One of my biggest challenges in family history research is finding information on my family in Germany. But through my own struggles to find information, I’ve learned a lot about research family history in a foreign country along the way. Today I’d like to share a few of those things I’ve learned.
Here are five tips for research your family history in a foreign country (assuming you can’t physically be there).
- Pick the brains of absolutely everyone living. You’d be surprised at what your parents or grandparents might remember, and just as surprised by what they forget. Talk to aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, great-aunts and uncles, etc. They might remember stories differently, remember things others forgot, or even have contact information for distant relatives still living in the other country.
- Get research guides for the specific country your ancestors came from. Plenty of these books exist on anything from Jewish history to researching your Irish roots. You can probably find several at your local library. One of the biggest perks of these resources is that they often contain form letters in the foreign language which you can use to request necessary documents.
- Tap the Web. In addition to things like paid international database subscriptions (like those from Ancestry.com), look to basic tools like search engines. For example, if you’re searching for information about your German family, search for names and places using Google.de instead of your usual Google.com. You can always use online translation tools to sort through the information. They’re not perfect, but they do help.
- Take a second look at maps. If you’re struggling to find information in a certain country, it might be that national lines have moved. For example, while I’ve struggled to track my German roots, I know that parts of Germany where my family came from are now parts of Russia and Poland. That can certainly complicate matters, but it’s better that you start searching in the right places. If borders moved, try to find out if older records stayed with the previous country, remained in local control, or went to a federal archives system in the new country.
- Team up with a local. One of the greatest things about the Web is the fact that you can meet people from all over the world. Find someone you’re able to communicate with (either they can speak English or you can speak their language) and see if they’re willing to assist you. You might have a friend or colleague who can track down local contact info for government offices for example. Or they might be able to help you translate a request for documents. If you can’t find someone willing help for free, you can always consider hiring a professional genealogist in the foreign country to do some deeper digging for you. This is my last resort due to the high costs involved, but if I can’t find the information I need on my own, I’m willing to do it.
Do you have any other tips for researching your family’s history in a foreign country? Other than visiting and looking for records personally, how do you handle this kind of research? Tell me in the comments below.