Hermann Koch

(4.09.1906 Essel-1998. Holtershausen)

Hermann Koch was born on 4 September 1906 at Essel in the Fallingbostel district. His family moved to Holtershausen in 1936, when their lands were nationalized to expand a military parade ground. In Holstershausen they bought an estate of 55 hectares and grew rape, barley and wheat. There is hardly any information available on Koch’s early years. All that’s certain is that he was an SA member by 1931 and wore the badge from the Braunschweig SA gathering. This suggests an above-average commitment to Nazism, although he didn’t hold any political functions. He volunteered in 1943 for the Waffen SS, where he performed his first military service, as the terms of the Versailles Treaty that concluded the war meant that those of 1901─1914 had been unable to do that; their call-up came only with the war, although men involved in running agricultural enterprises remained exempt for some time longer. Koch had taken over that position from his father at the beginning of the war. Certainly his interest in horses played a part in his joining up, as it guaranteed he would be sent to a mounted unit.

Koch’s training took place in Prague at the Adolf Hitler Barracks in Lobvkowitz Square, his first posting during the occupation of Hungary. His unit was based initially in Zombor, then in Bátaszék. Koch served as an audit NCO. When he got married in the summer of 1944, he received five days’ leave, which he spent at Schandelach, Lower Saxony. He was posted to the front only in September 1944, when his unit was sent to Northern Transylvania. The stages from there were to Segesvár, Medgyes and Torda, then Nyíregyháza, and finally to Budapest from early November 1944. After the siege and failed Breakout, he and a colleague named Wolrad Nothdurft hid themselves in the Buda Hills. Once they had to spend two days in total silence in an attic, after Russians suddenly arrived at the house. Their attempts to break through failed: they were caught by the Soviets some time between 15 and 17 March 1945. Sadly there are no details of where or how Koch and his comrade had spent almost three weeks without supplies. (On arriving home in 1955, he erroniously dated his capture two days later in a questionnaire.) All that’s known are the conditions in which they were caught. Koch’s sons recalled hearing that their last hiding place was a farm cottage, concealed in an attic holding a load of straw, with the knowledge of an old woman who also fed them. However, a few days later a Soviet unit was also quartered at the farm and Nothdurft was seen by a Soviet soldier who went out to relieve himself. As one Soviet soldier climbed the ladder to the attic, Nothdurft shouted, “Shoot him, Koch!” He duly let off a shot from his pistol and hit the soldier, after which they both fled. Koch was chased and overtaken by a Soviet officer on horseback, who shouted at him (strangely in German) to drop his weapon. Both were remarkably lucky not to be butchered right away. This may have reflected the far cooler conditions in the district by mid-March 1945, when taking Germans prisoner seemed an exotic event. It would certainly not have applied in the Breakout days.

The month spent in hiding was, to our knowledge, a record length of time, exceeded only by those with a knowledge of Hungarian or hiding in the city with the help of civilians.

Koch was released from imprisonment in 1949. Very few of his unit had survived the war. Only two staff remained alive according to a note Koch wrote. His colleague Otto Dülberg wrote to members of HIAG (“Mutual Aid Association of Former Waffen-SS Members”) in 1981: “Of the 120 members of our battery just 9 survived the war!” The German Red Cross search service in 1957 had details of 34 missing men from the unit; the actual number killed was said to be unknown. The figures show that the death rate was remarkably high, especially as this was not in principle a fighting unit.

The discovery of the letters is interesting, but still more so the way they were passed on. It’s not known where or why they were kept. What is known for sure is that an unknown person in the spring of 1985 passed on the letters to the Federal German Embassy in Budapest. The German Red Cross contacted Hermann Koch on 31 May 1985: “The contents of the open envelope were found during reconstruction of a house and handed in by a Hungarian personage, who was unwilling to give either a name or place of discovery. The mission advised sending them on to the addressees where possible. Since the card system of returned prisoners-of-war is with you, we found your address and wish to pass the consignment to you. We would gladly hear how you feel on receiving the letters and reading them forty years later or passing them on to your wife.”

At first sight it seems curious that the Embassy passed the letters to the sender, not the addressee, all the more as both could be traced to the same public address in Holtershausen ─ still a small community in 1985, as it had been in 1945. It’s only guesswork to say this was a discreet chance for the sender to suppress what he’d written about his position in the war and other perhaps discomfiting documents of the time. In this case the caution was superfluous: Koch was delighted with his own letters and several times gave his family details of them. In 1987 the Embassy in Budapest was presented anonymously with another letter, this one addressed originally to his brother. The desire for anonymity in the person presenting it may seem strange, as there was no political risk in such action by 1985─1987, as there had been when the public was absorbed by the waves of terror under the post-1948 Rákosi and post-1956 Kádár regimes.

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