As mentioned on Ghost Cargo’s dedication page, this, my latest novel, is dedicated to my father, Eberhard Schirmer, who sadly passed away in 2010.
I wrote Lukas’s story very much with my family history in mind.
The mysterious hidden gold treasure, hunted by so many and never found, laid the foundation for ‘Ghost Cargo’. This treasure of course consists – according to history and folklore alike – of valuables impounded from ethnically and politically undesirable human beings by the National Socialist regime before and during World War Two; resulting in the mass murder of millions of individuals, men, women and children, their age of no consequence.
My father was drafted to serve the regime at the age of thirteen or fourteen, with my grandfather already a soldier stationed near my family’s home town of Boleslawiec, previously part of German Upper Silesia, now on Polish soil.
I believe my grandfather Ewald Schirmer was eventually lost in the siege of Breslau (Wroclaw), where in many a theory the train carrying the Nazi gold originated from – rescuing the stolen fortune from the besieged town of Breslau before the Russians could lay their hands on it.
My family never received actual confirmation of Ewald’s death. The Red Cross declared him fallen in the nineteen-seventies, since he’d been missing for so long. It is entirely possible though that Ewald was captured by the Red Army and taken into Russian captivity, from where he never returned.
I learned from my late father shortly before his death in 2010 that Ewald was indeed stationed at Breslau during the three month long siege of the town in early 1945. He was in charge of his division, holding documentation about his men and about whatever his mission there entailed. None of the paperwork was ever found. My father believed in the end that his father was killed by a direct hit, destroying all trace of him and his documents.
Just before the end of the war my grandmother, Margarete, left the family grocery shop and her home behind, taking my little uncle Werner and a children’s’ handcart full of family memorabilia, photographs and porcelain, and joined the many refugee treks west on foot, to evade capture by the Red Army. Without knowledge of their whereabouts she had to leave her eldest and her husband to their own individual fates to save herself and her youngest son. They settled in Quedlinburg, East Germany – in the Allied Russian zone – but was allowed to relocate to West Germany before the hard German – German border was established and the Berlin Wall was built.
Permission for her and Werner’s resettlement was only granted because by now – and don’t ask me how – she’d learned and was able to prove that my father had made it to Hannover after the war, and families were allowed to be reunited.
She settled in Nuremberg and later in Hannover; and she firmly believed in my grandfather’s possible return from Russian captivity until her own death in the nineteen-eighties.
My father never much spoke about his time in the Wehrmacht.
He was cagey when asked, and stories would only come out during family gatherings like birthday parties or on New Year’s Eve, when he and his childhood friends from Bunzlau would relate their memories and experiences in a raucous and sentimental way – helped along by a few drinks – and reminisce about the good old days, when life and values were still in order and when frying bacon and eggs on a hot camouflaged jeep bonnet was a regular occurrence; only to be summarised by my father later as it all having been a ‘terrible, terrible time’.
He’d found a hard core group of childhood friends – which in itself was a miracle since all these young boys had served as soldiers during the last days of the war – through the Schlesiertreffen meetings, which were brought into fruition for displaced Silesians to learn about their families’ fate, and – if possible – to be reunited with their loved ones.
I listened to their stories – they even wholeheartedly sang the old songs sometimes, which was spine-tinglingly exciting as a child, when I did not know the connotations – and learned that at some point during the war my father had guarded concentration camp inmates in their striped rags, working on the railway. ‘It was nothing,’ he’d say, ‘we were just boys.’ This was most likely at Sachsenhausen KZ, near Berlin, which initially was a forced labour camp. He also told a story how – whilst still at school – his fellow pupils and he had to take shifts on the roof of a building to man and fire anti-aircraft guns against allied aircraft.
Sometimes my father fell into a solemn mood at those family gatherings. He then recollected how he was mustered into the Schutz Staffel, the infamous Waffen SS. Being a lanky six foot six he was a prime candidate and officer material. ‘Even then,’ he recalled, ‘it should have been an honour to be considered for the SS. But they were all arseholes! Luckily I was always shit at sport!’ He used to exclaim, fuelled by a few Jägermeisters. ‘I couldn’t do enough press-ups.’
He didn’t mean it. I saw it in his eyes. He failed the physical entry exam for the SS muster, and I am convinced he was made to feel a coward and a weakling. He will have been ridiculed and laughed at for being not strong, not hard enough. He never admitted to it, but I saw it in his eyes and in his demeanour – he’d been embarrassed to the core. It would have been entirely in line with the regime’s modus operandi.
‘Ultimately, thank God I didn’t make it. It saved my bacon,’ he’d conclude. ‘I don’t think I would be here if I’d joined the SS – and neither would you.’ With that said he’d laugh and stub me into the chest with a pointed finger, and the matter was closed.
His favourite story was the one about his surrender to the ‘English’. He never divulged the circumstances of how he and his little band ended up marching west – away from the Russian – to save themselves and give themselves up. It’s quite possible they made the sensible decision to defect just before the end of the war, although my father would have never admitted to such a cowardly deed!
After days of marching west, and presumably after having crossed the famous Neisse river, they first came across an American tank division slowly rolling east. My father describes in the short excerpt which is left of his diary how ‘we could never surrender to such a disorderly, dishevelled army; not marching, but jovially riding on their dusty tanks by the dozen, singing, cigarettes dangling from their lips and chewing gum. They haven’t even got their helmet straps done up! We liked their chocolate and gum, but no! We must march on to surrender to a proper army. We’ll only surrender to the ‘English’!’
Having recorded this sentiment in his diary – and done exactly so a few days later – the British swiftly interned my father and his little band of brothers in Schleswig Holstein, the whole of which – between the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal and the Danish border – had been turned into a German prisoner of war concentration camp; a necessity due to the numbers needing to be interned.
My father then usually recalled three important facts about his imprisonment:
- The captor’s favourite place for SS officer inmates is making them stand underneath the latrines, waist-deep in the cesspit for hours on end in the scorching heat of August
- It is possible to survive for weeks on one can of corned beef between two prisoners a day
- It is still possible to beat the ‘Tommy’ at football on a daily basis, even if one is malnourished on one can of corned beef a day between two prisoners!
My father was eventually released from Schleswig Holstein and went to Hannover, where he hoped to find some distant relatives.
My father was never a Nazi. Neither did he ever join the party, the NSDAP, like so many others did to elevate their reputation and ultimately save themselves and their families. Maybe my father was just too young to make such a decision by himself. Having been born in 1926, my father was six years old when Hitler became Reichskanzler in 1933. At the beginning of the war my father was only twelve, and he was eighteen when surrendering to the British Army in 1945.
In fact, there was no option, and no subjective decision to be made. You did join the HJ, the Hitler Youth, or the BDM, the Bund Deutscher Mädel, if you were a girl. You towed the line, absorbed the ideology – although it all sounded a bit silly, as my father used to recollect – you marched and sang and became a hard young German patriot.
Ready to join an army when required.
And ready to proudly die for the Vaterland.
My father was indeed a proud man, who was left scarred by indoctrination he had no control over at a young age, by a regime which has left its own legacy.
Putting it into today’s terminology he suffered deeply from PTSD, which was of course never addressed.
Well into the nineties the Hannoverian fire service still used the old air raid klaxons to call in the regional fire brigades to help out with fighting fires in the city. Every time these went off at night my father would wake up screaming. So would my mother, who as a girl used to jump off her bicycle and into the roadside ditch when the Spitfires came racing down vertically, their engines in a high pitch wail, firing at anything that moved on the road. ‘When you heard the bombs’ whistles, you were OK. It’s when you can see the Lancasters coming over in formation for carpet bombing and you don’t hear the whistling – that’s when you are in trouble…’ my mother used to relate – but that’s another story.
All my life I felt it my duty to tell my father’s story in some way or another – I just never imagined it would manifest itself in a romping adventure thriller, featuring Lukas Novak as the protagonist.
Thank you for reading.
Bea Schirmer, 23th January 2021
Ghost Cargo is now available on Amazon. Click here or on the book cover below.