of Three Uncles
| On Memorial Day 1999, I planted three small evergreen
trees. In front of them, I placed three flat stones, each engraved with a
name. Josef. Rudolf. Walter. My purpose was simple: each time I tend to
the trees, I will see these names and think about
Like those stones, this page commemorates Josef, Rudolf, and Walter Hanel, three men I never met or had the chance to. They were killed, presumably, on the Eastern Front during the final battles between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army in 1944-45, twelve years before I was born. They were born and raised in the small village of Gross-Raden, Kreis Jägerndorf, Sudetenland, a part of the Greater German Reich (currently the Czech Republic) during World War II.
They were the sons of farmers.
They were my mother's brothers.
They are my three uncles.
I have been trying, when time permits, to discover more information about their fates, even if it is only a confirmation of what the available records show. According to International Red Cross documentation, it is statistically likely that they are dead. The evidence is based on the fact that there is no record of them being taken prisoner, there are no eyewitnesses that saw them in POW camps, there are no Russian records that mention them. It is highly possible that they died in unknown locations during the Red Army's ferocious counteroffensives in the final 16 months of the war, perhaps in the panic of retreat, in the darkness, alone. These are details that may never be known.
My mother speaks of them occassionally. She can still see their young faces, fixed and frozen in time in her tearful mind's eye, when they were in their twenties, standing in the doorway of the house in which they were born (a house that was later taken away from the Hanel family during the Sudeten Expulsions of 1945 and 1946). They were home on leave, smiling, posing for photos in their uniforms. It was the last time my mother would ever see them together again.
My grandfather spent 25 years hunting for information that was definitive. I think he must have wanted more than some letter that merely assumed his three sons must be dead. I think he would have liked to have known where and when and perhaps how. Closure requires a measure of certainty. My uncle Alfred continued the hunt into the 1980s, with no results. The official letters try to pinpoint during which action they most likely were killed, but certainty after so many years is difficult to come by. Even the efficient Wehrmacht clerks could not continue filing detailed after-action reports as they retreated into the Fatherland. Near the end chaos ruled the day. Typewriters were tossed into the gutters. Records were burned. It was very likely every man for himself.
Still, it is not good enough. The living want to know. They want to know the final resting place. The urge to find the remains, to place a marker, to write the names of those who've passed is great. (My grandfather, their father, passed away in 1970, Uncle Alfred in 1989, and the search for such details effectively stopped.)
So, over 50 years later, on a humid day in May, 4000 miles from the battlefields where they probably died, I have placed the stones and have created this page. These are the only memorials possible now. (Yet, even as I write this, teams of German volunteers swarm across the battlefields of Poland, Russia, and Eastern Europe, probing the soil for the remains of soldiers who deserve better than to lie in the anonymous loam of a distant land. This work has only begun recently, with the collapse of the communist state and the opening of old borders to travel and renewed communication between old enemies. Perhaps, someday, some young German doing this grisly work in the fields east of Osowiec, Poland, near Bialystok, may unearth an oval Wehrmacht identity disc, both halves intact, pinpointing the final resting place of Josef Hanel. And perhaps the same will happen in northern Hungary, for Rudolf, and in the lush, low mountains just east of home, for Walter. Even these locations are extrapolations, based merely on the last reports issued by nearly shattered units as they retreated from the Red Army's assault on the Reich.)
Above are two examples of German Army belt buckles, inscribed "Gott Mit Uns," meaning "God is with Us." In those final moments, wherever my three uncles may have been, I hope that God was with them.
To read about each uncle and the unit in which they served, follow a link below.
[ Please Use the LiveAudio Controls
to Play "Ich hatt' einen Kameraden" ]
|Ich hatt' einen Kameraden
Ich hatt' einen Kameraden,
Einen bessern findst du nit.
Die Trommel schlug zum Streite,
Er ging an meiner Seite
|: Im gleichen Schritt und Tritt. :|
Eine Kugel kam geflogen:
Will mir die Hand noch reichen,
|I had a Comrade|
In battle he was my comrade,
None better I have had.
The drum called us to fight,
He always on my right,
|: In step through good and bad. :|
A bullet it flew towards us,
His hand reached up to hold mine.
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