How hundreds of strangers learned they’re family

When Markus Grab was 12 years old and living in Augsburg, Germany, he penned a letter to a professor based in Tel Aviv who shared his last name. He carefully scribed the salutation: “dear unknown relative?”

Markus had never met this would-be pen pal in person, but his grandmother had spotted the man, Walter Grab, speaking on television, and their shared surname sparked a dim memory. Perhaps, she told Markus on a Saturday morning over their weekly game of canasta, Walter was a distant cousin.

Walter replied right away, confirming that he was indeed a cousin. Luckily, the professor also possessed an unbelievable memory: he had detailed knowledge of at least three or four generations of Grabs.

Markus was fascinated by the idea that he had more than a handful of family connections. His two brothers, their parents and his father’s mother and grandmother all lived in Germany after escaping from the Czech Republic in 1969 after the Prague Spring fell apart. Beyond this, though, there were simply question marks. The family lineage had splintered long ago due to political tumult in Europe – and part of it had been halted completely by the Holocaust.

The 12-year-old’s tentative letter was the first of many such inquiries – some by mail, others by phone, and later, yet more on social media platforms. His father, Hans Grab, ultimately took over the search, and for decades, the duo worked together to find relatives who had scattered all around the globe. Hans did the heavy lifting of researching and tracking down family members, and Markus, who now works in digital publishing, helped with outreach, particularly when communication in English was necessary.

Forging real connections

Once connection was made, for those relatives interested in bridging the synapses between obscure family members, one email often turns into a continuing exchange and dozens of questions about the family tree. Markus saw the potential to take this communication to the next level.

“I told my dad back then, why look for all these survivors and relatives if we never meet?” says Markus. “It was a 10-year process to convince him to do a reunion. And he said, OK, we can do it, but you do the work. So that’s how I got the honor to [be in charge].”

First Grab family reunion
  • Photo: Courtesy of Markus Garb; Composition: The Guardian Labs US

In 2013, Markus helped bring 127 members of the extended Grab family together to meet – many for the first time – in Prague. The group included people from nine countries across three continents. At the first gathering, the hundred-plus relatives met to shake hands, break bread and share stories at an open-mic night. A large group took a guided tour of Jewish Prague. At night, some of the younger ones hit the nightclubs.

One morning, a group of about 50 relatives visited the grave of one of their common ancestors in a Jewish cemetery outside the city. “That was a really strange feeling … knowing that each and every one who was there was only there because this person lived, because we were all descendants of her,” says Markus. “She’s kind of the mother of all of us.”

After a successful three-day event, Markus was admittedly drained. Spearheading such an endeavor was no small task, particularly when it came to answering hundreds of questions from inquiring (and sometimes hesitant) relatives, all while navigating language barriers. Yet, it was extremely fulfilling. “When all was over, at the last event, I shed a couple of tears because it was an emotional moment for me,” he recalls. “After two or three years, I forgot how much work it was and only remembered the good stuff, and decided okay, let’s do another one,” he laughs. Although the second reunion was smaller than the first – 52 people came this time around, traveling to Augsburg for the event – a sizeable percentage were repeat attendees.

The sheer diversity of the family, says Markus, is pretty amazing. There’s a half-Chinese cousin, a half-African-American cousin and too many different religions and political views (which Markus calls a “no-go zone”) to count. There were also some remarkable stories that resulted from the reunions: a brother and sister met each other for the first time, and two doctors who worked in the same hospital found out they were related.

Another attendee at this year’s reunion, Peter Weiland, a distant cousin who lives in Chicago and is related to the Grabs on his maternal side, tells the story about a British cousin he conversed with whose mother was on the Kindertransport – one of the largest rescue efforts to save Jewish children during WWII. The cousin’s engagement ring is made from one of the diamonds smuggled out in her mother’s shoes.

“Hearing stories like that and just meeting all these relatives… I definitely felt more connected to my family, but also to the world,” says Weiland. “I didn’t have a previous relationship with any of these people, so on one hand, it’s like, they’re random strangers. But on another… There are all these interesting people I’m related to. It made me think, wow, what a big and a small world all at the same time.”

Looking forward – and inward

Markus and his father
  • Markus poses with his father

Markus says that tracking down – and meeting – family all over the globe has become part of who he is. “I think it gives me a different sense of family,” he says, adding that he has embraced his role as a connector. “I think that’s also how people would describe me now. And also, you know, [meeting new family members], you always look for similarities – and you find them when you’re looking for them.”

Markus also says he tries to host “mini-reunions” in cities around the world as he travels for work. “I have an online newspaper, so I can travel a lot and work from everywhere,” he says. “And of course, if I go somewhere, I always meet some of my relatives.” He also mentions that the family has a closed Facebook group with more than 100 members in which people post photos and share news, and a website that outlines the family tree and history. “There’s even more connection going on online,” he says.

The next large-scale reunion, says Markus, will happen in New York in five years. A cousin based in the US is going to take over planning for this event, Markus says with a hint of relief. “Of course, I will help her, though,” he says, smiling. “I’m very much looking forward to it.”