I am looking for info about my great-great-grandparents. The info I'm looking for is:

  • Dates and locations of their birth, marriage and death
  • Go back further in time and find their ancestry
  • Whether they were ethnic German or Poles, and thus, whether I should consider my family being a Polish or a German one (if such a distinction is possible).
  • If they were catholic or protestant
  • Any additional info about their daily lives would be interesting

My great-great grandparents were Constantin Masur and Véronique Masur, born Thilmann. They were poor farmers and lived in Schmitsch, Upper Silesia, Prussia, Germany (today Śmicz, Opole voivodship, Poland).

They had many children (probably 10), including two sons, Richard Immanuel (born 1881) and August (born 1892) who both emigrated to Switzerland in 1920 immediately after the war.

My great-grandfather pretended to be from Poland but I figured out he was from Germany and had German citizenship, which is troublesome. Doing research, I've figured out that the polish question of those territories before WWII was a gigantic can of worms. The family name Masur is very reminiscent of the common polish name Mazur, however, the spelling has changed. The linguistic repartition among rural Prussian Silesia was pretty much well separated (only the cities had merged ethnies), however, the district where Schmitsch was located, the district of Neutstadt O.S. is the one with the most mixed ethnies.

Saying he was from Poland could have several meanings depending of the context:

  • He could be effectively an ethnic pole
  • He could be of far polish descent (but the family had been German for a while)
  • He did not want to pass as a nazi, so he didn't tell he was German
  • The place he's from is today part of Poland

Last but not least, I have absolutely no idea why my great-great-grandmother has a French given name. It is likely that my great-grandfather francised her name when he told it to the (french speaking) Swiss authorities, as it is extremely unlikely a poor farmer could migrate from any french speaking country to the far east of Germany. I really want to solve that mystery as well.

  • 1
    " why my great-great-grandmother has a French surname": Thilmann (also spelled Thillmann) is German surname. Take a look at publicprofiler.org. It's relatively rare. I think the conventional spelling is Śmicz, not Śmitcz. Jun 23, 2015 at 23:01
  • I like your question but I think we should try to focus on finding vital records for your 2nd great grandparents first. Answering that for just one of them may well provide answers to the additional questions or indicate the form subsequent questions could take.
    – PolyGeo
    Jun 23, 2015 at 23:21
  • @user3310902 You are indeed correct about the spellings. Note that the WWI memorial of the village contains lot of what looksly like strangely germanized polish names. Czammer? Nowotny? Mierswa? publicprofiler says they're german names, but honestly, they really are slavic-like.
    – Bregalad
    Jun 24, 2015 at 8:43
  • @Bregalad You're in a real melting pot in that part of the world. Nowotny is Czech but also German. It starts to get a bit meaningless. But I think we can reasonably discount French. I would suggest Veronique was possibly an affectation. Remember French had snob value in Eastern Europe in the 19th Century. Jun 24, 2015 at 16:41
  • @user3310902 Oh I didn't precise they emigrated to french speaking switzerland, that's why he could have frenchised the name (not to sound snob). And your comment really gave me nostalgia about when French was so well viewed in the world :( Also I'm not related to the Nowotny (except they lived in the same village) The village is close to the Czech republic (back then, Austria) border. Also publicprofiler.org lacks Czech which sucks.
    – Bregalad
    Jun 24, 2015 at 19:17

2 Answers 2

  1. If they were catholic or protestant

Statistically (based location, given names and surname), as ethnic Poles and living in rural Upper Silesia, your great-great-grandparents were Catholic. (Catholics used a much broader range of given names than the Lutherans). This assumption would be confirmed or refuted in the microfilmed church records.

  1. Dates and locations of their birth, marriage and death. Go back further in time and find their ancestry

The FamilySearch catalog has 2 entries for Schietsch (aka Lößtal, aka Śmicz)

Search Results for FamilySearch Catalog
Use for:
Germany, Preußen, Schlesien, Lößtal
Part of Germany, Preußen, Schlesien

Germany, Preußen, Schlesien, Schmietsch - Church records ( 2 )
Kirchenbuch, 1713-1739
Author: Katholische Kirche Schmietsch (Kr. Neustadt)
Kirchenbuch, 1713-1941
Author: Katholische Kirche Schmietsch (Kr. Neustadt)

The 1st result has only 1 microfilm and is probably too early for you. The 2nd result shows 8 microfilms, containing baptisms 1713-1941, marriages 1714-1739 & 1766-1929, deaths (prob. burials) 1714-1924. There seem to be gaps and overlaps in the microfilms; possibly the overlaps are due to separate books for specific rites.

The film notes say the microfilms were made at the Archiwum Państwowe w Warszawie, Archiwum Archidiecezjalne w Wrocławiu and Archiwum Diecezjalne w Opolu (state archives in Warsaw, and church archives in Wrocław (Breslau) and Opole (Oppeln)).

There are no Lutheran (evangelische) church records for Schmietsch, as that parish church was in Ellsnig (now Olszynka), on the other side of Zülz (now Biala). (Lutherans were the minority in Upper Silesia, so those parishes included more villages and were typically in larger centres). The FamilySearch catalog does not have any entries for Ellsnig.

The local registry office (Standesamt) was in Schmietsch, but since there are no relevant FamilySearch catalog entries, they are not microfilmed and may have gone missing

Archive holdings - see catalogs for Polish archives
Mailings lists (oberschlesien-l & DEU-SCHLESIEN) and message boards

  1. Whether they were ethnic German or Poles, and thus, whether I should consider my family being a Polish or a German one (if such a distinction is possible). Any additional info about their daily lives

Ethnic Poles and ethnic Germans had been living in the region for hundreds of years. Equally long, there had been movement from the east and from the west. Equally long, there had been shifts in rulers, from Polish princes to dukedoms with overlordship in Bohemia, then Austria. Then the wars that led to Silesia becoming a Prussian province. Ethnicity was less of an issue in the multi-ethnic empires; citizenship was originally based on oaths and property-ownership.

  • The problem with Familysearch is that it is owned by a sect and I would avoid to have any affairs with them. Also the interface is weird and I'm not sure how I can consult the microfilms that are mentioned. Also, please do not use Lösstal, it's a nazi name because Schmitsch sounded too much slavic.
    – Bregalad
    Jul 22, 2015 at 20:21
  • @Bregalad - 1. I referenced all 3 placename variations because a. the combinations can pin down which of several similarly-named places is being discussed, b. some records are indexed under only one or another of the placenames. 2. FamilySearch may belong to the Mormons, but the website is free to use & they do not proselytize at their Family History Centres. Ordering microfilm depends on your location (see familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/… ) but you are certainly free to go to Poland and try to access the original books or wait for digitization.
    – bgwiehle
    Jul 22, 2015 at 23:15
  • Re: Catholic vs Lutheran - as I said in my answer, their presence or absence in the church registers will confirm or refute the assumption. The available microfilms are a place to start. Remember, though, that churches in Europe were/are funded with taxes. One has to specifically opt out and community-pressures were pretty strong.
    – bgwiehle
    Jul 22, 2015 at 23:20
  • 2
    @Bregalad Even if you don't want to order microfilm through Family Search, it is still possible to use the FHL Catalog as a finding aid to what records survive and to discover which repositories might hold the original records. You could also use their catalog information as raw material for a Google search to find other libraries and archives which might have transcriptions and indexes. Use a browser that allows you to be anonymous and you won't have to be concerned. Since you aren't contributing to their Family Tree, you won't be giving them any information they don't have already.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jul 23, 2015 at 1:52
  • So are the originals located in Warsaw, Wroclaw or Oppole?
    – Bregalad
    Jul 23, 2015 at 10:11

I wanted to address a point that originally came up in the comments to bgwiehle's answer.

Places are known by different names throughout their history. If a place was called by a particular name during the time the Nazis were in power, it may not be acceptable to use that name in a social setting, for obvious reasons. However, as historians and researchers we need to be aware of the entire historical record, including when the name was used.

If you look up the town in the gazetteer GOV (Das Genealogische Orts-Verzeichnis) at genealogy.net then the results show:

Schmietsch, Lößtal, Śmicz


  • Schmietsch (deu)
  • Lößtal (1936 - 1945) (deu)
  • Śmicz (1945 -) (pol)

However unpleasant it might be to see the name from 1936-1945 listed, to leave it out would be changing the historical record. It is useful for GOV to list all the names so people unfamiliar with the place can see what name is used during each time period.

From a practical standpoint, when a researcher is looking up a town in a gazetteer, one needs to know the publication date of the gazetteer in order to locate the town.

Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-Lexikon des Deutschen Reichs (Meyers Gazetteer of the German Empire, commonly abbreviated as "Meyers Orts") was compiled in 1912. Ancestry.com's "About Meyers Gazetteer of the German Empire" says:

This gazetteer of the German Empire is the gazetteer to use to locate place names in German research. It was originally compiled in 1912. This gazetteer is the gazetteer to use because it includes all areas that were part of the pre-World War I (WWI) German Empire. Gazetteers published after WWI may not include parts of the Empire that were lost to bordering countries. Overall, this gazetteer includes more than 210,000 cities, towns, hamlets, villages, etc.

The FamilySearch Research Wiki article Germany Historical Geography says:

The FamilySearch Catalog is based on German jurisdictions as they existed from 1871 until World War I, regardless of earlier or later changes. Places that are now under foreign jurisdiction but were part of the German Empire in 1871 are listed under both GERMANY, PREUßEN, [PROVINCE], [TOWN] and also under their present location, such as POLAND, RUSSIA, LITHUANIA, FRANCE, or DENMARK.

The descriptions for Kevan M. Hansen's German Map Guides series says Hansen uses the place names "around 1870".

This may seem obvious, but my experience is that beginners sometimes get fixated on the contemporary place names, then wonder why it is they can't find the place they are looking for. Even reading the Research Wiki at Family Search doesn't make it clear that the FamilySearch catalog's place name standard for Germany is Meyers Orts -- it's something that experienced genealogists "just know", that doesn't often get made explicit.

Whichever gazetteer or reference work or library / archive catalog you use, it's important to be aware of which time period the work describes or which gazetteer that catalog uses as a place name standard.

The researcher also needs to know ALL the place names because when you see a historical record that came from that place, you want to be able to recognize that the record is from the place you want to look at.

You also need to be aware of the modern-day place names when writing to archives. So in my opinion, you need to have a record of all the names in your research notes, even if some of them are distasteful to you.

When I first wrote this answer, I was unable to locate this town in any of the volumes of Kevan Hansen's Map Guide to Parish Register series. A recent post (11 Jul 2015) on the blog announced the publication of Volume 52. The guides were written

... to help family historians resolve where their family may have gone to church – and left vital records behind that may be seen today.

The Guides show both Lutheran and Catholic parishes, have information about how far people might have traveled, show population centers, and have information about local archives. The series is still ongoing, so if you are looking for a place and can't find it, it is possible that Hansen hasn't covered that area of Germany yet.

The page at FamilyRoots Publishing which shows the areas covered so far is German Map Guides Subcategories. (For a fuller description of the contents of the map guides, see this answer or look at the detail page for any of the volumes at the publisher's web site.)

Some of the volumes have master indexes for the area covered (for example, Volume 52, the second Posen volume, contains a master index for both Posen volumes). I don't know if anyone has produced an online cross-reference that would allow looking up a town name to get which volume the town might be in -- I tried doing a Google site search of the Family Roots site for Schmietsch and Schmitsch, Schlesien and Silesia, but I did not see results for the Map Guides.

However, on 2 March 2016, Family Roots posted on their blog: Map Guide To German Parish Registers Vol. 55 – Province Of Silesia lII, RB Oppeln – Now Shipping. This post lists the cities included, and Schmietsch is on the list, so we can see that this is the volume you need.

The publisher says:

Each volumes of the series does the following:

  • Identifies the parish where an ancestor worshipped based on where they lived.
  • Gives the FHL microfilm number for the family’s parish records.
  • Identifies nearly every city, town, and place that included residents.
  • Visually identifies church parishes for Lutherans & Catholics in each district.
  • Identifies adjoining parishes in case an ancestor attended an alternate parish.
  • Aids in area searches, particularly across district or regional borders.
  • Provides visual identification of search areas in which to look for a family.
  • Helps in determining proximity of one area to another.
  • Aids in determining reasonable distances of travel from one area to another.
  • Identifies population centers in each parish.
  • Identifies archives, repositories, and other resources.
  • Aids in identification of the location of minority religions.

Volume 55 also holds the master index for all the Silesia volumes.

The map guide could tell you which archives and repositories hold the original materials for this town.

Mark & Becky Rabideau's site Many Roads has a Mega-search Engine which uses Google to look for lesser-known resources. They also have a useful page of links, historical maps, and other resources. The site started out with Mark sharing material from his own research. New resources are being added all the time, so it is worth keeping an eye on.

Other resources:

Update: at the time I wrote my original answer, I was unaware of the project Meyersgaz.org, a website that makes Meyers Orts- und Verkehrs-lexikon des deutschen Reichs easy to use by ordinary users. From @BradC's comment (posted Apr 4 '16 at 18:25):

There is a new website available, meyersgaz.org. This website has indexed the Meyers Gazetteer and linked in historical maps. You can view Schmietsch at meyersgaz.org/place.aspx?id=20732021. If you go to the Ecclesiastical tab you'll see nearby places and whether they had a Catholic or Protestant parish. This may help you in your search.

http://www.meyersgaz.org/ is a beautifully-designed website that is the work of two dedicated individuals. See the Help for more information on how to use the website.

It is also possible to find a place by the brute-force, old-school way, by searching and viewing Meyers Gazetteer of the German Empire which is free on Ancestry in book form, and using Karte des Deutschen Reiches at the David Rumsey Map Collection, but having the two resources linked as they are on meyersgaz.org saves a tremendous amount time and effort.

FamilySearch's Learning Center Lessons has a video here: Meyer's Gazetteer Now Online, Indexed and Fully Searchable!, and live webinars are offered from time to time as Family History Library webinars. For more information, see the FamilySearch Wiki article Family History Library Classes and Webinars and open the section International Research Webinars under Upcoming Webinars.

  • The standard orthography in German was and still is Schmitsch, without a 'e'. I believe the variant with a 'e' is an old spelling. Also it's nice to present the Kevan Hansen's map guides that are being released, but what exactly are they?
    – Bregalad
    Jul 23, 2015 at 21:02
  • @Bregalad I've added more information to my answer, plus a link another answer here with a better description.
    – Jan Murphy
    Jul 24, 2015 at 0:41
  • 1
    There is a new website available, meyersgaz.org. This website has indexed the Meyers Gazetteer and linked in historical maps. You can view Schmietsch at meyersgaz.org/place.aspx?id=20732021. If you go to the Ecclesiastical tab you'll see nearby places and whether they had a Catholic or Protestant parish. This may help you in your search.
    – Brad C
    Apr 4, 2016 at 18:25

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