Story by Jess Bonnan-White, Volunteer, Sewell, New Jersey
I started my first assignment as a new Restoring Family Links caseworker with Karl in September of 2015. He contacted the American Red Cross looking for help in locating the final resting place of a missing family member, last seen leaving for battle with a horse-drawn artillery unit heading for Russia in March of 1944. The German soldier, Heinrich M., had come to Frankfurt to check on his family and had married his fiancé one day before rejoining his unit. He was never heard from again. Karl, Heinrich’s nephew, wanted, once and for all, to provide his mother and aunt, Heinrich’s sisters who were now both in their 90s, an answer as to what had happened to their brother during World War II.
I met Karl at a Starbucks in New Jersey and conducted an intake interview, asking questions about Heinrich’s military service and piecing together information he had learned over the years from family members. After the war, some of Karl’s family had emigrated from Germany to the United States, where Heinrich’s widow had started a successful business in Manhattan. She never remarried after sharing only one day with her new husband. I left our meeting with an idea of how hard it was for one family to have lost their brother, husband, and uncle over 70 years ago and to have lived ever since with the uncertainty.
With the little information I had in hand, consisting of a vague idea that his unit was likely sent to the Russian front, I began my first case by sharing the results of my interview with American Red Cross Restoring Family Links paid and volunteer staff at National Headquarters. From there, American Red Cross caseworkers contacted our Red Cross counterparts abroad (in this case, the German Red Cross or Deutches Rotes Kreuz), and the hunt was on as a part of a commitment to assist families of those who had lost contact with or were unaware of the fate of loved ones as a result of the events of World War II.
As we waited, I updated Karl on our search and got the pleasure of speaking to his mother, Heinrich’s sister, on the phone. Anne’s* voice lit at the mention of her brother, and she reiterated to me that she would just like to know where Heinrich was buried and how he had passed away. As we waited, I wondered whether one man could be found, considering the devastation and geographic scale of the war and the decades that had passed. In March of 2016, we got our answer. I immediately contacted Karl, and we set up a meeting at the same Starbucks where we had initially met six months earlier.
I met Karl, and over two large coffees, I opened a manila folder containing the fruits of a search that spanned two continents and many years. Heinrich had been captured in July 26, 1944 near Brody in present-day Ukraine. He had been brought to Camp 100 in Saporoshje, Ukraine where he fell ill that December and died January 7, 1945. As I spoke of our findings and presented Karl with the Soviet-era death and burial certificate provided to us by the German Red Cross, I felt the honor of being a part of reuniting a family, even in death. With tears in his eyes, Karl explained to me that he had just returned from attending his aunt’s funeral. Both his aunt and his mother, Heinrich’s sisters, had recently passed away, within only a few short weeks of one another. He said his family in the US and Germany would appreciate finally knowing what had happened to his lost uncle, but that he had a feeling the three siblings were already reunited.
I left Starbucks that sunny New Jersey spring afternoon proud to be an American Red Cross Restoring Family Links volunteer. In my “day job,” I am an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Stockton University and teach courses in conflict resolution, emergency management, and peace studies to a new generation of global citizens. I am familiar with the effects of conflict, war, and natural disaster. I, along with other American Red Cross volunteers, give of our time, energy, and hearts to alleviate some of the suffering of families separated by conflict, disaster, or migration. In doing so, we recognize a common humanity in war and its aftermath. Although I was unable to provide Karl’s mother and aunt information about their brother before their passing, a family with members in the US and Germany now knows of the fate of one man buried in a German military cemetery in Ukraine. In doing so, I hope I was able to relieve some of a family’s pain and anxiety caused by the devastation of war.
*Some pseudonym’s used in this story to protect their identity.