I got an interesting letter in the mail a few days ago. It was from Berlin, from the official German archives agency that provides military and government documentation.
On April 17, 2016, shortly after meeting Martin’s cousins for the first time and reviewing all the photos and letters they shared, I submitted a formal request for military information about Martin’s great-uncle Otto, who fought in the Wehrmacht in World War II and never came home. He was killed in action fighting the Russians, and that’s about all the family knew.
Exactly 676 days after my request, I finally got a response with all the information they could find about Otto, which isn’t much, but is a LOT more than what the family knew for 74.5 years. I abandoned any hope for a response! The site said it could take six months to a year, so after the year-mark, I was like, meh. Nice try. And then we moved to a new address! But miraculously, it got forwarded, and in one night, I have learned about his military unit, how it moved toward the eastern front, I am almost certain of the battle in which he died, and have found on Google Maps areas where he’s probably buried. ALL IN ONE NIGHT. It’s both exciting and satisfying … and heartbreaking. I’m going to put it all together and present everything to Martin’s cousins … Otto’s grandson and great-grandsons.
Isn’t that incredible?
Martin’s father was named after this man. Otto’s grandson still owns the man’s camera, which is nearly 100 years old. Otto was a photojournalist who not only took still portraits and group shots, but documented his family and friends’ lives in the 1920s and 1930s thru beautiful, candid photos. Without his passion for documenting, we wouldn’t have known what Martin’s grandparents and other relatives looked like, or how they lived. I felt a sense of obligation to learn as much as we can about his story, too.
And I’m learning a lot. We will probably never know the specifics as to how he died, but now that I know his military unit information, and their movements during World War II, I can piece together a narrative of what he probably experienced. I did not know very much about the Eastern Front of World War II, of the fighting and battles between the Germans and Russians, so this process is an education for me, too.