Reiner’s grave in Poland used to be unmarked, but I’ve made three trips to this beautiful country to fix that one error of war. My upcoming posts will highlight the progression of my research here to learn Reiner’s fate.
In 2012, I emailed the German Military Graves Commission and planned a family trip to the war cemetery in Pulawy, on the Vistula River. I’d never been to Poland before, so the idea of trying to find a graveyard without a local escort seemed inefficient. I searched the Internet for a solution and hired Aleksandra Jurzysta (link below) to guide us. She kindly arranged for our lodging in a conference center and found Reiner's grave in advance of our trip. Aleksandra does not drive, but she rented an old car from a farmer. My husband Hans drove us around for three days.
A cemetery guard was waiting for us in Pulawy with a measuring tape. He offered to stretch it along the ground to show me exactly where Reiner’s remains are buried. Aleksandra and Hans didn’t want to bother with this detail, but I encouraged the guard to stand over the right spot. Then I picked up a pebble and held it.
We lit candles and left flowers at another man’s gravestone, and took pictures for my mother-in-law, Reiner’s sister. Behind us stood a memorial wall that listed the names of the fallen German soldiers. Reiner’s name was there with the vague death date of January 1945. But, the wall seemed so cold and impersonal that I ordered a headstone for Reiner, which now lies flat on the grass above his bones.
After our cemetery visit, we explored the Glowaczow region where Reiner’s military division fought the Russians in the January 1945 Battle at the Vistula. I wanted to walk through the former battlefields and interview locals about the war, but my travel team wasn’t interested in this sort of adventure. We had a picnic by the side of the road instead.
Aleksandra then led us to Kazimierz Dolny and the castle ruins of Janowiec, both of which are stunning and worth the trip. The only problem was that I felt trapped behind a veil of time, with Reiner’s ghost waving from the other side. And, I didn’t know how to cross through.
After three days in Pulawy, I persuaded Hans and our son Christoph to visit Krakow and Auschwitz-Birkenau. If you’ve never been to a former death camp, I warn you to prepare mentally, if that’s possible. I’ve read Holocaust books, seen horrific films, and interviewed Nazi victims. But still, Auschwitz shocked me. We went during a heat wave, which only made me question even more how anyone survived the cruel conditions.
I’m glad we booked extra days in Krakow to bring us back into a happier mindset. We rented a great apartment (Yourplace Biskupia Apartment-on Booking.com) in close walking distance to the town center and museums. I slipped in a visit to Schindler’s Factory museum, which is designed to demonstrate the Nazi-imposed, cramped and dangerous living conditions for Jews in Krakow. (http://www.krakow-info.com/schindler.htm)
Back home after Poland, I dug deeper into WWII research and reread my original correspondence with the German Military Graves Commission. That’s when I noticed my crucial mistake. I’d misread one important German word. (Did I tell you my German is rudimentary?) The letter said that Reiner had been RE-buried in Pulawy. So, I asked myself, where did they actually find his body? And how did they identify him?
I emailed the German office right away with my questions. And while I waited for their response, I started planning my return to Poland. And this time I was going to skip the tourist spots and head right into the old battlefields. I found an energetic translator, photographer Pawel Wyszomirki, whose photographs will illustrate my next two posts from Poland.
Here's a teaser to show that the real adventure has begun:
(Aleksandra’s simple web page is here: http://www.man.pulawy.pl/~ajurzyst/)
Catch up on earlier "Finding Reiner" posts by clicking here:
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.