“Who Do You Think You Are?”: Josh Groban Explores His German Roots

By Diane Haddad

This post is brought to us by guest blogger and our “Who Do You Think You Are?” special correspondent, Sunny Jane Morton:

Josh Groban didn’t sing his way through last night’s episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” But the multiplatinum singer still commanded center stage as he pursued the story of a distant grandfather, eight generations back.

The story starts with a widow and her children arriving in Pennsylvania in the late 1600s, according to the Passenger and Immigration Lists Index. This resource, searchable on and in print at many large libraries, is helpful for tracing early immigrants. The index transcribes information from a variety of resources, such as emigration lists and genealogical journals.

Groban followed the trail of the missing husband, his eighth-great-grandfather, back to Germany. Here he discovered that Johann Zimmermann was an educated Lutheran church deacon, astronomer and singing instructor. It was easy to see how pleased Josh was to hold a music textbook from which Johann would have taught.

Then Johann’s story turned sad. He observed Halley’s Comet in the night sky, which he thought forecast doom for a corrupt Lutheran church. He published this opinion under a pseudonym, but was found out and got in big trouble with the church court. He pleaded to keep his job, mentioning his “heavily pregnant” wife in a letter to the duke. With each German document or book he viewed, Groban also received a neatly typed English translation.

Desperate to hold onto his beliefs without causing his family more suffering, he headed for Quaker Pennsylvania. He didn’t make it, but they did. (Here’s some behind-the-scenes, cutting-room-floor info on Johann’s burial site in Rotterdam.)

In the episode, Groban took a whirlwind tour of German church and university archives, where he paged through 17th-century books and held documents written by his ancestor. He stood in the courtyard of Johann’s university dormitory. He climbed to the belfry where Johann may have stood to examine the night sky.

It was clear Groban wasn’t sure what to make of his ancestor’s radical opinions. Many genealogists can relate to having ancestors whose value systems differ markedly from our own. He didn’t try too hard to judge the distant past by today’s standards. Instead, he looked at other indicators of the man’s character, like his willingness to sacrifice for his beliefs and his desire to take good care of his family.

Until his “WDYTYA?” appearance, Groban had no idea he had German roots—a heritage he shares with around 50 million Americans. German-Americans played a major role in populating the United States and constitute the largest single ethnic group in the United States today.

If you’re tracing German ancestors (and you aren’t a celebrity guest on “WDYTYA?”), check our popular Family Tree German Genealogy Guide by James M. Beidler. It has advice on discovering where in Germany your immigrant ancestor came from, as well as on researching in the records of Germany. Our German Genealogy Cheat Sheet is a handy quick reference, with a German alphabet guide to help you read old records, a word list and more.

» Sunny Jane Morton