Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Aug. 17, 2007

Six-year quest

Husband Art has been interested in family history for a long time - and he's very dogged when it comes to following clues about any relative, regardless of how tangential the relationship might be. But I suppose that's not so unusual. Genealogy is one of the fastest-growing hobbies in the country.

What is unusual, however, is that he's not interested in just his or my family history. If he finds someone's story intriguing enough, he'll pursue it whether that person is related or not.

One such case concerns a young German woman, whom Art "met" nearly six years ago. Well, he didn't really meet Karla. "She" or, more accurately, her picture - along with other things that belonged to her - were in a shadow box in an antique shop he was browsing. He immediately felt that it should be with her family rather than with strangers. He asked the dealer where he had acquired the shadow box. The dealer remembered getting it at a gun show, but he didn't know much more.

Art purchased the 18-inch by 21-inch box for $300. It contained items relating to Karla's service in Germany during World War II. Among the items were a dark brown neckerchief with a woven leather knot, a photograph of Karla on her Hitler Youth identification card, a "Nord Nordsee" (North Sea) patch and five medals.

On the back of the frame was a typewritten label with a brief biography. According to that bio, Karla was born in 1922 in Wasserhaven, Germany and enlisted in the German army as a translator at age 18. She spoke Dutch, French, Danish and Norwegian as well as her native German. She had traveled to France, Holland, Denmark and Norway. During 1944, she was shot down by the Norwegian Underground and was seriously injured. She was awarded the army wound badge as well as several other military medals.

Art hung the box in his office and, whenever he had some spare time, he worked on discovering who Karla was. She had an unusual last name and he quickly discovered there were few in the United States with that name and none who were related. Then he began searching the on-line telephone book. There were fewer than 50 people listed with that last name in all of Germany and almost all lived in the north.

He sent letters and e-mails of inquiry, but had no success locating anyone who knew Karla.

But in summer 2006, Art's persistence paid off. He discovered a person with the same last name through a school reunion site in northern Germany. From there, it took him about 10 minutes to find Anja's law office e-mail address. He e-mailed her in German and sent an attachment with the photo of Karla. He received a response in perfect English the following day. Art said he could tell Anja was a bit reticent, probably wondering why this American wanted to know about her family's history.

Art explained his interest in genealogy and wrote, "You'll probably think I'm crazy . . ." She responded, "No, I don't think you're crazy - well, maybe a little . . ." She told Art that she last saw Karla and her husband Ernst when she was 7 while they were visiting Anja's parents. She wasn't certain, but thought her Dad and Karla had been cousins.

Armed with Karla's married name, he checked the Social Security Death Index. It listed her death in 1996 and her last place of residence as being in Wisconsin. But there was no such listing for Ernst, which meant that he was still alive.

Art turned to Wisconsin's court records and discovered a will probated by Ernst. He also located an active telephone number and address for him. He found an obituary for Karla after contacting the library in the largest town with a newspaper near where Karla had lived.

Once he had his "ducks in a row," Art wrote Ernst a letter, describing what he had found and indicating that he would be interested in meeting Ernst sometime. He also included a picture of the shadow box. Within a few days, Ernst called and left a message for Art.

"Young man," he said, "your letter hit me like a pile driver to the stomach! Yes, I'd like to talk to you."

So, on our recent family vacation in northern Wisconsin, Art and I went to Ernst's home, taking the shadow box with us. We spent more than three hours with him, learning about how he and Karla had met, his experiences in World War II, his and Karla's move to the United States in 1950, the work he and Karla did and their move to rural Wisconsin. He was interested in the shadow box, but said he had no idea when Karla might have had it done nor how it ended up with an antique dealer.

Ernst was glad that Art had persisted in finding his wife's family and said he would like for the shadow box to go to Karla's sister in Alabama since he has no children. He also gave Art an album of black and white photos of Karla and her family from the 1920s and '30s. Ernst wants it to go to his sister-in-law, too.

So, although the shadow box still holds a few mysteries, it will soon be "going home" to family as Art desired - a result of his six-year quest.

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