I was a post war baby, born in Nördlingen, Germany in 1946, but didn’t get to grow up there. By a twist of fate, I became a Displaced Person, along with millions of others after World War II. When I returned to visit my little-girl home in Nördlingen, I discovered lost pieces of myself and events that upended our family.
This interview with Christa Krutowskis Turnbull explores the complications and poignancy of travel for immigrants wanting to reconnect with their former country.
IWTC – You recently visited Nördlingen, Germany, but you didn’t go there for the standard tourist reasons—to see the charming 1100-year-old Bavarian walled town. Why did you go there?
CKT – I went to visit family. This is my sixth visit to Nördlingen, and I was very happy to again see my aunt and uncle who live there. My husband, brother, and his wife joined me on the trip. We went this summer specifically for the Nördlingen Festival, which is held every three years, but the primary reason was to visit my family. You see, I was a post war baby, born in Nördlingen, Germany in 1946, but didn’t get to grow up there.
IWTC – Could you describe Nördlingen?
CKT – It is a picturesque medieval walled town, one of only three in Germany where a wholly preserved wall completely surrounds the town. The streets and lanes are laid out pretty much as they were in the eighth and ninth centuries. There are historic architecture, Roman ruins, a battlefield of the Thirty Years War, museums, and wonderful restaurants. About 6 km (~3.5 miles) north of town, a prehistoric meteorite slammed into the countryside, causing the Reis Crater and creating tiny diamonds that sparkle from the local stone used to construct buildings in town. And did I mention it is totally charming?
We visited in September to participate in the weekend-long Nördlingen Festival (Historisches Stadtmauerfest), a celebration of the town’s medieval history. Along the winding streets, we watched daily parades of people in authentic period costumes of commoners, gentry, and clergy. In the old town squares musicians, flag swingers, characters on tall stilts, and actors entertained us all. There are other festivals throughout the year that visitors may enjoy. You can check them out here.
After the festival, we wandered along Nördlingen’s streets and alleyways, stopping in the morning for coffee at local cafes and in the afternoon for ales at biergartens. One day, we climbed on the town walls and walked the 2.7 km (~1.5 miles) distance around the structure, and visited the five gates, which are the only entrances into town. We went to the gothic St. Georg Church and climbed the 60 meters of stairs up the bell tower, fondly known as the Daniel. If the stair climbing didn’t take your breath, the view from the tower would; it is breathtakingly beautiful. We hiked in the countryside, photographed rural life, and shopped for souvenirs and gifts in the local boutiques and markets.
By the way, some tourists use Nördlingen as a base for excursions to see Rothenberg and beautiful Nuremberg with its castle that goes back to the time Frederick II, in 1050.
Nördlingen is a delightful tourist destination, but for me it is more complex. It is a one-time home for my little-girl self, and a reminder of the fear and discrimination our family faced after World War II, forcing us to become Displaced Persons (refugees). I love this town, but I do wonder what my life would have been like if I had been able to stay.
IWTC – Tell us your family’s story.
In 1950 when I was four years old, my mother Erna, father Nick, younger brother Alex, and I left Nördlingen to go to Lebanon, Pennsylvania in the US as refugees. We later settled in Cleveland, Ohio. Up until then, my mother, brother, and I lived in a small two-bedroom apartment inside the town wall with my oma (grandmother), uncle, and aunt.
IWTC – What happened to your grandfather, and where was your father?
CKT – My grandfather, Konrad Schröpel, was killed by the Nazis in 1940 because he and a friend who worked at the newspaper wrote something opposing the Nazis. Even though my grandfather did not support the regime, he was called up for service in the German Army and went to serve. Family lore says that in March of 1940 he came home for his daughter, Erna’s, confirmation into the church. The Nazis came for him March 24th, arrested him, put him in jail, and then killed him on April 6th. We all think it traumatized Erna for the rest of her life because she thought she was partially to blame for her dad’s murder.
I was too young to understand why our own dad Nick didn’t live with us. Maybe the apartment just couldn’t accommodate another person, but he might have been evading the authorities and perhaps we were safer having Dad live somewhere else.
Because the town survived the war pretty much intact, citizens, and refugees at that time were able to piece together a meager life. My family as a group was trying to recover and reinvent itself, but it was extremely difficult; we were shunned by our neighbors because of our family’s resistance to the Nazi regime. For example, when Oma (Rosa Meier Schröpel) went to the grocery store, the shopkeepers kept her waiting until last and gave her low quality food and supplies.
My dad, Nick, felt particularly unsafe because he was a Latvian citizen who was conscripted into the Latvian Army, captured by the Russians and forced by them to fight in Germany, and then became a prisoner of war by the Germans. His string of bad luck finally turned good when the US Air Force freed him from the POW camp. He made his way to Nördlingen where he earned a living trading on the black market and met my mother. The Latvian, Russian, and German governments, however, continued to view him suspiciously; he was in danger. (For more details about him, see A Ghost in Riga.) Immigrating somewhere would give us safety and a chance to restart our lives again, but it would tear us away from my grandmother, uncle, and aunt who decided to stay. My grandmother begged to keep me with her. Instead, we four boarded a ship, sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and into New York City past the Statue of Liberty.
I was too young to remember much about the voyage, except for two things. It was where I first tasted ice cream, memorable for a little four-year-old girl. And, we were separated from Dad. Women and children were in one part of the ship, while the men were in another part. My mom was pregnant with Peter so she, Alex, I had our own room. I must have been scared and excited, but those memories faded with time.
IWTC – When did you return to Nördlingen?
CKT – Sixteen years later in 1970, my mother and I returned to Nördlingen for a three-week stay and saw Oma for the first time since we left. As I rode from the airport to her house, tears rolled down my cheeks. My four-year-old self and my 24-year-old self were coming together. I realized that in the US, I had longed for the extended family that my friends took for granted. When they went to their grandparents’ house for the holidays, we celebrated by ourselves. When our family struggled, fell apart, and came back together again, my aunts and uncles couldn’t help us. Instead they were eking out a living overseas. We wrote letters to keep in touch, but it is not the same as having a sleepover with cousins at their house.
Our family did get a new start, but it was a bumpy painful time. Seeing my Oma made me extremely happy, but simultaneously I felt the grief caused by our separation and our lost years. How could I not feel wistful for the life I might have had if I had remained with her in this picturesque little town? But would I still live there? There aren’t many job opportunities, so I might have moved to another part of Germany or another country anyway.
During those first and subsequent visits, I found myself comparing my aunt and uncle to my mom, looking for family similarities. Did my mom’s constant fearfulness derive from the trauma of war or was it a family trait? Curiously she was very introverted, and very intertwined in our lives. When families are separated, you don’t know where daily behaviors originate. Visiting my relatives let me see and understand common family characteristics.
IWTC – What advice to you have for others who want to travel to their previous countries?
CKT – It is complicated and emotional to go back to the country you immigrated from. You are from there, and yet your experiences separate you. Your new country’s culture shaped your outlook. Likewise, your relatives’ experiences and culture shaped them so you are likely to be quite different from those who stayed. Your visit may make you may feel like you are between cultures. With that said if you can visit your old country and your relatives there, you may feel more complete, filling in lost pieces of family information and thus lost pieces of yourself.
If you can, go back frequently. You are likely to feel more comfortable with each trip. Be sure to take a nice house gift when you visit. The most appreciated gifts are special items from your own local community. Also, when you go to your relatives’ house for dinner, take flowers or a bottle of wine.
If your family immigrated several generations ago and no one kept in touch with each other, don’t drop in on supposed relatives. They likely will view you as strangers and you are. Unless you actually know relatives there, don’t assume that you will be welcome. If you are determined to find your roots, do research and reach out to specific relatives. Write to them and take time to develop a relationship. Then ask if they would like to connect with you. If they do, ask for an appropriate meeting place. Be sensitive that relatives may not be able to host you. For example, maybe the relative is retired and must stay on a budget, or their apartment may be too modest to accommodate guests. Meeting for coffee or lunch could be the best. Unless connections are maintained over the generations, meeting remote relatives may just be awkward.
Finally, even if you don’t have family in Nördlingen, visit it and take your camera. There are lovely things to see and do, and the people are warm and welcoming. If you go, send us one of your pictures. We may be able to feature it as a Best Photo.