Family History

Back to my family's roots

Over the last several weeks, I've taken several very special trips with my great aunt around Berlin to visit, or revisit, places that are important to my family history. Those of you who know me well (or maybe it's apparent to those who have just met me, too?) know that I'm a total nerd when it comes to history - be it art history, family history, or otherwise - so these days have been incredibly important to me. I wanted to soak everything in, ask questions, process, and cherish everything I saw and learned. 

My Tour Guides

To kick off my exploration, I rode my bike to the Gerlitz senior's house in Hermsdorf just 10 minutes away through the Nature Reserve. The view to either side of this little bridge reminds me of a more rustic version of Monet's garden in Giverny, France. Very charming "commute!"

Renate had made a delicious Pfefferling (chanterelle mushroom) dish with rice that I had seconds of before we departed on our adventure through Berlin. Renate and Eberhard are the perfect hosts! 

Nach Schmargendorf

The first place on our list was Schmargendorf. This Dorf, or little village, in Berlin is where my greatgrandfather, Uropa Wilhelm lived, where my Opa was born, and where my Oma, Renate, and their family later moved after fleeing Szczecin (or "Stettin", which is in current day Poland, but was then Germany) during the Second World War.

Uropa's Apartment

The view from the street of my Uropa's apartment. We always entered through the left door into the inner courtyard. 

Many apartment buildings in Berlin have a outside facade with a locked door and hallway leading to an Innenhof, or courtyard, where there is apartment access. I was resigned to the fact that I'd just be able to reminisce about the apartment from the street, but Renate had another idea: she buzzed one apartment after another hoping someone might let us in. We were about to give up and walk away when we heard a muffled voice come through the intercom. After schimpf-ing us (she heard us buzz ALL the apartments) she agreed to let us in. Phew!

These hallways that connect the street to the inner courtyard are wide enough to fit a horse and carriage through.

Original tile in the entrance hallway.

I had forgotten how green Berlin is!

I was transported 20 years back in time when we entered the apartment complex! The inner courtyard looks the same, if not better taken care of. The walkways still have their original bricks - something that Renate tells me is very important to German heritage and is protected and restored in any way possible before resorting to replacing it.

Standing on the steps that lead up to Uropa's old apartment.

Uropa waving to us from his hallway - this is how I remember him - jolly and kind.

2 year old me at Uropa's. I could always count on a bonbon in his pocket for me!

The beautifully restored Schweizerhaus as it looks today.

The Schweizerhaus as it looked in 1996 when visiting Uropa.

The Schweizerhaus as it looked in 1996 when visiting Uropa.

One thing I hadn't remembered, was behind Uropa's apartment: The Schweizer Haus used to be a stable and dairy that housed cows. Later it was converted into two living spaces. My Opa was born on the second floor back in 1929!

Friedhof in Schmargendorf

After seeing his apartment again after some 20 years, I wanted to pay a visit to where Uropa rests now; the Friedhof or cemetery in Schmargendorf. After a call to the office, we tracked down the section and number of his grave (in German fashion, everything is very organized and marked according to letters of the alphabet and numbers). It was a comfort to find him there and Renate, Eberhard, and I spent some time there reminiscing about old stories and family before placing a pot of flowers and calling it a day. 


Nach Kreuzberg

While I've been to Kreuzberg numerous times now, my agenda this time was to investigate my father's roots in Berlin. He was adopted by my Oma and Opa from a Kinderheim, or orphanage, in Kreuzberg and have felt since coming to Berlin that I could come full-circle by visiting this Kinderheim

After some 50+ years the exact street was a bit fuzzy for Renate (she was a mere 20 years old when she met my dad through my grandparents on their weekend visits), so we embarked on a little neighborhood sleuthing to narrow down the exact building. 

We actually ended up at this building Kunstraum Bethanien by accident thinking that we'd found the right building. This complex actually used to function as a hospital back in the day, but currently is a place for artists to show their work, houses a Kindergarten, and hosts various cultural events (including an outdoor summer movie theater on the back side).

Renate's spidey-senses were tingling... she knew we weren't in the right place, but we were close! We continued to the back-side of the property where we finally found the right place!


The evolution of this building is rather interesting. After my father's time there, the building housed a Seminar school for educating Kindergarten teachers and administrators. Today it holds a Familienzentrum Adalbertsraße, which is a social services for the diverse families in the Kreuzberg neighborhood - including education, counseling, and support for young families, grandparents, and children. In addition, there are regularly-held events like mommy/daddy-and-me playgroups, dances, sports activities, a family cafe, clothing swap markets, arts and crafts classes, the list goes on!

I love that the building is still used in such a way that connects families and fosters the personal growth of children and their families. Without getting too woo woo or spiritual, it felt like a place emitting very positive vibes and I was feeling lucky to be able to connect with this place.

Renate and Eberhard know Berlin like the back of their hands. Their wealth of knowledge is truly astounding. While I have my own memories, or have listened to stories from my grandparents, I'm lucky to have local travel guides, who can help me connect the dots of my family's history. 

Coming Full Circle: An Announcement 

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I'd like to share some exciting news:

My father and I have started the process of becoming dual citizens. After my dad and his family immigrated to the United States back in the early 1960s, my father was naturalized as a minor some years later. As an adult, he always wondered if he might be eligible to reinstate his dual citizenship, and claim dual citizenship for me as well. In preparing for my coming to Berlin, these questions were intensified, and it turns out that we are indeed eligible!

Now the waiting game begins - after submitting all of our documentation, the process can take up to a year. I am so proud and humbled to be going through this process that brings me closer to my family's heritage!