The strange tale of Ern(e)st Szameitat

There is almost always at least one story of migration, be it voluntary or forced, in every family tree. For many of us, though, migration is part and parcel of who we are, as so many of our ancestors originated in places other than where we grew up. Indeed, this blog is centered around one such forced displacement, because of war. Sometimes it’s not known exactly what factors motivated our ancestors’ migration. However, one route was particularly common for Europeans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: countless citizens turned their back on the continent and sought a better life, primarily in the USA. And so it is with Ernst Szameitat, the elder brother of my great-grandfather Oskar. He’s the one who fled the nest seemingly at will, sought out the new, and like so many others headed for a new life in the United States.

Back in the 1990s, when we started doing genealogical research as a family and I was a young girl, I can remember being told about the mysterious Ernst, who, my great-grandmother told us, had emigrated to the USA in the 1920s and who they had lost touch with after. We never got the impression she knew him well, indeed her records show she only married his brother Oskar in 1927, around about the time he is supposed to have left Germany.

There is a little more detail in one of her documents, a copy of the evidence she gave in 1966 at a private meeting of the district court’s local civil chamber concerning the property near Memel that the Gestapo had confiscated from the family in 1942. In it, she lists people who might possibly be considered heirs of her mother-in-law’s property, and Ernst’s name crops up. You might recall from this blog post that Oskar and Ernst’s mother, Anna Galbrast, had died when the children were both very young. Johanne explained that their mother had left behind some money held in trust for both the brothers and that they had received it prior to the First World War. Oskar had invested his money (which Johanne listed as 2,000 Reichsmark, though Reichsmark was not the currency used before the First World War) into the property owned by his mother-in-law, whereas Ernst, the elder brother, had had no interest in the property, never even visited, and used his share of his inhertitance to pay for teacher training, his later profession.

Ernst 1

An extract from the evidence my great-grandmother gave at a private session of the 8th Civil Chamber of the district court in Braunschweig on 16th February 1966

Johanne also wrote that Ernst and Oskar had got on well, and continued to be in touch with each other after his emigration to the USA in the 1920s. The final time he had been in touch, he had asked Oskar if he could send him some money so he could set up his own apiary (beekeeping farm), and Johanne was of the opinion that her husband did indeed send him some cash. Since then, they had heard nothing more from him. Focusing on her own concerns of who might be an heir of the confiscated property, she raised the question of whether he might have been declared dead by some local court or other, but she did not know.

Fast forward to the late 1990s when my family caught the genealogy bug and we were all researching away left right and centre in records centres across the UK, looking through microfiches for names and dates of our Irish and English ancestors. German family history, at the time, was more difficult, but since Mum had always wondered what had happened to Ernst, and recalling he had emigrated to the States, she searched the US social security index and found that he had died in Willard, Seneca, New York State. She tracked down a US contact in nearby Ovid and asked them to apply for his death certificate on her behalf. What we received back was, well, somewhat of a surprise. Ernst, now called Ernest, had died in 1975, aged 79, of a heart attack in Willard State Hospital in New York State, a psychiatric centre for the mentally ill. He had been a patient there for 33 years. His diagnosis was listed as “schizophrenia paranoid”.

Ernst 2

Details from Ernst’s death certificate providing us with a few answers and many more questions

More details of his life in the USA prior to his admission to hospital were not forthcoming. In 2000, the US Census records for 1930 were released to the public, and Mum had a look for him, but was unable to locate him anywhere in the USA. We collectively scratched our heads. Research into his story would have to sit on the backburner for a while.

A long while, it transpired. Not until I took the financial plunge and took out a subscription at Ancestry last year (2019), combining the results with what was available at Family Search, was I able to find out more. And what I found out was, well, even more surprising. Ships’ manifests galore with evidence of him visiting Vancouver, San Francisco, London, New York, Hamburg, Auckland, Wellington, Sydney. Immigration records and failed attempts at border crossings. A marriage certificate and divorce proceedings. Two relevant newspaper articles from New Zealand. And most bizarre was the ever changing list of his profession. Teacher. Cook. Bee-keeper. Waiter. Farmer. Police sergeant. To say I was intrigued is an understatement.

Up until this point, I have been too overwhelmed by family life and political developments to be able to sift through Ernst’s movements systematically and come up with some kind of cohesive timeline of his life. Now, with Covid-19 raging, I need a welcome distraction. Ernst’s story is just that, but it is also a jigsaw piece in my family history and thus part of who I am. He also deserves to have his story told, given that we are his only descendants. Now is as good a time as any to tell it.


Like Oskar, Andreas Ernst was born in Paszieszen, a large (for the time) village in the far north of the German Empire, in north-eastern East Prussia. His birth, in January 1896, followed his parents’ marriage in Tilsit nine months previously, and they had only just started setting up for married life in Paszieszen when he came along.


Paszieszen is now called Pašyšiai and is in modern day Lithuania, close to the border with the the Russian Kaliningrad region. Source

From buildings’ tax documents sent to me by the LCVA (Lithuanian Central State Archives), we learn that a plot of land in Paszieszen was conveyed to Emil Szameitat (Ernst and Oskar’s father) on 22nd February 1896, when Ernst would only have been a few weeks old. From this document we know they had a guest house of some kind, a courtyard and a residential house with a garden, a stable with a carriage entrance, another stable, and a barn. What Emil’s employment was at the time is unknown (farmer? Pub landlord? Both? On a 1911 document he was listed as a former Kaufmann, a merchant, trader or businessman), but Johanne’s documents tell us that Emil ended up going bankrupt around 1900 following his descent into alcoholism after his wife Anna’s sudden death in childbirth with their third child (who sadly also died). The Paszieszen dream was over, and Emil did not own property again: the family opted to keep the property they purchased after the First World War (the property that the Gestapo subsequently confiscated) in his second wife’s, Lucinde’s, name, just in case.

Ernst 3

An extract from the buildings’ tax regulations in Paszieszen, 1896, copy from the Lithuanian State Central Archives

Ernst and Oskar grew up with Lucinde Szameitat completely fulfilling the role of mother, and it’s probable that the boys, who were only 18 months apart, did not remember their birth mother Anna Galbrast. We don’t know if Ernst and Lucinde were close, but Oskar certainly loved her greatly. Johanne believed that Oskar had attended primary school in Tilsit, possibly living with his paternal grandmother, Emil’s mother Lisette, while he did so. We can only assume Ernst did the same, but we’ll never know for sure. By 1911, they were all living in Memel in the Verlängerte-Alexanderstraße 8, a street that Johanne and Oskar would live on later as a married couple too, and very close to the area where Oskar was fatally wounded by a Russian grenade in October 1944. Both the boys must have attended school in Memel, but we can’t be sure which. In 1914, Oskar voluntarily joined the army to fight in the war as a seventeen year old. Perhaps Ernst did too. He was certainly active in the war, as he crops up on the list of wounded soldiers in 1915. He was part of the Grenadier-Regiment 4, which, assuming that refers to the Königin Augusta Garde-Grenadier-Regiment Nr. 4, means that he will have fought on the Western front in 1914, partaking in the Battle of Charleroi and the Battle of St Quentin, before settling into trench warfare in Flanders and Artois. In 1915, the regiment was moved to the Eastern front and fought in the Gorlice–Tarnów Offensive at the end of April, as well as at Lviv, where Ernst was presumably wounded, because in September 1915 the regiment was sent back to the Western front and took part in the Third Battle of Artois as well as the Battle of the Somme (where Ernst’s brother Oskar happens to have been wounded).

Ernst 4

Ernst listed as ‘slightly wounded’ on 27th August 1915 Source

Whether Ernst rejoined his regiment or was transferred somewhere else after convalescing I have not yet been able to ascertain. In fact, the trail goes cold after the First World War. The next document I found relevant to Ernst was his marriage record in 1923. This also came as a surprise, as Mum had no recollection of being told that Ernst had been married, and thought that perhaps even Johanne didn’t know about it either.

Ernst map East Prussia

A modern map of the northern area of former East Prussia, with towns relevant to Ernst’s story

The marriage record shows Ernst living with his wife-to-be in Quednau, which was then a small town north of Königsberg, later a district of Königsberg itself and now a modern day district of Kaliningrad, Russia. Now, for those of you well versed in twentieth century Eastern European history, you will recall that the part of East Prussia north of the Memel river was separated from the rest of East Prussia and governed by the League of Nations until the Lithuanian takeover in 1923 (you can read more about the history of the region here). Formerly German citizens in the region were allowed to ‘opt for Germany’ and thus move to Germany to keep their German citizenship. Oskar, his parents, and Johanne and her family all opted to stay where they were (it was their Heimat after all) and make do with Lithuanian citizenship. I wondered, given that we find Ernst near Königsberg in 1923, whether he opted for Germany and hence left the Memelland. This would, however, assume that he left the area at the earliest in 1923. It could have been possible that he had already had itchy feet before then and wanted to leave what must have felt like the back end of beyond. In any case, he married the 21 year old Gertraud Schapals on 6th July 1923 in Quednau, where they were both living. His wife was listed as having been born in Posen, which in 1923 had formed part of the Polish ‘corridor’, but Schapals is a Prussian Lithuanian name, and her family must have originated in the Memelland. Perhaps her father was in the military, or her maternal line came from the Posen province, and her mother went there to give birth.

Ernst 5

Ernst’s marriage record Source

In a nice touch for me as a family historian, my great-grandfather Oskar is listed as one of the witnesses, and his signature appears with the bride and groom’s, and that of a second witness, Bernhard Heichel, a postal secretary.

Ernst 6

Signatures of the bride and groom, along with witnesses which include my great-grandfather Oskar Source

Most interesting to me, other than the fact that the marriage ended in divorce in 1938 (see the statement in blue on the left of the image above), was that Ernst’s profession was listed as a Polizeiwachtmeister, which was the lowest of the police ranks. In some sense I was not surprised by the profession – after all, Oskar was in the police force, so why should his brother not have been? – but it of course made me wonder why Johanne seemed to think he had spent his inheritance on teacher training and that teaching had been his profession. Was she wrong? Did she misremember? Had Ernst lied about his profession, either to Johanne and Oskar or to the registry office official at the wedding? Or was this a first indication of a developing mental illness?

In any case, Ernst and Gertraud appeared to have settled into a lovely town just to the north of Königsberg. Quednau was a Gartenstadt, a garden town, and had a lovely park at its heart, but was within easy commuting distance of the provincial capital to the south.


Quednau c. 1908 Source

Quednau is today known as Северная Гора (Severnaya Gora) in the Kaliningrad region of Russia. As Königsberg morphed into Kaliningrad and after those Germans that hadn’t died from starvation, disease or violence had been expelled from the region after the war, the Russians (perhaps understandably) took little effort to preserve the heritage of the once mighty East Prussian capital, the centre of which had been almost totally destroyed by RAF bombing in October 1944 as well as the Russian advance in 1945. As such, they did not rebuild the centre according to what it was like before the war, choosing to make it a model Soviet town instead. These days, Kaliningrad is often written off as ugly, when actually its post-Soviet development is really not horrible to look at and its range of styles make it a very dynamic and architecturally interesting place, in my view. But very few people seem to know that, if you just stray a little further away from the centre, a lot of German suburbia in Königsberg is preserved. Северная Гора, to my mind, looks like any German suburb built in the 1920s and 30s, save for the odd post-Soviet high rise building.

Quednau modern day

Modern day Quednau, today called Северная Гора (Severnaya Gora) Source

And here’s an interesting fact: Северная Гора’s most famous child is none other than Ljudmila Alexandrowna Putina, Vladimir Putin’s now ex-wife, who was born there in 1958 and spent her childhood there. I enjoyed learning that!

You can see many more images of Северная Гора here, and be sure to have a look at modern day images of the former Amalienau and Maraunenhof districts of Königsberg here and here, because there are some truly stunning villas, all within walking distance of central Kaliningrad (Google translate does a good job of translating the Russian if you’d like to read about what you’re seeing).

Despite my searches for children of Ernst and Gertraud in the years following their wedding in 1923, I was unable to find any relevant records. The next time Ernst crops up is on a ship’s manifest in September 1927. Aha! I thought. This must be when he emigrated (interestingly alone, and Gertraud must thus have stayed in Quednau). Johanne had only been a year or two out in her estimate. Brilliant.

Beltana London to Sydney manifest extract

Extract from the outward passenger list of the SS Baltana, departing from London to Sydney on 22nd September 1927 Source

Except it was all wrong. He was sailing from London to Sydney via South Africa on the SS Baltana. He even stayed at the very posh Hotel St Pancras, which I can only assume is this one, the night before the ship set sail. And he gave his profession as a farmer, and Sydney was given as his country of intended permanent residence. Hm.

But then he didn’t stop there. Presumably as soon as possible after his arrival in Sydney, he set sail to Wellington, New Zealand, aboard the SS Marama, where he also stated that his intention for the visit was to emigrate.

passenger list marama Sydney to Wellington

Extract from the outward passenger list of SS Marama, sailing from Sydney and arriving in Wellington on 22nd November 1927 Source

And as crazy as it seems, he then, only a few months later in April 1928, set sail from Auckland, NZ, to Vancouver, British Columbia, going via Sydney (again), Fiji and across the Pacific Ocean, on the MV Aorangi.

passenger list Aorangi Auckland to Vancouver 1928

Record showing Ernst on the passenger list of MV Aorangi departing from Auckland to Vancouver on 10th April 1928

By this point I was thinking, huh, did he just like travel? How on earth was he funding all this? Once in Vancouver, he tried to cross the border to the USA at Seattle.

Border crossing Canada to US 1928

Border crossing Canada to US page 2 1928

Ernst’s record of his border crossing from Canada to the USA in May 1928 Source

Notably, as he was without an immigration visa, he was only given a bond of six months to visit the country. He listed his intended destination as San Francisco, and stated the purpose of his visit was to see the country. There are some details of his personal appearance given: he was small at 5’6″, had a dark complexion and brown hair and eyes. He was apparently carrying $250, and again listed his profession as farmer. He gave no contact in San Francisco that he was hoping to visit. He crossed the border at Blaine on 17th May 1928.

Next, we find an application for crossing the border the other way, from the USA back to Canada, some six months later, but this time at the Detroit/Windsor border.

border crossing US to Canada 1928

This time, Ernst had styled himself as Ernest, was a waiter, not only during his time in San Francisco, and this was also apparently the trade he was aiming to follow in Canada should he be granted immigration status. He seems to have made a friend called Mrs Frey in San Fransisco – perhaps he lodged with her, perhaps she was also a German immigrant – and he was carrying $100, notably far more than most of the other people trying to cross the border. His application to cross the border was rejected, though he appealed it.

There is no information on whether he successfully crossed the border this way, but it is the next piece in the puzzle that dizzied my brain more than anything Ernst had done so far. He is next found on another ship’s manifest, the SS Deutschland, in 1930. But he was travelling from Hamburg to New York (via Cuxhaven, Southampton, and Cherbourg), which must mean he’d been home to Germany in between (I have not managed to fill in the missing leg from North America back to Europe sometime in late 1928 or 1929).

SS Deutschland passenger list Hamburg to New York 1930

Extract from the outward passenger list of the SS Deutschland, sailing from Hamburg on 17th and arriving in New York on 25th October 1930 Source

This time, his profession was listed as a bee-master, and on the German manifest the equivalent Bienenzüchter. He travelled in 3rd class. He had been issued an immigration visa (no. 177) in Berlin on 2nd July 1930, and again lists Gertraud as his contact person in Quednau. Was this what Johanne was remembering when she recalled Ernst had emigrated to the USA, but she had just got her dates wrong? After all, she referred to him asking for money to set up an apiary, and here he is listed as a bee-master. He paid for the passage himself, and again appears to be carrying a fair amount of cash ($350). He states that he had never been to the US before (hmm…), was going to join someone called Garell Schmid of 505 East 142nd Street, New York, and intended to become a US citizen. As for his appearance, he had seemingly grown a couple of inches and was now 5’8″, was of fair complexion, and had blond hair and blue eyes (so the jury is definitely out on his appearance!)


The SS Deutschland, which took Ernst from Hamburg to New York in October 1930. Like almost all the ships Ernst sailed on, it was repurposed for war and was used amongst other things to evacuate refugees from Ernst’s native East Prussia in 1945, before being destroyed by an RAF bomb in May that year. Source

Wondering what Ernst might have got up to in the USA, I tried to find old address books and newspapers from New York State and see what I could find. I was unable to find a reference to Ernst in any New York State newspapers listed here. Then I thought I’d try New Zealand newspapers, wondering if there might be any hits that would tell me what he spent 5 months doing in Wellington.

What I found was of enormous magnitude, and finding something like this has never happened before in all my long years of family history research. It only happens to famous families or royalty. I nearly fell off my chair and immediately called my mum to tell her. There were TWO whole newspaper articles all about Ernst in the Waikato Times from December 1927. I’ve quoted them fully below:

Waikato Times 12.12.27

Waikato Times 2 12.12.27

Waikato Times 3 12.12.27

Waikato Times 4 12.12.27

Extract from The Waikato Times, 12th December 1927 Source

Here’s the second article from a week later:

Waikato Times 20.12.27

Waikato Times 2 20.12.27

Extract from the Waikato Times, 20th December 1927 Source

Immediately, I was able to make much more sense of his movements. Not only did the information in the articles correlate exactly with the ships’ manifests (apart from they got Ernst’s age wrong), it would explain why he sought out New Zealand, presumably why he left (he was not granted settled status), and why he tried to get to California next (who knew it was a great region for apiary!?) There is so much new information that I haven’t managed to process fully yet, and many new leads: did he really study in Erlangen and Berlin? Or was this evidence of schizophrenia taking hold? I had known that his brother Oskar had been a keen amateur bee-keeper from other records, so wasn’t surprised to learn that Ernst dabbled in it, but had no idea he might have trained professionally. To say nothing of the reports of two children, who I have still not yet managed to find records of.

Back in the States after sailing to New York in 1930, the trail goes cold until 1937, when there is an application in Ernst’s name for Social Security, a programme unrolled by Roosevelt in 1935 as part of his New Deal measures to help out those worst hit by the Great Depression.

US Social security application

Details of Ernst’s application for Social Security in 1937 Source

Notably, there is no indication of whether the application was made under Title III (unemployment insurance) or Title VI (Public Health Services) (the other titles definitely cannot have applied as they were for dependents, maternal services and services for the aged). But, since there is a note that the signature name differed from the name holder, I rather suspect it was made under Title VI. This is supported by the fact that, in the 1940 census, Ernst had already been institutionalized, and was listed as a patient at Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island.

Central Islip State Hospital

A view of one of the buildings at Central Islip State Hospital, period photograph Source

By now, he had become an American citizen and was again going by the name of Ernest. Although he was technically a patient, on the census record he is (perhaps tellingly) listed as an inmate. He is listed as having worked for the institution for 3 hours in the past week, and that in 1935, he had been living in Manhatten.

Recall from his marriage certificate that he and Gertraud had divorced in 1938. Now I am no scholar of National Socialist legal history, so I am not aware of whether or how it was possible for Gertraud to divorce him if he was not in the country. Perhaps she was able to invoke grounds of abandonment, maybe she hadn’t heard from him for years. In any case, Ernest didn’t know about it, because he was listed as married in the 1940 census. It is possible (probable), however, that that would have been filled out on his behalf by staff who did not know of his divorce. Still, it’s all very intriguing.

You might remember that there had been an address listed with the details from his death certificate, which was 106 West 105th Street, Manhatten. I suspect this was his last domestic address before he was institutionalized, and it hardly seems from the pictures on StreetView to have been a suitable place to have an apiary, so who knows what Ernst got up to while living there. In any case, it was probably in 1937 that Ernst left society behind and entered the threshold of a mental asylum.

Both Central Islip State Hospital and Willard State Hospital, where Ernst was later transferred in 1942 (possibly because it got too crowded in Islip), had been set up originally in the nineteenth century to take the mentally ill away from alms and poor houses and distance them from society, giving them their own self-sufficient environment in which they could contribute to the closed society via manual labour, as a farm hand, or as part of a team working for the general upkeep of the hospital. In reality, many if not most of the patients were desperate to leave the institutions, were subjected to poor care and treatment for incorrectly diagnosed mental disorders, and were forgotten about by the society around them. In the 1940s, common treatments for schizophrenia were insulin shock therapy and electroconvulsive therapy, among others. Mental illness was hugely stigmatized, and there was a lot of shame attached to having a relative as a patient in such an institution.

Ernst map New York State

Map of New York State with places marked relevant to Ernst’s life


Streetview image of 106 West 105th Street door

Google StreetView image of 106 West 105th Street, Manhatten, New York, probably Ernst’s last domestic address before he was institutionalized

View of 105th Street

Google StreetView image up West 105th Street, Manhatten, New York

By contrast with Central Islip State Hospital, which has since been demolished, Willard State Hospital was upstate and situated on Lake Seneca in truly beautiful surroundings. Some of the buildings have been repurposed for a post-incarceration addiction service, while other buildings have been left to decay. It can’t have all been bad there, as, back in its day, the Willard inpatients were able to enjoy leisure activities, and the hospital had its own cinema and even its own bowling alley. Still, these things do not make up for thousands of people’s loss of freedom, especially as diagnosis was often made on a whim, and at the time mental illness was considered to comprise a whole range of conditions (e.g. gender dysphoria) where modern medicine has today very much moved on.

inside willard 2

Willard patients in the twentieth century Source

Inside Willard

A picture of Willard today Source

As I read around the internet about Willard, I stumbled on a remarkable discovery: in 1995, when the hospital finally closed, some 400 suitcases were found in an abandoned building. It turns out these suitcases had belonged to patients brought to Willard in the twentieth century, and were neatly stored in alphabetical order, presumably ready for them to have again should they be discharged from the hospital (though this rarely happened). There they remained untouched until they were found half a century later.

This story received some press coverage even in the UK, and you can read all about this amazing but sad discovery here and here. Jon Crispin has photographed about 80 of them, but because of New York State’s very strong privacy laws, he is not able to give the full names of the cases’ owners. I noticed scrolling through his pictures that there is one belonging to an Ernest S. Was it our Ernest? I’ll always wonder.

Ernest S

Willard Suitcases / Ernest S / ©2014 Jon Crispin
COPYRIGHT:©2014 Jon Crispin Source

This is my attempt to tell the story of Ern(e)st’s life. If nothing else, no one else ever has. If he did have children, it’s not even clear whether they knew who their father was. And for centuries the mentally ill were stigmatized, locked up and forgotten. Ern(e)st’s story throws up more questions than it does answers. How did he fund his travel around the world? Why did he keep changing his profession? Did he keep in touch with Gertraud? Why didn’t she join him? Why did they divorce? Why did he lose touch with Oskar and Johanne? Who were/are his children? Did he really study beekeeping in Erlangen and Berlin?

There is irony in the fact that he died a similar death (alone, far away from loved ones) to many members of his family. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Willard State Hospital Cemetery because he had no family to bury him in a private graveyard. In this respect, he shares his resting place with his father, his brother, and his nephew. They too have unmarked graves, somewhere on the Eastern front in Europe, far from their loved ones. It is not lost on me that had Ernst remained in Germany, he would likely have been murdered by the Nazis as part of their Aktion T4 programme. At least he was spared that. That is not to belittle the loss of freedom and stigmatization he suffered in the US. His life undoubtedly ended in tragedy.

I’ll leave you with this short (4 minute!) video from the New York Times. It’s a deeply moving tribute to those who died at Willard, including Andreas Ern(e)st Szameitat.

Hospitalstraße hiatus


Books books books – a selection of my recent reading

Some of you will have noticed that I haven’t published a blog post on here for over a year now. While most won’t have thought any more of it, I have had a few inquiries (actually in real life, rather than virtual!) as to why I’ve stalled, and where I’m planning on going with this project. I thought I would do well to address those two questions in this post.

It goes without saying that modern life with a young family means that opportunities to dedicate oneself to a project of this nature are scarce. PhD finishing, house selling, buying, and moving, and getting our eldest settled into school have taken up much of my time and headspace, to say nothing of keeping up to date with the latest political and Brexit-related developments, which I follow with awe and dread given the extent to which they will determine our children’s future in the UK. But there have been several other factors that have also kept me from writing.

The main one is that, far from not thinking about any of this over the last year, I have been reading widely and mulling it all over a lot. I have needed much space and time to think, and one of the advantages of spending all my time in a child care role means that I have a lot of time to think. (This can, as you might imagine, also be a tremendous disadvantage, as sometimes it really is better not to think too much about things.)

I have found myself drawn in many directions in my reading. I have read many books and articles specific to East Prussia and the Memelland, including some truly wonderful ones by Ulla Lachauer, who manages to avoid the Heimat kitsch of many authors that have written about German territories ‘lost’ in the East, and who addresses themes such as guilt, loss and reconciliation in an artistic manner I can only dream of for this blog. I have read the poetry and novels of Johannes Bobrowski, a much underrated GDR author originally from East Prussia, and some of Hermann Sudermann’s work, a once immensely popular local author whose works don’t always make it into histories of German literature. I have read books that address the themes of Kriegskinder (war children) and Kriegsenkel (war grandchildren), as well as literature about the experiences of those 12-14 million deported Germans that my grandmother and great-grandmother belonged to in post-war Germany, in a bid to understand my grandmother’s experiences, my mother’s upbringing, and in turn, my own. I have delved into the (sadly but alas unsurprisingly very incomprehensive) history of Jewish people in East Prussia, Holocaust survivors’ testimonies and secondary trauma among subsequent generations of Israelis and other Jewish people, as well as reading a good deal of literature that engages with Täterschaft (perpetration), in a bid to understand how millions of Germans could have supported national socialist ideology, and millions more done nothing about it.

All of this reading has landed me squarely within the psychological study of transgenerational trauma, and, in all honesty, it has been depressing and somewhat painful to engage with it all. However, I have learnt it is necessary work, as we have a duty to tell the truth, for the sake of the victims of National Socialism and their descendents.

My great-grandfather was a member of the NSDAP. He was probably a career opportunist. Coincidence meant that he was imprisoned at the time when, had he been a free man, he would have been invited along with all his police colleagues to participate in the Einsatzgruppen mass shootings of Jewish ‘partisans’ following the invasion of the USSR in June 1941. He (apparently) made detrimental comments about the regime, which formed part of the reason for his imprisonment. Is his biography enough to make him a Täter (perpetrator)? Does his (allegedly unfair) imprisonment by the Gestapo make him an Opfer (victim)? Do I even need to ponder this question? What about Johanne? Is it possible to reconcile the memory of a fiercely caring and witty great-grandmother with someone who may well have subscribed to Nazi ideology? Or, if she didn’t, not had any qualms in later life about having done little to prevent its manifestation?

These are not new questions for me and I have explored some of them in previous blog posts (see here and here). But what is different is that now, having delved into a little of the German literature dealing with such questions, I have realized that I have probably been far too naive in my belief of much of my great-grandmother’s post-war narratives. Alexandra Senfft’s (2016) book Der lange Schatten der Täter: Nachkommen stellen sich ihrer NS-Familiengeschichte (‘The long shadow cast by perpetrators: descendents confront their Nazi family history’), which quite by chance caught my eye in a wonderful independent bookshop in Quedlinburg last October, got the ball rolling. Senfft, the granddaughter of the ambassador of occupied Slovakia, Hanns Ludin, taught me much about how the vast majority of Germans even now are unwilling to challenge their received family narrative of the ways in which their family members were implicated in Nazi crimes and ideology. (By contrast, Oliver von Wrochem’s work at Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial Centre showed me how it is easily possible to engage with these questions responsibly.) But it was Welzer, Moller and Tschuggnall’s (2002) psychological study “Opa war kein Nazi”: Nationalsozialismus und Holocaust im Familiengedächtnis (‘My grandpa wasn’t a Nazi’: National Socialism and Holocaust in family memory) that made me realize how I have probably been giving Johanne’s telling of history the benefit of the doubt a little too enthusiastically. This study shows empirically how memory of the Nazi era is transferred across the generations, and there are a number of striking conclusions. One is that, even when members of the generation that lived through the period refer to aspects of Täterschaft in the presence of their children and/or grandchildren, subsequent generations often trivialize or ameliorate their forebears’ actions in their own retelling of the memory. Another finding is that there are a number of post-war narratives (such as, for instance, that Russian soldiers were without fail more terrible than the other allied soldiers) that do not stand up to historical scrutiny.

On reading through those narratives, I recognized many of them from Johanne’s documents and indeed the retelling of those stories within my family. Ones that stood out were only considering her family’s experiences as ones of victimhood and sometimes untruthfully embellishing those experiences, insisting that party membership was automatic or essential, obtaining written affidavits from friends and colleagues who talked down one’s national socialist engagement, and claiming to have had good and close relationships with Jewish people/claiming to have aided the hiding or flight of Jewish people at personal cost.

Reading around all this has far better allowed me to make sense of several of Johanne’s post-war claims that I had previously struggled to reconcile: for example with regards to stating that Oskar and Odo were murdered by the Nazis when she knew full well that they weren’t, suggesting that Oskar’s party membership was involuntary when it certainly wasn’t, as well as claiming (and calling on others to claim) that Oskar had helped Jews to flee the Memelland in 1939. It is of course possible that some of these allegations are true, it’s just I now realize that the weight of evidence is against her: millions of Germans claimed similar and have been shown via documentary evidence to have been … liberal with the truth, shall we say.

As for many Germans, especially of my parents’ generation, this throws up issues of loyalty (and, in the psychological study referred to above, it is family loyalty that is suggested to be the driving force in why family memory seems to differ so greatly from what actually happened), and, while I wouldn’t say I have been struggling with it, it has given me pause for thought over the last few months. Is it wrong that I felt so drawn to Oskar from his letters as a wise and caring family father, knowing that he wilfully joined a criminal organization? More importantly for my family, will delving into my family’s (Nazi or otherwise) past shatter our collective memory of a wonderful grandmother and great-grandmother? Is it wrong that I even ask that question? Isn’t it necessary for the sake of the Nazis’ true victims to seek out and tell the truth, however uncomfortable? Is it possible to tell the truth about my family at all, and if it is, is it possible to do so without judgment, not knowing how I would act or not act in that situation?

What has become abundantly clear to me is that the documents we have are incomplete and one-sided. Mum always thought her mother might have rifled through them and removed some things, keen as she was to forget everything that happened before she came to the UK. I need to research extensively in the archives in Berlin, Bayreuth, Hannover, Düsseldorf, Ludwigsburg, and especially in Vilnius. Can I really tell the whole story from the incomplete documents we have? Wouldn’t it make sense to wait until I have researched it properly and then write it all up?

I think in all honesty it is going to be many years until I can get my hands on all that archival material, even if I end up paying someone else to do the donkey work for me, and have come to the conclusion that I might as well crack on with what I’ve got here for now, so, time permitting, you can expect some further activity on this blog in the coming months. It will, I think, do me the world of good to get some of this pondering out of my system and onto the page. It is a curious side effect of all this that I have, for the first time in my life, recognized the Germanness in me. It might sound odd coming from someone who loves Germany, studied it at university for over a decade, has German heritage and, lo, even writes a blog about that heritage, but truth be told I have never felt German. When I lived in Germany, it was either as a British Forces child, or as an English student of German, and while the culture felt reassuringly familiar in some ways, I was always (in my mind) a foreigner. But since starting this project, and especially since reading widely into the ways in which German grandparents’ war experiences have impacted the lives of the generations that follow, I have come to realize how I share in that heritage profoundly.

It has been beyond alienating to be discovering all this within the Brexit chaos currently sweeping the nation. Apart from making me dwell on all the other ways in which Germanness seeped into my upbringing (pre-Christmas Stollen making, wearing socks with sandals, and hearing what I now know is an East Prussian bedtime rhyme each night, for instance), it has made me dwell on a meaningful conversation I had at a local toddler group, when amongst all the banging and crashing and crying, a local acquaintance, who shares a similar heritage to me, being half German and married to a former member of the RAF, said the following as an afterthought:

The war never leaves you.


Johanne, Mum and me in the pushchair in Seesen, 1988

Great-uncle Odo


Odo and Irene in c. 1933 in an unknown location. This is the only photograph of Odo in my family’s possession, and shows him aged about 5.

Last week, an elderly neighbour of ours handed me an invitation to her 90th birthday party next month. I was surprised to learn that she was nearly 90, because she seems so spritely, lives very much in the present and makes the most of the now. I quickly did the maths in my head: she must have been born in 1928. And then I suddenly thought of Odo. He had been born in 1928, too. Odo had always seemed hypothetical to me, an unknown character who seems to wander through my great-grandmother’s documents at inopportune moments, but who never takes centre stage. In that moment of holding my nearly 90 year old neighbour’s birthday invitation, I was suddenly struck by the idea of Odo-in-the-present, a nearly 90 year old Odo, a Great-uncle Odo. After all, I’d had a reasonably close relationship with another of my great-uncles on my father’s side of the family until he died ten years ago. Why should Odo have been any different?

Here’s the spoiler alert: Odo went missing in 1945, age 16, during the closing stages of the war. Mum says Johanne would speak of him wistfully, hoping that he was still alive and out there somewhere, and that he would one day turn up. But there’s not much evidence of wistfulness in the documents. In fact, it all seems a bit bizarre. There is no evidence that Johanne tried to search for him until 1978, when there is a letter from the German Red Cross containing inconclusive results. However, the letter is addressed to her at an address she had not lived at since the early 1960s, suggesting perhaps that she had contacted them some time earlier (though a fifteen year wait for their findings seems a little excessive). But even if she contacted the Red Cross in 1960, that is still 15 years after the last time she saw him. I have trawled through the ‘searching for’ pages of the local Heimatzeitung (Memeler Dampfboot) up until 1962 and found no evidence that she sought to clarify his fate through that means either. She had had him declared dead in June 1958, but already by 1953, when claiming for compensation under the Lastenausgleichsgesetz (a compensation law partially reimbursing the losses of those expelled from the former German territories in the east), Johanne wrote that she only had one child, my grandmother Irene, who was not living with her at the time.

Dad recalls shady doorstep conversations with seemingly random people claiming to have contacts in the GDR who could help her during one of his visits, presumably in the 1980s, and while he has always stressed that he was not totally confident of his German skills, he had understood that these visitors had something to do with trying to find Odo. On reflection, I suspect these events were more likely to have been related to smuggling: Johanne lived in one border area or another all her life, and my reading, along with her own second hand comments via my parents, has taught me that smuggling belonged part and parcel to life on the border. All in all, although she would talk about him on occasion, there is little evidence that Johanne really believed Odo was still alive. And my grandmother Irene almost never mentioned having had a brother at all. On only one occasion can my mother remember her mentioning him: on a trip in the 1990s with her second husband, my family and Johanne to Hahnenklee, we were sitting by the lake there when Irene noted that you can skate on that lake in winter, like she and her brother would do in Memel (I’m not sure whether she meant on the lagoon or on the Memel river, as you could – and can – do both). Her husband, Ralph, looked up at her in surprise and said ‘You had a brother?!’

Mum gave me the impression that Odo had always been a bit of a headache for his parents, that he’d been an intense child who had been difficult to bring up (Mum wonders whether thatmight help to explain the over four year age gap between him and my grandmother), and that she had been led to believe that he and Irene had never been close as siblings. The documents certainly paint a stormy picture of an intense, talented and daring character who took chances, bucked the trend and did his own thing. Even though National Socialist ideology emphasised obedience at all cost, I think we can safely assume Odo didn’t much care for authority: one of the earliest documents concerning him came from his school, the Oberschule für Jungen in Memel, reporting that he had had to be punished for ‘rude and loutish behaviour’ on 13th May 1944. He was certainly not dedicating himself to his studies, as a previous note home from 22nd February in the same year had explained that, because of ‘insufficient and inadequate attainment’ in various subjects, he would not with his attitude towards school be in a position to improve in time for his planned promotion to the next year. Since he had already repeated Class 2, the note went on, he would have to leave the school. His parents were therefore requested to find him some kind of employment, because he was already considered too old to be starting another school, it concluded. But Odo was a chancer, and he always seemed to find a way through when the road ahead looked blocked. Somehow, he must have persuaded them to let him stay on at the school, because the note from 13th May about bad behaviour lists him as a member of Class 3.


The note from the Oberschule für Jungen reporting poor behaviour in May 1944

I wonder whether, out of all of them, it was actually Odo who sniffed in the air that the end was near much sooner than his contemporaries and his family, all of whom assumed the Russians would be driven back decisively and life would go back to normal. I can’t explain his conduct in 1944-5 in any other way. Why else would he not bother trying at school? Why else would he behave so rudely around his superiors? Granted, he was a teen boy whose father had been imprisoned during the important time of his coming of age, and of course his turbulent behaviour was likely a reaction to this, too. But I also get the impression that he always seemed to make the most of whatever situation he found himself in. While his mother was lamenting about the lack of food and shelter during their evacuation to Saxony in 1944-5, Odo was seemingly making use of the greater freedom of travel brought about by the refugee crisis to visit friends back in East Prussia in Deutsch Eylau. When the home guard battalion was retreating from Memel down the Curonian Spit in the autumn of 1944, Odo was travelling up from Königsberg to meet them at Perwelk in the hope of finding his father there (only to be told of his death a few weeks earlier). His parents clearly had concerns for him, as he frequently gets a mention in their letters, whereas Irene never does. In the earliest document that has survived, a letter from Oskar to the family which he wrote in prison in Tilsit in 1942, Oskar describes Odo’s talent (we are not told for what) as a wonderful thing, and one gets the impression of Odo as a self-confident showman who often charmed people, but who had a growing tendency towards instability as the war raged on. In Oskar’s letter from Buddelkehmen in August 1944, he writes of evacuees returning to Memel despite the authorities not endorsing this. He adds that he half expected Odo would try it, because he was pfiffig (‘canny’ or ‘shrewd’). For her part, Johanne addressed all of her later returned letters home to both Oskar and Odo, so she must have assumed Odo was in Memel in the autumn of 1944. She was clearly worried about him, asking Oskar to make sure that he didn’t ‘go off the rails’.

What exactly Odo was up to in 1944 is not obvious from Johanne’s documents alone. Given that he turned 16 in August 1944, he was almost certainly conscripted straight from school that summer. Various sources indicate that the Gauleiter of East Prussia, Erich Koch, mobilized the few not yet conscripted men along with around 6000 members of the Hitler Youth to build and guard a 2.5m deep and in places 4m wide trench, known in common parlance as the Erich-Koch-Wall (‘the Erich Koch Rampart’), to defend the province from the rapidly approaching Russians. This was probably also the work that Odo’s father Oskar was conscripted into as part of the Küstenhilfswehr (see this blog post). Apparently, the U-boat commander Karl Friedrich Merten, who was stationed in Memel at the time, was so enraged at the deployment of such young boys so close to the rapidly approaching front that he ordered and arranged their evacuation by sea soon after, much to the fury of the Gauleiter Koch. A mediator, Karl Dönitz, the famous Great Amiral who briefly succeeded Hitler as head of state in 1945, even had to be called in to smooth things out between them.

There is nothing in Johanne’s documents to link Odo to these events, but I think we can assume, given his age, that he was probably also conscripted and evacuated along with the 6000 others. Certainly, when Oskar wrote his letter to Johanne from Buddelkehmen in mid-August 1944, he seems to have thought Odo was with her and Irene, because he asks her to pass on his love to the children. It’s likely, then, that Odo had managed to locate his mother and sister wherever they had been evacuated, and even if he had not been reunited with them, I get the impression that Oskar, at least, knew (or thought he knew) his whereabouts.

What is certain is that Odo returned to Memel, just like his mother and sister, in late August/early September 1944, after the initial advance of the Russians had slowed, because all of Johanne’s letters home in the autumn of 1944 were addressed to both Oskar and Odo as previously mentioned. However, Johanne often asks Oskar to update her on her son’s whereabouts, so she clearly wasn’t sure whether he was still in Memel. It is likely that Odo was still bound under the terms of his earlier conscription: a decree given by Hitler on 25th September resulted in the formation of the Volkssturm (home guard), so even if Odo hadn’t already been called up to the Army or Reichsarbeitsdienst (usually known as the RAD, the Reich Labour Service, a duty of all teenagers after leaving school), he would certainly have been mobilized following this decree. Under Draft III, those born in 1928 who were not already serving in the Wehrmacht or the Waffen-SS were required to be trained for combat until 31st March 1945, either as part of the Hitler Youth or the Reich Labour Service (source).

Following the start of the Red Army’s offensive on East Prussia on 5th October 1944, Johanne and Irene were once more evacuated, this time to Eibau in Saxony, and Oskar was killed age 47 by a grenade while defending his home town on 10th October. Odo was not evacuated, and his exact location is unclear. Johanne and Irene didn’t hear of Oskar’s death from his by then Volkssturm company until mid-November 1944, and it was via these channels that Johanne made inquiries as to Odo’s whereabouts. In a correspondence with the battalion leader of the KHW in Memel in December 1944, Johanne had sought to locate the whereabouts of the radio that Oskar had had which he seems to have taken with him to his quarters. In his response, the battalion leader noted that Oskar had had it in Buddelkehmen, where he had been quartered with a farmer called Jurkutat until late September 1944, and had used it there ‘with his son’, so Odo must have at least passed through Buddelkehmen, if indeed he too had not been stationed there or nearby. Perhaps he was also redeployed in late September because of the approaching front, perhaps also in Memel, like his father. What is certain is that he did not form part of the guard at the municipal water works that Oskar belonged to in early October, and if Odo was briefly involved in the defence of Memel, he probably retreated down the Curonian Spit and was redeployed in Königsberg.



Maps of Buddelkehmen and the farm belonging to Jurkutat where Oskar  (and possibly Odo too) had been quartered in the summer of 1944 Source


A map of Germany in 1944, with my not very professional-looking annotations: 1. Memel/Buddelkehmen, 2. Perwelk, 3. Deutsch Eylau, 4. Eibau, 5. Gossengrün Source

Johanne was understandably desperate for news of her son and seems to have persued every avenue to try and locate him. Gustav Isenheim, a friend of Oskar’s (and indeed the whole family’s) from the KHW, wrote to her on 27th November from Perwelk, on the Curonian Spit, where the battalion had retreated to. He wrote that he’d heard Odo was alive and was part of the Volkssturm in either Memel or Königsberg. In another letter dated 16th December he said he couldn’t provide Johanne with any more details as to Odo’s whereabouts, but that he had learned from the battalion headquarters that Odo had come to Perwelk around 6 weeks previously searching for his father. However, Isenheim went on, he hadn’t seen Odo personally. Once he (Odo) had learnt of the death of his father, he left Perwelk without leaving an address behind. Isenheim thought it likely that Odo was with the Volkssturm in Königsberg. A letter dated 7th December from Heinrich Neubacher, who had witnessed Oskar’s death and had written to Johanne with details of how it happened, also wrote that Odo had apparently turned up in Perwelk some weeks ago trying to find his father and that he, too, thought him likely to be in Königsberg with the Volkssturm there. This suspicion was also echoed in a letter possibly from the battalion leader (his name and rank are completely illegible), who, in a rather exasperated way reminded Johanne that he had already told her in a previous letter (not in the documents) that Odo had indicated during his brief visit to Perwelk that he was currently deployed by the Volkssturm in Königsberg.

This all places Odo in Perwelk at around the start of November 1944, meaning that he must have been the first in the family to have learnt of Oskar’s death. Of course, at this point, he didn’t know where his mother and sister had been evacuated to, so he couldn’t pass on the news. Presumably, Johanne got in touch with the Wehrkreiskommando (military district headquarters) in Königsberg and located him that way, because it is certain that Odo spent some time with Johanne and Irene in their quarters in Eibau around Christmas 1944, which suggests that their address had been forwarded to him by the end of 1944. We know that he must have stayed in Eibau for two reasons: first, on Johanne’s application to have him declared dead from 1958, Eibau is listed as his last known residence. Second, there is a fragment of a letter from January 1945 in which we learn of Odo being contacted by the military district headquarters in Bautzen, not far away from Eibau, which indicates that Eibau must have been where Odo was registered as living. This letter is so intriguing that it’s worth translating it all here, not that it helps much, because we only have the first page, and many words are missing, I assume because someone (presumably Johanne, to sell it to collectors after the war) cut out the stamp on the reverse side. It is dated 16th January 1945, was written by Johanne to Odo and posted to an address in Deutsch Eylau, c/o what looks like Hubert Lenck, interestingly enough next door to the address of a friend, Brigitte Hermenau, given by Irene to Oskar as a point of contact in a letter on their arrival in Eibau. It was sent back to Eibau on 22nd February, having not reached Odo at that address, but Johanne and Irene had been evacuated further west, again because of the approaching front. Johanne had clearly thought Odo would continue to contact her at Eibau so had sent on her forwarding address once they knew it at Hartmannsdorf, near Chemnitz, and, amazingly, given the chaos around them, good old German bureaucracy meant that this letter was forwarded to them in Hartmannsdorf on 8th March.


Johanne’s letter to Odo written on 16th January 1945

Here’s a rough translation:


Dear Odo!

I told you (both/all) to write straight away! Now the military district headquarters at Bautzen have been in touch and you’re supposed to show up there for inspection on 24th January or send them your new address. So when you get this letter, write [missing] to Bautzen and tell them where you [missing] and also tell me when I will [missing]. The job centre at [missing] -town has also been in touch I said you would (both/all) write to me straight away. ?Bubi’s father has sent me his notice of departure. I’ll send it on only when I know your address. His father said otherwise I should just send it back to him. Hüttner asked where you were, and I said you were with acquaintances in [missing]

I have no idea who ‘Bubi’ refers to (presumably a nickname, as Bube is an affectionate word for ‘boy’ in German), and no idea who Hüttner was either. Obviously it sounds like Odo intended to travel to Deutsch Eylau with this friend known as Bubi (who might possibly also have come from Memel and whose family had probably also been evacuated to Saxony too), for what reason we cannot be sure. It is a curious choice of destination, because although it sounds like the Szameitats had friends there, it obviously lies further east and is definitely in the wrong direction as regards the rapidly approaching front. Indeed, given that the letter never reached Odo, we might surmise that he never made it to Deutsch Eylau at all, which might well explain why Johanne hadn’t heard anything from him yet. That he never made it there is supported by the fact that in January 1945 the road and rail network was completely full of the rapidly retreating Wehrmacht in addition to millions of refugees fleeing the front. It was also a bitterly cold winter, with temperatures of -25°C. Deutsch Eylau was also evacuated of its civilians on 19th/20th January, just a few days after Johanne sent the letter. On 22nd January it fell to the Russians (source). Johanne’s letter was unlikely to have got through, hence it was returned to sender. If Odo did spend any time in Deutsch Eylau, it wasn’t for long, or he would have fallen into Russian captivity, especially because the Red Army reached the coast at Elbing by 26th January, severing off Königsberg from the rest of the Reich (source).


Odo’s declaration of death from 1958, which lists his last known movements

Quite where Odo had got to by this stage isn’t certain, but it’s very likely that he ended up in Königsberg. We know this, because when Johanne had him declared dead in 1958, she said that he had been called up to the RAD (Reich Labour Service) in Königsberg (though other documents seem to suggest he was called up to the Volkssturm there, no one seemed to be certain which) and that he had either reported there for duty or got in touch once there (the German, sich melden, is ambiguous as to whom exactly Odo reported his presence). The last time anyone heard from him (again, it’s ambiguous as to who) was on 15th January 1945.

It seems likely, then, that Odo visited Eibau at the end of 1944 during some kind of leave, either that or whatever contract he had hitherto been conscripted into had finished or become void (I am a little perplexed as to why he seems to have been called up to the Volkssturm first, and then the RAD (Reich Labour Service) later, unless you were called up to one as part of the other, if that makes sense). On registering his new address as in Eibau, he was then also called up by the military district headquarters at Bautzen, as well as presumably being called up to the RAD in Königsberg under the terms of his previous conscription. If you look at the map above, you’ll see that Deutsch Eylau is sort of on the way to Königsberg from Eibau. I reckon Odo and ‘Bubi’ thought they might try and stay with some friends on the way back to Königsberg.

The last document associated with Odo that we have is the most intriguing. It is a letter written to Odo from a young friend of his, dated 31st January 1945. This is what it says:


Gossengrün, 31.01.45

Dear Udo!

I arrived in Gossengrün on 28th January and I hope you did too. If you’re not yet here, get in touch later straight away – I won’t contact you to start with. I’ll wait for you to let me know. Send me the flight book via registered post. Come to me. You can travel easily as a refugee. We want to do our RAD thing together. Afterwards I’ll come to yours (plural – VT) again. So if you’re here you know what you need to do.

See you,


Gossengrün, it transpires, is miles away in the Sudetenland, and is now Krajková in the Czech Republic. Who was this Emil, if that indeed is what it says at the bottom of the letter? And does the reference to a flight book give a clue as to the type of combat Odo was being trained for? Where did this letter get sent to? It was written on Feldpost paper, on which one habitually wrote one’s message on one side, before folding it in half and making it into its own envelope. The address would thus be on the other side. But the address on this letter makes no sense. It is in Johanne’s writing and is addressed to where they had been quartered in Eibau, but the sender’s address is listed as Altmorhausen, in the Oldenburger Land, which was where Johanne and Irene were quartered after the war in the British sector before settling in Seesen. This must surely mean that this letter was in Johanne’s possession a year later, its original envelope lost, and she planned to send it to Eibau, either 1. because that was Odo’s last residential address and presumably the first place he would try looking for his family, so he may be reachable there or 2. this Emil also lived at or had been quartered at that address. For whatever reason, however, Johanne did not send it, and it found its way into her documents. I suspect Emil either originally sent it to Eibau, or possibly to an administrative address locally that he thought Odo would be reachable at.


Königsberg in 1945, laid to ruin primarily by two devastating bombing raids by the RAF in the summer of 1944 Source

That one 16 year old could have been called up to the Volkssturm/RAD in three different locations gives a picture of the kind of chaos that was typical of the closing stages of the war. I don’t believe Odo could have got anywhere near Gossengrün. Only a couple of weeks after his arrival in Königsberg in early 1945, the opportunity to travel was hugely curtailed by the fact that the Russians had surrounded Königsberg. So what happened to him, then, after the trail went cold in mid-January 1945?

There are numerous options. The fact that Johanne received no letters from him after 15th January does not necessarily mean he died at that point – in fact, it’s likely he lived longer and did try to communicate with his family, but no post could get through. He could have been killed in combat, or during the street fighting during the Battle of Königsberg in early April 1945. He could have died of hunger during the siege that preceded the battle, or after the end of the war along with tens of thousands of other civilians. He could have been taken captive by the Russians as a soldier and carted off to Siberia like so many others, or he could have been killed as a result of victors’ arbitrary violence. He could have died of typhus or another disease in the years after the war, or he could have committed suicide, or he could have been shot for desertion. Finally, he could have survived, and not been able to contact with his family for whatever reason (many thousands of East Prussian ‘wolf children’ made their way to Lithuania in search of food and took on new identities).


A young Volkssturm combatant in 1945 Source

In the letter from the German Red Cross in 1978, Johanne was told that despite extensive research, including a search of all the relevant available war-time and post-war documents, contacting all relevant soldiers returning to Germany from captivity, and searching via the Soviet Red Cross for the possibility of him having been deported to Siberia, there was no trace of Odo anywhere. As a result, it was their view that Odo almost certainly died in captivity, probably of starvation, disease, or exhaustion, before an official registration had taken place.


Extract from the German Red Cross letter to Johanne in 1978

Around 100,000 civilians were in Königsberg at the time of its surrender, the letter went on, and these civilians were taken captive, moved to various locations in what was soon to become the Kaliningrad Oblast and forced to undertake heavy manual labour clearing the destroyed towns, streets and railways. It seems likely that Odo died during this time.

And yet, this narrative doesn’t seem to fit well with Odo’s daring and shrewd personality that we find displayed in the documents, and I just can’t quite stomach it. I contacted the Deutsche Dienststelle last year, a government agency that holds records of former members of the Wehrmacht, only to be told that they had no record of Odo either. In some ways, this is not surprising, because as far as I can tell the Volkssturm was independent of the Wehrmacht, and the RAD certainly was. But it seems strange that, in the reasonably tight-knit community of Memelländers in post-war West Germany, at least as far as their search organs were concerned, not one of Odo’s compatriots could have given any information. After all, in the back of Johanne’s mind lurked the suspicion that her son, along with her husband, had been murdered out of revenge for Oskar’s alleged treason.

I sometimes wonder what Odo would have been like as an old man. Would he have told good jokes? Would he have continued to go against the grain his whole life? Would he and my grandmother have grown closer in adulthood as the survivors of shared trauma? Because his was a life that could have been. Yet like his grandfather Emil and hundreds of thousands of others whose fates have never been clarified, exactly what happened to Odo will remain a mystery, an all too common yet tragic example of the folly of war.

Defending Memel in 1944: Oskar’s death in battle


Part of the notification of Oskar’s death that Johanne received in mid-November 1944

When Johanne and Irene received news of Oskar’s death, it had probably barely been a month since they had last seen him. In one of her documents, Johanne lists early October 1944 as the last time she had had contact with her husband, whether in person or not is not stated. By 11th October, he was dead. On 16th October, notice was given of his death. Johanne must have received the news by mid-November, because there is an abrupt end to her letters to him from Saxony at this point. When reading through those letters, sent in October on 22nd, 24th, and 31st, and then on 7th and 9th November, her silence thereafter seems deafening. That sense of emptiness gives me a tiny glimpse into how it must have felt to know that she would now never receive a reply.

Of all the events in the Szameitat story, Oskar’s death is probably the best documented in the files. I have sometimes wondered why, but I think I know the answer. We tend to keep things that are of the most importance to us, letting the less important things go over the years. It seems that Johanne kept hold of every letter and every detail she received concerning her husband’s death, presumably carrying them on her person during the rest of their Flucht, storing them safely in her new home in Seesen and only relinquishing them in 1995, when she felt she was too elderly to keep them safe herself. Mum remembers Johanne showing her Oskar’s police ID when she was growing up, but this was not included in the documents Johanne gave to her in 1995. Perhaps that one was too painful to hand over, with all it stood for: Oskar’s work as a detective on that infamous and politicized murder case in 1934, his imprisonment under the Nazis in 1941-2 and subsequent dismissal from office, his death defending their home in 1944, and the very great lengths she went to to prove his innocence in the 1950s and ’60s. We don’t know what happened to that document: it was probably cleared by the authorities when Johanne was moved into an old people’s home in 1995, or, if she took it with her, irresponsibly disposed of following her death in 1996.

With that police ID went the only photograph of my great-grandfather known to have been in the family’s possession, and he has had to remain a faceless figure for me (Mum can remember nothing about what he looked like in that photograph). I have a dream that one day I will find documents relating to his imprisonment in Tilsit in some archive or other, and that maybe, just maybe, there might be a photograph of him there. Because of all the characters in this story, I am drawn to Oskar the most, just like his daughter seems to have been. Is it possible to feel like you know someone purely through the written record? I would wager that it is. From simply reading the small exchange of letters between him and Johanne, along with the memories and letters of former colleagues and friends, my great-grandfather has become very familiar to me, and I have grown to respect and admire him for his apparent wisdom, gentleness, deep sense of caring, and unending trust that good will prevail. Which is why it hurts all the more to know that he wilfully joined the NSDAP (whatever the circumstances) and knowingly profited from the misfortune of Jews (in spite of apparently helping other Jews to flee). When people we love and admire fall short of our own standards, it is very sad and unsettling, not least because we know that, given a situation such as this, we would probably have done the same.

Looking at the whole of Oskar’s life, I am confronted with the impression of a man who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time again and again. It started when he was just three years old when his mother died in childbirth and his father became an alcoholic. Why did that set of circumstances fall on him? Was it an omen of what was to come? Schooled first in Tilsit and then the Oberschule in Memel, he got caught up in the euphoria of the 1914 outbreak of war and signed up voluntarily. He fought on the Western front at Argonne and at the Somme as part of the 45th Infantry Regiment and was wounded in battle in 1917. After an operation to remove shrapnel from his left thigh and buttock in Memel, he was deployed on the Eastern Front as part of a field aviation unit, where he was a machine gunner until the armistice in 1918. Afterwards, according to Johanne, he fought against the Bolshevists as a volunteer fighter in Courland, presumably as part of a Freikorps unit.

Immediately after the war, he joined the police force in the newly created Memel Territory. In a post-war edition of the Heimatzeitung (local newspaper for those deported) for the region, the Memeler Dampfboot, we learn in an article about the former Landespolizei (the Memel Territory’s police force) how, because many of those working for the police force were from Germany and therefore chose to leave the newly created Memel Territory after it was separated from the Reich in 1919, there was an urgent need to recruit new policemen, who were mostly drawn from the ranks of the military (see Number 21 in 1955). Oskar was presumably part of that wave of new recruits. In his role as a Kriminalassistent, he lived and worked in Memel, both during the French occupation and after the Lithuanian takeover in 1923. At some point in the 1920s, he met and started courting Johanne Pätzel, and he (and presumably later also she) lived north of the river in Verlängerte-Alexanderstraße 19 (later renamed and renumbered Otto-Böttcher-Straße 14). As described elsewhere, they married in 1927 and welcomed their two children to the world amid the regional social and political upheaval of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Oskar was promoted in 1929 to Kriminalsekretär, something like a detective seargent.

In 1934, possibly in August, the family was transferred to the county town of Pogegen, very near the new border with Germany, and it was here that Oskar was embroiled in what turned out to be a political murder case that will have to wait for its own blog post to be explored fully. This was definitely one such time when Oskar was in the wrong place at the wrong time, trying to do an impartial job as a detective while simultaneously suspecting that whatever he and his team discovered would have serious political consequences, and being forced to pass that information to the despised Lithuanian authorities.

Did he breathe a sigh of relief when Hitler sailed to Memel in March 1939, symbolically bringing the region heim ins Reich? Or did he expect repercussions? I don’t think he thought life under the Lithuanian administration, with its anti-German policies and autocratic tendencies, to be particularly pleasant, and I suspect he cheered inwardly and probably outwardly along with everyone else to be German again. But, despite his party membership, he was no convinced National Socialist, either, and, unsurprisingly, became emphatically anti-Nazi after his imprisonment, according to one signed affidavit in the files.

In 1939, after transferring back to Memel and moving in to Hospitalstraße 22, Oskar, along with all his colleagues, was subsumed into the ranks of the German Empire’s police force but continued doing the job he had been doing under Lithuanian rule. Until, catching many of his colleagues by surprise, he was suddenly arrested on suspicion of treason on 10th February 1941, probably in the Polizeidirektion in Memel, and delivered to the Gestapostelle Tilsit for interrogation.


Pre-war and modern images of the Hochhaus an der Dange, in which, from 1940, the Polizeidirektion was housed, where Oskar worked and is likely to have been arrested on 10th February 1941 Source

The circumstances surrounding Oskar’s arrest, imprisonment and subsequent dismissal from office are so complex that they will require a series of blog posts to do them justice. Suffice it to say that no charge could be brought against him and he was released from prison on 15th December 1942, by which point, Johanne tells us, he was barely recognizable because he had been starved down to skin and bone and had been ordered to remain silent about the reasons for and details of his arrest and imprisonment. He continued to receive a small portion of his salary before being dismissed from his civil servant status (including all rights to a pension) in August 1943. Various documents tell us that he had to take whatever jobs he could get hold of, which included working in the production line at the Friedemann soap factory in Memel.

Given that he was in his late forties, conscription was not mandatory for Oskar until 1944, but it’s not clear exactly when he was called up. In one document, Johanne suggests he was conscripted at the beginning of 1944, but in another she lists his conscription date as 17th July 1944, and this is supported by the testimony of a comrade of his (see below). Having fought in the First World War, he already carried the rank of Gefreiter (private). We know that he was conscripted into the Kompanie Roßgarten (Roßgarten being the part of Memel they lived in) in the Küstenhilfswehr (Coastal Relief Defence), which was later united under the Volkssturm (home guard) and whose basic tasks seemed to be preparing and manning defences around Memel. On 15th August 1944, he wrote a letter to Johanne (who had been evacuated along with Irene) from Buddelkehmen, a village south of Memel that happened to be very close to Schweppeln, where the family’s expropriated property had been, and one of his tasks seems to have been milking the cows that had been left behind after the evacuation. Later, he must have been contactable via the Staatsbauschule in Memel, because that is the address Johanne and Irene wrote to until they heard of his death. Johanne later wrote to his battalion inquiring as to the whereabouts of the radio that had been in Oskar’s possession (access to news, biased though it was, was extremely hard to come by during the closing stages of the war, so I can understand why Johanne seems to have gone to some lengths to track down their radio), and in the reply she was informed that about two weeks before the Russian advance (i.e. late September 1944), Oskar had been redeployed along with several others to form a permanent guard at Memel’s municipal gas and waterworks. It must have felt a bit like a homecoming to Oskar, who had spent several years living on that same street, the Verlängerte-Alexanderstraße, in his younger days. The guard was supported from the municipal hospital (Städtisches Krankenhaus) a few streets away, but was quartered in the water tower at the works. According to the communication about Oskar’s belongings, it seems that he had taken what little he owned with him into the water tower (including that radio).




The municipal waterworks in Memel, in which (in the water tower) Oskar was quartered in late September 1944 as part of a permanent guard. The works was damaged during the fighting and later torn down by the Soviets in the 1960s Source

The details of his death mainly come from letters written to Johanne by two of Oskar’s comrades from the KHW, which can be supplemented by more general information about the Russian advance to be found elsewhere. Gustav Isenheim seems to have been a fellow KHW comrade of Oskar’s from a different company who, despite only getting to know Oskar after 17th July 1944, quickly came to regard him as a friend. Johanne had either met him or heard a lot about him from Oskar, because the two letters from Isenheim show that she and he were very familiar with each other. After the war, Johanne managed to track him down as a witness for her compensation claim, and they seem to have retained that sense of mutual affection from 1944. Isenheim was not present at Oskar’s death, but as a comrade of Oskar’s that Johanne knew personally, he was a point of contact for her. The second comrade was someone called Heinrich Neubacher, who alongside Oskar and others had been charged with guarding the waterworks, and though he had only known him for a couple of weeks, he was a witness of his death.

Plieg (2013), Kurschat (1990) and others give details about the defence of Memel in those fateful October days: when the Wehrmacht was unable to stop the Russian advance at Šiauliai in late September, it was only a matter of time before Memel itself would come under attack. On 5th October, the Russians launched their major offensive on East Prussia, and by 7th, Memel had been cut off to the south (Plieg 2013:361). On the 8th, the Red Army tried to take Memel and, starting at dawn, fired everything they had at the city’s defence ring, but the German defences held fast. By 10th, the Red Army had reached the Baltic coast at Palanga, just a few kilometres north of Memel, surrounding the city. The barrage of artillery and bombs grew in intensity, pausing in the evening of 10th, only to pick up again at dawn on 11th and 12th (Plieg, 2013:362). It was during this time that significant public buildings such as the stock exchange, most of the churches, large parts of the old town and the dockside warehouses were extensively damaged (Kurschat, 1990:216). And it was during this time that Oskar also met his death.


The destroyed stock exchange and old post office Source: Kurschat (1990:215)


The stock exchange and old post office in a prewar picture Source

Heinrich Neubacher, who must have written his letter in great haste (there is practically no punctuation) and whose many spelling mistakes are suggestive of a humble background, provided Johanne with the details of her husband’s death, which I translate (relatively loosely) in its entirety here, because it captures the atmosphere of that fateful and tragic time and is starkly unsettling in its emotionless retelling of what happened:

Dear Frau Szameitat,

I received your letter concerning your husband and I will explain what happened briefly. I was transfered as part of the Steintor company from Leisten, where we were based, to Memel, along with two other comrades, to form a permanent guard at the municipal gas and waterworks. The following comrades were deployed: one sergeant, Behrendt, Private Szameitat, KHW-man Schwarz and KHW-man Ottig from the Roßgarten company, and from the Steintor company there was me, Neubacher, Klaus and Masuhr, totalling eight men and one sergeant that made up the guard. Four of us were housed in the water tower, and four in the municipal hospital. The general mood was positive and the camaraderie between us all was very good. Until the first assault on Memel on 8th, which wasn’t actually that bad. On the afternoon of Monday 9th there was another assault which did a lot of damage to the harbour area. On 10th early in the morning from 6am there began a truly dreadful bombardment which hit many vitally important establishments. The gas and waterworks were hit and we couldn’t leave the water tower as the main water pipe had been hit and there was also a large gas leak all around us. We stayed inside until the evening, our plan was to wait until the assault subsided and then leave the water tower under the cover of darkness and relocate to the marine arsenal bunker on the Dange river where we also provided a guard over night. The Russians had already advanced as far as Bachmann-Klemmenhof, and the Otto-Böttcher-Straße, Werftstraße and Fabrikstraße were under fire. The plan was to all go one by one along the street from the waterworks to the river. The order was Ottig, Schwarz, Szameitat, Masuhr, Klaus, Neubacher. Sergeant Behrendt stayed in the tower. As I crossed the street from the water tower on the corner of the Textil-Fabrikstraße, there was suddenly a barrage of bullets and shells. Klaus and I threw ourselves flat on the ground and lay still for half an hour until it all subsided, and then we crossed the battlefield to the Dange. As I arrived, I realized that only Ottig and Schwarz were there, and Szameitat and Masuhr were missing. Two marine soldiers and I went back to look for them. It was very dark, and we called their names. I could hear some people moving and while following the sound I tripped over something dark and I could feel that it was a lifeless human body. We couldn’t use a light and five steps further I found Masuhr, who was stunned but only slightly injured. We carried him to the bunker where he was able to recover. Then we went back out again, put the dead body on a blanket and carried him to the yard of the Preukschat Brothers’ iron foundry. Given that it was night time, there was no more we could do for him. The next morning, four of us went back (to the iron foundry) to identify with certainty that it was Oskar Szameitat. His head had been blown off, his right arm up to his elbow lay not far away, then we found his military ID and a few papers in a small box, other than that we couldn’t find any personal items. He’d had a large chest full of clothes, but no one seems to know where he had stored that. He had also brought a radio into the water tower which was left there when we retreated to Sandkrug on the Wednesday. On the morning of the Wednesday Klaus and I went to the battalion at the Aufbauschule to register his death but no one was there, everyone had already left for Schwarzort by steam ship. So in the afternoon we buried him in the yard of the Preukschat brothers’ iron foundry on Werftstraße. Since then I haven’t been in Memel. The entire battalion is now in Perwelk. Isenheim is also here. Your son Otto [Odo – VT] is supposed to have come here a few weeks ago asking after his father, apparently he’s in a home guard battalion near Königsberg but I don’t know any more than that. I also know nothing about the whereabouts of his property. Because we each had to deal with our own affairs and make sure we got away alive. My comrades and I only took the bare essentials with us, most of our belongings were left in the water tower. It’s unlikely that we’ll find any of it now. I need to stop now, I have no paper.

All best

Heinrich Neubacher

Unlike Neubacher’s letter, Isenheim’s are less emotionally distant and his detail is considerate of the things a grieving wife needs to hear (and that Johanne had probably asked him): that death was instantaneous and Oskar hadn’t had to suffer, that he was buried in a “garden” at the iron foundry, that Oskar and his comrade Masuhr had waited for five minutes after Ottig and Schwarz had left the waterworks before setting out themselves, that it had happened at about four thirty in the afternoon (though in the official correspondence, the time given was six o’clock in the evening), that no one knew whether his body had been mutilated by a shell that hit him after death or whether the blast that killed him had also ripped apart his body, and, poignantly, that his wedding ring was not removed from his right hand.

Oskar met his death on 10th or possibly 11th October 1944 (another source lists 11th as his death date), defending the city he had for so many years called home. Despite the barrage of bombs and bullets, the Red Army was unable to take the city until it was abandoned much later, and they stopped the offensive there on 13th October. Of all the guard relocating to the marine arsenal, Oskar was the only one killed. Tragically it seems that, on one final occasion, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Sketch of the site of Oskar’s death and grave

Having for some years lived round the corner from the scene of her husband’s death, Johanne must have been able to picture the area in her mind just from reading Neubacher’s and Isenheim’s accounts. Nevertheless, she was also provided with a sketch of the area, and it’s possible from this sketch to reconstruct where it all happened alongside maps of modern Klaipėda.


Map of Memel annotated with details of Oskar’s death and grave Source


A modern map of the site

Armed with this knowledge, I put out a post in one of the (more moderate) East Prussia Facebook groups inquiring about what usually happened to impromptu German war graves such as this one when they were stumbled upon by the Soviets. I was told that they were usually plundered, then levelled, so I didn’t feel too hopeful that Oskar’s body was still buried in the same spot. From another post-war edition of the Memeler Dampfboot, I had learnt from a report of a German sailor that managed to get onto land that the Preukschat iron foundry had been put back into use as early as late 1945, so it seems likely that his grave would have been disturbed. However, I was also encouraged via the Facebook group to get in contact with the Volksbund für deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, which is an organization a bit like the War Graves Commission, and send over the details of the location of his grave. Eventually they got back to me and informed me that graves that had been marked with a cross, as Oskar’s had, were removed of such external symbols to prevent the enemy from having accurate information about the number of casualties. In addition, I was informed that the information I had sent was being forwarded to the team that dealt with the transfer of remains, suggesting that, at some point, the site will be surveyed to see if it’s likely that Oskar’s body is still there. If he is found, his remains will be moved to the German war cemetery in Klaipėda/Memel. I asked to be kept informed so that, if it comes to it, someone from our family could be present at his reburial. Johanne would definitely have wanted that.

A chance virtual encounter in a different Facebook group led me to get to see the burial site almost as if I were there myself. Someone called Manfred posted saying he was travelling to Klaipėda and asked for tips on what to see. I asked whether he would mind popping along to Ligoninės g. 5/Hospitalstraße 22 to take a picture as the only one I had is from Google StreetView. It turns out his grandmother had lived next door at number 20! What are the chances! In addition to sending over up-to-date photographs of Hospitalstraße 22, he agreed to photograph the site of Oskar’s death and burial (shared below with his permission). Oh, and he took his drone with him, too (as you do). I knew from StreetView that the area Oskar had been buried was now industrial land, but Manfred managed to get much closer and thinks it likely that his grave was either under the greenhouse or in the garden next to it. He (Manfred) even tried to ask the gardener he saw working there, but he spoke neither German nor English so they didn’t get very far. A garden, of course, was where Isenheim said Oskar had been buried. Maybe the Volksbund will be able to find him after all. It would have meant a lot to Johanne if they did. Somehow it would mean a lot to me, too.


The view north up the former Fabrikstraße, where Oskar was fatally hit by a grenade


Oskar’s likely burial place, August 2017


The view from above. Oskar is probably buried under the greenhouse on the right or the adjacent garden


Kurschat, Heinrich. 1990. Das Buch vom Memelland: Heimatkunde eines deutschen Grenzlandes. Oldenburg: Verlag Werbedruck Köhler.

Pölking, Hermann. 2013. Das Memelland: wo Deutschland einst zu Ende war. Ein historischer Reisebegleiter. Berlin: be.bra verlag.

Opa Emil: history and tragedy

Of all the characters in the Szameitat story, I think Emil is the one I most wish I could have discussed Germany’s history with. Born in 1865 before the country was even unified, he had variously been a citizen of the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, the Memel Territory, an independent Lithuania, and Nazi Germany. By the 1940s, he must have felt out of touch with the political developments, having lived through so much change. In the documents, he comes across as a complex and indeed tragic character: an Opa-like figure who had suffered much in his life, prone to alcoholism and liable to being swindled.

The main source of information about Emil, who was Oskar’s father and thus my great-great-grandfather, comes from Johanne’s property compensation claims made in the late 1960s. Under the Lastenausgleich, a kind of property compensation law, former refugees could apply to a monetary fund to compensate for losses incurred as a result of the war. The property Johanne was concerned with was in Schweppeln, just outside Memel, which had been owned by Emil’s second wife Lucinde Szameitat née Bendig. She died in 1941, and, according to Johanne, the smallholding of some seven and a half acres had been expropriated following Oskar’s arrest and imprisonment and handed to Nazi sympathisers, Otto and Erna Günther. After the war, Otto was missing presumed dead after the Battle of Stalingrad and Erna had applied for compensation on the property, meaning that Johanne was unable to claim it for herself. Once she had proven that Oskar had indeed been persecuted for political reasons, she notified the relevant authorities about the Schweppeln property, and there followed a lengthy court case against Erna Günther for claiming compensation that was not rightfully hers because the property had been acquired as a result of an expropriation.

This detail would be rather by the by if it weren’t for the fact that Emil’s fate was inextricably linked with that of the Günther family, who, in a bizarre twist, happened to be distantly related to the Szameitats (Johanne’s brother-in-law Fritz Jonathal was apparently a cousin of Erna Günther). Emil continued to live as a tenant at the property he used to own, an embittered old man dependent on the charity of those who had benefitted from his misfortune. It was from here that, age 79, he began his treck west away from the approaching front.


Johanne’s notes on Emil in the files

The starting point for my information about Emil was a scrap of paper in Johanne’s writing that seemed to have some of his biographical details on. It looks like some notes she made, maybe while having a phone conversation with someone who knew Emil’s dates better than she did. As it transpires, almost all of the information listed is inaccurate, and Johanne clearly doubted it because in no official documentation did she give his full name or birth date. But it did give me an important hint that I had hitherto not known: the Szameitats, or Emil’s family at least, had come from south of the river, in Tilsit.

The website Ancestry is strangely addictive. Set up by the LDS church, it pools millions of historical records worldwide that can be perused from the comfort of your own living room. It is not cheap, and I could sense that the armchair archaeologist in me would become addicted if I signed up long term, so I had hitherto avoided it. Noticing, however, that there was a 14 day free trial starting over the August bank holiday weekend, I thought I’d sign up briefly to see if I could find out any records relating to Emil and the Szameitat family.


The Deutsche Kirche in Tilsit, where Emil was baptised and later married Source

From only a handful of records, I was able to glean much about Emil’s early life. Baptised Andreas Emil in 1865 in the Deutsche Kirche in Tilsit, he was the third son of master butcher Daniel Szameitat, married to Lisette née Kuge. His parents had married in 1859, his mother coming from a German family originally from Königsberg. I wrote elsewhere that the name Szameitat indicates a Samogitian/Lower Lithuanian background. The fact that the family’s records were in the Deutsche Kirche, rather than the Lithuanian speaking Lutheran church, of which there was also one in Tilsit, suggests that the family probably spoke German. Perhaps assimilation occurred with Daniel’s move to the town: I have been unable to find his baptism record, leading me to suspect he came originally from north of the river where many of the church records have been lost. Not only this, but following his marriage, Emil moved with his wife to Paszieszen, north of the river in the Heydekrug district. Since many other Szameitats lived in Paszieszen at various points, we might assume that Daniel originally came from there.  In any case, in his marriage record, Daniel’s surname was spelt Zamaitat, but on Emil’s marriage record, his surname is spelt the more Germanized way. Was this evidence of further assimilation, or was it just dependent on how the vicar thought it sounded? We can’t be sure.

Emil grew up with at least two sisters, Therese Ida and Louise Marie, and at least two brothers, one of whom, Ernst Richard, seems to have had a successful career in the military. He (Ernst Richard) was married twice, once in Frankfurt on the Oder and once in Stettin, where he was stationed as part of the Prussian army.


Emil’s marriage record to Anna Galbrast. Can you make out his profession? So far, no one I have asked has been able to decipher it

For his part, Emil seemed to be somewhat less successful in life, at least according to the measures of success important at the time. I’m not sure what exactly makes me think it. Perhaps it was that he was the third son, or perhaps it was because his wedding took place during Lent, which (my sources tell me) indicates that he was poor, or that his wife, Anna Galbrast, came from peasant stock in nearby Schakuhnen, was four years his senior (age 33 when they married) and was likely either an orphan or born out of wedlock (she had the surname Jogschies listed in addition to her maiden name Galbrast). Am I wrong to think it might have been a marriage of convenience?

And if that wasn’t enough cause to suspect that Emil had drawn the short straw in life, things soon got worse for him once they had moved to Paszieszen in 1895. After the birth of their two sons, Ernst and Oskar, his wife Anna died in childbirth with their third child, who also died. Emil found himself raising two small boys alone, and he couldn’t cope. He reached for the drink, and drank himself into bankruptcy.

We don’t know how he got to know Lucinde Bendig soon after that turbulent time, but she seems to have been a saviour-like figure for him and thought of as a mother by the boys, and if Johanne’s notes are even vaguely correct they must have married quickly. Trakseden, listed as the place they married, had a civil registry office in 1907 according to its GenWiki page, so it is not improbable that they tied the knot there. Interestingly, Trakseden was also the local registry office for Rudienen, the next village north on the road from Tilsit to Memel and where Johanne had grown up. A bit of Googling reveals that there were a few Bendigs that lived both in Rudienen and Trakseden, so it’s likely that Emil and Lucinde lived here also for a time. It would potentially also solve another piece in the puzzle, that being of how Johanne and Oskar met (their families lived in the same or neighbouring villages) and even maybe why Johanne’s parents did not approve of her marriage to Oskar in 1927 (their daughter was marrying the son of the village’s one time resident alcoholic).

Whatever the circumstances, Lucinde and Emil opted for a new start after the First World War. The boys had grown up and left home (and indeed fought in the war), and life post 1918 felt very different in the newly created Memel Territory. Much of East Prussia had been devastated by the war and in some places the destruction was worse than in 1945. Politically, the future was very uncertain. The Szameitats decided to invest for the future and bought the smallholding in Schweppeln, with Oskar contributing his share of his mother’s inheritance which had been tied up in trust until then (his brother Ernst had spent his share on a teaching qualification). It seems that Oskar’s young family later also spent a lot of time there, and Johanne, having grown up in a farming community herself, also worked the land. It was a family enterprise, but it had been bought and owned in Lucinde’s name: they all clearly wanted to prevent any possibility that Emil might squander it on drink, since he was prone.


Which property in Schweppeln belonged to the Szameitats? I have not yet managed to work it out Source

By all accounts, Emil did better than ever, and in the 1920s and 30s he seems to have invested a huge amount physically and emotionally into the property, a neighbour later describing the smallholding as Emil’s Lob und Gut, (literally ‘praise and thanksgiving’, perhaps best translated as ‘pride and joy’). It must have felt like success was finally his, at last, after so much bad luck in life.

But it was not to be. Lucinde became ill in the late 1930s, and just when Johanne thought things couldn’t get any worse, given that Oskar had been arrested in February 1941, she died a couple of months later in April that year, having called the family together shortly before to write a will, sensing that the end was near. One of the last events she must have witnessed was the searching of her home by the Gestapo (during which the will miraculously seemed to have disappeared). Emil was put under increasing pressure to give up the property and, in 1942, he was forced to sign it away to the Günthers. He was allowed to stay on as a tenant, but neighbours later described how he was not well cared for, begging them for food and even crying into their arms. It seems he did not have a good relationship with his new landlords.

When trying to find witnesses to support her property compensation claim, Johanne managed to locate a former neighbour from Schweppeln called Luise Baltrusch. Frau Baltrusch provided Johanne with a signed affidavit, in which she stated that the property in Schweppeln had indeed been owned by the Szameitats, but also gave Johanne a good deal of information on what happened to Emil in the closing stages of the war.

Frau Baltrusch’s own fate is of interest: encircled by the Red Army in January 1945, she and her elderly mother were taken into Russian captivity for nearly three years. She describes in one letter how her mother died of starvation while she (Frau Baltrusch) held her, not realizing that the life had gone out of her. Indeed, Frau Baltrusch’s fate (and that of her mother) was, sadly, typical of so many in Soviet-occupied East Prussia, where deathly violence of an often twisted nature, the continual rape of all available women, mass starvation, disease on an unimaginably large scale, and children sent to their deaths while locating landmines were all daily occurrences. Our history books usually fail to mention it, but of some 110,000 Germans left in the Königsberg region after the end of the war, only about 15,000 survived. Frau Baltrusch was one of them. Her elderly mother was not.

The horrors of the Soviet occupation followed the war’s frenzied Endphase that can only be described as hell on earth. Teweleit (1992) tells of a massacre at Kukoreiten, a village where that brother-in-law that was a cousin of Erna Günther’s happened to have lived. Fleeing civilians in long colonnades were cut off from their route south by the advancing Red Army, who mercilessly opened fire on them. This was by no means an isolated occurrence, and was a foretaste of what was to come.


Civilians fleeing across the Vistula Lagoon in 1945 Source

Indeed, what began in the Memelland in October 1944 only got worse in the rest of East Prussia as the winter drew in. Before the front even caught up with them, civilians were killed in droves by the retreating Wehrmacht: whoever did not or could not get out of the way quick enough was mown down by their own country’s tanks. Things got more and more desperate as the front got closer. Freezing conditions and heavy snowfall impeded the civilians’ flight west even further. Trains were often bombed by low flying aircraft, and long colonnades of refugee wagons were blown apart both from the land and the air. Babies froze to death in their prams, and people were shot for defeatism. The snow turned red with blood, and there were bodies everywhere. No one had time to bury them, and besides, it was impossible to bury the dead until the frozen earth thawed. As the front closed in, those who could abandoned their belongings and wagons and fled to Königsberg in hope of an evacuation by sea. Some were lucky. Many others died at sea, their refugee ships torpedoed by Russian submarines (the Wilhelm Gustloff, in which some 9,400 civilians died, 5,000 of them children, was the largest loss of life at sea in history). At the same time, not even hidden from public view, thousands of Jewish prisoners from the Baltic were sent on death marches, their captors struggling to find ways of preventing them falling into enemy hands and telling of the atrocities they had witnessed. Those who did not starve or freeze were shot by the thousand, and many more thousands were driven by gunfire into the freezing sea at Palmnicken and left to die in one of the war’s least known German atrocities.

Emil was not lucky. It seems that the residents of Schweppeln (which was not a large place) were evacuated to Waldau, near Königsberg. They had left the Memelland on 8th October and (I assume) made the treck via wagon like so many thousands of others, though Frau Baltrusch wasn’t sure if Emil traveled by train. They were very lucky not to have been cut off by the Russians (most of the civilians in the Memel district were), and arrived in Waldau a couple of days later. Emil appears to have been taken reluctantly by Erna Günther, who then unceremoniously delivered him into an old people’s home.

As the front got nearer, the residents of Waldau, along with the many refugees evacuated there, and including, presumably, the old people’s home into which Emil had been delivered, were ordered to flee in December 1944. It was at this point that Frau Baltrusch came across Emil again. I’ll let her (translated) words tell his story, which ends in tragedy, like so much of Emil’s life. Her letter, and the encounter it describes, show in their simplicity the total folly of war, and the utter desperateness of the human condition.

“Old Herr Szameitat got to Waldau on foot, because so much of the rail network had been destroyed by bombing raids. The old people couldn’t make it through the snow. Many of them ended up getting left behind. The army needed the roads, the civilian population and vehicles had to find another way through. Frau Günther drove off west in an army vehicle. She shouted to us that we should leave everything and get going as quickly as possible, because the Russians were coming. When we arrived in Waldau on 10th October, I didn’t know where Herr Szameitat was and I asked Frau Günther. She told me, ‘Oh I put him in an old people’s home, what else was I supposed to do with him?’ But she didn’t say whether she herself had dropped him off, and I didn’t want to ask any further. But I’m pretty sure he left via the Kleinbahn [light railway – VT]. And I can’t say which home she put him in either. Because she didn’t have any time for the old man. The old people were on their feet the whole day without having eaten anything. The train was blown apart, Herr Szameitat told me. He seemed so worked up, but I suppose that’s not surprising given his age. […] But in the snowstorm no one could get any further, only the Russians. He asked us, ‘Where is the old Satan, that old Günther woman? Oh, maybe you’ve seen my daughter-in-law?’ When we said no, he cried and carried on walking. We also needed to carry on with our journey. We said to each other he’s not going to make it, he should come with us, but he just carried on walking.”

Emil probably froze to death, age 79, alone, in December 1944. His grave is not known.

Fleeing the Red Army: from Memel to Seesen

Eibau, 24th October 1944

Dear Daddy,

We’re now in Saxony. We’re doing really well. If you’re ever unsure of where we are, you just need to write to Gitta in Deutsch Eylau and ask her. Her address is:

Brigitte Hermenau

Deutsch Eylau (West Prussia)

Jorkstraße 38 c/o Mans

Where is Odo? Our address is:

Szameitat Eibau (Löbau district)

in Saxony


What’s happening in Memel? Apparently there’s debris and rubble everywhere. Is it true?

I’m going to close now.

Lots of love,

Your Irene


This letter, from my then twelve year old grandmother to her father, was the very first of Johanne’s documents that I, myself a child at the time, pored over in both wonder and sadness. Wonder that a piece of paper so full of a daughter’s love for her father could survive the chaos of war and forced displacement, sadness at the loss of her childishness, so evident in the simplicity of her words, that those terrible events must have caused: by the time she wrote this letter, her father Oskar, with whom we were led to believe she had been very close, was already dead. I cannot imagine the grief and hopelessness she must have felt on receiving this letter a month later when it was returned to sender. Part of her must have died when she saw it, her childhood and any ability to make sense of the chaos around her evaporating in an instant as she faced the reality of a life without the father she so loved, away from the only home she had ever known with no knowledge of if or when they might return. This one piece of paper is our only connection with my grandmother as a child, the only window into her German past, because right up until her death in 1994 she would never speak of any of it. She belonged to the generation that the war and its aftermath damaged the most: children.

And yet, for all its poignancy, reading it unleashed the armchair detective in me even aged thirteen, and I found myself wondering when, where and how Irene and Johanne, and indeed other members of the family, fled Memel in 1944. Where was Eibau? Or Deutsch Eylau, for that matter? And who was Brigitte Hermenau? Where did they go after Eibau? How did they end up in Seesen? I had vague memories of Mum telling me about them swimming across the Elbe, spending the night in the bombed out cathedral in Cologne, and being put up by apparently horrible (and, my great-grandmother took pains to point out, Catholic) peasants in Oldenburg … Were these family legends true? Because for millions of Germans, recounting their Flucht is a kind of oral history, passed on from one generation to another, forming part of the family identity.

The truth is that my family’s account is nothing remarkable: around 12-14 million Germans fled or were forcibly expelled in the years 1944-50, and possibly as many as 2 million died en route, including Emil Szameitat, my great-great-grandfather, whose story will have to be the topic of a subsequent blog post. Yet learning individual stories gives meaning to statistics, and everyone has a story to tell. My grandmother was, because of her grief and loss, unable to tell hers, and my great-grandmother only ever hinted at what happened. This is my attempt, from the available evidence, to tell their story for them.


Irene’s temporary refugee ID card from 1948

Mum told me often that her grandmother Johanne had always spoken of “the Russians” (like so many referring to them in the singular, der Russe) with abject fear. While she may well have been influenced somewhat by Nazi propaganda, there was good reason to be fearful: she had lived through the First World War, which, for East Prussians, was characterized by destruction, fleeing their homes, enemy occupation and deportation. There is no evidence for it, but Johanne and her family must have fled in the summer of 1914, when she would only have been nine years old, along with most of the area’s other residents. On this occasion, their flight was short-lived, the Russians being pushed back out of East Prussia in the decisive and infamous Battle of Tannenberg.

Fast forward a world war, and Johanne had children of her own who would end up facing the prospect of leaving their home as she had done some thirty years earlier, only this time the Red Army came seeking revenge for the Wehrmacht’s atrocities in the East. Up until the summer of 1944, Memel had been relatively unaffected by the events of the war, so much so that many evacuees from Germany’s numerous bombed out cities were sent there (Pölking 2013:343). The Szameitats, in any case, had been consumed by other concerns, namely Oskar’s imprisonment and dismissal from office. The tide began to turn in the summer of 1944 as the front got closer, notably when the evacuees were evacuated back home, and this caused widespread panic among the Memelländers (Pölking 2013:344). Surprisingly, this was one of the few occasions when Hitler allowed the timely evacuation of a civilian population (all preparations for evacuation were normally strictly forbidden), and on 30th July 1944, Memel’s citizens were instructed to leave the city (Kossert, 2008:143). Of the nearly 40,000 residents, only 4000 remained. The U-Boat commander Karl-Friedrich Merten was largely to thank for the successful evacuation: he set up a marine evacuation personnel who, apparently against party orders, also organized the civilian evacuation via sea, chiefly to Pillau, Danzig and Gotenhafen (Gdingen).

At the very least, Johanne and Irene were evacuated in the summer of 1944 for a few weeks, though frustratingly their destination is unknown. There is a letter in the documents from Oskar to Johanne, dated 15th August of that year, that tells us this much, even mentioning that Johanne had made the right decision not to go to Braunschweig where her sister Berthe lived, given that bombing raids were likely there, but the letter’s envelope (presumably with the address on) is lost. It’s not clear from what he writes whether Odo was with them or not: as a sixteen year old he was almost certainly called up to the Volkssturm (Home Guard) at a later date, but from the documents it is impossible to tell what he was doing in the summer of 1944, and, in all likelihood, I’m not sure his parents knew either. But his movements will have to wait for another blog post.

Back home, Oskar, then aged 47, seems to have been called up in some form to work the land and help bring in the harvest: his letter is written in Buddelkehmen outside Memel, and he writes much of the affliction of the rural population, the cattle roaming feral across the land and the unharvested crops going to waste in the aftermath of the evacuation. He gives the impression however that the worst is over, and mentions that from his perspective, the order to evacuate was met too early: “We heard today that even the farmers’ wives are allowed to return now.

Despite the fact that many Memelländers chose not to return home, Johanne and Irene evidently decided to. At this point, the call of their Heimat and the desire to be near Oskar and Odo must have been greater than their fear of a sudden advance by the Red Army. And I get the impression that Johanne had the 1914 evacuation in the back of her mind: the Russians had been decisively driven out then, it was likely, so she thought, to happen again.

The trail goes cold in late August and September 1944, but the family must have kept an eye on the front nervously during that time. The worst did indeed seem to be over, and yet the decisive victory over the Red Army had not happened. And then, on 5th October, Irene’s twelfth birthday, the Russians launched their major offensive on East Prussia. Again, the Memelländers started preparing, at least mentally, to flee.


The Russian advance in 1944, taken from Pölking (2013:349)

Marianne Peyinghaus was a teacher from Cologne who worked in Gertlauken, an East Prussian village much further from the border and whose residents fled later when the front approached in January 1945. She captured the atmosphere of the civilian population and gives us an idea of how Johanne and Irene must have felt shortly before they had to leave:

“We didn’t know how much we could take with us. Maybe we would only be able to take hand luggage. And the worst thing: we didn’t even know by what means we would leave. We waited and hoped that something would happen. But nothing happened. We were totally left to our own devices. Rumours flew round – people were talking about considerable Russian advances. Evening came, night came, still we waited to be told what to do – but no message came. The hours crept by unthinkably slowly. We couldn’t sleep. […] In the East the horizon was red, and we could hear the front, so terrifyingly close.” (Quoted in Kossert, 2008:158, my translation)

This time, the evacuation was not well organized: despite plans being made by the regional NSDAP leaders to evacuate the population of the Memel Territory within three days, they had not taken into account the many thousands of refugees from Lithuania and Latvia, along with the hastily retreating Wehrmacht, which clogged up the road and rail networks (Pölking, 2013:352). As a result, much of the rural population, especially in the Memel district, were unable to escape before the front caught up with them, leaving them at the mercy of their Russian captors, who exerted revenge in uncompromising ways.

I have often wondered how the Szameitat family celebrated Irene’s birthday on 5th October, if indeed they did at all. Did she go to school that day? Was it the last time the family was all together? Could they hear the rumbling of the front in the distance? Did they already have their bags packed? Was there any sense at all that this was the beginning of the end?

Wilhelmine Pierach, a Memel resident, summed up the chaos of the town in the final days before the Flucht in her diary (my rendering into English):

“Endless wagons full of refugees, herds of cattle, horses, dogs that had lost their owners roaming around searching for help. Horses and cattle perishing in the middle of the street. On the upper street, countless refugee wagons were going past; the lower street was filled with military vehicles and tanks.”

The instruction to evacuate apparently came at different times, depending on which part of town you lived in. Manfred Teweleit, a year younger than Irene and from the southern suburb of Memel-Schmelz, describes how soldiers riding motorbikes through the streets gave the order to flee via megaphone on 7th October, a Saturday: “Der Bevölkerung wird befohlen, zum Bahnhof zu gehen” (‘the population is ordered to go to the railway station’) (Teweleit, 1992:23), but Pölking (2013:353) suggests that the vast majority of the town’s inhabitants were evacuated by ship across the Curonian Lagoon and out into the Baltic. The last train left Memel on 9th October, the railway between Tilsit and Memel having been taken back from the Russians the day before (Pölking, 2013:354). Memel itself became a beach-head, the town along with the Curonian Spit not falling into Russian hands until late January 1945.

In the latter stages of the war, there were refugees everywhere. Teweleit (1992:237) describes how unwelcome they were in their new quarters, and how they lost their social bearings over night:

“And so we arrived: the despised refugees, in the eyes of the village’s inhabitants on a par with gypsies. We had had to bid farewell to secure living conditions and a respected existence and we had fallen, within only twenty four hours, to the bottom of the social pile: no home, nothing to eat, carrying our belongings on our backs and in our hands. The villagers, who had up till now enjoyed uninterrupted rural peace and quiet, had never clapped eyes on such a mob of perfect strangers. And how they spoke and acted around us reflected how they thought.”

Like Irene, Johanne also wrote to Oskar from Eibau in Saxony, and there are three complete letters and one fragment in her documents, all of which, like Irene’s letter, never reached Oskar and were returned to sender. From these letters, it’s possible to piece together some of their movements, but there are tantalizing questions that remain.

We know from one letter, for instance, that they left Memel by train on a Friday, and since the call to evacuation on 7th October that was mentioned above fell on a Saturday, I assume that means they left on 6th. This tallies with an account in Meyer (2014:42), who lived in the same part of town as the Szameitats and who describes being woken up at 6am on 6th by a mobile megaphone announcement instructing all women and children to leave via the port or the railway station by lunchtime.

Evidently Johanne and Irene opted for an evacuation by train. It certainly seems that they were on a packed train and traveled in freight wagons, suggesting that it wasn’t a scheduled passenger train and instead had been assembled to aid fleeing civilians. They also attempted to send luggage on to Johanne’s sister Helene in Kukoreiten from the railway station, which perhaps indicates that there wasn’t enough space on their train for lots of luggage. Where were they trying to get to? Did they know? From Teweleit’s and others’ accounts of evacuation by train, it seems that no one had any idea where the train was ultimately heading, the driver probably included. The hope was just to get as far away from the front as possible and not be bombed by Russian low-flying aircraft en route. On their arrival in Eibau, a sleepy little village in the Oberlausitz, Johanne wrote the following, dated 22nd October:

“Finally I am getting in touch after such a long time. We had a terrible journey and are full of cold. We had to sleep on straw for fourteen days without changing our clothes once. Even the journey by train was in cattle wagons, meaning that we all have a fever. Now I’ve finally got hold of a room for us. Tell me, are you still alive? Where is Odo? Is our house still standing? Were you able to get anything else from home? Or did the radios end up staying there?”

She goes on to lament that she has no idea what’s going on because they haven’t seen a newspaper in two weeks or been anywhere near a radio. Teweleit (1992) also writes of how difficult it was to get hold of information, and his detailed description of his flight from Memel by train helps to fill in some of the gaps of the Szameitat story. He explains how trains would stop for long periods of time, how the passengers would be unloaded and reloaded in seemingly random stations, how they spent several days sleeping in an old concert hall in Seckenburg, watching the thousands of refugee wagons plod by along the roads and looking out for loved family members, unaware of when they would be evacuated further into the Reich and trying to ignore the rumours of Russian atrocities committed on East Prussian soil. I can’t imagine that Johanne and Irene spent fourteen days straight on one train, so they are likely to have had stops of a similar nature en route.

She wrote again on 31st October, questioning whether their letters were getting through and telling Oskar she’d dreamt of him a few times. Contrary to Irene’s declaration in her letter that they were doing well, Johanne writes that she doesn’t like it in Saxony at all. There is a sense of resignation in her letter: “Nun ist ja schon alles egal.” (‘But nothing really matters any more.’) Yet one section of her letter is very perplexing:

“Do you know what? Every day I’ve been thinking about what you always said. I’m beating myself up about the fact I didn’t follow your advice. Lots of people that I’ve spoken to here say the same. But now we can’t change anything.”

She wrote again on 7th November, again inquiring as to whether they were receiving any post and asking what was happening back home. She writes about how little they have to eat, describing it as “ein Elend in der Welt” (something like ‘utter destitution’) and wonders what the rations are like in Memel. At the end of the letter, she seems to clutch at straws and says she’s heard how some soldiers have been given special leave to bring their wives’ belongings to them. She then gives him a list of food items to bring if he can.

The final letter from this period is a fragment, and is the most intriguing. It is undated, and seems to be the last few pages of a longer letter.



It’s worth translating most of it as it raises some interesting questions (and the images above give you an idea of how hard the Sütterlinschrift is to decipher for modern readers):

“I had travelled once more from Liebenfelde to Tilsit, that was on the Monday, and I had to spend the night in Tilsit in the midst of a barrage of bullets because there were two big raids happening there. Then on the Tuesday morning, I managed to walk as far as Übermemel. The soldiers there said I had to turn back, the Russians are here. If I had arrived two hours earlier, then I would also have found myself among the Russians.”


The railway route between Königsberg and Tilsit (Source)

Liebenfelde was the Germanized name for Mehlauken, on the branch line from Königsberg to Tilsit, and if indeed she was following that route by train, she was going in the wrong direction, towards rather than away from the front, though she is likely not to have known where exactly the front was. Indeed, Übermemel was the first dwelling on the other side of the Memel river from Tilsit, so she must have walked over the famous Königin-Luise-Brücke to reach it. She wrote that she stayed in Tilsit on a Monday night, presumably 9th October, as that fits with her description of where the front was at the time. The bridge was blown up by retreating German forces later on 22nd October (Kossert, 2008:143), the Memel river proving to be a natural boundary for a short while, preventing the Russians from advancing further into East Prussia from that direction.

These letters leave me with many questions. What was it that Oskar ‘always said’, that Johanne wished she had done? She wrote of her reverse journey in the singular, does that mean she made that journey alone? If she travelled alone, was she going back to fetch something? Where was Irene? Or perhaps Irene was with her, and she just wrote in the singular out of habit. Why did she decide to go back, getting dangerously close to the front in the process?

The most likely answer is that the apparent journey back was just part of the chaos of not knowing where the front was. Many refugees seemed to go back and forth and round in circles, trying to keep their distance from the fighting but having little accurate information about where the front actually was. But Johanne had been on a presumably organized refugee train out of Memel that was supposed to be heading away from the front. Part of me will always therefore wonder whether she chose to try to return home, thinking that being at home near her husband and son, even under enemy occupation, was better than being homeless in an unknown place, dependent on the kindness of strangers, their only possessions that which they had on their person. Was that the thing that Oskar had ‘always said’, that Johanne referred to in her letter? That being all together, come what may, was the most important thing, especially after their enforced separation during Oskar’s time in prison? I will always wonder.

In any case, it was not to be, and two weeks later after stops and starts they turned up in the remote village of Eibau in Saxony and were assigned a room in the Hindenburgstraße in someone called Alfred Weikelt’s house. A few weeks later they moved to Kirchstraße, staying with a Frau Ebert, and they remained there for some time, certainly spending Christmas there, before being transferred to a transit camp around the new year. It’s possible that they chose to leave of their own accord, but more likely that they were moved on to make way for more incoming refugees or citizens from local cities that were the targets of (mainly British) bombing raids. A letter that Johanne wrote to Odo in January 1945, posted to Deutsch Eylau, was returned to sender in Eibau in February, only to be forwarded again on to an address in Hartmannsdorf near Chemnitz in March. Was that forwarding address another place they were billeted for a while? It’s likely, but there’s not enough evidence to say for sure.

If you look at a map of Saxony, and you try to chart a route from Eibau to Hartmannsdorf, it becomes clear that all routes go via Dresden. Since we know that Johanne and Irene left Eibau in February, and since on the notification of payment for evacuated citizens that I mention below, the payment start date is 12th February 1945, which is the date I suspect they left Eibau, I have often wondered whether Johanne and Irene passed through Dresden during the famous and now highly politicized bombing of Dresden by the British and American Air Forces on 13-15th February 1945. There were 500,000 refugees known to have been in the city during the bombing, most of whom were apparently fleeing Silesia. Why couldn’t Johanne and Irene have been among them, especially as Eibau, in the Oberlausitz, was very close to Silesia and, as we saw in the summer of 1944 in the Memelland, evacuees were often on first before the remainder of the civilian population? I had been toying with this idea for a while, and then on a recent trip to my parents, Dad and I were talking about things which Johanne had alleged but which Dad had never been sure were true or not (such as her claim that her husband and son had been murdered by the Nazis). Dad then mentioned as another example was that she had told him she had witnessed the bombing of Dresden, and I stopped him in his tracks straight away. Why had he never told me that before? Because unlike some of her other claims, this one really was likely to be true. Dad says he can’t remember how exactly she phrased it, saying he remembers her saying she ‘was there’, but didn’t know whether that meant they witnessed it from afar or were in the city themselves. Thinking about my grandmother’s silence regarding her childhood, and a lifetime of what looking back now at her behaviour must have been complex PTSD, I think I can guess.

We know for sure, however, that they must have witnessed the end of the war in the Sudetenland in a village called Reischdorf. That’s because there is a document in the files (a Räumungs-familienunterhaltsbescheid, notification of a kind of monetary allowance for evacuated citizens, to be precise) that places them there on 7th May 1945, the day before the end of the war.


There they must have witnessed some of the last fighting during the war, the front catching up with them at last. But it was the Americans, not the Russians that liberated that area, handing over power to the Czechs only a few weeks later on 21st May 1945. We don’t know anything about their experiences in Reischdorf or how or when they left, but this website suggests that in the immediate post-war period the local population faced murderous violence, forced labour and inhumane punishments under the Czechs. They were likely deported as part of the “wilde Vertreibungen” in the summer of 1945, given minutes to assemble their belongings and then driven over the nearby border.

On Irene’s Lastenausgleich compensation form, she listed the date she first entered the Federal Republic of Germany as 15th December 1945. If this is correct, she (and presumably Irene) must have been in the Soviet occupied zone before that, as that would be where they had been deported, given that the border with Saxony was a mere stone’s throw from Reischdorf. Where they lived is a mystery, and I can only guess. In 1949, Johanne applied for an inter-zone travel permit to go to the American sector of Berlin, to an address in Neukölln. She listed the reason for her visit was to fetch some belongings that had been stored there. This raises many questions. What belongings? Hadn’t they lost or had to barter everything? When had they been to Berlin? Had they been quartered at that address? If so, how had they managed to enter the American sector?

I need to do more research into the movement of refugees within the post-war occupation zones to be able to answer these questions. However, at the end of the war, before the Potsdam Conference in July, after which they would have discovered that the Memel Territory had been handed over to the Lithuanian SSR, it’s likely that they had begun to think about the long treck home to Memel. Returning by train would seem like the obvious choice, despite the chaos on the railways following the war, and Berlin, with its previous rail connection to Königsberg, might have seemed like a sensible place to aim for in the first instance. This is pure speculation, but we know that they must have been in Berlin at some point between 1944 and 1949, and late 1945 seems a likely time.

How they crossed into the British sector is unknown, but they must have done because the next address we have is Altmoorhausen near Oldenburg. These must have been those Catholic peasants about whom Johanne always spoke so disparagingly. We might be tempted to chuckle at her confessional stereotyping, but the post-war refugee crisis caused the huge rifts in society to become apparent as Germans of many different regional, economic and indeed confessional backgrounds had to rub alongside each other. The refugees were unanimously unwelcome almost everywhere, as they also had to be quartered in the little housing that had survived the war. Out in the countryside, where most of the intact housing was to be found, those differences in background were felt more keenly. Hence the disparaging comments about Roman Catholic peasants from a formerly town-dwelling Lutheran.


The route Johanne and Irene took from the evidence available

What of swimming across the Elbe, and spending the night in Cologne cathedral? There’s no evidence for it in the documents, but that doesn’t mean those things didn’t happen. Indeed, they must have had to cross the Elbe somewhere when they headed west from Eibau, and refugees were transported around to all sorts of unlikely places after the war, particularly within the same occupation zone, so they could have feasibly ended up in Cologne at some point. Mum says that it’s possible she was confusing their story with that of people they knew, so we’ll never know for sure. And I haven’t yet managed to ascertain what the connection with Deutsch Eylau was either, or who Brigitte Hermenau was. Perhaps my future research will shed light on these unanswered questions.


Johanne’s ID card from 1946

Somehow, by February 1946, Johanne and Irene had made their way to Seesen and into their own flat. How they ended up in Seesen is not known, but recall that Johanne’s sister Berthe lived not far away in Braunschweig, and her other two sisters also ended up living within an hour or so’s drive of each other. I half wonder if, in the event of another Flucht, the sisters didn’t all agree to regroup in Braunschweig and go from there. In any case, it was in Seesen that they began to settle down properly and rebuild their lives in this strange new reality, while never losing hope that they would return to Memel, maybe one day, in the future.


Memorial for those who fled at Klaipeda’s railway station (Source)

Last month we visited the Harz mountains on a family holiday and dropped in again briefly on Seesen. Having familiarized myself (at least virtually) with the landscape of the Memel area over the last few months, I was struck by how totally different this mountainous landscape, so far away from the sea, must have seemed to people so used to growing up near a large flat river delta on the coast. Yet Johanne loved the forest in the Harz, Mum says, as despite the hills it reminded her of the East Prussian woodlands, and it became a home away from home. Did she know that there was something else that united her two homes? In the nineteenth century, the sand dunes on the Curonian Spit, where the Szameitats later spent many a happy afternoon on the beach, were in danger of consuming whole villages and silting up the small channel south of Memel. An extensive project of planting and reforestation began. This website suggests that initially Danish pines were used. Kurschat (1990:54) tells us, however, that mountain pines from another area were intensively planted. Where did those pines come from? The Harz. Perhaps that was the reason why Johanne so loved the forests around Seesen, her new home from home.



Kossert, Andreas. 2008. Damals in Ostpreußen. Munich: Pantheon.

Kurschat, Heinrich. 1990. Das Buch vom Memelland: Heimatkunde eines deutschen Grenzlandes. Oldenburg: Verlag Werbedruck Köhler.

Pölking, Hermann. 2013. Das Memelland: wo Deutschland einst zu Ende war. Ein historischer Reisebegleiter. Berlin: be.bra verlag.

Teweleit, Manfred. 1992. Memel. 43 Jahre verbotene Stadt. Gütersloh: Bonewie Verlag.

An uncomfortable truth: Hospitalstraße 22 and Ella Itzigsohn

Hospitalstr 22 different angle

Modern day Hospitalstraße 22 as per Google Streetview

Since beginning this project (and naming the blog), I became aware of a detail about the Szameitats so uncomfortable that it requires its own blog post. On a number of occasions, I have perused GenWiki’s page on Memel’s Hospitalstraße, which is a list of all known owners and residents of each building on the street, collated from the various online Memel address books. In recent times, I have been looking at this page because I am trying to familiarize myself with the Szameitats’ neighbours, both within number 22 and in dwellings nearby, to see if I recognize any names from Johanne’s documents. For the first time I was also focusing on understanding the continuity of residents as I was interested in learning more about how this grand building came into being and why the Szameitats might have chosen to live there. And while doing so, I noticed something that I can’t believe I had hitherto missed when viewing the page over the years. I noticed that, between the 1939 and 1942 address book entries, there had been a complete turnover of residents. Moreover, the 1942 residents all had German or Germanized names.

Sensing already that I knew what must have happened, my eyes flicked to the named owners to see if my suspicions were correct. From 1926 to 1939, the owner of Hospitalstraße 22 had been someone called Ella Itzigsohn. My interest had already been piqued on noticing her name earlier, because it was relatively uncommon for the single named owner of such a property to be a woman. Then I cast a glance over the owner of the property in 1942: Deutsche Allgemeine Treuhand- GmbH. My heart sank. My suspicion had been right. This was a property that had passed from private into corporate or more likely state ownership in or after 1939. Moreover, the residents had all been replaced. There could only be one explanation: Ella Itzigsohn had been a Jewish woman, and on the return of the Memel Territory to Germany she must have fled to Lithuania, whereupon her property must have been enteignet (‘expropriated’) and handed over to an ‘Aryan’ organization.

Screenshot of Hospitalstraße 22’s latter owners and residents Source



Several strands suddenly started to come together in my mind. Ever since I had first seen the Google Streetview image of the property, I had been struck by its Gründerzeit-looking grandeur, and it had reminded me of buildings of a similar style in Eisenach (where I had lived for a year). I had known that many of the residents of those buildings had been well-to-do Jews.

At the same time, I recalled that Oskar had been transferred back to Memel from Pogegen in 1939, I assumed on or shortly after the Territory’s return Germany (I have not yet managed to narrow down the exact date). Pogegen had existed as a Kreisstadt (sort of like a county town) for only the brief period between the world wars: when the Memel Territory was separated from Germany following World War 1, Kreis Tilsit was split in two, so a new district, Kreis Pogegen, was created north of the river. The new Kreisstadt was a backwater and as a result many new administrative buildings had to be built and it experienced large growth at this time. The Szameitats were transferred there in 1934, probably in August, perhaps simply because Oskar’s employers needed a Kriminalsekretär there, but possibly to give him a more provincial case load following the high profile and politically motivated murder case he’d been working on earlier in the year. When the Memel Territory returned to Germany in 1939, Kreis Pogegen was dissolved and the pre-1919 districts reestablished. I assume it was for this reason that Oskar was transferred back to Memel: as Pogegen was no longer a Kreisstadt, there was no longer a job there for him. On 28th August 1939, Oskar officially became a Kriminalsekretär of the German Empire. Did that date mark his transfer to Memel, or had he already been transferred and this date simply signify a formality that recognized that he now worked for a different nation? Either way, it’s near enough impossible that the family wasn’t aware that they were moving into a formerly Jewish property. Even if they had moved a number of months after Ella Itzigsohn (and presumably her Jewish residents) had fled, it must have been obvious even just from conversations with neighbours that the building had previously been in different hands. To say nothing of the fact they were paying rent to Deutsche Allgemeine Treuhand- GmbH. I can envisage no scenario in which my grandmother’s family can not have known they were moving into stolen Jewish property.

At best, this makes any attempts of Oskar’s to protect and help Jews before 1939 seem to reek of hypocrisy. At worst, it casts a good deal of doubt on the veracity of such claims. How can Oskar have ‘helped Jews to escape’ when he was happy to profit from their expulsion? Perhaps there wasn’t anything else suitable for a family of four within walking distance of the Polizeidirektion and the children’s schools at the time they were looking. In fact, it is likely that they had little choice about where they could move to: Žukas (2001) tells us that there was a deficit of housing in Memel throughout the twentieth century and that people were often on waiting lists to find somewhere to live. This became acute after the return to Germany in 1939, when many people, like Oskar and family, were transferred to the city, and an order published in the local newspaper required all available properties to be made known to the authorities at the end of March 1939 (Žukas, 2001:112). Perhaps all the available apartments were ones that had been seized from the departing Jewish population (several thousands of them fled the city in early 1939, where they had previously made up 12.5% of the population). Perhaps. I can imagine that the Szameitat family might have been able to get more for their money as the Deutsche Allgemeine Treuhand- GmbH probably offered competitive rent prices in order to fill the property quickly. Oh, and probably a better rate for party members, too.

It also calls into question the level of consciousness the family had about their own complicity in the anti-Semitism that took hold of Memel in the 1930s. Did they not see it as a problem that they were directly profiting from the expulsion of and theft from others? Each time Johanne wrote Steht unser Haus noch? in her letters home to Oskar in the war, did she never ask herself whether its previous owner and tenants were wondering the same thing? When she filed for compensation for the land that had been confiscated from them as a result of Oskar’s imprisonment, did it never occur to her that the rightful owner of Hospitalstraße 22 would almost certainly never have the opportunity to do that? Was any of this on her radar at all?

I can’t speak for Johanne in her latter decades as there are no documents from then (and this was the time when Germany began to confront its Nazi past more seriously), but from the evidence available to me from the 1950s and 60s, I genuinely don’t believe she gave it much thought. Why? Johanne seems to have ascribed to a mindset typical of 1950s Germany that viewed Germans primarily as victims of the Nazi period. The majority of Germans, especially the 14 million refugees from the east that endured a dreadful flight across Europe never to return, certainly had their share of suffering, often to a very great extent. It has historically been politically and academically unfashionable to acknowledge this for fear of diminishing the suffering that the Nazis’ true victims bore and taking attention away from the millions of innocent people they murdered. In the triangle of victim-bystander-perpetrator, the average German totally blurred the boundaries. But after the war, most were so focused on rebuilding their own lives that they had little desire to examine their individual and collective complicity in the horrors of Nazism. This suited the Adenauer administration, which, moving on from the policy of denazification introduced by the Allies after the war, encouraged amnesty in the interest of social cohesion and economic growth. Most Germans wanted to draw a line under the recent past after the Nuremberg trials, which had helped to cement the view that those responsible for the atrocities had been brought to justice. The focus on the everyday German’s own status as victim was underscored by the fact that, in the echo chamber of similar experiences, there were very few Jewish survivor voices to be heard within post-war Germany. The silencing of these true victims through the Shoah allowed West Germans to fill the vacuum with their own narrative of victimhood (see Tobin, 2013 for more on this).

It is not lost on me that, by writing this blog, I am perpetuating that narrative of German victimhood, and thus also contributing to the silencing of Jewish suffering by taking up space with my German family’s experiences. Have you noticed that in this blog post so far I have only focused on my family’s motives and my own thoughts and feelings about them? I have totally centred the German experience over the Jewish one, even in a blog post about Jewish suffering. I own that. Following my family’s story means that what is written here is naturally going to focus on them. But Ella Itzigsohn never had the opportunity to share her experience: she was murdered in the Shoah.

It is not easy to research former Jewish inhabitants of the Memel Territory using the usual German genealogy websites. In part, this must be because any descendants who might be in a position to upload information are small in number. But it’s not as simple as that: why would a survivor or their children wish to enter details about their murdered family members into German genealogy websites, when it was that world that shunned their families and persecuted them in the first place? Jewish organizations like Yad Vashem, however, are testament to how important it is to put names to the statistics, and Ella Itzigsohn can be found on their database here. It’s possible to piece together bits of her story from this document in addition to a few other sources.

Born on 15th August 1889 to Aba and Selda Burak, Ella Itzigsohn was a born and bred Memeler who probably never lived anywhere else. She married Heiman Itzigsohn, a business man, who, on the basis of his name, must have been an assimilated Westjude: Memel’s Jewish population grew in the nineteenth century, as many Eastern Jews moved there as a result of Prussia’s more liberal laws and to take advantage of the city’s relative economic prosperity. By the end of the century, only 20% of the Jewish population were Western Jews (source).


An advert in the Memeler Dampfboot, the local newspaper, from 16th August 1939, in which Itzigsohn’s expropriated property in the Börsenstraße is advertised as being the local headquarters of the Nazi organization Kraft durch Freue (‘Strength through Joy’) Source

It’s likely that Ella inherited her parents’ property, because from 1926 she is also mentioned as the sole owner of Börsenstraße 1-4, which included a shop front. Perhaps her parents had been shop owners and worked in retail themselves. In any case, by 1926 a number of Itzigsohns were living there, though only the head of each household is listed so we can’t be sure whether Ella lived there herself. I suspect she did, as in 1931 her husband Heiman is listed as one of the residents. For reasons unknown, she sold the property at some point between 1935 and 1939 to one of her Jewish tenants, Isaak Simon, who sold it to a (presumably non-Jewish) textile company in February 1939, when one assumes Simon was cutting his losses and leaving Memel. Shortly after, it was also used by the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (a Nazi trade union) and the NS-Frauenschaft (the women’s wing of the party). I remember reading somewhere that the Nazis had a habit of using formerly Jewish property for their various party affiliations.


Börsenstraße 1-4 after 1939 Source

It isn’t possible to tell from the information I’ve read whether Ella fled before or on the return of the region to Germany, whereupon Hospitalstraße 22 was expropriated, or whether she left after March 1939 and after the authorities had taken away her property. At any rate, it seems that she didn’t sell it on cheaply to a German or Lithuanian buyer, as Simon had done with the Börsenstraße shop. It wouldn’t have made any difference anyway: in 1938, the Memel Territory government started to ape its Nazi counterpart in Germany by beginning to limit the possibility of selling Jewish property by setting its market value and introducing property, export, and emigration tax laws that resulted in the financial destitution of all but a few Jews. Even if Ella had been able to sell, she would have received an amount much below what it was worth. In any case, at some point in early 1939, she fled with her husband and children (and probably her extended family) to Šiauliai, perhaps along with thousands of others on 23rd March, the day of the return of the region to Germany, or perhaps shortly before. You can read more about the experience of Jewish Memelländers here.


A Jewish family is expelled from Memel on 23rd March while SA troops look on Source


As thousands fled on 23rd March, Germans hurled insults at them from the pavement. Source

In Šiauliai, the Itzigsohns were outside of the 25km strip near the border in which the Einsatzkommando Tilsit performed their massacres. Yet it didn’t take the German army long to reach them. Shortly after the German invasion in June 1941, several of the town’s Jews were shot, and the rest were rounded up into a ghetto. According to the testimony of her daughter Rachel, who survived the Shoah, Ella Itzigsohn, age 52, was murdered in 1941 as part of the ‘first action’ in the ghetto. From my reading of Yad Vashem’s page on the ghetto linked above, it looks like she was probably shot by Lithuanian collaborators alongside dozens of orphanage children, their teacher, elderly and sick people, and the ghetto administrator.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung is a household term to every German or student of German. It is usually translated as ‘coming to terms with the (specifically Nazi) past’, but I think that doesn’t capture the fact that to bewältigen something, you have to be an active participant. Over the last fifty or so years, first in the West and then in a reunified Germany, a good deal of the national literature, arts, politics, culture and education curricula have engaged with the theme of how to interpret and learn from the Nazi past. Through their collective soul searching, the country has reached a maturity of historical understanding that far surpasses us as Brits: if you want to understand Angela Merkel’s Willkommenskultur, you need to understand the country’s commitment to engage with its past. No, it’s not utopia, and yes, there are plenty of dissenting voices, but the truth is the Germans are about fifty years ahead of the British in critically engaging with their nation’s history. The first stage is to admit that the truth about the past is not what we have been taught: “In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us to make us feel stronger, to remind ourselves that we were always, always deep down, good people,” says Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, describing Britain’s view of history as ‘dangerous’. The atrocities committed in the British Empire, many after the Second World War, along with the general whitewashing of our history contribute to our nation’s ‘historical amnesia’, according to the former UN under-secretary general, Shashi Tharoor: “There’s no real awareness of the atrocities, of the fact that Britain financed its Industrial Revolution and its prosperity from the depredations of empire, the fact that Britain came to one of the richest countries in the world in the 18th century and reduced it, after two centuries of plunder, to one of the poorest.” We are not taught these things in school, they are not the focus of museum exhibitions, and they are not discussed at the political level. In the wake of Brexit, we need to engage with our past more than ever.

This blog is serving as a sort of personal Vergangenheitsbewältigung into my German past. It is making me realize more than ever how engaging with and learning from the past can never end, because it must always influence our present, and that present is always changing. It is also teaching me that history doesn’t live until you put a face on it: we will never be able to engage with our hearts unless we seek out personal stories. It is teaching me to lean into the discomfort of admitting that my family might have been complicit in the twentieth century’s atrocities, either by their action or their lack of action. It is teaching me to examine my own action, or lack thereof, regarding the injustices around me. Where do I see myself on the victim-bystander-perpetrator triangle? Where do you see yourself? What are we doing to make sure the lessons from history don’t repeat themselves?

In his closing speech at the 1958 Einsatzkommando trial in Ulm, prosecutor Erwin Schüle Nordosaid this:

“The reason why many regard this trial as unpleasant lies in the fact that we all have a guilty conscience when we think back to the evil of those times. It’s simply that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we all judge ourselves harshly and have to agree with the witness Hartl: back then, we were all too cowardly.” (Quoted in Tobin, 2013:246)

Let’s not be cowardly. Let’s learn from the past. Let’s stand up for what’s right. In a hundred years, one of your descendants might just hold you accountable for it.


Tobin, Patrick. 2013. Crossroads at Ulm: Postwar West Germany and the 1958 Ulm Einsatzkommando Trial, PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Žukas, Julius. 2001. Soziale und wirtschaftliche Entwicklung Klaipėdas/Memels von 1900 bis 1945. In Tauber, Joachim (ed.) Im Wandel der Zeiten: die Stadt Memel im 20. Jahrhundert. Nordost Archiv Band X. Nordost Institut: Lüneburg, pp. 75-116.


On good guys, Nazis and searching for the truth

My great-grandfather Oskar Szameitat was a member of the Nazi party. Number 7,136,738, to be precise. I can remember when, on perusing the documents as a teenager, I first discovered this, and recall the swooping sense of disappointment I felt in my stomach. I don’t know what I was expecting: had I hoped to find in my family a member of the resistance? Someone who sheltered Jews? Or at least someone who just tolerated the regime rather than someone who seemed to actively endorse it?

Over the years I’ve repeatedly come back to these questions. What did Oskar’s membership of the party mean to him, to Johanne, to my grandmother Irene, and what does it mean to me as his descendent? Was he a convinced comrade or a quiet collaborator? Did his attitude towards National Socialism change during the war? It led me to think more broadly about what I am ultimately hoping to achieve by delving into my family’s past and bringing to light some potentially uncomfortable truths: as I researched further, I discovered for instance several contradictory statements made by my great-grandmother, letters from her to her daughter Irene seemingly telling her what to say under oath in court and, perhaps most depressingly, letters from and declarations under oath given by a number of Gestapo officers who I later discovered had been convicted of facilitating the mass murder of Jews over the border in Lithuania as part of an Einsatzkommando in 1941a series of events that are considered by historians to have marked the start of the Holocaust.


Throngs of people turn out to welcome Hitler to Memel following the ultimatum to Lithuania in March 1939 Source

On the one hand, it’s easy to be defensive of Oskar’s party membership, and this seems to be the line that many Germans took in the post-war era. Party membership offered you better career prospects and relative safety from the autocratic regime, but, as many Germans later believed, it didn’t necessarily make you a Jew-hater or guilty of the atrocities carried out in the name of the German people. It was, so the justifying goes, often a pragmatic choice. After all, hadn’t Oskar Schindler of Schindler’s List fame been a member of the party? Even the previous Pope had belonged to the Hitler Youth.

This certainly seems to have been the way my great-grandmother Johanne saw it. In fact, she didn’t see herself or Oskar as collaborators at all. In her view, they had been persecuted by the party. This is clear from the fact that, in 1957, she applied to various funds for compensation under the Bundesgesetz zur Entschädigung für Opfer der nationalsozialistischen Verfolgung (Federal Act on Compensation for Victims of Persecution under the National Socialist Regime), or BEG (Bundesentschädigungsgesetz) for short. In 1958 she was notified of the outcome: rejected. The reason? For one thing, Oskar’s birthplace lay outside of the 1937 borders, which was a stipulation for receiving compensation, but in addition, they found lack of evidence that Oskar’s imprisonment and subsequent dismissal from office had been due to political reasons, in part because he himself had been a party member. How could someone who seemingly signed up to the hateful ideology via his party membership claim to have been persecuted by the very organization he belonged to?


Extract from the Berlin Document Center file on Oskar Szameitat

I must give credit to Johanne, because she stopped at nothing to achieve her goal. The compensation claims and appeals rumbled on into the 1970s, so determined was she to have her husband’s name cleared.

After the initial rejection, things got really bad for her: not only was she denied the compensation she believed she deserved, she was also taken to court for having withheld information in 1947 when claiming her widow’s pension, which she was technically not entitled to given her husband’s dismissal from office. This came about as a result of the research conducted into her husband’s past by the local authorities as part of her compensation claim. To cut a long story short, she was suddenly ordered to pay back nearly 25,000 DM that she had received in the years since the end of the war. She then had to prove that her husband had been unfairly dismissed from office back in 1943 for political reasons, which required a monumental task of finding and interviewing witnesses at huge cost to herself financially and emotionally. Mum remembers being taken on trips to various places as a girl as part of the Prozess, as Johanne referred to it, and tells me that no lawyer wanted to touch the case, as it was so fraught with legal complications.

But I digress. Johanne seems to have been outraged by the notion that her husband couldn’t possibly have been persecuted just because he was a party member, and set about dismantling that claim as soon as possible. She secured a signed affidavit from Emil Liedtke, another Kriminalsekretär who was a member of the Gestapo in Tilsit (modern day Sovetsk), who said that Oskar had, like many, been a member of something called the Memelländischer Kulturbund (something like the Cultural Alliance of the Memel Territory), and all members of this organization were taken over into the Nazi party on annexation with Germany in 1939. Oskar had had, according to Liedtke, a passive attitude towards the NSDAP, and this did not do him any favours after 1939. The claim has a ring of truth: the date of the start of Oskar’s party membership was 1st April 1939. Lithuania surrendered to the German ultimatum on 23rd March, the contract between the two nations being signed a few days later on 30th (Pölking, 2013:304).

The organization Liedtke mentions was (my research tells me) technically an apolitical group that stood for and promoted the German interest in the region. In practice, however, it was run by the same people who championed the local German political parties. It was banned in 1934, and in 1938 it was restyled as the Memeldeutscher Kulturverband, and actively campaigned for the political unification of the Memel Territory with Germany. This organization must be the one Liedtke meant: it counted some two thirds of the population of the Memel Territory as its members in 1938, probably because it incorporated sporting and recreational groups by rote. I found some external evidence that corroborated Liedtke’s general claim: Broszat (1957) tells us that, contrary to what Liedtke writes in his affidavit, at 60,000 members, not all of the Kulturverband were automatically taken over into the party, but ‘bewährte Mitglieder’ or ‘reliable members’ were given Nazi party membership. Oskar was clearly considered ‘reliable’. But what did that mean, and why? Was it because he was a long standing member of the police force? Was it because he knew the ‘right’ people? Was it because he had a good track record of military involvement in the First World War and subsequently in the Freikorps? Or was it because he actually believed in what the movement stood for?

Whatever the reason, it didn’t cut the mustard with Lower Saxony’s Interior Minister who oversaw the activities of the BEG in 1958. The rejection letter cited a reference from the Berlin Document Center, which centralized the collection of documents from the Nazi era, in which Oskar is said to have been thrown out of the Nazi party on account of suspected treason in 1941. But Oskar, according to the document, appealed that decision several times, first at the level of the Kreis (local administrative region) then the Gau (larger administrative region), then centrally. Among the many undated and miscellaneous documents in my great-grandmother’s collection is one whose first page is missing, but seems to be a post-war copy of several collated Nazi party documents concerning Oskar and his imprisonment, dismissal from office, and ejection from the party. In it, there is a statement attributed to him as part of his appeal and given the date of 15th July 1941. It is a strange statement, because in it he appears to admit to having passed information to the Lithuanians for a fee, something which Johanne always strongly denied (saying any admission was made under duress), and something which I, having waded my way through all the documents many times now, don’t believe to be correct either. That aside, the statement attributed to him also includes the following words:

Ich bin nicht schematisch seinerzeit in die NSDAP aufgenommen worden. Auch bin ich nicht korporativ Parteimitglied geworden. Aus eigenem freien Entschluß bin ich in die NSDAP eingetreten.

(‘I wasn’t affiliated with the Nazi party schematically at that time. I also didn’t become a member of the party corporately. I joined the Nazi party as a result of my own free will.’)

This obviously directly contradicts Liedtke’s affidavit, what Johanne always maintained and what people close to the family at the time also believed (which is evident from letters that we have). Which is right?

This isn’t the only apparent contradiction in the story. Despite multiple accounts of Oskar’s death defending Memel as part of the Home Guard, Johanne appears to have told a number of people and organizations at various points that he (along with their son Odo) was murdered by the Nazis. Why did she do that, when she had good evidence to the contrary? Given that she contradicted herself with her claims regarding to her husband’s death, is she really to be trusted on her other claims?

And then there are the multiple claims (including a declaration under oath by a friend of theirs from their Memel days) that Oskar had had a good relationship with local Jews and protected them even after 1939, which had had negative consequences for him politically and possibly resulted in his imprisonment. Really? Really? Isn’t proximity to Jews what everyone claimed after the war to make it look like they weren’t complicit in or at least responsible because of their silence about the war’s atrocities? I genuinely didn’t know what to believe. I knew that, at least after the war, my great-grandmother had had nothing against Jews. But she did go in for general stereotyping, saying that she didn’t like Poles or Catholics. How can we understand her and others’ claims that Oskar helped Jews to escape when he seems to have been a committed member of the NSDAP? Is it possible to make sense of the contradictions?

In the exchange of letters that we have between Oskar and Johanne, it is clear that Johanne is the worrier, and Oskar the calm voice of hope. He comes across as a wise, gentle and deeply caring husband and father, whose interests range from cellular biology to the wellbeing of the family chickens: hardly the type of person one might stereotypically associate with committed Nazism. But here’s the thing: the world isn’t separated into good people and Nazis. It’s perfectly possible to be a lovely and intelligent person and still be a racist.

When Hitler arrived by ship in Memel on 23rd March 1939 claiming victory, was my family among the throngs that lined the streets yelling heil? I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. You could argue that the Memelländers’ desire to return to the fatherland and therefore their support of being annexed heim ins Reich did not necessarily mean they supported Nazism, and this was the view of many Memelländers after the war, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. The two issues were totally blurred, and besides, they didn’t have the excuse of not knowing how minorities would be treated, having been able to witness the hateful policies towards Jews in 1930s Germany (as a result, pretty much the entire Jewish population fled the Memel Territory when it became clear that it would return to Germany, making the claim that Oskar supported some of them after 1939 seem perhaps more questionable).

If the Szameitats were ever ardent Nazi supporters, they certainly ceased being so after Oskar’s imprisonment, and there is good evidence that he made derogatory statements about the regime which contributed to the decision to dismiss him from office. From Johanne’s private post-war documents, the contempt she felt for the numerous Parteibonzen (‘party bigwigs’) who were employed in prestigious and well paid jobs following the war is clear. But how can we interpret some of the contradictions pointed out above? Here’s my take on it.

From the available evidence, I don’t believe the Szameitats were particularly convinced by Nazism, though I do think they broadly supported a return of the Memel Territory to Germany. I think Oskar was co-opted into the party as Liedtke suggested, and I think the family probably viewed this as a pragmatically smart option. If Oskar had truly been ideologically opposed, he could have refused membership: it was certainly possible to do so as a Kriminalbeamte, and Horst Meyer tells us that his father (who also gets a mention in Johanne’s documents) never joined the NSDAP and kept his job in the Kripo (Meyer, 2016:41). Not joining would, of course, have had implications for Oskar’s career, but there’s something else: in his role as a detective, Oskar had worked alongside the Lithuanian authorities in the 1930s on a murder case that formed part of the international trial in Kaunas that I alluded to in my previous blog post. I just wonder whether he viewed party membership in part as a safety net to show how committed he was (at least outwardly) to the Territory’s German roots.

How can we understand the fact that he appealed the decision to chuck him out of the party on numerous occasions? And what of his statement that he chose to join the party himself? To be honest, I think that was a pragmatic move too. I think he thought he was more likely to get out of prison (where he was sitting without charge) if he claimed to be a good Nazi than if he didn’t. I suspect he was given advice to that effect by friends in the party who were sympathetic to his cause.

And his connection to convicted murderers? It is complicated, because those who were found guilty in the Ulm trial I linked to above were made up both of colleagues of Oskar (his boss was the police director Bernhard Fischer-Schweder, not a nice man, and one of his colleagues was Franz Behrendt, also found guilty of aiding mass murder) as well as those who were investigating his case of suspected treason (Hans-Joachim Böhme, head of the Gestapo Tilsit, and one of his subordinates Harm Willms Harms). And it was good fortune that Oskar worked for the Kriminalpolizei branch of the police force (plain clothes detective squad), because it was the uniformed police that were invited to go and partake in the mass shootings of Jews in the summer of 1941. Franz Behrendt had also worked for the Kripo but then switched to the Gestapo. It is a relief that Oskar didn’t, and therefore didn’t have to choose whether to commit mass murder or risk losing face (because, genuinely, that seems to be all that would have happened for refusing to shoot innocent people). In any case, he was in prison from February 1941 to December 1942, so he would have missed it all anyway. But it has rather made me aware of how close even ‘normal’ Germans were to the atrocities carried out in their name. And it makes me question whether their declarations under oath that my great-grandmother obtained were really truthful. Can you really trust people who oversee mass murder, go underground after the war by changing their names and then make out that you were just ‘following orders’ in your trial?

And what of Johanne’s claims that he and Odo were murdered by the Nazis? I have scratched my head a lot over this one. She often mentioned this when writing letters to people such as the Chancellor’s wife or Nazi hunters, so was she trying to get their attention by making her lot seem worse than it was? After much reflection, I don’t think this is right. In her heart of hearts, I think she always knew Oskar had been killed in battle and Odo had gone missing. But we must be mindful of the age she had just lived through: where the ‘official’ line was usually little more than propaganda and no one knew who to trust. She was also wary of the fact that most of those in positions of authority in post-war West Germany had been Nazi supporters themselves, and there is a general sense of distrust of West German government officials in her correspondence because of it. As far as she was concerned, her compensation rejection might well have come about because those in the office of Lower Saxony’s Interior Minister had all been Parteibonzen themselves. She had grown up in a world when conspiracy theories were thought as likely to be true as the ‘official version’ of history (believing for instance till her death that West Germany’s Chancellor Willy Brandt was the illegitimate son of Kaiser Bill). I think she probably therefore felt she had reason to doubt the ‘official’ version of events surrounding the deaths of her husband and son.

And what of the claims about supporting Jews? Well, on the face of it, there is no reason to doubt them just because lots of Germans claimed this in the years following the war. Someone called Irene Brock declared under oath that Jews had lodged with the Szameitats before the war. There is no evidence to the contrary, so perhaps I shouldn’t be so skeptical. It just always seemed to me that it didn’t sit easily with the fact that Oskar joined the party. But it is certainly possible under the interpretation I have suggested above, and why would someone who doesn’t stand to gain anything like Irene Brock lie under oath?

Am I making excuses for them in this blog post? How should I interpret their actions? Were they the right thing to do? It’s hard to escape the feeling that they were quiet collaborators focused on saving their own necks rather than standing up for what is right. But then, would I have been any different? When Oskar was imprisoned and sacked from his job, the family lost its financial stability and suddenly had no income. Johanne’s brother, Karl Pätzel, refused to support them (we were given the impression that he was a convinced Nazi supporter) and that saddened Johanne so much that she (and her three sisters) broke off all contact with him for the rest of their lives. The whole affair had considerable emotional and mental health consequences for the entire family, and there’s evidence that Odo especially suffered at school probably because of it. No wonder Oskar wanted to get out of prison as soon as possible – to say nothing of the fact he was in solitary confinement for nearly two years and was apparently beaten frequently.

And yet, I can’t help thinking that there were so many who suffered much worse fates because they refused to be associated with a regime that promoted and carried out hatred: people like Erdmonas Simonaitis, for instance. He was a prominent politician in the Memel Territory who stood for the Lithuanian interest between the wars. He was sent to a concentration camp. One of the reasons I am comfortable in saying I believe the vast majority of Johanne’s claims is that she has post-war letters and declarations under oath from Simonaitis, meaning that Oskar must have been known to him and probably worked alongside him. Oskar and Johanne could certainly have shunned the party openly and done so much more to speak up against the hatred. But again, can I really judge them? What would I have done?

It’s easy to think we would stand up for our principles at cost to ourselves and our families, but until we are actually in that position, I don’t really think we know how we’d act. And yet how much do we, in the knowledge that we aren’t about to be locked up for voicing dissenting views, actually use our privilege and our freedom to stand up for justice in our world? It’s easy to view the events I’ve outlined in this post as an interesting relic of the past and nothing more. But the truth is, there are striking parallels with our own day: in many places around the world people do not have the freedom to speak up for the marginalized. What are we doing about that?

There is a little known and much underrated twentieth century author from the region called Johannes Bobrowski, who among other things, wrote beautiful poetry that, unlike most of the Heimwehliteratur (nostalgia literature specifically concerning the lost former German eastern territories), addressed the difficult topic of collective guilt as well as loss. I’ll leave you with some of his words.

Ich mein’,

man muß eben von der Vergangenheit leben,

und mit der Zukunft muß man ganz behutsam umgehen,

ganz sensibel. Denn da wissen wir nichts.

(‘I think you have to live in light of the past, and you have to tread very carefully with regards to the future, very sensitively indeed. Because we know nothing about the future.’ Quoted in Pölking, 2013:2)


Pölking, Hermann. 2013. Das Memelland: wo Deutschland einst zu Ende war. Ein historischer Reisebegleiter. Berlin: be.bra verlag.

Meyer, Horst. 2014. Von Memel nach Berlin – 85 Jahre im Wandel der deutschen Geschichte. Friedberg: Verlagshaus Schlosser.

Setting the scene: the Memel Territory and the Szameitats

When deciding on the tagline for this blog I found myself unsure of how to refer to the little strip of land in Lithuania that was once home to the Szameitat family. The German names Memelland and Memelgebiet are mostly unknown in the UK, and Lithuania Minor, a direct translation of the Lithuanian name Mažoji Lietuva for a once larger area, erases its German heritage and was promoted intentionally in the Soviet era to play down its Prussian past (Lithuania Minor was once more commonly known as Prūsų Lietuva – Prussian Lithuania). But when I mention the name Memel Territory, a translation of Territoire de Memel, because it was the French who were in control of the region immediately after the First World War, I am also usually met with blank stares.

In fact, it turns out it’s not just the name that’s little known, but the area itself. For some reason, our History GCSE textbooks fail to inform us about how, as stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles following the First World War, this small strip of land north of the Memel/Nemunas river was separated from Germany and placed under the control of the League of Nations, nor how, in 1923, there was a coup staged by the newly created Lithuanian nation to annexe it (interestingly enough making Lithuania the first nation to break the Treaty of Versailles), nor how it was technically in a state of war from 1926-1938, nor how it was Hitler’s final territorial gain before the outbreak of the Second World War. We learn about the occupation of the Rhineland and the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, but somehow the Memel Territory gets missed out as insignificant.



It really shouldn’t, because the events that took place in this small strip of land were like a microcosm of what happened all over Europe during the twentieth century. And researching it over the years has taught me much about perspective and the lens through which we view history.

Because depending on what your source is, history can look quite different. For Germans, the Memel Territory has been traditionally understood as an area that was once Prussian, the majority of whose inhabitants were German or at least identified culturally as Prussian up to 1945, by which time they had fled or been expelled. For Lithuanians, it has been thought of as an area in which its culture and heritage were suppressed by a foreign power for hundreds of years and was returned to the homeland provisionally in 1923 and for good in 1945.

Perspective matters in history telling, and that will become clear in subsequent blog posts. Even the name we choose is significant. By calling it the Memel Territory, people might think I am implicitly suggesting that the region should be thought of historically as German, or at least Prussian, whereas referring to it as the Klaipėda Region implies its Lithuanian heritage is the more significant. The truth is, of course, much more nuanced, and most historians these days try to reflect that complexity by not sliding into the old dichotomy of German versus Lithuanian. Cultural exchange between the two countries has become important especially in light of Lithuania’s relatively recent membership of the EU, fostering for example university exchange programmes and projects like the Annaberger Annalen. Nevertheless, an awareness of this difference in perspective is important when attempting to understand the history of the region.

As it happens, both German and Lithuanian settlers came later to an area that was already inhabited by Curonian and ethnically Prussian populations. For hundreds of years under the rule of one German state or another the cultures mixed and coexisted, sometimes happily, sometimes not. The ethnic identity of the region’s inhabitants in the twentieth century is therefore unsurprisingly complex. As a rule, the towns were predominantly made up of native German speakers, and the countryside had a Lithuanian majority, though it’s hard to ascertain what ‘German’ or ‘Lithuanian’ really meant, as there were many bilingual inhabitants who identified as Memelländer and who probably spoke Lithuanian as their first language but had assimilated in other ways. It’s a very modern idea to assume that national boundaries should follow linguistic ones, and native tongue was certainly not the defining factor in the expression of identity for those living in the Memel Territory between the wars. Unlike the people over in Lithuania Major, those who identified as Prussian Lithuanians leant culturally towards Prussia and importantly shared their Protestant confession in contrast with their Roman Catholic brothers over the border. German perhaps enjoyed greater prestige than other languages in East Prussia, but it was in Tilsit, on the river Memel, that Lithuanian books were printed and smuggled over into the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century (Lithuania’s struggle for independence has historically been mostly concerned with freeing itself from Russian rule).

The area retained a provincial feel, being so far away from Berlin, the heartland of Prussia. This was magnified by the fact that there was a real absence of heavy industry and the majority of the population was engaged in agricultural pursuits and the timber trade. The largest city, Memel (called Klaipėda by the region’s Lithuanian speakers), had a modest population and was overshadowed industrially and culturally by its great rival Königsberg (modern day Kaliningrad). Life was largely determined by weather and the sea: it could be warm in summer but winters were often very cold and the area was prone to stormy gales which affected harvests and trade. But it was – and is – a remarkably beautiful place, defined by huge changeable skies and the vast expanse of the sea, separated only by a long thin strip of sand on the horizon: the Curonian Spit. My grandmother almost never talked about anything to do with her German past, but Mum told me how she sometimes spoke fondly of playing on the sand dunes as a child there, just a short ferry ride away from where they lived in Memel.

The sense of being at one with nature and escaping the stresses of modern life led several well known cultural figures to seek refuge on the Spit: Thomas Mann had a summer house in Nidden, and there was an artist’s colony that formed there in the latter part of the nineteenth century.


Lovis Corinth’s 1893 painting Friedhof in Nidden (‘Cemetery in Nida’) Source

But although the Memel Territory was right at the edge of the German Empire, it was right in the middle of major European events. Armies passed through backwards and forwards in the Napoleonic and First World Wars, and its inhabitants lived on the cultural frontier between East and West.

Political tensions were probably at their peak between the World Wars. Despite the ethnic and cultural mélange, most inhabitants in the region did not wish to be under the authority of Lithuania (and in spite of the territory being designated an autonomous region). In the 1938 Landtag elections, 97% of the eligible residents voted, and 87.2% of those votes were for the German Einheitsliste, which was a list of all German political parties who sought a return of the region to Germany (source). The 1930s had seen a complex rise of right wing nationalism partly in response to the developments over the border in Germany and partly because of the growing dissatisfaction with Lithuanian rule. Two National Socialist political parties were founded, the CSA (Christlich-Soziale Arbeitsgemeinschaft, or Christian-Socialist Working Party) and the Sovog (Sozialistische Volksgemeinschaft, or Socialist People’s Party), and both competed for the status of the Memel Territory’s ‘true’ National Socialist party. The Lithuanian authorities were concerned about these developments, and implemented a series of measures which strained the nation’s relationship with Germany further: several officials, including the head of the Memel directorate, were dismissed, and over a hundred members of the two Nazi sympathising parties (which were subsequently banned in 1934) were arrested and tried in Kaunas in a well publicized and internationally criticized trial that Lithuania still upholds as the world’s first trial of Nazi war criminals. Germany responded with economic sanctions and international pressure. (For more information on German-Lithuanian relations in the period see here and here.) The Memelländers thus became enveloped in political and economic tensions that surpassed their borders and had consequences for the world stage. They also turn out to have had significant implications for the Szameitat family, as will become clear in subsequent posts.

It was into this atmosphere of political and social unrest that my grandmother was born. I don’t recall ever learning how her parents met, but I do remember being told that Johanne’s family, the Pätzels, didn’t approve of the union. Johanne was raised in Rudienen, a small farming village near to Heydekrug (modern day Šilutė), and Oskar Szameitat had been born only a few kilometres away in Paszieszen. We’re not certain of the reason for the Pätzels’ disapproval, but I have a hunch. The name Szameitat is of Prussian Lithuanian origin (see here if you read German) and refers to the name bearer being of a Samogitian background. It is the Germanized version of Žemaite, or ‘lower Lithuanian’, with a pronominal suffix –at on the end. As is often the case with minority cultures, Prussian Lithuanians were associated with being less economically prosperous, less learned and more provincial. Although assimilation must have occurred generations earlier, as none of our Szameitats seemed to have spoken any dialect of Lithuanian, maybe Oskar was just not considered German enough.


Extract from the Szameitat Stammbuch recording Johanne and Oskar’s wedding (they’d also had a church blessing in Werden near Heydekrug on the same day)

In any case, he was eight years her senior and they married in April 1927, two days after Johanne’s twenty second birthday. They had clearly sought refuge together in the (more socially progressive?) city and already co-habited, as the same address is given for each of them in the family Stammbuch: Verlängerte Alexanderstraße 19.


The Johanneskirche in Memelwhere Odo and Irene were baptized. It was damaged in the war and later destroyed by the Soviets (source)

Their son, Oskar Glaubrecht Odo, was born in August 1928. Their flat was then, I assume, renumbered to 14 and renamed to commemorate the dismissed head of the Memel directorate, Otto Böttcher, before my grandmother, Alice Toni Vera Irene, was born in October 1932. Soon after, Oskar was transferred in his work as a police detective to the more rural Pogegen (Pagėgiai), which we know from Johanne’s documents, but which is supported by the fact that the family is not found in the 1935 Memel address book (they are in the 1929, 1931 and 1942 address books also accessible online).

The only photograph we have of the children must have been taken during the Pogegen stay. By the time of the incorporation with Germany in 1939, Oskar had been promoted to Kriminalsekretär (something like detective sergeant) and the family had returned to Memel, now living at Hospitalstraße 22. It was here that Oskar would fall foul of the establishment, and here that the events unfolded that, two years later, would turn the family’s world upside down.


My grandmother Irene with her older brother Odo in the early 1930s

Why Hospitalstraße 22?

It’s 1994. I’m seven years old, and Mum has just returned from a trip to Germany without us to see Great-Grandma Johanne. Mum, in the midst of her own grief at the loss of her mother, my grandmother, Irene, had the difficult task of counselling her grandmother through the death of her daughter. Great-Grandma Johanne was, at 89, too old and frail to come to the UK for her daughter’s funeral. Mum arrives home with a pile of unsorted documents that ‘Mama’ (the name she uses for Great-Grandma, because her own mother referred to her like that) has given her, telling her to keep them safe. They are put in a drawer in the study. Other documents and pictures are still in my great-grandmother’s apartment because they are too precious for her to give up.

It’s 1995. We arrive as a family at the nursing home in Bad Grund, Germany, that Great-Grandma Johanne has moved to. My brother and I don’t speak much German, and she can’t speak English, but we sing her some German children’s songs Mum has taught us and she plaits my hair, telling us that she always wanted to be a hairdresser but her mother wouldn’t let her. Her apartment has been cleared by the local authorities and with it seemingly all the photos and documents that Great-Grandma didn’t give to Mum the year before. They are never found.

It’s 1996. We are at the cemetery in Seesen, standing around my great-grandmother’s grave, listening to the liturgy in German. When the vicar begins the Lord’s Prayer, my parents start praying the English words at the same time. Her grave stone bears her name and dates, and the place she was born: Rudienen.


In the years following I ask my mother more about her German heritage. Where is Rudienen? Why did Great-Grandma Johanne and Grandma Irene end up in Seesen? Why did Grandma come to Britain? Why didn’t she want to talk about where she grew up and why did she pretend not to be German? What happened to Great-Grandma’s husband Oskar and her son Odo?

It’s the year 2000. I begin formal German lessons at school and enjoy the sense of connection I feel with a culture that seems to pulse through my veins. People ask me why I chose German instead of Spanish as a second foreign language and I explain a little about my German heritage. They ask me what my German family’s name was, because my surname doesn’t sound very German. I say Szameitat, and they look at me strangely. That doesn’t sound very German either, where were they from? Memel, I say. ‘Where’s that?’ they ask, wondering which bit of Germany it’s in. I explain it’s now called Klaipėda and is in modern day Lithuania, and they look even more confused.

I ask Mum if I can look at Great-Grandma’s documents again as I am fascinated by the past and we are learning about the Second World War in History. My beginner level German prevents me from understanding much, but I can’t stop myself poring over one document: a letter my grandmother wrote in 1944 as a refugee to her father back home on the Eastern front. She was only 12 when she wrote it, and I am 13. The letter is simple and conversational, and I can understand nearly all of it.

The other documents are impenetrable. They are mostly legal documents, with a few letters thrown in. Most of them date from the 1960s. Mum tells me that they are details of a compensation claim for a widow’s pension, because Great-Grandma’s husband Oskar had been a policeman before he died in the war but had been imprisoned by the Gestapo and sacked from his job unfairly. They had also had property confiscated, and the compensation from that had been handed down and is now in trust, the interest on which is paying for my school fees. My curiosity is piqued. What did Oskar do to get imprisoned by the Gestapo? Why did he get sacked from office? Where was their land, and why was it confiscated? When did they leave Memel and where did they go? And what happened to my great uncle Odo? Mum says she’s had a go at deciphering some of the letters already. I make a promise to myself that one day, when my German is better and I have more time, I will sort through the documents and attempt to make sense of the story. I even dream of writing a book about it one day.

Great-Grandma Johanne and me outside her flat in Seesen in c. 1994

It’s 2005. I’m 18 and about to embark on an undergraduate degree in German and Linguistics. Over the summer before I go up to university, I ask to dig out those documents again. My A level German is a bit more up to the task and although the handwritten letters are largely still very difficult to decipher, I can understand enough to start to see a broad picture emerging. I translate one of the legal documents but I know that it would take too long to translate them all and I am not fluent enough in German yet to read them easily without translating them. I put them away again with a view to come back to them when my German skills improve.

It’s August 2008. I’m back at my parents’ house after having spent a year in Germany as part of my degree. I am avoiding university work and decide with Dad to sort through my great-grandmother’s documents and put them in date order. Since I am now a lot more fluent in German, I am able to read through them much more quickly, but as they are at my parents’ house and I am about to move back to Oxford for my final undergraduate year, I have little opportunity to work through them systematically. I am hopeful that at some point in the future my parents will entrust them to me so that I can peruse them at leisure.

It’s April 2013. I’m married now and doing a PhD in the history of the German language, but I still haven’t forgotten my resolution to make sense of my great-grandmother’s compensation documents. During a visit to my parents with my husband, I skim read through all the documents over a period of days. Each time I look through them I realize how much I have forgotten in the months and years that pass between the times I have access to them. I know that the only way I’ll be able to get to the bottom of the tale is to have unlimited access to the documents. Sensing my parents’ current unwillingness to part with them, I start to consider digitization as a viable option so that I can read them electronically, and blogging as a way of sharing my findings with those who are interested in the history of the former German territories in Eastern Europe.

It’s March 2016 and on another visit to my parents I ask to get the documents out again. The last few years have been a blur of looking after our needy first born and I am newly pregnant with our second (the PhD is still on the go too). I scan and save as PDFs about two thirds of the documents. I don’t have time for any more than that and the third I don’t scan are documents like life insurance receipts and other bills that do not tell me a great deal about the overall story. I save them to our desktop and my smartphone and spend a lovely holiday in North Wales reading, transcribing and writing notes. Pregnancy fatigue and toddler intensity take over my life and again the Szameitat story sits on the back burner.

January 2017. Despite now having two small children, I feel like if I don’t start now, I never will, and decide to set up a new blog. In those rare moments to myself over the last few months I have become more familiar with some of the documents, especially the handwritten letters written in the latter part of the war. Many of them were written by Johanne to Oskar, and the reason we have them is stamped across the yellowing envelopes: Gefallen für Großdeutschland (‘fallen for Greater Germany’). My great-grandfather Oskar Szameitat was killed in October l944 defending the city he called home, hit by an artillery shell only a few streets away from where he had lived: Hospitalstraße 22, Memel, East Prussia, Germany.



Great-Grandma Johanne in Seesen in the 1980s

Property always seemed very important to my great-grandmother Johanne and her daughter Irene, and you can kind of see why. They’d had the land that they owned outside Memel confiscated and handed to Nazi sympathisers. When they fled from the Russians, they naively assumed that they would one day return home (neither ever did, despite the borders opening up in 1987). My grandmother used to keep her money in diamonds because she didn’t trust the banks not to go bust. The only time she ever hinted at her traumatic past was shortly before her death, warning us not to put all our money in real estate, because you never knew when you might lose everything. In Johanne’s letters to Oskar, I kept noticing the question Steht unser Haus noch? (‘Is our house still standing?’) It was always the second or third thing she wrote, and it clearly mattered to her a great deal.

The Lithuanian street name for Hospitalstraße is a direct translation: Ligoninės gatvė. By looking at old maps of Memel and comparing them with the modern old town of Klaipėda, I could work out where Hospitalstraße is now and, well, Google translate did the rest. Imagine my excitement when I realized a few months ago that you can access Google Streetview there too. I hastily looked up and down the street my grandmother had grown up on. Practically all of it must have been destroyed in the war, as it was mostly made up of modern residential flats, but I could make out just one older imperial looking building. I scrolled over to it. I nearly cried. The number etched into the stonework over the house, underneath the date the house was built (1905), was the number 22. Ja, Mama, euer Haus steht noch, I heard myself say quietly.


Modern day Hospitalstraße 22 as seen from Google Streetview