All posts by Philip

When my grandfather traveled to Nazi Germany to save his family

I’ve written about my grandfather Jack Trauring a few times before. I wrote Remembering my Grandfather about my thoughts after his death, Friends from Antwerp – and is that a famous Yiddish poet? about his life in Antwerp and photographs of him there, and more recently discussed how his first name changed through various countries in Don’t get stuck inside the box. As today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, I thought I would write a story my grandfather told me about his life in Europe in the run-up to the Holocaust.

My grandfather was born in Vienna, Austria during WWI, after his family was forced to flee their hometown of Rzeszow in the Galicia region of the Austrian Empire. After the war that town would become part of Poland, and his family returned there for the early years of his life. At the age of nine, in 1925, his family moved to Antwerp, where he lived until leaving for the US in 1940. My grandfather’s life in Antwerp wasn’t easy, with his father dying just a few years after they arrived there. With his father gone, my grandfather took over his father’s watch store near the docks of Antwerp at the age of just fourteen.

Although my grandfather was born in Austria, and had subsequently up until 1940 only lived in Poland and Belgium, he had something that almost certainly saved his life (and the lives of others, see below), a US Passport. His US citizenship came from the fact that his father had been born in New York. In 1884, my grandfather’s grandfather, Isaac Trauring, moved with his family to the United States. At the time he had one daughter, Kreidel Blime (Katey), who was born in Rzeszow. In New York he had three more children, Frances, Morris, and Joseph, and later another child back in Rzeszow, Arno. My grandfather’s father was Morris, and his birth in New York in 1887, provided him and his children US citizenship. It’s not clear if Morris lived in NY past 1897, when his brother Arno was born in Rzeszow, but I do know that he applied for a US passport in the US Embassy in Vienna in both 1910 and 1914. In 1914, his application states that he had been in business in Rzeszow since 1911, and had fled to Vienna after the Russians had invaded. Less than a year after that application, my grandfather would be born in Vienna.

In 1929, when my great-grandfather died, he had apparently still been in touch with the US Consulate in Antwerp, as his widow, my great-grandmother, subsequently received a Report of the Death of an American Citizen from the consulate (although for some reason, this was not issued until almost a year after his death). Up until that point, I don’t know if my grandfather was even aware that he had US citizenship. About a year after his mother received the report from the US Consulate, my grandfather registered with the US Consulate. Look at his photo in the certificate below and realize he’s only 16 years old, and at that point had been running his father’s business for almost two years:

1931 Certificate of Identity and Registration
1931 Certificate of Identity and Registration

As things got worse in Europe, he applied for a US passport of his own in 1938:

Jack Trauring US Passport 1938
US Passport issued in May, 1938

Some years ago I spoke to my grandfather about his experiences in Belgium, and he told me that before the war he traveled to Nazi Germany to try to get his younger cousins out of Germany. My family had many relatives in Germany before the war, especially in Cologne and Wuppertal, and while some of them had been able to flee the country earlier, some had not be so lucky and were now not allowed to leave. Without a country willing to accept them as refugees, it was impossible to leave Germany, and no countries were taking in Jews at that time. My grandfather and his brothers used their US passports to travel into Nazi Germany to try to get their family out.

The reason this was possible is that even though they were Jews, they were US citizens, and at the time Germans had a lot of respect for the United States, and were still trying to get the United States to take their side in the upcoming conflict in Europe, or at least remain neutral. It’s not a secret that many US leaders admired Hitler. Most famously perhaps was the father of President John F. Kennedy, Joseph Kennedy, who at the same time my grandfather was applying for his US passport at the US Consulate in Antwerp, was the US Ambassador in the United Kingdom. It was supposedly a report commissioned by Kennedy, and written up by one of most famous Americans of the time Charles Lindbergh, that influenced Prime Minister Chamberlain not to respond to Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia. It was this decision that led to the Munich Agreement in 1938, and the famous Chamberlain statement that they had achieved “peace for our time”.

So with US passport in hand, my grandfather told me that he traveled to Nazi Germany to try to get his cousins out of the country. It didn’t always work, but this is what he did:

He would travel to Germany and pick up his younger cousins. Their parents would travel separately to the border crossing, and wait. My grandfather would travel by train with only the children, telling the border guards that he was taking his cousins on vacation to the beaches in Belgium. If the border guards allowed the children to go with him, he would continue on by train to Belgium. If not, he would hand over the children to their waiting parents at the border.

My grandfather was well into his 90s when he told me this story, and he did not remember which cousins he had ferried across the border. In 1938 he was only 23, so I was asking him about something that had happened at least seventy years earlier. While I would love to find out who those cousins were, and what happened to them subsequently (keep in mind that Germany invaded Belgium in 1940, so getting to Belgium was only a temporary reprieve).

One thing I did find after my grandfather passed away was his passport from 1938. It tells several stories. One of those stories is his entering Nazi Germany, as he described.

In his passport, there are two visas for entry into Nazi Germany. The first one was issued on June 13, 1938 and was good for three months, until September 13 (on the right page):

Visa to enter Nazi Germany issued June 13, 1938
Visa to enter Nazi Germany issued June 13, 1938

The second visa was tellingly issued on November 11, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht (which started the night of November 9 and ran into the day of November 10):

Visa to enter Nazi Germany issued November 11, 1938
Visa to enter Nazi Germany issued November 11, 1938

With his US passport and these visas, he entered Nazi Germany and tried his best to get his family members to safety. It’s hard to even imagine what he felt at the time. Imagine Kristallnacht just occurred, where Jewish businesses and synagogues were burnt to the ground, and dozens of Jews were murdered. Tens of thousands of Jews were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps. In this environment you get a visa and decide to enter a country that wants you dead. Maybe your US passport will protect you, but really how could you know that?

So almost eighty years ago, my grandfather went into the lion’s den, and saved his family members from the Nazi regime. He would later make it out of Belgium just months before the Nazis invaded, by traveling through France to Italy and then the US. His future wife, who also lived in Antwerp, would leave Belgium literally with German bombs falling around her, make her way to France, and then Morocco and Portugal, before making it the US. That, however, is another story.

Google PhotoScan – a genealogists best friend?


Google has introduced a new app for both Android and iPhone for scanning printed photos. You can even photograph pictures in glass frames and it will remove the glare.

They’ve put out an amusing video to explain how it works:

I’ve had reservations in the past about phone-based scanning apps for genealogy purposes, especially those that try to scan more than one photo at once (such as a page of photos in an album). My primary concern was that by scanning multiple photos in a single picture, you are drastically reducing the resolution of the photos. Google PhotoScan, however, seems to go in the opposite direction, letting you take multiple photos with your phone to construct a single hi-res glare-free version of the photo you are scanning. This seems more in the right direction.

One problem genealogists run into is finding and copying family photos. Sometimes they’re sitting in one’s attic in a box, but many times they’re sitting in someone else’s attic, or some distant cousin’s photo album. This is the kind of problem that has been addressed by products like the Flip-Pal mobile scanner in the past, although this app is probably easier to use and in many cases will probably return a better result. There are still some cases where a flatbed scanner will probably return a better result, but the advanced algorithms used by this app will be able to get better results most of the time (especially for pictures behind glass).

I haven’t had a chance to test out the app yet, but I welcome comments by others who have, and I will add my own observations once I’ve had a chance to kick the tires.

A reminder about the B&F Forms System

Ancestor Form
Ancestor Form
For a long time the most visited page on this site has been my B&F Forms System page. Originally created back in 2011, my B&F Forms System is a series of forms you can use to help you with your genealogy. The forms are designed to be easily fillable either on your computer, or when printed out (and support both Letter-size paper for North American users, and A4 paper for everyone else). The forms have been downloaded tens of thousands of times from this site (and who knows where else they might be available). I have to thank Cyndi’s List and Pinterest (the Ancestor form, for example, is listed on over 2700 boards) for most of the traffic to the forms.

While people who religiously enter their genealogy information into a computer genealogy program, or an online genealogy service, may think these forms are not for them, I think you might find they are quite useful, for a few reasons.

For the basic Ancestor and Family forms, you can send them to relatives to fill in their information and send back to you. For less tech-saavy relatives, you can print them out for them to fill in by hand and send back to you. For more tech-saavy relatives, you can just send them the PDFs and ask them to fill them out and send them back via e-mail.

The Ancestor Location and US Immigrant Census forms help you focus your research and help you determine what information you are missing about your ancestors.

The Ancestor Location form simply has fields for name, birth date, and birth location for 14 ancestors (two parents, four grandparents, and eight great-grandparents). By taking the time to fill out the form you can see at a quick glance which of these basic pieces of information you are missing, giving you direction on where to focus your research.

US Immigrant Census Form
US Immigrant Census Form
The US Immigrant Census form lets you fill in all the genealogically-significant information from the 1880 to 1930 census years. This information is not the same foreach year, for example only two years ask when someone was married, only two years ask how many children a woman had, only years 1900 and on ask when a person immigrated, and only 1920 asked what year a person was naturalized. Filling out all of this information for an individual on this form gives you a lot of information to follow up on in your research.

These forms and the rest of the forms in the series are also great for people just getting started with their research, allowing them to fill in the forms first, and then use the forms to fill in the information in a program or online service. The forms can also be used by genealogy classes and workshops.

Since the forms are the most used resource on this site, I thought it was worth re-visiting them and bringing them to the attention of users of this site that may not have noticed them. So if you haven’t seen the forms before, then go to the B&F Forms System page now and check them out. You can always find them by going to the Forms link in the menu at the top of the page.

Oh, and if you haven’t checked out the B&F Compendium of Jewish Genealogy, do that too…