A North Texas man discovered the hidden history of a stranger's family and devoted years of his life to unraveling it. It's a tragic story from Nazi Germany that holds lessons for today.
In any family tree, some branches grow together, while some are joined by choice or chance.
"I know them so well," said Tim Mallad, looking at a series of black and white photos laid out in front of him. "They're more than family, they're friends. They're just old friends that I've known for a long time."
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This family's roots are made of mahogany, bound together by an antique desk that Mallad bought in an estate sale. A secret drawer inside took him on a 30-year quest for answers.
"The first thing I thought, 'Oh my gosh, there could be stocks, bonds, money, gold coins!' I was really, really excited," Mallad said. "Instead there were a bunch of letters and they were all in German."
Though he couldn't read them, Mallad was drawn to the letters, dated around World War II. He tried for years to have them translated.
"People would read them and they would start crying," Mallad said.
He finally learned why. They tell the story of a Christian German family, the Weisses, during the Russian invasion at the end of the war.
"They had formed a pact, evidently, to commit suicide if something unspeakable happened," Mallad said.
And then it did.
The mother and a 13-year-old daughter were both raped repeatedly by Russian soldiers.
"She begged her daddy to die and he honored that request," Mallad said.
A witness wrote to the little girl's aunt Helene Sebba, maiden name Weiss, the woman who owned the desk.
Sebba had escaped to England, where she locked the letters away inside the wooden desk, shielding the story of one battered branch of her family tree.
"It's horrible and it's such a strange feeling," Mallad said. "I have two daughters, so right away you get into the head of that father."
Mallad set out to find surviving family members, and Facebook gave him the final clue.
"Ten minutes on the internet literally, after 30 years and I find Frank," Mallad said.
Frank Pringham is Helene Sebba's grandson. He lives in Atlanta.
"I do remember the desk sitting in her apartment," Pringham said via Skype. "I think the amazing thing is how my grandmother kept all this to herself."
Together he and Mallad decided to break the silence.
"There were hundreds of people that committed suicide along with my great uncle and his family," Pringham said. "With this story, we actually were able to put names and faces together, rather than just statistics and data."
"When you start to see the people and you get to know the people, the time disappears, the numbers have names and faces and personalities and I think we need to keep that fresh," Mallad said.
The intimacy of the letters brings the family back.
"I'm assuming that those are from tears, where the ink is smeared," Mallad said, pointing to the pages. "In my mind, they're still alive, they're still speaking."
It's as if they’re calling out across the generations to keep moving forward and bring that secret pain to light, so lessons from the past can take root.
"You want to bring meaning to those deaths," Mallad said. "But more than that, you want to celebrate the lives that were taken and give them their names back."
Mallad and Pringham are now planning a trip to Germany together to visit the places where this story happened and pay respects at the family's grave.