Finding Family History by Accident at the House of a Couchsurfing Host

In 2016, I found myself in Germany. I had come to a disappointing but necessary realization whilst traveling in Southeast Asia: Apparently, it is in fact sometimes necessary to stop traveling and earn more money before continuing. So with a backpack I could barely lift and a cute new German boyfriend in hand, off I went to settle for a stint in Dresden, Germany.

My Oma (‘Grandma’ in German) was born in Schlüchtern, a small village a few hours from Dresden. She spent her childhood there, but she rarely talked about it so I knew very little about this mysterious place or our history there. So I packed my bag and cute German guy and went to check it out.

We messaged a few couchsurfers and received enthusiastic replies galore. Everyone, it seemed, was ready and excited to help a Jew discover their history in Germany. (How things have changed!) Finally we chose a guy about our age named David, who had been in Israel, so I made up a fantasy in my head and decided he must be a long-lost cousin.

When we arrived at David’s house, I discovered that he was most definitely not a long-lost cousin. However, something almost as cool happened instead. I reiterated to him how Oma was from Schlüchtern and how we wanted to see the village where she had spent her early years. He translated our words for his Mom.

She cocked her head to the side and asked for Oma’s family name. Wolf, I told her. Then she did something very curious: She got up, went to the bookshelf, and pulled out a large hardcover book.

“Wolf”, it said on the cover. She opened the book and my eyes widened. It was a book chronicling the history of the Wolf family, filled with pictures and explanatory text in German. Stunned, I took the book in my hands and began scanning its photos until I saw a familiar name.

There, in one of the old black-and-white family photos, was a girl sitting on the far right, with the name Else Wolf in the caption. My great-grandmother! I couldn’t believe it. I’d seen her photo before, but how strange it was to see it in the home of this unfamiliar family, a face so much like my own staring at me from the pages of a family history of which I know next to nothing.

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Then, through a series of rapid translations, David explained to us via his Mom that our family had become well-known in the town because back then we had owned quite a successful soap factory, called Dreiturm Werke GmbH (something I hadn’t known about before.)

Apparently, when the political climate turned against us, the family was forced to sell the soap factory for an extraordinarily low price and leave town.

The next day, David and his Mom drove us to a neighboring town to show us the new (relatively speaking) location of the old soap factory, which had grown so much in the intervening years that a change of location had been necessary.

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They even took us to the old spot, where the soap factory had been before (now a bakery).

Stumbling upon a local who could provide an insight into my family’s past by coincidence, through couchsurfing, felt surreal and touching.

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