Historian to speak on German genealogical records he discovered
John T. Humphrey discovered what is considered one of the largest genealogical collections for Germans in the United States.
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Seven years ago, John Humphrey's research into German military records led to a startling discovery: The U.S. National Archives has detailed genealogical records for millions of German soldiers, public officials, police, firefighters and teachers dating back to the 1930s and '40s.
When he sent his questions about what Germans called "ahnenpasse" to a woman who volunteers at the National Archives site in College Park, Md., she replied: "You have just discovered one of the largest genealogical collections for Germans in the United States."
Mr. Humphrey will talk about his discovery in a free talk at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Carnegie Lecture Hall at the Carnegie Library in Oakland. The program is for members of the Western Pennsylvania Genealogical Society but the public is invited.
Mr. Humphrey, a professional genealogist who lives in Washington, D.C., knew the U.S. military had confiscated Nazi records as World War II ended. In 2003, he began to wonder if the National Archives had acquired ahnenpasse, which is German for "ancestor" and "pass" as in passport. During Adolf Hitler's regime, applicants had to prove their German ancestry to join the SS, the powerful paramilitary organization that committed many crimes against humanity during World War II. However, firemen, policemen, teachers and government officials also had to prove that they had no Jewish ancestors.
"You had to prove ancestry back to Jan. 1, 1800. If you found you had Jewish ancestry, you lost your job," Mr. Humphrey said in a telephone interview, adding that applicants had to provide certified documents to prove their lineage.
The records, made between the 1930s and 1945, were microfilmed at the National Archives and contain information on millions of native-born Germans, some of whom later immigrated to the U.S. and became naturalized citizens. The records also contain information on Americans who married Germans during World War II.
"Eight million Germans immigrated to America over four centuries," Mr. Humphrey said, adding that the first German arrived with Captain John Smith at Jamestown in 1607.
Inside the ahnenpassen are ancestor charts known as ahnentafels. They were required for people applying to be in the SS or already working in the German government, he said.
The German government began collecting these records even before Hitler rose to power in 1933.
"Starting in 1931, any member of the German SS wanting to get married had to prove he had no Jewish ancestors. Enlisted men went back to Jan. 1, 1800. Officers of the SS had to go back to Jan. 1, 1750.
"To be blunt about it," Mr. Humphrey said, the Nazi regime's attitude was, "We're looking for good breeding stock. We're creating the master race."
When the Allies began bombing downtown Berlin heavily in 1943, the files were moved to a castle in the Harz Mountains, where a division of General George Patton's troops found them in March 1945, Mr. Humphrey said. At war's end, another cache of valuable records was saved because Germans had collected synagogue records.
"They survived and were turned over to the national archives in Jerusalem. They are used frequently by Holocaust scholars and people who are researching their Jewish ancestry," Mr. Humphrey said.
Marilyn Holt, past president of the Western Pennsylvania Geneaological Society, said that these sets of records are a gold mine for families.
"For some people, these are the only family records that exist that are still available because many records were destroyed in the war during bombings."
John Humphrey speaks at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Carnegie Lecture Hall, behind the main entrance of Carnegie Library. It is accessible from the six-story parking garage behind the Carnegie Museum of Art, near the intersection of Forbes Avenue and Craig Street in Oakland.
First Published November 12, 2010 12:00 am