‘Fates we will never know’: search for WWII missing drawing to a sombre close

What happened to the 1.3 million Germans who went missing after the Second World War remains a mystery. But some of the loved ones of these missing persons haven't given up hope in finding some answers.

'Fates we will never know': search for WWII missing drawing to a sombre close
Neuengamme concentration camp memorial in Hamburg, where almost 43,000 of the over 100,000 prisoners perished. Photo: DPA
Diethild Heubel pulls a precious document from a binder: a yellowed decades-old letter, neatly handwritten by her father, a German soldier taken prisoner at the end of the Second World War.
“This is his last proof of life, the last time he wrote to us,” the 83-year-old said in an interview in her apartment in the Bavarian town of Noerdlingen.

Her father Gerhard Stuerzebecher was a soldier in Adolf Hitler's army, the Wehrmacht. In 1945, he was interned in Austria in a Soviet prison camp.

Heubel was 10 years old at the time, and she and her mother never heard from him again.

“We were refugees — we had lost everything, but the worst part of it all was that we never knew what happened to him,” she sighed, her eyes fixated on a picture of her as a child sitting on her father's lap, a demure smile on her lips.

“I still think of him every day. He was a teacher back home, he did not like war and yet he had to fight in two world wars,” said the now elderly woman.

“To not know how he died and where he is buried… it's hard.”

1.3 million mysteries

Despite the passage of seven decades, many Germans are still searching for loved ones — soldiers and civilians — who vanished at the end of the war.

Their requests land in the office of the tracing service of the German Red Cross in Munich, created at the end of the conflict to determine the fate of some 20 million missing persons.

“At first, the number of cases tracked down was very high, but today there are about 1.3 million fates that we will never know,” said Thomas Huber, 59, the service's current director. 

It relies on German, Soviet and ex-East German archives to try to solve these riddles.

“It is particularly difficult to find dead soldiers in Soviet camps, for example, because their names were badly transcribed or their dates of birth were wrong,” said Christoph Raneberg, who runs the service's archives.

During World War II, some three million Germans were taken prisoner by the Red Army.

The Soviet authorities consistently claimed that around 10 percent of them died in the gulag, while others estimate that far more did not survive the camps.

The last survivors were able to return home in the 1950s, after Stalin's death.

Nearly 75 years after the end of the war, the service's staff still receives around 9,000 requests for information each year, “often from grandchildren who are interested in their family history”, Huber said.

Almost half of the applicants are rewarded with at least some information.

In some cases the results are extraordinary, as when in 2010 two brothers separated in 1945 were reunited after spending the Cold War on different sides of the Berlin Wall.

“Cases involving children who were lost or separated are always spectacular, but for us every case is important,” Huber said. 

Stephan Haidinger, 40, went hunting for traces of his grandfather last year.

“I was diagnosed with cancer and during the treatment, I thought a lot about my ancestors and realized that I did not know my grandfather,” said Haidinger, a shopkeeper in the Bavarian town of Glonn.

'Hope that one day…'

“We only knew that he was captured at the end of the war and interned in a camp but we didn't know why because he wasn't a soldier,” Haidinger said. 

The Red Cross took only four weeks to come up with answers.

“I learned that he had been denounced as a leader of a NSDAP (Nazi party) group and that he died in a concentration camp in 1946,” he said.

“It was shocking but I was relieved to have a response.”

He now knows that his grandfather was buried in a mass grave in northern Germany where he hopes to recover his remains.

It would be “a little like meeting him for the first time”, Haidinger said. 

But as time marches on and the last generation of survivors dies out, the Red Cross tracking service plans to close its doors by 2023.

“We now have all the existing archives — we won't find any new sources of information,” Huber said, promising nevertheless to work at full speed in the 
five remaining years. 

Heubel, for her part, saved all her correspondence with the Red Cross.

She confirms, showing one letter after the other, that her search for her father was in vain.  

However she refuses to give up.

“I cannot move on. Until I die, I will continue to look for him. I hope that one day someone will read his name and tell me, 'I knew him, this is what happened to him'.”

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‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.