Melchior Groeneveld

Melchior Groeneveld was born on 15 June 1905 in Nettelburg, Germany (now part of the town of Leer in East Frisia). Little detail of Groeneveld’s military service is known. In 1942 he joined the 12th Military Police of which he was commander by 1944. The unit’s history is scarcely known, except that those who went missing from it can largely be linked with Budapest.

This biography examines mainly what remains after a family father disappears. It examines what efforts war survivors made – widowed and escapees – to see what had happened to those who never returned.

Groeneveld wrote a last letter to his wife on 4 January 1945 in Budapest, on paper found in the Finance Ministry building in a block marked “State Secretariat”. His unit was obviously based in the Buda Castle District by then. Also interesting is how late the letter was sent, when it could only have left the surviving German pocket by air. The strict censorship adds strength of meaning to the few remarks its writer could make.

"January 4, 1945

My beloved Mother,

I’ve just had letters from you after a long wait, Nos. 33 and 36 came together. Between the two there’s much missing and I’ve no idea if the missing letters will ever appear. First of all, I was thrilled to hear from you again. However, it seems the packages I sent [presumably Christmas gifts bought in Budapest] hadn’t yet arrived. Still, I was excited to read how you and the children spent Christmas and the New Year. I hope there was still some joy in it and a few cosy hours. What did the children say of the presents and what is Herms [nickname of his son Melchior] doing with his armoured troops? Did you, my dear, manage to get the big present meant for you? I’ll always remember specially the Christmas of 1944 and the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day of 1945. Here the most forceful of warfare goes on and the air’s filled with iron and steel. I’ll probably have to go to Vienna shortly to replenish my company. Otherwise I’m fine. Let me embrace you and hug you with all my heart; I embrace you with a sincere kiss, Melchior.”

As the siege ended, the unit was in the Castle District performing on security tasks round the Finance Ministry. It had been supplied initially with looted Italian Semovente tanks with assault weapons; photos remain of seven such. At the end of the siege, one tank stood on the corner of Alkotás and Márvány streets, one by Alkotás Street and Magyar Jakobinusok Square, one on the corner of Perc and Nagyszombat streets, and one at Bécsi Gate at the end of Lovas Street. Where the other two met their end is not known. There were some 200 men still in Budapest, of whom 40 men joined the Breakout. Of the men in the unit, 34 were officially listed missing after the war, of whom 29 were last seen in Budapest.

Dorothea Groeneveld, like millions of other German army wives, could not expect to hear anything of their husbands for months. A few of the injured among those in Soviet imprisonment in Budapest were sent home in the summer of 1945, but none of the 12th Police Brigade were in luck. The others could generally write their first letters home from the Soviet camp system at the end of 1945. By 1946 almost all those still in Soviet imprisonment had a chance to do so, but those at home did not know that, and for a long time it remained impossible in divided Germany to compile a central list of those missing. By 1947, the position for the mothers now raising children by themselves was especially difficult, for not until their husbands were declared dead could they even receive a widow’s pension. Groeneveld’s wife had three children to bring up.

On 26 March 1946 Gustav Spanberger wrote to Melchior Groeneveld’s address in Weimar, hoping to find him alive:

“Since I’ve managed at last to get hold of your address, I’ll write only a few lines today, to learn for sure that my letter reaches you. I’m quite prepared to write in more detail about my position and what I’ve found out about our old comrades. With almost all, the position is that the relatives of our old comrades still live in total uncertainty, and I’ve set myself the task of discovering [the position of those missing] and assisting however I can. So I ask you to help me in this, and if you receive these lines, to send me a list of the fallen (if possible with addresses), as you certainly know more than I do about this. Then for my part I’ll prepare the announcements and seek their kin, as I assume it’s easier to do so from here. So far I’ve only been in touch with one returnee, Martin Stiller by name. I still know nothing of Fritz Popp. Trusting my lines find you in good health, I send you hearty greetings: Gustav Spanberger.”

On 15 April 1946 a Frau Klein replied to a letter from Frau Groeneveld, hoping very much she’d found out something about her lost husband, who’d last been seen on 9 February 1945. The letter referred to someone named Dukhöfer, a returned unit member, saying he’d seen Groeneveld in Soviet captivity. “It may be a very good sign, as none of us have heard anything of them,” wrote a desperately hopeful Frau Klein.

On 3 March 1947 a former subordinate, Peter Mommerz, wrote to Captain Groeneveld in ignorance, expressing hope that he’d returned from the war – Mommerz would certainly be among those who’d escaped from the Budapest trap and would likewise want to know what had happened to other unit members.

On 24 September 1947 Friedel Drollinger wrote to the widow saying she’d received her address from the authorities: Spanberger knew how her husband, Edgar Drollinger, had been killed on 4 February 1945, but she’d like to know more, and so far as she knew, Captain Groeneveld was in Russian captivity.

The widow’s correspondence with Margit Kälbel began on 29 September 1948. In her first letter, a forlorn Frau Kälbel declared she’d heard nothing of her husband, Walter Kälbel, since 1 January 1945, but he had served under Groeneveld according to a comrade of his who came home at Whitsun. “You will certainly be quite surprised to have a letter from a total stranger. I got your address today from the Address Registry in Weimar and place all my hopes in your esteemed reply. What can I do? I cling to each and every straw.” In later letters, Frau Kälbel told of a returnee from prisoner-of-war camp who’d told her of seeing Walter, and also mentioned a Viennese returnee, who might recall other things, but one named Bruno Mäurer had fled from the unit before the Breakout. She enquired again in her final letter of 8 May 1950 whether Groeneveld hadn’t returned… “what ghastly deeds our husbands must have done not to be allowed home. Or are they no longer alive? Yet not everyone can have died; at least one must have returned from the unit, who can report on the fate of his comrades. Doubt fills me with despair; I get no answers to questions that nag me. I’m almost hoping my husband’s no longer alive. So loving and kind, shorn of any loudness, barbarism or brutality, living and working only for his family, he will have found the atrocities and anxiety about us so hard to bear that he was destroyed by them.”

On 30 June 1949 Peter Mommertz enquired of Groeneveld’s widow what she knew of her husband, as he’d sought him in 1947 but received no reply.

On 15 March 1950, Dieter Popp, father of Fritz Popp and born on 18 February 1908, wrote to the widow enclosing three photostats:

“We’ve heard nothing from each other for a long time. I’m afraid that too is a bitter sign of uncertainty. I still haven’t found out more than what appears in the photostat letter I’m enclosing. Even with me the small hope I had shrinks each day! For they’ve now registered all those lost and letʼs see what the result will be. How are you and how are the chldren? I trust you’re getting enough support. Did you get your furniture back? This day-to-day life is quite hopeless. My son fell ill but he’s better now. For me it’s as if for half my life I’m working more in the store than dealing with the children. If you hear anything at all I’d be delighted if you can say. You can trust in that just as you can that I write all I know to you.

“I greet you with my whole heart and wish you well in everything: Dieter Popp”

From the enclosed letters:

On 5 August 1949 Gustav Spanberger wrote to the widow of Fritz Popp:

“I am glad to fulfil your request and inform you of the fate of my comrade Fritz. I cannot relieve your ghastly uncertainty, but perhaps my details can further a little your research into the matter.

First let me say I was not in prison; I am the comrade who met Fritz Popp and Captain Groeneveld after the Breakout. I am also the only one in the company to set off on his own tracks. After Budapest was surrounded I left the company to nurse the wounded in a cellar. They forgot to tell us about the Breakout of 11 February and in the confusion I split off about midnight from all my comrades. I managed to escape from Budapest and about midnight on 12 February met up with Captain Groeneveld and Fritz Popp. The two had nothing with them but their sten guns. We spoke a few words and then the two set off again. I followed them a while, but not much later I parted. On 14 February I reached our own lines; as we retreated someone told me in answer to a question that Groeneveld had apparently been wounded, but more he could not say.

Those were the last notifications I had of members of the 12th Military Police Brigade. Back home [in Germany] and even among the unit’s reservists at Vienna-Purkersdorf, there was a total blank about the fate of the unit’s members.

According to intelligence I received, two other comrades also managed [after the war] to return home. [He gives their names and contact details].

I can imagine how ghastly this uncertainty is, and I am extremely sorry not to be in a position to offer you any certainties.”

On 29 August 1949 Martin Stiller wrote to Frau Popp that he hadn’t seen Fritz Popp, a direct subordinate of Groeneveld’s, after 22 January 1945, when he’d been gravely injured by a shot in the upper thigh, so that he hadn’t taken part in the Breakout. Meanwhile his fellow Bruno Mäurer had returned from captivity, and he gave his address.

On 29 September 1949 Bruno Mäurer wrote to Frau Popp saying that during the siege, the unit had been broken up into small groups, and he had no more information about Herr Popp because he wasn’t with him. He took part wounded in the Breakout, but split from from his comrades while still in the city and was taken captive next day, only being first allowed home a year later. So far he hadn’t managed to obtain the address of any of his comrades.

At the end of 1950, in principle there had returned from the Soviet Union all the prisoners of war whom the Soviet authorities had not convicted – but even the convicted could correspond with their relatives. But even then hope still spilt forth from the lone widows, who could not expect any assistance without clarifying the position of their husbands.

On 12 December 1952 Willy Hasselkurz wrote the widow:

“Though I had your letter, I ask your pardon for replying only now. I was on holiday and only now returned home.

Highly Honoured Frau Groeneveld, I’m astonished that haven’t received news of your husband’s whereabouts. Sadly I’m not in a position even to say anything with certainty. I belonged to the vehicle repair unit, to which your own husband was subordinate.

We were together in Budapest. Unluckily I was wounded on 14 January 1945, and I last saw your husband, in good health and humour on 24 February [clearly an error] 1945, before the Breakout.

I haven’t seen him since. Nor were there any results from the questionings later among the members of the brigade and the repair unit.

I spent my captivity in the Caucasus (Black Sea), and then in hospital as wounded. Here again I met some old comrades. But they knew nothing of your husband’s whereabouts either. My kin heard nothing of me from Christmas 1944, as we weren’t allowed to write. As for treatment in wartime captivity, you too, dear Frau Groeneveld, can guess from the previous accurate accounts.

Esteemed Frau Groeneveld, if I’d known your address I’d have written to you before, but only now have I managed to write thanks to the Red Cross, to which I passed information on some comrades. Fate didn’t spare me from sending through the Red Cross information to several wives on the heroic deaths of their husbands. I would also have informed you about the fate of your husband if I had witnessed it, to provide you with certainty and inner solace. However, I’m not in a position to send you any news after 24 February 1945.

I was returned from captivity on 16 August 1945 due to my serious illness.

I’ve tried in these few words, so far as I could, to inform you about the fate of your husband. It’s extremely painful for me, dear Frau Groeneveld, that I can’t write anything positive in these lines, though written words cannot release you from uncertainty either. However, nothing’s impossible with the Russians, you should not give up hope until the opposite is proved. I will end my lines with this little consolation, and I wish you and your family a quiet, but happy Christmas, in the hope that your husband may return in 1953.”

Repatriation of some 30,000 German prisoners held so far began in October 1955. Even then, the Friedland transition camp was still receiving masses of letters from widows and orphans enclosing enlarged photographs of loved ones and begging returnees to view them in case they could spot anyone. There were still 27 who’d gone missing from Budapest when the last German prisoners of war returned from the Soviet Union on 16 January 1956. That was when lists of the missing appeared, covering 1.4 million people in 225 volumes, most with a photographic portrait. Ten per cent of them had not been on military service, simply civilians who had vanished from the Soviet-occupied areas – the figure shows clearly that the Germans involved in the Second World War cannot all be associated with the military conflicts. Along with the volumes and lists, the German Red Cross launched a nationwide search campaign, involving notes on over 2.4 million people, of whom the fate of some 300,000 could be clarified.

Frau Groeneveld was still concerned 23 years later with the disappearance of her husband and doing all she could to find new data. Sometimes there seemed to be success. On 8 February 1968, Franz Eiger wrote to the widow:

“As a former member of the 12th police brigade, I see it as my duty to send you this letter. I’ve been trying in recent times to make contact in letters with the colleagues of mine whom I spoke to in custody. Sadly, without success, which is why I didn’t write you a letter immediately, hoping in the meantime to find out truths and clarify the destiny of your husband.

I was in this unit from its very establishment [in November 1942 at Purkersdorf, near Vienna], right through Mogilov-Smolenskoye [Minsk]and Verona [Italy] to Budapest. The details I passed to the Search Service of the Red Cross stating that Captain Groeneveld had fallen I learnt from colleagues who’d been lucky enough to be taken alive into custody. Since we had no tank troops left by then, I was brought into the street fighting as a foot soldier. Then came on a decisive and unforgettable night the order for a Breakout by all the units surrounded in Budapest. I’ll remember this Breakout (on 2–3 February [wrong dates]) for ever. Many colleagues whom I’d spoken to by then, including Captain Groeneveld, I would see again on the search pages of the Search Service. What I heard was that Friedrich Popp was with your husband when Captain Groeneveld was mortally wounded. [Popp was always his driver.] But unfortunately Popp and other colleagues fell that night or the following day or were taken prisoner or died of their wounds. We all had only ourselves to trust that night, as it was a matter of life and death. So we waned increasingly and were soon scattered. What did that Russians do with the many wounded after they took Budapest and where did they bury them? That’s what we need to know. If the Russians had behaved in a human way and gathered the IDs of the fallen, we could clarify the fate of many of them.

Since my return from captivity (in November 1945) I still think of myself as being in the unit. I won’t forget anything.

I’ll never forget Captain Groeneveld! He always tried to ensure the best for the brigade. He always wanted to bring his men home and healthy from the war. Sadly, fate wanted it otherwise.

I’ll greatly honour the memory of Captain Groeneveld and always remember the Captain with respect, for he did much for me. I can’t provide further details. I’ve written down for you all I know, to help you.”

On 23 June 1975 an unknown person wrote a reply to Frau Groeneveld from Leipzig, then still in the GDR. Such letters between East and West Germans were far from usual in the Cold War. The background was unknown, but it emerges from the letter that the writer’s husband also vanished in Budapest. Having detailed the lack of success in their searches, she told how her son, a petro-chemist, was able to make a service visit to Budapest in November 1974:

“One evening they reached the Castle, where our husbands were surrounded. There he sought and questioned several elderly men acting as house-porters or similar [in tourist facilities]. Their responses differed somewhat, but were all clear on one point, namely that our husbands, quite irrespective what unit they belonged to, had all been gassed [sic] in the dungeons. My dear Frau Groeneveld, I didn’t want to write such unpleasantness to you at Christmas. Then news came from my younger sister in February 1975 that a letter had arrived from the German Red Cross. They wrote to her that the injured in the Castle had lost their lives in the fire.”

This was the last letter to do with her husband found in the legacy papers of Dorothea Groeneveld. Its contents can also be taken as a kind of “depth charge” laid by the Kádár regime.
It tells how the unspeakable terrors of the war were remembered strongly by those involved, including day-to-day events. As late as the 1990s, the writer of these lines was among those approached by elderly German visitors seeking the places in Buda they had been during the war. For such elderly men, the “gassing” was presumably seen as an offset to the Holocaust, yet other biographical writings have shown that no such systematic, intentional mass murder took place at any of the Castle assistance posts. Nonetheless, there was indeed a fire in one place, and very many of the wounded did indeed die for want of care ─ while the military hospitals were still under German control and after they’d passed to the Soviets.

Nor can it be ruled out that the information process became distorted: that the “gassing” was an interpretation by the German informant. Here again is an attempt to make unadapted, unabsorbed memories of the past, of ghastly losses by informants, being made more bearable by emphasizing in some way the sacrifices they had suffered. Meanwhile much of society in Germany had gone beyond that approach, thanks to the democracy operating since 1945 in the larger, western part of the country. In Hungary, on the other hand, it would be another 30 years before these historical traumas could even be discussed.