Every person I look for with few exceptions I find no records for. For example:

First: Heinz
Last:  Zaun
Birth: Germany
Date:  1928
Death: Germany
Date:  1957

I know this to be true, his son is alive and has given me the dates and information. Yet searching for brith/death certificates or any records of his life come up empty for me. What am I doing wrong with my searches?

I kinda feel if I can't find records for a more recent person in my tree how am I ever going to find someone further back.


ancestry.com - The tree it finds is mine.

I do have a specific location in Germany - Marburg. But I get no better results with the added detail. I know, from talking to family, his parents - both birth and death dates, full names, and I have pictures. Still I can't find any vital records on them either.

It just seems odd, I can find other Zauns that may or may not be related to me but nothing on the family members I know exists back to my great and great-great relatives on my fathers side. On my mothers side the family gets HUGE quickly and still, once outside of the US, I can find nothing, and in the US I can find very little. I wan't expecting this to be easy-peasy but I was expecting the internet to be somewhat helpful - it's just discouraging.

  • 1
    Can you tell us where you have searched? It will be easier to spot any flaws in those searches if we know more about them.
    – user104
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 9:36
  • "if I can't find records for a more recent person in my tree how am I ever going to find someone further back" -- I'm sure it varies from place to place, but I find it much easier to get records on people from the mid-late 19th century (and in some areas for 18th century) than from the 20th.
    – bstpierre
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 13:29
  • Don't fall into the trap of thinking that online databases contain all records.
    – user47
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 17:19

4 Answers 4


Each country has thier own system of registering births deaths and marriage, know as civil registration or vital statistics. The example you give is for Germany, but you do not state where in Germany. There is an article at FamilySearch that explains German Civil Registration.

German registration is administered at state or provincial level, so you need to know which part of Germany the person came from. Germany also has a complex history of boundary changes, so you will need to work out what jurisdiction applied at the particular time of the event. Only some German civil registration records have been indexed and only some of those have been made more widely available on microfilm or online. You would need to write to the applicable registrar to obtain information not otherwise available and would only be able to get records that have been made public. The periods of closure are: births: 110 years, marriages: 80 years, deaths: 30 years.


The (excellent) advice to begin with people about whom you already know something has to be balanced against the fact that most countries place limits on the availability of information about BMD events (births, marriages and deaths) in the recent past. How long ago is "recent" varies from place to place.

In general, you will find that the easier it may be to misuse the information (in identity fraud for example) the longer the period before it will be released.

Where the official records are not available to you, you need to think laterally to find other sources. Can you find the school that Heinz attended? Do they have public records of past students (which might show his date of birth)? If there was an obituary for Herr Zaun, in which paper might it have appeared? Do they have on-line archives?

Or you could begin looking one generation further back. Can your informant give you names and approximate dates for his grandparents (the parents of Heinz Zaun). You may have more success there which will give you the confidence to attack some more demanding research.

  • Record record keeping jurisdictions are sometimes local, state/province (etc.), or national, so you might change your terminology from "countries place limits" to "jurisdictions place limits."
    – GeneJ
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 11:05
  • Or since limitations on data availability and privacy requirements are generally imposed by national governments (in Europe in response to over-arching EU requirements), countries may be appropriate.
    – Fortiter
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 12:52

(1) Justin finds few 20th century vital records, even when he uses otherwise reliable data to search in well known content-provider databases like familysearch.org or ancestry.com.

When you use otherwise reliable data/information and do not locate a record you may have discovered evidence of a conflict, albeit in the form of "negative evidence." Then again, it may have been just a bad search. You won't be able to logic through which is which unless you understand the record collection composition.

Fortiter's answer well describes the practical issue--many jurisdictions place a privacy band on their vital record collections. Not all places have the same protocols nor do the same rules apply across the board to the different types of vital records.

But wait, there's more--just because a record group is accessible doesn't mean it is accessible anywhere other than the official repository. FamilySearch, Ancestry.com, FindMyPast, MyHeritage and others are content providers--they are able to make records available only when they have been granted permission or otherwise accessed those records. And, just because they have accessed and compiled the records doesn't mean those records are either available online or indexed.

When you search or search broadly and find the specific record you want, none of this complexity may be apparent. When you don't find the record, however, hopefully you'll be curious enough to think through and discover whether or not that negative search is more significant than just a frustration.

(2) What next?

Again, Fortiter provides good information. However, given the specifics ("his son is alive and has given me the dates and information") Justin already has one source of information about Heinz Zaun. Whether in the form of an interview or correspondence, the source for these personal events should be recorded in the family file.

Justin may be able to improve on the details of those events through continued correspondence with the informant. Perhaps ask for more details (for example, the location "Germany" is not very specific). Better yet, ask if the son has and is willing to share copies of the father's records.


Germany has strict privacy laws. You cannot just look up a family member like you do here. I believe they have to be dead one hundred years, before information is made public. I was told this when I tried looking up records for relatives who were lost after WWII. No way of finding out, if they are dead or living. Only if they are your parents.

  • 1
    Welcome to G&FH SE! As a new user be sure to take the Tour to learn about our focussed Q&A format which is quite different from bulletin boards, discussion forums and other Q&A sites you may be used to.
    – PolyGeo
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 23:11

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