I'm deep into last-minute research for my "Finding Reiner" adventure. My suitcase is packed with device chargers, plug adaptors, Swiss Army knives, bandaids, spare batteries, and clip-on, flat water flasks for the trail. But, my desk is covered with military maps, Reiner's letters, and history books. I can't decide how much of this must fit into my carry-on next to envelopes of foreign currency, rail passes, and a good book.
Before I travel, I read books about the cities I'll visit. When I arrive, I imagine historic events haunting modern landscape. Sometimes I wish I hadn't read Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts three times. Every time I visit Berlin, I can't stop seeing ghosts of Nazi aggression in the Tiergarten or at the Brandenburg Tor. But then I think that many cities, like Paris, are so much richer because I’ve read books like Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and Tilar Mazzeo’s The Hotel on Place Vendome. So, I’ll keep reading history—Reiner's history in this case—and chasing ghosts.
My upcoming “Finding Reiner” adventure will take me first to Cologne to see the KlettenberggÜrtel apartment where Reiner's family lived during the Third Reich years. Allied planes bombed the apartment in the Fall of 1944, and Reiner's parents loaded up a wounded horse and a bicycle and walked down river to an in-law's home in Bonn.
I'll also visit Reiner's high school—Hansa Gymnasium—where he graduated before doing his obligatory labor service in France in 1940. Reiner was released from this service and allowed to apprentice with a famous German architect, Dominikus BÖhm, in the summer of 1941. From his letters, he seemed almost oblivious to the war already raging in Europe. But, his attitude soon changed when he was drafted into the Wehrmacht in October and then sent to the Russian Front.
After Cologne, I’ll fly to Warsaw, meet up with Polish photographer Pawel Wyszomirski, and drive to Glowaczow for my third visit to this town that marked the Russian Front in 1944-1945. Pawel and I were there a year ago in January so that I could feel the cold that Reiner must have felt before he disappeared. Even in my long winter coat, hat, and gloves, I shivered all day in the snow.
This summer I want to see those former battlefields without the frost. In August 1944, Reiner huddled, only yards from the Russians, in a muddy hole that he shared with frogs. He watched the seasons change and wrote letters home about finding a bombed-out villa that must have once been an architectural beauty. I hope to find the ruins of that villa.
After Glowaczow, Pawel and I will drive to the Polish mountain resort town of Swieradow Zdroj (former Bad Flinsberg) to find Reiner’s former family home that is now a Polish police station. Perhaps the city officials will let me inside to touch the walls that Reiner once touched and listen for the ghosts of his spinster aunts.
I first read about Reiner and his older brother Wolfgang in my mother-in-law’s unpublished memoir. On the first page she wrote, "Our generation…was marked indelibly by the holocaust of the Hitler regime, the war, and its consequences...My two brothers——Wolfgang born in 1920 and Reiner born in 1922——never had a life beyond early student days and the war experience.”
That last sentence stuck with me. I can’t help but wonder how I’d feel if one of my four brothers had died at the dawn of adulthood or had disappeared in battle as Reiner, and millions of other young soldiers, did.
Readers may wonder why I want to search for a missing German World War II soldier. He was the “enemy” after all, so why honor him? I understand this line of questioning. My two uncles served in the U.S. military during the war while Reiner and Wolfgang fought for Germany. My Uncle Scotty, a pilot, was shot down not far from where Wolfgang, serving in the Luftwaffe near Bologna, Italy, was firing on Allied planes. Uncle Scotty and his brother Donald came home. Wolfgang died in an artillery attack on October 10, 1944. And Reiner, as readers now know, vanished in January 1945.
The sticking point for me in this story is that my uncles were proud to serve in the Allied forces, whereas my husband's uncles were drafted into a madman’s war. They knew it and couldn’t change it. Reiner was increasingly critical of the German government and military as the war played out. His letters make clear that he would rather have played piano and studied architecture than fight on the Russian front four times. His motivation was always survival, but motivation wasn’t enough.
I’m making this journey—and I hope you'll follow me on Sundays—because my research has shown me that in every war some humans act like monsters whereas others— often youths—are forced to wear an enemy uniform and kill to stay alive. That idea doesn’t sit well with me, and I want to find this particular young man who wore an enemy uniform. He was, after all, my husband’s blood relative, and had he been born one generation later, he might have been my friend.
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The North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA) announced Whitney Stewart won BRONZE place in the 2014 NATJA Awards Competition in the Travel Series - Online category for Finding Reiner.