Explore the history of church books and civil registry in Pomerania starting in the mid-1500s and detailing current locations of records today, including the information that is included in each record. We also cover a little bit about archives and Lutheran churches in America.
Hello and welcome to the first episode of the Pommern Podcast, brought to you by My Pomerania. Today, we are going to discuss using and accessing church books and civil registries to obtain vital information. Many questions have arisen as to the fate of specific parishes and registry offices. Rumors have led to the belief that most records have been destroyed in the region. But is that truly the case? Stay tuned for more.
[Pommern Podcast intro]
Hi, I’m your host, Chris DeWuske and you are listening to the Pommern Podcast.
Today, we care going to tackle the issue of vital records in Pomerania. Many researchers who realize their families originated in Pomerania instead of modern-day Germany are disheartened to learn about the devastating loss of records. To help answer questions that even experienced family historians might have, we’re going to cover a very broad spectrum of topics in today’s podcast. First, we’ll talk about the history and origins of church books. I’ll tell you about what information you might be able to find in these records, including briefly discussing the use of American church books to find information about relatives abroad.. We’ll cover civil registry in Pomerania, its history, and what information should be included in each register. Then, I’ll answer the big questions about what happened to church books after the war and where records can be found today.
Prior to the Second World War, churches throughout Pomerania maintained church books dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. To understand how many records were lost in the war, one should look to Dr. Martin Wehrmann’s exposition, “Die Kirchenbücher in Pommern,” which was featured in the 42nd edition of Baltische Studien in 1892. His article outlines quite a number of church books and when their births, marriages, and death records began, the earliest being the “Ehebuch” of the Wolgast Parish Church, beginning in 1538. While the title would suggest it to be a marriage register, it appears that the book was actually a death register. Unfortunately, according to the Hinterpommern website, Dr. Wehrmann’s article is filled with errors and inaccuracies.
It should be mentioned that Pomerania was a predominantly Lutheran region. However, Catholic church records do exist, but were not as numerous.
In 1616, the Peasants and Shepherds Ordinance also helped further the keeping of records by the church. The resolution required all parish clergy to keep a separate book to record names and events which took place in their parish district. The earliest church books in Pomerania begin around 1640.
However, many church records were lost due to fire or military action. The Thirty Years War devastated large portions of Pomerania, leading to the destruction of records before the mid-1600s.
Fast forward to the Napoleonic Wars. Civil records became mandatory around this time, and churches were required to make a second set of church books as insurance. The duplicate church books were stored in a separate location, and later in larger repositories. The earliest of these copies started in 1794, though some churches might not have complied until between the years of 1800 and 1820.
Duplicate church books did not always contain the most accurate information. As they are copies, they are known to have occasional errors. Names can be mixed up. Dates can be wrong. After all–they are handwritten copies of the originals.
When possible, use the original church books as your first source of information. In addition to being more accurate, the original records typically denote more information. A full entry could list parents, ages, occupations, birth and baptism dates, marriage dates and dates of the banns, death dates and burial dates, relatives left behind, and other information vital to genealogists to retell the story of their ancestors.
In America, church records would detail the history of early German settlers. Researchers at the Brigham Young University estimate that 65-76% of historic local church records contain information related to the immigrant’s exact place of birth. These Lutheran church records can be used to fill in the gaps where records abroad have been destroyed if a relative’s immigration can be substantiated. If you are lucky, entries might contain information about parents or other family members back in Pomerania. If you are relying solely on the indexes from Ancestry, FamilySearch, or other websites, consider reading the actual pages of the church books instead. A wealth of un-indexed information can lead to more discoveries and help you uncover your roots. A great example of this is for the Zion Lutheran Church in Hudson, Iowa. Several immigrant families who settled in the area came from Podewils in Kreis Belgard. You might ask, why is this important? Well, in the case of Podewils, all records from its church and its parent church in Rarfin were lost after the Russians began expelling ethnic Germans at the end of World War II. Records from censuses, immigrations, and especially from early German-American churches can be of great use to fill in the gaps for known information about villages within parishes. But–like I mentioned–further information outside the usual scope of Ancestry.com might not be included in their indexes. To find this information, it will require a little bit of work on your part. I would highly recommend reading the individual pages and copy information from them directly when possible, as this will also help you as a researcher start to see patterns in families and family history.
So what information is included in church books? Honestly, it depends on how good of a record-keeper the pastor was at the time. Some records contain only a birth date or a baptism date–sometimes only including one or the other, but not both. In older records, birth months might be referred to in their Latinized versions. For instance, 10-bris or 10-ber, or said in German “zehn-bris or zehn-ber,” do not refer to the month of October. These are based on the older date-system, the Julian Calendar, where the calendar year actually began in March. With the switch to the Gregorian Calendar, the year started in January. These numerical names for the months refer to the Latin prefix: “sept” for seven, “octo” for eight, “novem” for nine,” and “decem” like the word decade, for ten. Hence, when reading month names in records recorded in Latin, it is crucial to not make the mistake of reading it in terms of the current calendar system, but to look back to what was being used at the time the record was recorded.
Each record was also prepended with a position number to ensure that entries were not fraudulently added to church books or removed at a later date. This layer of protection can help genealogists when tracking missing pages or pages that are out of order. Mostly and commonly, these numerical listings are utilized by family history researchers for quickly citing records.
Depending on whether a family had a book in the church, a number might also be added for the family group in the Ortssippenbuch (abbreviated OSB), or Ortsfamilienbuch (abbreviated as OFB).
Spellings of family names might be altered depending on where the pastor came from. Pomerania was a predominantly Plattdeutsch-speaking region. It was sometimes difficult for the pastor to understand the spelling of names, notably if he came from a region that spoke High-German. Names of Slavic or Wendisch origin could be especially difficult for him to transcribe. This can lead to a variety of spellings for the same family name within the same church book, and sometimes even within the same record. Only further creating more of a problem for genealogists is that the average person was not literate. They could not read or write, and this extends even so far as not knowing how to sign their own name. Some would sign with an “X” to denote their mark. With illiteracy being this prevalent, it’s not a wonder that the spelling of even the simplest names would change over the course of history.
Birth records would list parents and their professions, the given names of the child, godparents–known in the German language as “Taufpate,” the birth date and baptism date, and the village the parents were from. Additionally, other information could be included in the margins such as legitimate or illegitimate standing. It should be assumed that these children took on the family name of the mother, even if the parents married at a later date. Records might denote that the child was adopted or claimed by the father, taking his name. In my research, I have not seen many instances of this. Rather, I have noticed the mother’s maiden name following these illegitimate children throughout their lives. And, sometimes overlooked, these records also help you record the parish church and faith of the parents. It should be noted, however, that sometimes Lutheran or Catholic churches were the place of registry for both faiths if another church was not nearby.
Marriage records could include a plethora of information. Names of the bride and groom were always listed. In older books, I have seen marriages as a list with no other information. However, marriage books will typically also list more information, including the date of marriage or consummation. The groom’s father or profession might be listed, while more commonly the bride’s father was named as giving consent to the marriage. Why this is the case, I’m not sure. One would assume the groom’s father, also giving permission, would be named, but this is not always the case. The bride and groom’s ages are given, though not always accurate. I would also believe it to be a rare occurrence if the birthdates of the couple are listed. Professions of any person named in the entry are common. With surviving copies of books, dates of the marriage banns–that is, the proclamation of the couple’s intention to marry–might be listed but are by no means included in every duplicate church book. One other grouping of facts that could be referenced is whether the person had been previously married, widowed, or separated, and if children were being brought into the marriage.
Death records in the church do not hold as detailed information as they do in the civil registry books. For example, while parents might be listed in death records, the vast majority of death entries for Pomerania that I have seen do not list these vital facts in church books. Additionally, places of birth are rarely mentioned, so it can be hard to establish where a person was originally from. Even the age can be notoriously wrong, depending on how much information was known by the informant. I’ve heard a number of people say that relatives back in the 1700s knew about their ancestors, but the more I personally dig into these kinds of questions, the less I believe death records to be as accurate as people hold true.
The date of death and burial should be listed. Additionally, the cause of death might be mentioned along with the names of those the deceased left behind. This is would be written after the word, “Erben,” which means inheritance in German. More information could be given for the children, their profession or location, or for females, if their name changed because of marriage.
Sometimes, confirmation registers will have survived. These can help pre-date birth records from before the church book began. For example: a church book that starts in 1810 would only have births from that year forward. However, if confirmation records exist for those years, it can help you go back approximately 14 years. These records should contain the date of birth of the confirmand, place of birth or current location, and the father’s name.
Not all records were kept within the main church book, though. Jews tended to live in larger cities, so their vital records were typically maintained within the book for the synagogue. There was also a book for dissidents. People who dissented to the church or those who were excommunicated would have entries for their civil registries contained within the dissident’s book. There were a small number of these people registered to books such as these, and one example of this can be found within the Köslin district.
Introduction of the Standesamt
Church records would later be complemented by the Standesamt–this is the German name for civil registry. On October 1, 1874, Prussian-held territories established civil registry of its inhabitants. Germany as a whole established civil registry on January 1, 1876. The Standesamt took over the role of recording births, marriages, and deaths. It is also important to mention that these civil registry offices kept second sets of records for safekeeping. It is possible that church records after 1874 survived. However, it is exceptionally unlikely, except in very specific cases.
In my own research, I’ve noticed that church records from the area surrounding Stolp have more records post-dating the addition of the Standesamt. Church documents from the Köslin area suffered heavy losses and will not typically have many surviving records, even from duplicate church books.The outlier in this case seems to be Kreis Neustettin, which has heavily preserved stocks for a number of its parishes.
Going back to the importance of the Standesamt, vital records were held by these civil registration offices. The Standesamt was not just a Pomeranian concept; it was an institution implemented by the German government throughout the entire nation.
The type of information included in each register varied by year. In the first years of implementation, there seems to be no standard format that registry officials followed. Especially with death records, parents might not be listed. Information in the earlier years tends to be vague, offering few clues when it comes to an ambiguous identity. After all, how many Johanns, Karls, Friedrichs, and Wilhelms were there?
But let’s dig a little deeper to understand just what information you are likely to find in each set of books.
Birth records typically listed both parents and the informant, unless the birth was illegitimate. In that case, the informant might be someone the mother lived with or one of her parents. Information included in these situations really depends on how much the mother knew or was willing to admit. Illegitimate children were not uncommon. However, these bastard children would not be eligible for protection underneath a guild. Furthermore, if the woman did not know the identity of the father or if the father refused to acknowledge the paternity, only the mother’s name would be listed on the document. Interestingly enough, illegitimate children seemed to take on the mother’s family name, even after the father acknowledged the child as his own. In many birth documents like this, there are comments written in the margins stating that the father claimed the child. This admission would be documented before the Standesamt.
Unlike baptism records, godparents are not listed on the birth certificate, nor is there any reference to a baptism date. However, in addition to the previously mentioned information, you can find the birth place and time of birth. Like church records, the birth certificate will give the father’s–and sometimes the mother’s–profession. The parents’ religion would also be mentioned, whether Lutheran (typically referred to as “Evangelisch”), Catholic, or in rare instances, Jewish.
The information that was given changed after July, 1938. In addition to everything previously mentioned, information might be recorded about any known marriages of the child and anything regarding the death. Later on, the birth date of the mother was recorded, as was the place and date of the parents’ marriage. For records in Pomerania, these details probably won’t come to light until the year 2038 at the very earliest due to privacy laws restricting access in Poland to 100 years from the time of birth. In parts of Pomerania that were incorporated into Germany after the war, records will not be released until 110 years after the person’s date of birth. I have my own personal thoughts on these lousy laws in respect to how they hinder a family researcher’s progress, but I’ll keep those opinions to myself for another podcast.
Marriage records, however, only have an 80 year limit on them, which allows more free access to researchers from pertinent time periods. Death records can be obtained 30 years after death. Anyways, let’s talk about marriage records. These records are possibly my favorite for the amount of information and detail listed within them. Since the beginning of the Standesamt, marriage certificates would contain information on two pages. The first page mentioned the place and date of the marriage. Often, the groom would marry in the bride’s parish. Therefore, if a suspected record cannot be found, it would behoove one to look in the registry office for the bride. Marriages in Germany also work differently than in the United States. The date of marriage indicates the couple’s intent to marry before the government institution. A private ceremony is typically held after the registration. The marriage must first be performed before the Standesamt, which is the date located inside the register. Thus, despite the couple having their ceremony elsewhere, the civil ceremony is first recognized at the registry office.
Full names should be found in these entries as well as the bride and groom’s date of birth, professions or social standings, and religion. The parents of both parties are listed, as is their current location, whether they are still living, and the profession of the parents. I have found marriage and death records with conflicting information about the parents. In that case, I would believe the information provided on the marriage certificate, as the living party probably knew more about his parents than the informant later on. On the second page of the marriage document, items number three and four are signed by two witnesses. These were usually people who were in close connection to the family. Witness professions, age, and where they lived were also documented. The very bottom would be signed by the justice of the peace at the Standesamt.
Unfortunately for family researchers, information about the bride and groom’s parents were never recorded from July 1920 until July of 1938. I am unclear of why this is the case, but it seems to pose a problem to genealogists. More information is said to be included in another document called the “Aufgebotsakte.” Whether these survived for Pomerania, I have not seen copies of them in my personal research, but they are likely to exist elsewhere in Germany.
From July 1938 onwards, information about the parents once again returned to the records, including specific dates of birth for the parents as well as the marrying couple. The couple’s children would also be listed on the document.
Deaths listed in the civil registers are a little more finicky for what information can be found in them. Particularly, if little was known about the deceased, little would be recorded in the death certificate. As mentioned earlier, the accuracy of the information provided might not be trustworthy.
From the time the Standesamt began recording death entries through August of 1920, entries would include information about the informant, such as the place of residence and profession. The informant would provide as much information as was known about the person, including the full name (if known), the last known residence, the place, date, and time of death, profession, religion, age, birthplace, marital status, names of spouses, first and last names of the parents–including maiden names for all parties concerned, and residence or last place of residence before death of the parents, and the father’s profession.
Sometimes, age at the time of death is an approximation. Therefore, even if a specific number of years, months, and days are listed, it is wise to make an annotation in your research clarifying that the birth date was calculated from the death certificate.
One should also look closely at the informant, as it is likely that the person giving the details about the deceased has a connection to the family. Following these clues backwards might lead you to make new discoveries about relationships in your extended family.
Again, any death certificates after August 1920 lose much valuable information. Until August of 1938, death certificates do not include the names of partners for the widowed. Even more troubling, these certificates also do not give any information about the parents of the deceased. The only information you can rely on for certain is the date and place of death.
Most of the important genealogical information returns again from August 1938 onward. More information might be given about spouses than in older books. One caveat of these later death certificates is that they give the suspected cause of death. The birth Standesamt is also mentioned.
As a special note, deaths from the time of expulsion until the mid-1950s were recorded in areas that might not have been within their typical jurisdiction. These could include certificates for death for fallen soldiers or for those who perished in the expulsion. According to a translation from the Pommerscher Greif’s help section on family history research in the Standesamt, these records would be kept in a separate book.
In my own research, I have noticed that civil registry from the newly acquired territories that were once Pomerania, records may persist from 1945 onward. However, when ethnic Germans were forceably removed, the old German ways were removed with them. In their place stood a new Polish culture in former German lands. This included the civil registry offices, which would take on the Polish language for recording entries. Instead of being called “Standesamt,” they are called “Urząd Stanu Cywilnego” in the Polish language, or USC for short.
[Sound clip of Nazi book burning, fire]
Fate of church books. What happened at the end of the war?
That clip that you just heard was of the infamous book burning outside of the Berlin Opera House on May 10, 1933. I have stood outside of Humboldt University’s library in Berlin, in the same square that this book burning took place. When I was there, 81 years had passed since the day when the Nazis gathered up Jewish books and torched hundreds of years of knowledge. There is a memorial that stands in its place: a glass window in the ground in the same space where books were burned. In the room below the glass–empty shelves to signify the weight of the Nazis’ actions.
Some 40,000 people attended this rally where upwards of 25,000 volumes of “un-German” literature were cinched in a fiery blaze. Ashes. The beginning of smoke and ash becoming a signifier of destruction of anything against Nazi ideals for the German identity.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, among the works burned were the writings of the beloved nineteenth-century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote in his 1820–1821 play Almansor the famous admonition, “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen”–“Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”
Paramount to the flight and expulsion in Pomerania and the destruction of records is this Nazi ideal. The Russians raped and pillaged their way through villages of women and children. During this time, younger, more able-bodied men were fighting in the war. This left older men and the elderly. It must certainly have been a frightening experience to survive the atrocities committed as the troops feasted on the spoils of war. Mayors were shot. Women and children were used by the soldiers as the pleased, drunk on vodka and filled with Stalin’s propaganda against the Germans. Buildings burned. Manors were raided and looted. Fires roared, destroying churches and their records.
When the Soviets marched through villages, church books were thrown out into the streets, starting in the beginning of March 1945. Mostly, inhabitants did not try to pick them up. Citizens were being shot for minor reasons, and so people feared more for their lives than for the fate of the registry books that were being purged. This was the case in Mickrow, a village in Kreis Stolp. Comparatively, books in the village of Jassen were thrown out into the street and burned.
This is the stark image that is painted: where Germans tried to erase Bolshevik ideals, the Slavic population, and Jews–just to name a few–the Russians and Poles tried to systematically erase all traces of German culture after the war. This included hundreds of years of church books containing family histories, which of course, was a pertinent idea of the Nazi’s political movement. However, I would suspect that the reason the Soviets destroyed so many books had less to do with removing all sources of German genealogy in the region and had more to do with their hatred of the German people in general. According to my cousin, a survivor of the war whose family survived the expulsion, the Poles were instructed by the Russians to make away with the German way and start fresh. Some of the people in the Polish lands would actually be displaced Ukrainians who were resettled from where the Russians had moved through. To this end and to erase the German memory in Pomerania, the Polish government set up a ministry for the recovered territories and a repatriation office.
Duplicate church books were handed over to the responsible district courts. Some of their fates are unknown. The following is an excerpt from “In Search of Your German Roots: A Complete Guide to Tracing Your Ancestors in the Germanic Areas of Europe.”
In the fall of 1944, when it became obvious that the area was in danger of invasion, the church authorities in the various centers–Königsberg, Danzig, and Stettin–ordered the ministers of the Evangelical churches to bring all records for shipment to the west in the area of Rhon (near Frankfurt). The great majority of the ministers complied and the books were stored in the mine shafts. After the war the Kirchenbücher were damaged by thieves and arsonists, and many were destroyed. No list had been made of the books deposited, so it is not known which were stolen or destroyed and which were retained in the original churches.
Königsberg, which had nineteen parishes, and Stettin, which had twenty-two, are virtually complete. Danzig has some surviving records as well, but the collection is nowhere near complete.
I suppose the reason for this is that when church authorities were instructed to hand over their books, the some pastors refused to comply out of fear that the records would be used to identify targeted non-Aryan groups.
When the war was over, the Mormons instituted a search for church books and were even provided help by the Soviet government to transfer these books by truck to Berlin. It was at this time that the LDS church were given permission to microfilm the books.
In terms of civil registry that have survived, the numbers are not great, but more Standesamt records survived the war than did church books. The books from Vorpommern continue to be maintained by local offices. Many were destroyed or lost in Hinterpommern before 1945. Some can still be found in the local registration offices in Poland today. Others were turned over to the district courts in German times but were given back to the local offices after the war. Books that are older than 100 years are supposed to be turned over to the Polish State Archives. This can be a little problematic, though, as some volumes of books are considered an entire set and are not as easily or readily accessible until 100 years after the last book was created.
So where can the church books and civil records be found today?
I would point our listeners first to Pommerscher Greif’s website, as they are continually updating a master list of resources for researchers. They have books partitioned by church and civil registry, by Kreis, and by which ones are online. However, just because they don’t have a listing for the area you are researching doesn’t mean the resource doesn’t exist. For example, Gemeindeblätter, or church newsletters, can be a second source of information where church records lapse. If you search, WorldCat, you might be able to find a few surviving copies.
The first place to look for records online, outside of Ancestry, FamilySearch, and Archion should be Metryki Genbaza. Many records from all over Poland are stored on this website. Szukaj w Archiwach and Archives Portal Europe can be helpful to search for other records online–some may even be posted to Szukaj w Archiwach. However, some of these records are also found online on the Koszalin and Szczecin Archives web pages. For Stettin, full sets of church books can be manually searched through.
Other archives that can be of help are in Greifswald–both the state archives and the church archives–that is, the Landeskirchliches Archiv, not to mention the university library can be of immense help. Some church books are stored in Leipzig at the Zentralstelle für Genealogie. Many of these records can be found online in one location or another–at least for church books–with only a few exceptions. Up until we had the Arnhausen parish photographed, no copies existed outside of the Stettin archives. Likewise, another case I am aware of is for the church book of Grünewald in Neustettin. Civil records from the Standesamt seem to be coming online more and more every day. Unfortunately, underneath an agreement between the Pommerscher Greif and the Koszalin Archives, books will not be placed online until they are indexed. It begs the question of what happens to places where few people are searching? Will they ever come online? Bureaucracy always seems to hamper progress of family historians, and this situation proves to be another instance.
The same could be said for many of the American churches that have not digitized their holdings–though there are some who have had their books uploaded to Ancestry.com. A great majority Lutheran churches still have records today, but accessing them is something of a problem. In my experience, few churches I have written have been of much help. This is not so much because of the lack of records or the competence, but simply because of the sheer numbers of churches in places my ancestors used to live. However, it may be worth your time to inquire in person if the church is local.
Well, that about wraps it up for today’s episode of the Pommern podcast. We covered the history of church books and the civil registry, where they can be found, and what happened to them at the end of the war. For good measure, we went through what information should be contained in each type of record and its relevance to your research. I hope you enjoyed our premiere episode, and be sure to stay tuned for future episodes of the Pommern Podcast.
Until next time, happy hunting!
The Pommern Podcast is produced by the creators of My Pomerania as an educational and historical resource. All rights are reserved.