Thoughts on researching an emotionally difficult aspect of your family history


11 February 2022
Helene Munson, author of 'Boy Soldiers'
Helene Munson, author of 'Boy Soldiers: a personal story of Nazi elite schooling and its legacy of trauma' shares her story of researching a traumatic episode of her father's life.

In the March 2022 issue of Family Tree, Helene Munson shared the story of the quest to uncover the truth about her father's years as a boy soldier. In this extract from the article, she shares her thoughts on what it was like to research a difficult subject. 

Since a young age, I have been interested in history and family history in particular. I have always volunteered to store the records and vintage photo albums of deceased relatives. With my love of the past, those were precious to me as so few things had survived in a country that was twice destroyed by world wars. There is a shortage of physical objects from the past, but in contrast, many Germans have well-researched family trees. At the time of the Nazis, they were forced to document their ancestry to establish their Aryan blood lineage. 

Researching my father's history became a task that would occupy me for years leading to the publication of my book Boy Soldiers - a personal story of Nazi elite schooling and its legacy of trauma. It was challenging because I researched how my family had lived through Nazi times, a topic many Germans have successfully avoided their entire lives. When I began, it was a taboo subject. Even my mother kept asking me why I wanted to bring up the past. 

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But I started to write.

A boy soldier

My father, Dr Hans Dunker, was a PhD in History, Ambassador for the Federal Republic of Germany, a family man, and a dedicated church alderman. But he was also one of Hitler’s boy soldiers and saw violence and evil that no child should witness, let alone be party to. The dark days of his childhood left him unable to talk about it. Instead, he bequeathed me his boxes of carefully-collected documents and the Second World War diary he had written.        

A search for the truth

Looking at my ancestry research project in hindsight, I took a significant risk. I could have found out that my father’s unit had been involved in atrocities. How would I have explained that to his grandchildren, and how would I have reconciled that with my image of him? He had been a conflicted, complex man, but also supportive and soft-hearted. 

But I would undertake such a project again, even with the risk of finding information that would have forced our family to re-examine our heritage. It is essential to know the truth regardless of the outcome. It is the only way to chart a course for the future that our children and grandchildren can benefit from, whatever uncomfortable surprises the past might hold. 

Extract from Helene Munson's article, published in the March 2022 issue of Family Tree.