Great-uncle Odo

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

Here’s a rough translation:

16.01.45

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).

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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:

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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,

?Emil

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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