You have just
leapt "The Pond" in your research, having found that a grandparent or great-grandparent
is not only from a foreign country, but one whose language you do not know.
Don't think that your personal research has ended and you must employ a
professional. Even though you don't know a word of the applicable foreign
language, it isn't that difficult to do research in French, German, Swedish,
Spanish, Italian, Polish, etc.
My boss recently asked me to help her with her genealogy. I always like
a new challenge and especially enjoy the beginning research of a family
tree, so I eagerly agreed. I have worked with American, English, Irish,
Canadian, African-American, French, German, Polish and Eastern European
Jewish research, but must confess I did utter a small cry of dismay when
she said her father was of Hungarian descent. Not only Hungarian, but
from a village that is now in Romania! However, I was not discouraged
because I have found there are basic approaches to most research which
work with most American and European records.
The first essential step is locating the village the ancestor came from.
A detailed account of how to do this is beyond the scope of this article.
Suffice it to say that this information almost always comes from a U.S.
source either family papers, letters, photographs or public records
such as Social Security applications, ships' passengers' lists, censuses
(rarely), death certificates, obituaries, etc. When you do find a village
name, you need to keep in mind that it may be misspelled, the spelling
may have been correct at the time but has since changed or the immigrant
used the name of a larger town nearby rather than the exact village. Please
take a look at the immigrant research
lessons available at this Web site.
With or without a village, the first step should always be the IGI and
Ancestral File. You might get lucky and find work already done. While
your ancestor probably won't be there, you may find the surname which
will give valuable clues as to the region where the name is found. If
you don't look, you might want to kick yourself several months down the
road if you find the information was already in FamilySearch!
My look in the IGI told me that the surname, which I had never heard,
was fairly common in Hungary, but I found nothing from the village I sought.
Gazetteers and Maps
When you have located the correct village, you need to familiarize yourself
with it. A good place to start is a detailed map and a good gazetteer
which will probably be your first "foreign language" book. Since a gazetteer
is primarily a list of location names, it should be fairly easy to use.
Your local Family History Center is a good place to start in locating
the materials that you need. In 1986, the Family History Library compiled
a list of 100 frequently used reference sources. The list was updated
in 1988 and a second list was added in 1989. The microfiche collections
were offered to all Family History Centers at a very reasonable cost so
many centers have these sets. These include many detailed gazetteers and
postal guides for European countries. My local center had a gazetteer
which listed present and former Hungarian towns and included the German,
Hungarian and Romanian names. Since so many European villages were under
the rule of more than one country and used more than one language in the
course of time, it is important to have all versions of the name. The
Family History Library Catalog (FHLC) is a good source of variant names,
as it lists towns for which the library has records under all names and
countries by which they have been known. However, the catalog only includes
places for which they have records, not all towns.
A gazetteer will list a village by name and give some information about
its size and what larger political division covers it. It may also list
the churches, the nearest railroad and other helpful information. A detailed
map makes it easy to locate the surrounding villages where records might
also be found.
Since the spelling that came down through the family may not be correct,
you will probably have to learn about several villages. Because English
does not use accent marks, we tend to consider them unimportant and ignore
them. You cannot do this because, in many cases, what to us is an accented
letter is actually considered a different letter entirely in a foreign
language. For example, an e with an accent may be a completely different
letter from a plain e. So, if you are looking for a town beginning with
"Kéb" it may come after a town beginning "Kez."
Hungarian has nine accented letters that are considered different letters
and appear in a different place in the alphabet. It also has seven combinations
which are considered separate letters "gy," "sz"
and "ty" to name a few. A gazetteer written for Americans may
ignore these differences but one written in the native language may have
a completely different alphabetical list of names. The use of accented
letters and combinations occurs in the majority of European languages,
not just Hungarian.
World Wide Web
A ramble through the World Wide Web has the potential of turning up all
sorts of helpful information, but there is no consistency as to what type
of information might be posted. Just using a search engine won't dig out
all the little hidden gems. You have to go to sites the search engine
turns up, then follow links to other sites. (Be sure to bookmark as you
go as you will soon forget how you got there!)
It is also important to learn about the history of the area. You may
find that although your ancestors were Hungarian, they lived in a area
that had been settled by Germans and the population was largely German.
You may also find that with changing borders you will need to look in
the archives of more than one country. For example, many parish records
from towns in the Gdansk area of Poland are in the archives in Augsburg,
Germany. You may also learn that people who emigrated from this particular
area usually went via Hamburg or Rotterdam or Liverpool. You may learn
about areas with names you had never heard before Galicia, Banat,
Sub-Carpathian Ukraine, Transylvania, Ruthenia not to mention the
many kingdoms, duchies, etc. of Germany, Italy, France and Spain.
Many special-interest organizations and researchers have posted detailed
area information on the Internet. This is a great timesaver, because you
would need to read many books in a university library to find this knowledge
yourself. In most cases you can also subscribe to lists that specialize
in your area. I have found that lists can be extremely helpful and you
can meet some very knowledgeable people on-line who can provide information
and guidance you won't find in any library.
Be sure to look for lists that are specific. For example, a list devoted
just to the Banat will likely be more helpful than one covering a broader
area such as Eastern Europe. Similarly, one specializing in Alsace will
probably be more productive than one for France or Europe. Some small
areas have very active lists whereas others may have almost no traffic.
Subscribe for a while and post a question or two and you may be surprised
at what you learn. I am constantly amazed at the number of very smart
people who seem to read lists on a daily basis and are always willing
to respond to simple or complex questions. Lists of lists can be found
and as a category under the geographical area on Cyndi's List at http://www.cyndislist.com.
Research Guides and Word Lists
The Family History Library has Research Guides to many foreign countries
and they are well worth the small cost. A guide lists the basic records
so that you can immediately become aware of records that are unique to
your particular country. Most Family History Centers have paper copies
of these guides. These guides are also available on CD-ROM, called Family
History SourceGuide (see http://www.familysearch.org).
The Library also produces word lists for many foreign countries (also
on the SourceGuide). A list gives you the essential words relating to
genealogy mother, father, baptized, town, etc. Many European villages
have nearby village by the same name, but preceded by "Upper" or "Lower"
for example, lower is "unter" in German, "bas" in French and "also"
in Hungarian. In a gazetteer, a village may only be listed under its main
name and by looking for one of the above descriptive words you will miss
it. From a word list you can learn these descriptive words and be able
to identify the significant part of a village name.
Once you have the spelling figured out and have identified the village,
there is a very good chance that the Family History Library actually has
parish records from this village and you can order the film through your
local Family History Center.
Armed with a word list, reading the local records is actually not that
difficult. If you are looking at parish records, you will soon be able
to identify the words for baptized, married and buried to get you to the
correct books. If different types of records are mixed in one book, you
will be able to pick out the record type by recognizing significant words
such as date, name, mother, father, godparent, buried, bride, groom, etc.
Some parish records are arranged in columns so you only need to identify
the heading in the columns. You also do not have to read each record.
You will be looking for a certain surname and you can skip over those
that don't apply. If you are looking at civil registration records, they
will probably use a standard format or printed form so it is easy to identify
the location on the record where you need to look for the names.
Handwriting can be a bigger problem than foreign words. Reading some
old English wills can be more difficult than French vital records on pre-printed
forms or German parish records arranged in neat columns. However, with
a little practice you can decipher it. Pick out the words you can read
and note how the particular letters are formed. Once you can identify
unusual letters or combinations, then you can begin to decipher other
There are some handbooks which help you to identify different scripts.
German handwriting can be extremely difficult, but with a little practice
and help from handbooks, you will be able to make out enough words and
names to find the records that apply to your family. After you have found
the records and have translated the significant parts, you might want
to turn them over to a translator for the parts you cannot understand.
Some church records include extra important information such as names
of surviving family members or cause of death.
Once you begin to be able to read the foreign records, it is a good idea
to continue working with them and not put them aside for later research.
The ability to recognize the words will leave you quite quickly, and if
you let this new skill lie dormant for a while, you will have to go through
the whole painful process from the beginning.
Information by Mail
Writing to the local parish church might bring results, although older
records may have been transferred to a central archive. When writing,
be sure to enclose an addressed envelope and two international reply coupons
(available at any post office) to prepay the reply. (U.S. stamps are useless
in a foreign country.) Postage is expensive and you probably won't receive
an answer unless you pay for return postage. If you are going to do a
lot of writing you might see if you can buy foreign stamps through an
organization dedicated to genealogy in that area. While you should not
send large amounts of money through the mail, note that a small check
can cost more than it is worth to be changed into local money. Instead,
a U.S. $5.00 bill may bring very good results, as this can be exchanged
After you have identified the village and found pertinent church and
vital records, you might find it worthwhile to employ a professional researcher
for further in-depth work. Once you go beyond standard vital and parish
records, you will probably become involved in books, wills and other documents
that contain a lot more text rather than fill-in forms or columns. Then
an understanding of grammar and different meanings of words becomes significant
and a simple word list will not be sufficient. However, you will have
saved a lot of money by doing the basic research and will be able to spend
your funds on more significant research.
I prefer to send out specific, small requests initially. If you give
researchers free rein, they might spend time looking at records you have
already looked at or don't even want examined. After a couple of specific
requests, you will have a better idea of how productive this resource
might be and how competent your researcher is. If you initially authorize
a large amount of money, they might use it up examining every possible
record even though it seems pretty obvious there is nothing relevant there.
For example, if parish records are not available at the Family History
Library, you might authorize a search of one parish for the years 1830-1850
looking for the birth of Johann Muller, then deaths between 1830 and 1860
for Georg Muller or all Muller marriages between 1820 and 1850 with a
maximum cost specified. Be sure to request a list of all sources checked.
Even if nothing was found, you will know not to look (or pay to have someone
look) at these sources again in the future.
Go Ahead Make the Leap!
There is no set of rules on exactly how to proceed with European research.
Each area is different and will require different techniques. If you learn
the history of the area, remember that spelling isn't always exact, get
a word list and look at the available records, you will probably go further
than you ever imagined even though you "don't know the language."