Today I am going to talk about my maternal grandfather, Ernest Wilhelm Lass. (The pictures below were taken through glass, and that is why there is a reflection on them)
Ernest Wilhelm (Ernest William) was born August 16th, 1908. His parents were Gustav Erdman Lederecht Lass and Elise Lass. Gustav was a professional artillery officer in the Imperial German Army. During the First World War, he lost his leg in one of artillery duels during the Battle of Verdun. After the war, Gustav joined the civil service, becoming a Post Master.
At that time, the post office served a much more excessive position than just delivering the mail. All government documents were obtained there, utility bills were paid, and it was the main bank for most people. This gave Gustav Lass a very important position in town.
Ernest had a younger brother, George Arnold Lass, born in 1909. In contrast to most Europeans, Gustav secretly took his two sons to a Jewish doctor to be circumcised.
Partially through Gustav’s important position, the family was wealthy, and Gustav wanted his two sons to become doctors. (I always say that everyone in my family is either in medicine or the military or both!). Both of them studied veterinary medicine, and my grandfather’s doctoral thesis can still be found online with a diligent search.
Although the family had wealth, Gustav did not want his sons to lose touch with the real world, and they had to perform heavy manual labor jobs in addition to their studies. (My grandfather built a large number of chimneys, for example, hauling the bricks on his back up a high ladder). Because of his close work with his fellow laborers, my grandfather was mentally and politically closer to “the people”, especially the farmers he later took care of.
Many German wealthy boys still learned to fight with the sword, and Ernest and George were experts. Ernest always refused to fight with a mask, and he carried scars all of his life. Great Uncle George was a ladies man, and wore a mask to protect his pretty face.
Gustav and Elsie were very hard parents, and beat their children just to show them who was in command. My grandfather was a very emotional person, but these punishments scarred his personality, and he found it very difficult to develop deep emotional relationships with people. He showed his true self with the love and care he showed animals.
Ernest Wilhelm married Hildegard, my grandmother, and my mother was born in 1935. Her birth certificate looks like a passport. The National Socialists were in charge of Germany by this time, and the last page of the book is a list of government sanctioned baby names. Hiltraud is not on that list, but they bribed the clerk, and Hiltraud Margarete Lass is the name on the first page. smile emoticon
George’s lifestyle caught up to him in the late 1930s, when he was shot to death by a jealous husband, who also shot his wife while the two were together, two people who tried to stop him, and finally himself. (Five dead).
As stated, Ernest had a hard time with relationships, and my grandmother looked for love with other men. Divorce was almost impossible in Nazi Germany, but Ernest got one. As was the norm at the time, the child stayed with the father.
Ernest Wilhelm joined the military as a reserve officer, and was called to active duty in August 1939, He was a Veterinär (O1 – 2nd Lieutenant of veterinary medicine) with the 258th Infantry Division, serving in their artillery regiment.
Most people are not aware that the German army of WWII relied mostly on horses for transportation, and almost every division had thousands of animals with it. Ernest had a very bad belief that the war would be far larger and more terrible than everyone imagined. He married Krista, and left her, my mom, and his parents behind.
His division was stationed facing the French Maginot Line, but saw little fighting during the invasion of France. Ernest was promoted to Oberveterinär (O2 – 1st Lieutenant of veterinary medicine) and transferred to the adjoining 262 Infantry Division joining their artillery regiment. (This was a lucky move for him. During the retreat from Russia in 1944-45, the 258th was captured by the Soviets, and most of them perished in Russian labor camps.)
Mt grandfather was able to visit home several times during the war, and even visited my mother at the camp she was evacuated to later in the war. It was a German tradition to place the national flag in the window when a soldier was home. However, the Nazi swastika flag was now the national flag, and he wanted his father to use the older Wiemar Republic flag. They argued often over this.
In June 1941, the 262nd went into Russia with Army Group South, but after a few months were transferred to Army Group Center. (Another lucky break; they had been part of the 6th Army, the one that was later destroyed in Stalingrad.)
The Russian Front was a shock to the ever victorious Germans. No matter how many Russians fell, more came to replace them. Even the weather was their enemy; months of rain and mud, followed by one of the coldest winters on record. Like Napoleon’s Grand Armee, Germany felt the full force of “Mother Russia, Father Snow.” My grandfather earned the Eastern Front Medal for surviving that first winter.
In November 1942, he was promoted to Stabsveterinär (O3 – Captain of veterinary medicine), and transferred to the 462nd Infantry Regiment, still in the 262nd Division. He would serve with the infantry the rest of his career.
In July 1943, the 262nd was thrown into the line to try to halt the massive Russian counter offensive after the Battle of Kursk. Sometimes fighting in all directions at once, their luck ran out, and the 262nd ceased to exist along with almost 20 other divisions. The Russians advanced every day of the war from then on.
My grandfather was withdrawn to Yugoslavia, and a new 277th Infantry Division was formed. He was now in the 989th Infantry Regiment, composed of other survivors of destroyed divisions, Austrian conscripts, and high school age boys. They fought communist partisans for awhile before transferring to Navarre, France in February 1944.
On June 6th, 1944, the Western Allies launched D-Day, and the 277th was ordered north. Traveling by trains, their movement was harassed by partisans and allied planes, and the last 200 kilometers was done by marching, mostly at night.
As soon as they arrived, the 277th was thrown into the line, serving in the 2nd SS Panzer Corps, fighting along side two of the best divisions in the German army; 9th SS Panzer Division “Hohenstaufen” and 10th SS Panzer Division “Frundsberg”. This was an honor to be asked to serve with such elite troops, and after the war the SS generals spoke of the 277th’s heroism.
My grandfather later described what the days were like; endless aerial attacks, artillery barrages, and the better armed and armored allied ground assaults. The younger German soldiers often cried out, their calls for their mothers louder than the sounds of war. But the Germans fought on, inflicting WWI level casualties on the allies.
Dr. Lass was promoted to Oberstabsveterinär (O4 – Major of veterinary medicine), but as had been the norm for years, he took part in the fighting.
Finally, the allies were able to outflank the Germans, in what became known as the Falaise Pocket. The German army disintegrated as it retreated westward, under continuous attack. The 989th regiment was the most westerly of the division’s units, and fought a rear guard action to protect the others. Under non-stop attacks, the regiment disintegrated into small groups of men trying to survive. For the next 11 days, my grandfather fought and retreated without a single minute of sleep. As the highest ranking member of his group, he tried to save his men, but again their luck ran out. They were captured by British or Canadian troops in the village of Tournai-sur-Dive on August 20, 1944, four days after his 35th birthday. He was so exhausted, he could no longer even remember his own name; but the Allies had a complete list of the officers of his division, and they read the list to him until he recognized his own. They pinned his name onto his tunic on a piece of paper.
The 277th would go on to reformed again, only to be destroyed in the Battle of the Bulge.
Dr. Lass was first transferred to England. He was later transferred to the United States, arriving in Boston, and was assigned to POW Camp Dermott in Chicot County Arkansas. Camp Dermott was the former Japanese War Internment Camp Jerome which operated from October 1942 until June 30, 1944. He was released on November 10, 1945.
He took additional classes while a prisoner, and tried to attend the University of Auburn after his release, but had to go back to Germany.
Germany was now two countries, and his family was on the wrong side. He slept on the couch of some family friends in Hamburg. There were too many veterinarians in Hamburg, so he moved to nearby Ahrensburg. Purchasing a bicycle, he posted pea green flyers around town announcing their new vet!
He was able to see my mother and Krista once, but never saw his parents again. Krista thought that tiny Ahrensburg was beneath her dignity, and remained in the east. It took 10 years for the divorce to go through. When my mother escaped East Germany, he was called to the internment camp to vouch for her. Mom lived with him for awhile before moving to England.
After a lifetime of injuries, my grandfather died in 1958 at the age of 49.
My grandfather was a hard man, with an even harder life. He loved his daughter, and he loved animals. He didn’t want to go to war, but did his duty as a German and as a solider. I never got to know my grandfather, but I am proud of him. Perhaps if we had had some time together, he would have discovered love and affection with a little boy who adored him.