Found my grandfather's birth family. Now what?
May 20, 2014 8:06 AM   Subscribe

In the process of helping post my late grandfather's digitized papers online, I found his adoption paperwork (he made no secret of being adopted, but didn't talk about it much). It gave enough information that I was able to find that my grandfather had a brother, who apparently is still alive. I'm not sure what to do next; it's good to know there's more family out there (my father has few living relatives), but I'm not sure how happy others in my family will be with the reality, and the same may go for my grandfather's newly-discovered relatives. Advice would be helpful; details below.

OK, here's some of the complications and my real questions:

- Jewish identity was very important to my grandfather, and that's carried through the generations. However, his father converted to Christianity and married a christian woman a year after my grandfather's birth (my grandfather was placed in an orphanage, though his father did admit his paternity in court, according to the records). My great-grandfather tried to pass as non-Jewish (this was in Germany pre-WWII), though he was discovered and lost his job in 1938, and survived the war by the skin of his teeth.

I have to admit it's discomfiting to me to find out my great-grandfather left the faith, and others in the family may feel similarly if they learn about this. I think my grandfather may have known some of this; I was told once that he had worried whether he was really Jewish, because he believed his mother might not have been (he was adopted from a Jewish orphanage, so I'm guessing they would have converted him in some way in childhood, but don't know for sure). My family has been very accepting of intermarriages, though; we are not orthodox. Question 1: Should I let my family know what I've found if it may make them unhappy?

- One thing that makes me pause about contacting my grandfather's relatives in Germany is that it's possible that they were half-brothers; i.e., my grandfather's brother may not know that his father had a child out of wedlock before he was married, and maybe he wouldn't want to know such a thing. I know they share the same father, but have been unable to find out who my great-grandfather married (it may have been my great-grandmother, but may not have been). Question 2: How would such news be received by an octogenarian German pastor? Should I worry about that?

- Question 3: If I were to try to contact our relatives in Germany, should I ask my father and his siblings for permission first?

- Question 4: When should I tell my father and his siblings what I've found, ASAP or only after I've put all the pieces together and can provide a complete story?

- Question 5: As a further complication, my parents will be traveling to Europe for a vacation soon; is it best to let them know before (in case they wanted to make a detour to Germany) or after (to make sure they can enjoy their vacation if this would end up causing my father angst)?

- Question 6: Should I contact my father and his siblings about this and get their opinions before informing anyone in my generation, or try to tell everyone at once? I tend to think I should consult with the elders first, but is that wrong?

All that said, I think contact has the potential to be a very positive thing. I've found a lot of parallelism between my grandfather's life and his brother's (e.g. my grandfather played a whole series of leadership roles in Jewish congregations in the US, while his brother survived the Holocaust with the help of the Lutheran church and eventually became a pastor; and the next generation of both families all went into similar - but not at all common - lines of work). With my father's parents and one of his only surviving cousins having all passed away in the last few years, more family connections might be a good thing.

Needless to say, my grandfather's brother is not young (late 80's), so I don't want to sit on this too long. But I'm not quite sure what to do, and in what order to do it. Delicate social situations are not my forte. Help!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'd talk to you dad and/or his siblings first, just because this isn't a bell you can unring. There may be more to the situation than you know, and if it turns out your father or his siblings had reasons to not contact your grandfather's family, if you tell everyone at once that might cause some drama. Hopefully it'll work out the other way and maybe your dad can even have coffee or something with this dude when they 're on their trip. I'd even bet that's the more likely outcome. But I'd be a little cautious at the outset to get a feel for how you parents generation reacts before sending out a mass "guess what we have cousins!" Email to everybody.
posted by Diablevert at 8:18 AM on May 20, 2014

Wow, good on you for doing this research on your family, it will be valuable for future generations to know their family's story. But I can see that the possibility of contacting your grandfather's relatives in Germany could be fraught with negative emotion. If it were me, I'd let my dad know the facts of the situation (without adding assumptions about other people's motives or religious identities - which is a common pitfall for family history researchers), and take the lead from him. If he shows interest in letting the rest of your family know about this, then you can share what you've found more widely. If he wants to pursue contacting the folks in Germany, then you can support him in doing so. Certainly don't wait in telling him though, because the if your family does want to reach out, the uncle in Germany might not be around much longer.
posted by donajo at 8:30 AM on May 20, 2014

In my experience, older people are delighted to discover family they didn't know about, however that family is connected. Give your dad a call and let him know what you found, maybe strategize with him on how to handle it.
posted by linettasky at 8:33 AM on May 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Okay, let's take this a chunk at a time:
Your great-grandfather left the faith.... well, considering it was the 1930s in Germany, you don't know if he did it for love (the Christian wife could've asked him to), to be legally able to marry (my Christian grandfather married my Jewish-born grandmother in Stuttgart in 1928, for which she converted; I forget the year that intermarriage was outlawed), or frankly to simply survive. You really can't judge him, whatever his reasons, for beliefs other people hold.

I think you would be best off discussing this with just your father, and as soon as possible; if he concurs, then you talk to his siblings. If your father agrees, that's when you could write to the relatives in Germany. What your own generation knows and when they know it is far less important, as long as your seniors are told first: I wouldn't bother spending time getting your cousins' okay, it's your father and his siblings who count here.

It would be nice if this all happened before your parents' trip, but don't force it: it won't help, on either side, if people end up feeling hustled into meeting what are, in reality, total strangers.
posted by easily confused at 8:36 AM on May 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Honesty is the best policy. Tell your family now.
Then you can decide about second order questions, like telling the family in Germany.
posted by Flood at 12:42 PM on May 20, 2014

[This is a followup from the asker.]
Thanks, everyone. I talked to my father this afternoon, and he'll be speaking to his siblings and probably try to contact the relatives in Germany if they're all on board. He was really happy to get the news; as he put it, 'this has been a blank in my life I've always wondered about.'

easily confused: that's interesting, I didn't know anything about such laws. My great-grandfather converted and got married in the early 1920's, so if they applied in 1928, I expect they would have earlier. That said, I found a paper that says that the relevant laws were taken off the books in the late 1800's, though there were social pressures to assimilate.
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:08 PM on May 20, 2014

The Nazis added the intermarriage prohibition back on, as just one of the Nuremburg Laws (you know, the set of laws that forbid Jews to go to schools, practice a long list of professions, confiscated property in the name of 'reparations' and all the rest).

I'd have to look it up for the exact date, but I think intermarriage between Jews and Christians was forbidden around 1933 or so.
posted by easily confused at 4:49 PM on May 20, 2014

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