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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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

Hindenburgstraße

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

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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References

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.

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.

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Source

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Modern day Hospitalstraße 22 as seen from Google Streetview