There are no coincidences, especially when trying to track down your mother’s childhood home in Poland

I hadn’t realized it’s been so long since I’ve last posted. I’ve been deep in a new project which won’t let me go, and has been nagging at me since I was a teenager.

My mother’s early life has always been a mystery. She spoke of parts of it, but not the details, because they were too raw. I’ve met only one of her family members, a cousin, back in the 1980s when I was a teenager and he was visiting from Germany, but no one else.

I’ve never had the pleasure of driving by a house and hearing her say, “And that’s where I grew up.”

My mom, about 12 years old

Because my mother, Yvonne Neufeldt Strebel, grew up in a part of Germany which is now Poland. She lost her parents before her first birthday and was adopted by her grandparents.

And then World War Two happened, and essentially destroyed her childhood. By the time she was 17 her uncle and two cousins, along with many friends, were forced to fight for Germany and were killed; another two cousins were held as prisoners of war, one in America and the other in Siberia; another uncle and a male cousin, age 16, were abducted by the Russians in 1945 as forced labor and never returned; her aunt and a female cousin, age 11, were forcibly removed from their home by the Poles in 1945 and put in a labor camp for six months, on starvation rations.

That’s when my mom escaped to the west, all her belongings in a backpack, with some family friends. As a refugee renting a bedroom from some acquaintances, she was starved by the French in Ettlingen for several months.

She never went home to Neisse, Germany, which was 80% destroyed by the time the war ended in May 1945.

My mom’s hometown of Neisse, Germany, at the end of the war.

As you can imagine, she didn’t have as many happy memories as a lot of teenagers do. She shared what fun times she did have, before everything went rapidly downhill. The rest were stories she told only a couple of times.

And much of what she lived through permeated into me as well. I’ve been both equally disturbed and fascinated by the horrors my mom experienced, and have felt compelled since a child to understand it.

Decades ago my mom told me to try to write and publish her story, and she gave me journals and stories to help. But details have been lacking, and her reticence to relive her miserable years has left me with huge gaps. (She passed away a few years ago.)

Finally this summer I’ve decided to tackle this project which has sat on my shoulders since I was 17 years old. Calling siblings for photos and gathering bins of papers has shown we have little more than a few dozen photos and some old postcards from her childhood, but it was more than I expected.

Using FamilySearch I found someone willing to translate her grandfather’s 10 postcards to her, a couple which were very revealing. These are the only words we have of the man who so loved and cared for her, who she last saw as a 17-year-old. He died only four years after she escaped to the west. He never was able to leave Germany, now Poland.

Beautiful cursive, but impossible for this American to decipher. A generous and anonymous helper has been translating these for me, and even figured out the address: Marienstrasse No. 4

But digging for details about where her cousins and aunt and uncles were taken, along with the destruction of her city, now Nysa, Poland, have meant hours and hours of research. (And I’ve discovered how brilliant Google Translate is, because my German is horrible, and my Polish is non-existent.)

So I finally got smart, and using Google Translate, wrote an email to a librarian in Nysa, Poland asking where I might find details about the city during 1945 and specifically what dates it was bombed by the Red Army. I know my mom’s second house in Neuland had been obliterated by the war.

The Nysa librarian wrote back yesterday politely saying it was too bad I didn’t have addresses—

But wait! I do have addresses! From the postcards that had just been translated last month!

I sent her back, “The first house my mom lived in was Marienstrasse 4.”

Her response was swift, coming in less than half an hour, although by her Poland time her shift was nearly over and she should be heading home.

And her response left my chin on the floor: “I live in Marienstrasse 5!”

This random librarian, in a city of 43,000, lives NEXT DOOR to where my mom spent her first 12 years of life. WHAT ARE THE ODDS!?

I stared, astonished at her response, as I imagine she stared at my email that the home I’m looking for is the apartment building that’s literally attached to hers.

Then she sent me a photo—this one which she found in a book—of how the building looked in the 1920s. The same time my great-grandfather Emil Neufeldt would have bought it. The previous owners were the Rudolfs–they owned a store on the ground floor–and their two sons would in a few years marry Emil’s two daughters.

The caption of the photo reads “Block 4 and 5: Marienstrasse (about 1921/1922)”

I wrote earlier that I’d never had the pleasure of seeing the house where my mom grew up, but there before me was the house where she grew up, where her aunts grew up, where their future husbands used to live with their parents—the family house, as it looked.

I stared at that photo which I received yesterday morning for several minutes, knowing that the first floor was a store the uncles’ parents used to own, that the second floor contained two large apartments which my mom’s grandparents turned into one to accommodate when their other grandchildren came to visit and play with their cousin Yvonne.

This morning, the librarian wrote to me again: “Before work I took pictures of Marienstrasse for you. Here’s what it looks like today.”

And for the first time in my life, I got to “drive” by the family home of where my mom grew up.

UPDATE: The librarian did more research and realized that the house ACROSS the street was my mom’s, and it looks more like what she had described. It was NOT destroyed in the war, amazingly! [She emailed me again this morning, June 9, with the clarification. Sounds like she was so excited by the coincidence that she jumped the gun a little.]

This doesn’t seem to have been destroyed by bombing, miraculously. Photo taken June 9, 2021
The sidewalks where my mom, her grandparents, her aunts and uncles and cousins walked in the 1920s-1930s-1940s. Photo taken June 8, 2021
Morning on the street of where my mom used to live, Photo taken June 8, 2021

I was initially staggered by the coincidence, then immediately remembered there are no coincidences.

I’ve often heard that searching out your family’s history is a great blessing, and that your ancestors want you to find them. I never quite believed it until I connected with a random woman thousands of miles away who lives next door [actually ACROSS the street] to where my mom grew up.

My immense thanks to Basia Tkaczuk, my new librarian friend whose last name I’ll never be able to pronounce.

“You can still choose to be cynical and see only coincidences. But I choose to see miracles. And I’d much rather live in a world full of miracles than in one filled with random chances.” ~Book 5, Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti

Instead of condemning, let’s try compassion

“You know why they ‘canceled’ Dr. Seuss? He cheated on his wife when she was dying of cancer!”

That outburst in the middle of my lecture made me pause in my explanation of why we won’t “cancel” authors in my high school literature class, but instead try to learn from their times and issues.

We’re next going to read Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” and I was making a case that people who cry “Sexist!” about Shakespeare don’t understand his time period or his circumstances. In many ways, Shakespeare was progressive in his approach and treatment of women at his time (which could have been a reflection of a strong female queen in England).

I was explaining that nearly all of literature is a reflection of the history around it, so if we understand the history, we consequently understand—and further appreciate—the literature.

But first we had to get past Dr. Seuss, and this is what I plan to present to tomorrow’s class, now that I’ve had time to do a little research.

First, his publisher hasn’t ‘canceled’ all of Dr. Seuss, just six books which some perceive have negative racial undertones. Again, understanding the history of the time when the books were written (one as early as the 1930s) would clarify what was happening in the illustrations. What a marvelous learning opportunity we could have here, instead of an “erasing of history” which I fear is occurring. And when we erase, we forget, then commit the same mistakes all over again.

Second, Theodore Geisel wasn’t ‘canceled’ because of his behavior in the late 1960s. Frankly, no one cares about that (and an entire argument could be made about if they should or shouldn’t).

So what about his affair, which, after the death of his wife, turned into his second marriage?
I don’t know—I’m not privy to those details, and it’s no one’s business, either.

But for argument’s sake, let’s consider: was he remorseful about his behavior?
Back in the 1960s, we didn’t have support groups for grieving men, cancer victims, etc. People were often just left on their own to figure out how to cope, which meant, they didn’t very well. I personally know of a few situations where men found comfort in the arms of another woman when their wives were suffering. (And those “other women” weren’t entirely innocent themselves, so let’s not solely blame men here.) As a society, we’ve learned how to help those who are grieving and suffering, and in the past 50 years a whole system of supports has been put in place to help, and rightly so. People who are grieving have many more options now.

But what about Seuss? Did he regret his behavior, then or later? Did he go through some kind of repentance process? I don’t know, nor do I need to know.

Because I choose to “Think the Best Story.”

Some years ago author Orson Scott Card wrote an essay suggesting that every time we feel to judge harshly and condemn someone, that we “Think the Best Story” about them instead.

For example, the person who cut you off on the freeway really isn’t the inconsiderate, arrogant jerk you assume they are.
Maybe they just received terrible news—they’ve lost a job, or someone has been in a serious accident and they’re rushing to the hospital, or they’ve been told their cancer has returned and is incurable.
Maybe instead of a being a horrible person they’re merely distracted by disaster, and accidentally cut you off.

(I once cut off someone because I had a child projectile vomiting in the seat behind me as I drove, and it’s pretty hard to concentrate in a situation like that. I sure would have appreciated some compassion right about then.)

“Thinking the Best Story” acknowledges that we don’t have the whole situation, and instead of condemning, we instead try compassion. I think in 99.9% of potentially “offensive” situations, if we understood the point of view of the perpetrator, we’d rush to help them, not cancel them.

I think of the example of Robert Downey, Jr. and his support of Johnny Depp. When others have canceled Depp because of reports of spouse abuse (which reports are dubious, depending upon the source), Downey has come to his aid. Why? Because years ago, “Iron Man” was in and out of prisons and rehab with a drug addiction for about five years. But he wasn’t canceled then, he was helped. And one of those who helped him revive his career was Johnny Depp. Now, Downey is returning the favor, helping a friend who has been knocked down because he’s filled with compassion, not condemnation.

None of us should be seen or remembered for only our worst moments. To reduce Dr. Seuss to only as “that guy who cheated on his dying wife and drew a few ‘bad’ pictures” is unfair and inaccurate, ignoring the decades of good and even great things he did, wiping them all out for one year of stupidity.
We’ve all had stupid moments that we pray others will forgive us for.
If you haven’t had moments of stupidity, you will. Oh, you will. (I’ve had quite a few that I’ve tried to forget.)

What if we remembered Saul in the New Testament only as “that guy who persecuted and put to death the followers of Jesus Christ”? That would ‘cancel’ all the greatness he accomplished when he turned his life completely around and became Christianity’s greatest advocate of the first century. The reverse was so total that even his name was changed to Paul, and he was ultimately tried and put to death for his valiancy. To focus narrowly on his earlier mistakes is to misjudge him completely.

Paul was a little bit more than just that “guy who persecuted Christians for a while.”

This “think the best story” attitude can be applied to just about everyone who is facing cancelation. Some historical and current public figures did commit mistakes. That’s called “being human.” Should they be defined by those mistakes, especially when looking at a full life in total of marvelous and excellent successes which quite often benefitted the entire country? Of course not.

Should your life be judged so narrowly? Of course not.

But to accuse Abraham Lincoln for not doing enough to help the Native Americans–after he freed the slaves and lost his life because of it–is disingenuous. And to cancel Mark Twain, again, for Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, again, because of the use of the N word, ignores that historically the N word didn’t have the connotations it has now, and worse, negates the fact the Slave Jim and Huck are the only respectable characters in the entire book.

Perhaps it’s because Jim and Huck are purposely rebelling against the constraints of their society–and prove themselves to be the most humane and honest people in the South–is precisely why the book under the “cancel” curse once more. After all, it’s the rebels who push against the pressure of culture who are actually right.

There are others who are being canceled because some purposely misread and misjudge their opinions or beliefs. Some people fear any ideas which contradict their own, and feel the only recourse is to destroy that which challenges.

I wrote some years ago about misjudging and taking offense, and still my favorite quote from Aristotle is, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

I worry that we, as a society as a whole, do not believe that anymore.

Still, I’ve noticed something about myself when I choose compassion over condemnation: I’m a happier person. I feel more empathy, more concern, more love for others—even those I don’t agree with—when I assume “the BEST story” about them.

I choose to still like Dr. Seuss’s books, I still watch Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. movies, and I still “think the best stories” about people because doing so makes me a better person. I still choose to have faith in everyone else, too.

The world cancels you; Zion forgives you

Zion allows for mistakes, for changes of hearts, for new understanding.
Zion promotes growth.

The world, however, doesn’t tolerate your past, or your “old” heart, or your immature understanding.
The world promotes “cancel culture.”

Zion believes in forgiveness and second chances, and third chances, and fiftieth chances.
The world wants to banish you. One strike and you’re out. Erased even, if possible.

The problem with this harsh judgment is that not even the world can live up to its unrealistic judgments. So it changes the standards, again and again, to meet their behaviors, but not to accommodate those who suddenly find themselves judged by yet a new standard which didn’t exist a decade ago, or even a week ago.

I don’t think they’ve recently consulted Matthew 7:2.

For with what ajudgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what bmeasure ye mete, it shall be cmeasured to you again.

Zion’s standard never changes: a people living with one heart, one mind, sharing all they have, caring for each other, and–most importantly–forgiving each other when they fail.

That’s Christ’s way. He suffered for all of us to give us second chances. And third chances. And even a thousand chances. As long as we keep trying, He keeps forgiving us.

Christ will never cancel us.

Let’s build Zion so He can live among us and teach us how to be more like Him. #BuildZion

Leave the world and find your purpose; Ask Him

“Leaving the world” means setting aside all of that which distracts us from focusing on God. For some that sounds dreary and dull (what, just reading scriptures and singing hymns?). They believe the world is exciting and vibrant.

But consider that maybe we have that reversed.

Focusing on the world is exhausting. The world is hounding you with so many unnecessary expectations and demands.

You may find yourself:

  • fixated with fashion or physical appearance;
  • preoccupied with the look of a house and yard;
  • needing to be seen as “successful,” especially on social media, in your business and personal life;
  • driven to possess the next best thing either in technology, or vehicles, or housing, or vacations;
  • consumed with a desire to be popular and recognized as part of the “right” group.

That’s exhausting. And it’s dreary and dull, trying to keep up with the world’s changing trends.

Keeping the world “happy” is as tedious as reasoning with a toddler having a tantrum. What they want changes frequently, and they’re never satisfied for long.

Now think about what your life would be like without that pressure to impress the world.

Really think about it: no demands, no expectations, no guilt or shame for not being “good enough yet,” and no fretting about what someone will think—

Doesn’t that make you feel like it’s the first day of summer vacation when you’re in high school? Remember that feeling? No more assignments, no more demands, no more busy work to earn a label of “success” or “failure.” (I realize that as a high school teacher I’m condemning myself here a little, but teachers probably rejoice at the end of the school year more than students do.)

Instead, you feel that release, that sudden joy and lightness of realizing you get to do what you feel you should.  Explore, work, play, sleep—you can just enjoy the world.

That’s what God wants for us. Focusing on Him is summer vacation, while being obsessed with the world is the third week of a gray, cold February with no holidays in sight.

Ask Him what “summer vacation” and focusing on Him looks like for you. It will be different for everyone. For me, this month, it’s focusing on my family, writing new books, studying ideas I’ve always wanted to, and preparing for the future. Next month may be different. And I eagerly look forward to it.

Building Zion is all about finding your purpose and leaving the world behind. You won’t miss the world, and what’s more, the world will not miss you. (Because it doesn’t care about you and it never has.)

We’re now being punished not for crimes, but for merely words and ideas

When I first drafted those words above, probably back in 2010 for what eventually became book 5, I really didn’t think we’d get to this position in our own world. At least not for another 30 or 40 years, and only once I was senile enough to not notice.

But ten short years later I’m reading daily about how people, groups, and movements are “canceled” because of their opinions.

Political commenters are calling for those on the sides “opposite” of them to be punished after this election.

Leaders are threateningly suggesting that those who vote against them will regret their decisions in the future.

Friends and family are attacking each other on public forums, calling each other “sheeple,” or “oppressors” and, in once case, reported a family member to the police on false charges in vengeance for a slight on social media.

We haven’t reached the level of laws against ideas yet, but considering how rapidly we’ve run into this state of chaotic accusations and offenses, I can’t imagine it’s too far off. I remember my parents telling me stories about having to be careful about what their families said in Nazi Germany, because they were never sure who was listening in and who would turn them in.

I never imagined we’d forget so much of that horrific history that we choose to repeat it, but here we are.

We’ve long ceased being a republic; we’re well on our way to a dictatorial leadership of some kind. And such leadership can exist safely only when its enemies have been silenced.

I’m slowly learning to stay out of these fights. No one’s opinions will change because we tell them they’re wrong, just as we won’t suddenly agree with those who accuse us of ignorance.

The only thing we can do right now is rise above the mudslinging, the anger, the fury. I keep thinking of Legolas in the first “Lord of the Rings” movie, walking on top of the snow drifts that his companions struggle to slog through. We have to stay above it, or it will drown us.

Go through the storms, but don’t be slowed down by them. (Also helps if you’re as light as an elf, but hey, we can’t all be nearly perfect.)

Because more and more, I’m feeling that a different future awaits those of us who try to remain kind, calm, and compassionate. More and more I’m not only hoping and praying, but also looking forward to a place that lets us live in peacefully even with those we may disagree with, without any threat or retribution.

It’s coming. We need to make sure our hearts are ready to receive it. If we will be one, we will be His, and safely with Him.

Choices, always choices here. This isn’t the world, you know. We’ll never tell you what to do, or what to think, or what to believe. We offer what we have and show you what we feel is true, but then we let you make your choice. Whatever you choose, whatever you choose.

~Safety Assured Leaving East of Medicetti, Book 5; Forest at the Edge