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My dilemma is finding out about my great-grandfather's war history. Here's a brief summary of what I know.

My father is Swiss. His father was Swiss' and served as a border guard in world war II. It's his dad I'm keen in finding more facts about.

I'm informed through family relatives that he served and died with the Kaiser’s German army in world war I, presumably on the western front. He originated from a town on the Swiss border and lake region called Konstanz. The town is Kreuzlingen. His surname was Rebholz and first name was Hans or Johann (we cannot be certain of this).

Some of the Rebholz family story goes that my great-grandfather paid for his many children to be given Swiss citizenship and start a new life over the border in a neutral country with his eldest daughter who eventually raised them (6 of them!). The reason given was that he was sure that this would be his last battle and knew of his impending doom.

I would love to know which regiment he served with, his military records, and where he eventually fell in battle. There's a huge gap in our family tree where a question mark lies and I'd love to be able to explain what happened to our brave ancestors (regardless of which side they fought for!). Incidentally I'm half swiss half English and both my grandfather's, on both sides took up military posts during WW1 and WW2. My mother is English. The German lineage in our family ended in 1914-1918 somewhere & somehow. Please help, any advice welcomed.

Thanks.

Update: I've since found out he was not born in Kreuzlingen but Sigmaringen in Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany.

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Hi John and welcome to Genealogy.SE! Please see our tour for some help with this site’s functionality. I removed some parts of your question to focus readers on your enquiry. A separate signature is not necessary. –  lejonet Aug 15 at 12:44
    
It is likely that he had multiple given names -- see the Wikipedia article German Name. After coming to the US, my husband's German-born great-grandfather swapped his names around and used his Rufname or "everyday name" as his American first name, with his first-in-sequence forename as a middle initial or middle name. The Rufname is usually the second, or sometimes the third name. For many of the German immigrants in the family, I only have evidence of the first forename on very formal documents (e.g. Naturalization, marriage, birth records). –  Jan Murphy Aug 15 at 15:18
    
The "Max" I am looking for in the 1930 Census was (as far as I can tell) Frank Friedrich Maximillian [surname]; he can be found as Fred F. or Frank F. (both with and without the M.), and Maxim F., and went by "Max" as his everyday name. –  Jan Murphy Aug 15 at 16:09
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+1 for including the family story about your great-grandfather establishing the Swiss citizenship for his children, which opens up all sorts of interesting questions and research possibilities. –  Jan Murphy Aug 15 at 18:09
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Saw this question in the hot network list and just signed up for this. I live in Konstanz (and I am currently in my office, which is like 30 meters apart from the border, i.e. from Kreuzlingen) and if you need any help with stuff which has to be done here directly (i.e. I don't know, like going to the church for the birth certificate), I am happy to help. Also, I think it would be important that you clarify whether he was born in Konstanz or Kreuzlingen or whether you don't know, because getting citizenship wasn't easy at that time. –  dirkk Aug 15 at 19:06

2 Answers 2

Update: new information on birth place

Let’s sum up what we know for sure:

  • You had a great-grandfather with the surname Rebholz

What we assume:

  • He was born in Sigmaringen

What is unknown:

  • his first name(s)
  • his birth date
  • his place and date of death

You are lucky, the birth and other records from the Standesamt Sigmaringen are available online from the Staatsarchiv Sigmaringen: Personenstandsunterlagen Standesamt Sigmaringen.

Please read my answer on How to find information on German soldiers from World War I and World War II? for further research. Especially the Verlustlisten and the records kept in the Landesarchiv Baden Württemberg - Hauptstaatsarchiv Stuttgart (for combatants serving in the army of Baden and Württemberg) might be useful when we suppose that your ancestor might have fought in these armies from Germany’s southwest. What you really need to know first is his birth date to get information and to be able to verify information on people with this name.

The Verlustlisten list several people with the name Rebholz from Sindelfingen:

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Minor edit to include the likelihood that there are multiple forenames, per my comment on the question. Hans Johann sounds better to my ear than Johann Hans, but there could have been other forenames in the sequence as well. –  Jan Murphy Aug 15 at 15:22
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"Johann Hans" is a rather uncommon combination since both names are an abbreviation of "Johannes". –  lejonet Aug 15 at 15:35
    
Perhaps one of his forenames is Johannes then? Might that account for both variants? –  Jan Murphy Aug 15 at 15:48
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@lejonet As an Austrian I can tell you that "Hans" is not uncommon as the short version of "Johann". Similar to Daniel and Dan (my granddad's name as it happens and he was also generally called Hans). Seems like one possible explanation. –  Voo Aug 15 at 20:04
    
@Voo Did not doubt that. –  lejonet Aug 15 at 23:23

Update: Since the original question and the early answers were written, John has found out that his great-grandfather was not born in Kreuzlingen, but Sigmaringen, now in Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany. I'll leave my answer as a case study for how to find the birthplace when it is not known, since it also addresses the family story about the Swiss citizenship of the children. Some resources for research in Sigmaringen are:

FamilySearch Wiki: Germany BYU Research Outline: Germany

Wikipedia: Sigmaringen

Sigmaringen was first documented in 1077 and was in the principality of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen until 1850, after which it became a province of Prussia's Province of Hohenzollern.

FamilySearch Catalog: Germany, Preußen, Hohenzollern, Sigmaringen


There are many interesting approaches to this question.

One part of this story stands out to me:

Some of the Rebholz family story goes that my great-grandfather paid for his many children to be given Swiss citizenship and start a new life over the border in a neutral country with his eldest daughter who eventually raised them (6 of them!).

Family stories often get some of the details wrong, but still hold some kernel of truth in them.

My approach would be to step back and thoroughly research this (your grandfather's) generation. With multiple people, you have many more opportunities to find records than you do for just one person. Information which is lacking about one sibling may be found on the record of another.

Collect all the records you can find about all these children. What records might have been created for them? What information about their parents might appear on those records? Since the father, and apparently the mother, will not have been the informant for many of the records that were created in the later part of their lives, it seems likely that the children will report what the eldest daughter told them, which might not be accurate. But if you find any variation in those records, treat those variations not as mistakes, but as clues.

Q1: Do naturalization records exist for the children?

What made a person a Swiss citizen in this time period? If the story is true that your great-grandfather had to go through some process to establish or re-establish Swiss citizenship for his children, what would that process have been? Behind each record group there is usually some law that was passed that dictated what records needed to be created. Have the laws about citizenship changed, and if so, when did that happen? What records would have been created? Did they survive, and if so, what archives might hold them?

Q2: Do any of the children's records state their father's birthplace? (i.e. can their records answer or narrow down the question of where Hans/Johann Rebholz was born)

Many of the records in the USA will only list a country or state for the father's birthplace, but I found the hometown of my father's (English) great-grandfather, and his place of death, on his daughter's passport application.

When people come from a small town, sometimes they will say 'I am from [small town]' and when the listener doesn't know where that is, they will give the name of the nearest bigger place. Sometimes people remember the name of the bigger place, and the real small-town origin can be forgotten. When I first started out doing my own family history, I couldn't find my father's family in the census because I was looking in the big city which was nearby. I was looking in the right county, but the wrong town. Once I talked to my brother, who remembered the small town name, I looked at the records for the small town and found the records.

Sometimes if the family moves, it is possible for people to be known as "from" the town where they grew up, but their actual birthplace will be elsewhere.

Gathering your great-grandfather's children's records may also help you find more information about his forenames.

Q3: What is the history of the Konstanz region?

Did the border change? If the same place was once held by Germany and then became part of Switzerland (or vice-versa) then that might explain someone having to re-establish their Swiss citizenship despite not having moved at all. see new section at the end of this answer, and the comment from @dirkk below

Q4: What happened to their mother?

Why (and when) were the children being raised by the eldest daughter? Did the mother die in childbirth when the last child was born, or did something else happen? Who died first, the mother, or Hans/Johann? What information about the children's father might be on the mother's death record? Do probate records exist for either parent?

Q5: When did the eldest daughter reside in Switzerland?

You said "his eldest daughter who eventually raised them". When did she establish her residency in Switzerland? When did her siblings join her? What is the timeline for the entire family?

Investigating these questions, and other questions that may occur to you in the process, may yield valuable information that will help you when you take the more direct approach to the question as outlined by lejonet.

Q6: What regiment did Hans/Johann serve with?

Local histories might hold the answer to this question. Some towns produced books which recorded all the names of people who served in the war. I found a book about my husband's grandfather's town via Google Books, and a regimental roster on a website about his regiment. Once you have pinpointed the regiment, regimental histories can give you the context that will help you read any military records that might survive.

Resources


From the Family Search Wiki on Switzerland Naturalization and Citizenship linked to above:

Swiss citizenship is kept on three levels: the nation, the canton, and the Heimatort, or home community. For most people, citizenship was inherited, and residency was not a requirement. Thus one or more generations of a citizen’s descendants may never even have seen their original home community. A burger and his descendants remained citizens of their Heimatort or Heimatgemeinde until one of them applied for and obtained citizenship in another town.

(emphasis mine)

From Wikipedia:

Kreuzlingen is a municipality in the district of Kreuzlingen in the canton of Thurgau in north-eastern Switzerland. It is the seat of the district and is the second largest city of the canton, after Frauenfeld, with a population of about 20,800. Together with the adjoining city of Konstanz just across the border in Germany, Kreuzlingen is part of the largest conurbation on Lake Constance with a population of almost 120,000.

In 1874, the municipality of Egelshofen was renamed Kreuzlingen. It reached its present size with the incorporation of Kurzrickenbach in 1927 and Emmishofen in 1928.

Could the family story have come about because your great-grandfather's children applied for citizenship in another town? Or may the extra step have been necessary because of the location of Kreuzlingen? What if your great-grandfather grew up in Kreuszlingen, on the Switzerland side, but he was actually born over the border in Konstanz?

Knowing that Konstanz is a district in Germany, not in Switzerland, and that it is not just a district, but that there is also a city by the name of Konstanz which is a twin city (that is, similar to Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota in the United States, which are known as the "twin cities") to Kreuzlingen, might be an important clue in solving this part of your great-grandfather's story-puzzle. (See the Wikipedia article on Kontanz for its history with respect to the Swiss Confederacy.)

If your great-grandfather was actually born in Konstanz, that might explain why he was called on to fight in the German Army. Did Germany try to draft German-speaking citizens of Kreuszlingen?

I do think it might be productive to ask Kreuszlingen for records about your great-grandfather, but rather than simply asking for a birth record, it might be more productive to say that you aren't sure which of the two cities he might have come from, and to ask what records (of any kind) are available for your search, so you understand what specific record collections you can ask them to search. See the question: How can I determine what records are available in a particular locale?

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From the Wikipedia article on the city of Konstanz: "Because it almost lies within Switzerland, directly adjacent to the Swiss border, Konstanz was not bombed by the Allied Forces during World War II. The city left all its lights on at night, and thus fooled the bombers into thinking it was actually part of Switzerland. After the war, Konstanz was included first in South Baden and then in the new state of Baden-Württemberg." –  Jan Murphy Aug 15 at 17:54
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Regarding Q3: As a resident of Konstanz I can assure you the border wasn't changed in this time period. Also, the Germans did not draft Swiss citizens. –  dirkk Aug 15 at 19:01
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Q3 was written before I looked at the Wikipedia articles for Konstanz and Kreuzlingen, which gives the history of both places. I misread the original question and thought Konstanz was the administrative district for Kreuzlingen. Thanks @dirkk for your insight -- and welcome to G&FH.SE. –  Jan Murphy Aug 15 at 19:07
    
Thank you all this is all very helpful. I've since found out he was not born in kreuzlingen but sigmaringen in Baden wurttemberg in Germany –  John Rebholz Aug 21 at 12:32

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