War Wounds

Presentation Krieg Foundation Herkenning

3 December 2016


Ladies and Gentlemen, valued donors to the Stichting Werkgroep Herkenning,

My name is Hendrik Jan Vermeulen. I am excited and a bit nervous to have the privilege to share my story with you. This is the story of my father, a German great-uncle, and the artistic translation I’ve made through guitar and composition. I’d like to thank Cuny Holthuis-Buve for inviting me here to speak today. With me are Patries van Iterson, a singer with whom I’ll play a number of modified versions of the songs on the album Krieg. Also with me are my wife Hennie, my sister Margreet, and film maker Ronald Pras, with whom I am working on a documentary about this subject.

The film clip you’ve just seen shows images of the French military cemetery and necropolis on the Hartmannswillerkopf, a mountain in the Vosges heavily fought over during the First World War. Bernhard Kronauer, one of my German ancestors, was wounded here in 1915. At the foot of this mountain lies a village called Cerney, Sennheim in German, where my father underwent training for the Waffen-SS in 1943.

This video was made for the release of the album Krieg and is part of this presentation that I’ve given a few times now, which is principally about Bernhard Kronauer. The album tells his story through German poems from the period of First World War. I wrote an article last year for Foundation Herkenning’s May newsletter about Krieg and the connection to my father’s own war history. Today the focus is on my father. I will try to sketch an image of his war experiences based on research I conducted after his death.

Wherever possible I have tried to base this account on facts and stories from my father, what follows remains a subjective story. Of course I wasn’t there and the interpretations of others (my brother, sisters, and mother, for example) may be in conflict with my own – and emotional responses differ. I’m telling this story as “the son of…” but also as an artist. In doing so I seek a certain order in “my story” within a greater whole of defining events of the 20th century.

We’ll perform a piece from PJ Harvey’s album Let England Shake called “Hanging in the Wire”. This album was a great inspiration for Krieg.

War Wounds

My father in 1939, 15 years old (private collection)

“You’ve never smelled gun smoke, boy” were infamous words my father shot at me whenever I tried to confront him about his behavior, which was sometimes absurd. At the time I really couldn’t care less and placed the remark in the canon of alcoholic ravings he had constructed over the years. Certain hilarity maintained because he couldn’t always be taken seriously when he was in a drunken state. Nonetheless, those words caught on and slowly but surely began to take on a life of their own, fed no doubt by things my father told me about his experiences during the Second World War.

At the same time, just as with any number of romantically inclined young boys, I was beginning to develop a drive to define my own identity. The classic question in my mind was: “Who am I and where do I come from?” For me the answer to this question seemed bound to the choices my father made in his life after his parents moved to Curacao in 1939, having left him behind in the Netherlands. My father was then 14 years old and went to the HBS, a type of high school at the time unavailable on that Caribbean island.

I grew up in a doctor’s family. In addition to my father and mother, our family was further comprised of three older sisters and a younger brother. Growing up in Stadskanaal, Groningen my world was formed by my father’s status as doctor and the notion that we were “imports”. We were after all from what my parents called “the West” and distinguished ourselves this way from the “native” Groningers. This was my experience based on signals I picked up in the community and in any event, from my parents. Somehow this created a feeling of uniqueness or at least of being a little different, but it also led to feelings of being alone and isolated.

Where exactly “we” came from wasn’t that simple to deduce. I was indeed born in “the West”, Zuid Holland to be precise, but my family’s roots are spread around the world. One grandfather was born in Indonesia, another in South Africa. One grandmother was born in Zaandam, the other in Germany. I didn’t know any of them personally, but the stories about these people always fascinated me; for some reason or another especially the stories about my German grandmother.

My fascination with her story led to questions about what my family had been through during the war. Finding an answer to these questions turned out to be not so simple. This was because on the one hand there wasn’t much information available, and on the other that which my parents did tell, wasn’t always exactly clear and sometimes seemed painful. The past was generally not spoken about with pride, admiration, or even a sense of wonder about the events of the past. It was more like something “distant” or just “over”. In any case, it was something that no longer had anything to do with us.

To me however, it seemed far from over, and the feeling that I had to do something with this story grew stronger over time. Questions about who my German ancestors were, what they did and what they thought, raced through my head and took more and more of my attention. The story about my father’s collaboration with the Germans during the war and the loss of his mother’s family during the First World War offered some kind of foundation, and I built my own world around the family war stories.

Initially it was a purely imaginary world: I had no concrete evidence to determine whether or not that which I had been told was true. It was also a “secret” world, because Germany and her recent history were none too popular during my formative years. I needed two things: a way to get accurate information to confirm or contradict my father’s story. More difficult morally, I needed to understand and even justify my father’s decision to go fight for Hitler.

In 2007 I summoned my courage and asked my father if I could request his service records. He consented. A few months before he died, I got the records from Germany. I found it difficult to judge his response, but I think I saw some sense of relief. After my father died, his sister gave me a prayer card printed in memoriam of their German uncle who fell during the First World War. With this began the reconstruction of several war stories. This is a story that begins in the German village Honnef, and now, through me, is brought to light.

My father and myself around 1970 (private collection)

A hole in his upper right arm and a 4 inch long scar in the hollow of his left elbow were the visible signs of my father’s war experience. Who was he when he got wounded? Certainly no Siegfried Sassoon, Ernst Jünger, Remy Schrijnen, Gerard Mooyman, nor was he a Leon Degrelle. You would sooner say of him, as Ernst Jünger said: “better five minutes a coward than a whole lifetime dead”. In fact, I once heard my father say that he had hidden when “the attack” started. This reminded me of the sadistic Corporal Himmelstoss from All Quiet on the Western Front, who arriving at the front, crawled into a bomb crater to escape the bullets.  Even though Himmelstoss gets himself together, and even wins an Iron Cross, I felt uneasy.

Was there no Paul Bäumer, the protagonist of Remarque’s novel, to spur my father on to great deeds or failing that, a hero’s death? These were, of course, ridiculous thoughts and yet I felt disappointment hearing that he had “run for cover”. My father, the Panzergrenadier, chose his own life above that of his comrades and the common goal! Could my decadent and inappropriate disappointment be justified?

German machine gunner on a river bank (private collection)

My father was a machine gunner in Panzer Grenadier Regiment Germania, an armored infantry unit of the Wiking Divisie, the 5th SS armored division. He arrived at the front in June of ’43. The common thread in his stories was the Dnieper, an East European river with an almost mythical sounding name.

Peter Strassner called the 1943 Battle of the Dnieper “a slaughter” in his Europäische Freiwillige, a unit history. After six weeks of bitter defensive fighting on 27 September the Wiking division crossed the river at Cherkassy. The division had just conducted a fighting retreat from the original frontline further east. Mass Russian attacks were beaten back, in spite of their overwhelming advantage in men and material. The Germans held their line and beat the Russians with superior tactics, despite utter physical and moral exhaustion of the troops. After weeks of battle, German units were operating at less than half their usual fighting strength.

The Germans counted on the battle having bought sufficient time to build strong fortifications on the western bank of the Dnieper. Hoping the Russians had expended their offensive energy, the newly fortified line could be held through the winter and Germany could catch her breath. The slogan was: “Winter fortress on the Dnieper: hold fast!”

This turned out to be deception. River crossings were not adequate, there were no reinforcements, and absolutely no fortifications. Further, the area around Cherkassy was swarming with Partisans and Russian paratroopers had already captured the western end of a few bridges. My father found him self in the middle of this, for the Germans, rather problematic situation.

Did he ask himself how and why in heaven’s name he got there? He was by then 18 years old. A comrade born in 1921 who shared this fate with my father described his trial by fire thus: “After the first Russian attack I thought ‘oh, what have I done’” One after the other reflects with words like: “I was in a heap of trouble, dumb, dumb, dumb” and “I wanted some action, well, now I’ve had some”

The depressing situation encountered by the Germans on the west bank of the Dnieper had a devastating effect on the morale of the troops. Despite this, my father’s regiment was cleared for action again on 1 October 1943. After various unsuccessful regular army attacks on a Russian bridgehead, it was SS Captain Hans Dorr’s turn, his unit being the emergency reserve. Grenadier Vermeulen would have been a member of this group. It was recorded at his post-war trial that he took part in a “large attack” in October 1943.

This attack happened on the early morning of 2 October. The day before, the regiment had to fend off multiple Russian attacks. This didn’t improve matters. According to the battle report, the attack advanced initially, but “assault group Dorr” was quickly cut off and overwhelmed by the Russians. The remains of the group weren’t reached again until the evening, when they were pulled out of the line. At that point only 11 men were still able to fight.

My father described it more or less as follows: “As soon as we advanced everybody immediately disappeared. While I was running I saw sand spurt up into the air as bullets hit the ground around me (he would usually imitate the sound of a machine gun at this point). I took cover and waited. After a while tanks came and a crew took me back to an aid station. These guys were upbeat and positive.”

And later: “I was put on a train to Germany and saw people die along the way. I felt utterly devastated. At every stop the dead and wounded were unloaded, but I stayed put.”

As one of the less serious wounded, he was not hospitalized until the north German town Güstrow and eventually Rostock.  He stayed there for a number of months to recover from complications from his wounds and dysentery. One of the stories about this period was about the operation to remove shrapnel from his elbow, unusual for the time, the clean black uniform that was brought to him, and the receipt of his Nahkampfspange, or Close Combat Clasp. Early 1944 my father returned to the Netherlands, and would never again return to the front. Among his possessions I found an unsent postcard from Rostock; the only memento of his time there.

Postcard Skagerrak Denkmal Rostock (private collection)

Somewhere around the same time, on Curacao, cut off from the Netherlands, my aunt remembers her mother crying out: “Something’s wrong with Henk!”

According to my aunt, my father thought his parents would see his service with Germany in a positive light, as a good thing to have done. He was after all half German, and furthermore the attitude within the family was anti-American. America was a land of capitalists and barbarians, and in 1939 the option to take him to Curacao and then send him to high school in the United States was out of the question. It turned out they weren’t really in favor of his choice, and he in turn held this against them. His relationship with his parents never really recovered.

From testimony of his high school classmates it looks like my father wasn’t so much a supporter of National Socialism, but as one who saw Communism as a great evil. According to my father’s sister Hitler was also a sort of father figure for him, abandoned in the Netherlands, who could show him the way. He wasn’t the only one. His occasional remark: “Hitler was a great man” is something I’ve heard said by any number of other SS members. This was often followed by: “He turned Germany into a gold mine” or less frequent, “I can’t stand Jews.”

When, in the spring of 2007, I asked my father for permission to get his service records from Germany, he said something strange. For the first time he seemed to be worried about what might come out. “We could learn that I took part in all kinds of horrible things”, was more or less the sentiment. He was probably thinking about death squads, called Einsatzkommandos, operating against Jews or other civilians. I’d never heard my father being secretive about his experiences at the front. And I rarely, if ever, heard him say anything negative about Hitler or the Waffen-SS.

A common recurring theme was the well-known mantra about the difference between the Waffen-SS and the “general” SS, about which he spoke with a certain disdain. Yet even in that he was restrained. The soldiers, the Panzergrenadiere of the Waffen-SS were in any event “just normal soldiers” who did their duty, like any other soldiers. Not a word about the concentration camps, the Holocaust, or any other misdeeds. In the words of another Dutch SS soldier with Wiking: “For a soldier at the front, that stuff just wasn’t in view for us. During the war, we weren’t occupied with that at all.”

My father did however, talk about the lessons on “racial purity” and  (National Socialist) “world view” during his training. He found the theories nonsense, not supported with evidence, and claimed that he made no secret of it during training.

In spite of this my father was worried about what might get dredged up due to my request for his service records.

During therapy, he wrote in his diary: “dreams about the war and the Holocaust. Contact with a Jewish fellow patient, seems sympathetic” followed by “Now that I’ve written this self-analysis I feel better”.

Other than these somewhat cryptic words I have no evidence that he was involved in or witness to war crimes.

Maria Benemann wrote the piece we just played for you in 1915.  It is about the experiences of her husband, a German officer in Visé, Belgium, which was destroyed in August 1914 and whereby a number of civilians were executed for terrorism. Innocent citizens were also executed in the nearby village of Berneau. The company my great-uncle Bernhard Kronauer served with was possibly involved. It was namely his company that was sent back into the village to recover Germans killed or wounded by supposed insurgents, known as Franc Tireurs. More likely some nervous soldiers accidentally fired their weapon during the night march through the village. Berneau is on the sinister list of Belgian towns ravaged by the Germans in 1914.

Bernard Kronauer was, according to his prayer card, a hero who served bravely and loyally. A soldier, just like any other. A soldier through whom I think to understand part of my father’s choice, and who’s story needs telling before I can move beyond “the war”.

Prayer card Bernhard Kronauer (private collection)

Bernhard took part in the First World War for twenty-four and one half months. For many, the “big adventure” swiftly became a grand illusion. I have no letters to indicate how Bernhard felt about the war. There is only the prayer card, a mention in the German casualty list, and some pieces in the local paper from which I learned something of his military career. By the time of Bernhard’s death in September, 1916, having been wounded five times previously, he had moved up in rank from Musketier to a non-commissioned officer and earned an Iron Cross. “Brave and steadfast, he served as a courageous hero and offered his life to God and the fatherland”, reports his prayer card.

Some time after getting Bernhard’s prayer card from my aunt, I became acquainted with Geert Beulens’ Europa, Europa! and the previously mentioned Let England Shake from PJ Harvey. Beulens’ work put me on the trail of German war poets, where I found words to describe the story of my great-uncle and his generation. Harvey’s acclaimed war album made a big impression on me as an artist. It was the ghostly, intrusive, and mesmerizing feeling Harvey expresses on this album that I was looking for.

What was evidently obvious only gradually occurred to me: as a musician I could tell Bernhard’s story by giving real war poetry my own musical color and interpretation. Krieg was born as I started searching for appropriate poems and the right musical context, and is an album I see as a musical version of a historical novel. Bernhard, the protagonist, showed the way: I could count my own compositions on one hand even though I’d been a musician for thirty years, yet now they just appeared without effort. Bernhard’s story and the rhythm of the intense, sometimes chilling text pushed me forward.

This past September the 17th, the album was released, 100 years after Bernhard’s death in an assault on the Eastern Front. The presentation felt like the beginnings of a farewell. It is goodbye to a great-uncle I never knew, but with whom I had become “close”. It was a beginning, because I’m not quite ready to let go of Bernhard and his story.

Cover prayer card Bernhard Kronauer (private collection)

Krieg is a personal memorial to my great-uncle and at the same time, it is dedicated to all soldiers who fought during the Great War. The bible text on Bernhard’s prayer card speaks volumes for me. Didn’t everyone think they had “fought the good fight”? Or was this just a way for those who survived him to find some significance in the terrible loss? Naturally, it is not easy to answer this question. The song “Brüder”, a poem by Heinrich Lersch about a soldier who sees his brother in a dead enemy, is preceded on the album by a passage from Ernst Toller’s Eine Jugend in Deutschland. In this passage Toller writes that during the war he had allowed himself to be blinded, but that he finally knows that all war dead are brothers, and that he is their brother. This is the central theme I want to express with this album.

Sarnky Gorne 2008 (private collection)

Ukraine, Summer 2008: I’m searching for Bernhard’s grave, with my wife and kids. After a long journey, over roads that don’t seem to have changed much in the past 100 years, we arrived at an unpaved crossroad between two hamlets called Sarnky and Lipica Dolna. While I’m trying to orient ourselves to a map of the Front a Lada overtakes us. The car stopped. Two of the four passengers get out and start walking towards us. One of the two shouts something at us as I show him the map of the Front, pointing at the place where, according to his prayer card, Bernhard was laid to rest. Then my wife says that they want money. The word Euro had fully escaped my attention. Suddenly I awake from the dream in which only Bernhard and his comrades exist. Shocked, I give the car gas, not exactly heroic, and we fled that suddenly dangerous place as quick as possible.

We saw the battlefield where he died, but I didn’t find his grave.

Now we’ll show a video of the number “Abschied”. Alfred Lichtenstein, an expressionist poet who volunteered in August of 1914 and died in September of the same year, wrote the text.

Now that I’ve set Bernhard’s story to music, film, and put it in words, and feel that I have said what needed saying, its time to start working in the same way to tell my father’s story. In fact, today is the first step in that process.

In addition to searching for the right form, I ask myself the same question posed by Kurt Meyer, the son of SS General “Panzer Meyer”: “At what point do my attempts to empathize with “the time” reach a limit? Does this lead to the absurd, making it impossible to come to a necessary and at the same time definitive judgement?”

I understand well that a father like Panzermeyer cast a rather longer shadow than Grenadier Vermeulen, but I feel that in my work I too must take a stand. And perhaps especially now, with populism and extremism rising again. At the same time, a clear view of the present can become obscured by a senseless attempt to “immerse” oneself into the past experiences of “others”. Finding the right form and words is my challenge as an artist. Doing so anyhow is my challenge as a human being.

On the other hand, there is also just the human story that can be told. A boy of 18 joins a foreign army and then must live with the consequences. It is a story of social consequences, guilt for killing people, the tragic consequences of his first marriage to the woman who hid him when he went into hiding in ’44, and the more or less invisible impact on his family and myself, the son and heir, to use his words.

I’ve read, among others, the books of Münninghoff, Fransen, and Meyer, who, more or less, apologize for their fathers’ “criminal” war history. Even though the backgrounds of the writers and therefore, their stories are different from mine certain things are familiar, others are not. For example, I don’t feel any hate or reproach towards my father for what he did or how he raised me. At most I sometimes wonder what he tried to pass on to me with his war stories, and why?

These are some of the things for which I must find answers, which will be part of the next phase in Krieg.

Many thanks for listening to my story and our music.