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Journeys: Ancestral Routes

Lisa Sweetingham

On a spring evening in 1951, my maternal grandmother, Margot Zündorf, a blonde, blue-eyed 21-year-old German immigrant, was shot to death outside her home in Atwater Village, Calif. The gunman was her 28-year-old husband and my grandfather, William Valenzuela. Moments later, William turned the weapon on himself.

My grandparents met when William was a soldier in the U.S. Army, dispatched to Margot’s ravaged city of Cologne to aid in the post–World War II cleanup efforts. Margot bore a child, my mother, in Germany in 1949, and another daughter after the family moved to William’s hometown in Los Angeles. The night of the murder-suicide, the girls were asleep in their cribs.

The children were raised by William’s brother in Los Angeles, and all ties to Margot’s family in Germany were lost. Today, save for a few photographs, a couple of old letters in German, and a half-dozen government documents, no tangible evidence remains of my grandmother. My mother has long since lost hope of learning about our ancestors, but I still have questions. Which is why I find myself traveling 100 mph on the German Autobahn in a black Mercedes-Benz sedan, en route to the Belgian town of Bastogne with Andy Taylor, a historical researcher, and Sue Hills, the owner of Ancestral Footsteps.

Hills, 47, founded Ancestral Foot­steps in 2008 after a career as a television producer and documentary maker. Specializing in genealogical travel, her company creates and leads in-depth luxury tours based on clients’ specific family histories. For each "story," as Hills refers to her tours, she and a team of experts spend from four months to a year doing archival research and old-fashioned detective work to uncover exhaustive details on a client’s recent or distant ancestors. She then crafts a trip around those details, but she keeps her findings—and the itinerary—a secret: Clients are only told at which airport their journey will begin.

I first met Hills at the airport in Cologne, where we embarked on an adventure that has now led us to the German-Belgian border. "This is the same route the Allies would have taken, that William would have taken," says Taylor, a World War II expert and my guide for this leg of the two-day trip. In the course of his research, Taylor has pored over my grandfather’s military records. He informs me that William worked as a lineman in the U.S. Army, climbing telephone poles and maintaining communications, and that he was assigned to the 3027 Quartermaster Bakery Company, which made fresh loaves of bread for the troops.

As we approach Bastogne, passing verdant fields scattered with grazing cattle and tight coils of baled hay, Taylor paints a chilling scene. "It’s December 16, 1944," he says. "William is probably cold, wet, and doesn’t want to eat another loaf of bread in his life. Nothing much is happening, but there are murmurs."

Our driver pulls over to the side of the road, and Taylor leads me past rows of pine trees into the densely wooded Ardennes forest. We stop at a mushroom-blanketed foxhole—a 65-?year-?old remnant of wartime cover—and we step down into it. "Imagine happily smoking and talking with your buddy about who won the World Series, when the next minute there’s an attack bearing down on you," says Taylor. "Right through this region came thousands of German troops. Shells are dropping, planes flying overhead, tanks rolling, trucks humming—and all of it under a foot of snow. It was a killing zone."

Officially, it was the Battle of the Bulge, the most important battle the U.S. Army had fought at the time, and one that changed the course of the war in the Allies’ favor. It seems unlikely that a lineman would have been involved in serious combat, but Taylor has discovered that my grandfather received a Meritorious Unit Award. "This is significant," he says. "It means he likely saw the gruesomeness, the chaos of war."

"We know you have some reservations about your grandfather," Hills chimes in. "But we want to show you a bit of what his experience here was like."

Hills’ emphasis on experiential—and highly personal—travel distinguishes her company in the niche field of genealogical tours, a sector that typically tenders in schmaltzy pub crawls in the namesake town of one’s ancestors. "A lot of genealogy is only about names and dates, but we like to dig deeper and put the meat on the bones so clients can understand the big historical picture their ancestors’ lives unfolded in and why people may have acted in a certain way," says Hills, noting that each tour is led entirely by documentary evidence. "We design a tour around the very places we know your ancestors lived, worked, and played in."

The consummate guide, Hills is fluent in English, French, and Italian, and proficient in German and Spanish. A graduate of the University of Sussex, she helped launch MTV Italy before starting a television production company focusing on observational documentaries. She later became a producer and director for Who Do You Think You Are?, a popular BBC series (which has since been remade for the American market) that takes celebrities on personal tours of their ancestral history. With the blessing of the show’s producers, Hills left the series two and a half years ago and started offering the same service to private individuals.

Hills’ clients—a mix of mostly financiers and entrepreneurs—come to her with both broad queries (Where in Eastern Europe did our Jewish ancestors come from?) and specific questions (My grandmother had twins who died young. What were the circumstances?). Ancestral Footsteps takes on about five stories per year, most of which culminate in a tour that has never been taken before and never will again. (A few of Hills’ clients want only information and forgo the tour.) Hills has no full-time employees, but instead relies on a team of genealogists, academics, travel guides, and other experts on a case-by-case basis to dig up institutional records, knock on doors, translate materials, and investigate clues. "If you said, ‘I’ve got ancestry in Madagascar,’ most people would panic, but I know I can find someone in Madagascar who can help me find the records of your ancestors," says Hills. "That’s just knowledge you gain from working in television."

Though Hills can accommodate tours in almost any region, most of her clients come with requests regarding European ancestry. John Spence, the chairman and owner of the international hotel company Karma Royal Group, has been on two trips with Ancestral Footsteps, the most recent a five-day excursion that took him and his brother throughout Western Europe in search of their mother’s roots. "Experiential tourism is a growing trend, and this experience is incredibly appealing because it’s a very human desire to know where you’re from and what made you," says Spence.

While arranging Spence’s latest tour—which included stops in England, Belgium, and Germany—Hills uncovered about 150 documents. "It’s incredible the depths that her team goes through," says Spence, citing a visit to a Brussels archive where Hills presented them with census records. "It’s all handwritten in an older form of French, and you’d have to go through book after book. It took her 18 hours to get one mention of our family in the 19th century."

A typical day on an Ancestral Footsteps tour is from 9 am to 5 pm, with most destinations remaining a secret until arrival. Hills’ itineraries are flexible, allowing for clients to set their own pace and spend more or less time at certain stops along the way.

For my day in Cologne, I opt to walk, and Hills is happy to oblige. As we stroll through the city’s narrow cobblestone streets, she shows me wartime photos of the neighborhoods we are exploring and describes the cultural and political climate that my grandmother endured—from Nazi pride parades and compulsory Hitler Youth participation in the late 1930s to unbearable poverty at the height of the war, when her neighborhood was leveled to rubble and ash. Cologne was devastated by 262 separate air raids by the Allies during World War II, with the first attack in May 1940, when Margot was 10 years old.

Near the end of our walk, we arrive at the apartment building where my grandmother lived before leaving for America. I wonder aloud if my mother, who has never had a birth certificate, was born here. "I will reveal in time," responds Hills, smiling puckishly. She has been living with my grandparents’ past for months, stringing it together bit by bit, even taking the tour on her own before my arrival to make sure every piece was in place. This, the slow reveal, is her way of telling their story—and mine.

Hills started gathering the information for my trip by finding a German researcher who made daily calls to the temporary archive in Cologne. (The original archive building had recently collapsed and was closed.) She also had emissaries on the ground in Cologne, ringing every Zündorf in the phone book, making inquiries at local churches, knocking on doors and showing photographs of relatives, and scouring social networking websites. She found an expert on Amer­ican military uniforms, who studied a photo I had of William and Margot in an embrace. He determined that William’s Ike field jacket had telltale signs of 1945-era tailoring, which supported the theory that the couple met at the close of World War II—and not in 1947, when, according to records, William returned to Germany. My family has never known whether my grandparents’ marriage was out of necessity or genuine affection, but this clue suggested they had met, fallen in love, and waited two years to be reunited, after a U.S. ban on marrying German nationals was lifted. Additional documents revealed that they both appealed to their governments to allow Margot to move to the States so they could wed.

But the turning point in Hills’ research came when she placed articles about my family’s story in two Cologne newspapers. This is how she found Elsa.

"We’re here because I’ve arranged for you to meet someone," Hills says as we arrive at an outdoor café in the village of Zündorf, "a historian of sorts."

Elsa (name changed at subject’s request) has pale blue eyes and short sandy-brown hair, and is carrying a surfeit of maps, photographs, and war documents rolled up under her arms. She greets me with a nervous smile before opening a square, gold locket that she is wearing around her neck. The locket contains a photograph of my great-grandmother, Helene Zündorf.

"Elsa is related to you," says Hills. "And she has things to tell you about Margot’s family."

Elsa, a 59-year-old production manager for a publishing company, is my second cousin, once removed. She contacted Hills after seeing the story in the newspaper. And while she is too young to have known Margot, she consulted her elder siblings to glean colorful memories. I brace myself for the details, recalling a clause in Hills’ contract that says Ancestral Footsteps is not responsible for any disappointment clients might feel about their ancestors.

The Zündorfs were penniless, Elsa tells me. And while Margot found love with an American soldier, her elder sister, Marianne—or "Fussige," the foxy one, as she was known—fell into prostitution (a fairly common occurrence when a pack of cigarettes and a bar of soap could buy a soldier company for an entire night). Margot’s elder brother Bernhard was a dapper gentleman who worked as a tailor for the opera and was believed to be gay, though not openly—life under the Nazi regime surely required secrecy on the subject. We laugh over photos of my great-grandmother: three-toothed Helene. A kind woman, she lived alone in a rented room in a dilapidated house with only three walls, but she never complained. And she never spoke of her daughter’s murder. Elsa believes the family learned about Margot’s death from a newspaper story sent to them by William’s relatives in America.

As Elsa unspools bittersweet anecdotes about the Zündorf clan, Hills pulls out archival documents, family-tree charts, photographs, and birth, death, and marriage certificates. (Every item her team has procured will be presented to me at the end of my trip, in a memorabilia album.) She points on a map of Cologne to important locales related to my ancestors, including a hospital that we will visit next—the place my mother was born.

Before we say good-bye, Elsa presents me with several black-and-white photos she found just hours earlier in an old memento box. "These are for you," she says. The photos depict my mother at 10 months old, smiling and playing on someone’s front lawn. My grandmother must have sent them to her own mother shortly after moving to the United States. In her fractured English, Margot had proudly scribbled on the back of the photo: "Ocktober, 1949 Calif."

Taking Steps
For each of her “stories,” Ancestral Footsteps founder Sue Hills requires a retainer of about $9,000 to begin researching a client’s family history. The focus of the research can be broad or specific, and can involve recent or distant ancestors. The fact-finding process involves everything from archival and genealogical research to door-to-door searches and public announcements. It can even entail DNA analysis, although Hills believes the technology is not completely reliable. “It’s fantastic for the West Indian and African-American stories, because it can lead you to a place your ancestors were probably from many, many years ago,” she says. “But even that’s not an exact science.”

Once Hills has an idea of what a tour will entail, she discusses travel dates, dining and hotel preferences, and other details with the client. She promises luxury accommodations at each destination; in rural areas without first-rate hotels, clients can select from the best local options or nearby properties, all of which Hills will have scouted out in advance. She welcomes any special requests, such as shopping detours or wine tastings, but she never reveals an itinerary ahead of time.

The price for an Ancestral Footprints package culminating in a two-day tour starts at about $18,000; a five-day trip begins at around $45,000. The fees include all research, accommodations, breakfasts, and ground transportation, but do not cover airfare to and from a client’s first—and only known—destination.

Ancestral Footsteps, +44.1227.281.222, www.ancestralfootsteps.com

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