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Coming to Light
6/12/2014
The Third Reich's genealogy directive produced these all-but-forgotten — until now — documents naming millions of German ancestors.

From one of history's darkest eras has emerged a rich but controversial set of records that represents a potential genealogical windfall for some American researchers. As part of Adolf Hitler's obsession with “purifying” the German race, young men who joined the in famous Schutzstaffel — the Nazi party's military arm known as the SS — had to prove their genetic wholesomeness by submitting applications containing ancestor charts (Ahnentafeln in German). Similarly, starting in 1933, federal, state and local employees had to purchase Ahnenpasse from the Rasse und Siedlungs Hauptamt (Chief Office for Race and Resettlement). An individual had to get records showing his Aryan ancestry, then have a government official fill out this “ancestor passport.”

As World War II ended, American forces seized those files, along with other Third Reich records, and micro filmed them in Berlin. Some were invaluable in prosecuting Nazi officials and tracing owners of property taken from Holocaust victims. But the Ahnentafel films languished largely unnoticed in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Then in 2003, German genealogy expert John T. Humphrey happened upon them, and they've become an all-consuming research and book-writing project.

“This totally unexplored record group has enormous potential for Americans and Germans looking for ancestral information, but they're not readily accessible because they're not indexed and all the records are in German,” says Humphrey, who encounters mostly German-speakers and professional historians during his NARA research sessions. “You need special skills to use them.”

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