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Inside: Genealogy Resources

"Just before my eleventh birthday my life changed completely." My father wrote those words to my son Tommy, who had just turned 11, in a letter explaining how his upper-class upbringing in Berlin had come to an abrupt halt in 1936. That year my father left Germany, for his own safety, to live with foster parents in a foreign land. He was separated from his family for what stretched into a decade while war destroyed his homeland. I had often wondered, as I grew up and then had children of my own, what these experiences had been like for my father. Though I knew the basic outlines of his life, I'd never had access to the texture, terrain, and emotional tone of his childhood.

The idea of getting together the two 11-year-olds—my father then, and my son now—prompted our recent trip to the great German capital. I wanted to see how much of my father's Berliner youth we could recover, and find ways for all of us to share it. That Tommy was born in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down, added another magic number. It was a boys-only trip: my father, Ted; my two sons, Tommy and eight-year-old Nicholas; and I. My brother Stephen joined us for a few days, bringing along a video camera; the kids packed trip diaries. Even as we looked for my father's past, my sons were creating histories of their own.

I wanted the trip to be fun, and to spark curiosity rather than impose canned responses. I was especially wary that the serious subject matter—Hitler, World War II, the Berlin Wall— would translate into gloom and boredom for the kids. Before we left, I tried to gradually acclimate the boys, tossing a Dorling Kindersley book about World War II into the car, where they could pore over the vivid photographs on the way to piano lessons and basketball practice. The questions that erupted—"What's this weird-looking cross?" "Was Hitler a very bad man?"—allowed us to cover some history without the kids feeling they were cooped up in a classroom.

In the months before the trip, my father, now living in North Carolina, sent a series of letters about his childhood to Tommy, who was studying immigration in his fifth-grade class in western Massachusetts. Ted wrote how he'd been forced to leave Berlin and his family behind because of his Jewish background. Ted's father, a supreme court justice and World War I veteran, had converted from Judaism to Lutheranism as a young man, both for patriotic reasons—to feel more "German"—and to advance his judicial career. My father's mother belonged to the German-Jewish Ullstein family of publishing fame, and her sister, the well-known textile artist Anni Albers, was associated with the Bauhaus. The Ullsteins had been baptized as a family in the late 19th century. But to Hitler they were all Jews. The Nazis fired my grandfather from his post in 1935, when he was 60. Ted described how his father had come home ashen-faced "because at some Nazi office, when he introduced himself as 'Senatspräsident Benfey,' an official replied, 'Sie sind nicht Senatspräsident Benfey. Sie sind Jude Benfey.' " ("You are not Chief Justice Benfey. You are Benfey the Jew.")

Close friends of the Benfeys, also of Jewish descent, fled Berlin for England in early 1936, settling in the town of Watford, outside London. They had a son my father's age and suggested that Ted join them. So my father said good-bye to his family. He saw them briefly—his parents, his older sister, his younger brother—on summer visits to Berlin until they left for the United States in 1939. The plan was that Ted would join them when they were situated. Instead, the war broke out, and Ted didn't see his family for six years. By the time he did, he was 20 and had begun a career as a professor of chemistry at Haverford College, where he met my mother, a North Carolina native; his childhood was long over. Amazingly, all of my father's immediate family escaped from Germany, and were reunited in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after the war.

Ted had had to learn a new language in England, and I wanted Tommy and Nicholas to have some idea of what that involved. I also hoped that the German language would be something more than background noise for them. I brought out a little alphabet set that I'd gotten in Vienna as a child. (My father had been a visiting professor there, and I learned to read German before I could read English.) Inside a case were tiny squares of white paper, each with a letter or punctuation mark on it, and these could be lined up to make words and sentences. Every day I composed a common phrase for my sons in German—"What time is it?" "Did you sleep well?" "Where are you from?"—and that was the sentence of the day. Still, when we took a boat ride with a German-speaking guide along the rivers and canals of Berlin on our first day, Nicholas said, "Daddy, there are a lot of German words you didn't teach us." My father, still fluent, did the translating.

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