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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"Just as night was falling, the Russians arrived in Passek"

This is one of the many letters that form a part of the documentation of my father's history. The letter was written in Passek, now in the northern Czech Republic, in 1945. The author was the wife of the forester who was responsible for the immediate area around my father's house. After the Winkelbauers were prevented from returning to their properties there--by 1944 it was more or less impossible to get back--the forester and his family moved into the house in an effort to protect it from being looted by partisans.

The fate of the people that lived in this area is harrowing. First annexed by the Nazis in 1938, with the expulsion of all Jewish citizens shortly thereafter (all of whom died in Auschwitz), followed by continuous tension between Nazi sympathizers, communists, partisans, and the many innocent apolitical people caught inbetween. This came to a head in 1945, with the wholesale expulsion of all "ethnic Germans". It is worth mentioning here that the Russian soldier was a terrifying prospect to those concerned in this letter, and the opponent feared above all others for their ruthlessness and brutality.

My grandmother was known as the "Frau Professor" because of her husband's profession. The Forsthaus was a traditionally built house in the woods at the foot of the Jescken mountain. The Diehle was the children's sitting area, where my father and his siblings were sitting playing cards the night war was declared.

October 9, 1945
My dear Frau Professor

After a long and difficult time it is finally possible for me to sit down and write to you, and I hope that these lines will indeed reach you, and find you in good health. I want to write to you a little of what has happened to us in Passek, and know that you will accept all this news with a brave heart.

On Wednesday the 9th of May, just as night was falling, the Russians arrived in Passek. On the next day, at about 9:00, thirteen critically injured German soldiers were brought to us here in the Forsthaus. In just a few minutes, the dining room as well as the sitting room were transformed into a hospital. My husband and I helped as best we could, assisting the young Swiss doctor who was trying to save the lives of the soldiers. We worked with all our strength. Then some two hours later sixty Russians with horses and wagons pulled up as well. Every door, every item in the house with a latch or a lock had to be opened, and in no time the entire house was full of Russians. We had to give them everything we had in the way of food and supplies, and my two goats were milked and milked, and this was put into the large crock in the larder, from which I was then able to dole it out and provide for them. It was a terrible shock for me, and I was afraid my nerves would not hold out that night. My husband gave me courage, and helped me to pull myself together and told me, we must stay brave. God would not desert us. And he didn’t: after a sleepless night the Russians left, and the German military as well--by 9:00 in the morning everyone was gone, and we were safe.

Then came very difficult days for us, days that my husband and I will never forget. I was alone in the house for days on end, since my husband had to go to Neuland and Christofsgrund to help out because the game-keeper Jarisch has been ill. Because by that time we had had to surrender all weapons I had to rely on Taus to protect me. But the clever and loyal dog missed his master, and followed his scent over the mountain and took up residence with the already overburdened Jarisch family. From then on, Taus stayed with them. 

The 25th of July was a rainy day. At 2:45 in the afternoon, we were forced out of the the house in Passek. Frau Professor, the goodbye was very bitter. I will not speak of the great grief this caused me. It caused me such pain to know that we were leaving this place not knowing the fate of our son. He remains missing, and still no word whether he is dead or alive.  On the 29th of this month I will have been married 18 years, and in this time I have never so much as seen a tear in the eye of my dear husband. His work as a forester here in these woods, which he loved with body and soul, was at an end, and on that day Frau Professor I must tell you that he cried.  And my poor cat sat so sadly by the door. How much I would have liked to take her with me! She stayed on as the last resident, and we went to Rohan, to the house of my parents in Watzelsbrunn. My poor ill mother, whom I had not seen in 4 months, was happy to have us and took us in.

We were not granted much time with her. She died on the 11th of September, and closed her tired eyes for good at midnight. She had so hoped that her young Helmut might return but he didn’t; she died without ever seeing him again. Frau Professor, not knowing the fate of our son has been harrowing for us.

I will just return briefly to the time shortly before our departure from the house in Passek. We defended the house bravely and did our best, protecting your things as well as those of Countess Podstatzky and Princess Auersperg, right up to the last minute of our time there. Everything in the house was seized by the locality of Nacodny Tybor. The rooms were locked and sealed.  My husband is unconsolable, and we do not know what our future will be. As you will know, the German speaking population has been moved out, and what will happen next seems to change every day. We are wondering whether you have heard anything in Austria? What will happen to your estates? If you know of any place we can stay, we would be grateful. How are all of you? Did Rudolf come home? How is the Herr Professor? Are you all safe and healthy? How is Miss Edina? Is she still in Bavaria or was she able to return to Vienna?  Are Marie and Mitzi still with you? My single wish is that we could all be reunited, healthy and safe.

Frau Professor, I could write more, but I cannot bring myself to. I hope to be able to see you and discuss these things. In the Diehle upstairs, there was the picture of the Hunting lodge in Wittighaus with the beautiful poem:  “ Unfortgetable is the place...where once we were happy”. It was standing in that spot that I said my final goodbye to the peaceful Forsthausin the woods. 

BBC Radio 4: Letters to the Russian Front

This documentary was broadcast on July 27, 2012. The link is above. I am pleased to say that we made Pick of the Week.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Wartime in Vienna: a memoire

This is an excerpt of a short memoir written by my great aunt, who experienced the war both in Bohemia and Vienna. Schloss Friedland still stands in Northern Bohemia, described here as the Sudetenland. In 1945, the family lost all of their property in Bohemia. The picture on the left shows the family house in Vienna. Today it is the French Cultural Institute, at Währingerstrasse 30.

In 1938 our mother died. Very soon after that came the “Liberation of the Ostmark”, as well as the “Liberation of the Sudetenlands”

A planned visit of the so-called Führer at Schloss Friedland went by the wayside at the last minute. Thereby luckily sparing Herr von Papen a visit with him in the castle. Herr von Papen and his Silesien neighbor arrived that day when Hitler was in the town of Friedland. During the war military quarters were allocated in the castle. This was the staff of the local operations regiment. It worked quite well for us and wasn’t problematic. Once the bombing of Berlin started, the contents of the Berlin Library were brought to us for safekeeping. I was in Friedland for the last time shortly before Christmas 1944. Thereafter I no longer received papers for traveling there from Vienna on the basis that I was required to stay in the city for the purposes of “air raid security”.

The cellar of our large house in Vienna was used as a public air raid shelter for part of the city. My sister Edina and I functioned on an ad hoc basis there as hostessess. Those who came to the cellar became with the passing of time and the dropping of bombs a real community. Once the Palais avoided being blown up by sheer miracle. A carpet bombing raid dropped bombs to the front and the side of the house. The wing of a neighboring house was destroyed. Beneath the sloping of the house down to the lower garden the cellar extended expansively below. This also functioned as an air raid shelter--people came there from Floridsdorf. There was room for 10,000 people in these cellars, which had an enormous number of branching tunnels, and had originally been used for raising mushrooms. It was a time of great sadness and fear but redeemed itself for the goodness experienced in being able to help people, whose lives were endangered by the war. This brought me into contact with many wonderful people. In particular I recall the unwaveringly brave Deacon P Bruno Spitzl, as well as the quietly courageous Etta Matscheko. Etta fell victim to a bomb attack later.

In the very last days of the war a first aid station opened up in the Palais, with a young staff doctor, Dr Wiesner (now a pediatrician) in charge. There were ten officers and 50 staff. This was to a certain extent a stroke of luck, because later when an SS group marched into the garden, they found it was already occupied and had to move on. During the days of the war when Vienna was actually under attack, the Palais and the the little house in Botlzmangasse 2 took two grenade hits, which in comparison to the bombs that were later dropped by the Americans, were not very significant. A German tank stood at the garden fence of the Währingerstrasse--later it was a Russian Stalinorgel.

There were several automatic weapon installations located around the house and on the flat roof of the kitchen area. In those days we shared everything--both good and bad-- with those poor souls who found themselves in our care as a result of the bombing: the pharmacist couple known as the Dormanns, the brother and sister pair Leo and Helene Schreiner (he was a civil servant, she a doctor), and a Polish family, who arrived in an appallingly filthy state, Gräfin Sophie Skarbek and her two sons. Gradually others found their way to us for protection and support. A great help to us in this time, and through the rest of their lives, were the two sisters Marie and Annerl Erger. Even in the most trying moments of the war, they never let us down. They suffered a great deal with our family, and all people whose flight through a war torn city brought them to us, always found themselves in caring hands.

The first aid unit that had been with us moved over the Danube, but became a useful source of food as they left provisions behind. We spent most nights in the cellar sheltering from bombs. We kept watch for the sake of precaution. Generally my sister Edina and I went through the house. First we feared the SS, later we feared the Russians. Then, the dreadful work of having to help bury the dead from local bombing raids in the garden. There were Italian workers, who were there to help, who asked to be given shelter in the house. They were memorable for the fuss they made the instant they sensed Russians nearby--it was like the capitoline geese raising the honking alarm.

There was considerable excitement involved in the removal of ordinance from the house--weapons, ammunition, hand grenades. Handling them, in particular the latter of these, was always tricky as we were never sure whether they might accidentally go off! Our lives returned--only very slowly--to some sort of normality. An unforgettable event amidst all this was a concert of the Philharmonic Orchestra on the 29th of April 1945. Food continued to be scarce for a long time however, and we were thankful for every little vegetable that grew in our garden. Sometimes half starved cows were driven into the garden by Russians with an eye to slaughter, who then took to my lovingly tended vegetable garden.

We were so excited to see the first cars of the Swiss Red Cross in Vienna. They stood lined up in the park, white and clean (something all but forgotten to us), and seemed to us to have arrived from another happier world entirely. With great gratitude we also received packages from the von Trapp family, sent over to us from America. We were able to help many with the things they sent us.

Because it was the Americans who had had taken over from the Russians in our Bezirk, it was decided that our house should be handed over for use as a US Service Club for officers--this however after a great “resistance” fight! Our house thus fell to the fate of all the others that were “used” by occupying forces. Mrs Eleanor Dulles, who had earlier been director of a civilian unit and lived with us, found to her irritation that she, too, had to yield to the arrival of the US officers. And so it was that we moved out of our family home with heavy hearts. It was at just this time that the Podstatzkys, destitute and hungry, arrived in Vienna in the hope of finding a quiet and safe harbour in the Währingerstrasse.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

April 1942. Leo is drafted.

Leo was always the sensitive one, the one who was least robust of the four children, the one that everyone worried about. He had bouts of moodiness as a child and teenager, and was probably overshadowed by his boisterous and confident twin sister and his talented elder brother.

The first letter here is written by the mother to her husband. In it she describes her reservations about Leo's future in the army. Following this is the first letter from Leo.

April 20th, 1942


Dear A

Enclosed is Leo’s first letter. It just arrived today, though it was written on the 15th. He had carried it around in his pocket. He’s so absent minded--I can just imagine his state of mind. He’s such an unlucky boy, he’ll probably have to shoot someone straight away, and I can imagine what sort of miserable expression he’ll have on his face when he has to pull the trigger! In every respect he will struggle, much more so than Andreas--who had his boot camp as a preparation, and was in much better shape. I feel sorry for Leo because he will suffer terribly, and in addition to that the hunger, the cold, etc. Yesterday the Attems and Galen boys were on leave and they rang up as they had their driving school elsewhere. They weren’t able to see Leo, and wanted to visit him today instead. That will cheer him up a bit. I gave them a little care package to take with them, which will also do him good!

April 15, 1942

Leo to his mother

Return address on letter reads “Pt Sch Winkelbauer, 2. Pz.Ers.Abt 4; Wien Mödling

Dear Mami

Just a quick letter! I have a couple of requests-- 1. please can you send me some dry shaving creme, and 2. Please if at all possible can you please send some shoe polishing materials--here we have nothing! Please send as much as possible.

Do you know Franzi’s address yet? I am known here for being a glutton. Today the staff sergeant praised me. If things continue that way, I’ll be fine.

Best wishes and a kiss


[on one of the reverse side flaps]

Dear Mami, many thanks for your sweet note which I found in my suitcase. Please don’t praise, as that makes me soft. And then sometimes that hurts.

March and April 1942, a recent recruit writes home

These letters were written quite early on, while the eldest boy Andreas--he signs himself Alter, meaning the "older one"--is on training. They still has something of letters home from a summer camp, despite the references to lung worm and hard labour. The tone is cheerful, and he's very pleased to have been singled out for services as a draughtsman, since he had hoped to be an architect. The locker is also a matter of some pride.

The watercolour above probably dates a little later than these letters, but I include it here to show what his talents were as a caricaturist. The long arms and legs were a family feature, and the title of the picture as "healthy optimism".

March 28, 1942

Andreas to Parents

Frankstadt (training area)

Dear Mami and Papi

I was so pleased to be able to speak to Mami on Thursday. It was unfortunately not possible this Saturday and Sunday to get to Zanchtel because I was on duty. I shall look forward to the Sunday after Easter all the more!

So, what should I write to you about. Everything is the same here, and Frankstadt is, and remains, a pig-headed and tough kind of a place. Something did happen however which was wonderful for me. I think I wrote to you already that I had done a couple of drawings which I thought were quite good, and they not only gained the praise and approval of my superior, Lt. Dr Gerhold, but also the company chief and my former company chief. For this reason, I have been offered the honourable job of making fresco-type caricatures of the entire unit. Because I am short of both time and practice, I had to decline. However, what I will do is make sketches, and then produce them at 1:1 size and paint them, and then pass them on to a new recruit who is architect by profession, and he will complete the work. So you can imagine that I am walking around with a song in my heart, and on the other hand feel nervous that I may not be up to the job. So please keep your fingers crossed. This would be my first real commission.

April 2, 1942

Dear Mami and Papi

First of all I’d like to send you my very best wishes for Easter, and thank you for the two wonderful Easter packages you sent. I am going to try to control myself and open them on Easter Saturday, since I’m hoping to be together with Clemens Wainbold and von Hornstein at the Seilerns in Millatitz. I’m not even sure if I can go, since we have to go at 12 noon, and apparently need to be back in the afternoon for a rehearsal to be standard bearers in the parade for the swearing in ceremony. Hopefully I’ll get leave and be able to go, otherwise I’ll be sitting here--in which case I’ll be extra grateful for the package and the RM 50. Many thanks; my wallet is feeling replenished, and therefore I’m feeling much better.

As we’ve been having driving school since last Tuesday I have more time to write. I’d like to describe to you my locker. I do this as I am quite proud of it (when it’s tidy and ready for inspection!). The top shelf is my pride and joy! A bookshelf that looks like something from a library: Brockhaus, Goethe, HDVs and piles of drawings. Then my neatly folded laundry, and behind it my piles of letters and more drawings. My peaked cap finishes off the row of items on the top shelf. After the first shelf, the shelf with my toiletries, then then come the uniforms. Makes for impressive viewing! To the front is my gun, my very well polished ammo bag, a belt with a polished buckle, which I use as a mirror to shave, and my good shoes, which are the envy of all as they are so well polished. Then I have the so-called magic bag (the bag that used to hold my ski boots), in which I keep 10 large boxes of matches which I have bought for you. I’m not allowed to post them because of the fire hazard, so I’ll give them to Mami when I see her.

The door of the locker is also a matter of great pride. Now, now, you needn’t think that I’ve decorated it with photos of attractive, it’s been done with taste! Drawings, photos of home, things to inspire me. That’s my locker. By that I mean that’s what’s good about my locker. Behind the magic bag there is a little space where I keep dirty socks, filthy handkerchiefs, khaki shirts, and the dark coloured undershorts and almost black neckkerchiefs. All these things that need washing lurk in the dark and produce an unpleasant atmosphere for the rest in the locker, until I give up the dirty things on Mondays for washing, and receive it clean on Fridays.

For now, the driving school is a relaxing break from the normal grind, and a time to recharge batteries. I have time to look after my poor feet, and let them heal. My cough is also much better because of it. Thank God it will go completely now, since up to now I simply couldn’t get better with all that I was doing. Before this we had hard sweaty training in the mornings, so much so that our shirts stuck to us, then we had to stand around and listen to a lecture, during which your every effort was inspected. Under such circumstances no one can rid themselves of a cough. Now I’m on the road to recovery, and hope to rid myself of my lung worms soon.

I’d also like to write about something else. At Easter I am hoping to go to the Seilerns, as you know, with von Hornstein and Clemens. I spoke about it with von Hornstein. The poor fellow, he’s very upset. Today he learned that as an officer-hopeful he’s been removed from the list--no chance. Why, I am not entirely sure, he just said the following: “it’s because of my parents”. He can still make the rank of officer, but he will only ever be a reserve officer.

Well, time’s rushing on, and I have to get ready for duty.

1000x love and happy Easter from

your Alter

Monday, September 12, 2011

Finding the resting place of Leo Winkelbauer

On the 27th of August 2011, a ceremony was held to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the opening of the German Soldiers' Cemetery in Gontscharnoye, a small town located between Sevastopol and Yalta on the Crimean peninsula. The cemetery was opened as part of a cooperative effort between the Ukrainian and German governments, to provide both a suitable memorial as well as collect up as many remains as possible from unmarked graves across the country where they laid unrecognised and in some cases entirely lost. Under the Soviet Union, organised war cemeteries, such as can be found all over Europe, were not possible. The Ukraine, a young country that gained independence in 1991, put the tract of land in Gontscharnoye--one of several--at the disposal of the German government, and it is maintained through the German War Graves Association (VDK -- Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V), largely by voluntary contributions.

I received notice of this memorial celebration in June from the VDK. My contact details were on file as a result of my enquiry about my uncles earlier in the year. The letter said that Leo Winkelbauer's name appeared on the list of soldiers who were remembered in the memorial books contained within the "House of Remembrance" at the cemetery, but no further information was given. I had received other advice, obtained through the local museum in Melitopol, saying that it was unlikely that any of the bodies buried after the battle of that town would have been moved, and neither were any of them marked with individual headstones.

Despite there being little reason to believe that Leo's remains were at the cemetery in Gontscharnoye, we decided to attend the ceremony.

On a glorious burnished late summer afternoon, some two hundred people gathered in a clearing in an oak forest, a sunny flank surrounded on three sides by oak forests covered hills, facing south towards the Black Sea. From our gathering place there was nothing to be seen except a panorama of forest going gold and purple in the gathering evening. A brass band from the Sevastopol navy stood to attention on a rise above the main memorial, and a colour guard lined the walk as the family members, local officials, embassy staff and other participants gathered to the sunset service.

As I walked up the path to where the benches had been put out for the attendees, I stopped to look at the rows of standing granite slabs that faced the path, each carved with the names of the soldiers who are now buried there--some 25,000 to date. There are groups of of them at several locations on the cemetery grounds, but these greeted the visitor as they made the climb to main memorial, and my eye fell to those on the left. Walking up, I followed the names alphabetically, the As, the Bs, and so on, searching through the alphabet, not bothering to look at the backs of slabs, where names were also inscribed, but just looking--generally--for the last part of the alphabet, the way you do when you pick up a dictionary and flip through the pages an inch at a time to find your part of the alphabet.

Then my eye fell onto the Ws, the sun shining on them and drawing me in. Weber, Weinfurtner, Wertheimer, Wilke, Winkel.....Winkelbauer. There was his name. Leonhard Winkelbauer, born 25.5.1923, a twin in fact, fallen in battle on the 21st of October twenty years later. I was able to find someone who knew about the planning of the cemetery, and the transferal of human remains to it over the past ten years. We consulted the memorial books in the House of Remembrance and discovered that his remains were taken from a mass grave in Melitopol, the occupants of which were documented, and moved to a section of the new cemetery for the unnamed. He was moved to Gontscharnoye in 2003, the same year his twin died.

The memorial service was conducted in German and Ukrainian, and included brief speeches by the director of the VDK, the German ambassador, the representative from the Austrian Black Cross (the VDK equivalent in Austria), members of the clergy, and the major of Sevastopol. A youth group made up of young people from Germany, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia made a presentation about one of the soldiers, reading his letters, telling of his life, a story as ordinary and poignant as the one described here. Every speaker had an interpreter by their side, so that each part of the ceremony could be equally appreciated by all.

A former German soldier, 91 years old, attended with with his children and grandchildren. A crowd gathered around him. Then the group stepped back to allow a Russian soldier, also over 90 and wearing his medals, and another comrade, this time a Ukrainian. They embraced and shook hands. The Russian saluted his new German friend, now wheelchair bound. One of the event helpers struggled to keep up as interpreter. "He says you are now my friend" explained the interpreter to the German. "To friendship" he replied.

By the time the service ended the sun had fallen behind the hills, leaving the gathering to descend the slope to the picnic tables which had been set up with traditional fare: chicken and pilaf prepared in a field kitchen, platters of locally grown produce on the table, and loaves of fresh bread, the local ham, and for each a small glass for a toast of vodka.

I let the others go ahead and remained a little longer on the meadow in the dusk. For the first time in 68 years, this boy--I cannot think of him as a man, as he was younger even than my own son is now--was close to his family. Rest in peace, Leo.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

About renamed streets and job descriptions 1940

Here are two letters written by my grandfather to my grandmother. The one on the left was from his office at the Dollfussplatz 6, where he was Primarius, or chief surgeon at one of Vienna's largest hospitals. The date on that one is September 1939. Less than a year later things had changed; gone was his professional designation and the street had been renamed Herrmann Göringplatz. The street, which has been renamed several times during history according to the political style of the day, is now known as the Roosevelt Platz, and is very close to the family house in the Währingerstrasse. If you look closely, you can see that the phone number remained unchanged during all this.

There's an interesting footnote about Dollfuss, who was Austria's anti-facist chancellor until his assassination in 1934 by the Nazis. His children had been given a miniature motorised Italian made sportscar. Having no appropriate place to use this fantastic object, Dollfuss brought it, with his children, to my father's house, which had extensive gardens and paths, and there it was driven around in circles between the greenhouses and the carriage house. As far as I know, neither my father or any of his siblings were ever allowed to have a turn using it!