Vézelay, July 7 2017.
Two Summers ago, I went on a Mary Magdalene pilgrimage to a small town in Burgundy, France called Vezelay.
The town of Vezelay has been a spiritual center for Christianity since the middle ages. As one of the four major historical routes to Santiago de Compostela, Vezelay is also the home of the 12th-century basilica that hosts the relics of Mary Magdalene. The quaint village welcomes nearly a million of visitors each year.
I got to meet extraordinary people during my stay at the quaint medieval town. During that time that seemed like a particle of time standing outside of time, I became friend with the local icon maker who happened to be an artist slash A Course in Miracles slash Catholic mystic. I met the town mad man who also had spells of revelations in the town’s square, wearing nothing but a white beard, a white lab coat, and holding onto his decaying cane.
I also made a friend who turned my heart upside down when she told me of her father’s story. Her father was a Nazi officer so it was a difficult story to tell. It is time for her story to come out into the open. When I first heard Erna’s story, I, of course, thought of my Israeli family, my visit in Auschwitz, all my Jewish brothers and sisters. I also saw in Erna the little girl who still carried the dolor of not having known her father. Plus the shame around his service in the Waffen-SS. We bonded over the lingering shadows of our respective fathers…allowing our pain to come out in the open, to be seen for the mild cancer that it is, in the hollow of our heart.
I never met my father who was Israeli, and Erna’s father was shot when she was only four years old.
Erna was sitting at the mid-century oak wood desk, taking down the final names of German pilgrims who would continue on to Santiago de Compostela, a mere 975 miles away from Vezelay. I was working on the last edits of my book of prayers in my worn-down Moleskine when a woman drinking her coffee across from me asked the subject of my writing.
“A universal book of prayers and meditations. When I was a tiny girl, I didn’t have parents so I found solace in the world of the Almighty,” I said.
Erna, the kind, Austrian woman who assisted pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela looked right at me, above her golden rimmed glasses. She put her glasses down next to her cursive list of pilgrims and said: “you know, I too lost my father when I was a little girl,” she said.
“He was executed by the Germans during the war for telling Polish soldiers to escape into the woods instead of enlisting them into the army. I was not even four years old yet.”
My eyes rise above from my MacBook Air, meeting her bright blue eyes, vulnerable and bloated with sadness.
There seems to exist an underground tribe of fatherless women no matter where I go in the world. Almost as if we were all wearing an invisible thread around our heart, waiting for our story and our pain to be heard and seen. Suddenly, my own fatherlessness didn’t seem so terrible. At least, I never knew mine…which would be the most painful? To have known your father and to lose him to sudden death or not to have known him at all?
The sting of fatherlessness is just as sharp and unforgiving across time.
He died for saving human lives?
When did this happen Erna? Was it during World War II?
Oh yes he did. My father was in the army. At the time, the war was nearly over, and he was in charge of enrolling new soldiers to push the Russians back at the eastern border of Germany. He knew the war was almost over, so he tried to save as many men as possible. That day, he told approaching Polish men to escape into the Beskid mountains (range that joined Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine) instead of joining the last Wehrmacht ranks that were ordered to fortify the Southern Polish border.
I am beginning to wonder if her father had been part of the elite German army, the Waffen-SS. I crossed my legs as I grew uncomfortable at the idea of being so close to the story of a Waffen-SS. How did she reconcile his role as an SS officer and the man she knew as his father?
The influence of a father on his daughter’s life never really runs out, whether he is dead or alive, a hero or a thief. I grew up around rumors that my own father was a prominent robber in the early eighties.
Has anyone written anything on your father, Erna?
Erna takes on a look of surprise and slight indignation, smiling from one side of her mouth.
“No,” she laughs.
Well I think his story needs to be told. An SS officer who saved lives was not a common story in history books.
My jaw dropped lower, still. I closed my Moleskine notebook to devote my complete attention to her budding story.
This story was movie-worthy and yet, nobody had brought it up to the light.
Do you mind if I write down what you are telling me? I’d love to write at least an article on him, Erna. This story needs to be told
I created a new Word document on my lap-top, and I positioned my fingers to race across the keyboard, typing the meaningful words only, not losing one meaningful detail.
I would fill in the blanks later. His sacrifices belonged to humanity now and in-between the pages of history books.
The day before he was executed, he managed to write a letter that he passed on to a local priest. Years later, priest managed to give us the last letter my father wrote just a few hours before his execution. The only time I remember seeing my father was on Christmas Eve, in December 1944.
Erna got up and sat across from me.
We were sitting in the large kitchen that had turned into a welcoming office for arriving pilgrims.
Erna’s latest painting of the Virgin Mother with a child sitting on her lap was staring at us atop the chimney.
What did he say in his letter, Erna?
She paused, looked down at my computer, trying not to break down as she bit her lower lip.
My grand-father was a woodworker in the Durrnberg salt mines and with seven kids, he couldn’t afford to send my father to a better seminary in Vienna because at the time, you had to pay to enter the seminary to become a priest. My father was accepted into St Rupert seminary Bischofshofen when he was only 14 years old. My uncle had applied at the seminary too, but he didn’t get in. My father always had excellent school marks, so it had been easier for him to get in. The seminary even closed down in 1939 after Hitler ordered the mission house to be closed down. My father was very intelligent, he was even fluent in Latin.”
The Summer after he graduated from St Rupert seminary, he was working on a farm up in the mountains and a friend suggested he apply to the new police officer school near Munich. It would offer him a respectable career with a fair income.
My father thought it would offer a good enough career and given that he was highly intelligent and also an excellent skier — he was a replacement athlete in the 1936 Winter Olympic games in Bavaria. He traveled to Munich to apply and he got into the officer school right away.
I keep typing trying to record the important names, places, dates, event, the camps. A riveting string of events. I looked up his SS training school Bad Tolz, and it is true that it had not yet become an SS-Junkerschule (an SS training establishment) back in 1933. Bad Told started training SS officers in 1936. The plot thickened.
I look at Erna while I type away, accompanying her heart with my eyes. I didn’t want her to feel alone in this poignant reveal of a cumbersome family secret she rarely revealed.
On her tired face, shame switched places with nostalgia and a daughter’s devotion to the memory she had created of him.
Soon after he entered the police officer school around 1933, he was recruited to be part of Hitler’s personal guard and as soon as he realized the ideology behind his politics and agenda, my father ran away. He knew he could never be part of that.
At that time, you didn’t simply give your notice. If you left, you would most likely be executed. But that didn’t stop my father. It would never become his ideology. He traveled up to Hamburg with the hope of catching a ship to America. The Gestapo arrested him on the ship in Munich on June 10, 1936.
After that they sent him to Berlin and he endured much beating before being sent to the camps at Oranienbourg, Buchenwald, Dachau, and finally back to the Stadelheim prison in Berlin.
I conducted research for nearly six months to check his presence in the said concentration camps. Erna herself had sent letters to the various camps to find out the truth about her father. He was in fact imprisoned at all camps, but Dachau could not find a proof that he had been there. He was in the Buchenwald concentration camp from August 7, 1937 to November 20, 1937. I also saw the formal letter declaring his expulsion from the SS written on November, 20 1936.
Her thoughts drifted away from the iron gates of Hell…and her fingers bent the corners of the papers she held tightly in her hands. She looked out the window to keep her tears in the back of her mind.
My family was from Bavaria, you know. And their home just happened to be right across from Hitler’s vacation home that’s always shown in history books. Oh what is it called? I can’t remember. It was near Obersalzberg. I’m sure you’ve seen it in history books. Well, the Germans came into my family’s home and threatened to send them to Dachau if they didn’t vacate their home. They tried to have my father freed but that didn’t work either. Then the SS didn’t really know what to do with him. They couldn’t kill him. He went to trial with other SS who had deserted. Himmler himself wrote my father’s final verdict — I even found his written indictment.
She grabs a pen and gestured a heavy writing a letter, bringing to life the gravity of the verdict, the severity of the hand who crafted the lie. Finally, she wrote the following numbers: “175”.
They convicted him as a “175”, a homosexual so he wouldn’t find work again and would be erased from society. He even had ex-girlfriends writing him cards asking him if it was true. They even revoked all his titles and took away all his ranks.
Paragraph 175 was a provision of the German criminal code used by Nazi Germany to convict homosexuals and often send them to concentration camps to be exterminated. Even their family would slowly become distant to avoid reprimands.
He was finally sent to work in a new camp that was being built and he started learning accounting. He had to take regular accounting classes in Salzburg so he would bike there every week.
What was the name of the camp he was sent to work in accounting?
It was near Mauthausen.” She spelt the name out for me, letter by letter, taking her time in her Germanic accented French.
I wished I hadn’t neglected my German High School lessons back in the 90’s.
Note: Mauthausen initially served as a strictly-run prison camp for common criminals, prostitutes, and other categories of “Incorrigible Law Offenders”.
On March 9, 1937, Himmler had made a new rule that criminals who had committed two crimes, but were now free, could be arrested and taken into protective custody. They were sent to concentration camps without any charges being made against them and, of course, without a trial. In July 1938, three hundred of these unfortunate German “career criminals” were brought to Mauthausen from the Dachau concentration camp to begin construction on the new camp.
How did your parents meet, my Erna?” I asked, a first smile on my face lingering a moment.
My mother owned a little paper shop and that’s where my father would buy his office supplies. They met during the Fall of 1938 and got married on September 27th, 1939. A few months later, he joined the Alpine troops and was sent to Norvik in Norway, but he got injured so they sent him back to Austria where he met some men and joined the resistance. After that episode, he was revoked from combat and everyone left behind questioned why he wasn’t fighting for his country.
Two pilgrims walk through the front door with their trekking poles and Erna greets them, her lips spread into a wide smile, her blue eyes were grim. The pilgrims were two Austrian sisters from Vienna. An omen acknowledging the meeting of minds across timelines.
I was impatient to know the name of that man. I held back from interrupting Erna as she sat behind the desk stamping an official Vezelay seashell within the inside a square box on the credential (a document carried to authenticate the pilgrim’s progress along the way). She took out a map and pointed at several routes while speaking in her native Austrian German and gesturing back and forth between two paths to Santiago.
While they seemed to converse for hours, I was consumed by the hero extraordinaire.
How come she had not shared her father’s story before?
Finally, the Austrian travelers get up and walk towards their hiking gear. I stare at Erna signaling I was ready to travel back into her father’s life.
What was your father’s name Erna?” I asked before she even sat down. She glanced at her two compatriots, busy reorganizing their imposing backpacks.
Let’s go sit outside. His name was Johann. Johann Stangassinger with one G. It used to be spelt with two g’s but after my father became an SS, they changed his family name and removed a g. We had to remove a “g” to protect the family.
When was Johann born?
February 3rd, 1915. He had luck on his side for a very long time. He would survive through showers of gunshots or he would barely escape a bombing. My father always said he was protected. Then he was called to be an instructor in the new army created in the Black Forest. He was in charge of bringing soldiers between Germany and (German-occupied) Northern Italy. Mussolini had lost most of Italy by that time. Then after the plot to kill Hitler in July 44, my father was sent to Southern Ukraine to enlist soldiers as the eastern front was quickly eroding.
Note: Right around September 1944 Nazi authorities conscripted the last standing men among Germans into the Wehrmacht to fight on the decimating eastern border.
The night of Christmas Eve was the only time I remember seeing my father. And it was also the last one. I remember the smell of his thick army coat.
Gerardt, my baby brother wasn’t even 6 months old. My father had arranged to come spend 4 days with us. Then he went back to his base in Korbielow, Poland where he was resting and only had to enlist the new soldiers. He told them that it was the end of the war and that it wasn’t worth the fight. ‘Go and run into the woods,’ he told them knowing full well what he was risking. But you know my father always tried to do what was right no matter the risk. He was a man of faith and tried to do as much good as he could considering the circumstances he was forced into. When I spoke with Polish witnesses years ago, they always said how much they loved my father because he had been good to them. They loved my father.
Tears stop at the edges of her eyes as she looks down.
By that time, my father knew a very tall German man who employed Poles to cut woods into the mountains in Germany.
That man was also loved because he had been good to the Polish workers. My father was ordered to lead a convoy of military material that brought by the SS from Budapest to Czechoslovakia. That trek could have been the perfect opportunity for my father to escape but he didn’t want to abandon his soldiers. When he finally arrived at the army barrack, everyone had deserted so he went back to Poland and the Nazi officers in the frontier even accused him of desertion because he was alone. What I think happened, if I recall correctly, was my father had promised a mother that he would bring her son back alive and that’s why he went back to his base in Poland. I have a letter at home written by my dad to that soldiers mom, promising her that he would bring back her son well and safe.
Back at his base, my father told his friend to leave but his friend didn’t want to live because of the snow outside. My dad remembered his German friend who employed Poles in the German mountains so he went to see him. He told him that he was done with the war, so the German gave him a green leather jacket to pass for a gamekeeper. When he crossed the border again, he came across the officer who had also controlled him when he was coming back from the Czech Republic. He was brought back to his station and he was executed the next day.
The distant sobs finally come to the surface, and cascades down her cheeks. I grab her hand as my heart caved in watching a seventy-something-year-old woman cry as a little girl for the father she barely knew.
and go as she finds her breath again between the emotions moved around after so much time had passed.
He even had to walk from the village where he was stationed to the next village over, Krzyzowa, to get executed. People had lined up in the streets to see him. The Germans even took a picture of themselves before they shot him. He walked over to shake hands with his German executioners, telling them that he wasn’t angry with them.
He asked them not to shoot him the face. For his wife and children.”
Then, she breaks down again, trying to gasp some air through the aching memories.
I grabbed her hand and looked down as well. I wanted to respect her dignity. None of that had been her fault. She was born in 1941 and relied on photos of her defunct father to form a decent image of him. To reconcile herself with the evil done by her father’s troops.
I am so very sorry about what happened to your father, Erna.
What did his letter say?
He wrote that he had been able to take communion and to go to confession before his death. He said that he loved us and that he forgave the Germans who were about to kill him. And then said that it was time for him to go die now.
The courageous blond beauty was held her hand up in the air mimicking the handwriting getting taller and taller and taller.
His handwriting becomes more intense and larger as he wrote that last part.
Later that day, my mother heard a single bell tolled in Salzburg and she knew right away that my father had been executed.
The Germans said they used him as an example.
Someone came running the next day to tell her that our names were on the Gestapos list and that she had to leave town right away or she would get arrested along with her three little children.
She thought she would pack everything and would leave within the next few days.
Her friend told her that she had to leave on that day. She grabbed us kids and her sister-in-law, put us in a car, and we left for my grandparents’ home near the Swiss border, 10 kilometers from the Bodensee lake.
We traveled through Tyrol and the Black Forest for over a week but there was a Nazi checkpoint in front of the Arlberg mountain, they took our names at the train station, we were taken to the nearest German checkpoint inside a train station.
My mother knew what would happen to us if we stayed,” said Erna. We would probably have been sentenced to execution since the Germans knew they were losing the war. My mom sensed that we had to get out or we would not survive this. When she got up the next morning, she noticed that everyone was still sleeping, she broke the door into the office and looked for the page that had their names and addresses on it and destroyed it. The day after, we left by train and arrived at my grandparents’ home near the Bodensee lake. It hadn’t been destroyed by bombs yet. The French army arrived from the West shortly thereafter.
Then later on, we had gotten a paper saying my father was part of the resistance, so we were able to go back to Salzburg at some point.
Below is an excerpt of Hansi’s last letter to his wife:
“It’s my farewell to you and children until we meet again in the hereafter.
I will probably be shot in about l hour. Always remember me and keep me dear, even when I was shot as a criminal, that is, desertion. Tell the Dieterle, the Erna and the little Gerhard that I love them and unfortunately will not be able to stand next to them later in life.
You, my dear wife will be very shaken. We have always understood each other very well in this time of our short marriage, during our few years of co-existence.
I would have liked to have happily spent the rest of life with you after the war. To create our new life on the farm not far from your parents as we planned.
To one thing I ask you to die before my heart, take my children to love no other man. Can I trust that? Yes, indeed!
I will not write to my parents, because I want you to tell them please.
I have just met with the priest and I have confessed and taken my final communion.
My love, I cannot write anymore, do not forget me.
If it is possible for you, visit my grave.
In great love to you the last greetings to you and Dieterle, Erna, and little Gerhard. And now I have to go die.
Erna’s mother never remarried. She was 32 when her husband was executed. She went back to work and raised her three children on her own.
They were never allowed to talk about their dad to other peopole and they were never allowed to feel sorry for themselves because of what he did.
Both our lives would have been certainly different if our father had been present and alive. Erna’s father would have spent the rest of his life in prison, most likely and she would have lived under the stigma of being an SS daughter. I might have been held accountable for the crimes of my own father as my mother’s best friend made me swear a long time ago that I would never try to find him because it would be too dangerous for me.
The role of the father, although critical in the healthy development of an individual towards individuation, is often times idealized.
Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.