Jim Moen, 22, was mildly interested in geography when he entered the University of St. Thomas in 2005, although his take on the topic was that it was little more than "who exports the most bananas." Then he signed up for a Human Geography class and got his hands on some geographic information system, or GIS, technology.
"It became my favorite class," Moen said. "There are so many neat things you can do with GIS."
He had no idea just how prescient he was being.
Three years later, Moen and fellow geography student Kevin Hoffman, 23, were flying to Berlin to assist in an international property dispute involving cryptic maps and deeds, castles and farmland, Nazi persecution and a relentless Edina resident still pursuing land confiscated decades ago.
Hoffman, who graduated from St. Thomas last year and writes mapping code for the U.S. Forest Service, shakes his head at the vastness of what he and his friend took on.
"I had no idea it would be as deep as it was."
Their journey's inspiration traces to Larry Cerf of Edina, who in 1992 learned intriguing details about his grandfather's European family after the death of an aunt in Geneva, Switzerland.
For one, although they weren't Jewish, their German properties had still been confiscated by the Nazis.
For two, "they were petite nobility, in the economic sense," said Cerf, the father of three daughters, and owner of Annie's Frozen Yogurt.
Turns out, the family had owned castles, huge swaths of farmland and forests, Impressionist art and multiple businesses. As Social Democrats, family members had all their properties confiscated by the Nazis in the 1930s and they were branded "enemies of the state.''
After World War II ended, property in West Germany was returned to its rightful owners. Land in the east, including that of Cerf's family, remained frozen in the hands of the East German state until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Cerf's aunt had begun the process of reclaiming the estate before she died, when the work fell to Cerf.
"I was pretty naïve," said Cerf, who calls the effort, "more obligation than passion. I thought that if you went there, they'd give you your property back."
30 trips into the past
Cerf has traveled to the former East Germany, just outside Berlin, at least 30 times over 17 years, diving into archives, copying maps, deeds and documents. One document, for example, identifies a farm confiscated in 1934, with his grandfather's name crossed out. Still, the German courts keep the burden of proof on him. More than 60 years have passed. Buildings have gone up, come down. Dirt roads have been paved. Ownership and street names have changed. How could he make sense of various parcels that were rarely referenced with maps or other coordinates?
Two years ago, Cerf came to the conclusion that to make sense of the mosaic, he needed to know the exact position of the parcels. He turned to Moen and Hoffman, under the direction of their Applied GIScience lab manager, Catherine Hansen.
The students created multiple maps for him, free of charge, with area calculations and overlays of the deeds on satellite imagery. Put simply, they matched up multiple pieces of information from a variety of sources. Cerf was so impressed that he made a suggestion: "Maybe you should go over there."
In October, Cerf flew them to Berlin for eight days, putting them up in a five-star hotel. ("Nice," Moen said, smiling). Each morning, they took a 10-mile train ride to Falkensee, a hamlet just outside Berlin, where they dug through archives with the help of two English-speaking historians who knew Cerf well from his own visits. "Larry told us that they'd be a bit suspicious, but we were told we could look through anything we wanted," Moen said.
Still, it was frustrating.
"Nothing was chronological," said Moen, who will graduate in May with a combined geography/advertising degree. "You'd find a map from the 1980s and, just below it, a map from the 1880s."
After a week, they came home to put the pieces together. "It never really gets to a point of absolute certainty," Moen said. "It's not like, 'This is it. This is the land.'" But they are building a "stronger and stronger case," he says.
The experience was an eye-opener. Hoffman, who grew up in Brooklyn Park, has long been interested in urban planning and its effects on community. The effects of Nazi state power stunned him. "Sixty years later, there are still claims to that land," he said.
An understanding of history
Moen, whose knowledge of World War II came mostly from classes and his two grandfathers who served in the military during the war, said the experience took that acquaintance with history "to another level, how warped everything was that the Nazis were doing."
"They tried to pretend it was legal," Hoffman added.
"There are just layers and layers of lies to get through," Moen said.
They are getting through them. The German Supreme Court recently announced that it will hear Cerf's case. He plans to return to Germany soon. Moen hopes to remain connected to Cerf after he graduates.
"I'm more passionate about this area now that I've seen what geography can do," Moen said. "I'm seeing firsthand where it can take you."
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • firstname.lastname@example.org