This is really a response to a comment in a very recent Genealogy & Family History Community diary, Books So Bad They're Good: Defenders of the Bell Curve, by Ellid. Specifically, it is my response to the reply titled “Family Trees,” by quarkstomper, who said:
“My own German ancestors came to America in the 19th Century, so I don't know if we have any relatives who became Nazis. We think that Johann Sebastian Bach's second wife, Anna Magdelene, might have been related to our family, but my more genealogically-inclined relatives have never been able to trace our lineage quite that far.”And because I haven’t wanted to impose on that exchange, I’ve taken my two cents into a separate diary. So, here’s what I have to say....
IF you have an unusual German surname in your family tree, by which I really mean one that is very likely primarily associated with a particular small region of pre-1945 Germany, and IF you not only have your immigrant German ancestry pegged to a specific hamlet, village, town or city, BUT ALSO have gone back (usually via that locale’s church books as filmed by the Family History Library) a generation or two before the emigration, THEN I have a suggestion for your further research into your German ancestry.
Back in a moment....
Consider this a kind of case study on German genealogical research as augmented by captured German SS records that are held in microfilm copy by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). That’s right, your taxpayer dollars at work!
The back story is that conquering American troops at the end of WWII laid their hands on the SS records and realized the value of what they had. Usually SS troops -- certainly the officers -- had a high probability of also being members of the Nazi party. And, if the Americans, British and French wanted to set up a post-war government free of Nazi party members, it stands to reason that they first had to identify as many Nazis as possible so as to exclude them from office. The SS records serve that purpose, and that explains how such a collection eventually ended up with NARA.
Where in the NARA organization? Specifically at the Archives II facility in College Park, Maryland. On the 4th floor is a magnificent collection of filmed German WWII-era records -- more than just the SS files. But that’s a larger story.
What I wish to emphasize is that even if you don’t think you can read German script, you will find it worth the investment of your time to devote a day to exploring this resource the next time you find yourself in the Washington, DC area. The NARA personnel on the 4th floor are very knowledgeable and very helpful. They will show you where to access the materials I’ll describe. And consider that you will be looking at pedgree charts, albeit set up according to German Ahnentafel (“ancestor table”) conventions. Therefore, the German script you’ll encounter will largely relate to (1) given names and surnames, (2) place names, and (3) occupations. Make copies of what you see, if necessary, and take them to experienced readers if you still find you can’t interpret what you see.
Why would you go to all this trouble? That’s why I’m resorting to a case study instead of going with my usual style of presenting ideas in general terms, without specific reference to my ancestors by name. If you’re still curious, I’ll describe now my own experience.
In 2006, the National Genealogical Society (NGS) hosted its “Conference in the States” in Chicago. In a program session entitled “German Ahnentafels By the Thousands!” the late John T. Humphrey, then president of the Mid-Atlantic Germanic Society, spoke of his accidental discovery of this NARA record group. He described how the information is available in Germany only to direct descendants of the German (SS) soldier because of privacy laws, but that access to the NARA-held copies is available to anyone.
He noted that the only index to the names contained in these Ahnentafels is to the name of the SS man who submitted them, but that the paper index fills 31 three-ring binders at Archives II. No further guides to the Record Group exist and, beyond being helped to locate the film reel you need after finding a name of interest in the index, there will be no further assistance available (other than from fellow patrons, if you’re lucky).
In these military versions of the Ahnentafels used for the civilian Ahnenpass, the ideal was to prove Aryan ancestry back to January 1, 1800. If the soldier did that successfully, and if the records end up relating to the place where your own ancestor(s) may be found, then you may discover additional information to help you extend your pedigree -- as well as learn more about a branch of the family that stayed in Germany through the Third Reich. Remember, with the only index being to the names of SS soldiers, there’s no way to limit a search to a place -- you just have to be “lucky.” But you improve your chances significantly if the surname of interest is itself likely to pertain to a locale of interest.
Now, what about the “ick” factor? This was the first issue addressed by John Humphrey, because he knew it would be the main question in the minds of most. He didn’t say it, but I will. Aside from the fact that a German had an obvious motivation to hide any “suspect” ancestry, it’s generally true that the best records for genealogical research are those that were created for a purpose other than for “genealogy.”
Here the intent was a negative -- proving that one didn’t have a certain ancestry. And, because the Nazis required the Ahnentafel entries to have the official stamps of civilian registry personnel and of the clergy holding the church books, I’ll bet that the data to be found here is more than likely sound information that’s only indirectly tainted. It certainly helped me, and here’s how.
Through my known German relatives, I was aware that I had a great-great-grandfather by the name of Johann Wilhelm Ballaseus (1803-1885). He did not come to the United States, but his first wife and all of his children did. And, through research by a grand-uncle of mine some 80 years ago, my family had a photograph of this man with his second wife.
The photo was a bit of a puzzle. My mother had taken the original out of its frame and inscribed on it what she’d been told by her own mother -- that this man had bought horses for the King! Wow. Just the kind of interesting trivia that one likes to have at the ready when trying to interest one’s own children in their ancestral background.
Except there didn’t seem to be any way of validating this, at least not from church records. And when I went to the church records for the village of Gaitzuhnen, just west of Insterburg in East Prussia, what I found was that this man’s father had been a farmer, following the tradition of three generations of this father’s male forebears (who had each also been the appointed village mayor). But my Johann Wilhelm had left Gaitzuhnen at some point following the Napoleanic wars, and had ended up marrying in Marienwerder at the age of 35 (where he stayed on to become an Amtsmann). In fact, since I couldn’t find a birth record for him in Gaitzuhnen, the possibility exists that he was born instead at an undetermined nearby locale -- owing to possible disruptions at the time of his birth.
So how was I ever to address this interesting family story? When I heard John Humphrey speak that day in the summer of 2006, I knew what I must do. I had to contact him and ask if he would conduct research-for-hire for me at his source, as I was unlikely to get to the Washington area to do this on my own. Correctly, as it turned out, it seemed to me that if there had been any German SS man by the name of BALLAS***, then he would probably turn out to be a relative.
Yes, there was just such a man waiting for me in those records. His name was Manfred Wilhelm Ferdinand Ballasejus, born 12 November 1918 in Darlingerode. And he had been able to supply at least the names of most of his 3rd GGG-Grdpts (all but four of 32 names). On the paternal side he hadn’t bothered to get the official stamps on this last generation, because the births of the 2nd GGP’s had already occurred before 1800.
Then my heart lept. The 2nd Ballasujus GGF was “Friedrich,” born 12 September 1797 in Gai(t)zuhnen! In pen for the next generation, he had helpfully recorded the names of this man’s parents: Christions Balasejus (R: ev.; Ber: königl. Oberschülze) and his wife Regina Razies. Those were my 3rd great-granparents as well, and so we were 4th cousins. Further research on the internet revealed this man had been an infantry captain who was killed on the Russian front before I was born, but despite the discrepancy in birth years of almost three decades he was truly my fourth cousin.
And the added information about our shared male ancestor meant so much to me. Because it suggested a solution to the perplexing family story, as recorded on the back of the photograph. As often happens when family stories are passed along, the generations can often collapse upon one another such that information one believes to apply to one person actually applies to a parent.
Such was the case here, I believe. It wasn’t my Johann Wilhelm who “bought horses for the King,” it was his father Kristions. And it wasn’t even Johann Wilhelm’s brother Friedrich who would have had that distinction, because his occupation (Beruf) was that of Colmann (a particular type of farmer) and Wirt (inkeeper). No, the father’s occupation as “kingly appointed mayor” tells the story. Gaitzuhnen was clearly (by the term “königl.”) the village for the men (and their families) who tilled the soil in the surrounding lands owned by the King of Prussia.
Much of East Prussian land was actually owned by the King, so this isn’t surprising. But the King didn’t have a family member living in Gaitzuhnen, so how was the King to manage the affairs of his tenant farmers? He did this by having his administrators appoint a “mayor” who took care of such matters as presiding over a local council (& possibly a minor court as well), selecting men to be drafted into the King’s army, collecting the taxes, and providing what was needed to do the farming. And what might that latter responsibility cover? Why, buying draft horses for the plowing. Doh!! As a kid I’d naturally developed the romantic picture in my mind of an ancestor buying carriage horses for the King at his castle....
Technically, except for the collapsing of the lineage by a generation, the story was accurate as best I can tell. I did have an ancestor who “bought horses for the King,” but it was plow horses he was buying, and I’d now bet the King never laid eyes on those poor nags.
Yet see what the Ahnentafel of that misfortunate (and probably misguided) SS captain did for my research! That one piece of data made all the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fit together.
And you can do that research, too. In fact, given a small out-of-the-way village like Gaitzuhnen that’s blessed with scads of unusual German names -- actually, in this instance they’re “Baltic” names passed down from the original Prussian tribesmen of the area (conquered a millenium ago by German knights who then took the tribe’s name for their new lands) -- one doesn’t have to restrict the search to ancestral names.
Because you’re looking for SS men who come from a particular village, you’ll need to look for any SS man with a surname that could well come from your village of interest. That means you’ll have to develop a list of such names and have it at the ready for your research opportunity at Archives II. What you hope to find, of course, is that your surname of interest shows up in such a soldier’s family tree (even though it isn’t his own surname).
By looking for several “target” surnames, you’re hoping to increase your percentages for success. And, if you can’t or won’t do it yourself, then hire a researcher (as I did) to do it for you. [Maybe John Humphrey’s old MAGS organization has such a person?]
What are you waiting for? Get going!!