Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Kindness of Stangers

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

What was true for Blanche Dubois is doubly true for me as a researcher of my German roots. For one thing, I don’t speak a word of German, (Verstehen?). For another, many of the records were lost during World War II. And finally, even if the first two issues could be overcome, there is a loss of collective identity for the place my family once called home. That home no longer exists and the inhabitants and their descendents have been scattered to the winds. (For a better idea of what I’m talking about you can read two previous posts – Pomerania - An Introduction and Part II: Pomerania - War and Consequences.)

I was lucky to have started my research on this part of my family in the Age of the Internet. If I had attempted this twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to make much headway. I was also very fortunate that my great grandparents had kept documents and letters that pointed the way to begin my search.

A website, called Kartenmeister, lets you search for the names of German villages. My great grandmother Emma, for example, was born in the village of Klein Gansen. Here’s what my search told me about the village:

From this, I learned the province and county where she was born. A website dedicated to preserving the history of the county, Stolp, was extremely helpful. They also had a mailing list, which of course is in German, and I joined.

With the mailing list, I use Google to do a quick and dirty translation, and while I am occasionally lost during some discussions, the members of this mailing list have helped me find a couple of key pieces of information. They found the baptismal record for my great grandmother and the marriage date for one set of great great grandparents.

I won’t tell you how long I labored writing my query in German, but the point is I can communicate with other German researchers, and they can communicate with me. As long I get over the fear of looking stupid in another language, I am all set.

Google also helped me find an American family historian who was researching one of my family names. Even in Germany, the last name of Quetschke is not that common, so when I found Shirley Pawlowski’s home page I was ecstatic. Shirley had actually come across my family and she was kind enough to share what she had found with me. We still haven’t figured out the exact connection between our two families but because they came from the same area of Stolp, we are certain they are connected in some manner.

One of my other great finds was a German researcher who was researching the surnames, Gliewe and Gleffe. Jörg and I communicated via the Google translator, which created some, um, interesting conversations. He translated into German a number of letters that were done in Plattdeutsch (Low German), so I could get a rough translation from Google.

He also was able to find out what happened to some of Emma’s family, and sent me family trees on them. There are people living in Germany today, who descend from Emma’s siblings. All that survived, had lived in East Germany. Jörg interviewed their descendents, and sent me some of the information.

I know for example that young Karl who had missed his little nephew, Willi, in a letter that I included in my post, Pomerania - An Introduction, had lost three sons in World War II. His wife, hearing that a third son had died, was so grief stricken that she ran from the house. They found her the next day dead and lying atop the grave of one of her sons.

A database search on Volksbund der Deutschekriegsgraberfursorge, the website of the German War Graves Commison, confirmed this information and added more details.

Another website, Pommerdatenbank, run by Gunther Stubs, inputs data from local directories into a database so that you can locate family living in the area prior to 1945. This is ongoing project, but has already yielded results for me.

Though the information on my German ancestors tends to trickle in drip by drip, it is a wonderful time to be involved in this type of research. With persistence, a good search engine, some translating tools and a lot of help from friends, I continue to make progress – a little at a time.

Until Next Time – Happy Ancestral Digging!

This was written for the Carnival of Central and Eastern European Genealogy

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