Genealogy Storytelling and Story Writing – Once Upon a Time in Germany

RecordClick interviews genealogist Ursula Krause

Ursula Krause, a professional genealogist and genealogical story writer, as well as a lawyer, grew up in the United States and Germany. She specializes in writing immigrant biographies for Americans of German ancestry, especially those immigrants who came to North America in the 19th century. Ursula resides in Germany, lecturing and teaching in-country, as well as in the U.S. She authors “Ask Ursula Krause,” a column published in the Sacramento German Genealogy Society’s journal Der Blumenbaum. She served as a consultant for the documentary The Upside Down Book, which will premieres at the International Film Festival in Fort Lauderdale in October 2013.

Ursula has published a number of stories about her own ancestors, which are available on her Rootseekers website. RecordClick was honored to have the opportunity to interview Ursula Krause, and is pleased to share with you this artful and amazing genealogical storyteller’s thoughts on the importance of the history of our ancestors.

Photo by Matthew White

Ursula Krause, a professional genealogist and genealogical story writer, as well as a lawyer, grew up in the United States and Germany. She specializes in writing immigrant biographies for Americans of German ancestry, especially those immigrants who came to North America in the 19th century. Ursula resides in Germany, lecturing and teaching in-country, as well as in the U.S. She authors “Ask Ursula Krause,” a column published in the Sacramento German Genealogy Society’s journal Der Blumenbaum. She recently served as a consultant for the upcoming documentary The Upside Down Book, which is premiering at the International Film Festival in Fort Lauderdale in October 2013.

Ursula has published a number of stories about her own ancestors, which are available on her Rootseekers website. RecordClick was honored to have the opportunity to interview Ursula Krause, and is pleased to share with you this artful and amazing genealogical storyteller’s thoughts on the importance of the history of our ancestors.

RC: You mention that the art of storytelling has been a “custom” in your family for centuries; how do you know exactly that you come from a long line of storytellers?

UK: My mother, aunts and my grandmother always talked about our family’s history. I remember my grandmother telling me about her childhood, and when she visited her grandparents in the countryside – the watermills and the fields of flax. I can still hear her voice; she was a wonderful story teller and an excellent writer. So were her father and grandfather, who even wrote a chronicle about the town of Driesen. And now I have taken over that part (and I love it!). The story of this part of the family goes back to the Thirty Years’ War, and it was told again and again in the evenings when sitting in front of the fireplace after a hard day’s work. That is what the family chronicle says, which was written down in 1905 by my great-great-grandmother’s sister Luise. Most of the church records for that area were destroyed in WWII, but our family story survived, and I am now able to trace my family back to the old days.

RC: Was there a particular event or defining moment when you were 13 that made you know that you, too, wanted to carry on the storytelling custom of your family?

UK: On the day of my confirmation, I received a family chart. I remember reading it immediately – the guests sitting in the living room and me sitting in my room, reading – I just couldn’t help it. It said my great-great-great-grandfather was “Missing in America”, and I sat there, wondering how this could happen, him missing in America and me sitting on my bed in Germany. That thought did not leave me until I knew what had happened, years and years and years later. When I began to realize, that these stories needed to be preserved so they weren’t forgotten, I started to write things down, adding them to the stories that already existed, like the story of the family during World War II. Through the years, I became the family’s storyteller, and every year the family receives a Christmas email with an interesting story. My goal is to get the next generation interested in family history, so that one day someone can take over from me. And to my surprise, they love the stories I tell. I will probably end up being the funny old Auntie Ursula who always tells strange stories about how things were hundreds of years ago.

RC: Would you give us a little history about your website Rootseekers?

UK: Rootseekers officially started in 2008. Through the years, I have come to realize that families need and want information about the places their ancestors came from and the social circumstances they lived in – and fled. German society was so very different from the societies of the young immigrant countries. All the rules and regulations, the strict hierarchy, the lack of political and religious freedom, all these things made it desirable to leave. Often we find the reason for leaving for America not in economical reasons, but in the lack of perspective. Most of the people aren’t aware of this and gain a totally new perspective on their research and heritage when getting an insight on German history.

I started blogging in 2011, mainly because I love to write and want to share my stories with the world. Turns out many people really enjoy reading my stories and are eagerly awaiting the next one to come. It has always been my goal to make a difference in people’s lives with my research and my stories. And I really do think that this is a goal I have accomplished. Happy me!

RC: I have found that there are quite a number of genealogists who started as lawyers. Do you have any thoughts as to why one profession would lead to the other?

UK: I wasn’t aware of that. For me, I can say that my legal education (and studying Latin for almost 5 years!) was the best ground for being a genealogist. It is the inquiring mind and the ability to pay attention to what somebody says that makes it much easier to do research. It is important not to forget the well trained verbal skills, the love of language you need to have in order to make a point. But that would be nothing without the analytic skills, taking apart what you find, thinking it through and thoroughly putting it back together again, bit by bit. And, of course – discipline – the capacity for suffering and never, ever giving up! In Germany we say, “if you survive two legal exams, you survive everything,” and I guess there is a lot of truth in that!

RC: What exactly is the “immigrant experience,” and what about it interests you the most? What interests family members most about the information in immigrant letters?

UK: I lived in America as a child and later in Sweden. I found it to be very interesting how people (and myself) adapted to the new society. It is necessary to adapt in a certain way, but how much of your own upbringing and culture, your moral values, do you want to give up? What is it you take with you and bring into the new society? If you look at the German immigrants coming to America in the middle of the 19th Century, you will notice that when settling in the East, they needed to adapt – learn English. Often they attended the local church, even if they were of a different faith. But if you go to the West, you will notice that often the towns have German names; the people founded their own German-speaking Lutheran and Catholic churches, the third generation often being able to speak, or at least understand, German. In their letters home, the immigrants wrote about their daily lives, their thoughts about their new homeland and the way they adapted to it. It does show how the new society came to be, how America was built, and how our families were a part of it! By the way, did you know that members of the middle class often wrote about different kinds of food in their letters?

RC: You specialize in researching German immigration to North America, mostly for Americans. In your experience, what seems to spur Americans to want to research their German ancestry? What are they most interested in finding out about their ancestral family?

UK: First of all, I have to say that I find that Americans are very proud of their German heritage. Very often they don’t know the exact place their ancestors came from, so we need to start from scratch. The reason for their ancestor’s departure seems to be of importance. And “How could my ancestors take their children and expose them to the dangerous passage and the new beginning, without a roof over their head?” What might have happened that made them leave? What kind of life did they leave? What happened to the family that remained in Germany? Is there anything left, a house, a grave? Is there family?

RC: I see that Rootseekers’ philosophy is to find out how our ancestors lived by using land records, census lists, address books, ship manifests and passenger lists, obituaries, guild rolls, colonist lists, military lists, school and university matriculation lists, pastoral books, court records, manorial files, historical books, biographical books, official gazettes, newspapers, calendars, and historical maps. Of these research materials, what percentage can you find online vs. what percentage requires travel to a brick-and-mortar building? Which resources would be most beneficial, and most easily obtained by genealogical researchers here in the U.S.?

UK: That is a hard question to answer. Every week we find more information and records online. It seems that Germany is a bit slow compared to Poland, Czechia, or Denmark, for example. Still, there is a lot going on, things really are happening. If you look at Baden-Württemberg, they have an enormous amount of information online. I recently finished a case just by sitting at my computer at my desk. And then you take Saxony as another example, here the church records haven’t even been [micro]filmed yet, so we still are working in the small villages with the original church books. But they have a lot of other sources online, like directories and old records. You should also keep in mind that in Germany we have a very strict privacy law, and that does make it impossible to put certain information on the Internet. So, I would think that there still is a lot of traveling to be done, but I am sure that it will be less in the following years.

RC: While conducting German and Polish ancestry, you have probably come across some sad stories concerning generations past, which you have had to impart to your patrons. For example: a family member discovers he/she has an ancestor who was a member of the Gestapo or guilty of Nazi War Crimes. Perhaps you have had a Jewish client and discovered horrific details of an ancestor imprisoned in a concentration camp. How do you impart this kind of information to people? What is their “usual” response?

UK: When I’m doing research in the 20th century, people mostly are prepared and want me to look into these things. Usually there isn’t too much of a surprise whenever unpleasant details come up. Research in the Third Reich is a very serious subject and needs to be handled with care, even within my own family. Being German, we tend to be careful with this kind of information; it sometimes may be too hurtful, and I want to be sure that the people with whom I work are ready for it. Therefore, with this kind of research, I tend to talk to my clients through Skype before starting my research, simply to get a certain feeling of who they are and why exactly they want to know these things, and how they will cope with it. Still, I sometimes have the feeling that there might be something “unlawful”, but do not go too deeply if the person has not explicitly asked me to do so. I try to write my report in a very “academic” style, putting things into a historical context; that often makes things easier to understand and to live with.

But my focus lies on immigrants who came to America in the 19th century. Sometimes I find out that the family lore turns out to be, well let’s put it carefully, not really true. But often the family identity is built on their ancestor having done certain things or having been a certain kind of person. This, of course, is not easy to handle; who would like to destroy the picture of an ancestor? I always do try to be as veracious as possible. So, of course things need to be mentioned, and when writing my report, I do so. But also, I focus on the social context and try to make the ancestor “come alive”. And then often how a family member thought it would be simply becomes less important. They are mostly surprised and at the same time thankful for this “new identity” I gave their ancestor.

RC: You mentioned that you are a “consultant” for the upcoming documentary (to be released in October 2013) The Upside Down Book, about an American Jewish family gaining possession of a copy of  Mein Kampf. Can you give us some insight into this project and what you did as a consultant? Have you worked as consultant on other books, projects, or films you would like to discuss?

UK: The story is about an American soldier of Jewish faith – “Uncle Eddie” from Brooklyn, New York – who came back from WWII with a copy of Mein Kampf in his luggage. He claimed that he had killed a German soldier in action and took this book out of his rucksack. After Uncle Eddie’s death, this book came into the household of his nephew in Boston. Years later, when the nephew’s daughter Hinda Mandell opened the book and noticed that there was a name, a date, and a town written on the first page, she felt a strong urge to find out who these people might have been and what had happened exactly. Now, one thing you should know is that in Germany this book is on the Index*, and it is forbidden to print or even sell it. Also, there are certain things we tend not to take up and talk about, things that are politically incorrect. And it is very impolite to call a person you haven’t been introduced to before in their home; you need to send a politely written letter. So, my role was not only to do parts of the genealogical research, but to give an introduction on who we are and how things are done. A major part of my job was to talk about German history with the focus on how our grandparents, parents, and my generation dealt and deal with what happened during the Third Reich. We needed to build a strategy on how to search and how to get in touch with the descendants of the former owner of the book in a politically correct way.

[box type=”info”] * The copyright of Mein Kampf is owned by the federal state of Bavaria as Hitler’s heir (Hitler’s last residence was in Munich); the copyright runs out on January 1, 2016. It is not forbidden to own a copy, and it is not forbidden to sell it through a second-hand bookshop, but it is forbidden to print and sell the newly-printed book, as it would be considered to be anti-constitutional propaganda and sedition, and therefore would be against the law. In Germany we say a book/film/music etc. “is on the Index,” if its sale or print or broadcast would be unlawful. German law is very, very strict about any kind of Nazi literature, music, and memorabilia. ~ Ursula Krause[/box]

There is another project I would like to mention. One of my patrons wanted to write his family story and not only needed research to be done, but also information on why his ancestor left for America. It only took me about half an hour to find his cousins. In my report I went into depth and explained a lot about the legal and social situation in those days in that area and what might have led to his departure. I had found the last will of his parents, and we needed to find the path from that part of his life to his new life in America. I also made some suggestions on how to write this story, as well. Thankfully, he sent this story to me, and it is magnificent!

RC: What is the most interesting project you have researched?

UK: Actually I can’t really answer that question. What is it that makes something interesting? I have done VIP projects, which, of course, are exciting. Still, every life and every story is so very special and precious. But what I can say for sure is that I am always impressed by the women I meet; I find their strength and their attitude towards life remarkable.

RC: What is the most difficult project you have researched?

UK: I guess every case has its difficulty. I remember searching for a member of the Slavic minority in Brandenburg. They are called Sorbs and have their own language and surnames, different from German surnames. Unfortunately the spelling of a name may vary, as well; sometime the first letter was an “H”, sometimes a “W”. That, together with the pastor’s lousy handwriting [in the old church records], made it nearly impossible to find out who was who. It was a big family, and there were cousins carrying the same first name. I then called a translator who told me about the different ways to spell one and the same name. But what made it even more difficult was that the person I looked for had changed the surname she had at the time of birth; she simply went by two different Sorbian names – her father’s name and her godmother’s. And the godmother actually was the wife of one of the brothers of her mother’s first husband. And actually his surname was different from his brother’s surname, as he was born out of wedlock and carried his mother’s maiden name. Needless to say, he sometimes used his legal name, and sometimes his father’s. Does that sound difficult enough?

RC: How does research in Poland differ from Germany?

UK: In general there is no difference between doing research in Germany or Poland, except for the language and the currency. There is one thing though that people with roots in what is Poland today should be aware of. At the end of WWII, many records were destroyed in the areas that are now Poland, Russia, or the Baltic states. The cemeteries were often vandalized (they built streets using the old gravestones), churches were set on fire, and many, many records were destroyed, as well. One of the reasons for destroying the records was to ensure that Germans would never have the possibility to prove claims on their land and would never come back. Polish refugees from what then became Ukraine were forced to settle in former German parts of Poland. Doing research during the Cold War was pretty complicated, if not impossible. Today, with Poland being part of the European Union, we grow closer and closer with every year, and research has become much easier. Still, the records are gone, and those with ancestors from Pomerania or Silesia (including myself) will find it hard to find out more about their roots. The Polish archives are working hard on putting records and books online, and many Polish genealogists are indexing German church records and taking care of the old German cemeteries. And it seems as if we have become friends after all.

RC: What are some genealogical research tips you might share with genealogists in the U.S. who are conducting research for their ancestral family in Germany and Poland?

UK: Before starting your research in Germany, first do thorough research in America; collect as much information as possible. That will help you with your research in Germany. Do think about getting in touch with a German researcher; sometimes having a professional researcher make a research plan will save you a lot of time and money in the end! Often you aren’t aware of what you already have. Go through your records and documents carefully and write down every single detail! Even if you don’t think it is important, it might be to a German researcher! Try to find out as much as possible about the German town they lived in and about German history; the more you know, the easier your research will get.

And most important: don’t give up!!!

Contact RecordClick today for a free consultation. Our professional genealogists specialize in investigating lineage cases throughout the United States and internationally. We have genealogical research teams in Germany and throughout Europe who speak the language and know how to help you trace family history.

Photo by Matthew White