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Maybe some Goethe in the blood after all

Anyone who is self-respecting has a pedigree. The search for one's own roots leads to crowds of genealogists and queues in state archives.

Von  Susi Zihler

Does the rumor persist in your family that you are seventeen corners descended from Goethe? Does your grandmother never tire of emphasizing her relationship with the high nobility? Or are there some mysterious bodies buried in the basement of your family history? Then you are a case for genealogical research. Provided, of course, that you want to know the truth. And can endure them too. 


longing for the past

In the age of digitization and the great migration of peoples, more and more people are looking for their roots. They follow their family history, even if truly sensational surprises are very rare. At least that is what the genealogist Manuel Aicher from Dietikon is convinced of. His professional 'everyday life is characterized by completely normal requests. Be it tips for getting started, tracking down an aunt you thought was long lost, more complex family tree research on grandpa's 65th birthday or researching names. From time to time, the genealogy professional is also consulted by psychologists and doctors. Namely, when the suffering of a patient seems to be rooted in the family history. Aicher - who is originally a lawyer - was recently contacted by a psychotic: "The man had acquired various identities and now wanted clarity about his origins," says Aicher. 


Care for sleuths

Curious family researchers do not always turn to professional specialists, of whom there are very few in Switzerland. Aicher estimates that there are five. If time permits, you can browse through the books yourself. The Zurich State Archive reports full reading rooms every day. There professionals share the tables with hobby researchers of all ages and professions. The Zurich State Archives are helpful in this regard: newcomers are first advised over the phone and later patiently introduced to the complicated data labyrinths. The biggest problem for the snoopers is usually in the form of the old writing. This is difficult to decipher, but can be learned through self-study or at adult education centres. Or you can take Grandma with you to the archive.


Mormons do research worldwide

Regular visitors to these archives also include members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons for short. Your church is particularly dedicated to genealogical research. And so it is hardly surprising that their various parishes operate their own genealogy research centers. According to Gottfried Forster from the Herisau research center, around five billion entries from the civil status registers have been pressed onto CD and some are also available on microfilm for non-Mormons. Passionate hobby researchers are also well organized in various clubs.

There are around 12 genealogical-heraldic societies in Switzerland. The Basel region association, for example, has 450 members. From pensioners to university professors, everyone is enthusiastically digging into their past. Hans Kälin, chairman of this association: "We offer an ideal forum for the exchange of data and experience and solve problems that may arise at work together." It is not uncommon for genealogists to encounter difficult conditions: data protection can prevent extensive research at individual archives and civil protection offices. In adoption cases, tracing the birth family is almost impossible. And according to Kälin, today's and therefore often more chaotic family relationships make the work of genealogists more difficult. Unmarried mothers or cohabiting babies create confusion when searching for ancestors.


Genealogy on the Internet

Despite the obstacles, genealogical research is booming - especially in the USA. There, the uprooted search enthusiastically for their origin, genealogy is the third favorite hobby of the Americans. In the past, people on the other side of the Atlantic are digging, especially via the Internet. There is a paid website that you can use to search for expatriate relatives (

The US site is also helpful with a plethora of links on the subject of genealogical research and lists of international addresses and guides. In Switzerland, too, those familiar with the scene are registering a slow but steady increase in inquiries, as the Zurich State Archives confirm. The descent from Goethe, however, mostly remains wishful thinking. The relationship with the well-documented high nobility is more likely.

Or, if fate strikes, with a criminal. In contrast to normal citizens and farmers, delinquents have always been precisely registered.



Search and find your own roots


■ Determine whether you want a pedigree chart (starting with a person in the present and tracing back the generations) or a family tree (trace the family history from a specific person in the past).

For beginners, the pedigree is simpler and therefore more suitable. 

■ Interview your relatives, look for family certificates and photos, for any kind of revealing documents, if you're lucky, even family registers.

■ If you get stuck, request family certificates from the registry office in your home municipality. They usually go back one or two generations.

■ Now, if you want to do the research yourself, go to the State Archives (SA). There you can view the remaining civil status registers that go back to the year 1876 nationwide. Anyone who wants to turn back the wheel of time must consult the church records in the SA. Depending on the canton and denomination, the family history can be traced back to around 1570. Before that, the traces are mostly lost due to the meager source situation, except for families with blue blood, writers or people who have fallen out with the authorities.

■ Gather the information, write it down, or feed it into special computer programs Manuel Aicher recommends «Reunion» (Mac) or «Master Genealogist» and «O-Tree» (both Windows/Dos).

■ Cost of using professional investigators: CHF 200 for a short investigation, CHF 2,000 to CHF 3,000 if it is to go back around 100 years. If you continue to search, you have to reckon with around 20,000 francs.


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