Defending Memel in 1944: Oskar’s death in battle

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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.

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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).

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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.

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

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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.


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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.

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

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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.

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

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Oskar’s likely burial place, August 2017

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


References

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.

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