Retracing Family History in Germany

When judging the over 1,000 submissions to our photo contest each year, we’re not only impressed by the quality of your travel photography. We’re also blown away by the stories you tell us about your time abroad. From that treacherous hike that changed your life, to the host family that made you feel at home in a foreign place, travel stories have a life well beyond your time overseas. That’s why this year, we awarded our favorite story a top prize in our photo contest.

Our inaugural travel story winner is Brandt Coleman, a Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals alumnus who has a unique reason why he was interested in spending a year in Germany.

When he was a kid, Brandt would read letters to his grandmother that his grandfather wrote her from Germany during World War II. This experience had a profound impact on Brandt’s life.

Brandt Coleman’s grandfather poses in front of a book printer in Germany during World War II.

“I became inspired to experience the Germany and the German people my grandpa came to love despite the circumstances that placed him there originally,” wrote Brandt in his winning travel story. “So when I was selected for a year in Germany in the CBYX program I was ecstatic. During breaks in my program year, I took the opportunity to retrace my grandpa Gil’s journey through Germany. Based on those letters from long ago, I visited many of the towns of which he wrote.”

We caught up with Brandt to learn more about his CBYX year, how he traced his grandfather’s steps, and what he’s up to now.

Brandt recreates his grandfather’s photo in front of the book printer. There is a different building in that location now.

Were your grandfather’s letters the reason why you started learning German?

Yes and no. There’s lots of German culture where I lived in Kentucky. For example, my family still cooked German dishes. [My grandfather] would also write some phrases in German [in his letters] and I always thought that was really cool. All of that led to a desire to come back here to learn about the culture and retrace that family history.

Another inspiration was learning through the letters that my grandfather was hidden by a German family from advancing Nazis. Realizing the consequences they would have faced if they were caught, my grandfather’s opinion of Germans was deeply affected and he came to realize that many Germans stood up to the Nazi party. That inspired me to experience the country and the people to whom my Grandfather owed his life.

How did you go about retracing your grandfather’s steps? Why was this important to you?

There was a lot of Google Maps searching. I would read through the letters noting village names and then try to find the oldest and wisest person in the village.

Brandt poses in front of the Rakotsbrücke toward the end of a trip. He and his father visited some of the towns his grandfather wrote about in his letters.

What was your favorite moment from retracing the places described in the letters?

I was [in Türkheim] trying to find the place in a photo where [my grandfather] was sitting on a bench. All of a sudden, these old church ladies came by and I showed them the photo. They told me I should talk to this man who is good at World War II history. He took me to the site where the photo was taken. In one of my grandfather’s letters, he wrote about coming upon a concentration camp. The old German man also took me to the site of where the camp was.

It’s a really humbling feeling to know that your grandfather was involved in helping free someone from that, and it’s a really powerful thing to go back and see.

One of Brandt’s grandfather’s photos showed soldiers late for a show. Brandt was able to find the building where this photo was taken while traveling with his father.

What was your major takeaway from going on this journey?

I think it reinforces the importance of family history, and that it does play a part in who you are. It’s really moving to see a place where your grandfather helped free people from captivity. It’s like paying homage to it—going back there and respecting that [my grandfather] sacrificed to be there. It makes you feel like you need to try to live your life the best way you can and as kindly as you can to honor the sacrifice of the soldiers who didn’t make it back, as well as the people who didn’t make it out of the concentration camps.

Brandt poses with friends in Mannheim during his CBYX year in Germany.

What are you up to now that the CBYX program has ended?

It was always in the back of my mind to get my master’s degree in Germany. So now I’m getting my Master of Science in global change ecology. It is where natural science and the social sciences meet.

I believe international collaboration is critical in addressing environmental issues. My goal is to use my postgraduate knowledge to advocate for environmental awareness and pursue positive conservation research and academics.