My dearest readers,
Before I begin this review, I want to tell you just how much I appreciate you. I am always amazed that people really do want to read what I write. Never was this shock and gratitude more true than last week; after I posted my last review, you set a record for most hits in a single day. I can’t tell you how appreciative I am. And I also am so appreciative of all the comments you have left; you continued to follow the mysteries of Christina Applegate’s family after the episode ended, which is amazing. I am quite touched.
This week I listed to Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems podcast. Cooke is sometimes a little too genteel for my tastes, but some of her interviews are fantastic. This most recent episode was an interview with Allie Orton, the Producer and Research Manager of Who Do You Think You Are. The interview was an interesting insight into the season (she singled out the Christina Applegate episode and next week’s Zooey Deschanel episode as ones she was particularly fond of), and she confirmed, in a roundabout, not-really-saying-so way what I suspected–last year the reason there were so many NBC personalities was because NBC had a say in who would be on the show. Orton also said that these episodes were the fastest that the team has ever worked on a season (a mere seven months). I wonder if that abbreviated schedule is why there have been three episodes in a row that concentrated on only one ancestor. It is much easier to get as a lot of information about one person than it is to get a lot of information about many.
Which brings us to this week’s celebrity, Chelsea Handler. Chelsea was born to a German mother Rita and a Jewish-American father–or as Chelsea called him, “a big Jew.” Chelsea’s parents raised her and her siblings Jewish, so she connects with the Jewish side of her family rather than the German side. Chelsea did however, have a relationship with her mother’s parents Karl and Elizabeth Stoecker.
Before I proceed, I need to talk a little about spelling. Given that the entire episode focuses on Karl, I feel a little odd not knowing how to spell his surname. Usually WDYTYA provides family tree visuals within the episode, but not this time. As of this writing, Wikipedia shows the spelling to be “Stoecker.” (I feel duty-bound to point out that until after the episode finished airing, Rita’s maiden name was not on Wikipedia.) But this is a German name, and the “oe” is a big hint that there may have been an umlaut. I know almost no German (I speak English and have varying degrees of limited proficiency with Hebrew, Yiddish, Danish, and Spanish.) Furthermore, German typography on official documents is also somewhat ornate and difficult to read (even the font used in the translations in this episode was in that ridiculous, Gothic font) so I wasn’t completely sure if the original name was Stöcker of Stücker. To those with keener eyes, please feel free to correct me in the comments.
As I was saying before I digressed, Chelsea knew her maternal grandparents. She also knew that her grandfather was a German soldier in World War II who was taken as a POW by the Americans. she did not however, know the extent of his military participation (i.e. was he a Nazi?), because while her grandmother spoke freely about her life, her grandfather was very secretive. Chelsea said she doesn’t think her grandfather was a Nazi; given that his daughter married “a big Jew,” that is probably a decent guess, but she is still curious.
Two things final peremptory notes: (1) Chelsea’s talking head bits were a little difficult to take. She has a very flat monotone delivery that is somewhat off-putting, and it made her seem like she was either uninterested or knew the entire story already. (2) The German in the Jewish family is something that I am somewhat familiar with. A cousin was in the army and while abroad married a German woman. It caused tension in his family and some less-than-genteel remarks about hers.
Because Chelsea’s mother and grandparents died, she began her journey with her brother Glen. He told her he “came across some pretty interesting stuff,” but he was not sure she will like it. He also showed her the information her found online at Ancestry.com to begin her journey. (Did Glen set up a tree online? I thought so, but when I looked for it for the spelling of Karl’s surname, I couldn’t find it. I wonder if such as tree was set up only for the contractual Ancestry/Apple plug. Four minutes in case you keep track.)
Glen found documentation showing that Karl was born in Bochum, Germany (fun fact: a friend of mine comes from Bochum), and gave her two documents, both in German and both untranslated: (1) a letter from their grandmother Elizabeth that appeared to be a life story; and (2) a green booklet with a swastika on its cover. He then told her to go to Bochum and wished her an auf Wiedersehen. Chelsea appeared unimpressed by his humor, but that may be her default emotional state.
In Germany, Chelsea received a translation for her grandmother’s letter from a genealogist named Andrea Bentschneider. Bentschneider met Chelsea in a converted factory. Now here is where I got confused. I thought Chelsea was in Bochum, but apparently she was in Herne, which is about five miles away. Anyway, it turned out that Karl worked at this factory. The owner, a Herr Flottmann was an early (and fanatical) Nazi supporter. Chelsea wondered what that said about her grandfather, and before Bentschneider could answer, the show dramatically went to commercial. (Why are there so many Amish reality shows on television?)
Back to the show, Bentschneider told Chelsea that Karl’s employment in a factory owned by a Nazi supporter was not dispositive proof that Karl was a Nazi. She then showed Chelsea the translation of Elizabeth’s letter, which is indeed a memoir. It is also apparently a very good insight into what Germany was like during the Weimar Republic. Elizabeth’s memoir is quite moving; the portion excerpted told about how she starved, and her mother had no food to give her because Germany had fallen apart (i.e. was economically decimated by England and France) after World War I. The memoir was also something of an explanation about why Elizabeth and many other Germans embraced Hitler, “unaware of what was to come.” At this point my boyfriend–who does not watch the show, but who lived in Germany for a few years–walked by and said, “Oh, they were aware.”
What the memoir did not have was any mention of Karl’s political leanings. Bentschneider reminded Chelsea about the green booklet with the swastika symbol, which she revealed to be the SA insignia. As I grimaced, Bentschneider said that this “may not be good news.” But Chelsea would not find out why until the next day. There was stock footage of Chelsea walking somewhere, which I would swear had been used just a few minutes earlier in the episode.
The next days Chelsea saw a historian who told her that the SA were the Brownshirts, the Nazi street thugs/paramilitary organization who did most of the dirty/violent work during Hitler’s rise to power. I am kind of surprised Chelsea did not know what they were; I thought it was pretty well-known. One of the most chilling scenes in movie musical history, by the way, involves the SA. If you’ve seen Cabaret, you know exactly which scene I am thinking of. If not:
The historian translated the green book, which was a record from Karl’s time in a labor service camp in Fröndenberg. While almost every young, German male was in the labor camps (which were effectively basic training for a nation forbidden from having an army), Karl’s green book showed that he was also in the voluntary sports badge program, which was special training for potential SA. In the green book, Karl testified that he was Aryan and not Jewish. There was not however, a picture or a signature in the place where there should have been one. Therefore, the question of whether he was in the SA remained unanswered, and Chelsea went to Berlin for the answer.
In Berlin, at the Military Archives, military historian Roger Moorhouse told her that according to the records, Karl was not in the SA or the (even worse) SS. Nor was he a member of the Nazi party. Which was not to say that this cleared his named, as he could have been complicit in other ways. Chelsea and Moorhouse looked at his army pay book. Although Karl was in the service early, he was conscripted. His military service was unimpressive, not promoted beyond corporal, in a 4th or 5th tier regiment, almost no front lines service, and no evidence of enthusiasm. In other words, like many (most?) Germans, he went along with the Nazi regime, but he himself was not a Nazi. In other words, he was just following orders.
An Internet review of WDYTYA is not the time or the place to debate the collective responsibility of the German people during the War, but I do think this show’s answer about Karl and Elizabeth’s implicit complicity and subsequent responsibility was a little too easy. One of my recurring criticisms of WDYTYA (US) is that it does not trust its audience. We are adults, and we understand that life is complex. Very few people are heroes and villains all the time, and we all have things in our past we wish to forget. Therefore, given that such big about Karl’s past were asked, attributing his future reticence to discuss his past as collective rather than personal guilt misunderstands the scope of the situation. What does it mean that Karl fought on behalf of one of history’s most evil and anti-Semitic governments and then how could he reconcile his participation with his presumed love for Jewish family members? There are no easy, unambiguous answers here, especially since Karl died. But giving a pat answer life, “he suffered from collective guilt” is a way of avoiding rather than addressing the fascinating ambivalence of Karl’s life.
Karl was on the front line once; in late 1942, he was on the Eastern Front (west of Moscow) were combat was beyond horrifying. Fortunately for Chelsea, that was his only real combat experience. In 1943 he was transferred to a different regiment, this time to Saint Raphael in the south of France where he was taken prisoner by the Americans. Had he stayed with his old regiment, he most likely would have been killed. Instead, according to Chelsea, he was taken to POW camp in Montana.
Chelsea went to Saint Raphael, and I’m not exactly sure why it was necessary that she go there, but she meets World War II historian Steve Weiss on the beach where, in August 1944, her grandfather was probably captured. As it turned out, Weiss was there at that battle serving in the US Army. He showed Chelsea video clips (on his iPad; nice second plug there, Apple) of German soldiers being taken prisoner at Saint Raphael. If Karl was one of the German soldiers, Chelsea did not see him.
Chelsea asked Weiss what he thought about the German soldiers he took prisoner, and he said that while he had no problems with the regular German solders, as a Jew he had real problems with the SS. Chelsea asked him how he knew which ones were SS, which makes me think she has never seen a World War II movie or read anything about the war. He said it was the uniforms (obviously) and their arrogance.
Chelsea said that (for reasons I am not sure I understand) being with Weiss was a great full circle for her, and she was very proud of being Jewish-American.
While on the beach, Chelsea got a call from Roger Moorhouse who told her that Karl was not at a POW camp in Montana; rather he was taken to Algona, Iowa. Off Chelsea went. In Algona, Jerry Yocum showed Chelsea the area where German soldiers were kept. He took her to the Camp Algona POW Museum and showed her documents relating to and pictures of her grandfather, who was young, bald and skinny. (His name was also spelled “Stoecker” in those pictures.)
At Camp Algona, he was treated more humanely he would have been led to believe by the German government, who told the soldiers that in POW camps they would be treated the way that the German government treated the Jews. (Those were not the words used, but that’s effectively the description given to the soldiers who the government wanted to fight to the last.) Chelsea learned that the German POWs did farm work, and they were encouraged to write letters and use their artistic talents. They performed plays, and in one picture Chelsea saw her grandfather, who played the violin, in the pit orchestra for a musical. After the war, Chelsea grandfather stayed in the US and brought his family over.
I am ambivalent about this episode. On one hand, the episode was interesting if somewhat more uncomplicated than it might have been. On the other hand, there was something off about the episode. Perhaps it was Chelsea’s flatness, which was a stark contrast to Kelly Clarkson’s oblivious exuberance or the emotional wallop of Christina Applegate’s episode. It may also be that this season has put too many episodes together in which there was only one researched ancestor, even if two of the three were very interesting. I know established genealogists actually hate when WDYTYA gives a celebrity a multi-generation family tree with absolutely no effort, but this is not a how-to program. Sometimes, it’s nice to jump to different historical eras rather than focusing on just one.
Next up: the highly anticipated Zooey Deschanel episode.