In the strictest sense of the word, “adventure” translates from a combination of Latin words for “what must happen” and “to arrive,” which makes perfect sense in recalling my recent family adventure to Germany.
My father is first-generation American, born in Philadelphia in 1925. He was the joy of his mother’s new life. In the midst of the Great Depression, she died from cancer when Dad was just 12. She left him with an aching heart full of beautiful memories, which he’s managed to keep alive and share with the rest of us through the illustrated stories of his childhood that he’s penned.
For reasons I can’t explain, it took him another 76 years to follow through on his lifelong urge to know more about his roots.
So when Dad told me in December he wanted to take the whole family along for the ride, I was as elated as I was skeptical. He’s 88. His legs only work for about an hour at a time before he hobbles. He has been known to keel over for no obvious reason.
A month after he announced his desire to travel to the Fatherland as a party of nine, he fell and hit his head hard enough to make his brain bleed. But being a hard-headed German guy with unfinished business, he made a quick recovery and relented to the pacemaker his cardiologist has been recommending for more than a decade.
In the meantime, he left the genealogical digging to me. And I left the trip-coordinating to my efficient daughter, Aimée, so I could focus on the vital statistical leg work.
Dad actually knew plenty about his mother’s side of the family, thanks to correspondences with cousins over the years. But his father’s lineage was lost to him – my grandfather, Wilhelm Mandel, was a stoic and hard-working blue-collar guy. When they communicated, in German, it was perfunctory. My dad was the youngest of three boys, arriving more than a decade after his brothers Harry and Bill. He had to pull his own name, Herbert, from a hat because they were mentally unprepared for another boy baby. Herbert was a curious kid who would become an artist, writer and educator. He left home at 18, not long after his father remarried. No hard feelings or anything. Just impossible to bridge the gap left between them when my grandmother died.
All these years later, Dad’s longing to know and understand his father had finally reached critical mass.
You’d think that six months is enough time to find some good genealogical leads, given all the online resources available these days. But I didn’t have much to go on. I knew only his father’s name, and that he was born in a small town called Bottondorf.
One day before we were ready to depart for Germany, my Dad called to ask if I had the scoop on his ancestry. I told him I was still working on it. Truth was, I’d pretty much given up.
As I hung up the phone, something in me rallied. I had one job to do, and I wasn’t about to let him down. Not now. So I went to 411.com and searched “Mandels in Bottondorf.” I got 10 results. Then I went to Google Translate and prepared a script. “Hello, my name is Carol Mandel and my father Herbert is looking for family in Bottondorf. I don’t speak German. Can you help me?” Then I randomly called one of the numbers and spit out a horrible rendition of my query.
What I didn’t think about was how I would translate whatever the answer was, should the person who answered speak no English. The female voice on the other end of the phone had no English, but seemed to understand me. She laughed uncomfortably at my attempts to reframe the question and apologize for the intrusion. To make a longer story a little shorter, I managed to say I’d have my German cousin, Rainer, follow up. Then I packed my bag and prepared to explain to my Dad how I’d failed.
As it turned out, I had an extra day to prepare myself for the big letdown – my dad misplaced his passport and missed the flight. But thanks to Aimée, they managed to score an emergency replacement passport in New York City and were on the next flight to Berlin, one day later than the rest of us.
In the interim, cousin Rainer emailed to say he had good news. In the follow-up phone call, the woman’s son actually knew a guy from Bottondorf who he claimed knew all about my father’s family.
I was again as elated as I was skeptical. Who was this guy? How could this genealogical miracle have happened, so randomly and impossibly?
Two days later, I was on a train bound for Bottondorf with my dad, sister and husband. We were met at the station by Ulrich, the guy my cousin mentioned. Turns out that Ulrich was a cousin of my father’s by marriage. And, he is a genealogist and historian by trade. And, he just happened to have the week off. And, from his living room you can see the original ancestral home of the first Mandel to settle in Bottondorf in 1670, Hans Heinrich Mandel.
Ulrich had photos waiting, of my grandfather at age 13, of my great-grandfather assembled in the village with his fellow war veterans. Of my great-aunt Maria, the youngest of my grandfather’s six siblings.
Then we walked around the corner to cousin Anita’s house, Maria’s granddaughter. She spoke no English, but she didn’t have to. My father’s first language returned to him, enough for them to converse over the mutual family photos she had carefully preserved in a leather-bound album.
Among them was a snapshot of my young dad, embracing his father, brother and stepmom.
And then, Anita’s mother left the room, returning with two large photographs in her arms. She presented them to my dad. “These are your father’s grandparents, Johannes Karl and Margaraetha,” explained Ulrich, my savior and translator.
In that moment, as my father sat holding the life-sized images of his grandparents – whose names he never knew, and whose faces had almost been lost to him – I erupted in tears at the exact moment my sister did. As we looked into the eyes of our great-grandparents for the first time, I’m not sure what it was that simultaneously hit us.
But in hindsight, I believe it was the raw emotion of reaching the end of an epic and impossible adventure. Against all odds, we arrived together in a place where “family” is universally understood in a language that transcends words in the improbable place where, despite our human failings, what must happen, does.