After a brief holiday, I am back to Finding Reiner. I am writing this family mystery as a travelogue (and as a graphic book illustrated by the fabulous Maria Lebedeva whose illustrations I include here) for two reasons. First, war stories mean little unless they show the human cost. Reiner was one of millions who have disappeared in conflict. Perhaps he becomes more than bones in the earth by my storytelling.
Second, I hope to inspire you to dig into your family archive (or attic), pack a suitcase, and travel to your place of origin. There’s nothing like visiting an ancestral town to help you connect to blood memory. Family stories may be touching or tragic, and they always involve both character and setting. These “Finding Reiner” pieces have highlighted the setting of Reiner’s life and disappearance. Here, I’ll spotlight Reiner’s character:
Who was Reiner?
Reiner was foremost a devoted son, and a thoughtful brother to three siblings. He wrote home weekly during the war, sometimes even daily. His father typed out his war letters on carbon paper and forwarded copies to Reiner’s siblings. In that way, each family member stayed current on news.
Reiner’s letters reveal his sensitive nature and unfulfilled dreams. He wanted to work with his brother as an architect. Several letters noted that he read Rilke, Hesse, and Rudolf Binding, attended classical concerts, and loved playing piano, “…not waltzes, tangos, foxtrots, and the like, but the music of Bach and his predecessors.”
Reiner arrived at military training in OsnabrÜck on October 2, 1941 and wrote home saying, “I felt out of place and embarrassed in my civilian clothes with those uniformed men watching us from the windows or when the war-wounded or decorated veterans strode by. They greeted us, strong and proud with a certain elegance, which encouraged us, though we sensed their smug superiority.”
(For pictures and information on the OsnabrÜck barracks, go here: http://forgottenhistory.co.uk/Pages/Barracks.html)
Reiner didn’t want to be in the Army, but he’d been raised not to complain. He disliked trading music and art for target practice and weapons cleaning, but he was resigned to learn survival skills. He wrote, “…when you think about what will and must be demanded of us at the front, I’ll have to endure and actively take part.” He was right and soon used his training to escape horrific battles.
Reiner was sent to Rzhew, Russia in May 1942. Troop movement was treacherous during the mud season in that vast region. German soldiers were poorly supplied, and they captured villages for food and shelter while the surviving local populace starved. Soldiers on both sides suffered from hunger, typhus, and lice infestation. Reiner was wounded by artillery fire on August 8 and sent back west. He wrote home from the hospital, “Actually, I’ve been quite lucky to have this minor wound, because the fighting around Rzhew was just getting started. And, I fear that few of the company will survive. Perhaps I will even get leave and see you all soon.”
Reiner recovered in a German hospital and was soon ordered back to Rzhew, this time in frigid January. While still in the hospital, he received a letter from high command that stated: “If you do not comply with this order to return without delay, you will be considered Absent without Authorization and subject to punishment.”
Tormented by the thought of fighting in Russia again—— where he was wounded badly the second time——Reiner wrote, “…I shouldn’t think of the future because it only disturbs the present moment. I wish I could do something about it, but soon it will be marching time again.”
I cannot include all of Reiner’s elegant writing from the front lines in these short posts, but I will drop in nuggets as I continue. He wrote little about the men around him, but often mused on how and when he could return to his family. In a moment of despair, he wrote his parents of his homesickness that many soldiers must have shared, "I just wish we were all together again; it doesn’t matter where. Then we could find our way again. We would be complete. We could be a country onto ourselves.”
"Finding Reiner" now picks up in Poland where I'll meet my Facebook friend Lukasz. We communicate in Google Translate, but that has allowed us to plan our excursion into former battlefields. Lukasz knows the land that Reiner described in 1944 letters, and there we'll go. Helping me is professional photographer Pawel Wyszomirski who'll document the search and translate for me. I've got my team.
For more about illustrator Maria Lebedeva who is illustrating my (unfinished) book, go here: http://www.marialebedeva.co.za/
To explore Pawel Wyszomirski's photography, click on his website:
Catch up on earlier "Finding Reiner" posts by clicking here:
All photographs, unless otherwise noted, are property of Whitey Stewart.
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.