combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2007

Soldiers, Graves and Headstones
excerpted from Invisible Scars

The Lubeck Memorial Cemetery (Der Ehrenfriehof) is located on the outskirts of the Hanseatic city of Lubeck, Tavemunde Allee, on the road that leads to the Baltic Resort of Tavemunde. It occupies five acres of gently sloping wooded hills and was designed in 1914 by Architect Harry Maanz, a master in the art of gardening. Buried in this poignant and beautiful setting are soldiers, civilians, sailors, aviators, and distinguished citizens who were killed during the period between 1914 and 1945, a time when Germany fought two world wars. In 1947, two more Germans, members of Lubeck's choral group were interned when killed during an Allied bombing in 1942, which caused considerable damage resulting in hundreds of casualties. Most of those buried in this cemetery are German soldiers from the Lubeck and Hamburg area. There have been no more burials since 1947. The grounds are maintained by both cities, and eternal care has been pledged by law. Like the Arlington National Cemetery in the United States, the right to be buried there has no barriers as to rank or wealth.

I have been visiting the area for the past ten years with my wife Karin, who grew up in the city, and was born in German occupied Danzig. We generally visit her family, but have done considerable sightseeing in the area and throughout southern Germany.

My first visit to the cemetery was in 1997, and I was overwhelmed. I was very impressed by what I at first thought was a park in the midst of the suburbs of Lubeck. I entered from the west corner on Travemunde Allee and saw beautiful trees, tall and majestic, with flower gardens and flowering shrubs delineating the trails. As I walked farther into the grounds, I came to a four meter statue of a soldier on a two meter pedestal. It was awesome!

The soldier had his head bowed, and was holding his steel helmet against his chest with both hands. This Soldier in Prayer stands over the burial site of soldiers from both Lubeck and Hamburg who were killed in action, in both world wars. On this first visit, I stood reverently at attention and saluted, one soldier to another, then bowed my head in prayer. Before moving on, I saluted once again. It was a very emotional moment. I thought of my fellow soldiers who had been killed in the Korean War. Once again, while departing, I stopped and turned to the statue and said a prayer for them, a prayer for all soldiers, from all nations. I thought of how fortunate I was to be standing in front of this soldier statue and not interred myself ... of course, I realize that someday I too will be laid to rest, and hope it will be a place as impressive as this one.

I continued walking and passed several grave sites that were marked with hand-carved crosses that formed a circle about a statue of Mary and Child in the center. This area was identified as the graves of the casualties from the mass bombing in 1942. I counted more than a hundred and fifty crosses. War is a terrible HELL!

I continued with my walk. I was careful to remain oriented, since my wife did not accompany me on this first visit to the cemetery, and I did not want to get lost. I came upon grave sites that were marked with more familiar marble headstones. On each of them was the soldier's name, rank, date of birth, the date and place when killed in action. Moving deeper into the woods, I was surrounded by enormous trees, chirping birds, fluttering butterflies, and a variety of beautiful small flower gardens.

I spotted one particular grave with a marker in the shape of a half moon, situated about two feet above the ground. This was a natural stone marker with the name of Helmut von Pein chiseled on the stone. Also, his date of birth, 24 October 1925, and killed in action on the Russian front in 1943. He was not yet nineteen years old when he died in combat. At that time, the Germans were fighting desperate battles and retreating westward, back towards Germany. Looking at the grave, I made up my mind that I would make every effort to visit Helmut every time I visited Germany. I also pledged to bring flowers and clean the area around the grave, whenever needed. I have been doing this for the past decade, and my wife often shares the visit with me.

My thoughts provoked me to action. I decided to leave the cemetery and go to a nearby florist. I bought small flowering plants which I took back to Helmut's grave. I planted them and cleaned away the dry leaves that surrounded the grave. As I was doing this, a lady and her friend, who were walking their dogs in this park-like cemetery, stopped to ask me if I were related to this soldier. I told her that I was not, and explained what my purpose was. Frau Espina, who, with her husband Nico, own The Little Greek restaurant that is next to our hotel, expressed interest in my project. They also pledged to look after Helmut's grave. This encounter has led to a ten year friendship ... which I hope will always continue.

As we parted, I decided to leave through the east exit on Travemunde Allee. In order to get there, I had to go through a grave site formation that stood in a very densely wooded area. As I walked, a strange feeling came over me. I felt that I was being watched! I actually knew that I was being watched, and every move I made was being observed, and I was becoming uncomfortably concerned. I had known this feeling before, from my past ... an acquired survival sense that had lain dormant since the war. While on a combat patrol in enemy territory, I had developed this feeling of instinctively knowing when I was not welcome, when I was a vulnerable target. I expected to be challenged, so I began to walk cautiously near the grave markers. I did not stand a chance. There were too many of them. They were going to capture me ... and I knew they would have killed me without any problem. However, they did not move, they just watched me.

The grave markers were large stones, some over six feet tall and wide enough to resemble a man. Those headstones had suddenly become soldiers. The sheltering trees had become looming sentinels. I kept moving and waiting for the challenge. I even remember looking to see if I were being followed. The soldiers appeared calm but very serious, and with total concentration ... focused on me! I increased my pace and reached the east exit. Once I was out of the cemetery and looking back, back at the ghostly park from Travemunde Allee .... I could no longer see any soldiers. All I could see were overarching trees and a few mute headstones poised as grave markers. I immediately realized the import of this encounter and recognized its significance. At that frozen moment, I knew that I would return.

I would return, not only to keep my promise to Helmut von Pein, but to learn more about the soldiers in the cemetery. Perhaps, by learning more about them, I could develop a friendship with them. This was my first visit, and for the next eight years my punctual visits occurred during the last week in May ... coinciding with the celebration of Memorial Day in the United States. Even new activities, by their repetition, form patterns, which tend to make us more comfortable with ourselves and our surroundings ... unless we try to remain alert and open in our surroundings. It's the old soldier's routine of doing the same things in different places while always being ready for the unexpected. By my tenth visit to the Lubeck Memorial Cemetery, our routines had been established, but it proved to be the most memorable ... at least, so far.

As the years have gone by, it has become traditional for my wife and I to annually visit her family and friends in Germany. I was fortunate to always find time to visit the Lubeck cemetery. I had shared my experiences at the cemetery with Karin, however, I think she has been a little skeptical in accepting my account of events. Nevertheless she has encouraged me to continue the visitations, and has even accompanied me a few times. She has always respected my feelings towards the soldiers buried there. In time I learned the intimate details of those five acres, all its paths and trails, gardens and trees, monuments and grave sites. I am very content in having a minor role in looking after Helmut von Pein's grave site, and in sharing this commitment with Frau Espina. I must also add that I have not made any effort to locate Helmut's survivors. For the time being, I prefer to keep things the way they are ... one faceless soldier taking care of another faceless soldier. Perhaps later, I'll change my mind. Perhaps I won't ... perhaps I won't have to decide one way or another. Perhaps, one day, some anonymous soldier will return the favor by adopting my grave site, will come to visit my final rest and talk to me of wars and struggles that I couldn't ever imagine happening.

The soldier's grave sites are scattered throughout the Lubeck cemetery, and many are concentrated in the area dense with trees. After considerable observation, I have determined that they are on alert, ready to move out if needed, and yet, some are set-up in defensive positions. In one such formation they are in a large circle, looking outward, with a small cluster of men positioned in the center, which I presume is the platoon's command post. In another spot, where one marker lays flat upon the ground ... having fallen during heavy rains, and since left that way ... in seeming imitation of a prone firing position, blending in with the rest of the formation, and there appears to be a machine-gunner who's covering the approach to a larger formation. This elevated spot also serves as an excellent observation post, since it offers good views, is camouflaged with dense foliage, and has a nearby log that offers some cover from enemy fire. Some of the groups appear to be preparing to move out. As the area gets thicker with trees, their deep shadows offer concealment. As I move along the path, more soldiers are revealed, overlaid with interlocking avenues that would repel an advance or protect a withdrawal. This group seems to be a reinforced platoon with the markers being larger. They seem to be ready to move by squads with one squad spread out in skirmish formation. There is a scout a few yards in front and, near him, the platoon leader ... close enough to the front to know what's happening, but back far enough to direct operations. I look at all the soldiers and I find it very strange that they seem to be moving out ... yet, they remain fixed in place.

On another visit, this one in May 2007, as I entered the Lubeck cemetery, I can hear music floating on the air coming across Travemunde Allee. It sounds like marching hymns, which struck me as an inspirational touch accompanying my visit. The music was part of a children's festival that was being held some distance from the cemetery. This is an annual event, so my wife and I planned to go after my cemetery visit. On this particular day there were unaccountably more flowers, many birds singing, the glorious sun shining through the trees, and the sound of distant music giving a surrealistic feel and appearance to the grave markers and headstones. I walked the usual paths and saw the soldiers appearing more relaxed. They were wearing clean uniforms and looked spiffy. I stopped at the grave of my friend, Helmut von Pein, and it suddenly dawned on me what I was seeing. I was seeing: his grave, and not a soldier! For a brief moment I saw a face. It was the face of a German soldier pictured in the book Enemy at the Gates, the story of the Russians recapturing Stalingrad from the Germans. In my mental picture of his war, I had given that face to Helmut. Although they both were on the Eastern Front, the soldier illustrated in the book had survived the battle and returned to Germany after the war. I said a prayer, said goodbye until next year, and saluted my friend, Helmut.

I moved away, getting onto another path that did not seem familiar. I thought I had covered them all. The graves in this path were marked with the more typical marble headstones. Some were single grave sites and others were those of several soldiers from the same outfit who'd been killed in action on the same date. I was surprised that I saw headstones and not soldiers, as I had on other visits. The headstones were lined up close to the edge of the path ... then a strange feeling overcame me. It was chilling. It was joyful, like the feeling a person gets when celebrating among friends. The far away music must have had some effect. I was no longer in a cemetery. I was with fellow soldiers ... in Brotherhood. Suddenly, the headstones were once again soldiers ... lined up side by side on both sides of the path, ranks dressed and covered, facing each other. It was not a long line, but it was an impressive line ... and a very emotional moment for me. At the end of the line stood a proud young soldier waving for me to join him. I did walk the path between the soldiers who were now at positions of rigid attention. When I reached the end, I turned around to face the soldiers, saluted them and gave an appreciative smile. They in turn, stayed at present arms and discreetly smiled. The other soldiers, who were watching from their various vantage points, saluted and then returned my smile.

This was a very poignant moment, one I shall never forget. I continued along the path that eventually led to the east exit of the cemetery. Once I was on Travemunde Allee I turned to look back at the Lubeck cemetery ... all I saw was a peaceful cemetery with Graves and Headstones.

by Milton R. Olazagasti
... who is a Korean War combat veteran, a retired analytical chemistry laboratory supervisor, a former translator for the Delaware Public Defender's Office, a certified soccer coach, and a National Referee Assessor for USSOCCER, now composing a memoir of war. This work is excerpted from Invisible Scars, a collection in progress. His writings have previously appeared in this periodical.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones