Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A Story From My Own Files

First a little news. I started this blog less than 3 weeks ago and we are already getting 60-80 page views a day and there are 52 people signed up to read the blog via e-mail. I just wanted to thank everyone for their encouragement and support.

Today I am going to share a personal story from my file that highlights how the customs in different countries can affect your research. You will see that Germany handles burials a little differently than we do here in the United States. This example shows a dramatic difference in customs but you also need to be aware that even here in the United States different parts of the country handle things differently as do the peoples from different time periods.

August Weichert was living in Köln, Germany with his wife and three children when he was drafted into the German Army during WWII. August's unit built temporary bridges for the panzer [tank] units. He also worked in a POW camp in near Russia because he was the only person in his company that spoke fluent Russian. He also spoke fluent Polish, and of course German.

Toward the end of the war he was captured and sent to a POW camp in Poland. Because of his language skills, August was given some special privileges such as being able to correspond back and forth with his wife by letter while in the POW camp. While he was in the POW camp, his wife Theresia was shot and killed right in front of their house. The three children were sent to a Catholic convent/orphanage far away from their home. When word got to August that his wife Theresia had been killed, August went "crazy." He no longer knew who he was. He was in a catatonic state and could not answer questions.

After the war ended and the prisoners were to be released, they did not know what to do with August because August was unable to speak to them about where his family might be. The entire time that August was in the Army and in the POW camp, he kept a picture of his wife and 3 children with him. When the officials asked him who was in the picture he could not answer. Finally, someone recognized the picture as being the family of a man that used to work at the Bayer Company. They contacted the Bayer Company and with their help they were able to locate August's son Karl who was only 15 at the time. They advised Karl that his father was near death and they were sending him on a train back to Germany. They were not able to release him until 1949.

August died on the train trip and Karl never saw his father alive. When he did see his father's deceased body, he said that he looked the same except his hair had turned snow white. August was buried in the town of Göttingen because that was where the conductor decided to stop to disembark August's body. This was no where near his home. Karl and his brother and sister knew their father had been buried in Göttingen but they didn't know which cemetery. Emmy was only 14 years old and Berthold was 13.

I didn't think I would find August's burial location because Germany has a custom of reusing graves. They are a small country and have limited space. After 20 to 40 years the graves are reused unless the family pays a fee to keep the grave for another 20-40 years. When it comes close to the time, the cemetery tries to notify the next-of-kin. If they don't have contact information they will put notices in the paper and post it at the cemetery itself. The problem was that August's three children were so young when he died. They didn't live anywhere near the cemetery and never received the notice. They had no idea a fee was required.

I was telling all of this to a German genealogist friend of mine. She did a little research on own as a surprise to me. She found August in the sexton records at the Stadtfriedhof in Göttingen. The cemetery office was able to tell her that Karl's grave was reused in January 1980. This made me so sad because had I known I would have paid the fee myself (as would have my mother and uncles). Even though I was born in Germany this was a custom I didn't even know about until about 10 years ago. My friend was able to tell me August's exact date of burial and the location within the cemetery. She sent me a map of the cemetery with the spot marked. Another very surprising thing was that the cemetery had his full name as Karl August Weichert. I have August's birth certificate which only has August. If I am able to find his baptismal record I am sure that I will find his full name. His children only knew his name as August. So even though August's grave is no more I did find some information that I didn't have before.

Photos left to right: Karl August Weichert [1905-1949]; Theresia (Glaentzer) Weichert (1909-1945); the three Weichert children, Emmy [living], Karl [1933-2003] and Berthold [living]

Copyright © 2012 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. I learned about this custom in Spain. Much of the world does this, which is surprising to Americans. I have photos of my husbands' grandparent's grave markers (both were niches in a wall). Earlier generations were buried under the village church floor without any marker at all. Recently my mother-in-law said that she did not pay the fee to have them kept because that was her parents wish. She said that the family keeps a mass every month on the 3rd (both parents died on the 3rd of a month) and that was a tradition that was more important to them. I'm not a Catholic, but I can understand how different cultures find comfort. They have faith that their ancestors are in a better place, and the bodies were only temporary.

  2. What a heart breaking story. Those poor children. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. I had heard that Greece does this too but I didn't know about Spain. I am still looking for the exact burial spot of August's wife Theresia. She was buried in Leverkusen. She definitely was not buried in the city cemetery because my friend checked the records. It is likely she was buried at one of the Catholic cemeteries. I spend a lot of time in cemeteries and it is hard for me to think of my grandparents as totally forgotten with no marker left behind to show that they existed. This is why it is so important for genealogists to record their family history and stories. Thank you so much for commenting, Heather!

  4. Dear Hall Genealogy,
    There is still so much to find out. My mother and uncles were so young they didn't know what was going on. I am trying to get the records from the orphanage. None of their aunts or uncles are still living so I can't ask them anything (though I could have way back when but I didn't know to).