A documentary film project by Denis Mortenson
In 1918, my grandfather, Charles Miller, an American soldier, took a diary from a German soldier named Karl Stehfest, during the Aisne-Marne offensive in France and Belgium. This documentary film will record my quest to return the diary to the relatives of Karl Stehfest in Germany. Thank you for your help!
After the death of my parents, in late 2006, I had the diary translated for the first time. All I knew was the name of the diary's author: Karl Stehfest. I hoped to find clues as to where Stehfest lived before the war, in order to travel to Germany to return the diary to his relatives. My mother told me my grandfather took the diary from a dead German soldier on a battlefield in Belgium or France. Ironically, the last diary entry is on my mother's birthday, though she would not be born until 1925.
Until December of 2012, I believed Karl Stehfest died in the war. In late December I learned Stehfest survived the war and his daughter is still alive, though she is about 80 years of age. This revelation came after I had done the final edits of this Kickstarter video. I didn't have the money to add this exciting news, but I want to share that with you now. The daughter requested copies of the diary pages to compare the handwriting with her father's handwriting. The handwriting was a perfect match!
What does this mean? It means my task of finding the relatives is now much easier, and the film will have a happy conclusion. The news came in two letters that arrived from two separate German government offices, to whom I had written in the previous six months, with the help of a native of Germany, Ernestine Bloomberg. She understands the trauma of war; she was a girl when Hitler came to power. Her father was a soldier in WWI. Without her help I would probably still be looking for the relatives of Karl Stehfest.
I found the daughter of Karl Stehfest because Ernestine translated my letters and emails to the mayors of Schönburg and Jena, Germany, and the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e. V. (which maintains and locates graves of German soldiers). Credit should also be given to the organized and helpful people in German government offices who forwarded my letters and emails to the appropriate parties.
Karl Stehfest's daughter lives in the city of Stadtroda, in the German State of Thuringia. Stadtroda is not far from the city of Jena, which once was a city of renown in Germany, due to its university, famous writers and poets, and even a battle with Napoleon. In her recent letter, the daughter wrote that her father never talked about his experience in WWI. She did not know he had kept a diary! Thus, the diary is of special interest to her. She has invited me to visit her (and her husband) in Stadtroda.
My plan is to go to Europe with a videographer. I will visit the probable site of the battlefield where the diary was taken, and other places mentioned in the diary. I will talk to the daughter of Karl Stehfest and tell her about my family. Thus far, I have learned from the daughter that her father was hospitalized for a head wound during WWI, so it is possible Stehfest was unconscious when my grandfather took the diary. I also now know that after the war, Karl Stehfest became a high school teacher, and later - the principal of the high school in Stadtroda, until the State of Thuringia was taken over by the Russians (after WWII). I also hope to learn the cause of the death, in the summer of 1919, of a young German woman named Ilse Alberti, to whom Stehfest was secretly engaged when he was drafted into the military. After the film is finished I will make DVDs for all who funded the project, and mail the incentive items to my backers. Because 2014 is the 100th anniversary of WWI, and formally observed in Germany, there may be opportunities to show the film in Germany late in 2013 or early 2014.
First things first. I am excited to travel to Europe to do this film. It has been a long quest. After 95 years, the diary will be returned to whom it belongs. There will be flight, lodging, and dining expenses, some film permit costs, and hiring a translator at the University of Jena. My translator, Ernestine, has friends and relatives in Germany who might help us if we need assistance with translation, directions, and suggestions about where to stay. My budget allows two weeks of filming in Germany, France, Belgium, and several months of editing once we return to Oregon. If I receive more funding I can be flexible about the duration of the trip. I am planning to go to Germany in late April to avoid winter weather. To ensure the word gets out about this quest, I have contacted people I know and they in turn will contact people they know, so social media figures large in the success of this project.
Risks and challenges
To converse I will need to find a translator or translators in Germany and France. I will find the German translator at the University of Jena, in the German state of Thuringia. I am not yet sure where I will find a French interpreter, but I am sure there will be people who can direct me once I arrive in the northeast part of France. Part of the film will mention the food and scenery, as well as history, so it will have some of the charm of a travel show, such as Rich Steve's videos, but less formal than the way he works. It will have a "man with a mission" type tone, but I am hoping my personality comes through and that I can keep viewer interest. I think it is an interesting story or I wouldn't film it. I have an interest in Europe, and I am hoping I inspire others to explore their family roots and events. I will have to be careful how I spend my funds, and thus I won't have lavish lodging or dining. Because both myself and my videographer have created videos before, (and one reality show pilot), I feel we are very qualified to create this documentary. I have also contacted the PBS equivalent of German public broadcasting, to inquire about their interest in the finished documentary. The challenge of a documentary will be to make it of interest to a wide viewing audience. To do that I will have to be engaging on camera, and entertaining as well as informative. Because I am waiting until Spring, I am avoiding winter weather, (which would have made travel more difficult and unpleasant, and less scenic). The editing of the documentary will take some time, but I have allocated a five month window to complete it. I don't expect it will take more than three months, but having longer does allow for things that might get in the way during that timeframe.
Learn about accountability on Kickstarter