by: Treelines Team
Yesterday's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was one of the more fascinating glimpses the show has produced of a celebrity trying to understand her ancestor's life in context.
Chelsea Handler, the self-described "proud Jewish American" daughter of a Jewish father and a German mother, has known all her life that her grandfather, Karl Stöcker, fought for the Germans in World War II. Now she's in Germany to find out: what kind of German soldier was he? In life he had seemed sheepish to her about his involvement, she remembered... was he hiding something?
Through her grandmother's November 1966 memoir, Chelsea begins to understand what her grandparents' lives were like before WWII.
It includes a poignant description of how difficult life was for Germans between the wars. Tears fall from Chelsea's eyes as she reads about how tears fell from her great-grandmother's eyes when she could not feed her children. She begins how understand why the German people grew so desperate for change and welcomed Hitler.
The memoir shows how the early Hitler years, 1933-1939, were happy ones for non-Jewish Germans. They went back to work and had food and money again.
From the memoir Chelsea turns her attention to a record of her grandfather's printed with the symbol of the paramilitary wing of the Nazis, the street thugs who enforced Nazi policy, called the SA.
The booklet turns out to be the record of Karl's performance in a mandatory Nazi service camp. A voluntary part in which Karl did participate was the "sports badge program," which included tests on standard athletic skills as well as combat skills like shooting. Though this "sports badge program" was how Hitler circumvented the Treaty of Versailles to train his army, Karl's participation doesn't indicate anything about his own ideology.
From Karl's hometown Chelsea travels to Berlin to view her grandfather's military records. The first thing she learns is that her grandfather wasn't a member of the SS, SA, or the Nazi party. The expert tells her that this isn't yet a "clean bill of health," as only 10% of Germans were actually party members; there were "many shades of gray" when it came to complicity.
Her grandfather was conscripted into the army three weeks after the war started. Chelsea is relieved to see that he never attained a high rank and served only in third-rate divisions with little front-line service. An average soldier with an undistinguished record, he appears to have been part of the "floating middle" of ordinary Germans who went along with the regime, but weren't keen Nazis.
With all these new details about Karl's life, Chelsea tries to read between the lines to inuit how her grandfather truly felt about the Nazis and the war. Did he do what he did willingly or enthusiastically? Did he share the ideology of his leaders?
More than most WDYTYA celebrities, Chelsea seems fixated on what these dry records really tell about her grandfather's outlook at that time.
In the second half of 1942 Karl saw combat on the brutal eastern front in frozen Russia. In a tremendous stroke of luck, he was sent to the south of France in the middle of 1943. This is where the war ends for Karl.
Chelsea learns from an American veteran how he and his regiment landed on the beach of Saint Raphael around 9:45 AM on August 15, 1944. Karl was likely manning the canons that fired at the Americans as they crossed the beach. But the Americans were powerful and well-organized, unlike the Germans, who did not plan to defend the area for long. The second day, Karl surrendered.
Chelsea's grandfather was sent to a POW camp in Algona, Iowa (not Montana, as Chelsea had previously believed). The soldiers were treated humanely, eating good food and exercising regularly. When on-duty they did farm work, but off-duty they were encouraged to do art, write letters, and put on plays. In a picture of one play, Chelsea sese her grandfather playing violin in the orchestra pit!
Seeing these pictures, Chelsea understands why her grandfather was so eager to move his family to the US after the war.
As someone well-known for her brash, outspoken personality, Chelsea takes a personal message from her grandfather's story. She reflects that it was a "tricky time to participate without rocking the boat." She respects that he put his head down and trudged forward to keep his family safe.
Though she'll never know for sure what he saw in the war, she concludes, these experiences made him the good father and grandfather she knew.