Researching “Lost” Eastern German Provinces

Many people get confused when conducting searches for their Eastern German forebears; this is especially true if those forebears purport to have been from Prussia (Preussen), Pomerania (Pommern), Silesia (Schlesien).

Note: I have written a detailed article on helping you determine whether or not your family was Prussian and if so, what type.

It might not surprise you that I encounter a lot of people having trouble doing, or trying to do, ‘their’ Prussian research. Given I have fairly extensive research experience in those regions of Europe, I thought I’d put together a quick tutorial, or key, for identifying and finding clues to those Eastern German ancestors ‘of ours’ who once lived in those areas.

By way of a quick start and just in case you are unfamiliar with Prussia, there are actually three of them in the last 150 years:

  • the country (Prussia)
  • the province of West Prussia (where my mother’s family lived) and
  • the province of East Prussia (which was the seat of governance for the country of Prussia).

If you’d like to view maps of those regions, you may view several hundred on ManyRoads. You will note that the region, under discussion, is along Europe’s north central Baltic coast and it has seen many shifts in borders and control over the centuries.  However, the most dramatic and severe changes came after World War 2 (more on that here and here).

What is most important to know is that in the aftermath of WW2 some 10-14 million Eastern Germans were forcibly expelled from their homes by the allies (most notably by Russia in the ‘then’ newly controlled Soviet regions).  In addition to the forced German relocations, millions of Slavic peoples most notably the Polish and Ukrainians were relocated into the areas ‘evacuated’ by the Germans. Depending upon what you read, as many as ~3 million Germans and other Eastern Europeans may have lost their lives during this ‘population’ shift between 1944- 1950 (Sadly, accurate records were not kept; so, we will never know for certain.).   In the end, the result was a huge shifting of governments, borders, and peoples.

Thus between the war and its destruction, we had forced relocations of every nature imaginable. Destruction of property in German controlled areas was massive. If you are unfamiliar with the extent of damage, the following may help you better visualize and appreciate the circumstances:

Countless homes, records, traditions, communities, and faiths were disrupted, relocated, or destroyed.  All of this is to say, if your family came from those destroyed and/or ‘evacuated’  areas, their records and more were almost certainly disrupted or lost.

Because German research is my primary focus, I’ll discuss and show you what this might mean to your German family records and records discovery process.  But before I begin I need to say,  the same sort of thing is likely to have happened if your family was Polish, Mennonite, Jewish, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Czech, etc.  Almost everyone in these destroyed regions was negatively impacted, few escaped unscathed.

So let’s look at a map of those areas I am referring to.  Here is a ‘new’ map I built to highlight most of the post 1918 geographic shifts with respect to Germany.  (German Polish Genealogy Map- with keyJust click on the image to get ‘the big picture.’ Hit ‘escape’ to make it shrink.)

Why, you might ask, the shift from 1944 to 1918 for this map. Quite simply, I used a pre-1918 map of Germany because it highlighted Germany at its ‘contiguous height’. It shows Germany before most of the aggression associated with World War 2 or the League of Nations border adjustments following WW1 (all of which were swamped, overwhelmed by the 1944-1950 geopolitical shifts).

What you will notice, probably right away, is that Germany lost a lot of land in the last century. Today’s Poland rests on the great majority of that former German real estate, with smaller amounts going to Russia (Kaliningrad), Lithuania, France (Alsace & Lorraine) among others. When you combine the German land shifts along with the historical re-alignments of Poland and others in the Baltics, what you get is a true ‘fruit basket upset’ (to quote my father-in-law).

Where does this leaves us then? Well if your family came from any of the last century’s lost Eastern German lands, here are the tips & tricks I have learned over the years:

  • Towns and cities in today’s Eastern Europe, even though they may assume the same location of earlier towns and cities, almost never have the earlier German records; there are exceptions but as a percentage of what you would hope, not many.
  • Many, perhaps even most, German records from those areas were destroyed in the two World Wars.  In some areas the record destruction is 100%; in my experience (unofficial and opinion-based) I’d say the average is over 50%.
  • The best sources for ‘finding and getting access’ to the surviving Protestant records is the LDS archives on FamilySearch or Das Evangelische Zentralarchiv in Berlin (EZAB).  The best online ‘acquisition’ source for these records being FamilySearch.  The EZAB is a more traditional ‘brick & mortar’ archive, thus you have to go to Berlin to access these. Not bad, if you have the time!
    (See note below**)
  • Catholic records are somewhat more hopeful for those Germans who lived in the ‘bright red’ area of Poland (see my map above).  Some of those records survive in the original Catholic Archives; others sometimes appear in Polish databases.
    (See note below**)
  • If your Catholic relatives were from the hashed red areas on the map, your family’s records could be either lost, available in Polish Catholic archives, or limited largely confined to  records on FamilySearch (LDS Archives).
    (See note below**)
  • Civil and surviving government texts, address books, etc. are sometimes available in Polish archives like dlibra. But sadly, the records you find may, or may not, be located in their original place location or ‘city of origin’. Some of the best keys for actually locating these records especially the address books are to be found on Verein für Computergenealogie e.V.
    (See note below**)
  • Poland is doing an exceptional job of getting German records online (such as they have them); the challenge is that they go online where they rest, and again that is often not too close to the community ‘that once was’.
  • The LDS is doing a ‘better than exceptional’ of filming, digitizing, and providing the records within the sphere(s) of control. More are coming online all the time.
  • There is a ‘new’ EU initiative (Matricula) to place archives online, across borders, religions, and ethnic groups. But they are ‘just really beginning’.

To summarize, do not expect your Prussian or Polish research to be anything like what you encounter in countries like the US, Canada, UK, etc.  In the case of the Prussian Germans, almost all the people are gone (~99% expelled); the governments that cared and managed their data and vital statistics are all 100% gone; and much of what these peoples had was destroyed, even including churches, graveyards, and the like.  Those peoples and their records are a ‘diaspora.’ You need new tricks and non-traditional, and sometimes complex strategies, to find their traces.  Traditional Genealogical evidence requirements will not be easy to achieve, even for the most recent of your ancestors.

As a final thought, I will share the following, as relates to my research:

  • There are no records of my grandparent’s 1920 marriage; I do have a 1950s affidavit attesting to their marriage sworn in Bavaria.
  • I have only a church index attesting to my mother and uncle’s births; they were born in 1923 and 1921 respectively.  The same affidavit mentioned above attests to their births, also.
  • I have only church index record of my mother’s father’s parent’s deaths. (Weird grammar but you hopefully get the idea.)
  • There are no records of my grandfather’s WW1 military service record(s).
  • There are no records of my uncle’s WW2 military service.

In spite of all the above, I have managed to find much of their old family church records (Housed and made available by  the LDS.). I have, also, managed to build a family tree of several hundred family members and as many as 6 generations.  So, do not give up. It is not hopeless.

Hopefully, this article will help get your research off on to a productive track. If you have tricks to share or if you need help, please use our Contact page to get in touch.

**- Other excellent sources of online information are available on our Links page– select a relevant header to view the content.