many areas of central Europe that have German ancestry besides the three “core” countries of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Module 3 details the history of these different countries and areas. This module also covers German migration. What I didn’t realize was that Germans migrated to many different countries, not just to America. Not only do you learn where Germans migrated to you also learn WHY they migrated.

Module 4 covers the essential German culture you must know to understand why your ancestors did the things that they did. Having this background knowledge also helps you interpret German records correctly. Religious practices, family traditions, naming customs, occupations, social status, education and language are all covered.

Modules 5 and 6 cover the resources you will need. Module 5 details the available online databases and the assignment for this module gives you practical experience using them. Module 6 lists the reference and instructional books you need to build your home library. I have already put several of these books on my Amazon wishlist.

Even with my German background I learned a lot in this introductory course and I am looking forward to the more in-depth courses.

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