Digging for Roots

Our rental car seemed grossly conspicuous as we made our way through the southwestern German countryside. It didn’t appear too many folks in the remote villages had the resources to own a Mercedes Benz. Heck, we couldn’t afford one either, but we were renting one. Thankfully it had a built-in GPS. The system guided us in a perfunctory British lilt down twisting, winding roads that were probably cow paths at one time. We christened her Sally. She did a splendid job the prior week navigating us through our adventures of wandering aimlessly through Germany and France. We’d pick a city, find a hotel, and Sally got us there.

Sally’s most important job during our two week stay was to find a village called Sauldorf. It is so small that isn’t even on a road map. All I knew about this town was that it was home to my mother’s ancestors, where my great grandfather had been born and baptized; this is where he left to come to America so he could transplant himself. And here I was going backwards in time to find what? I had no idea. My stomach was fluttery, my heart was pounding in my ears, and I had shredded a tissue in my hands as Sally announced, “Turn left and proceed for 1 kilometer to your destination.”

As we rolled into the village I felt like the lone gunman in a Clint Eastwood movie who skulks into a western town under cover of darkness, intent on harm, but the place was a ghost town because the residents were boarded up in their homes fearing for their lives. On this perfect Sunday afternoon with a brilliant blue cloudless sky, there wasn’t a person to be found, not even a stray dog or birds twittering. Yes, of course. many parts of the country still observe Blue Laws – businesses are closed for the Sabbath.

We parked our ostentatious loaner in front of the Rathaus, or town hall. (I thought the name was appropriate – rat house – a place where politicians go.) Next door was the village’s only church, closed up after morning services, with a fenced in cemetery behind it and lush green pastures reaching forever beyond its borders. Houses and a farm surrounded the center of town, literally marked with a crossroads that lead in each direction of north, south, east, west.

My only resource at this point was the cemetery. My heart sank as I walked to the first few headstones, and then glanced around at all the rest: they were all brand new which meant the people had died only recently. I had hoped to find old grave markers, tilted this way and that as they struggled to stand erect to keep their watch. Maybe the tall, ornate red sandstone monument in the center would reveal something noteworthy.

That is when I saw my ancestors’ names listed among the dead and missing from World War I and II. It meant my German ancestors fought against my American uncles in Deutschland, where our family was once whole and on the same side. I could not help but wonder what roles, if any, my German family members played in the Holocaust. My stomach lurched at this notion and propels me to dig deeper at these roots, and hope that I can avoid any potential landmines.