By Arthur H. Gunther III
MUNICH, Germany — The fifth-generation descendant of a Prussian family that had an umlaut over the “u” in Gunther has returned to a sort of fatherland. I arrived here Friday to visit my son and daughter in law, who is a U.S. Army physician in Bavaria. To get to Germany, the plane from Newark, N.J., had to fly over the final resting places in Brooklyn and Long Island of several Gunthers, including Ferdinand, my great-great-grandfather and my family’s first arrival in the New World. Then in Germany, which now includes Prussia, there are the graves of his forebears. Heady stuff, to think of all those people in one’s DNA.
Once here, in Munich, the Bavarian city rebuilt 65 percent after heavy World War II bombing, I could see my late father’s face on many a street and my grandfather even more. Neither ever visited Germany, and the language was almost lost on my grandfather and beyond.
In my childhood, German recipes, such as for potato salad and “Fastnact kuggles,” hot, lard-dipped dough covered with powdered sugar, continued, and there were references to the family past. Yet with Ferninand arriving about 1858 with his brothers, all of whom served in the U.S. Civil War, that was long ago.
I did not take German in high school, though Miss Grasser, the German language teacher, stopped me in the hall and asked why not. I really had little interest in the German family heritage, or the Irish/English ancestry either. Few of us care abiut the past as children and young adults. It would take decades for such curiosity to stir, and by then so many of the principals had died. Whom to ask?
Now, by fate, my second son and family live in the old fatherland, and I have had genealogical interest for a few years now. Perhaps as we grow older, we want to touch the past much as a child grabs a parent’s hand, so that it is easier to walk into the final future.
Here in Munich, with my son speaking pretty good German, with the grandchildren getting such fine exposure to other cultures (this is a mixed city), I have been stirred by the kindness, the friendliness, the exactness, the industry, the confidence of the Germans and others.
If it were not for my family, I would not have visited Germany. I would have continued to believe that the land is about big beer steins and laden hosen, when, of course, there is so much more beyond the stereotypes, themselves exaggerated.
No one country, no one culture, makes the world, and getting past your mindset, your own community, not only fiills you with understanding but also appreciation.
I now feel blessed by those Germans I have so far met and by the fate that gave me such ancestry and those forebears who built a life in the New World. A fresh perspective, surely.
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached via email@example.com