The Kiwi Who Was German: Search for Identity Reveals World War II Crime
Part 3: Sent to an Institution
It was directly after the war, a time when millions of so-called displaced persons were on the move throughout Europe. Anna was one of them, as was a woman from Magdeburg named Gertrud.
According to the files, there was a family of three named Vandevelde in Brussels, in the summer of 1945: Gertrud, who was George's biological mother, his stepfather Albert, and their three-year-old son, George.
Albert was quickly released, but Gertrud was detained for three months. They searched for their son, but Anna and the child were long gone. She fled, first through Europe and then across the ocean, always a step ahead of the missing person announcements that followed.
'I Was Angry, But I'm Not Anymore'
Who was Anna Jaunzemis? According to the Riga archives, she was born into a blue-collar family in Riga and had eight siblings. She worked as a maid and lived at 23 different addresses. She had been charged with theft, her first husband had died in Russia, and her second husband, whose name was Rauze, left her when she was 33 and childless. She left Latvia on Oct. 7, 1944, went to Magdeburg and then to Brussels.
Jaunzemis points to another picture, a portrait of himself as a little boy. It was also in the brown envelope. When he saw the photo, it was the first time he could see what he had looked like as a child. "I never knew," says George.
Does he still think of Anna?
"I try not to."
Is he angry with her?
"I was angry, but I'm not anymore." Anna also had her good sides, he says quietly, almost as if he were afraid the words would no longer fit into his story. Anna also helped others, he says. She once gave a group of Hungarian refugees 100 pounds for furniture and wallpaper.
And his biological mother, Gertrud?
"She died two years ago."
'You Look Like Your Sister'
When the brown envelope arrived in Riga, after he had been searching for 32 years, Jaunzemis immediately called a number in Germany that was in the envelope, a number with the Berlin area code 030. The man who answered the phone was Klaus-Dieter Winkler, from the Treptow-Köpenick neighborhood. He was a member of the family. He told Jaunzemis that there were 10 other family members, most of them living in Magdeburg. A few days later, George and Vija boarded a bus for the 20-hour journey to Magdeburg.
And there they were, standing behind a rustic fence on a small street in Magdeburg, men in ironed shirts and women in blouses, waving to him.
"You look like your sister," Klaus-Dieter said to George. "You hold your hands across your stomach the way she did."
It was the first time that someone had told him he had an older sister, whose name was Gerda. The mother, Gertrud, had left Gerda behind with her grandmother in Magdeburg when she and Albert left for Brussels with George in 1945. Whenever Gertrud came for a visit, which she did occasionally, Gerda asked her about her little brother, and the mother told her that she didn't know what had happened to him.
"I've often dreamed that I had a sister," says George. There are tears running down his cheeks. He never saw Gerda again, only in his dreams. She, too, died before they had a chance to meet -- four years earlier.
When the earthquake shook Japan, people explained afterwards that something they had always taken for granted, namely that the ground is solid, had disappeared in seconds. What if something like that happens in one's own house, one's own life? It made George Jaunzemis feel unsettled. He was happy on the patio and in the garden of that house in Magdeburg, but he was also fearful.
Klaus-Dieter, Gerda's son, was able to answer many of his questions, but not all.
It seems as if it's impossible to answer all the questions, as if every story contains remnants that demand yet another story. The true story that a person wants to tell is not an object. It can't be processed with a checklist and then described.
Why was Anna in Magdeburg and then in Brussels, just like Gertrud? Did they know each other? Why didn't Gertrud, who found out that her son was in New Zealand after submitting a missing person request to the Red Cross, bring him home? Was it because Albert, the stepfather, didn't like children?
Jaunzemis has also tried to answer these questions. He tried to speak with his stepfather, but Albert, who had had a stroke and could hardly speak anymore, wasn't interested. He merely sent Jaunzemis a message saying that he was sorry, but nothing more. Albert died last summer.
His Real Name
Jaunzemis has spent a long time -- 32 years -- searching for his real story. He was finally convinced that he had found it, in an envelope in his mailbox filled with dates and the names of people and places. They were overwhelming at first, and they answered many questions that had been on his mind for a long time.
Does this mean that he now knows who he is?
George Jaunzemis found his future while he was searching for his past. He searched for dates and information and found Vija, and because of her, he now knows who he is: Vija's husband. And even though they continue to search in the archives, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, George with his glasses and Vija with a magnifying glass, they knew that a person's real story isn't based solely on his origins.
Jaunzemis pulls the last piece of paper from the brown envelope. It told him, for the first time, what his real name is. He reads from the document: "I was born Peter Thomas, on October 28, 1941, in Ottersleben near Magdeburg. That's what it says in my passport."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: Search for Identity Reveals World War II Crime
- Part 2: In the Wrong Life
- Part 3: Sent to an Institution
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