Fleeing the Red Army: from Memel to Seesen

Eibau, 24th October 1944

Dear Daddy,

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

Brigitte Hermenau

Deutsch Eylau (West Prussia)

Jorkstraße 38 c/o Mans

Where is Odo? Our address is:

Szameitat Eibau (Löbau district)

in Saxony


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

I’m going to close now.

Lots of love,

Your Irene


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

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

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


Irene’s temporary refugee ID card from 1948

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


The railway route between Königsberg and Tilsit (Source)

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


The route Johanne and Irene took from the evidence available

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


Johanne’s ID card from 1946

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


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

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



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

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

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

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


An uncomfortable truth: Hospitalstraße 22 and Ella Itzigsohn

Hospitalstr 22 different angle

Modern day Hospitalstraße 22 as per Google Streetview

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

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

Screenshot of Hospitalstraße 22’s latter owners and residents Source



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

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

At best, this makes any attempts of Oskar’s to protect and help Jews before 1939 reek of hypocrisy. At worst, it casts a good deal of doubt on the veracity of such claims. How can Oskar have ‘helped Jews to escape’ when he was happy to profit from their expulsion? Perhaps there wasn’t anything else suitable for a family of four within walking distance of the Polizeidirektion children’s schools at the time they were looking. Perhaps all the available apartments were ones that had been seized from the departing Jewish population (several thousands of them fled the city in early 1939, where they had previously made up 12.5% of the population). Perhaps. But perhaps this spacious and beautiful building so perfectly situated was too attractive for them to hold on to any principles, if indeed they had them. I can imagine that they might have been able to get more for their money as the Deutsche Allgemeine Treuhand- GmbH probably offered competitive rent prices in order to fill the property quickly. Oh, and probably a better rate for party members, too.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Börsenstraße 1-4 after 1939 Source

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On good guys, Nazis and searching for the truth

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

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


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

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

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


Extract from the Berlin Document Center file on Oskar Szameitat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ich mein’,

man muß eben von der Vergangenheit leben,

und mit der Zukunft muß man ganz behutsam umgehen,

ganz sensibel. Denn da wissen wir nichts.

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


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

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

Setting the scene: the Memel Territory and the Szameitats

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

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



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

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

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

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

The area retained a provincial feel, being so far away from Berlin, the heartland of Prussia. This was magnified by the fact that there was a real absence of heavy industry and the majority of the population was engaged in agricultural pursuits and wood cutting. 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 rarely talked about anything to do with her German past, but Mum told me how she sometimes spoke fondly of playing on the sand dunes as a child there, just a short ferry ride away from where they lived in Memel.

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


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

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

Political tensions were probably at their peak between the World Wars. Despite the ethnic and cultural mélange, most inhabitants in the region did not wish to be under the authority of Lithuania (and in spite of the territory being designated an autonomous region). In the 1938 Landtag elections, 97% of the eligible residents voted, and 87.2% of those votes were for the German Einheitsliste, which was a list of all German political parties who sought a return of the region to Germany (source). The 1930s had seen a complex rise of right wing nationalism partly in response to the developments over the border in Germany and partly because of the growing dissatisfaction with Lithuanian rule. Two National Socialist political parties were founded, the CSA (Christlich-Soziale Arbeitsgemeinschaft, or Christian-Socialist Workers’ 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 the Szameitats were only a few kilometres away in Paszieszen. We’re not certain of the reason for the Pätzels’ disapproval, but I have a hunch. The name Szameitat is of Prussian Lithuanian origin (see here if you read German) and refers to the name bearer being of a Samogitian background. It is the Germanized version of Žemaite, or ‘lower Lithuanian’, with a pronominal suffix –at on the end. As is often the case with minority cultures, Prussian Lithuanians were associated with being less economically prosperous, less learned and more provincial. Although assimilation must have occurred generations earlier, as none of our Szameitats seemed to have spoken any dialect of Lithuanian, maybe Oskar was just not considered German enough.


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

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


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

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

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


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

Why Hospitalstraße 22?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Great-Grandma Johanne in Seesen in the 1980s

Property always seemed very important to my great-grandmother Johanne and her daughter Irene, and you can kind of see why. They’d had the land that they owned outside Memel confiscated and handed to Nazi sympathisers. When they fled from the Russians, they naively assumed that they would one day return home (neither ever did, despite the borders opening up in 1991). 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 painted over the house, underneath the date the house was built (1905), was the number 22. Ja, Mama, euer Haus steht noch, I heard myself say quietly.


Modern day Hospitalstraße 22 as seen from Google Streetview