Judy and Stephen Carpenter of Columbus enjoy memories while looking at photos from their recent whirlwind visit to Bichl, Germany, where Stephen met three brothers he had never known. The German steins are part of a family collection. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
The first photograph of Stephen Carpenter, second from left, with his three brothers in Germany was taken Aug. 26, 2017. From left are Karl Michalek, 66, Carpenter, 62, Fritz Michalek, 60, and Kurt Michalek, 63. The occasion was Fritz's surprise 60th birthday party. "Fritz had no idea who we were," Judy Carpenter said. "Stephen stood up and said, 'I'm your brother.'"
Photo by: Courtesy photo
Stephen Carpenter looks through a photo album a daughter made after the Carpenters' trip to Germany in late August to meet Stephen's brothers and their families.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
January 27, 2018 10:16:36 PM
On his 62nd birthday, with one extraordinary phone call, Stephen Carpenter's family doubled in numbers. It happened June 26, this past summer. He was in Texas, traveling on business, when his phone showed a call coming in from Germany. An unknown voice at the other end belonged to a young woman, and what she had to say changed the rest of Stephen's life.
"She told me, 'Hello, this is Silvia ... my dad's been looking for you,'" the Columbus man said, thinking back to the stunning call.
Silvia posed several questions to verify she had reached the right person, then jolted Steven by saying she was his niece, and that her father, Kurt Michalek, was his brother. She explained that Stephen, in fact, had three brothers in Germany: Karl, Kurt and Fritz. Members of the family had been searching for Stephen on and off for 10 years.
It was a lot to take in.
"At one point I was so confused, I thought this might be a scam for the money I don't have," Stephen chuckled as he recounted the experience. "I guess it took me 20 or 30 minutes after the phone call to even digest it."
Stephen has long known he was born in Germany and was adopted at six months of age by a military family. In the 1970s, he was even able to find and briefly meet his birth mother while stationed in Europe with the Army. He knew she had other sons. Contact with her, however, was quickly lost, and more than 40 years passed. And then the phone call.
In Silvia's words
In a recent email to The Dispatch from Germany, Silvia Michalek, 20, shared her perspective. She had been elected to place the call because her English is more fluent than her father's.
"I was very nervous," she said. "I was afraid that I wouldn't understand him or he couldn't understand me."
Her father, Kurt, 63, was listening on speakerphone.
"While Stephen answered my questions, my father was sitting next to me excitedly. He grinned all the time and was happy every time when Stephen confirmed our questions," she said. "The best moment was as I told Stephen I am his niece. It was so funny. As I said to him that I am the daughter from his brother, he was silent for a few seconds. Then he was excited too."
After the call, Stephen phoned his wife, Judy, to share what had happened. He'd gotten Silvia's number, and Judy quickly found her on Facebook.
"It snowballed from there," Stephen said.
Silvia said, "About a half hour (after the call), I got a message in Facebook from Judith. ... From this moment, I texted very much with Judith about our family."
Judy remarked, "At first we were shocked for a little bit after that first phone call, but then there was excitement and anticipation that we were actually going to get to meet them."
Yes, Kurt wanted the Carpenters to visit Germany at the end of August, as a surprise for Fritz's 60th birthday. He even offered to fund the trip that would bring four brothers together for the first time.
Meeting in Germany
After weeks of exchanging information and photos online, the Carpenters of Columbus came face to face with the Michaleks of Bichl in the south of Germany. For a whirlwind three days, language barriers were overcome and bonds firmly formed.
"There was a lot of sign language, and a lot of help here and there from nieces and others, and some of our German learned years ago came back," Judy smiled. (Her parents had been stationed there in the military.) "And you can't deny those apps on the phone that can translate, although sometimes better than others."
Fritz had been kept in the dark about Stephen's visit, although his wife, Mathilde, was in on the secret. The day of the reveal arrived. Fritz walked into a surprise birthday party Aug. 26 where he encountered two faces he'd never seen before.
"Fritz had no idea who we were," Judy said. "Stephen stood up and said, 'I'm your brother.' There was such surprise and disbelief on Fritz's face!"
What followed was what Judy describes as "an exciting, emotional, exhausting, wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime trip."
The Carpenters were introduced to a parade of new relatives and sights. They were treated to homemade pizza cooked in Kurt's own "Pizza Hut," the name the Carpenters gave the backyard building housing the pizza oven. They marveled at views of the Alps and at the cleanliness of Bichl. They were impressed with the wide practice of collecting rainwater in cisterns and barrels and with the honor system at countryside vegetable stands and flower gardens.
"And there are solar panels everywhere, I'm talking about even on barns," said Judy, a Southerner who also couldn't help noting there were no fans or air conditioning.
"Their trip was very exciting," Silvia said. "We wanted to show them as much as we could, so we organized trips and family meetings."
Mathilde, Fritz's wife, said via email, "It was fantastic that Stephen and Judy took the long journey to be a surprise for my husband. They are fantastic people, and we are very happy that we and everyone understand well, even though we have language problems. The hearts are glad."
Some of the Michaleks will visit America in September. Kurt, in fact, owns a property in Fort Myers, Florida. He is anxious to see Mississippi and Columbus. Stephen and Judy look forward to returning the hospitality.
"While we were there, there were no reservations," Stephen said. "We were more than welcomed."
"We loved Germany," Judy added. "We laughed and carried on up a storm. We all just immediately bonded -- it was like years melted away. We didn't have all the stories to tell, like 'you remember when little Joey did this or that,' but there was so much to learn about each other."
For Stephen, the months since that phone call on his 62nd birthday have been full ones. While getting to know his much-extended family, he learned his birth mother passed away in 1985. He visited her grave while in Germany.
Not long after returning to the States, Stephen was faced with open heart surgery. Having three "new" brothers and sisters-in-law, six nieces and nephews as well as great-nieces and nephews added to his support system didn't hurt.
The first photo of the four brothers together was taken at Fritz's surprise party.
"This was the first time they had ever been all together, and it didn't happen until they're all in their 60s," Judy said. "It just shows it's never too late to find family."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.