Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that one billion people are actively using the social media tool he created in his Harvard dormitory room in 2004.
Zuckerberg’s October 4th post stated, “Helping a billion people connect is amazing, humbling and by far the thing I am most proud of in my life.”
One billion. That’s a humongous number. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the world’s population at 7.04 billion. That means approximately 1 in 7 people on Earth is using Facebook.
I am one in that billion who can attest to the power of Facebook in making important and meaningful, if not life changing, connections.
I recall my introduction to Facebook in early 2007, when it was mostly the sacred stomping ground of the youth of America. Our daughters signed on to interact with their high school peers, and later, Facebook helped them get to know their college roommates months before they even stepped foot into their dorm rooms.
In March of 2008 I decided to join the Facebook community to participate in the planning of our 30 year high school reunion. It did not take long to understand our daughters’ fascination with the site. Almost instantly, I was interacting with people I had not seen since high school. I particularly enjoyed seeing photos of our respective children, who looked remarkably like we did the last time we were together. Although we were scattered far and wide across America, on Facebook, the Huntington High School Class of 1979 could once again share the same space.
By far the most remarkable connection I owe to Mark Zuckerberg’s ingenuity came late one evening in 2010 as I was scanning my news feed. A private message arrived from Lutz Wolff, whom I realized bore the same name as my first cousin who lived near Berlin, Germany. For much of my life, Cold War geopolitical barriers had made it virtually impossible for my mother to visit or correspond with her brother and his family, so I never got to meet or know my Uncle Kuni, his wife and their four sons, Lutz among them. While my grandmother, mother and two uncles had survived WWII as refugees, Checkpoint Charlie and then later, the Berlin Wall, eventually closed in on Uncle Kuni, effectively cutting him off from his mother and brother who had lived in Frankfurt, and his sister, who had married and moved to the United States.
In the thirty years the Berlin Wall stood, this hideously conceived fortification had achieved its architects’ intent of sealing off its inhabitants from movement or interaction within the outside free world. That was made certain by the wall having been perfected over time to prevent a series of daring escape attempts by freedom seekers trapped in the former German Democratic Republic. The impassable wall definitely irked a few who summoned the courage to dig underground tunnels, drive through it, hide themselves in car engine compartments, construct hot air balloons, jump from buildings, or crawl through sewer pipes to free themselves on the other side. But for most, like my cousin Lutz’s family, it had become an accepted fact of life. Even when the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 with the reunification of Germany, it continued to cast a long and dark shadow.
As a result there was very little I knew about Uncle Kuni and his family, who my mom had often explained to her inquiring children, “were trapped behind the Iron Curtain.” I did know, however, one important piece of information: my cousin Lutz and my brother shared the same birthday. Mom must have told the story a dozen or more times: On October 13, 1958 my grandmother in Frankfurt received word of the arrivals of her first two grandchildren: Lutz Wolff in the German Democratic Republic, and my brother in America.
Over fifty years later, Facebook offered Lutz the means to search for and make contact with his American family. He validated his family connection to me by sharing the same story of his and my brother’s shared birthdays (a story that had apparently been told to him as well), and noted the names of our maternal grandparents, and of his father, my Uncle Kuni.
I am unable to describe in words the feeling of euphoria that overwhelmed me as I wrote back to Lutz. I had lost hope in ever being able know this branch of my family after my mother had passed away.
Sometime later Lutz wrote to let me know that his two sons, Christian and Marcus, had planned to visit New York for the first time. In July 2011, once again via Facebook, Christian sent me a message that he and Marcus had arrived in New York, and we made plans for them to stay with us. My husband and I spent one wonderful week introducing these young men to Long Island, Manhattan and their newfound American family.
Mom used to become upset and angry whenever she saw the motto displayed on the license plates of New Hampshire cars that read: “Live Free or Die.” I now understand the motto was a chilling and painful reminder that her brother Kuni was not a free man, but in mom’s mind, that did not mean he should have to die. She missed him terribly.
Unfortunately, mom passed away the same year Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. I cannot help but wonder what a joy and thrill it would have been for her to discover Facebook, as I did, as a means to connect with the family from whom she had been long separated.
What were the chances that my cousin Lutz and I would finally connect with so many obstacles preceding us, not the least of which once included the Berlin Wall?
To me, if feels like one in a billion.
My cousin Lutz’s sons Christian and Marcus with me at Jones Beach.
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