From No Grave to a Pew

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Guest-blogger, Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen shares a very personal story of her father’s life, death and memorialisation: from Zwickau to Hull via Dresden, Eckernförde, and La Rochelle and his death near Kaliningrad.

My father was born in 1914 but his wealthy parents went bankrupt twice after WW1. As a teenager he therefore assisted in the family bakery and later became a ‘Kaufmann’, and may have failed to complete some engineering training for financial reasons. There is nobody alive I could ask, for there is no documentary evidence concerning his education or employment. However, my birth certificate describes him as a Werftbuchhalter – accountant for a Werft, a shipbuilding firm. One inherited photo has handwriting on the back which gives his death as January 1945. If this is correct I would have been just 3 years old and this fits well with the many photographs and memories I do have. He was also good and ambitious photographer with a Leica (a camera that must still be somewhere in Australia!) with a Selbstauslöser (delayed action shutter), so he could and did take photos of himself with others. But I cannot remember him, except from photos.

Karl-Heinz Böhmer was married at 25 or 26 in Zwickau, his wife Gertraude Jakob was seven or eight years younger. I do not know the precise date, probably in the late 1930s. The newly-weds quickly relocated from the Mulde to the Elbe and moved into a modern four room apartment in a new house, Eschdorferstrasse 1, in Bühlau – a rural outlier of Dresden at the NW edge. The house is just off the Bautzner Landstrasse. It was built for four families and the nearby main road north of the Elbe, leads to Bautzen and eventually to Poland. It was the road along which Russian troops entered Dresden in May 1945, another memory.

A track from near this house down to the end of tramline number 11 provided a splendid slope for sledge rides (and later a long walk home from infant school). To judge from photos, my father enjoyed such rides with me (and his camera) in the winter of 1944. Of the four families who had lived there in the 1940s, one finished up in Canada, another in Argentina, we (my mother and her daughters) migrated to South Australia in 1956. The fourth family had remained: the mother of a boy I had played with as child recognised me walking past the house in the early 1970s. Her son, she said was now living in ‘the West’.

My father, Karl-Heinz Bӧhmer, died somewhere in what is now Poland, or Russia at the very end of the Second World War in an area that was then Germany – the Eastern Front. There is no official record of his death; the last official notification or ‘Meldung’ is from the first of December 1944.  (Unterstellung 548, Volks-Grenadier Division) The place of deployment (Einsatzraum) from August 1944 were ‘Litaunen, Tilsit, Bartenstein /Ostpreussen’. The Berlin WAS file of 17 January 2011 ends with a Wehrmacht note: „Eine Vermisst-oder Todesmeldung liegt hier nicht vor ‘ — durch Kriegswirkung verloren‘. (We have no information or documents concerning his status, whether missing or dead.) His documents (Wehrpass, Wehrstammbuch, Stammrolle) have presumably been lost through the impact of war (Kriegseinwirkung). No other records have yet been found but I hope to learn more.

In 1943 and 1944 he appears to have been moved across military arenas in the East and was trained for anti-tank warfare, where he was reportedly shot in early 1945 while ‘covering the retreat’ (Rückzug decken), a phrase I learnt as a child. I found one photo of with a handwritten note saying he died in January 1945. By August 1944 – the German army was clearly disintegrating – his ‘division’ had been deployed in Lithuania, near Tilsit and Bartenstein, in East Prussia.  From the material I received from Berlin, he had not risen in the ranks, and for a time, in early 1944 was declared unfit for war (kriegsunfähig).  A returned ‘comrade’ who visited us in Bühlau told my mother, according to my memory which includes the shape of my mother collapsed weeping, that her husband had been forced to join the wounded and ill in a field hospital to stage an attack meant ‘to cover the retreat of the troops’ near Königsberg. So he was probably shot, and lost his life, like so many before and after him on both sides, to the advancing Red Army.

Tilsit was occupied by the Red Army on 20 January 1945. From what I have read his likely part of the infantry (Army Group Centre) was virtually wiped out by advancing Russian forces, whose summer offensive had reached Tilsit in August 1944 and a little later Königsberg/ Kaliningrad. Apparently the slaughter and horror there was worse than at Stalingrad in 1942.   (Ian Baxter, From Retreat to Defeat, Helion 2007). The German army was now fighting bitterly on home ground yet pushing westward hoping to surrender to the Americans rather than the Russians.

My father has no grave as far as I know. Nobody remembers him in his home town of Zwickau or in Dresden where my parents moved to after their marriage. I was born there in 1942 and my sister in 1944. He saw her once in May 1944. My mother waited until 1946 – some prisoners of war did return – and then had him ‘declared dead’ so that she could receive a widow’s pension and support for her children.

I have never blamed the Russians for his death. A badly defeated and demoralised and decimated army was moving westward to escape the Russians. It had been an extremely cold winter. I remember my mother singing about a ladybird flying to ‘daddy’ who was in the war – flieg (fly) rhymes with Krieg (war), and that Pommerland was burnt down, was ‘abgebrandt’. I can still hum that song.

What did my father do before he was ordered to the East front? I think he was trained in accountancy and travelled a lot ‘on business’.  My pregnant mother had visited him in 1941 when he worked in Eckernförde at the Baltic Sea, 30 km NE from Kiel. I visited him, I was told, in 1941 while still in my mother’s belly!  He probably worked for the military as Kiel was Germany’s major naval centre and home for submarines and small warships. A vast amount of ammunition was stored there. No wonder this area became a centre of attention for Allied forces in 1942 when Britain began to target this military centre. (Chris Madsen, The Royal Navy and German Naval Disarmament, 1942-1947 By Royal Navy and German Naval Disarmament, 1942-1947).

However, when I was born in January 1942, my father was certainly already in La Rochelle, in France. There are photos and even an oil painting but no other documentary evidence. He gave my mother this French oil painting in 1942 of the famous towers, a birthday present! According to my mother he did not wear uniform in France but was looking after officers.  He enjoyed La Rochelle – even that he had girl-friend – I have a photo of her! (Was my mother jealous? She said no, ‘it was war and we gave each other freedom…’) He was certainly in France in late 1942, and certainly in Dresden in April or early May 1944.

Why and by whom was he transferred to La Rochelle after Eckernförde? The Navy seems to be the link. During the Second World War, Germany established a submarine naval base at La Pallice (the main port of La Rochelle). As a German stronghold during the occupation of France, La Rochelle was also the last French city to be liberated. The Allied siege of La Rochelle took place between 12 September 1944 and 7 May 1945. My father was clearly transferred to the east beforehand. Eckernförde and Kiel remain a major naval base where German U-submarines are stationed even today, though demolition of the Nazi base started soon after surrender.

I had always assumed that my father was France as part of the German military, but as he was not eingezogen (conscripted) until 1943, a mystery remains. He had certainly been in France in early 1942 and probably earlier, in 1941. I remember colour slides, since lost, of the German troop Einmarsch into Paris. (1941!) Was he de facto a conscript permitted to avoid military service? Conscientious objection could have been his objective, given his membership of a Persian sect dedicated to vegetarianism and non-violence called Mazdaznan (at home in California and Switzerland, but banned by the Third Reich). As conscientious objection was illegal in the ‘Third Reich’, his pre-1943 links with the military remain a mystery. Is his Austritt (resignation) from the Lutheran Church – I recently found a paper document to this effect – related?

I have learnt more about La Rochelle recently. During the first days of the Second World War, the Luftwaffe bombed many French ports, including La Pallice. In May 1940, La Rochelle became the departure point for many emigrants escaping to America. But a month later, on the 23rd June 1940, the city was invaded by 20,000 German soldiers.

My father, if he did die in January 1945, would not have known of the bombing of Dresden, probably a ‘good’ thing.*Much of Elbflorenz was destroyed during two nights of bomber attacks in February 1945 – just after the end of the Yalta conference. The night of the 13th of February is my first memory, so many stars falling from heaven…. I was just 3 years old and remember the beautiful lit-up sky as well as a heavy door into the cellar. My parents had chosen their Dresden location west of the Weisse Hirsch wisely, very few bombs fell ‘up there’ on the NW edge of the city. Rural Saxony began outside Bühlau – and still does.

My father must have known the Weisse Hirsch, the Dresden suburb closest to Bühlau, with its famous villas, castles and forest. He must have known this elegant and famous spa before it became a sanatorium for Soviet officers, hidden behind high fences and completely out-of-bounds not only for us school children. I went to school there after we had moved closer to the city in the early 1950s. When I returned to Bühlau in 1971 — thanks to an Australian passport — very little had changed.  Only the house next door had been pulled down, the road remained deeply potholed and the farm opposite was still working, although the farmer and his wife had retired nearby and enjoyed our visit. A fir tree, about my height in 1944, now towered above the house. A second visit, after unification revealed much renovation and even more commercial expansion. Dresden was being rebuild at an even faster rate.

But back to my father.

I do not really know why my parents moved from Zwickau to the outskirts of Dresden, probably in the late 1930s. Business, jobs or getting away from feuding parents? I do know that my mother Gertraude (then Traudl to friends and family, later Elisabeth) got into serious political trouble first with the  Nazis and a few years later with the  new Communist administration. An unsavoury neighbour called Barchmann first denounced her to the GESTAPO and she was briefly imprisoned for politically ‘incorrect’ behaviour’: Judenfreundlichkeit (friendliness to Jews), Abhӧren auslāndischer Sender (listening to foreign radio broadcasts) and Führerbeleidigung (insulting the Führer). A few years later with the  Russians in power, Barchman changed sides (before  escaping to the more tolerant ‘West’), and my mother joined the Socialist Unity Party (Communist) to protect herself.  Again, she did not prove ‘loyal’ enough and was thrown out of the Party in 1954 (?). This meant that she could not find employment and, once her mother had died, decided to ‘flee’ the  GDR. We arrived in West Berlin in 1956. But back  to my  father’s story…

I do not know precise dates of my mother’s imprisonment by the Nazis, but according to my sister this stay in prison was reduced when angry Zwickau family members arrived to protest.  Her stay in prison lasted weeks rather than months, but she had to report to the police afterwards. This happened of course before I was born, but I remember visiting a friend she had met in prison. We went by tram to Hellerau, probably early in 1950s.

Here is another mystery. Did her clash with Nazi officialdom affect the fate of my father, by then away in the North of Germany or even in France?  I could now obtain my mother’s Stasi record and find out more, but have not yet decided to do so.  My mother died a few years ago in Australia. By then she was called Elisabeth. Mother and daughters, arrived in Adelaide in January 1956. She wanted to get as far away from Europe as possible and, after many adventures, succeeded. But this is another story…..

I am now content that my father can be remembered in Hull, in Holy Trinity Church recently elevated to Minster status. A pew dedicated to him preserves a Victorian piece of church furniture at a well-attended ceremony on April 8 2018. The pew helped to raise funds for the restoration and transformation of a famous, old place of memory and worship.  His British (or English?) granddaughter Karin and grandson Michael, both born in Brighton UK were present, as well as several good friends. Karl-Heinz’s younger daughter, Anitra was not able to join us from Adelaide.

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Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen sits at the pew in Hull Minster, which commemorates the memory of her father.

I have only recently begun to miss my father, perhaps due to advancing age. I now like cemeteries and have decided to spend the last part of my life not in the former GDR, not in South Australia or even Brighton, but in Hull. I am grateful to the Anglican Church of Hull for having created a place of memory for a former ‘enemy’. I was confirmed as a Lutheran at the request of my grandmother in 1956, am now agnostic but deeply respect a faith as non-doctrinaire and inclusive as that of the Anglican Church. I enjoy and admire the architectural gems it has preserved for us as places of memory, remembrance, beauty, as well as contemplation.

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Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen attending the dedication of the pew commemorating her father’s memory at Hull Minster.

Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, Hull April 2018

  • In April, a few days ago, I received another letter from WAS, Berlin. Having requested more information about what my father did before 1943, I was told that, as suspected, that according to the records of the Kriegsmarinewerft (war-marine-shipbuilders) he had been employed as accountant (Werftbuchhalter), the period of employment from  06.1940 until 21.08.1945! What happened to his pay for the last 4 months or so and why was his transfer to the Ostfront not recorded?

Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen emigrated to Adelaide as a child in 1959, did well at high school and university where she started a research degree in geomorphology. After marrying an Australian physicist, they came to England. where she read for a Master and then a PhD degree in  International Relations,  the latter with emphasis on environmental issues. This lead to a senior research  fellowship at SPRU, Sussex University.  After the  death of her Australian husband she did research at the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University before teaching environmental management at Hull. She also edited an energy and environment journal  until recently.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Andy Barr says:

    A fascinating recount of your father’s life and times, Sonja. Thank you very much. We enjoyed reading your story – of his story – which occurred during such tumultuous times in our history. Finally, a brave soldier’s final resting place finds peace in a pew in Hull. Well done, Sonja. A&B.

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