How Studying Abroad Sparked a Journey into Family History

The questions began before I even left the airport upon arriving in Berlin when the customs agent saw my name.

“Ah, Moeller! Are you German?”

“My grandfather’s family is from Germany.”

“Very nice, where are they from?”

“I don’t know.”

“How long ago did they move to the United States?”

“I’m not sure.”

After receiving a strange look along with my stamped passport, I caught up with the other students in my group, my mind already ruminating over the unknown origins of my family.

Traveling abroad to Berlin last summer with Dr. Justin Behrend, Dr. Graham Drake, and eleven fellow Geneseo students for a one-month Humanities course was both an unexpected and incredible opportunity. Going abroad is wonderful for history majors who want to have personal experiences with the subject matter they study. Considering my love for twentieth-century history, I was eager to explore a country that played such a formative role in its development. For my family, this trip was also very significant. My paternal grandfather’s family is from Germany, and I was the first person in my family to return since he left.

But my German family was an enigma to me. It is possible that family history is simply not an interesting topic of conversation for my grandfather and other family members. However, as I grew older, learned more history, and asked more questions that went unanswered, I began to believe that my family was deliberately hiding some terrible event based on the timeline I had mentally constructed. My grandfather was born in the United States, moved back to Germany at a young age, and then returned to the United States as a young adult. Since he was born in 1937, it occurred to me that he and his family likely lived in Germany during World War II. If so, I wondered who these people were and what choices they would have made during wartime.

When I told my grandparents about the Berlin visit, I was apprehensive regarding my grandfather’s response. Would he be happy to hear about my first time leaving the U.S.? Angry? Upset? Immediately upon sharing the news, my grandmother started chatting excitedly. After sitting in surprise for a moment, my grandfather stood and left the room without a word—and the suspicions I was harboring about family secrets were confirmed.

Examples of Stolpersteine, Berlin.

I reached Berlin knowing the “family history mystery” would weigh heavily on my mind. Still, it was heavier than I was expecting as I came to love the city where history is remarkably integrated into daily life. Stolpersteine memorial blocks honoring the victims of the Holocaust incorporate a tragic past into the modern landscape. Memorial sites like the Berlin Wall Memorial on Bernauer Straße serve as places of community, as opposed to only mourning, where you will find families utilizing the space like a park or people playing sports. Aside from Berlin’s historical quality, the bustling city was a cultural hub in itself that was a beautiful place to be. Having my first adventure abroad initially made it more difficult for me to understand why my grandfather refused to disclose any information about our family history. But after the shock of being in a new country wore off, I was able to think more critically and recognized a few key reasons explaining why my grandfather is resistant to questions about his past.

My grandfather is an extremely stoic and quiet man whose personality does not lend itself to openly discussing his thoughts and emotions. Additionally, during the rare instances I have heard him speak of his family at all, I realized that we value the past differently. Once he briefly mentioned that his family records can be traced back to the sixteenth century. When asked if he had them, he replied, “No, and they’re all dead anyway, so it doesn’t matter.”

From the little my father had told me about my grandfather’s life in Germany, it’s clear that his time there was not pleasant. His silence could be part of an effort to distance himself from that period, like when he Americanized his name from Wolfgang to William.

One unexpected part of visiting Berlin was seeing variations of my last name, like “Mueller” or “Möller”, on everything from advertisements to store names. It was a constant reminder that I still have family in Germany, despite not knowing who they are or exactly how we are related. Knowing that strangers I passed on the street could theoretically be a relative was odd, and ensured that questions about my family history lingered in the back of my mind during the entirety of the visit to Berlin.  

Fritz Cremer’s sculpture depicting revolting prisoners of a concentration camp.

On one weekend, the class toured the Buchenwald concentration camp, an invaluable opportunity to see a topic of study firsthand. The previous semester in a European history class at Geneseo, I had studied how concentration camps are memorial sites. On the way to Buchenwald, I felt uncomfortable as I reflected on my family’s past. It disturbed me to wonder if my paternal relatives might have been Nazis, especially since my mother’s side of the family is Eastern European Jewish.

Historical reflection was a critical part of studying abroad in Germany, and knowing that my family’s story was woven into the fabric of its history but not discerning how the threads intertwined was increasingly bothersome. It was at the Buchenwald Memorial that I finally made peace with whatever my family history may hold while admiring Fritz Cremer’s sculpture in which a group of eleven bronze figures gesture in a triumphant call to action, overlooking the beautiful nation that Germany has become.

Ultimately, I returned to the United States more determined to obtain answers to my questions regarding my family history. As I quickly learned, discussing this with my grandfather was no easier just because I had now been to Germany. When we saw each other for the first time upon my return he asked, “Did you see the Brandenburg Gate?” When I showed him the picture, he walked away when I started to speak.

Any attempts I have made to connect with my grandfather have so far unfortunately gone unreciprocated; however, by asking more pointed (and persistent) questions, I have opened a productive and ongoing dialogue with my father since coming home from Berlin that has revealed a great deal of information about my grandfather’s life that I did not previously know.

The Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

My great-grandparents left Germany before World War II broke out and had their two youngest children in the United States. In 1949 the family of five returned to the small agrarian town of Kaltenkirchen. My grandfather’s life in Germany was extremely challenging, which could contribute to his lack of fondness for sharing his memories. After leaving school at the age of fourteen to work as a landscaper he returned to the United States a year later with one of his brothers in search of better opportunities. My father also divulged that our family that remained in Germany during the war were likely complicit in Nazi activities, but that their main focus was survival. This news did not surprise me, and it came as a relief to have this turning point in my quest to uncover the family history that had been hidden from me.

Studying abroad was an immensely influential experience. Learning about German literature and history while residing in the capital of Germany provided us with an invaluable educational opportunity. Many of us returned with an improved sense of cultural awareness, a greater comprehension of the Humanities, and a more critical perspective through which we can now view the United States. Personally, studying abroad in Berlin sparked a journey into my family history. After traveling abroad for the first time, seeing other parts of the world is something I would like to continue doing. Specifically, I wish to return to Germany again to visit Kaltenkirchen. In the future, I hope to continue exploring the world through both a historical and personal lens.

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