Searching for an Old Friend
On a late afternoon in the middle of November, as I passed the Gustaf Adolph Kirche in Grossauheim, Germany, I heard the strains of an old song. The front door of the Church was open, so I walked in. Up on the second floor, at the rear of the church, I could see a light. I walked cautiously up the staircase and approached the old man seated at the organ console. I introduced myself and we began to talk in German. Herr Alfred Roenelt, the organist, was practicing for the Sunday service. He was very friendly and asked if I was interested in music and whether I could play the piano. Yes, I had taken piano lessons for a couple years as a young boy. Herr Roenelt offered to let me sit at the console and try the keys. What a feeling of power to hear the notes respond in this empty sanctuary. Herr Roenelt offered to teach me how to play if I had the time. Indeed, I had the time!
I was a lonely GI putting in time during the United States occupation of Germany. I had served with the 135th Combat Engineer Battalion for four months during the war and was presently a welder with the 485th Engineer Heavy Shop Company. Other GIs in my outfit with 80-90 points were being shipped back to the States for discharge. For a 19-year-old with but 21 points, my stay in Germany seemed endless. We were no longer in danger, but the required inspections, guard duty, drills, KP, work, and all were routine and mostly uninteresting.
We made an appointment for the next day. When I met Herr Roenelt at the Church, unfortunately, the electricity went off. He invited me to his house where he had a small electric organ and proceeded with my first lesson. I met his wife, Anna, and their two small girls, Ursula (3) and Gisela (13). I also discovered that Herr Roenelt was a very talented artist, a painter of land-scapes, portraits, flowers, and more. On his easel was a partially completed painting of Jesus with a small child on His lap.
This was the beginning of a long association with Herr Roenelt and his family. I spent many memorable hours with them during my stay in Hanau/Grossauheim. I felt welcome in their home at any time. I remember spending Christmas Eve, 1945 with them. I brought a box of nuts, a can of coffee, and some chocolate as my gift. They lived very modestly. Even after I was discharged in 1946, my folks sent some food packages to the Roenelts in return for their gracious hospitality and kindness to me. Artist Roenelt expressed his gratitude by sending several of his oil paintings. These were treasured by my parents during their lifetime. One of these, his conception of my family at the table, hangs on our wall to this day.
For 54 years I had no contact with the Roenelt family. In the course of writing a narrative of my 23 months in the Army, I decided to search for some connection through the Internet. Going to my favorite site, "Ask Jeeves," (1) a site that categorizes and simplifies the endless array of websites on the Internet, I found a German genealogy page. Six Roenelt surnames and addresses appeared—and I sent each a short letter of inquiry by regular mail enclosing a page with copies of some pictures of Alfred at his easel, the Church where I met him, and photos of two of his oil paintings.
Soon, I received e-mail responses from four Herr Roenelts. Two were not relatives, but one of these, a Mr. Knut Roenelt, gave me a suggestion which helped me find Matthias Lehman, son of Ursula Lehman, the youngest daughter of my old friend, Alfred. I have corresponded several times now with Ursula, the little girl who was running around the Roenelt house in 1945-46. She has greeted me from her older sister, Gisela, who said she remembers the young American soldier who came to their house and would play his "harmonium." (2) Ursula writes that her father illustrated books, painted labels for wine bottles, did portraits, and graphic art during his long career. Most of all, he liked to paint landscapes. He painted until the end of his life. Ursula sent me, by regular mail, a copy of a little book, Jagd Auf Potwale by Oskar Herbert Brucker, that her father illustrated in 1949.
The letter I addressed to Werner Roenelt was answered by his grandson, Hanno Polomsky. Hanno assured me, in English, that his grandfather, Werner, the oldest son of my old friend, would be writing. Werner e-mailed me in German to tell me that he was very excited to hear from me. He recognized the photo of the Protestant Church I included in my original inquiry as the place where he had been confirmed in 1935. He appreciated seeing the old pictures I sent of his father at his easel. Werner told me something about his parents during the past 54 years and of his abiding gratitude for their example. Recently, Werner sent a package containing a letter, an album of pictures, and an audio cassette.
My letter to a Herbert Roenelt was answered by his widow, Gertrud, a daughter in-law of Alfred and Anna. She told me her husband, Herbert, who had been wounded in the war and who served as a pastor after the war, had died in 1994. She said she would normally throw letters addressed to him in the waste basket. "Your letter has been saved, and I’m glad I opened it." Gertrud added more information about her father-in-law. Though he never had a degree in organ, Herr Roenelt was the organist at the Gustaf Adolph Kirche for many years. Even after his retirement, he substituted until he was 80. His main profession was that of an artist. He studied art at the Art Academy in Munich. The life of an artist without a sponsor was not easy. "The German economic miracle completely bypassed the Roenelts. Still I never heard a word of complaint, rather I experienced only thankfulness and contentment. Because money was scarce, they never left Grossauheim," Gertrud, writes.
Thus in a matter of weeks, through the marvel of the Internet, I have been able to correspond with three relatives of my old friend. Wife Anna, I learned, died in November, 1987 at nearly 88, and Alfred died at 91 on November 11, 1989. They lived the last ten years of their lives with their daughter Ursula and her husband, Christian, in "Burg Hohenstein."
There are many criticisms of the Internet. One is that using the Internet makes for social isolation, a decrease in face-to-face human relationships and contacts. It promotes the "lonely crowd" phenomenon. People find themselves "home, alone, and anonymous." I agree that this amazing technology does produce those effects when it is overused and abused. On a more positive note, the Internet nonetheless is an invaluable tool for expanding human relationships and contacts. It has, thanks to indefatigable Jeeves, enriched my life by helping me find some relatives of my old friend, Alfred.
2. 1. You can locate this helpful site by typing www.ask.com on the Internet. Jeeves will do his very best to answer any question you ask him.
2. 2. A small accordion I had picked up in Germany.