My cousin Hans in West Germany is a genealogy buff who pursues his hobby with fervor and admirable thoroughness. Less than half an hour ago we arrived at his house, my son Tom and I, and are now seated comfortably on the terrace. On one side it is sheltered by the house wall with a large picture window of the winter garden where cacti and tropical plants thrive protected year round; at a rectangle an open fireplace that wards off the cold on days more inclement than today forms the wall to the street side. We look out over the goldfish pond and the flower-bordered lawn of the quiet back yard. His wife, Helga, is busy preparing the afternoon coffee, leaving Hans and me to chat leisurely and become attuned to each other again after years of separation.
"We might as well get down to business while we have the time," says Hans as he excuses himself to go into the house. He returns with several thick three-ring binders and a sheaf of loose forms. I leaf through the pages of one of the volumes until some names as familiar as my own catch my eye. They draw me into the past that is here recorded in meticulous entries in typescript, enhanced by inserts of photocopied documents in the stilted, careful penmanship of long- dead public officials and priests, and even by some pictures