…and Finds a Closer Connection to Her Heritage.
Born to a Jewish father and German mother, comedienne Chelsea Handler has always embraced her Jewish side. But she also has fond memories of her maternal grandfather, Karl Stöker, “a strong and loving man.”
Although he never talked about his experiences, she knows Karl served in the German army in WWII — Chelsea and her siblings even joked that he had been a Nazi. But she’s afraid it might actually be true.
Now is her chance to find out: What kind of allegiance did her grandfather have to the Nazi party?
Her brother’s prior family research has yielded three fascinating documents to get her started: Karl’s birth certificate, a 1966 memoir written by their grandmother and a small green booklet with “Leistungsbuch” and a swastika on the cover that belonged to Karl.
Chelsea heads to Karl’s birthplace, Bochum, Germany, and discovers the translated memoir offers a remarkable window into her grandparents’ lives. She learns that Karl had a good job as a draftsman at Flottmann Werke in 1936, but there’s a catch: the factory was owned by a known Nazi enthusiast. Did Karl share his boss’s fervor for Hitler’s party?
The booklet reveals more details about Karl: he participated in a voluntary sports program run by the SA, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party. But she still doesn’t know the truth about his feelings regarding Hitler’s party.
Karl’s service records from the German Military Records Office in Berlin offer heartening insights: he did not enlist but was drafted three weeks after the war began. Plus, his assignments to lower-tier units and lack of promotion aren’t signs of an enthusiastic solider or ambitious party member.
Records also reveal a “tremendous stroke of luck” that brings Karl from the brutal Eastern Front, where his unit would be destroyed, to the south of France. And, in a remarkable twist of fate, leaves Chelsea face to face with one of her grandfather’s possible captors.
Chelsea’s quest to understand her grandfather ends in Algona, Iowa, where Karl was taken as a POW. Here she finds a man transformed: playing violin and looking healthy in photos from the camp.
In the end, Chelsea concludes of her grandfather’s experiences in the war, “Whatever he saw ended up ultimately making him a good man,” one who loved his brood of Jewish-American-German grandchildren and a country he adopted as his own.
“It’s been an amazing journey, to Iowa.” – Chelsea Handler
Research Notes from our ProGenealogists team:
Sometimes the best sources you can find for your family tree are within arm’s reach. They might be in a shoebox in your attic or in long-neglected files and piles at your mother’s house.
For Chelsea Handler, family documents—including a Leistungsbuch that had belonged to her grandfather and a memoir written by his wife—provided the foundation for researching her grandfather Karl Stöcker’s life.
Look for original documents, photographs, letters, diaries, heirlooms, and the like. Ask aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives what items they might have.
Family Bibles might record birth, marriage and death details for generations. Newspaper clippings about marriages and deaths often get saved and can provide names of extended family members. Photographs can be gold, especially if they’re labeled. Studio portraits should include the name of the photographer, which can help pinpoint family residences. Letters and diaries provide a greater understanding of what family members experienced during their lives, as well as events happening around them.
After you’ve gathered your home sources, use a scanner or the free Shoebox app by Ancesty.com to create digital copies. You can then attach your documents to the individuals in your free online family tree and easily share them with other family members. You can also search for home sources uploaded by other Ancestry.com users*. Who knows, your cousin might have posted a photo of your great-grandfather you have never seen.
* The Mary Josephine Hannon image is for display purposed only and not related to the Handler story.
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