The story of a German-American girl in search of her heritage
A German woman becomes pregnant by an American GI. She hides her pregnancy from her mother and father. Years later, her daughter moves to the US, in order to search for her father… This is the story of her life, translated from German by Elke herself. You can find the German version here.
The story begins in World War II.
After a terrible attack from the allies in 1944 on Darmstadt, Erika, who worked there, left and moved to Markt Bibart in order to be with her mother and two sisters. The rest of the family had already been evacuated from their home and were in Markt Bibart. It took Erika five days to join them, by using the train, hitchhiking, and even walking.
In 1945, American troops moved to Scheinfeld near Markt Bibart. Erika and her sister had lots of time on their hands, so they went swimming in a nearby lake on a regular basis. One day, Erika started a conversation with one of the GIs. Pretty soon, she fell in love with him. Whenever he could get away from his duties, they spent time together. After few weeks, though, he had to tell Erika that he was being transferred to another city and couldn’t tell her the exact location. She would never see him again.
Soon after he had left, she noticed that there was something different… She discovered that she was pregnant with a child of an American GI. Uh oh!
“My God, what do I do? These were our enemies. I can’t tell my family the truth, especially not to my father, since he has been fighting in the war”, young Erika thought. So she decided to leave Markt Bibart with her sister and go back to Darmstadt, in order to hide her pregnancy. There was one other aunt, a sister of Erika’s mother, who lived near Darmstadt, who was aware of the situation, but was sworn to secrecy about the pregnancy. No one was allowed to know.
After Elke was born in February 1946 in Darmstadt, her mother, Erika, quickly gave her up for adoption. Elke was put in an orphanage, where she lived for 9 months. A married couple wanted to adopt a girl, went to the orphanage, found Elke, and took her with them. At that time, shortly after the war, Germany was in total disarray, so no official papers were signed.
Young Elke grew up near Darmstadt in a loving home. These were the only people she ever knew and, naturally, she thought of them as her parents. When Elke was 5 years old, however, a woman with dark black hair came to their home and wanted to talk about the young girl. At the time, Elke didn’t know that this woman was her legal grandmother and she was now here to claim Elke as her own “flesh and blood”. Her Grandmother arranged for Elke to be taken to the train station in Darmstadt and to be picked up by a cousin of her grandmother. Elke vividly remembers the bombed out train station with all the windows blown out. “It looked very scary”, she told me. The cousin tried to calm Elke down, who was crying hard and couldn’t seem to stop. Once in a while the cousin opened the window and pretended to be talking to somebody outside, to make Elke believe the train was going back to her Mama and Papa in Darmstadt. When they arrived in Pirmasens, the youngest sister of Erika was so happy to see Elke, warmly greeted her and kissed her. Elke, however, was super confused and started hitting her.
After Elke settled in, though, she started going to school and quickly adapted pretty well to her new life. When she was 11 years old, she met her biological mother, Erika, for the first time, who had been living in the US since 1949. Elke found out that she had 2 other half-sisters and they had come to visit with the grandmother. The visit was very cold and distanced on both sides. Elke didn’t know what to think of her new mother; she had only one true Mama and Papa and they were living in Darmstadt.
The years went by with only occasional visits from her mother, Erika.
In 1963, Erika was living in Greece and on one of these visits to Germany, she said she would like to take Elke to Greece. At that time, Elke had already started an apprenticeship in a department store and was only a few months shy of her diploma. She had a legal guardian appointed to her, besides her grandfather. The legal guardian didn’t grant Elke the trip to Greece, telling her, she should finish her diploma first. Subsequently, Erika went to Elke’s boss and asked him if he could do something to speed up Elke’s training. Nobody had ever been able to do that, but Erika got her will, and Elke passed her test in front of a panel of examiners, way before everyone else. The night they arrived in Athens, Erika told her daughter that she couldn’t go back to Germany. Ever. Elke strongly objected and said she would definitely go back home, no matter what, even if she had to work for it. At that time, she was already dating her now husband, Walter, who was living in Germany. For almost a whole year, Elke stayed in Greece with her mother. Finally, the decision was made for her to go back. Erika insisted on not sending her home by plane but – since she was still young and healthy – she could make the trip by train, which, by the way, would take 3 whole days.
On the way to the train station, Erika’s husband George, whose last name “Berding” Elke took at her grandmother’s urgent request (so Elke would have the same last name as her mother), offered to pay for a sleeper compartment. Instead, Elke asked him for some money because she didn’t have a penny to her name, and he agreed. On the train, Elke saw some weird people traveling with her. For some unknown reason, some even had chickens with them which might have been a Greek custom at that time. During that night, a strange man rested his head on Elke’s shoulder, making her feel very uneasy, but she kept silent. Finally, back home, Elke married her husband, Walter, and worked at her previous company for several years.
Always curious where her biological father might be, she desperately wanted to go to America and look for him. Her husband found a job in High Point, North Carolina, and they finally moved to the US in 1981. Elke stayed at home with their young daughter, Andrea, while Walter was working. Elke loved it there and has always felt like there was an American in her, she told me. At first, her daughter had some trouble adjusting to the American system, but now she loves the American way of living, too. She teaches English and German at a high school.
Elke and her husband Walter were visiting her aunt, the youngest sister of Erika, in Munich, every year. The other aunt was living close-by as well. One day, she told Elke the real name of her biological father. Elke was now a little closer in search for her American father. Quickly, she wrote to the mayor of Markt Bibart, to find out which troops arrived there right after the war. He informed her that it was 1st Infantry Division, not the 82nd Airborne like her mother had always claimed. The mayor also gave Elke the name of a GI Trace, who is a specialist in finding lost family members. Elke started another search, but without any results. The information she has was and is not enough to find him. All she has is a name but that doesn’t help: Clyde Kelly.
In the end, she never found her real father. Consequently, he doesn’t know that he has a daughter and that she even moved to the United States in order to find him.
So far, no happy ending…
Elke’s mother Erika is still living in Long Island. Once in a while, Elke visits with her mother and her 2 half-sisters, who she really loves. The relationship with her mother is not a very close one like mother and daughter are supposed to be, but Elke has accepted her the way she is. She was still in contact with her foster parents until they died, and she is still in contact with her remaining family in Germany.
Elke and her husband finally became American citizens in 2001. She also has written a book which is scheduled to come out pretty soon. Her memoirs are titled “Elke in Search of her American Heritage.”