What’s in a (German) Name

Every  so often, a snippet of saved information comes up that strikes me as so useful that it’s a crime not to amplify it, even at the risk of boring the more experienced among us.

I rediscovered today’s snippet  during my fall computer-file reorganization. (When the kids go back to school, I do too, figuratively speaking.)

It’s about how Germans handle first names, which can mystify the average American investigating German ancestors in the 19th century and earlier.  My mother’s paternal ancestors, for example, largely confined themselves to Johann and Georg for baby boys. Occasionally they would go wild and spring for Johann Georg. But even that combination repeats — my grandfather was one of two Johann Georgs, born six years apart. Fortunately for our sanity, Grandpa emigrated to the U.S. and began calling himself John, leaving the original form to his older brother, who remained on the family farm.

Now, a lot of us are familiar with the practice of re-using a given name for a younger sibling in the sad event that a child dies young. But that isn’t what is happening in my mother’s family tree. Having three surviving Johanns or two Georgs or a couple of Johann Georgs in the same sibling group bothered her ancestors not one bit.

Especially from a present-day U.S. vantage point, where a passion for … inventive first names is a given, this ancestral approach looks pretty strange. Also  confusing. How did they call everyone in to dinner? The answer, as you might guess, is that German baptismal names in this period were rarely the name you used every day.

Back in 2009, Rootsweb’s Hesse mailing list contained a great explanation from German member Thierry Dietrich, who spelled out the important terminology:

Vorname = First, or given name(s). If there are additional given names, there isn’t a separate term for “middle name.” Germans simply use the plural, Vornamen.

Rufname = The name you actually use, which could be an abbreviated form of the baptismal name, a middle name, or a completely unrelated name. (Dietrich gave as an example a Theresia-Maria whose Rufname was Rosemarie.)

Spitzname = The most accurate translation for the English term “nickname.” The Rufname and the Spitzname are not necessarily the same thing. It’s possible to have a Rufname and a Spitzname.

The post is archived here and is well worth a look.

In addition, Mr. Dietrich provided some insight into how first-naming practices have evolved in modern  Germany. It’s all very interesting if, like me, you have a lot of Johann Georgs to keep straight.


Film Watch: ‘In Heaven, Underground’

Here’s an interesting essay from filmmaker Britta Wauer, who has made a documentary about Berlin’s Weissensee cemetery. She wonders aloud, “Who would go to the cinema to watch a cemetery film?” (She needs to read more genealogy blogs!)

Anyway, the Weissensee cemetery is Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery that is still in use (after 130 years in existence, too). Wauer’s film In Heaven, Underground aims at explaining its enduring place in Berlin’s history and culture. “I wanted the screen to be filled with people telling stories of the rich lives that were once led in Berlin,” she writes.

But where to find those stories? Wauer sent out tentative queries through a magazine sent to Berlin expatriates, expecting maybe a couple of dozen responses. Within a few weeks she had a couple of hundred, from all over the world.

The trailer for the film imparts a mood that’s beguiling, and oddly uplifting:

In Heaven, Underground (official film site)

Find-A-Grave: Notable Weissensee burials

Spiegel Online: “Renovations Begin at Europe’s Largest Jewish Graveyard” (2009)


Wordless Wednesday: Vintage Photo Q & A

The photo below belongs to a large collection of images belonging to my German grandparents. Some we can identify; some we cannot. Recently I sat down with the mysterious occupants of this photo for an interview. Sadly, they were less than forthcoming. Vintage photo subjects are like that.

Who are you?

When are you?

Are we related?

Where in Germany are you? (You are in Germany, aren’t you?)

Honey, is that a clerical collar you’re wearing?

Why isn’t it a Roman collar? Did they just look different then?

Well, OK, if you’re not Catholic how come you’re related to me?

Did I just get that wrong?

Are you really happy, or are you just photogenic?

Do you have any descendants who can tell me about you?

A More Serious Note: I do not know if the people in this photo are Forsters (my grandma’s maiden name), Rudroffs (my grandpa’s surname) or whether they belong to families bearing other surnames associated with my grandparents, such as Held, Endres, Hoffmann or Dormann. I wonder if I’ll ever know. Anyway, they look like a friendly couple, don’t they?


Thinking Out Loud: The Missing Great-Aunt

Embarrassingly often, this blog is about all the stuff I don’t know, as opposed to what I do.

But hey,  it’s a method. From an early age, I’ve had this tendency to talk and write problems out — apparently I’m a very verbal/auditory learner. I listen well and take fantastic notes; then I talk about it to firm it up. (On the other hand, I seem to have no visual learning sense whatsoever.)

I took a test once about this, a real one, not a Cosmo one. It was a relief to have a validation of the habits that led my normally sweet and tolerant college roommate to flee the premises at exam crunch time, saying: “No, no! Really. You can have the room. I can always study in the library … you, um … you can’t.”

She was right. Then, as now, I would tease out thorny problems or concepts by talking to myself about them. (Miraculously, we are still friends.)

So bear with me while I talk to myself about what is shaping up to be my Big Genealogy Quest for next year: The mystery of my great-aunt Anna Kunigunde Rudroff.

To recap: All my life I just knew that my German-born grandfather, Johann/John Rudroff, had only one other sibling who also emigrated to the U.S.A.: his much older brother Georg/George.

Naturally, this turned out to be wrong, as do so many of the things I just absolutely, positively know about my family. When a German researcher very kindly shared notes on a Rudroff family history compiled on the other side of the pond, I discovered the existence of Anna Kunigunde, sister of Georg and Johann, and another immigrant to the United States. Never heard of her before.

What I know about her so far:

• 1883: Born in Kottweinsdorf, Bavaria, Germany (according to the German genealogy; it would need to be independently confirmed in the Roman Catholic parish records at Oberailsfeld, where Kottweinsdorf families attended church).

• 1907: Emigrated. (Again, according to the German Rudroff genealogy, but also consistent with the 8 June 1907 entry on Ancestry.com’s Hamburg passenger list database  for Kunigunde Rudroff, female, single and age 24, ultimate destination: New York).

• 1910 United States census: Nothing found yet that fits someone of her approximate age. Doesn’t mean she isn’t in there, of course.

• 1914, 31 Oct. Arrived in New York (again), aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam, according to the New York passenger lists database at Ancestry.com.

• She apparently did not re-settle in Kottweinsdorf, according to the German research, which only records her departure in 1907 to the U.S.A. Was the 1914 trip a quick visit back home?

So what do I do now? Here’s what I’m thinking:

• Reach out to some of Georg’s descendants to see if any of their family stories mentioned this great-aunt.

• Take another stab at the United States census for 1910. She should be listed somewhere under her birth name, since in 1914 she was apparently still unmarried.

• Brush up on German records of the period to see where else there might be a record of Anna Kunigunde’s comings and goings.

• Explore what other NARA holdings might be of use.

• Think about ways newspaper database research might help. Maybe a marriage notice somewhere?

It’s strange to think of my grandfather having a sister he never mentioned, at least not to my mother. I know … uh-oh, that word again! All right, I’m reasonably sure that my mother never heard of Anna Kunigunde — I talked at some length with her about family history and there’s nothing in my notes from these conversations (I checked, I checked).

So what else should I be looking at here? Feel free to suggest away, and I promise I’ll talk to myself about it.


Foiled again!

Don’t you hate it when Grandpa turns up with a surprise sibling?

Mind you, it was no surprise that my maternal grandfather John Rudroff had a sister. We knew he was the youngest of ten children [it turned out to be eight], a major factor in his decision to emigrate to the USA in 1925. I was fortunate to know his parents’ names, and the name of his birthplace — Kottweinsdorf, in Upper Franconia — but that was it. He could have had seven sisters, for all we knew.

But I put off learning more, partly because dealing with my paternal side seemed more urgent, and  also because I had cold feet from a story about one of my mother’s Rudroff cousins getting a chilly response when trying to contact the Kottweinsdorf family on a visit to Germany in 1962. Scary!

The Internet, patron saint of chickens everywhere, broke this particular logjam. Scrolling Ancestry’s discussion boards one day, I noticed a post from a German researcher, Jörg Ruthrof, responding to a genealogy inquiry about Kottweinsdorf.  I ventured an email to him and far from biting my head off, he responded with a gracious, detailed account of Rudroff family research on the German side of the pond.

He was happy to hear about my grandfather John and his brother, George (who emigrated in 1896). The German family’s genealogy had no details about them after their emigration dates to the USA. Could I explain more about them? And about their sister, Anna Kunigunde, who emigrated to the USA in 1907?

Sure … WHAT?

Grandpa had had a sister in the USA? My mother had never mentioned such a person. My Rudroff cousins never heard of her, either. She has been elusive in U.S. censuses, although Ancestry’s immigration database shows the departure from Germany of Anna Kunigunde Rudroff (born Kottweinsdorf)  in 1907, along with a U.S.-Germany trip in October 1914. Of course, she might have married, although it would seem she’d be somewhere in the 1910 census, at least, as a Rudroff.

Recently another possibility surfaced when  I found a Brooklyn Eagle death notice of June 29, 1926 for a Sister Mary Rudroff of Brooklyn, N.Y. Could this be my relative (having adopted a new name as a religious)? Off I charged to the New York City death certificate database, where indeed there was a certificate number for a Maria Rudroff, death date 29 June 1926. Alas, her age was given as 26, far too young to be my great-aunt, who would have been 43 in that year.

So, foiled again. Although the experience still had some value in opening my eyes to yet another way in which female ancestors’ identities are obscured to us, at least if they’re Roman Catholic. And next time I’m at the archives, I’ll go take a look at that Maria Rudroff certificate to see who she was and where she came from. One never knows.


Wordless Wednesday: A New Light

Still a mysterious location, although now there's a clue.

This photo was among a collection my mother brought home after my grandfather John Rudroff died. No one knew what the building was. When I was little I thought it was someone’s house. As I got older, I realized this building was probably not a private residence for anyone in my family — too massive. The handwriting on the back is hard to read but looks similar to that in letters written to us in later years by my great-aunt Maria Pauliana Forster, who was a nun in a nursing order her entire adult life. The inscription isn’t signed but it’s dated: 14 Nov. 1950.

Recently I was looking at it again in the hallway of a music education building (my 8-year-old and I were waiting for her music lesson to start). Under their particular brand of fluorescent lighting, for the first time I could make out some verrrrrry faint ballpoint pen markings on the surface of the photo. (Yes, on the surface of the photo. Note to preservationists: This was before I was born, OK?)

One part of the building (the part in the front) is marked “Krankenhaus” [hospital]; the other is marked “Alterhaus” [home for the aged].  Now I’m almost certain that this photo was sent by Maria Pauliana. (There is a chance it might have been sent by one of my other great-aunts, Anna, who was also a nun in the same order, but left when she was middle-aged. She might have still been a nun in 1950.)

As to where this hospital/nursing home was located, I’ve still got no idea, but at least now I know what it is.


Is that my great-uncle’s play in your catalog, sir?

I have a large, untidy pile of intriguing genealogy research questions I mean to figure out someday. One involves whether my mother’s uncle Georg Rudroff  copyrighted a play in 1909.

My mother always said her Uncle George was a character. He was my grandfather’s older brother, the one who left home first. He emigrated to New York City from Kottweinsdorf, Germany in 1896, 30 years before Grandpa did. My mother described him as a tavern keeper, the occupation listed on his 1940 death certificate. At other times he was a drug company clerk and a Brooklyn Rapid Transit motorman.

He also was a bit stage-struck, according to Mom. She was a little vague on this point, although she once mentioned that he wrote songs and tried to shop one of them to Kate Smith, who was not interested.

A few months ago when I was supposed to be working (shhh!), I got bored and plugged my mother’s maiden name into this search engine at the Library of Congress. Four results popped up, one citing an unpublished play in German by Georg Rudroff. (Two of the others involve genealogical works in German by Arno Rudroff, an expert on all things Rudroff.)

You never know who might turn up in the Library of Congress.

I emailed the Library of Congress to ask how I might go about reading this play. It’s in manuscript form and I’d have to go to Washington to take a look at it. So for now, I don’t know whether my Georg is the author, if it’s possible to be certain of that.

What is certain is that in 1909, someone named Georg Rudroff copyrighted a play called  Schwer Erkämpft (militärisches Volksstück in 4 akten). That roughly translates to Terrible Struggle (a military play in four acts).

Using “play” for “Volksstück” isn’t very helpful, because the Volksstück is a theatrical form with no real equivalent in today’s American theater. It was a populist work in which dialect was used to score dramatic and satiric points. A Volksstück might use a country-bumpkin character to poke fun at hoity-toity types, or trendy fashions. I can only imagine how a “military Volksstück” might look. Maybe Georg’s play was a forerunner of Catch-22?

Until we go on our oft-discussed trip to D.C., I’ll just have to keep wondering.

In the meantime, all I can say is: Try a surname search in the Library of Congress catalog. You never know.


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