Eastern Germans, a cold case?

Searching for missing or lost family members from the former German Eastern Provinces can be quite a challenge. As you may already know, following the WW2 defeat of Germany by the allies, almost all ethnic Germans were ‘cleansed’ from their former homes in East/ West Prussia, Pomerania, Silesia, etc. (as well as much of Eastern Europe). In both the Expulsion process and the bombardments that preceded the Expulsions much was destroyed. Churches, City and Governmental records, family bibles, photographs, keepsakes, books, notes, were almost all gone.

Occupation zone borders in Germany, 1947. The ...
Occupation zone borders in Germany, 1947. The territories east of the Oder-Neisse line, under Polish and Soviet administration/annexation, are shown as white as is the likewise detached Saar protectorate. Berlin is the multinational area within the Soviet zone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the case of my opa (grandfather), he was able to salvage the bottom half of a coffee can worth of keepsakes and treasures. Not much I know. He made it the west with his life, but no birth certificates, no death certificates, no family bibles, and only two photographs…

Given that my family’s situation was not exceptional, how does one begin a genealogical search in an area where there are few graves or burial records, very few family members (if any), no continuous civil structures, and what was there has been replaced by the needs of new, and often non-indigenous, people and countries? Truth be told, it is not easy. I guess I would have to say it is pretty much analogous to a Kiowa or Comanche family looking for information about their great grandparents in Colorado (where I live).

My point is this…

It is absolutely essential to remember that any search succeeds when and where there is reliable information. But if the information and sources are destroyed or severely dislocated from their ‘logical’ places, where do you go?

Here are a few points we need to remember, as we begin a search:

  • There are still people alive who can provide remembrances of that time and place. Now, they may not always provide the most accurate memories but their memories can provide decent investigative threads to follow.
  • Not everything was destroyed. Many church records were filmed by the German government in the 1940s and a lot of that material has found its way into the LDS archives. It is not always easy to read; but it can be a watershed!
  • Photographs do exist and they often show up in the strangest of locations, like eBay or grandpa’s dresser drawer. I can’t tell you how many clues I have found by staring at a picture, or by reading the margins or back of a photo.
  • Old letters that were sent to relatives who lived far away from the destruction do exist; and, these contain return addresses (potentially telling us the names of the towns where our families lived).
  • Oral family history (even given its inaccuracies) can inform us about our past. But remember to attempt to match the stories within the context of actual history for verification purposes- by that I mean to say, truth test.
  • Don’t just look for your direct family, search more broadly than your paternal or maternal lines.  Look for cousins, uncles, spread your net wide.
  • When you find a record, read as many words as you can. Don’t limit yourself to the highlights.  I found my 2G-Grandparents family by reading the names of the attendees to my great aunt’s baptism.

Think out of the box.

In the areas I research like West Prussia, I find that knowledge of the family’s religious past is most helpful. More Church records exist than anything else. Friends tell me that the same is true across much of Eastern Europe.  Look in the academic texts of your family’s faith, be they Mennonites, Jews, Lutherans (Evangelisch), Catholics or something else. You might be surprised with what you find.

Also, be aware that the current custodians of those former German lands are doing exceptional work in archiving and preserving the records that remain. For example, dlibra (a Poznan University effort in Poland) is gathering, scanning, indexing information that survived the conflagration and they are busy making it freely available on-line. Also, the church records that managed to survive continue being filmed and made available through numerous sources, most notably the LDS Church (FamilySearch).

Be encouraged! There is hope that you will be able to find a useful trail. It may not be easy, it may not be quick. But, if you do not gather your clues while you can, the trail may go cold.