One of my favourite CPD activities is the German Genealogica conference in which I partake every year since it started in 2021. Everyone with an interest in ancestry research can find plenty of help and ideas, and once again, I found some amazing information to help me understand. So often, letters and diaries refer to circumstances or events that we can’t relate to and don’t know much about. This year, for example, I learned what could have been the reason for an ancestor who travelled all the way to America and was never heard of again.

If the time frame was right, the lost ancestor may have joined thousands of people who tried to find gold in California in the mid-nineteenth century – a highly dangerous endeavour that many didn’t survive. The speaker of the presentation, Ingeborg Carpenter, told us what led to the gold rush, who the people were that tried their luck, how they got there, and what they would have experienced. I was as much shocked as I was fascinated by what Frau Carpenter told us.

Another highly informative presentation was given by Andrea Bentschneider from Beyond History who told us about Jewish genealogy research in North Germany. For obvious reasons, church registers may not be very helpful if your ancestors were Jewish, but there were registers of Jewish deaths and marriages, the Mohel book (record of circumcisions) or the ketubahs (the marriage contracts usually kept by the bride), cemetery records, and membership lists. During the NS time, such records were required to be handed to the authorities and the originals are now regarded as lost, but fortunately, many of the documents were microfilmed and kept in the so-called Gatermann films which can be found in the archives of various cities. Often, the microfilms are of bad quality, but at least they show some of the lost records.

For me personally, the most interesting talk was when Cosima Jungk spoke about the Denazification process after the Second World War. Apart from prosecuting those responsible for NS atrocities, the Allies also had to ensure that the fascist ideology in Germany didn’t live on. The country couldn’t be run entirely by the Allies, but who could be a teacher, a policeman, or a civil servant in post-war Germany? Could anyone who had such a position in the past, be cleared and continue to work? Surely they should all be removed from office? It would have been an enormous task to check on each individual’s past actions and political attitude by Allied personnel. Instead, those Germans who were unencumbered (e.g. those who had lost their job during the dictatorship) were asked to form a panel to investigate in which category someone would fall. The categories ranged from I to V, where I was for major offenders and war criminals, II were offenders and activists, militarists, and people who benefitted from the regime, III were lesser offenders, IV were followers of the regime, and V were those considered exonerated.

Individuals had to fill in questionnaires, stating their membership in the party and any activities they were involved in. They had to provide exonerating documents like letters from witnesses etc. It is disputed how reliable the process was and how thorough the investigations were conducted, especially in the light of the Cold War which took the Allied focus away from the German Denazification in order to prevent another war. In the Soviet occupied part of Germany, Denazification happened as part of the entire reorganisation of society; those who held posts of responsibility were removed and replaced by those who embraced the new regime.

The Denazification documents provide a fascinating insight into our ancestors’ past and show many details that no other documents produce. These days, an increasing number of these documents are in the process of being digitalized, but it’s not always easy to find the right archive. The starting point of any research is to find out in which Allied zone the person lived after the war, and go from there. German Keywords for the search are Spruchkammergerichte, Spruchkammerakten, and Entnazifizierungsakten.