On the Trail of Lost Genealogy Records–Amazing Stories Hold Great Hope for Lost Ancestors

The current issue of Forbes Magazine (Feb 2007) on newsstands today, has an informative article, beautifuly illustrated, which I read yesterday: “Rescuing DaVinci: On the Trail of the Nazis’ Stolen Art.” The article reviews a new book by Robert Edsel, Rescuing DaVinci (Laurel Publishing, 2006) and a future PBS documentary The Rape of Europa which Edsel co-produced. Monuments Men, mostly American military and some British officers rescued works of art, protected historic buildings, and kept them out of harm’s way through the dark days of World War II.

As I read this fascinating article, a flood of memories washed over me. And I decided to share the article and the memories it captured:
Some years ago, I spoke at a large genealogy seminar in Milwaukee WI. There was a small, older lady sitting on the front row. And everytime I read a German source word, she very quietly corrected my German pronunciation (what German I can read, I can’t speak). At the close of the seminar, I seated myself beside her: to thank her for her help and to descover who she was.

What a story she told me! The German government, before Hitler came to power, called the churchbooks and other important “people” records into a central archive for storage and preservation. And they began to microfilm the records against loss. Microfilm was in its infancy–not the rolls of film that we search today. Each frame was a separate photo of the document or page. When developed, each frame could be enlarged as a paper print or a negative film. Many parishes complied. She estimated that about 50% of the churchbooks were filmed before hostilities in World War II broke out.

The Third Reich government did not want anything to happen to these records. So to keep them out of the way of Allied bombing and the local movement of troops, the original records and the microfilm were secreted in prison dungeons, empty salt mines, and castle basements. Or, loaded into railroad cars and moved along the sidings out of harm’s way.

This excited little woman also introduced me to her son, who was part of a cadre of LDS Church members in Eastern Europe, who organized a record watch. They took shifts following the railroad cars, with their precious cargoes, from a distance. Throughout the long years of the War, they kept watch.

At the close of the War, many railroad cars as well as many of the castles and other locations of stored records, ended up in the Russian sector. You will recall that the German countryside was divided for security into sectors under the direction of the Allied commanders. The Record Watch, counting on the fact that the Russians would have no interest in the German churchbooks, sought permission from the commander, to take possession of the records.

After considerable negotiation, the records were surrendered into their custody. This same Record Watch worked around the clock to microfilm additional records and to make copies of the churchbook pages previously enlarged. As post-War Germany became stable, these records were eventually replaced in archives and deposited into a German Genealogy Archive–first in Humboldt University in East Berlin, then to Potsdam, Poland, and finally to Leipzig.

Duplicates made by the Record Watch also found their way to Salt Lake City and now repose in the Family History Library and its Granite Mountain Storage Vaults. The Family History Library microfilmed, in the 1980’s, many of the records that remained behind in Germany.

Several articles describe additional details of this amazing story. I plan to get permission to reprint them in a special report which I will make available to the readers of this Genealogy News Sheet. In the meantime, add these to your recommended reading list for the Winter:

  1. Kahlile Mehr, “Record Gathering in Post War Germany: The Langheinrich Legacy,” German Genealogical Digest 4 (4th Quarter, 1988): 130-34.
  2. Lorraine Ferguson, “German Church Records,” German Genealogical Digest 11 (Spring 1995): 6-27.
  3. “Stored During World War II: Two Germanys Exchange Records,” Bulletin German Genealogical Society of America 1 (Jan 1987): 31, 33.
  4. Greg Bradsher, “Searching for Records Relating to Nazi Gold,” NARA The Record (1998): 7-11, 46. See also www.ushmm.org/assets/nazigold.htm posted March 1998, 750-page finding aid prepared by NARA, on the United States Holocaust Memorial website.

My Speaking Schedule for 2007:

10 March 2007: BYU-Idaho, Rexburg ID Keynote Address: Multiple Streams of Evidence–12:35-1:30 pm. Four Presentations: 8:00 to 8:50 am, Why Migration Patterns are Important; 9:00 to 9:50 am, Genealogical Evidence; 11:00 to 11:50 am, Tracing Women with Greater Success; 2:40 to 3:30 pm, Scottish Marriage Records. Registration was closed 2 March 2007, with no registration at the door (big mistake I’m thinking).

24 March 2007: Eccles Conference Center, Utah State University, Logan UT: 11:30 am, Close to Home: Genealogy Research Sources in Northern Utah and Southern Idaho; 3:00 pm, It’s Not on the IGI!: New Strategies for Genealogy Research in England and Wales–What’s New, Effective, and Recommended.

Exhibit Hall and Opening Session are FREE to the public.
Parking on the Utah State University campus is free on Saturdays, which is the day of the conference.
A box lunch is included with conference registration so you won’t have to leave campus during the conference. (This is a real bargain!) Register at www.myancestorsfound.com or send your check to My Ancestors Found, P.O. Box 187, Morgan Utah 84050–$37.00 pre-registration; $42.00 at the door.

30 Apr-5May 2007: Family History Library and Salt Lake City Plaza Hotel. 6-day Research Retreat sponsored by My Ancestors Found. I will speak 5 days on: Using Land, Tax, and other Property Records to Discover your Lost and Difficult-to-Find Ancestors. This will be an “All you Ever Wanted to Know About Land Records and Forgot to Ask” kind of event. You won’t want to miss it! Register quickly at www.myancestorsfound.com while there is still room–these sessions will be small so we can give you plenty of expert one-on-one attention.

25 August 2007: British Isles Family History Society–USA. Annual United Kingdom and Ireland Seminar. My topics:

  1. Migration Patterns within the United Kingdom and Ireland.
  2. Tracing Ancestors Who Lived in Cities–London, Glasgow, Dublin.
  3. Your Genealogy May Already Be Compiled: Using Collections of Earlier Researchers.
  4. Finding the Place of Origin, of American Families, in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Reserve your spot early by email: icj@social.rr.com.

5-6 October 2007: Montana State Genealogical Society Conference. Holiday Inn Grand Montana, Billings MT. My topics:

  1. Tracing the Scots-Irish and Irish: New Sources and Strategies.
  2. Native American Ancestry: What You Don’t Know Will Place Barriers on Your Lineage.
  3. Migration Patterns into the Central United States.
  4. Tracing Ancestors Who Lived in Cities: Boston, Providence, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, and others.

Reserve your space early at blgsmarket@aol.com.

That’s all for today, folks. Your favorite genealogy expert, Arlene Eakle

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2 Responses to On the Trail of Lost Genealogy Records–Amazing Stories Hold Great Hope for Lost Ancestors

  1. Helen says:


    Ivan Johnson, BIFHS-USA, email address is icj@socal.rr.com. I tried the one shown on Blog and got it back, so I looked his email address up on the BIFHS-USA website.


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