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Find the living branches

Like a detective

Occupation: Genealogist   The lawyer and genealogist Manuel Aicher has often found heirs after the authorities had given up the search.

Caption (in the original, see PDF): Genealogist Manuel Aicher presents a printout of a family tree: "What is not definitely documented should be left open."


Hans Fischer (name changed by the editors) was a well-known phenomenon in Zurich supermarkets. On Saturdays after the store closed, the older Clochard would show up and search the leftovers for food. The surprise was all the greater when the authorities discovered a fortune of 400,000 francs after his death. The authorities' search for possible heirs came to nothing. Because the information about the origin of Fischer, who had lived alone, was only sparse: in the thirties he had immigrated from Berlin. The Nazi regime had stripped him of his citizenship and he had remained stateless ever since. When the lawyer and genealogist Manuel Aicher from Dietikon (ZH) discovered the heirs' call in the official gazette, he began to look for the heirs on his own. In the files of a Berlin registry office, he discovered the marriage certificate of Fischer's parents from around the turn of the century. Even this was not easy: "In Berlin there were 93 registry offices at the time."
Aicher found out that Fischer was an only child. The parents were no longer alive, nor were their siblings. It was now a matter of looking for the descendants of the siblings of the parents who were next in line to inherit. Using Berlin address books from the time, files from other inheritance cases and many other sources, Aicher was finally able to locate eight heirs. "They were amazed at first," he describes their reaction. No wonder: they first found out from him that a relative by the name of Hans Fischer had existed. Later they rejoiced. "For her, it was like winning the lottery without a stake."

Aicher put a good month's work into the search for Fischer's heirs. He takes on about a dozen such inheritance cases a year. He is also looking for missing relatives or biological parents of adopted people. He also advises amateur researchers for the Central Office for Genealogy. He became interested in family research as a young man. What fascinates him most is the detective element of searching for ancestors.

He has read countless research papers from professionals and amateurs alike. The differences in quality are very large: "Many of the genealogical works by amateurs are excellent, but there are also those that do not deserve the name." Errors happen, for example, because entries are read incorrectly. In the case of more complex research, a basic scientific attitude is also necessary for amateurs. He doesn't understand that as an academic title, but rather a critical distance from the sources and from one's own work. "You should think about which questions you want to clarify and check the research results again and again."

It is important to have the courage to leave gaps. “Anything that is not definitely documented should be left open or provided with a question mark.”

Genealogical research is often linked to the question of one's own identity. This is probably why it is such a popular hobby in the USA. More than half of the inquiries to the Central Office for Genealogy come from overseas. Aicher notes that interest has also increased in Switzerland since the fall of the Berlin Wall


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