Great-uncle Odo


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.


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.



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


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.


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

Here’s a rough translation:


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).


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:


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,


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.


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).


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.


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.


Defending Memel in 1944: Oskar’s death in battle


Part of the notification of Oskar’s death that Johanne received in mid-November 1944

When Johanne and Irene received news of Oskar’s death, it had probably barely been a month since they had last seen him. In one of her documents, Johanne lists early October 1944 as the last time she had had contact with her husband, whether in person or not is not stated. By 11th October, he was dead. On 16th October, notice was given of his death. Johanne must have received the news by mid-November, because there is an abrupt end to her letters to him from Saxony at this point. When reading through those letters, sent in October on 22nd, 24th, and 31st, and then on 7th and 9th November, her silence thereafter seems deafening. That sense of emptiness gives me a tiny glimpse into how it must have felt to know that she would now never receive a reply.

Of all the events in the Szameitat story, Oskar’s death is probably the best documented in the files. I have sometimes wondered why, but I think I know the answer. We tend to keep things that are of the most importance to us, letting the less important things go over the years. It seems that Johanne kept hold of every letter and every detail she received concerning her husband’s death, presumably carrying them on her person during the rest of their Flucht, storing them safely in her new home in Seesen and only relinquishing them in 1995, when she felt she was too elderly to keep them safe herself. Mum remembers Johanne showing her Oskar’s police ID when she was growing up, but this was not included in the documents Johanne gave to her in 1995. Perhaps that one was too painful to hand over, with all it stood for: Oskar’s work as a detective on that infamous and politicized murder case in 1934, his imprisonment under the Nazis in 1941-2 and subsequent dismissal from office, his death defending their home in 1944, and the very great lengths she went to to prove his innocence in the 1950s and ’60s. We don’t know what happened to that document: it was probably cleared by the authorities when Johanne was moved into an old people’s home in 1995, or, if she took it with her, irresponsibly disposed of following her death in 1996.

With that police ID went the only photograph of my great-grandfather known to have been in the family’s possession, and he has had to remain a faceless figure for me (Mum can remember nothing about what he looked like in that photograph). I have a dream that one day I will find documents relating to his imprisonment in Tilsit in some archive or other, and that maybe, just maybe, there might be a photograph of him there. Because of all the characters in this story, I am drawn to Oskar the most, just like his daughter seems to have been. Is it possible to feel like you know someone purely through the written record? I would wager that it is. From simply reading the small exchange of letters between him and Johanne, along with the memories and letters of former colleagues and friends, my great-grandfather has become very familiar to me, and I have grown to respect and admire him for his apparent wisdom, gentleness, deep sense of caring, and unending trust that good will prevail. Which is why it hurts all the more to know that he wilfully joined the NSDAP (whatever the circumstances) and knowingly profited from the misfortune of Jews (in spite of apparently helping other Jews to flee). When people we love and admire fall short of our own standards, it is very sad and unsettling, not least because we know that, given a situation such as this, we would probably have done the same.

Looking at the whole of Oskar’s life, I am confronted with the impression of a man who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time again and again. It started when he was just three years old when his mother died in childbirth and his father became an alcoholic. Why did that set of circumstances fall on him? Was it an omen of what was to come? Schooled first in Tilsit and then the Oberschule in Memel, he got caught up in the euphoria of the 1914 outbreak of war and signed up voluntarily. He fought on the Western front at Argonne and at the Somme as part of the 45th Infantry Regiment and was wounded in battle in 1917. After an operation to remove shrapnel from his left thigh and buttock in Memel, he was deployed on the Eastern Front as part of a field aviation unit, where he was a machine gunner until the armistice in 1918. Afterwards, according to Johanne, he fought against the Bolshevists as a volunteer fighter in Courland, presumably as part of a Freikorps unit.

Immediately after the war, he joined the police force in the newly created Memel Territory. In a post-war edition of the Heimatzeitung (local newspaper for those deported) for the region, the Memeler Dampfboot, we learn in an article about the former Landespolizei (the Memel Territory’s police force) how, because many of those working for the police force were from Germany and therefore chose to leave the newly created Memel Territory after it was separated from the Reich in 1919, there was an urgent need to recruit new policemen, who were mostly drawn from the ranks of the military (see Number 21 in 1955). Oskar was presumably part of that wave of new recruits. In his role as a Kriminalassistent, he lived and worked in Memel, both during the French occupation and after the Lithuanian takeover in 1923. At some point in the 1920s, he met and started courting Johanne Pätzel, and he (and presumably later also she) lived north of the river in Verlängerte-Alexanderstraße 19 (later renamed and renumbered Otto-Böttcher-Straße 14). As described elsewhere, they married in 1927 and welcomed their two children to the world amid the regional social and political upheaval of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Oskar was promoted in 1929 to Kriminalsekretär, something like a detective seargent.

In 1934, possibly in August, the family was transferred to the county town of Pogegen, very near the new border with Germany, and it was here that Oskar was embroiled in what turned out to be a political murder case that will have to wait for its own blog post to be explored fully. This was definitely one such time when Oskar was in the wrong place at the wrong time, trying to do an impartial job as a detective while simultaneously suspecting that whatever he and his team discovered would have serious political consequences, and being forced to pass that information to the despised Lithuanian authorities.

Did he breathe a sigh of relief when Hitler sailed to Memel in March 1939, symbolically bringing the region heim ins Reich? Or did he expect repercussions? I don’t think he thought life under the Lithuanian administration, with its anti-German policies and autocratic tendencies, to be particularly pleasant, and I suspect he cheered inwardly and probably outwardly along with everyone else to be German again. But, despite his party membership, he was no convinced National Socialist, either, and, unsurprisingly, became emphatically anti-Nazi after his imprisonment, according to one signed affidavit in the files.

In 1939, after transferring back to Memel and moving in to Hospitalstraße 22, Oskar, along with all his colleagues, was subsumed into the ranks of the German Empire’s police force but continued doing the job he had been doing under Lithuanian rule. Until, catching many of his colleagues by surprise, he was suddenly arrested on suspicion of treason on 10th February 1941, probably in the Polizeidirektion in Memel, and delivered to the Gestapostelle Tilsit for interrogation.


Pre-war and modern images of the Hochhaus an der Dange, in which, from 1940, the Polizeidirektion was housed, where Oskar worked and is likely to have been arrested on 10th February 1941 Source

The circumstances surrounding Oskar’s arrest, imprisonment and subsequent dismissal from office are so complex that they will require a series of blog posts to do them justice. Suffice it to say that no charge could be brought against him and he was released from prison on 15th December 1942, by which point, Johanne tells us, he was barely recognizable because he had been starved down to skin and bone and had been ordered to remain silent about the reasons for and details of his arrest and imprisonment. He continued to receive a small portion of his salary before being dismissed from his civil servant status (including all rights to a pension) in August 1943. Various documents tell us that he had to take whatever jobs he could get hold of, which included working in the production line at the Friedemann soap factory in Memel.

Given that he was in his late forties, conscription was not mandatory for Oskar until 1944, but it’s not clear exactly when he was called up. In one document, Johanne suggests he was conscripted at the beginning of 1944, but in another she lists his conscription date as 17th July 1944, and this is supported by the testimony of a comrade of his (see below). Having fought in the First World War, he already carried the rank of Gefreiter (private). We know that he was conscripted into the Kompanie Roßgarten (Roßgarten being the part of Memel they lived in) in the Küstenhilfswehr (Coastal Relief Defence), which was later united under the Volkssturm (home guard) and whose basic tasks seemed to be preparing and manning defences around Memel. On 15th August 1944, he wrote a letter to Johanne (who had been evacuated along with Irene) from Buddelkehmen, a village south of Memel that happened to be very close to Schweppeln, where the family’s expropriated property had been, and one of his tasks seems to have been milking the cows that had been left behind after the evacuation. Later, he must have been contactable via the Staatsbauschule in Memel, because that is the address Johanne and Irene wrote to until they heard of his death. Johanne later wrote to his battalion inquiring as to the whereabouts of the radio that had been in Oskar’s possession (access to news, biased though it was, was extremely hard to come by during the closing stages of the war, so I can understand why Johanne seems to have gone to some lengths to track down their radio), and in the reply she was informed that about two weeks before the Russian advance (i.e. late September 1944), Oskar had been redeployed along with several others to form a permanent guard at Memel’s municipal gas and waterworks. It must have felt a bit like a homecoming to Oskar, who had spent several years living on that same street, the Verlängerte-Alexanderstraße, in his younger days. The guard was supported from the municipal hospital (Städtisches Krankenhaus) a few streets away, but was quartered in the water tower at the works. According to the communication about Oskar’s belongings, it seems that he had taken what little he owned with him into the water tower (including that radio).




The municipal waterworks in Memel, in which (in the water tower) Oskar was quartered in late September 1944 as part of a permanent guard. The works was damaged during the fighting and later torn down by the Soviets in the 1960s Source

The details of his death mainly come from letters written to Johanne by two of Oskar’s comrades from the KHW, which can be supplemented by more general information about the Russian advance to be found elsewhere. Gustav Isenheim seems to have been a fellow KHW comrade of Oskar’s from a different company who, despite only getting to know Oskar after 17th July 1944, quickly came to regard him as a friend. Johanne had either met him or heard a lot about him from Oskar, because the two letters from Isenheim show that she and he were very familiar with each other. After the war, Johanne managed to track him down as a witness for her compensation claim, and they seem to have retained that sense of mutual affection from 1944. Isenheim was not present at Oskar’s death, but as a comrade of Oskar’s that Johanne knew personally, he was a point of contact for her. The second comrade was someone called Heinrich Neubacher, who alongside Oskar and others had been charged with guarding the waterworks, and though he had only known him for a couple of weeks, he was a witness of his death.

Plieg (2013), Kurschat (1990) and others give details about the defence of Memel in those fateful October days: when the Wehrmacht was unable to stop the Russian advance at Šiauliai in late September, it was only a matter of time before Memel itself would come under attack. On 5th October, the Russians launched their major offensive on East Prussia, and by 7th, Memel had been cut off to the south (Plieg 2013:361). On the 8th, the Red Army tried to take Memel and, starting at dawn, fired everything they had at the city’s defence ring, but the German defences held fast. By 10th, the Red Army had reached the Baltic coast at Palanga, just a few kilometres north of Memel, surrounding the city. The barrage of artillery and bombs grew in intensity, pausing in the evening of 10th, only to pick up again at dawn on 11th and 12th (Plieg, 2013:362). It was during this time that significant public buildings such as the stock exchange, most of the churches, large parts of the old town and the dockside warehouses were extensively damaged (Kurschat, 1990:216). And it was during this time that Oskar also met his death.


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


The stock exchange and old post office in a prewar picture Source

Heinrich Neubacher, who must have written his letter in great haste (there is practically no punctuation) and whose many spelling mistakes are suggestive of a humble background, provided Johanne with the details of her husband’s death, which I translate (relatively loosely) in its entirety here, because it captures the atmosphere of that fateful and tragic time and is starkly unsettling in its emotionless retelling of what happened:

Dear Frau Szameitat,

I received your letter concerning your husband and I will explain what happened briefly. I was transfered as part of the Steintor company from Leisten, where we were based, to Memel, along with two other comrades, to form a permanent guard at the municipal gas and waterworks. The following comrades were deployed: one sergeant, Behrendt, Private Szameitat, KHW-man Schwarz and KHW-man Ottig from the Roßgarten company, and from the Steintor company there was me, Neubacher, Klaus and Masuhr, totalling eight men and one sergeant that made up the guard. Four of us were housed in the water tower, and four in the municipal hospital. The general mood was positive and the camaraderie between us all was very good. Until the first assault on Memel on 8th, which wasn’t actually that bad. On the afternoon of Monday 9th there was another assault which did a lot of damage to the harbour area. On 10th early in the morning from 6am there began a truly dreadful bombardment which hit many vitally important establishments. The gas and waterworks were hit and we couldn’t leave the water tower as the main water pipe had been hit and there was also a large gas leak all around us. We stayed inside until the evening, our plan was to wait until the assault subsided and then leave the water tower under the cover of darkness and relocate to the marine arsenal bunker on the Dange river where we also provided a guard over night. The Russians had already advanced as far as Bachmann-Klemmenhof, and the Otto-Böttcher-Straße, Werftstraße and Fabrikstraße were under fire. The plan was to all go one by one along the street from the waterworks to the river. The order was Ottig, Schwarz, Szameitat, Masuhr, Klaus, Neubacher. Sergeant Behrendt stayed in the tower. As I crossed the street from the water tower on the corner of the Textil-Fabrikstraße, there was suddenly a barrage of bullets and shells. Klaus and I threw ourselves flat on the ground and lay still for half an hour until it all subsided, and then we crossed the battlefield to the Dange. As I arrived, I realized that only Ottig and Schwarz were there, and Szameitat and Masuhr were missing. Two marine soldiers and I went back to look for them. It was very dark, and we called their names. I could hear some people moving and while following the sound I tripped over something dark and I could feel that it was a lifeless human body. We couldn’t use a light and five steps further I found Masuhr, who was stunned but only slightly injured. We carried him to the bunker where he was able to recover. Then we went back out again, put the dead body on a blanket and carried him to the yard of the Preukschat Brothers’ iron foundry. Given that it was night time, there was no more we could do for him. The next morning, four of us went back (to the iron foundry) to identify with certainty that it was Oskar Szameitat. His head had been blown off, his right arm up to his elbow lay not far away, then we found his military ID and a few papers in a small box, other than that we couldn’t find any personal items. He’d had a large chest full of clothes, but no one seems to know where he had stored that. He had also brought a radio into the water tower which was left there when we retreated to Sandkrug on the Wednesday. On the morning of the Wednesday Klaus and I went to the battalion at the Aufbauschule to register his death but no one was there, everyone had already left for Schwarzort by steam ship. So in the afternoon we buried him in the yard of the Preukschat brothers’ iron foundry on Werftstraße. Since then I haven’t been in Memel. The entire battalion is now in Perwelk. Isenheim is also here. Your son Otto [Odo – VT] is supposed to have come here a few weeks ago asking after his father, apparently he’s in a home guard battalion near Königsberg but I don’t know any more than that. I also know nothing about the whereabouts of his property. Because we each had to deal with our own affairs and make sure we got away alive. My comrades and I only took the bare essentials with us, most of our belongings were left in the water tower. It’s unlikely that we’ll find any of it now. I need to stop now, I have no paper.

All best

Heinrich Neubacher

Unlike Neubacher’s letter, Isenheim’s are less emotionally distant and his detail is considerate of the things a grieving wife needs to hear (and that Johanne had probably asked him): that death was instantaneous and Oskar hadn’t had to suffer, that he was buried in a “garden” at the iron foundry, that Oskar and his comrade Masuhr had waited for five minutes after Ottig and Schwarz had left the waterworks before setting out themselves, that it had happened at about four thirty in the afternoon (though in the official correspondence, the time given was six o’clock in the evening), that no one knew whether his body had been mutilated by a shell that hit him after death or whether the blast that killed him had also ripped apart his body, and, poignantly, that his wedding ring was not removed from his right hand.

Oskar met his death on 10th or possibly 11th October 1944 (another source lists 11th as his death date), defending the city he had for so many years called home. Despite the barrage of bombs and bullets, the Red Army was unable to take the city until it was abandoned much later, and they stopped the offensive there on 13th October. Of all the guard relocating to the marine arsenal, Oskar was the only one killed. Tragically it seems that, on one final occasion, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Sketch of the site of Oskar’s death and grave

Having for some years lived round the corner from the scene of her husband’s death, Johanne must have been able to picture the area in her mind just from reading Neubacher’s and Isenheim’s accounts. Nevertheless, she was also provided with a sketch of the area, and it’s possible from this sketch to reconstruct where it all happened alongside maps of modern Klaipėda.


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


A modern map of the site

Armed with this knowledge, I put out a post in one of the (more moderate) East Prussia Facebook groups inquiring about what usually happened to impromptu German war graves such as this one when they were stumbled upon by the Soviets. I was told that they were usually plundered, then levelled, so I didn’t feel too hopeful that Oskar’s body was still buried in the same spot. From another post-war edition of the Memeler Dampfboot, I had learnt from a report of a German sailor that managed to get onto land that the Preukschat iron foundry had been put back into use as early as late 1945, so it seems likely that his grave would have been disturbed. However, I was also encouraged via the Facebook group to get in contact with the Volksbund für deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, which is an organization a bit like the War Graves Commission, and send over the details of the location of his grave. Eventually they got back to me and informed me that graves that had been marked with a cross, as Oskar’s had, were removed of such external symbols to prevent the enemy from having accurate information about the number of casualties. In addition, I was informed that the information I had sent was being forwarded to the team that dealt with the transfer of remains, suggesting that, at some point, the site will be surveyed to see if it’s likely that Oskar’s body is still there. If he is found, his remains will be moved to the German war cemetery in Klaipėda/Memel. I asked to be kept informed so that, if it comes to it, someone from our family could be present at his reburial. Johanne would definitely have wanted that.

A chance virtual encounter in a different Facebook group led me to get to see the burial site almost as if I were there myself. Someone called Manfred posted saying he was travelling to Klaipėda and asked for tips on what to see. I asked whether he would mind popping along to Ligoninės g. 5/Hospitalstraße 22 to take a picture as the only one I had is from Google StreetView. It turns out his grandmother had lived next door at number 20! What are the chances! In addition to sending over up-to-date photographs of Hospitalstraße 22, he agreed to photograph the site of Oskar’s death and burial (shared below with his permission). Oh, and he took his drone with him, too (as you do). I knew from StreetView that the area Oskar had been buried was now industrial land, but Manfred managed to get much closer and thinks it likely that his grave was either under the greenhouse or in the garden next to it. He (Manfred) even tried to ask the gardener he saw working there, but he spoke neither German nor English so they didn’t get very far. A garden, of course, was where Isenheim said Oskar had been buried. Maybe the Volksbund will be able to find him after all. It would have meant a lot to Johanne if they did. Somehow it would mean a lot to me, too.


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


Oskar’s likely burial place, August 2017


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


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.

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 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.


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.


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.