Ask Yvette – Dealing with Records Loss in World War II

To celebrate 1,000 likes of Dutch Genealogy Services on Facebook, likers were invited to ask a research question for a free consultation. Some could quickly be answered on Facebook. Eric Schmidt asked a question that some of you may struggle with as well, so I thought I’d answer it in more detail.

Eric asked:

For years this is my brick wall located in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen in the Netherlands. I am searching for the parents of Anthonij de Smidt (more information here). As a lot of records from Zeeuws-Vlaanderen have been destroyed during ww2 I am not able to find anything on him. Do you have any idea where I have to search?

Zeeland record loss in World War II

During World War II, Middelburg had two important archives: the Rijksarchief Zeeland (provincial archives) and the Gemeentearchief (municipal archives). When Middelburg was bombed by the Germans in May 1940, the municipal archives and parts of the provincial archives burned. Many unique records were destroyed.

Among the records that were lost are:

  • Church records of many churches. Remember that churches were required to turn over their baptismal, marriage and burial records to the government when the civil registration was introduced in 1795 (Zeeuws-Vlaanderen) and 1811 (rest of Zeeland). 528 of the 1186 registers that the archives had in 1940 were lost. For some towns, the record loss is virtually complete.
  • Town records of Middelburg, including the town ledgers going back to 1385 and the city charter of 1254.
  • Marriage supplements of some towns. These are the documents that the bride and groom submitted when they got married, which includes extracts of church records that were also lost. The surviving marriage supplements have been used to partially reconstruct the lost church records.
  • Private archives of many societies, companies, and families, who had opted to store their records at the provincial archives.

The municipal archives and provincial archives have merged and are now part of the Zeeuws Archief, the largest repository in Zeeland. The surviving records of both organizations can be found there.

Strategies for dealing with record loss

Here are some strategies that help to compensate for the loss of records:

  • Use earlier copies. There were genealogists doing research in Zeeland records before 1940. Some of them published their conclusions. Some kept notes. The Zeeuws Archief has collected these prior published and unpublished sources. Their reading room has a large collection of “Genealogische Afschriften” [Genealogical derivatives] of sources that are no longer available.
  • Use marriage supplements. Find relatives who married after 1795 (Zeeuws Vlaanderen) or 1811 (rest of Zeeland) and check their marriage supplements. Don’t just do this for your person of interest but also for their children and grandchildren. Marriage supplements often contain death records of parents, and even grandparents in the case where both parents were gone. An ancestor who was born in the 1600s may well have had grandchildren who married after 1795.
  • Find out what other records are available. Church records may be the most common source of information about genealogical relationships to use for the 1700s, but there are many other records. Check the finding aids to see if you can find court records, notarial records, orphan chamber records, tax records, or town records.
  • Research family, friends, associates, and neighbors. Don’t limit your research to your person of interest. Research the people around him. If they appeared in records about your person of interest, chances are that he may appear in theirs.
  • Understand the community. Where there other families by that name in the region? Was there a lot of migration and where did these people come from? What occupation did the person of interest have, and who else had that occupation? Could they have been related?
  • Trace property. Find out if the family owned real estate, for example by checking the Cadastre records (since 1832), death duties files, court records, and tax records. Try to trace the property back through time. Can you find out how your ancestor came to own the property? If there was no sale deed, could he have inherited it? Who was the prior owner? Could there be a family relationship?
  • Look for indirect and negative evidence. In places with major record loss, you may not find a record that explicitely mentions the parents. But you may be able to prove your case if you look for indirect evidence. For example, if the previous owner has the same last name as your person of interest, and the name of him and his wife match the names of two children of the person of interest, and several known children of the previous owner appear as witnesses in records of the person of interest, that is all indirect evidence that they may be the parents you are looking for. The fact that you did not find any sales, even though the records survive, is negative evidence that the person inherited the property rather than bought it.

Analysis of known information

The ahnentafel that Eric provided gives the following information for his brick wall ancestor Anthonij Janssen de Smidt:

  • Anthonij Janssen de Smidt married on 1 June 1726 in Zaamslag to Elisabeth Bol. He was buried in Terneuzen on 10 September 1774, she on 3 November 1777.
  • They had seven children: Antoni, Elisabeth, Jan, Leijntje, Anthonie, Markus, Anna Maria. Five of these children have more detailed information, like their marriage and burials.
  • Anthonij was mentioned as witness in several sources.
  • Anthonij and Elisabeth made a last will on 11 August 1739.
  • He was a blacksmith in Terneuzen. The family also lived in Zaamslag, Middelburg, and Axel.
  • Son Jan was a smith who owned a house in Zaamslag.

Detail of map of Flanders, showing Axel and Terneuzen. Note: north is depicted to the right.
Credits: Blaeu, 1645, Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Zaamslag and Terneuzen are two towns that lost church records. For Zaamslag, only reconstructed abstracts of church records survive. For Terneuzen, the marriage records, membership records and some of the burial records survive, but the baptismal records were lost. The other place where they lived, “Middelburg,” could be either Middelburg in Zeeland, where many records were destroyed, or Middelburg in Flanders. Research in that town could find more records.

The source citations indicate that Eric used the following sources:

This shows that Eric made good use of the information that is available online, and did not limit his research to just church records. However, it seems that he has not consulted the original records yet. That would be the first thing I would recommend. as the original records may show the location of property and may mention other associates.

The tree does not say what other sources Eric tried which did not provide any information. The Geneaknowhow website contains many transcribed and abstracted records for the area. They should all be searched for any references to people named De Smidt or any of the associates of Anthonij Jansen de Smidt. This should give a picture of the De Smidt families who were living in the area when Anthonij was born. For example, the index of transport deeds of Axelambacht 1703-1712 shows that a Jan Cammaert was married to the widow of Jan de Smidt by 1711. The original record should be checked to find out who she was and if this Jan de Smidt is a candidate to be the father of Anthonij.

Using the finding aids at the website of the Zeeuws Archief, I consulted the finding aid for the Court records of Zeeuws-Vlaanderen (record group 11). This shows that there are more surviving records for Zaamslag and Terneuzen than the ones that are indexed online:

  • Orphan chamber records of Terneuzen survive from 1648-1795. Anthonij and Elisabeth were buried more than 50 years after their marriage, so they would not have left any minor children. But Anthonij may have been a guardian to other relatives, and he may himself have lost a parent at an early age. Orphan chambers recorded the estates of minor children who had lost one or both parents. Going through the orphan chamber records of Terneuzen may find more associates and relatives of Anthonij.
  • Notarial records of Terneuzen span the period 1682-1785 and those of Axelambacht (which includes Zaamslag) cover the period 1650-1796. Only the last wills of Terneuzen 1721-1738 have been indexed online. Other records to look for are prenuptial agreements (around 1726) and the division of their estate after their deaths (1774, 1779).
  • Voluntary court records of Terneuzen, which should include sale deeds, cover the period 1601-1798. These should be searched for property ownership of Anthonij Jansen de Smidt.
  • Orphan chamber records of Axelambacht, which includes Zaamslag, survive for the period 1565-1795. They are located at the Municipal Archives of Terneuzen, location Axel. These should be checked for Anthonij de Smidt and associates.

The finding aid for the “Genealogische Afschriften” collection shows that the Zeeuws Archief has derivative sources of several Terneuzen, Axel and Zaamslag records. These should be consulted as well. The online finding aids at the Zeeuws Archief website also showed they have the records of the Dutch Reformed Church of Terneuzen, but a finding aid is only available in the reading room.

The Genealogisch Centrum Zeeland, the Zeeland Genealogical center housed in the Zeeuws Archief in Middelburg, has an online catalog that shows they have the following compiled sources for the area:

  • Index of baptismal records of Axel 1603-1796
  • Tax records of Axel 1710; 1747-1748
  • Extracts of the orphan chamber of Axel, including inventories 1728-1785
  • Baptismal register of Terneuzen 1663-1741
  • Church membership records of Terneuzen 1693-1796
  • Names from the church council minutes of Terneuzen 1638-1798
  • Extracts from church records of Zaamslag 1654-1796
  • Tax lists of Zaamslag 1721
  • Poor ledgers of Zaamslag 1681-1796

These sources should be checked for any references to the De Smidt family and associates.

In the 1700s, Zeeuws-Vlaanderen was controlled by the States General. Several tax records of the area are kept in the archives of the States General, in the Nationaal Archief in The Hague. The online finding aid shows this archive contains the following series that might be of interest:

  • Ledgers of the city and district of Terneuzen, 1654-1793
  • Ledgers of the city and district of Axel, 1631-1793

Going through all of the surviving records of Axel, Terneuzen and Zaamslag should allow Eric to create a picture of the community which his ancestor Anthonij Jansen de Smidt was a part of. In my experience, such broad research will often identify candidates to be the parents. By analyzing all the available information for indirect and negative evidence, it may be possible to prove who the parents of Anthonij Jansen de Smidt were.

Research plan

  • Consult all the original records for the sources mentioned in the online tree.
  • Search the transcribed and abstracted records at the Geneaknowhow website for any references to people named De Smidt and their associates.
  • Check the “Database akten West-Vlaanderen” [West-Flanders database] for records of Anthonij de Smidt and Elisabeth Bol and their associates. This database includes records of Middelburg in Flanders.
  • Search the compiled sources of Axel, Terneuzen and Zaamslag (identified above) at the Genealogisch Centrum Zeeland in Middelburg and in the “Genealogische Afschriften” collection of the Zeeuws Archief for people named De Smidt and their associates.
  • Browse orphan chamber, notarial records and voluntary court records of Terneuzen at the Zeeuws Archief in Middelburg for references to Anthonij de Smidt, Elisabeth Bol and their associates.
  • Check the finding aid of the Dutch Reformed Church of Terneuzen in the Zeeuws Archief reading rooms to see what records this record group may have.
  • Browse orphan chamber records at the Municipal Archives of Terneuzen, location Axel for references to Anthonij de Smidt, Elisabeth Bol and their associates.
  • Browse ledgers of Axel and Terneuzen in the archives of the States General at the Nationaal Archief in The Hague to see which De Smidt families and associates were living in the area at the time.

I hope this list has given Eric some new suggestions for his research. Most of these sources will have to be consulted on-site, so it will be time-consuming. But puzzles like these can be solved, if you expand your research to analyze all of the surviving records and focus on the community in which your brick wall ancestors lived.

Ask your research question

Do you have your own research question that you would like to me to answer? Like Dutch Genealogy Services on Facebook and post your question.


About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink, CG®, QG™ is a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. She holds the Certified Genealogist credential from the Board for Certification of Genealogists and has a post-graduate diploma in Family and Local History from the University of Dundee. She has been doing genealogy for over 30 years and helps people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. Thank you very much for your great and helpful article! I’ll be vacationing in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen in August and I will try to visit the archive in Axel.

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