Beyond History Blog

A Photograph from a Flea Market

Andrea Bentschneider - 17. July 2015 - Emigration, Family, General, Photos

At home in the United States our client’s father was a successful engineer and business man. To honor him, his children planned an exhibition about his life, his successes and his origin. His family came to the US from Germany in the late 19th century.  

Our clients hired us to illuminate the German origin of the family. The classical reconstruction of an emigration story begins aboard the ship that they used to leave Germany. Historical passenger lists enabled us to retrace which family members left Germany in what year. In our case we were looking for a family from Berlin.

Thanks to the many historical directories of Berlin that are still intact, soon we were able to tell that the young family resided in a typical working-class quarter and moved around a lot within that quarter. This was not at all untypical for the time. We found a nearby church and researched the entries, finding out not only the suburb where they lived but also the fact that many children of the couple passed away at a young age, an indicator that the living conditions must have been very hard. Under these circumstances an emigration with all its adversities and strains seemed more hopeful than a life in dense quarters in Berlin. The young couple left for the New World, along with their six year old son and some other relatives. 

We could comprehend the ancestors' lives in Berlin very well. But we also assumed early on that the actual origin of the family must lie somewhere else, presumably in a rural part of Germany. But without the couple's marriage certificate it was unpromising to research further into the past, as we lacked any kind of indicator where their true origin may be.

Up until this point you are reading about a comparatively typical research process for an inquiry from the US, when clients want to explore their German roots. But chance made us stumble upon a very special gift for genealogists. To be able to find the marriage certificate for the emigrating couple in Berlin had been a blind alley, which is part of a professional genealogists' life but it will still leave its mark. When you are spending a couple of hours researching the life and the fate of a family, you feel a connection to them somehow. A little sullen and driven by ambition you want to dig up more about the family and we tried all search terms in different combinations that you could possibly think of. After numerous searches we astonishingly found a link that led us towards a forum. There was a tiny entry, which also was already ten years old - which is really old considering the internet's age. The entry read: "I'm in possession of a photograph and I would like to send it to the right family." (The forum entry was in German.)

It turned out that an American woman got into possession of a photograph at a garage sale flea market more than ten years ago. The photograph showed our clients' great-grandmother. Fortunately the photograph had her name on the backside. The circumstance that the woman who found the photo posted about it on the internet is extreme fortune. She told later that she is an amateur genealogist herself and hopes that someone is going to do the same for her some day. We hope so too!

When we handed our research report over to our clients, we were also able to present the photograph depicting the great-grandmother as a very personal keepsake. 

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