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Finding Reiner: Disaster to Discovery

On Monday August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. My son, my elderly German mother-in-law, LÜtte, and I were hunkered down in my husband’s office at Tulane Medical School. Our decision to stay seemed smart at the time. My husband was away, and I had one ankle in a walking cast and only a half-tank of gas. Plus, I wondered how far an 89-year-old could walk if we ran out of fuel? Don’t get me wrong—LÜtte was a trooper. She had survived six years of horror in Germany during World War II, and she never complained during Hurricane Katrina. On September 1, Tulane Hospital helicoptered us, and hundreds of others, off a rooftop and out of the flooded city. We didn’t return home for four months.


 Helicopter rescue

This isn’t a heartbreak disaster story, however. Instead, it’s a tale of family discovery and travel adventures. Out of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction came what seems to me now a miracle, or else, some ghostly power at work. It’s hard to say which.


To help readers understand, I have to explain more about LÜtte’s background. She was born in 1916, during WWI, in what is now Poznan, Poland. Her great grandfather on her mother’s side was Jewish and a painter. LÜtte's mother brought music into the family. Her father, Alfons, was a German intellectual and graphic artist who lost his job at an art institute when Hitler came to power in 1933. Alfons loathed the Nazis, refused to join the Party, and then found only a poorly paid job as a high school drawing instructor in Cologne. He couldn’t prevent his sons, Wolfgang and Reiner, from being drafted, and neither son returned home after the war. Wolfgang died in Italy in 1944. And, Reiner disappeared after writing two letters home from the Russian Front on January 12, 1945.



Niemann family copy

 LütteCologneDom Interior

Alfons and LÜtte spent years trying to find Reiner—they thought he was a prisoner-of-war in Russia—but Alfons died in 1968, and LÜtte quietly gave up the search in 1991, the same year our son was born. She never told us much about Reiner, but I have always been curious about him. So curious, in fact, that I wanted to name our son after him.


Now to jump forward again to 2005—LÜtte’s house flooded after the New Orleans levees broke, and she lost most of her belongings. My husband saved what he could and packed boxes into a storage unit. Six years later, the air conditioning at the storage facility malfunctioned, and water seeped into our unit. My husband rescued wet boxes again and let them dry out in our back shed. This is where I return to the story.


 Lutte New Orleans

On January 9, 2012, I dug through LÜtte’s belongings in our shed and found a large bundle marked in German, “Reiner’s War Letters.” Reiner?! I couldn’t believe we had files on him. I thought everything had been lost on the Russian Front, in Cologne bombings, or in the New Orleans flood. The nonfiction writer in me jumped at the chance to read Reiner’s original WWII letters, so I raced inside, arms full of old files. First, I pulled out Reiner’s birth certificate and learned he was only twenty-two when he disappeared, my son’s age now. Then, I sat at my computer and typed into Google, “How to find a missing German WWII soldier.” (I’d written nonfiction books for over twenty years, but I had no idea how to find German war records.) This search brought me to a useful website (below) and ignited my next two and a half years of research, travel, and writing, which I call Finding Reiner:








Lütte with letters 

Lütte with Reiner Letters


Some readers may ask when does the travel part come into this story. Good question. I don’t want to give away the Big Reveal in my first Reiner blog piece, so instead I’ll drop crumbs like Hansel and Gretel did. Interested readers can follow me to Germany and Poland this summer. I’ll start in Cologne, then continue to Warsaw and rural Poland, and finish in Berlin. I promise that this story has no fairy tale ending. In fact, I don’t know the whole ending yet, which is why I’m returning to Europe for the third time. I do know that I have to pace myself, because World War II stories are grim. To balance the sadness, I’ll also write blog pieces on such upbeat subjects as the Tour de France and Alsatian vineyards.


I know that Reiner, once an artist and musician, would approve.





 To follow the rest of this series, click HERE




The North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA)  announced Whitney Stewart won BRONZE place in the 2014 NATJA Awards Competition in the Travel Series - Online category for Finding Reiner.



Images (10)
  • Helicopter Rescue: Tulane Hospital Helicopter Rescue After Hurricane Katrina
  • Lütte in Germany: Lütte before WWII
  • Cologne Dom: Window on Cologne, Germany
  • Lütte's family: Happy pre-war childhood
  • Reiner: Teenage Reiner before he departs for Russian Front
  • Lütte in New Orleans: Lütte returns to New Orleans after Katrina
  • Reiner's War Letters: Reiner's Letters rescued from flooded house after Katrina
  • Lütte with Reiner Letters: Lütte explains old German Sütterlin script on letters
  • Lütte with WWII Documents: Lütte, aged 97, reads her family documents
  • 2014Seal_Bronze

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Comments (8)

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Thanks for the start of an extraordinary journey, which also reminds us that travel isn't only for pleasure, or even always voluntary. It is also important for us never to reduce history to acts of state and leaders and lose sight of all the Reiners of the world. 

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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