“Who Was He?”
An Investigative Journey
By Danguolė Jonušaitė Mazurek
Have you ever looked at an old photograph of a close relative and asked yourself “who was he?”
I found these photographs of my father amongst the items that I inherited from my mother. I was only two years old when we immigrated to the United States and six years old when he died suddenly. I barely knew him.
Finding insight into my father’s identity took me through a process that has lasted ten years. I am not done, and I may never learn more, so these discoveries are dear and a connection to my father and his past. My journey begins…
While in Washington, DC in September, 1995 for a business conference, I made two trips to the Holocaust Museum. I was not prepared for what I experienced. During the first visit, I was totally shocked by the exhibits and how chilling they were. There were very stirring exhibits of the destruction of entire towns and villages Lithuania (my parents’ homeland), up to 1 million people in some of them.1 I began to shiver as I thought of my parents experiencing these vagaries of war. This is why they left. And this is what formed their personas.
The very last exhibit in the Museum journey contains visuals about the emigration of Displaced Persons from Germany to America. I found a snippet of my past here. I stood in front of a video and kept watching it, crying. I couldn’t move.
I had a free day during the week and returned to the Museum, but I couldn’t get in. It was totally booked. So I took the elevator up to the Library. After going through a security check, I entered a small library of primarily Jewish heritage publications. I searched but couldn’t find anything. As I was leaving, one of the librarians approached me. He sensed that I had not found what I was looking for and offered to help.
I told him I was looking for information about the Displaced Persons Camp where I was born. We couldn’t really find the exact Camp, but he did introduce me to a book entitled DP Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945-1951 by Mark Wyman. I sat down and for the next three hours devoured that book. I couldn’t put it down. I learned from that book that the Lithuanian people in these camps were well-to-do and educated, formed schools, churches, orchestras and sports leagues in the camps, and celebrated their ethnic heritage with musical and religious performances. They formed communities. Even though they were extremely patriotic, they did not want to return to their homeland after the war because their homeland was occupied by the Soviets. 2
From this experience in Washington, DC, I now knew several things about my father. He left his homeland because of very horrific crimes of war; this made him very strong and determined, in my eyes. Because of his attire in the photographs, I also concluded that he was fairly well-to-do. He looked healthy but not particularly happy. I found a piece of the puzzle, but I still didn’t know what he did there.
My husband and I planned a trip to Germany in 2000, specifically to see the Passion Play in Oberammergau and to visit my birthplace: the Camp.
My birth certificate states that I was born in “Münster, im Evangelischen Krankenhaus ‘Johannisstift.’” Krankenhaus is German for Hospital. Does it still exist? The second leg of my journey of discovery starts here…
In preparation for the trip, I sent an email to the Tourism Department in Münster, looking for information about the hospital and the Camp which I now knew was called DPAC (Displaced Persons Assembly Centre) 52 and was manned by the British allies. To my great delight, I received a most cordial response from the Registrar for the City of Münster, Herr Schneider, who was also the former Tourism Director. He had found a copy of my birth record. Here is what he told me:
“The hospital ‘Evangelisches Krankenhaus Johannisstift’ still exists and has an old wing which might have been standing there when you were born. The Displaced Persons Refugee Camp does not exist any longer although it will be easy to visit the area as it is a short bus ride from the city center. May I add the information that your parents got married in Greven, a nearby town, in July 1947.”
Over the course of the summer, I exchanged many emails with Herr Schneider. The last correspondence before we left on the trip gave us directions to his office and telephone numbers where he could be reached. We were anxiously looking forward to this visit.
Through this correspondence, I found a few more pieces to the puzzle. My father married my mother in the town of Greven. I later found out that the town of Münster incurred severe bomb damage during the war; there was only one storefront left standing and no churches survived for marriage ceremonies. The hospital turned out to be just outside of town and survived the war. The hospital still existed so, maybe, we could find it.
We arrived in Oberammergau on a late afternoon and took off for a bit of exploring. We found the Train Station. This is where my parents must have arrived from Münster to see the Play. We took pictures, hoping my mother would remember, but, alas, she only remembered sitting in the front row of the amphitheatre at the Play.
Walking through the town after attending the Passion Play, we stopped at the Catholic Cathedral in town. I lit a candle to my father’s memory and imagined that he had also lit a candle here fifty years ago to the memory of his family lost during the war. He was a deeply religious man: I still have his Missal and Rosary.
A few days later we were in Münster, visiting with Herr Schneider. From the top floor of City Hall he pointed out the important city sites, but unfortunately the hospital and Camp were not within sight, nor were they within walking distance. Graciously, Herr Schneider made arrangements to meet us at our hotel that evening and give us a personal tour.
Our first stop was the Hospital. It was beautifully maintained. The old wing where I probably was born was painted a brilliant white. As we entered, Herr Schneider turned to me and asked me if I remembered it? I was smiling through misty eyes.
Our next stop was the Camp site. At reunification in 1989 the British left, and the buildings were converted into apartments. I had with me this photograph (my parents are on the left) and was amazed that the buildings looked the same except for minor modifications suas balconies, parking lots and flowers, lots of flowers. I was paralyzed; I did not want to leave. I stood there in the rain, transported back fifty years. My husband finally coaxed me back into the car and we drove off to a pub for food and conversation.
Herr Schneider explained that he has hosted many children like me, looking for snippets of their families’ pasts. It is the most enjoyable part of his job. He was apologetic that he couldn’t provide me with any additional records, but understood how important the information he could provide was. My thank you note to him said “…we have many wonderful memories of our short trip to Germany. You are certainly a major contributor to those memories. It is very difficult to find words to thank you for your time and company.”
What have I learned new about my father? He was artistic. He journeyed by train to Oberammergau in 1950 to the Passion Play which is only performed every ten years. This also confirmed that he was “well-to-do” (front row seats) during a very “poor” time in the world’s history.
Another piece of the puzzle has been uncovered. I am a musician and adore all the fine arts: I am most certainly my father’s daughter.
My husband was also researching his family history. He found an interesting site on the Internet and posted an inquiry for me but neglected to tell me. I suspect he was as surprised as I was when I received an email from an archivist in the town of Greven, Germany. So begins the last leg of my journey…
Stefan Schröder, Town Archives of Greven, wrote “…I am a historian, working as an archivist in the town of Greven near Münster.” He had recently completed his thesis about DPs in the area including Münster, Greven and Reckenfeld. He was in search of people who might have a personal perspective of the DPs. So we began a correspondence where we exchanged information and were able to assist each other. He sent me many websites to peruse.
He told me that DPAC 52 had been closed as a DP Camp in mid-1946. In 1947 Great Britain launched a program called “Westward Ho!” which recruited many Baltic people to Great Britain. DPAC 52 was then reopened for Westward Ho in April 1947.
Herr Schröder continued: “52 DPAC in Münster needed DPs as labourers for the camp administration. So I think your parents worked for the organization of Operation Westward Ho…Westward Ho was installed for single unmarried workers without dependents….In 1949, in the same barracks the IRO (International Refugee Organization) organized resettlement programs for Australia, Chile and France. Many DPs tried to get accepted in the US first and after rejection chose another country.”
My father succeeded in bringing his small family to the United States.
Since Herr Schröder was still obligated to publish his PhD thesis, he requested any photos I was willing to share for his publication. I sent him several, including the ones used in this article.
Here are his remarks: “[The photos] are very impressive and show your father being very much involved in the camp administration, I think. The photo of your father in front of the ‘Quarter Master Ration’ sign possibly shows his duties in the camp. The one of your father sitting behind his desk suppoimpression that he held an important position in the camp hierarchy. He is also on both Christmas photos, showing that he had something to do with the organization – he is in front of the people, not part of the group.”
I gave him permission to use the photos as illustrations in his thesis.
So, a few more pieces of the puzzle are revealed. My father held a position of importance in the camp administration. He clearly impressed someone by his abilities. I believe he was university educated. He also had the tenacity to ensure his family was able to immigrate to the United States, the first choice of Eastern Europeans.
On May 17, 2005 I received an email from Dr. Schröder with the subject line “thesis published!” It was published in German, but he provided the following English version of the text:
“60 years after the end of World War II the Displaced Persons (DPs) still are not very familiar to the German culture of remembrance. The term ‘DPs’ comprises forced labourers and prisoners of war of the German national socialist regime liberated by the Allied forces during the last months of the war and also non-German refugees from Eastern Europe. In May 1945, some 9.5 million DPs were located on the territory of the German Reich, 30,000 of them in the region described in this survey.”
My copy of his thesis arrived on June 27, 2005, inscribed “For Diane many thanks for your help!” May 18, 2005. The title is Displaced Persons im Landkreis und in der Stadt Münster 1945-1951.
Yes, it is in German, but there are pictures of my father on pages 451-452, and the acknowledgement is on page 454.
My visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and the archives in its library gave me greater awareness about DPs and their experiences. Subsequent research on the internet provided me additional information and led me to two significant German contacts. My journey to Germany enabled me to relate the old photographs with actual places and people. Studying the photographs now, using all of this knowledge, helps me connect more closely with my father.
This now answers the question “Who was he?”
1 Yaffa Eliach. There Once Was A World. Boston, New York, Toronto, London: Little, Brown and Company, 1998. (3)
2 Mark Wyman. DP Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945-1951. London, Toronto: Associated University Presses: 1989. (106-130, 156-177)