To back up Thomas Kemper, I'd like to reprise a post I'd already sent,
but unfortunately in formatted form. Genealogy was quite a popular
gentleman's hobby among middle-class Jews, well before the Nazi
administration made terrible use of it.
I have copies of a letter >from my great-uncle, dated 1924, asking the
Burgermeister of Biedesheim in Bavaria for details of his maternal
grandfather's family (12 children!). He received a detailed reply,
with exact the date of birth for each. My late father, too, left file of
family trees and correspondence on the subject. His research was made
for his own pleasure, but the results may well have saved our lives,
when he was able to contact family members who provided the guarantees
for our entry visas.
Family records were kept locally under every European jurisdiction,
to keep tabs on the population for all sorts of administrative purposes
(eg road maintenance, property law, market licences, taxation, school
administration, workhouses) I don't know the American system, but in
Europe they have been universal, and don't per se have any sinister
In Germany (as in England) they were the province of local religious
organisations, be they church or synagogue until the start of the 1800s.
If there was no formal local community, the recording task fell to
the local Protestant clergyman. Some GerSiggers have been perturbed to
find their ancestors BMDs in Church records, but this only happened if
there was no recognised local Jewish community.
It was the French Revolutionaries and then Napoleon Bonaparte who first
introduced the new concept of Civil registration, in order to curb the
political power of the Churches (and the Rabbis).
St Albans, UK