On October 25 1941, Anton Andreyevich Sviridenko, in Red Army uniform, embraced his son, four daughters and wife, Anna Semyonovna, wriggled into his rucksack and walked out his door. His family never saw him again, his daughter Vera Antonovna, often told her grandson Alexey. She had been 17 years old when her 41 year-old father marched off to the Great Patriotic War from their village of Yei Ukrepleniya in the Krasnodar region of southern Russia.
Apart from a few photos of the soldier with penciled notations on the reverse, received from Crimea, they had had no more word of him. Inquiries had been answered only with a ‘missing in action’ response until a mysterious death certificate was delivered years later. This document is a puzzle of German and Russian stamps, abbreviations and transcriptions that pose many questions.
Private Sviridenko’s date of capture in Crimea was cited as Jan. 12, 1942, while his death date on the original German certificate was entered as Feb. 17, 1942. Incongruously, one of the photos Sviridenko sent home was dated February 25, 1942, in the soldier’s hand, from Voroshilovsk (officially changed from Stavropol to Voroshilovsk in 1935 in honor of military leader Voroshilov, then back again on January 12, 1943).
Sent to a labor camp in Germany, it would appear that Sviridenko died scarcely a month thereafter in unexplained circumstances. How then to explain the card? It is no vast distance from what is now the city of Yeisk to Crimea. Still, how and when did Sviridenko end up in Wanne-Eickel, Germany? How long did he endure there; how did he die? By what route had his death certificate journeyed before a clerical Russian hand had scribbled over the official German citation, ‘died Feb. 17, 1942?’ Family members continue to ask these sorts of questions for the rest of their lives.
Naturally, record keeping during wartime presents peculiar challenges – however, the Germans were otherwise so methodical that the discrepancies here nag at reconstruction. The bottom of the document seemed to be reserved for a further use. Upside down are three more stamps: red indicating interment at work camp grounds on July 14, 1942, green, ironically, forbidding fraternisation with German women, and blue recording cemetery section and grave number at Wanne-Eickel. Oddly, this is dated Feb. 18, 1943 rather than 1942. Which was the error? Surely Sviridenko wasn’t buried a year later in frozen ground. Was it his first or final burial? His family had been told that it was common for prisoners to be buried in mass graves and transferred to individual plots only after the earth thawed.
After ten years in Russia, I had moved to Italy. Some of my possessions wound up with friends in Berlin, remaining there until my young friend Alexey and I drove to retrieve them approximately a year later. Underestimating how large Germany is, he suggested we ‘swing by’ a place called Wanne-Eickel to find the final resting place of his great-grandfather, a grave his family had never seen in a country where none but the deceased had ever been.
In preparation, we searched the internet for town, cemetery, history, opening hours, indeed any information that might help locate our target. So, began our hunt within what seemed a labyrinth of insidious name, date, and map changes. Googling in Russian and English provided brief histories of the separate villages of Wanne and Eickel, combined into one township in 1926. Further research divulged that Wanne-Eickel had been absorbed into the city of Herne in 1975, so didn’t appear on contemporary maps. There we ran aground. The only other pertinent post was in Russian by a woman in the process of compiling names and dates of Russians Jews buried in the cemetery. Not Jewish, Sviridenko was not listed.
Unsurprisingly, my English search for Herne turned up happy promotion pictures: laughing children in a swimming pool and green, flowered gardens, rather than war-related bounty. Belatedly, I decided to dust off my ancient semester of German. Under ‘kriegsgraeberin Herne,’ I finally unearthed my quarry. Just a few days before we set off, I e-mailed the contact provided on the site, consisting of a homepage photo of graves and a brief paragraph stating that the Waldfriedhof included many Soviet Red Army soldiers. Answer came there none.
Armed only with a death certificate indicating the Stalag, section and grave numbers at Waldfriedhof, Wanne-Eickel, some old photographs, and a modern road map, a young Russian and a mature American set off for the northwestern corner of post-reunification Germany. Arriving in Herne late on our second night of travel, we scouted a room in the historical centre and then, failing that, a rewarding dinner. It was as though the Herners were holed up snugly against the driving rain. Lacking the umbrella packed deep in my suitcase, I knocked on steamy windows of parked, inhabited cars until finding, at last, a kind woman who, instead of a common language, led us to a hotel that was still open at the shocking hour of 10:30 pm.
After gratefully following the woman’s car back to the cheerless, cinder block structure on the town’s outskirts, which we had spurned at a headier hour. Rain soaked, we two companions checked in to the eerie hostelry by means of a credit card machine situated outside its locked doors. Neither of us had hitherto experienced fully automatic establishments devoid of human reception, though we later understood that such chains were common in Europe. Buzzed inside by plastic, we dripped along the dark corridor, startled at intervals by motion-activated lights, past a dimly visible reception desk boasting a sign that promised human intervention the following morning. Nary a soul did we encounter.
Inside the garishly painted, dormitory-like room, Alexey opened high vertical blinds, revealing a McDonald’s spire beyond our unlit parking lot. Baleful glances cast, we switched on the TV and were greeted by a historical drama featuring none other than Hitler. Defeated and hungry, we located the umbrella, re-donned wet boots and walked until we encountered a roadside, dirndl-skirted establishment serving rather tired sausages, sauerkraut and, (mercifully), good draft beer.
True to foreshadowing, the cemetery was not easy to find in the continuing rain next morning. After nearly an hour of driving around the same neighbourhood, I spotted a small arrow labeled ‘Waldfriedhof’ across a wide, islanded street. Initially, I feared the premises closed, as proved the florist at the entrance and the church inside. Although cars were parked before a house on the grounds, knocking produced no response. Still, the gates were open and a few visitors were arriving, carrying flowers.
A newspaper clipping from the 1990’s posted under glass at the entrance to an alcove of old-fashioned gravestones, called attention to the Soviet section of the cemetery and gave rise to hope, but upon inspection, it contained World War I German soldiers exclusively. Alexey and I were further distracted by numbered graves in a modern section, as well as passersby pointing us to the Jewish section, presumably because we were speaking Russian.
We wandered through strictly segregated areas until each of us happened upon it separately. My friend, finding the seemingly undesignated area a minute before I did, beckoned from a row of low, rectangular stone markers. Agitated but relieved, his tale of discovery tumbled out as he stood close by a patch of earth. Frustrated, mumbling that we could not have come so far only to fail, he had stumbled upon grave number 184 of 1,031. True, the transliteration and dates were not entirely faithful, but this was undoubtedly it: SWEREDENKO ANTON, 1900-1943. Or thereabouts.
Later, strolling back along an asphalt path among mature, peaceful trees and well-maintained shrubbery and grass, Anton Sviridenko’s great-grandson picked up a split acorn and absently pocketed it. Leaving Herne wrapped in our distinct silences and emotions, confronted by a lengthy, bumper to bumper detour, I slid Mozart’s Requiem into the CD player. Unremitting rain washed away what was left of dirty, grey, snow banks as we inched toward Berlin.
Vera Antonovna, Alexey’s 95 year-old grandmother, remembers exact birthdates and other family data, including the date her father left for war. Before his recent death, she and her husband celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary. She has kept the few remnants of her father’s last months in a drawer for many decades in the hope of discovering his forever undiscoverable fate. Still, our journey provided some consolation. Despite her grandson’s fleeting worry that his mission would succeed merely in stirring up, disquieting memories long at rest, Vera Antonovna had been elated when Alexey returned with photos of her father’s gravestone, descriptions of the cemetery’s serenity, and the already budding acorn.
Having outgrown its initial pot, the acorn is becoming an oak, presenting the problem of its own resting place. The local cemetery cannot accept it because its extensive roots would disturb other graves. Vera Antonovna’s yard is too small, as well, and has become urban with time. Until a solution is found, the tree is periodically transplanted into ever larger pots.
P.S. Very recently Vera Antonovna joined her husband in his resting place.