By Jonas-Erik Schmidt, dpa
Schleiden, Germany (dpa) – Christel Nierhoff still doesn’t really know what to say. She’s looking at an accordion that has been on a long journey. In the 1940s, it spent seven days travelling across the ocean. More than 70 years later, it has come back in a plane.
Next to the accordion is a highly decorated NATO general who made it his mission to bring the accordion back to her.
Nierhoff, 87, has grey hair and is wearing a chain of pearls. As she runs her fingers across the accordion, a word finally comes to her: “Crazy.”
On this rainy Thursday morning in November, at the town hall in the small German town of Schleiden, an unfinished story from World War II has finally come to an end.
The mayor has arranged a gathering in the building’s renovated cellar, used for official functions. A German and an American flag stand side by side on a table. This is a story of two families; a story of the turmoil of war and a friendship between the US and Germany, against all the odds; a story about an accordion.
To understand this story, you have to begin with General Scott A Kindsvater, who has arrived in Germany in full military honours and with his cousin Alan Kindsvater. The grandfather of the two men fought for US forces on the Western Front in World War II.
After a bloody battle, he discovered an accordion on the person of a dead German soldier. It was small enough that he was able to take it with him.
His grandfather never talked about the war much, Alan Kindsvater says. That’s how it was for his generation. But the old man always took the instrument out at Christmas and began to talk about it.
The accordion case has a bullet hole in it. When he was wounded in a later battle, the instrument saved his life, the story goes.
In 2011, General Scott A Kindsvater, then stationed in Brussels, inherited the accordion. He noticed that there was still a legible inscription on it – “M. Kupp, Schleiden/Eifel, Blumenthalerstr. 3” – and couldn’t get it out of his mind.
“I was still relatively new to the job when I received an email from a NATO address,” says mayor Ingo Pfennings. “I thought to myself, my goodness, what does NATO want with a small town like Schleiden?”
Fortunately, there was no threat of military action, but a request for help: with finding out the identity of “M. Kupp.”
Pfennings set his machinery in action right away, in this case four women working for the town archives. They scoured all the Kupps in the town, but were unable to find a match.
Wracking his brains for what to do next, Pfennings suddenly remembered that the leader of Germany’s ruling conservative party in Schleiden was called – you’ve guessed it – Kupp. Jochen Kupp.
To cut a long story short, this was where the advantages of living in a small town really came into their own. Jochen Kupp knew Stefan Kupp, the brother of Joachim Kupp. And Joachim Kupp just happened to have an aunt, Mia Kupp, who had been complaining for her whole life about losing an accordion.
She came from a family of 10 siblings, which explains why the Kupp clan had spread so far. But she died in 2011. One of her sisters was still alive, though: Christel Nierhoff.
Nierhoff is unable to explain how her sister’s accordion ended up on the front line. Mia lent it to a friend, and from there she lost track of it. “I never thought it would turn up again.”
As for the Kindsvaters, NATO general Scott has signed his name into the town’s Golden Visitors’ Book. And with that, a chapter of the family’s history has been brought to an end.
They’ll toast their grandfather this evening, Alan says. They don’t speak any German, despite their German heritage. But there is one word they know: “Prost.”