When I was 9 years old, I happened to find a box full of letters in my Grandma’s attic. I carried it downstairs. Her eyes welled up with tears as she gazed at the letters. Her hands, now frail reached for one and she carefully unfolded the aging paper. With her vision failing, she passed it to me to read it to her and my life forever changed. They were from my Grandfather, Gil. He had written letters to his then fiancé throughout his 5 year Army combat enlistment in Europe during WWII. My Grandma had saved them for over sixty years. As we cared for my Grandma through her advancing age, a nightly ritual unfolded. Each night, before she would go to sleep I would put on my Grandpa’s army hat and place a record of music of the 1940’s on the turntable. As the scratchy sounds of Benny Goodman or Bing Crosby filled the room, I would read to her a letter or two.
Through these windows to the past, I learned many things about my Grandfather. I learned of his deep love of family and country. Perhaps most enlightening, I also read of his appreciation and respect for those in Germany who hid him from advancing Nazi troops despite the consequences they would face should they be caught. I became inspired to experience the Germany and the German people my Grandpa came to love despite the circumstances that placed him there originally. So when I was selected for a year in Germany in the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals Program I was ecstatic. During breaks in my program year, I took the opportunity to retrace my Grandpa Gil’s journey through Germany. Based on those letters from long ago, I visited many of the towns of which he wrote. In each, I would strike up a conversation with a local and show them Gil’s pictures from WWII.
Inevitably I would be introduced to someone in town who had lived through the war. The stories they shared with me were personal and priceless. I was even able to go to Türkheim, the village where Gil had been hidden by a German family. I stood on the hill there where he fought and where the memorial to his division now stands. I heard the American flag snapping in the wind and I could almost see him sitting there writing one of those letters that 70 years later would so change my life. It was an amazing and trans-formative experience for which I will be forever grateful. My experiences in Germany during my fellowship year had a great influence on me. I am currently in Germany to obtain my Master of Science degree at the Universität Bayreuth. Hopefully, I will have time to visit more towns that my Grandfather also experienced some seventy plus years ago.