Why does the death of my grandfather, a man I never met and my father hardly knew, fascinate me?
War is no light matter, we are all touched by it. I have been touched by it. My family a casualty of it.
War is a part of my history.
To bring war out of the history books, out of the television, the newspapers, out of one’s imagination, out of my imagination, I felt a need to retrace the final days of my grandfather’s life.
When my older brother mentioned he was going to France to find Opa’s grave, I had to go along. I wanted to make my history, my reality. I wanted to see and feel the place where the battles of Normandy freed a continent on the souls of so many men. I wanted to own the small fraction of that piece of history that was my heritage.
I don’t know much about my grandfather. He was born in Meerane Saxony Germany in 1897, a town near the Ore mountains. My father shared with me that my grandfather’s family came from many woodworkers. Some say this region is where many Western Christmas traditions came from: the Nutcracker, Christmas pyramids, and arches, and the famous smokers. He had served as a young man in WWI and received an iron cross for bravery. He was a musician and violin maker. He moved to the Netherlands during the Great Depression where he met my grandmother and settled in Den Hague. It was in Den Hague that he opened a violin shop. And it was here in February of 1943, when my father was only eight, that he was drafted at the age of 45 into Hitler’s war.
I wrote in a previous post, that my grandfather was in an anti-tank division stationed in the Netherlands until June 1944, when his company 657 panzerjager were sent to Normandy and deployed in St. Lo area.
In that previous post, I also stated we thought there was conflicting information about the location of my Opa’s death. A document my brother received from the German government said he died in La Varde, which my brother translated as Fort La Varde near St. Malo in Brittany. A letter received by my step-great grandfather, in 1948, from a comrade who was with Opa at the time he died stated Opa died in a foxhole near St. Lo.
Well the mystery still remains, but I think my brother has found the best answer and that is in a small hamlet called La Varde on the Cotentin peninsula near St. Lo. This was the location of a battle located in the marsh surrounding the Taute river. Americans, under General Macon, were making their way towards St. Lo and discovered a small German stronghold on the hamlet of La Varde. American troops sludged through knee deep mud, threw grenades and fired rifles towards the ill prepared Germans in the late summer afternoon of July 17th, 1944.
My grandfather was killed instantly when a piece of flying shrapnel from a grenade sliced it’s way across his neck and through his jugular vein. He was in France for less than a month. It was probably his first experience in combat.
His body would lay in the muck of that marsh for a few days, until the fighting stopped and the dead could be collected and brought to a proper burial place. Opa’s last stand.
Or was it…
As I walked along the beach near Fort La Varde, the morning we were to visit his grave, I said a little prayer for my Opa. I wanted him to know my brother and I wanted to pay our respects, to say thank you for his sacrifice and to let him know that his legacy continues. I think he was tickled we were there and we were thinking of him, a person we never knew. Opa, it will take more than war to break the bonds of our family! Thank you Opa!
I have been on countless trips, yet I still find packing a challenge. I check the weather. It will be cold and rainy, just like Seattle. I visualize the terrain, hills, beach, mud and sand. What shoes do I bring? I anticipate events, visiting cemeteries, museums, maybe a nice dinner out. What shall I wear? Can I just wear jeans, a Seahawks knit cap, fleece and hiking boots?
The focus of the trip will be part treasure hunt, belated funeral, and self discovery. The treasure is my grandfather’s grave. The letter from the German government states that his Grablage or grave location is Cemetery of Marigny in Manche within the province of Normandy, France. One of many World War II cemeteries in Normandy. Block 4, Row 19, Grave 737 – are the coordinates we were given.
The document states he died on July 17th, 1944 at Fort La Varde near the town of St. Malo along the Brittany coast. This contrasts with information in a letter sent by a fellow soldier to my step-great grandfather in 1948. He states my grandfather was killed in Saint Lo, 137 km away.
After the D-Day invasions of June 6th, 1944, Allied forces throughout Normandy and neighboring Brittany, were charged to clean out the rest of the German strongholds such as the coastal outpost at St. Malo and their land-based outpost at St. Lo. The battles that happened in Brittany including St. Malo were to liberate port cities that were held by the German Army. The Allied forces were also concerned the Germans would demolish railroad bridges.
On July 17th, the day my grandfather died, Allied bombs ripped through the area around St. Malo, and Fort La Varde. This would corroborate the information the government sent. On that same day in a flattened Saint Lo, having been bombarded by Allied air strikes in early July, the letter states my grandfather was in a foxhole with other German solders as Allied tanks advanced.
Both documents agree my grandfather was killed by artillery shrapnel. The letter being more descriptive, stating the shrapnel hit my grandfather in the neck, killing him instantly.
The government document states my grandfather was in a Panzerjäger an anti-tank company. A frightful job for a man who was an artist, a craftsman, a violin maker. But why was he in a foxhole in Saint Lo? Why wasn’t he in one of those Marder anti-tank tanks?
Luckily, both documents agree his final resting place is the Cemetary in Marigny, location of the funeral. The days between now and the funeral, plus the days afterward will be a journey of self discovery.