Resting Place of Anton Sviridenko
Copyright 2018 by Diane Martin
this account of a rather unorthodox trip, my young Russian friend and
I, in loco maternis, journey to discover the site of his
war grave in Germany to fulfill a promise to his grandmother. We find
that in war, as in other traumatic
disruptions, nothing is straightforward.
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.
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.
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.
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 fraternization 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.
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.
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.
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 at
www.herne.de/kommunen/herne/ttw.nsf/id/DE_KriegsgraeberinHerne. Just a few days before we set off, I e-mailed the
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.
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 center and then, failing that, a rewarding dinner. It was
as though the Herners were holed up snugly against the driving rain.
Instead, 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 still
open at the shocking hour of 10:30 pm.
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, we two soaked companions “checked
in” to the eerie hostelry by means of a credit card
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,
installed at intervals with startling motion-activated lights, past a
dimly visible reception desk boasting a sign promising to be manned
by humans the following morning. Nary a soul did we encounter.
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.
foreshadowing, the cemetery was not easy to find in the continuing
rain next morning. After nearly an hour of driving around the same
neighborhood, 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.
newspaper clipping from the 1990’s calling attention to the
Soviet section of the cemetery gave rise to hope, posted under glass
at the entrance of an alcove of old-fashioned gravestones, 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
SWEREDENKO ANTON, 1900-1943. Or thereabouts.
strolling back along an asphalt path cutting through mature, peaceful
trees in among 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.
rain washed away what was left of dirty, gray, snow banks as we
inched toward Berlin.
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
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
outgrown its initial pot, the acorn is becoming an oak, presenting
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.
long ago, Vera Antonovna joined her husband in their final resting
essay was first published in New
London Writers in
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Storylist and biography of Diane
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