Max Buchdahl’s dream job was to play baseball for the Baltimore Orioles, but when he realized he was never going to throw a 95 mph fastball, he decided he would write about sports instead.
The freshman journalism major recently self-published a book titled “Return of the Exiled” – but it doesn’t involve sports. Instead, it tells the story of his family’s escape from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s into the 1940s.
“I always thought about being the one to tell my family story,” Buchdahl said.
The book weaves in details about his own trip to Germany, which he embarked on a few days before his senior year of high school started. He visited the country for two weeks with his parents, grandfather and sister.
“Since I was going on the trip, I thought it would be a unique way to look at the story instead of just piling all of these facts,” Buchdahl said.
His grandfather, who is almost 80, is the oldest person in his family still alive who came from Germany. His grandfather, Gustav Buchdahl, and his parents left the country in Spring 1938, when Gustav was three years old.
Interviewing his grandfather played a key role in telling the family story, he said.
“When I was writing a chapter and I knew I was missing details, I went to him,” Max Buchdahl said.
Max Buchdahl wanted his younger cousins and his children to have the family’s information.
“I knew I would probably be the final person with the means to get it,” Buchdahl said.
In the book, Buchdahl writes about the trip in chronological order, making connections between the trip and his family’s story and letting the two narratives weave together.
“I loved [Buchdahl]’s capacity to blend the often competing narratives of our family,” his grandfather, Gustav Buchdahl, said. “The experience has been very important to his family.”
“It was the measures they have taken to not forget about the Holocaust; those were big things for me,” Max Buchdahl said.
Buchdahl has always felt a strong connection to the Holocaust because of his family’s escape. Being in Germany with descendants of the same people who kicked his family out was “powerful” for Buchdahl.
“When we visited his house, synagogue and schools, standing in the same place that [my family stood] was very powerful,” Buchdahl said.
Buchdahl conducted some other interviews for the text in early July 2013. He told them this would be the “definitive” story of their family, which he learned later, was impossible.
He ran into problems like family members telling two different stories and the evasiveness of family secrets. Some family members were unsure of what information to share.
“I wasn’t going to leave without answers,” Buchdahl said.
Buchdal also experienced “survivors guilt” when telling a story about some family members. It was difficult to write, he said, because he felt he was telling their “dark secrets to the world.”
Even after the trip ended, Buchdahl said he was still unsure of what direction he wanted to take with the book. The story formulated in the first few months of his senior year of high school as he processed the story, the trip and everything he learned about his family.
Throughout writing, the biggest battle was a ”structural crisis” his teacher told him.
“He realized early on that he couldn’t convey conversations and people exactly as they had been in real time,” Max’s teacher, Suzanne Supplee said.
His teacher told him to make a list of all the stories he wanted to write about. They became vignettes that ranged from three to 11 pages. After that, he “hit this groove” of writing.
Most of his classmates were writing fiction at the time, so Buchdahl had more leeway when it came to editing, since he was telling his family story.
Buchdahl’s finished book, “Return of the Exiled,” was published April 25.
On Nov. 10, Buchdahl held a book talk in the Edward H. Rosen Center for Jewish Life, also known as the Hillel building. He discussed writing, read excerpts and answered questions.
Buchdahl said people frequently ask him not to spoil the ending of his book.
“I would say, ‘I’m the end. We made it’.”
Emily Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org