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Genealogy Guide: Germany

Brief History

The earliest record of a Jewish community in German lands is from 321 C.E. in Cologne. Documentation of Jews in German lands increases in the early Middle Ages. The Jewish community was peripatetic, as persecutions and expulsions, along with economic opportunities, caused them to move from city to city and state to state. During the 14th century, most Jews were expelled from German lands after being blamed for the Black Plague, only to return later. After the Reformation of the 16th century, Jews were caught in struggles between Protestants and Catholics and between the emperor and princes. After the French Revolution in 1789, Napoleon captured several German states and extended emancipation to the Jews there. When Napoleon was defeated, each German state independently determined the status of the Jews residing there.

In 1871, the German states outside of Austria united under the Prussian king, who granted Jews equal rights under the law. Yet, pervasive anti-Semitism still restricted Jewish admission to universities and to the civil and military services.  Over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industrialization spurred the mass migration of Jews from smaller towns and villages to large cities, like Berlin, Frankfurt, and Hamburg, where they sought greater economic opportunities. Between Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the outbreak of World War II in 1939, about 300,000 Jews fled Germany. Many of those who escaped to neighboring countries, such as France and Poland, still perished in the Holocaust, while many others safely resettled in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, Palestine, and South America. The modern Jewish  community of Germany is slowly rebounding, with close to 100,000 members, most of whom come from the former Soviet Union and Poland.

Former German Regions

Our research guides are organized according to modern national boundaries. For the most part, therefore, this guide does NOT cover resources pertinent to regions of the pre-World War I German Empire that are not in present-day Germany. Please consult the specified guides for the following former German territories:

  • Schlesien/Silesia, southern part of Ostpreussen/East Prussia (comprised of Ermland and Masuren/Mazury, the modern Warmia-Masuria Province), Westpreussen/West Prussia/Pomerania (includes city of Danzig/Gdansk), and Posen/Poznan > Poland 
  • Alsace-Lorraine > France 
  • Memel/Klaipeda > Lithuania