Family Research: Databases Help Decipher German Church Books

Beidler, James M. "Family Research: Databases Help Decipher German Church Books." German Life, June/July 2004, 64.

The value of church registers to genealogical researchers with German roots is impossible to overstate. Unfortunately, they are mostly written in a hard-to-decipher cursive script (no longer used even by today's Germans), which makes the church books difficult, at best, for researchers to use.

Microfilm copies of most German church registers exist in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon) Family History Library system. To search that library's catalog, go to

All too often, however, the registers of baptisms, marriages, and burials that typically date to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are inksplotched or otherwise damaged from the centuries of wear. Unfortunately, the damaged condition of these books shows up on the microfilm.

There are certain areas of Germany, however, in which devoted individual researchers and groups are compiling publications or databases of these church records.

The Pirmasens Genealogical Study Group has been a prolific publisher of church records from the area of Pirmasens, which is in the modern German state of Rhineland-Palatinate.

At the study group's website, it gives a list of the publications, which are divided by town. Most importantly, the website gives a listing of the surnames found in each of the individual town publications.

The study group's website is found at the URL

German Life reader Frank Wurtz was a beneficiary of the information published by the Pirmasens group. "I have traced the Würtz family back to 1650 through three of their books," Wurtz said.

Another ambitious project is that of Jochen Karl Mehldau, a retired city manager and surveyor who lives in Karlsruhe in the German state of Baden-Württemberg, but has roots further north in the villages of the former German state of Wittgenstein, which is now part of North Rhine-Westphalia.

He began genealogy as a hobby half a century ago and has pursued it intensely in his seven years of retirement. "First I searched for my own ancestors and relatives," says Mehldau. "There was a large problem in Wittgenstein. In each place, there are many people with the same name at the same time."

These identically named people were not always differentiated even in the church books, Mehldau said. "In addition, some books or some entries are missing. It is thus very difficult to find the correct ancestors," he said.

In 1982, Mehldau began to input and arrange all the data from the village in which his mother was born, Erndtebrück. "That was the beginning of the database," he recalled.

From this starting point, Mehldau continued working on his pedigree-linked database until it now contains ninety-seven thousand persons - including about seventy-five percent of all the data from Wittgenstein through the year 1875. "The database contains also individuals from the neighboring territories," Mehldau added.

Mehldau is hopeful that he will complete the Wittgenstein project "if I remain healthy." He estimates that he will need between five and ten years to finish the project. In addition to church records, his database also contains information from archives such as marriage contracts, taxes and deliveries, inhabitant listings, and data about farms. Few of these records have been microfilmed by the Mormons.

While only a relatively small percentage of emigrants from Wittgenstein are so noted in the church books, those notations do add up. "I have such references for approximately twelve hundred persons," Mehldau says.

Mehldau makes extracts from his database available for a fee. He offers two variations, one with just the basic facts about the selected individual and ancestors, and a second that adds good information such as names of baptismal sponsors and sources used. The first variant is 50 cents for each individual and ancestor; the second is $1 for each individual and ancestor. In other words if an individual is found in the database along with the individual's parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents (a total of fifteen persons), the charge would be $7.50 for the first variant and $15 for the second.

For either variation, the minimum purchase is $20.

The database entries are in German, but Mehldau sends along an English key to the German words, symbols, and abbreviations.

He can be contacted by e-mail

Mehldau accepts e-mails written in English. He writes his replies in German. If you do not read German, the German-to-English translation program at the AltaVista website gives a very rough translation. (There are many flaws in the translation program, but it is better than nothing. Among the many things to watch for: Town names often are not recognized and are translated along with other words - for example, "Altburg" becomes "old castle.") The website is

Reprinted with permission of the German Life.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller