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You Can't Pick Your Ancestors

German Soldiers in World War II. Image Credit: Library of Congress

When you embark on your family history adventure it will not be long before you uncover family secrets and unsavory characters. You will find children born out of wedlock, aldulterers, wife beaters, bigamists, murderers, slave owners, con men and more. 

Erich Priebke. I am pretty sure that most you have not heard this name before. He was the son of Gustav Wilhelm Ernst Priebke and Hedwig Selma Rosa Glänzer.  Glänzer is one of the name variations in my One Name Study. My maternal grandmother was a Glaentzer.

I got Erich’s name from my cousin Christina in Germany who works on the One Name Study with me. She also sent me Erich’s occupation – SS-Hauptstrurmführer.  Even if you don't speak German you probably understand SS.  Erich was a captain in the German SS (Sicherheitspolizei) during World War II.  He participated in the Fosse Ardeatine Massacre of 335 Italian citizens in 1944 and was later captured and held prisoner by the British. He managed to escape and he fled to Argentina where he lived a very comfortable life under the radar until 1994.  Sam Donaldson from ABC news tracked him down and when he was approached for an interview he apparently felt it was safe to speak out after so many years. He admitted to his participation in the massacre to Mr. Donaldson. He said he wasn't guilty of anything because he was simply following orders. He was very wrong if he thought this explanation would be accepted. Now that his whereabouts were known he was arrested and extradited to Italy. He then went into an endless cycle of hearings, trials and appeals. He was sentenced several times with the sentence changing.  His final sentence was life imprisonment but was given house arrest because of his age.

Erich died on 11 October 2013 in Rome, Italy at the age of 100. He wanted to be buried in Argentina next to his wife but Argentina refused. Germany also refused to allow the body to be returned there. The Vatican issued an order that his funeral could not be conducted in any Catholic church in Rome. He is buried in the Cimitero della Colonia Penale de Isili in Isili, Italy. It is a abandoned prison cemetery.

As tempting as it is for me to pretend that I never found this connection I must include him and his information in my file. History is history and you can’t change it. I could reduce Erich down to a list of vital statistics and pretend that I don’t know about his past but that would be an error by omission.

Erich Priebke Biography (
Erich Priebke: Nazi war criminal (BBC)
Erich Priebke, Nazi Who Carried Out Massacre of 335 Italians, Dies at 100 (NY Times)
Just following orders (The Economist)


Michele Simmons Lewis, CG® is part of the Legacy Family Tree team at MyHeritage. She handles the enhancement suggestions that come in from our users as well as writing for Legacy News. You can usually find her hanging out on the Legacy User Group Facebook page answering questions and posting tips.


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I thought I could handle anything and used to repeat an old saw to my students: "If you're afraid of skeletons, don't go looking in closets."

Then I found an ancestor was connected to a sexual assault during the Reconstruction. (In my set of personal values, crimes against women and children are esp. heinous. So I was literally nauseous.)

I'm okay with recording his other offenses, which include perjury. (He lied about his age and voted in 1867--undoubtedly to oppose the 14th Amendment and universal suffrage.)

But I still cannot bring myself to tell anyone in the family about the sexual assault.

Am I being dishonest?

[BTW, please edit my comments so as to conceal my identity.]

Yesterday I was just thinking of two maiden aunts. One of them was born with a cleft palate. She led a pretty solitary and sad life. The other was very smart and unkind to the point of being mean. I was wondering what to include when writing about them in our family history. Or, is including character traits really appropriate?

You don't have to announce the information but if a family member shows interest in this particular ancestor I would be truthful and tell them everything that you know.

My mother's parents were both killed because of the Nazis when she was a little girl. I am not going to go to her and say, "Hey, look what I found! A Nazi war criminal in our family." (not that I would ever say it like that anyway). She isn't even aware this guy exists because he is so distantly related so she won't be asking me about him. If this was one of her uncles or something I would tell her. If is something that close to her, I think she should know.

I have similar situations in my file. I have sister to one of my direct line ancestors that fell off of a porch and broke her leg badly. It never healed properly and she was lame from then on. Because of that (according to family members) she never married because no one wanted her.

In my file I have that she never married (fact) and that she fell off a porch and broke her leg and because lame (fact). I didn't record (at least publicly) that the family said she never married because no one wanted her because of her lame leg. I have that in my private notes only. Why? This is hearsay at best. The persons that said this heard it from their parents and those parents are long dead and not able to be interviewed as eyewitnesses (though this was still only their opinion) What I release and don't release does depend a bit on how far back in time it is.

If this was someone further back in time I would relax what I release publicly IF IF IF I had some sort of written documentation to back it up. For example, let's say one of her sisters wrote a letter in 1840 to a friend telling this friend about her lame sister and now no one wanted to marry her, I would most likely include that letter.

Yes, written documentation makes the difference between leaving the story in question out of the family history or including it. In my mind, fact is more credible, if a bit less interesting, than "gossip." And time makes a difference. I do not want hurt feelings. I learned that lesson a few years ago when I chatted with my husband's aunt about who Grandpa Baker was. Her response was an obvious stiffening of her posture and the question, "What do you want to know THAT for?" She did not answer the question.

Actually, I could write a separate family history book denoting the numerous "deviations" in human behavior from the "norm" I have stumbled across through the years, but I won't. It would be too big to handle. I like our family just as human as it is, unpublished secrets and all.

Having a BA in history, I have a pretty good idea that I would find a variety of people in my family tree (from the infamous to the famous & to those who just podded thru life doing their best to survive what history threw at them). In some branches, by marriage, l have a president who was a slaveholder (Washington), May West, and people who served on both sides of the Civil War. For me genealogy brings history to life. It reminds me that is living people who created American history & culture, plus the changes in our society as time goes on. This is why I find genealogy so fascinating.

You are not responsible for your ancestors or yet their actions. The repercussions of their actions may affect one but covering up or hiding important information just because it is unpalatable is not on. My mother often told me my grandfather was lost in WW1 and so I never new him .
She did not tell a lie as such in her mind ,they did lose him, he left my grandmother for another younger woman at the end of WW1. Because of that I did not know a grand father at all ,as the other one died whilst my father was a child. It is only from OUR research that the truth has come to light as all the information i had previously was very slanted in favour of my grandmother who was not a very nice lady .
C J Clayton

The photo appears to be a WW1 era photo that shows circa 1914 German soldiers with an anti-aircraft or machine gun. They are regular army soldiers, not the SS which came later during WW2.

The "SS" or Schutzstaffel was a feared military outfit during WW2 that took oaths of allegiance directly to Hitler. The SS was responsible for the death camps and other nefarious activities of the Hitler regime. The SS should not be confused with the Sicherheitspolizei (security police), which itself was comprised of the Geheimstaatspolizei (secret state police; Gestapo) and the Kriminalpolizei (criminal police; Kripo).

The photo is a stock photo just to add interest. It wasn't meant to be historically accurate :)

I was told by my aunts when I started doing research that they had an uncle that was "shot out west". Whether they did not know the story or did not want to admit to it I spent years trying to see if this information was correct. I posted the request on one of the genealogy forums and someone was kind enough to forward me the info. My great uncle killed himself rather than "be taken alive" while eluding a posse for trying to cash fraudulent notes. I suppose years after the fact it is not so horrifying. I'm glad that someone was kind enough to find the facts and forward them to me. Life is short, "facts is facts" and I just wish I had been able to glean more. Yes sometimes it is embarrassing or downright nauseating but we can learn from other's mistakes. I would rather know than to be left in the dark about my ancestors history. There Are plenty of skeletons for everyone.

It's a good reminder to confirm which fields are private when sharing a file! I've written a few things in a separate document that really seemed too private, or were rumours.

I have found "incest" in a family line which includes a prison record. I have documented the record and included it since it is a "fact" (did not include any names other than accused), but I have not added any editorial of family "stories" since it is hearsay. There have been assumptions made and discussed by some, and as previously noted, can be maintained as a private note (potential clue) for further research if documentation can be found. I have not been brought this to the attention of any affected living relative due to the hurtful nature, but history can, and generally does, speak for itself.

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