An Introduction to Kirchenbücher and Standesamt Documents
Due to the large destruction during WWII, many Pomeranian records were lost or destroyed. There have been stories about the Russians decimating towns and burning their records. Most of this comes from what I believe was the animosity against the Germans. In the same way that the Nazis destroyed Jewish and Bolshevik cultures, the Russians aptly set siege on German culture at the end of the war.
While it is possible to find records through other means, such as guilds and property records, the search becomes much easier with the information contained in the aforementioned church books and civil registration documents. They are becoming more widely accessible through archiving and indexing projects. Many of the surviving books are duplicates of the originals that were handed into larger district offices.
Today, they are becoming more widely accessible to researchers around the world. Ancestry.com has begun taking the holdings from the Berlin archives and photographing them for paid subscription members. There are other ways to find these exact records for free, and several of the places these archival records are stored will be listed below.
Please understand that due to privacy laws, birth certificates (Geburtsurkunden), marriage certificates (Heiratsurkunden), and death certificates (Sterbeurkunden) will not be available for certain given year ranges. For births, the limit is 100 years (usually limited to if the person has already passed away). However, the records held in Berlin also state that the limit for births is 110 years. Marriage records should be 85 years, and death records are limited to 30 years from the time of your search to the date of the record. Competent registry offices that hold these records may vary, but typically the lower registration offices are required to turn in materials that are over 100 years old to the major archives like Stettin (Szczecin).
Records Microfilmed by the Mormons
If you already know the birth date and place for your ancestors, you may be able to find records of them with the Church of the Latter Day Saints. A remarkable amount of information has been microfilmed, preserving both church books and civil records for generations to come. This is especially handy for Americans who have no access to the European archives.
A select number of these records have been made available online. However, both Kirchenbücher and Standesamt documents are available for ordering on microfilm. There is a small fee associated with reserving a film, mostly going towards the cost of shipping. Some have been filmed in sets of odd pages and even pages, so scrolling through them can be challenging at times.
As of September 2017, records located on microfilm are no longer available. The Mormons are beginning and will continue to update FamilySearch with digitized copies of their microfilm. However, some restrictions are placed on specific content that require viewing only at a local Family History Center due to “limits of contracts with record custodians and applicable laws.” Oddly enough, some of the same “restricted access” documents are available through a paid membership to Ancestry.com, begging the question whether these records were truly restricted due to contractual obligations, or if FamilySearch and Ancestry teamed up to digitize those documents to Ancestry’s profit and to continue making Family History Centers relevant in the Digital Age.
Many of the same books are available online through various institutions. Archives in Szczecin, Koszalin, Gdansk, and Greifswald can provide helpful resources for uncovering your ancestors. Recent technology has made this process even easier. One no longer needs to hire a professional translator to write a letter to the archives, which should be made in either German or Polish. Using Google Translate is free and is fairly accurate if sentences are not complex. It also comes in handy to include an English copy for reference.
Each of the state archives may have smaller satellite locations that store archival material. Please be aware of this before making a trip abroad. Ensure that records are housed in the archives you intend to visit, that you have placed your reservation (if necessary), and be aware of any closings or changes in hours due to holiday or seasonal schedules. Once records are 100 years old, they are supposed to be transferred to the larger archives from civil registry offices.
There are also numerous other archives which store materials which allow for more of an in-depth historical analysis, such as the Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz (also known as the Secret State Archives Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Prussian Privy State Archives) in Berlin-Dahlem. The Berlin Landesarchiv and the Bundesarchiv also stores more information regarding individual people, including but not limited to concentration camp records. The Deutsche Dienststelle (WASt) is home to records relating to military personnel. Unfortunately, a great many records were destroyed in the Heeresarchiv fire during the bombing of Potsdam, and as such, information relating to the Prussian military is fragmentary at best. Your relationship to the person you are researching must typically be substantiated due to German privacy laws.
For evangelical records, there are a few archives which house old church books. The Landeskirchliches Archiv der Nordkirche is based in Kiel, Schwerin, and Greifswald. The Evangelische Zentralarchiv (EZAB) also stores church records, in addition to the Brandenburgisches Landeshauptarchiv. Military church books and others can be found through the Deutsche Zentralstelle für Genealogie in Leipzig. Many of these records can be found either through FamilySearch or Ancestry; however there are still some that have never been photographed. A shining example of this would be churches that are in modern-day Poland, such as Arhausen in Kreis Belgard. While they are catalogued in archives, they can only be seen by physical access as no digital copies exist. Sometimes, it can be beneficial to write to the church that your ancestors came from, as they might have further information that can be of use. Each diocese in Poland maintains their own records, and writing to them is sometimes the only way to obtain much sought after information.
As a special note, both Germany and Poland have separate laws regarding the release of records and privacy laws. These are gigantic barriers at times, and one must be prepared to furnish information–especially written consent for living individuals.
Archion.de provides access to a vast collection of photographed church books. While its archive of documents is expansive, it is also quite possibly the most expensive family history site to provide access to these documents. One should ensure that the records being sought after have not already been placed online by the Mormons as a cheaper alternative. However, Archion’s collection is expanding every day.
For relatives who emigrated from Germany, church records can serve as complementary sets to ship manifests and census records. Records that pre-date World War I may list places of origin and vital information like maiden names. These church records can substantiate a possible connection or help remove incorrect or false suspicions. Many immigrants from former German territories moved to New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa (also including several other states in-between). many of these churches have also never digitized their records, and inquiries should be placed in writing or by phone call.
American Civil Records
Reverse searching can also be helpful to find ancestors, given that many records pre-dating 1874 have been lost due to the war. Most civil records in the United States are public record and can be accessed for free, through Ancestry or FamilySearch, or by filing a request via the Freedom of Information Act. Information provided within these documents may include a date of birth, place of origin, or a maiden name. If all of these fall in line with a missing Pomeranian ancestor, chances are that you have found the missing person.