The Labyrinthine Trails of the Gatermann Films

An important data source for Jewish genealogists with roots in 19th century Germany are the Jewish civil records or “Personenstandsregister” extant in many German state archives, the Family History Center and the CAHIP archives in Jerusalem. The final common pathways, how the records came to these repositories, are the so called Gatermann films. The history of these films is shrouded in mystery that still has not been fully solved. To date, no authoritative catalogue exists in German archives of the roughly 3’400 filmed documents.

No systematic records of birth, marriage or death existed for Jews in Germany prior to 1784. In 1875 universal civil records were introduced for all Germans. During the 110 intervening years, distinct Jewish civil records were kept at a community level for Jews in parallel to the church books for gentiles. Most often, these records were maintained by the rabbi or by a Hebrew school teacher; but commonly, duplicates were kept by the local evangelical pastor or catholic priest. Subsequently, the Jewish civil records were variously stored in synagogues, municipal offices or archives. They suffered from neglect, mold, water and fire, some were mislaid, others disposed off.

The Gatermann Fims
The history of the Gatermann films

But in April 1933, less than 3 months after the Nazis coming to power, the Reichstag passed a law that made Aryan ancestry a prerequisite for a public service job. As part of its implementation, an office was created to pronounce authoritatively who was and who was not an Aryan ((Schulle, Diana. Das Reichssippenamt : eine Institution nationalsozialistischer Rassenpolitik. Berlin : Logos Verlag Berlin (2001), 2001. ISBN 3-89722-672-3)). To assist in this endeavour, 19th century Jewish civil records were systematically collected from synagogues, municipalities and archives and brought to Berlin.

The Nazi agency in charge of this process successively changed its name from “Expert for Racial Research” to “State Agency for Kinship Research” to finally “State Kinship Office” or “RSA”. Early in 1945, when the end of the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ was in sight, the documents were moved to Schloss Rathsfeld in Thuringia, and the Gatermann company from Duisburg was charged with the task of microfilming the complete cache of documents. A previous attempt at copying the films was already made in 1940, while still in Berlin ((Jude R. Die jüdischen Personenstandsunterlagen in der Deutschen Zentralstelle für Genealogie in Leipzig. Genealogie vol 1-2/1998: 4 – 18 and vol 3-4/1998: 106 -120)).

But now, things start to become nebulous. Somehow, the films disappeared from Schloss Rathsfeld during spring of 1945, to magically reappear 1948 in the hands of the Gatermann company, which sold the films to the German authorities at a State and Federal level. These documents were distributed further to regional archives. A complete set of documents, in the form of small paper contact copies, were given to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP) in Jerusalem in 1954. LDS reports that they filmed their copies in the respective state archives.

The two remaining questions are: what happened to the the original documents at the end of the war and how did the films end up again in the hands of the Gatermann company in 1948? Most experts assume that the original documents got lost during the final Russian assault. They might have drowned in a flood or they might have been taken back to Russia, hidden away in some arcane archives. 

At least two possible scenarios are considered for the fate of the films between 1945 and 1948. The more plausible is that they had been stashed away by the Gaterman company all along until the political climate allowed recouping the investment. The other theory, purported by LDS, claims that the films got into the hands of the US occupational forces, who generously restored them to the Gatermann company.

Maybe the answers to these mysteries lie hidden away in some Wahington and Moscow archives.

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2 Responses to The Labyrinthine Trails of the Gatermann Films

  1. me says:

    What a fascinating first entry for your blog. Do you plan on investigating the mystery further?

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