Chelsea Handler on “Who Do You Think You Are?”: Tracing German Roots

Chelsea Handler on “Who Do You Think You Are?”: Tracing German Roots

From the beginning of last night's "Who Do You Think You Are?," Chelsea Handler knew her mother's father had been a German soldier in WWII. She just wanted to know the extent of his involvement. Her Jewish heritage through her father's family heightened her curiosity. If you missed the...

From the beginning of last night’s “Who Do You Think You Are?,” Chelsea Handler knew her mother’s father had been a German soldier in WWII. She just wanted to know the extent of his involvement. Her Jewish heritage through her father’s family heightened her curiosity.

If you missed the episode, you can watch it on the TLC website.

The Leistungsbuch (“performance book”) mentioned in yesterday’s post and seen here:

wasn’t a military service record after all. Rather, it was a record of the grandfather’s scores in the Nazi party’s Sports Badge Program, part of the mandatory labor service program and a way to provide military-style training without violating the Treaty of Versailles.

A few things I liked about this episode:

  • It shows the importance of learning the historical context in which your ancestors lived. Knowing about post-WWI life in Germany helped Handler understand why many Germans supported Adolf Hitler when he first came to power. Finding out about her grandfather’s experience in the Camp Algona (Iowa) POW camp revealed his likely motivation for later moving his family to America.
  • It showed a side of WWII history—the lives of ordinary Germans during that era—that I didn’t know much about.
  • The WWII historian who met Handler on the beach, and who was there serving in the Army the day her grandfather was captured. I bet he could tell some stories!

Foreign archives and languages makes the research in this episode more difficult for the average person than Kelly Clarkson’s Civil War research or Christina Applegate’s 20th-century research in New Jersey.

But if your German ancestors, like mine, immigrated to America in the 1800s, church records will be your main source of information in Germany. Chances are you can find German church records yourself. I know this because the October/November 2013 Family Tree Magazine will have Rick Crume’s step-by-step guide to German church records. I’ll let you know when it’s available.

Because so many Americans have German ancestry, we have a number of German genealogy guides in Family Tree Shop:

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  1. As someone who’s ancestors were involved in WWII, I found this episode struck close to home. My great-grandfather, I hesitate to say, served in the SS and was killed by guerrilla fighters, so we were told. I have no idea how to even start finding records on him to find out what is truth and what is fiction. What was the institution Chelsea Handler went to in Berlin and are those military documents available elsewhere? Thank you so much!