The Facebook message appeared out of the blue one night: "Are you Rudy Herz's daughter? Our fathers were friends during their army days."

I never imagined this brief note would ultimately lead me to the homeland of my ancestors on the most memorable trip of a lifetime.

The message came from the son of a childhood friend of my father's. Our fathers returned to Germany as U.S. soldiers in World War II and coincidentally reunited in their hometown after the war ended. They were there to visit the cemetery of loved ones and assess the damage.

Joan Herz-Kamens at the grave of her grandfather in Ostofen, Germany.
Joan Herz-Kamens at the grave of her grandfather in Ostofen, Germany.

My father's friend had detailed this happenstance meeting in a letter that was to be included in a book written in Germany by Gabriele Hannah, Martina Graf, and Hans-Dieter Graf titled Die Juden vom Altrhein, or The Jews of the Old Rhine. The book portrays the life stories of Jewish families who once lived in the Old Rhine region, from their first settlement to their expulsion in 1939.

My parents were born in Germany, and because of Hitler's rise they lived through the worst of times in their beloved birthplace. Their only option for survival was to leave, and despite obstacles and challenges — my father and his brothers for more than two years traveled to Sweden, Russia, and Japan — they made it to the United States.  Many family members did not survive. My father was from the Rhineland and my mother from Bavaria, and they met in America through mutual friends. (He often said he was a country boy who found a city girl, as my mother was from Wurzburg, 200 miles away.)

My father was drafted and returned to Germany to fight for his new country as a radio operator; he won a Bronze Star and was a member of the D-Day forces.

The authors of the book invited my family and me to attend their book launch in Germany. My husband encouraged me to go and to take our two daughters, Elizabeth and Lindsey.  My parents returned to Germany together in 1967 and were content with that one visit, and the opportunity for me to travel there just never arose. Sharing the culture and heritage of the Rhineland with our daughters would be an extraordinary and remarkable experience and the most meaningful tribute to my parents I could ever imagine.

We landed in Frankfurt, and I cannot believe I made it to Germany is something I repeated to myself throughout the four-day trip. Despite a bit of jet lag that first evening, we arrived at the book launch promptly and were greeted by a room full of attendees, including descendants of those whom the authors had painstakingly researched and documented, who immediately had a connection to me. This was just the beginning of the graciousness and hospitality we would be shown in the coming days.

The next morning, we toured the region on an organized trip to towns and homes of the descendants. The first stop was the cemetery in Ostofen and the grave of my grandfather. Amid the tranquillity, I embraced the momentous experience and the history of my family.  Our next stop was the synagogue in Worms where my father's family worshipped, and thoughts of my ancestors and the challenges they faced again filled my head. Later, as we traveled through this region with grape fields, lush farms, and magnificent scenery, my thoughts again turned to my father's youth and all that he had to leave.

Members of several local churches  who were instrumental in assisting the authors had accompanied us, and we visited their places of worship, greeted with beautiful receptions.  We met the Bürgermeisters (mayors) in Ostofen, Worms, and Eich and found enthusiasm, warmth, and gratitude for visiting.

So, yes, I did make it to Germany. As a first-generation American, I cherish everything I saw and all the wonderful people who embraced us with kindness on this memorable and emotional journey.

Joan Herz-Kamens writes from Yardley, Bucks County.

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