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In my father's footsteps

A trip to Germany brings my father's history to life.
On the corner of Brühl and Nikolai Strasse

On the corner of Brühl and Nikolai Strasse /Thomas Hegewald

The building now

The building now /Thomas Hegewald

/Thomas Hegewald

When I think of home, I think of Grand Rapids where I’ve lived for my entire life. Growing up, living and working in this city has helped define and shape me. But part of my identity stems from family history that stretches back for decades to another time and place. For some of us, the lure of learning about family history and seeking out the origin of ancestors is too strong to ignore. Finding out where one’s family came from can be an integral part of understanding one’s own personality traits and characteristics. To know one’s past is to help define one’s future. Such were my thoughts when I set out to celebrate my 45th birthday in Germany this past June. I was on a road trip of sorts that started in Berlin and ended in Munich with numerous stops in between. While there were castles and countryside views to see along the way, the main purpose of the trip was to finally see my father’s childhood home in person.

My father left Germany in 1951, after waiting over a year for the American Consulate to approve his application for immigration (a process that involved having a sponsor, usually a family member, who would provide living arrangements and, if needed, financial aid so the immigrant wouldn’t become a “public charge”). He had left Leipzig, his hometown, the previous year via East Berlin. Using the excuse of wanting to visit his girlfriend in West Berlin, my father obtained a passport to travel. Although there were Russian soldiers and East German police patrolling the subway stations, my father managed to avoid them and enter West Berlin which allowed him to leave the country.

At age 22, my father moved to the U.S. living for a time in California and New York before ultimately settling in Grand Rapids. While living with relatives, he worked and put himself through school, earning a degree here as he couldn’t find a job in the trade that he had studied in Germany. Eventually, my parents met, married and raised my sisters and I on the northeast side of town. Every summer though, my father traveled back to Germany to visit my grandparents. When he returned home weeks later it was with suitcases full of gifts and German chocolates. 

During my childhood years, my view of Germany became one immersed in its own folklore. Not only was there the real-life story of a young man leaving home to seek his fortune in a faraway land (which is the plot for some fairy tales and folklore stories originating in Germany), but there was also something of value left behind, lost to an “evil” power.

When my paternal grandparents originally moved to Leipzig, homes were scarce as it was a heavily populated city. As a result, my grandfather purchased an apartment building and added another floor to the building as living space for them to occupy. Within a number of years, my grandparents moved down a few flights to another apartment, the one in which they raised my father and his older brother.

My grandfather worked as a wholesale dealer of fur and my father became a Master Furrier -- designing coats and jackets of furs like fox, lambswool and mink. At the time, Leipzig was the epicenter of the fur trade and the area known as The Brühl was where it all happened.

When visiting, if you close your eyes slightly you can almost imagine life back then. Travelers disembarked from a train, exited the station and walked across streets crisscrossed with streetcar rails and cables. A straight line from the station brings you to this business district, full of foot and bike traffic. Whether en route to work, shopping or just sight-seeing, everyone is intent on their own destination, the glow of the sun brightening their faces. Attractive window displays draw you in with enticing goods and cafés serve all sorts of delicacies throughout the day and into the evening. As your shoes clatter across the stone and brick-paved sections of streets you come to an intersection in a prime location- that of Brühl and Nikolai Strasse (street). It was here that my father worked.

With only the names of these streets to go on, I found the intersection the morning of my birthday. This may not seem like such an amazing feat except for the fact that I am … directionally challenged and easily get lost. Something took over though once I reached the market square, as if my father’s directions for where to go and how to find certain locations all came flooding back. Almost instinctively I walked in the correct direction.

As the glow of the morning sun broke through the clouds, I stepped up to a corner building displaying the names of the streets and asked a passerby to take my photo. I also noticed a display of German figurines in the window of the shop behind me and went in to purchase one to mark the occasion. The painted wood figurines are part of a collection that my father brought home for all of us year after year. It wouldn’t be until I showed my father the pictures that I had taken of the area, along with the photo of me at the intersection, that he pointed out the building behind me, (rebuilt after the war) was the one in which he worked a long time ago. While I could say that I was surprised at this news, part of me felt like I was supposed to find it, even if I didn’t know it at the time.

As for the apartment building, after the war ended and Germany was divided, Leipzig became part of East Germany, the Communist sector. Since my uncle had been killed in the war, it was just my grandparents and my father remaining and they left the building and Leipzig behind in order to start their lives over elsewhere. Decades went by and the building remained in Communists’ hands, though never entirely forgotten by the one who grew up in it. In 1989, the Communist regime came to an end. For decades my father had held on to paperwork concerning ownership of the building and property in the likelihood that he would get it back. After filing countless documents, reams of forms and certifying his identity, ownership of the apartment building eventually transferred to my father. Within a few years he sold it to a couple of entrepreneurs looking to remodel and update the building after some 40 years of neglect. Although both of my parents traveled to Germany to finalize the sale, my father hasn’t been back to see the building fully renovated as he is physically unable to travel far.

While I wasn’t able to see inside any of the apartments, a tenant was kind enough to allow access to the back common area. Here a small spot of land serves as the backyard for the tenants of the entire building. As I photographed this area from various vantage points, I recalled the stories my father told me of playing in this area with his childhood friend. There is also a cherished photo of my father, uncle and grandmother posing with their accordions in this space. Perhaps if I had listened intently enough while back there I might have heard the sound of them playing across the decades.

In traveling to Germany I witnessed a country that rose from the rubble and made a new life for itself. My father brought that same characteristic of courage with him to America. I saw, touched and photographed places that I’ve heard about all of my life. In some sense I went back in time and saw where my father came from and how he arrived at where he is today. I was also now the one to return home to Grand Rapids with my suitcase full of gifts and relate my own travel stories to my father. Even though this trip was more about discovering where I came from, I do realize now some characteristics that I possess are from my German heritage.

Knowing my heritage and tracing the steps of my father has left me feeling more grounded in my own journey through life. Seeing the country, the cities and the buildings filled in the gap between stories and reality. While I was only in Germany for a brief time, the experiences that I had there will remain with me for the rest of my life.

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