Endless Graves (A 10-year Search Ends at Waldfriedhof Halbe)

WW2 Halbe Forest Cemetery GateThe letter from the Munich Search Office of the German Red Cross had become worn and faded since 1960. The words “durch Grenatsplitter in Ringenwalde bei Berlin gefallen” (died from shrapnel in Ringenwalde by Berlin) continued to haunt me. What had become of my grandfathers’ remains and where was his final resting place?

The search for my grandfather was motivated by my interest in genealogy. I had compiled numerous records of my ancestors, detailing every facet of their lives, but my own grandfathers’ file contained a disturbing void. Every one of his life’s major events, his birth, confirmation, marriage, repatriation, was documented except for one. I would stare at these old documents, yellow with age, looking for the answer. The copy of his Volkssturm draft notice would sometimes enrage me as I pictured this 57-year-old man leaving his wife to fight a war that already had been lost. I turned my anger into conviction and resolved to bring closure to his death. I contacted my cousin Karl Hoeffgen in Germany, himself a veteran and member of the VdK, a German veteran’s organization. Karl posted a query in the VdK newsletter in 1987, asking for information from anyone with knowledge of this unit – Volkssturm Battalion Martin 36/169. I held little hope, knowing that these units were comprised primarily of older men. As years passed with no developments I sent another inquiry to the German Red Cross only to receive a short reply that the facts remain the same as in 1960.

My own father’s death in 1992 curtailed my motivation, having to deal with more pressing matters close to home. My father, also a veteran of the Wehrmacht, meticulously kept every record and detail of his life. As I began to sort through my father’s various papers over the years, my grandfather’s name would constantly reappear, almost as a reminder of my earlier resolution. In 1996 I traveled to Europe to pursue this matter. I started in the small village of his birth in Kolonie Jozefin, in present-day Southeast Poland. From there I proceeded to Berlin where I prepared to visit the village of Ringenwalde, Northeast of Berlin. This village, as indicated by the 1960 Red Cross letter, was the vicinity of his death. How ironic it seemed, for my grandfather had lived in Ringenwalde in 1926 while serving as a valet to the Countess Von Saldern-Ahlimb. I would be able to trace this aspect of his life while searching for his grave at the same time.

No sooner had I settled in the small Gasthaus than I was “adopted” by an older German couple also on vacation in the area. They asked if I would like to accompany them to the Seelow Heights war memorial, and I readily accepted. The Seelow Heights, a ridge above the Oder Riverbank, was the sight of a horrific battle between the Germans and Russians during the last months of the war. The memorial and museum, although extremely interesting, shed no light on my search. I continued later that day searching the local graveyard of Ringenwalde, finding a few graves marked “Unknown German Soldier.” I had no idea how many thousands of these unknown graves dotted every small town cemetery in Germany. Did one of these contain my grandfather? Later that evening back at the Gasthaus, the kind couple introduced me to a local resident and amateur historian. He reviewed the Red Cross letter, his maps, and his own personal memories and concluded, ” this letter is not correct”. How was this possible I asked? He explained that based on the letters date of death and the location of the invading Russian army, hostilities had already ceased in Ringenwalde days before. He then showed me on a map another village by the name of Ringenwalde, Southeast of Berlin, in an area that would have contained the trapped 9th Army of General Busse during the latter days of the war. I was disappointed for my vacation had come to an end, yet enlightened for my next visit. The kindness of so many strangers, who only years earlier had been our Cold War enemies, is a testament to humanity. Later that year while attending a holiday function at the local Goethe Institute in St Louis, a helpful young woman from Germany overheard my earlier trek. She advised me of an organization called, “Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge” – the German War Graves Commission. She obtained the address for me and I sent out an inquiry in December 1996. Approximately one month later I received a reply that read in part; “Dear Mr. Fogt, We have received your letter and after researching our files we can advise you that your grandfather is buried in the cemetery of Muckendorf, Zossen County.” I was overwhelmed with emotion. Had I only known of this organization nine years earlier! Little did I know that the search was far from over.

I quickly copied the letter and sent it off to my cousin Dr. Helmut Fogt, who was in the process of moving to Berlin with the change of government. At this point, Dr. Fogt took the reigns of the search. He traveled to Muckendorf only to find a small cemetery with more “Unknown German Soldier” grave markers. He found no sign of my grandfather’s grave. A brief contact with the local Burgermeister and a local farmer revealed that decades earlier, mass graves had been relocated to a village called Halbe, not far away. Dr. Fogt proceeded to Halbe and came upon Waldfriedhof Halbe, the largest World War 2 German cemetery in existence with over 20,000 buried. The cemetery has no name index and over half of the graves are marked simply “Unbekannt” (Unknown). Many of the markers reflect mass burials of 30, 50, 100 or 150 unknown soldiers. Through snow and rain my cousin and his family walked the paths scouring countless headstones for our grandfather’s name to no avail.

A few days later he visited the local recorder’s office in Teupitz. This seemed to be the last chance of this odyssey. A computer check of my grandfather’s name gave no results. The helpful clerk then began to manually check the documents. She handed my cousin a tattered yellowing document containing 14 names. 3rd from the end it read: “12) Fogt, Jakob geb. 19.8.1887 Lublin Wehrpass: ev. verh. Gartner W.B.K. Lissa/Wartheland” – My grandfathers’ burial in Waldfriedhof Halbe was officially and finally documented.

I was somewhat disappointed, not knowing the exact grave, but when taken in context with the thousands of nameless that surround him, I thank God I know where he is. I traveled to Halbe the following year. It is easily accessible by car or train from Berlin. The site of so many unknown graves can be very disturbing. As I walked along the paths many thoughts crossed my mind; the terrible circumstances that led my grandfather to this final resting-place, wishing that my father was still alive so he could have accompanied me on this visit, the absence of flowers and recognition that adorn most veteran cemeteries. I placed a red geranium at the cemetery monument and reflected on the last ten years that led to this day. A sense of closure and peace had been achieved.

When you read this story, please keep these forgotten unknown soldiers in your thoughts and prayers. Their memory cries out the futility and horror of war.