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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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