Uncovering My German Family

Family History
7 March 2023
by Nicholas Redmon, German Research Manager

In March 1945, nearly the entire city of Danzig, Germany, was bombarded when the Soviets took over during World War II. About 90% of the pre-war population had fled or been killed. My Opa [Grandpa] was one of the refugees who fled Danzig to avoid the approaching army. He passed away last year in November at 82. I wanted to share his story and my journey to find it. 


From a young age, I was obsessed with my Opa, Alfred Reinhold Wegner, an immigrant to the United States who was born in Danzig, Germany—now Gdansk, Poland—in 1940. Out of love for my heritage, I’ve given one of my children the middle name Reinhold and named my daughter Berlin. When I was 16, my father allowed me to travel anywhere. I chose to go to Germany with my father and Opa. 

Journey to German Genealogy Proficiency

My love for Germany and my heritage grew. I traveled to Germany several times for master’s degree studies, a two-year church mission, taking students there for month-long exchange programs, and for pleasure. I worked for six years as a high school and college-level German teacher. Now, I work as a German Research Manager for AncestryProGenealogists®, helping individuals discover their heritage daily. 

When I began teaching, I also started working on my family history. No one in my family could speak German besides my Opa, and we only knew his immigration story. 

I embarked on a genealogical journey to discover my German heritage. My Opa couldn’t read old German text because he grew up in war-torn Europe and immigrated at age 11 through Ellis Island (2). 

I was blessed to find an 80-year-old family historian at a local FamilySearch center less than a mile from me. She, like my Opa, lived in former Prussia, now Russia, but immigrated from Germany at an older age. She helped me learn to read old German script and showed me the resources I needed to succeed. 

Once I started doing genealogy, I couldn’t stop. It was rewarding and addicting. I spent many nights until 2 a.m. piecing my family history together. 

German records are primarily in Catholic and Protestant church books before Germany unified in 1871. From 1874 on, civil registration began. I started exploring civil registries and scoured through church books as I searched generation by generation. I traced my Opa’s line throughout Danzig and into regions like Berlin and Schwerin. I pieced together and documented 3,000 family members in a few short years. When I discovered my ancestors, their stories and lives built me up. 

Wegners Move to Free City of Danzig

The Free City of Danzig was a port city on the Baltic Sea. The population in 1940 was over 400,000. Some people in the city worked in the shipbuilding or trade business. My earliest paternal ancestor of my Opa was Franz Wegner, a wagon driver, who came from Lauenburg, Pomerania. This was an area where records are no longer available, due to being destroyed in World War II. The name Wegner means wagon maker, often German last names are derived from their professions, such as Müller = miller, Bauer = builder/farmer, and Schmidt = smith. Franz traversed the cobble-stone Danzig streets and taught his son, Albert Friedrich Wegner, to ride wagons. 

Albert lived for 45 years in Danzig. During this time, the Industrial Revolution brought rapid growth. He stirred up controversy as he was a Protestant and the son of a worker, but married the daughter of a Catholic business owner named Emilie Grönke in 1880.

Civil Registration
Civil Registration, Heiratsregister, 1880, no. 16, Albert Friedrich Wegner to Maria Emilie Groenke, married 14 June 1880

Not only was class status written in German ancestry records and essential in everyday life, but religion was also important. The Reformation transpired in Germany, and kingdoms across the German lands split religiously, often violently. A third of Danzig was Catholic and half Protestant. Albert and Emilie had four children, including my ancestor, Alfred Friedrich Wegner. 

Living through the World Wars

Alfred was 21 when World War I broke out. As with all other 17- to 45-year-old men in Germany, he was drafted to fight in the war. He began driving trucks in the military, as he previously worked as a chauffeur. He was stationed to work on a Luftschiff [airship/Zeppelin]. He married Auguste Meta Gurczÿnski, the daughter of a botcher, in 1915, during the war. Meta was one of 10 children. She was one of the only two children to live to marriage age. Most died in infancy. She was German but had Polish heritage, as is evident from her last name. Danzig was primarily comprised of Germans, but about 10% of the population was of Polish descent (1). Alfred and Meta had two children, including my Uropa [great-grandpa], Reinhold Alfred Wegner, who was born in January 1919. Meta was pregnant with Reinhold during the last pivotal months of the war, which ended in November 1918. 

Military Record
Military Killed in Action, 1939-1948, G-B, 255/0879, Johannes Albert Brauer, died 2 January 1942, in Brest, France

Just before World War II began, Reinhold married Ursula Biebert, my Uroma [great-grandma]. Ursula was an orphan, left to live with her neighbors, the Hesslers. Her birth mother, Pauline Biebert, felt too young to raise her. She was never adopted but grew up as a member of the Hessler family. One of her foster sisters married Karl Jablonski, who changed his last name to Gäbler in the 1930s when the Nazis took control of Germany. “People in Silesia were forced to change their surnames if there was at least a shadow, a spark, a germ of Polishness in the surname.”

Ursula’s birth father is a mystery. I suspect it was Paul Heinrich Brauer, whom her mother Pauline married shortly after having Ursula. She had another son, two years younger than Ursula, Johannes Albert Brauer. Ursula never knew their brother, as he was called to fight in World War II as a sailor. She never had the chance to meet him, as he lost his life at 19 in Brest, France, fighting in the war. 

My Opa

Reinhold and Ursula had my Opa, Alfred Reinhold Wegner, in February 1940, just after World War II began. 

My Opa told me that when he was very young, he spent many nights in bomb shelters when the sirens went off. Danzig was primarily safe from allied bombings until late 1944 and was mostly destroyed in 1945.

Family Photo
My Opa Alfred and his mother Ursula

Once, he remembered losing his mother in the darkened shelter and the gripping fear it had on him. A German soldier helped him reunite with her. In 1944, Ursula and my Opa fled Danzig with his Oma, Meta Wegner (born Gurczÿnski), and settled in Herzogenaurach, near Nürnberg. 

More of the Wegner family, including my Opa’s great aunt Selma Wegner, fled to the south, over the Alps. Selma and her husband got sick with typhus on the treacherous journey and died in May and June 1945, along with their granddaughter. 

In 1945, families were rent apart, and millions of German refugees were forced to flee Prussia, Silesia, and Pomerania. Many refugees fled into East Germany, only to fall under Communist control until 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. The map below shows how much land the German people lost between 1919 and 1945. 

Each refugee from that time has a story. My Opa was one of them. Uncovering my family’s rich history is precious to me. I hope to inspire others to join in the excitement of exploring your family history.

German land loss from 1919-1945
German land loss from 1919-1945


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