To See the Sun’s Azimuth from where Jewish Kin Stood

In 1860, Jonas Lachenbruch and his wife left Wolfskehlen, South Hesse, Germany, for the US where they later had three sons. One of them was my grandfather. None of the other Lachenbruchs left Europe, and eighty years later, most of their offspring died in Nazi Germany.

I’m just beginning to figure out my emotional and familial connection to this genocide. My dad, now gone, was the last of his generation. Why is it that at sixty-six, I’m suddenly taking a trip into the past, when the genocide occurred eighty-five years ago? I think it’s because, with kids out of the house, parents gone, and no more paying job except the occasional substitute teaching, I can finally follow my senses of curiosity and responsibility.

My grandpa (top center) and his two brothers–all born in the US to German Jew immigrants; and my dad and my two brothers, 1966 at our house in Los Altos Hills, California.

But to what end? Until a couple of months ago, I’d assumed if I ever went to Wolfskehlen, I’d have two goals. I’d walk around thinking what my life would have been like if I’d grown up there in some unspecified peaceful time. Who would I have been?  And I’d serve as a proxy mourner, belatedly doing a job the kin would have done if they hadn’t been killed too during Nazi rule. Isn’t it a terribly sad thought that all the relatives who would have mourned the injustice of these murders, were themselves murdered?

Early in 2023, two “cousins” and I committed to converge there—from France, England, and the US. With a few weeks until the trip, I began pulling together my scraps of genealogy. But as I did so, my mission changed.

It’s odd that even though I was the kid who always talked to the older folks about their pasts, I’m groping with why I’m going to Wolfskehlen, and why now. I never considered learning German instead of French in high school and college. I was an exchange student in Australia (not Germany), served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, and lived a year each in Chile and France. I felt no pull to the Faterland.

I’d have loved it if Dad and my uncles and grandparents and great-uncles and second cousins were still here to guide me, but it’s me who’s searching now. Me who’s tumbling up and down that ancestral tree.

A thumbnail of my thoughts:

How far back can I trace the Lachenbruch name (Fig. 1)?

Trip goals: Learn about the histories, personalities, and daily lives of my direct ancestors. Put myself in their shoes; consider what I would have faced and what I would have been like in those times. And be boggled that I really do have ancestors: I come from someones.  

I must broaden my search (Fig. 2).  

I’m using names to trace my ancestry, but names are messy. My ancestors include women, too–and all their surnames. Names have many spellings: Caroline or Karolina; Cahn or Kahn? And because Napoleon made the Jews change their last names in 1806, no wonder we can’t find ancestors before Jacob L., b. 1801, aka Koppel ben Mordechai (his Hebrew name)! When he was born, “Lachenbruch” was the land (“with the laughing brook”) where his family raised cattle near a distant oxbow of the Rhine River.

New goals: I need to include both sides of the family, allow for inexact names—and learn some history.

About face (Fig. 3).

But I thought I was going to Wolfskehlen to figure out which of my kin the Nazis killed. Because the killed would have been in my grandpa’s and dad’s generations, I should not be looking further back for more ancestors, but instead, forward, for my ancestors’ descendants!

Blow-me-away thoughts: When I look forward (arbitrarily) to the descendants of my great-grandfather and his brothers, I see a swarm of people (bottom of Figure 3). I must be related to almost every Jew in this little town. Really, I want to know about the history and workings of the whole community of Jews, not of my direct descendants only.

Blow-me-away-further: I always heard about genocide—we all did—but now I’m understanding. People were deprived of life. Families and acquaintances were deprived of these people. And the world’s cultures lack the entire sector of what the dead and never-borns would have helped to shape.

To further explain:

At first, I looked back in time to ask who were the parents of the parents of the parents of my dad (red arrows, Figures 1 and 2). But because I’m most interested in which relatives might have been killed during the Nazi period, I mean to look forward, rather than back (red arrow pointing toward the present in Figure 3.

To get an idea of how many people that would be, I drew a tree of descendants from an arbitrary four couples in my great-grandpa Jonas’s generation (1847) and up to my birth (1956). I assumed people lived about seventy years, as my direct ancestors did (I know that’s long), and that all the kids married and had three kids each.

Q: Which of my great-grandpa’s kin would have been alive at the start of World War II (jaggy blue line)?

A: Some of the 12 from my grandpa’s generation (1885; their lifespans shown in blue) and all of their 36 kids in my dad’s generation (1925; yellow lifespans cut short by the war). Alive before the line; afterward, no more. Those who died never finished their contributions:  industry, art, friendships, consumption, and legacies, including the production of 108 varied—who knows! weird, quick, slow, lively, fervent—kids in my generation.  

Same story, even shorter:

Q. Why am I flying to Germany?

A. A little bit for those upward arrows but mostly for the downward one. To put myself in the place they lived their lives. To find out as much as I can about the culture of the Jews in the region before the wars. To mourn the deaths of those killed by Nazis—and also to mourn the gap of an entire people wiped out, an entire people that cannot contribute to our changing world. I’m sorry for our loss.

Shorter still:

Q. What will I do in Germany?

A. Stand where my Jewish relatives stood. See the sun’s azimuth from where they must have stood. Reach out my hands, open my eyes and ears, and use my heart to collect stories about my people in times past.


I don’t know where my quest will go. First, I’ll get on the plane.

11 thoughts on “To See the Sun’s Azimuth from where Jewish Kin Stood

Add yours

  1. Wow.  First that’s a powerful essay.Second, I always thought you were of Scottish descent (but I guess they spell it L-O-C-H)Third, I was born, an Army brat, in Nurnberg.  It didn’t occur to me until decades later why my Dad would have been stationed in Nurnberg. Fourth, travel safe.  Enjoy some beer for me.Fifth, don’t forget the reunion next year! HugsJerry Jerry Manoukian, MD Mariam Manoukian, MD, PhD 2500 Hospital Drive, Building 4Mountain View, CA 94040 I’m already against the next pandemic!


    1. Thanks for all that, Jerry. That’s so funny you thought Lachenbruch was Scottish. I thought Armenians were chosen people–you guys seemed so special! I’ll have some beer for sure, but it turns out it’s a wine region! I plan to be at the reunion–maybe we should have a Bullis/Purissima special, too!


  2. This is so exciting, Barb! How wonderful to go to a place where you are connected, not knowing what will happen or whom you will meet. A true adventure.


    1. Yes, Linda Marie! It’s such an opportunity. I suppose it has always been there, but I’m finally able to get things in order to go. We’re going to get to talk with a local historian the second day, too.


  3. Thank you for sharing this. I dug into my genealogy when I had time after I retired. I have masses of names and dates but few stories because, like so many people, I didn’t start looking until there was no one left to tell me. I hope the places will tell you some of your stories that the people no longer can.



    1. I know what you mean about looking after people are dead! I’m not even sure how much the live people knew. I get the feeling that a lot of the stories of ancestry, at least in my culture, isn’t kept alive in our homes beyond grandparents. Thank for hte comments, Nan!


  4. Barb glad your are going. by doing the geanology i was able to find my family in Poland
    yes, i went thru feeling you did, wondering if i would have even been born if the family had lived there. when i went i did not find people in the village who had been born there when i was. very glad i went


  5. This was very interesting to me. I’m in a similar stage of searching my ancestry, though for different reasons. I loved following your thoughts as you dug deeper into your Why’s. Good luck in your search, Barb.


    1. Thanks, Val. I just had another revelation. I bothered looking at where my Grandma (on Dad’s side, also a German Jew)’s family is from, and it’s only 45 miles from where I’m going! I need to see it, too! In both cases I think their parents immigrated, not them, but I still want to see the village.


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