International Institute of Genealogical Studies


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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.

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.

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.