A journey can mean many things. For Annette Unrau Adams as a child, it meant traipsing with her mother from continent to continent, always in search of an ill-defined something, living in poverty in the meanwhile.
But when Adams joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she embarked on a family search journey that gave her life definition and meaning, something she had never known until then.
Adams' story is a fascinating one. She shared the details with Jan Mayer, another writer in our small group of missionaries in the Family History Department. Jan graciously shared the story with me and gave me permission to share it with you through this column.
Born in Germany, Adams went with her mother to the United States while still an infant. They lived in Reno, Nevada, for about five years, then the mother decided to relocate in Africa, where she remarried. When Adams was 8, the family was caught in a political insurrection near the Angolan border. Her stepfather was killed trying to help his family escape. Her mother was arrested three times and held at gunpoint. They finally were rescued by French Legionnaires.
"We were completely alone," Adams said. "My father lived in Texas, but we had no contact with him or his family. We returned to Reno and struggled to survive. We lived in a house with no running water or electricity and when the bank repossessed it, we lived out of our car or with friends. I changed schools about two times a year."
When she was 14, her mother chose to return to Germany in hopes of finding help with perceived health problems. "We lived on welfare, and I went to school with refugees from Iran, Turkey, China and other countries," Adams said. "I always felt like a poor kid without a place in the world."
One day when she and her mother were riding on a train, Annette heard Americans speaking German. She made fun of them. It happened that they were Mormon missionaries and on further acquaintance, she recognized the truth of their message, spoken in imperfect German though it was. She was baptized at age 18 and four years later, she emigrated to the United States. She met her husband here, and he also converted to the church.
Years later, Adams, who now lives in Alpine, was called to serve as a family history consultant in her ward. A desire grew in her to find her own ancestors, but given the broken history of her kin, she didn't anticipate a lot of success.
When her son was called as a missionary to Germany, hope was rekindled. His first assignment was in an area close to Greifswald, where she knew her great-grandmother was born.
She located the closest family history center, which was only open one day a week, then calculated the time difference between here and Germany and made a call. At the other end of the transcontinental line was Edeltraut Wiese. Wiese asked if the caller had a son serving a mission in Germany. She answered in the affirmative.
"Oh, he's in the next room," Wiese said. Adams did not break mission rules to talk to her son, but a new era in her search for family had begun.
Although Wiese was in poor health and somewhat reluctant to take on a family search for the Adams family, she couldn't let the situation go. In short order, looking in a local phone book, she found two individuals with the names the Adamses were seeking. One was in Zinnowitz, not far from where she lived. The other was in Stolpe on the island of Usedom. She located a German family member who was also a genealogist and anxious to link other families to his own.
The journey carried Adams to places she could never have imagined.
"With each name and family that I found, I felt great joy and had the feeling that they were with me," she said.
Wiese, with much prayer and fasting on both continents, finagled a trip for Elder Adams and his companion, Elder Geren, to follow the trail of the Adams family ancestors and their descendants (among their full-time proselyting efforts). Traveling with the Wiese family and two local ward members, they found birthplaces, residences and workplaces of German relatives. They found an old windmill an ancestor had built.
What they found was invaluable to Annette Adams but also helped Elder Adams in his mission work. When he met Wilfried Buntzow, he put his arms around him and said, "Wir sind familie." ("We are family.")
"I used to think I was a nobody," Annette Adams said. "Through this experience, I not only discovered the generosity of others, but I found that I have Mennonite heritage and am more Eastern European than German. I may have Jewish roots, and my grandmother's cousin was a pilot who flew for the Kaiser in World War I. I learned that a family member built and owned a windmill used to grind wheat for his community. Other ancestors were leather workers. I am not just some dirty, poor kid. I have a heritage and history to share with my own family."
Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who serves as a family history missionary.