What started as a relatively simple project concerning family history last September where curiosity was expected to wane within weeks has mushroomed into an enduring effort now in its sixth month. Members of the Church in Austria have been pleasantly surprised at the interest their countrymen have shown in searching out their ancestors.
"The people really are interested in finding their ancestors," said Elisabeth (Sissy) Pietsch who serves with her husband, Freddy, as national directors of Public Affairs for the Church in Austria.
"We're now into February and interest is still going strong. Never have we had such a positive response about the Church."
"Auf der Suche nach unseren Wurzeln," or "In Search of Our Roots," has been a cooperative effort between members of the Church in Austria and the country's largest circulation newspaper, the Neue Kronen Zeitung.
This nationwide project came about as a result of associations established three years ago on the pioneer re-enactment wagon train, which followed the Mormon Pioneer Trail into the Salt Lake Valley. Brother and Sister Pietsch traversed the trail in 1997, during the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Pioneers' arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. The Pietschs were accompanied during a portion of the journey by a journalist from the Austrian newspaper who filed several articles about the trek.
When President Gordon B. Hinckley announced the creation of the FamilySearch web site in May 1999, Brother and Sister Pietsch approached their journalist contacts. Their idea of a news article soon mushroomed into a major campaign requiring telephone hotlines, mail correspondence, and a link on the newspaper's home page accessing the Church's FamilySearch web site.
Church members who were expert in researching family history were invited by priesthood leaders to participate in the project by assisting Austrians as they called on the hotlines, or by answering letters. The newspaper supplied an office with three telephone lines as the hotline center, while the Church offered additional telephones in seven family history centers located in meetinghouses throughout Austria.
"This has been a team effort," Sister Pietsch said. "We've had 50 volunteers or more working some weeks. There were normally three or four volunteers manning the three phones in the newspaper office during an eight-to-10-hour shift, plus another 10 answering phones around the country.
"Still, the phones in the family history centers are ringing more now than before. We've had to change the open hours at the centers," she said. The newspaper's one request of the Church, continued Sister Pietsch, was for volunteers to not use the phone calls for proselytizing.
The newspaper announced the family history campaign in a 12-article feature package on Sunday, Sept. 19, 1999. Three days later, on Sept. 22, the project began.
"If you weren't able to get through," stated a news article the following day, "we ask your understanding and encourage you to try again. The telephone lines were busy with an enormous interest in our hotline. People were calling even before the official starting time," the article continued.
"Thank you for selecting this theme," said hundreds of "Krone" readers, according to the article. By Saturday, the newspaper had registered 200,000 hits on the web site.
Johann Bicherl, Vienna 3rd Ward, Vienna Austria Stake, discovered during the course of a conversation with a caller that they had common ancestors and decided to organize a meeting of the extended family in July.
"This has been a marvelous experience for the volunteers who sometimes went the third and fourth mile to serve people of our country," said Sister Pietsch. "Hundreds of letters were sent by readers to the newspaper. Volunteers answered the letters. Some were very difficult. We invited many people to come directly to the family history centers to look through the microfilms and use the computers."
Brother Norbert Willmann, supervisor of the family history center in the Wels Ward, Salzburg Austria Stake, said that e-mail requests had increased by five times, and that three times more people were entering the center than on average. With his extensive background in family history, Brother Willmann traveled across the country presenting firesides in the different family history centers where many Austrians attended to gain researching skills.
Volunteers in the Vienna history center would sometimes work day and night and on Saturdays to handle the requests. "Visitors said that they were surprised about the kindness and helpfulness of the volunteers," said Melitta Teply, supervisor of the Church's Vienna history center. "They are still surprised that the consultation does not cost any money.
"Some visitors come with misconceptions about the Church and have prejudiced feelings. But after visiting the family history center and talking to volunteers, they change their minds and talk very friendly about their experiences. Some visitors came to stay for half an hour, and ended up staying three to four hours. They come again and again.
"Many people brought the [birth or death] dates of their ancestors and gave permission to load their family trees into the ancestral file. One family's dates had been researched to the 1300s. There are other visitors who search the microfilm for eight hours a day. Others travel great distances and stay overnight to be here."
Johanna Teml of the Vienna 3rd Ward told how people have mentioned in different conversations that they cannot explain why they want to know more about their ancestors only that they do.
"I could not have imagined when President Hinckley announced the FamilySearch web site that this was the beginning of a new era in family history in Austria," said Theresia Andruchowitz of the Vienna 5th Ward, Vienna Austria Stake.
"I have always loved this work. I never have the feeling that it is a sacrifice. It is a great joy."