Friday, August 16, 2013

"Who Do You Think You Are?" - Chelsea Handler

Okay, I'm a little late with this write-up.  But I was attending the IAJGS conference last week, and the cousins I was staying with don't have a television, so I didn't even get to watch the episode until this past Sunday.  But I'll be caught up by this weekend.

This episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was another with a focused question to resolve.  Chelsea Handler's maternal side is German, and her grandfather apparently served in the German army in some capacity during World War II.  The question is, what exactly did he do?  Was he a Nazi?

Handler is introduced as a comedian, author, and television show host.  (My on-demand TV guide called her a "media mogul.")  Her mother, Rita Stoecker, came to the United States from Germany when she was 19, and her father, Seymour Handler, is Jewish-American.  (Handler's Wikipedia and IMDb entries say that her mother was Mormon, but the Stoeckers' religion was not addressed in the episode.)  Handler is the youngest of six children.  The chidren were raised Jewish, and she feels very connected to her Jewish roots.  She has been living in Los Angeles since she was 19.

Handler grew up knowing her maternal grandparents, Karl and Elizabeth Stoecker, who also came to the U.S. from Germany.  Karl Stoecker was a big, strong man who served in World War II as a soldier.  He was captured as a prisoner of war and sent to Montana in the U.S. for several years.  When he was repatriated back to Germany, he decided he wanted to return to the U.S. to live.  Elizabeth Stoecker had talked of her life during the war years, but Karl did not discuss the war.  The family has had a running joke that they come from a line of Nazis.

Handler's mother and grandparents have passed away, and she has little solid information about that side of the family.  Her older brother Glen knows the most history and knew all their grandparents, so she asks him for some help.  My guess is that he's the family member with the most actual interest in genealogy.  He comes to visit and says he came across some interesting stuff, then tells Handler to "hop on the computer":  He has a family tree on (doesn't everyone besides me?).

Glen also has some documents.  Karl's birth certificate (shown online; it might have been uploaded by someone else) says that he was born in Bochum.  Elizabeth wrote a memoir in November 1966 about her life in Germany, but wrote in German, so it needs to be translated.  And there is a green booklet with Leistungsbuch on the cover ("power book", according to Google Translate) with Karl's name in it, dated October 1935.  It could be Karl's identification from the German army; it needs to be translated also.

So, what's the logical way to have something translated?  Me, I would go to the American Translators Association site and look for someone in my area with the languages I need.  I found someone to translate from English to Italian that way; a friend found a translator for English to Lithuanian.  But this is Who Do You Think You Are?, so Glen tells his sister to go to Bochum, Germany to have the German documents translated.  Then he says, "Auf wiedersehen."  (Seriously??)

And off Handler goes to Germany.  She has sent the documents ahead to a German researcher named Andrea Bentschneider.  She meets Bentschneider in what appears to be an old factory in Herne, which is near Bochum.  Handler asks about her grandfather, and Bentschneider says that the building they are in holds some significance.  She explains it's a converted factory, and Karl used to work there.  Handler looks around kind of blankly and says, "Oh my gosh, this is amazing," but she sure didn't sound amazed.  Bentschneider reads from Elizabeth's translated memoir that Karl had found a position as a draftsman at Flottmann's; the building used to be Flottmann's factory.  Flottmann had joined the Nazi party in 1931, before Hitler came to power, and was a committed party member.  Handler calls him a "Nazi enthusiast", a phrase she used several times during the episode; in my mind, the phrase downplays the commitment to the party that someone such as Flottmann appeared to have.  On the other hand, one time the narrator called Flottmann a "notorious Nazi", which seemed a bit of a stretch based on the information we had been told.  She wonders what her grandfather would have had to do to get a job working at Flottmann's factory and whether that made him a Nazi also, but Bentschneider reassures her that simply having a paying job would have been sufficient motivation to work for Flottmann.

Focusing on Elizabeth's narrative, Bentschneider confirms that it was a memoir, written at the request of one of her daughters.  The memoir gives insight into the lives of Handler's grandparents and other Germans after World War I.  Germany had lost its strong role and leadership in the world and was deeply in debt; there was a hunger among the populace for someone to lead them into better times.  Elizabeth recalled her own mother saying, "Children I don't have anything," when Elizabeth and her siblings asked for a piece of bread to eat.  People in such desperate situations often look for any ray of hope, which Adolf Hitler provided.  He reduced unemployment by creating work projects (similar to what the WPA did here in the U.S.), so people thought he had good ideas, not realizing what would happen in the future.

Handler wants to know if more personal information was in the memoir.  Elizabeth had written about when she and Karl were newly married, in 1936.  She played piano and he played violin, and they performed together with a group.  She remembered things being happy until 1939, when the war started.  She could have been justifying things to herself and simply remembering the good times.  Nothing in the memoir, however, talked about Karl having anything to do with the Nazis.

Handler's other document, the small green booklet, was for the Sturmabteilung (S.A.), a paramilitary wing of the Nazi party.  She wonders if it could be bad news.  Bentschneider says she has made an appointment for Handler to talk with an expert and will send the booklet to him to evaluate beforehand.

Still in Herne, Handler goes to the city archives (though the German on the building said Stadt Bibliotek, which is a library) to talk with historian Ralf Piorr (who has his own Wikipedia page and has written a book about the Jews of Zamosc).  He explains that the Sturmabteilung were also known as Brownshirts and were "rowdy boys" or street thugs.  Karl's booklet was for a labor service camp in Fröndenberg.  Officially, the camps were created to help curb unemployment, and participation in them was made mandatory in 1935.  They were also a way for Germany to get around the post-World War I Armistice prohibition against military training.  Participants had to attest to their German Aryan descent and that they were free of traces of the Jewish or colored race.  Karl was in a voluntary "sports" program at the camp that included small caliber shooting, distance estimation, and camouflage training.  This wasn't really proof that Karl agreed with Nazi ideology.  Piorr comments that if everyone else says yes, in that kind of situation you don't really have the option to say no.  There was no photo or signature in Karl's booklet, possibly indicating that it was not particularly important to him.  Handler asks what documents might have more information, particularly whether Karl was a member of the SA, and Piorr says she should go to Berlin to the military archives.

Next stop:  Berlin.  Handler meets historian and author Roger Moorhouse at the military archives.  Of course, he already had all of Karl's papers pulled.  He tells Handler that Karl was not a member of the SS or Nazi party, and that only about 10% of the population were actually members of the Nazi party.  Karl's Soldbuch (Army pay book) began on September 22, 1939, three weeks into the war, which could have indicated he wanted to fight, but Moorhouse says he was drafted.  Rita, Handler's mother, was only four months old at the time.  The pay book had only three rank lines:  private, private first class, and corporal.  Karl was not earning lots of promotions.  He started with the 196th artillery regiment, which Moorhouse says was a low-grade unit that would have been kept in the rear, and stayed with similar regiments throughout his army service.  Handler recalls her grandfather as big, strong, and athletic, but the records indicate he was average, so she wonders if they represent a lack of interest or sympathy on Karl's part.  Moorhouse says he was probably part of the "floating middle" -- not enthusiastic, but not actively oppositional, as the latter were persecuted.  The middle just went along and tried to stay invisible.  Handler says that when asked about the war Karl seemed embarrassed, which Moorhouse relates to the collective guilt of the German people about the war.

Handler wants to know more about the units Karl served in.  He started with the 196th but later, in the second half of 1942, was transferred to the 12th, where he experienced his only front-line service, on the Eastern Front in western Russia.  He was there in the winter, when it was brutally cold, and combat was horrific.  Moorehouse says Karl "had a tremendous stroke of luck", as he was again transferred, this time in mid-1943 to the 242nd, which was assigned to the south of France.  His old regiment was almost entirely wiped out about a month before he was captured, and he probably would not have survived.  On August 16, 1944 he was captured by the U.S. Army at Saint-Raphaël.  Handler recalls being told that he had been sent as a POW to Montana.  Moorhouse says there should be details and that he will look for them, while the "best thing" that Handler can do is go to Saint-Raphaël.  (So the records are in Berlin, but she should go to the south of France?)  As she is leaving Berlin Handler says she is relieved that Karl was not a "Nazi enthusiast" (there's that phrase again), just a participant.  She also mentions she had brought a bikini since she was going to the south of France, pretty much giving away that she knew ahead of time where she would be going on her trip.

In Saint-Raphaël Handler walks along a beach with Dr. Steve Weiss, a World War II veteran and historian.  She wonders to herself if Karl had been captured willingly, then asks Weiss, "I hope that you have some information about my grandfather Karl?"  (Yeah, like the show is going to fly you and Weiss to the Riviera and have him tell you he doesn't have any info on your grandfather.)  Weiss says that on August 15, 1944 he was an 18-year-old combat infantry soldier who landed on the beach on which they are standing.  (I wonder how hard they had to look to find a vet who was there.  I think it's very cool that they found someone, especially with Weiss' credentials.  It reminded me of the NCIS episode "Call to Silence", which had Charles Durning as a World War II veteran and Lloyd Kino playing a Japanese vet; Durning was a vet, and I suspect Kino served in World War II also.)  Karl was probably one of the people shooting at the Americans, but the Americans were organized and the Germans were in the process of leaving the location.  Handler wonders what "leaving" meant and if the Germans were surrendering.  Weiss explains that soldiers are trained to fight, not to surrender, but that some of the soldiers might have made the difficult decision to give themselves up.  (The landing was part of Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France; there's a great map of the operation online, showing that the 36th Division was assigned to land at Saint-Raphaël.)

Handler then asks what happened to the German POW's.  Weiss shows her a short film (on an iPad; hooray for that Apple product placement) that was shot on August 16, 1944 by an American military photographer (which means it should be available somewhere -- maybe the Library of Congress? -- but the closest thing I could find online is the fourth item on this page of a for-profit site).  It showed the German soldiers sitting and smoking.  Handler says, "One of those guys is probably my grandfather."  Since they didn't focus on a particular shot, however, I'm guessing they did not find him in the film.

Handler asks Weiss how he had felt toward the soldiers.  He says that since he is Jewish, it depended on who the soldier was.  If the man was in the SS it wouldn't be good, but he could feel a fellowship with regular soldiers.  He explains that SS were usually recognizable by their uniforms and their arrogance.  Handler wonders what it was like if a Nazi was captured by a Jewish soldier.  Weiss replies, "Can you imagine what the world would be like if they weren't?"

Handler muses to herself that in the film the German soldiers look relieved.  Her talk with Weiss has brought together how her grandfather probably felt at the time.  She's glad to have talked with Weiss about it, because he is a Jewish American, and declares, "I am proud to be a Jewish American."  Then she calls Moorhouse on the phone, who tells her he has completed the research and discovered that Karl was not sent to Montana, but to Iowa.  So that's where she is heading next!

In Algona, Iowa, Handler is met by Jerry Yocum, a local historian, at the airfield where the Algona POW camp used to be.  He gives a short history of the camp, which had 187 buildings on 287 acres and barracks that held up to 2,500 prisoners.  He says many camp items are in the Camp Algona POW Museum, if Handler wants to see them (duh!), at which point they go to the museum.  Handler of course asks about documents regarding her grandfather.  Yocum shows a card from September 1, 1944, when Karl Stoecker (#27200H) was initially processed, and one from September 29.  Both cards have photos.  On September 1 Karl was very skinny, and on September 29 he looked much healthier.  The prisoners were treated humanely, although the German government had told them that if they were captured they might be castrated or used for drug experiments, and that there was a lot of turmoil in the U.S.  The propaganda was meant to keep the soldiers fighting and not surrender.  Yocum explains that the POW's had good food and did exercise and some work, such as on local farms.  In their off-duty hours they were encouraged to do things such as write letters and use their artistic talents, including putting on stage plays.  Yocum says, "Here's one that involves a little bit of music," and shows Handler a photo of one of the plays.  Handler recognizes her grandfather sitting in the orchestra pit with a violin.  Given how well the prisoners were treated, she now understands why he wanted to return to the U.S. after the war.

At the end of the episode Handler talks about how she had never felt a close connection to the German side of her family because she didn't know that much about it, and had been worried that her grandfather could have been a hard-core Nazi.  Now that she knows he wasn't, the way he made it through is a good life lesson -- don't use your big mouth, just trudge forward and survive.  (But she knows that someone "as obnoxious and outspoken" as she is would not have been able to do it!)  All of her grandfather's experiences shaped him; everything he saw combined to make him a good man.  She feels a much better connection with him now.

There was no wrap-up at the end of the episode with Glen, the family member from the beginning.  He seemed interested in the family history, so I wonder why they didn't bring him in for the finale.


  1. Thanks for the link to Ms. Handler's Wikipedia article. I'd never heard of her. I guess that shouldn't surprise me...I haven't watched anything she's been in.

    Either they're trying to bring in a younger/hipper audience or they've passed through the B-list and are on to the C-, D- and E-list actors.

    1. I commented on the same thing when I posted about the Kelly Clarkson episode, the first one of this season's offerings. I think it might be a combination of both looking for a younger audience and not having more higher-profile celebrities with either compelling stories or mysteries Ancestry's reearchers can solve.

  2. Janice,
    I'm enjoying your commentary on the episodes. I, too, do not have a tree on Ancestry. Just not interested.

    1. Lisa,

      Thank you! I'm glad you enjoy my posts. Maybe we should start the "I could have a family tree on Ancestry but I don't want to" group. :)


  3. Janice Sellers, Nice piece of writing. I enjoyed it. I am 2nd-generation German. Opa was in Supply in France; forced to use his own private truck for the Führer. Long story, but he loved & respected my father in 1951. Dad married one of Opa's daughters, my mother. I am now I would post a great image, but don't see that option.

    1. Karl,

      Thank you for the kind words. You're right about posting images; I don't see any way to do it either. I'll have to investigate that.



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