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After acquainting yourself with the general organization of the church book and locating your ancestor’s record, the next step (after panicking about the illegible German script and realizing that the German church records are actually written in German) is to look at the format of the record.  Identify if it is a baptismal, marriage, or burial record and whether it is in paragraph or table form.  Thankfully, more recent records are often in a table format, but both forms generally contain similar information.  If it is in a table form, start by translating the column headings (or at least determining their category).  Be sure that you use the whole page if you cannot figure some words on your ancestor’s record.  Often similar words are used on multiple entries and we all know that our ancestor’s entry always has the large ink blot or tear.  Also, be aware that there might be multiple copies of the same church book available.  If the book contains multiple entries that were entered uniformly (and in nice handwriting), it might be a duplicate church book (Kirchenbuchduplikat).  If the original and duplicate books are both available, use the duplicate as a finding aid to locate the original record.  In addition to possible transcription errors, many pastors went back and wrote notes on previous entries when a person died (indicated by a cross), got married, immigrated, etc..

 

Sources used:  

  1. Schober Katherine. 2020. The Magic of German Church Records : Finding the Key to Your Ancestor's Past. San Bernardino CA: Katherine Schober.
  2. ‚ÄčFamilySearch Wiki. “Germany Church Records.” FamilySearch Wiki, FamilySearch Wiki, 30 June 2022, https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Germany_Church_Records. 
[Located in Category: Introduction to Parish Records]

Despite the fact that few native German speakers today are able to read the old German Gothic Script, there are several great tutorials.  Brigham Young University has several resources including an animation of formation of the letters.  Dr. Roger Minert has written several books and articles on the subject, is an excellent speaker, and recommends practicing writing the letters to aid your understanding.  Familiarizing yourself with the differences of the letters that look or sound similar may also help.  Katherine Schober’s website Germanology Unlocked contains her blog, as well as information on her books, webinars, and her two courses (one focused on reading German Gothic Script and one focused on learning German Language for Genealogical purposes).  FamilySearch.org also has a wealth of information including these webinars by Dr. Fritz Juengling.  The FamilySearch German Genealogy Research Group in the Community section (located under the ? for Help and the Community section)  is helpful for questions about short translations.

 

Ultimately, reading German Gothic Script is an acquired skill and you just need to stop panicking and start trying.  Realize that all you need to recognize at first is your family surnames, types of records, and dates–the rest you can figure out (or get help with) later. 

 
[Located in Category: Introduction to Parish Records]

Don’t be intimidated by the German language used in German parish records.  There are many German word lists of genealogical terms.  Some may even have the words divided by record type or category.  A practical book that includes examples of several vocabulary lists and writing styles is If I Can You Can Decipher Germanic Records by Edna M. Bentz.  The German-English Genealogical Dictionary by Ernest Thode is also a great reference for historical words.  Wordmine.info is a great source if you can’t decipher all of the letters.  Especially if your record contains columns, using the whole page allows you to categorize (occupation, town name, etc.) unknown words.  Meyersgaz.org allows wildcards and is useful to confirm town names  and Geogen can be used to check surname spellings.  If you are confronted with paragraph style records, familiarize yourself with typical information present in specific record types.

 
[Located in Category: Introduction to Parish Records]

Baptisms are known as “Taufen” in German (root word Tauf) and their records may be in paragraph or table format.  The year (Jahr) and parish name are often located at the top of the page.  The entries are typically numbered  in chronological order from the first birth of the year and the surname is indicated next.  The child’s sex is often indicated by the placement of the first names in a particular column or on a particular page.  The date of birth and baptism may include the day written in numbers and words.  The time of birth may be indicated by using the format at (um) + number + o’clock (Uhr) + time of day (Vormittags/Mittags/Nachmittags/Abends/Nachts).  Since this is a baptismal record, if only one date is specified, it will probably be the date of baptism.  However, both the birth and baptismal dates are typically indicated and they will usually be within a few days of each other.  Clues to an illegitimate (unehelich) child include a swoosh over the “u” in unehelich, more than one word in the legitimacy column, an upside down or sideways entry, or no father’s name specified on the record.  Names of parents (Aeltern) are typically included with the father’s name followed by occupation (Stand).  If a word that means “from” (zu, in, aus, von) is present, then a town (root word Ort) will probably follow.  The mother’s name often includes her first name + born (geboren or geb.) + maiden name.  The place of baptism, pastor’s name, and the godparents (Paten, Pathen, Taufpaten, Taufpathen) may also be specified.

 
[Located in Category: Introduction to Parish Records]

Confirmations (Konfirmationen) contain less information than baptismal records but at the very least put your ancestor in a particular place at a particular time and give you a general idea of a birth date.  Confirmations were typically performed around the age of 14 in Protestant churches once per year (confirmations that I have found in German Churches in the United States tend to occur around Easter).  In addition to the date of the confirmation and the child’s name, the father’s name, the date of birth of the child, and the village of residence might be included.
[Located in Category: Introduction to Parish Records]

Marriages (Heiraten, Trauungen, Verehelichung, Ehen) may also be recorded in table or paragraph form. The year (Jahr) and parish name are often located at the top of the page.  The entries are typically numbered  in chronological order from the first marriage of the year.  There is a portion for the groom (Bräutigam) that will include his name, legitimacy, age or birth date, occupation and parents' names with the father’s occupation.  There will be a separate area that will include similar information for the bride (Braut).  The marriage date, pastor, place of marriage, and names of witnesses (Zeugen) are typically included.  Multiple dates may indicate the announcement of the intention to marry (Aufgebote or Eheverkündigungen) at both parishes to make sure that there were no objections.  This may provide a hint to the groom’s home parish as typically marriages occurred in the bride’s parish.  Females typically married for the first time around the age of18 to 25 while men tended to marry for the first time in their mid 20s.  Previous spouses and their death dates might be recorded.  A clue to search for death records occurs when a parent or spouse is listed as a widow (Witwe) or widower (Witwer). 

 
[Located in Category: Introduction to Parish Records]

Burials (Beerdigung, Begräbnisse, Bestattung) may also be recorded in table or paragraph form.  The year (Jahr) and parish name are often located at the top of the page.  The entries are typically numbered  in chronological order from the first burial of the year.  The deceased  woman’s maiden name  is normally included and the occupation is normally indicated for a deceased man.  The place of residence after “from” (zu, in, aus, von) is often present.  A spouse’s name and survivors may be listed.  Look for clues to search for other death records if the deceased is identified as a widow (Witwe) or widower (Witwer).  The age is often listed in year/month/day (Jahr/Monat/Tag) form.  Math (along with penmanship) was apparently not highly valued in priests so be sure to use this as an approximation (and use a calculator).  If only one date is present, it is likely the burial date.  Typically a death date, place of burial, pastor’s name, and illness (Krankheit) or cause of death will also be included
[Located in Category: Introduction to Parish Records]