Sometimes, a chronic medical condition can save your life.
It is February 15, 1916. My maternal grandfather, Max Kronenberg, age 21, is heading to the Russian Front aboard a train with fellow German soldiers, destination unknown.
He has been assigned to a unit responsible for field communications, stringing telephone lines and monitoring messages between command posts and troops in the trenches. “Who knows whether that’s good or bad,” he writes to his parents, back in Berlin. “I did not make a special effort for it but don’t want to change it either. . . .”
I am sitting in bed late Saturday night, a huge black binder on my lap, reading my mother’s translation of Max’s wartime correspondence. This and other binders of family memorabilia have been collecting dust for more than a decade on the bottom shelf of our bedroom bookcase.
The collection is just one of those things I’ve always meant to read, but never gotten around to until a few months ago, when I was contacted by faculty of the Technische Universität Berlin who are writing my grandfather’s biography. A professor at the TU until he lost his job when Hitler came to power, my grandfather wrote seminal texts for the field of machining science, a precise engineering specialty. I’ve sent a photo and some family stories to help with the book. Now I’m digging deeper to learn about this man who was responsible for enabling my grandmother and mother to leave Germany in 1936, before it was too late for Jews to escape.
Ten days later, February 25. Max’s train departs from Vietz, carriages and guns decorated with pine branches and flags. He is an artilleryman in the Bavarian Cavalry Division of the 824th Field Artillery Battalion, 10th Army of the German Empire. Food is plentiful, the compartments comfortable—they travel on an express train where each soldier has a bench to himself and two blankets. “Could you obtain two cat pelts for me?” he writes. “They are supposed to be the best prevention for cold feet. Our tailor makes slippers to measure.”
Comforts are fleeting, bravado short-lived. Traveling by train through Poland, then on foot, the battalion marches over many kilometers of deep snow and ice to their position, 8 km from the front. Max’s unit is stationed near Lake Narach, in present-day Belarus.
Food grows scarce. As snow melts, the ground turns to mud. The Russians, prompted by French allies who want to deflect German forces from Verdun, agree to launch an offensive against the Germans in the Lakes region. The Russian artillery bombardment lasts two days, but then they make the mistake of crossing no-man’s land between trenches in groups and are massacred by German machine gunners.
“It was worst on March 18/19,” writes Max. “Today it is rather quiet again. . . . Three days ago . . . one could hear an 18 hour bombardment from there. It should be over soon. In the first place they are getting their heads bloodied, and secondly, it is thawing now and therefore difficulties in transporting grow to undesirable proportions.”
He writes as he tries to dry out his soaking clothes before a smoky oven, after falling hip-deep in a water-filled ditch, en route to setting up new telephone poles: “Could you send me some canned vegetables? The only packages that arrive quickly are those weighing 1 lb. But you make several small packages. One depends on these packages. I don’t manage very well with the rye bread because I am always extremely hungry.” My mother adds a translator’s note: “extremely was crossed out and ‘very’ substituted.”
There is no great love of country or the German cause in these letters. He is a resolute soldier on the wrong side of history, doing his duty. Mostly, Max writes about the daily grind of army life and asks about the packages his mother sends, filled with chocolate, sausages, pies, cigarettes, butter, even raw eggs, that arrive too far apart, often with goodies missing.
In turn, my great grandmother Ella frets about not hearing from him for weeks at a time. His account of his fall into the ditch frightens her when the letter finally arrives. Max’s younger brother, Walter, has also been conscripted and not heard from for weeks. “Nothing much is happening here, it is so terribly quiet at home as you can imagine, the two of you so far, sometimes I feel so wretched and no prospect of peace according to the last speech of the Reich Chancellor,” she writes. “Write immediately and daily you know how I/we wait for news. How is your heart?”
This is the first mention of Max’s heart problem. As the months grow longer and conditions harder, he describes palpitations, although his telephone unit remains a safe distance behind the riflemen’s trenches. Sometime during the spring, he sends a note:
“So that you won’t get a shock when you see battery 824 mentioned in the casualty lists. Our half battery stationed farther south than we are incurred some casualties the other day. One dead and three injured. The guys were in high spirits and were showing off within site of the enemy. An artillery salvo found its target. Too bad about the guy who was killed, he was nice. The others were slightly wounded. So, no reason to fear.”
Long, tedious days are spent cutting trees for log roads to enable troop movements over soggy ground. Every evening, the soldiers hope for letters and packages from home to supplement their meagre rations, share photos of loved ones that arrive in the mail and debate the war’s end. Max receives an occasional newspaper.
“Then comes always the question: Kronenberg, is there nothing about peace in the paper?” he writes in late April. “The smallest phrase is analyzed, debated. Then there are long debates about peace, each one says something whether optimist or pessimist. The most important question is the order in which troops might be discharged.”
On April 28, he writes of a close call. While stringing more telephone wires, Max and a few comrades cross an open field and hear some artillery fire. At first they don’t realize they are the targets, but then “we hear shrapnel balls striking into the field about 50 m in front of us. We used the interval between loading to run to the log cabin approximately 200 m away.”
After an hour’s wait, the men go back to retrieve the roll of wire and attract more enemy fire. “There is a tree shortly before the cabin and I wanted to throw the wire across it—yea—that’s a laugh—an asshole (excuse me) of a Siberian sharpshooter shot at me about 2 m above my head. At that I removed myself. No one is going to hit me.”
Following this episode, which terrifies his parents, Max’s letters become more crisp, annoyed, bitter. He spends long days in the trenches, manning the telephone. He anxiously awaits packages from home. On May 9 he writes, “Today I feel miserable again especially because the lice are plaguing me terribly. If only this thing would come to an end—or that I would be promoted. As a NCO life is better, that’s the deciding point in the matter of promotion. I hope I will get leave soon. My heart isn’t doing too well, either, but it’s useless to go on sick call here.”
A week later, he chides his parents about their concerns: “If you are going to get so upset about 3 errant bullets then I won’t write anything about the war anymore. There’s no point to it! Being here in the East is simply life insurance against Verdun. It’s completely quiet here right now, since our lines are intact and I don’t go past them anymore and reckless I am not. But perhaps I will soon be transferred from the battery. There’s supposed to be a new artillery company being formed and they’re looking for student and graduate engineers from the Institute of Technology. If the battery would let me go, I’d be in fine shape.”
Soon, Max gains permission to apply to the new unit. After three days in the trenches, he returns to quarters and is ecstatic to receive letters and three packages from home, including zweiback, clean underwear, canned goods, hard candy, sugar, peppermint, sausage and a tin of herrings, as well as 20 marks to pay for supplies at the overpriced canteen.
He asks for soap and a copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason to be sent, as well as some math textbooks from home. “Send the books as quickly as possible because when I have telephone watch at night from 12 to 4 I have a lot of time to read. Otherwise I feel pretty well. My heart acts up a bit, quite frequently, especially when I walk a lot, but there is no use going on sick call here.”
In June comes a promotion to Lance Corporal. His application is accepted to the new unit, a Sound Measurement Troop that monitors enemy positions. He longs for socks from home. His new unit is quartered far back from the front. “Today a personal miracle occurred,” he writes sardonically on June 22. “After a rest cure of 4 months in the Russian forests, meadows and fields I took a shower and deloused myself and my ‘rags.’ The bath house and delousing station were donated by a national association of pious maiden ladies from Silesia—I think—as a gift of love (pardon the crude soldier’s joke) . . . .that’s where I discovered what I looked like under all the dirt.”
More trees are felled as Observer Post 3 builds new quarters. Other than mosquitos, Max enjoys his forays into the forests. “The trees are gigantic and give wonderful shade. The birds don’t think about the war and I don’t either. . . . A little brook flanked by tall shade trees gurgles peacefully. Unfortunately the peace is disturbed by the boom boom of the anti aircraft batteries shooting at airplanes. One can’t see them but hears their buzzing. Little white cloud dots of shrapnel mark their path.”
Weeks pass. By the banks of the Svilka, Max celebrates his 22nd birthday with his comrades on July 8 with three bottles of Bordeaux purchased at the canteen and cigarettes. The unit of engineers builds a sturdy cabin for shelter that is the envy of other troops. He takes shifts monitoring sounds of enemy artillery from a booth hidden in the forest. Compared to the trenches, the daily routine is more relaxing. But stress never lifts. “Sometimes one is happy, sometimes one is wrapped in depression,” he writes to his preteen sister, Tutti, “because as nice as it sounds it’s different at home, to be in Germany is something completely different and to be a civilian!”
To his mother, as the summer heat intensifies, he writes: “I can’t exactly aver that I am on summer vacation. I am left with pretty severe rheumatism from the winter and frequently become aware of my heart in this heat. When there is a sudden rain storm, it’s the well know soldier’s complaint: Kidney pains. Now you must not think that I’m a walking corpse. Washed out, yes. But the others aren’t any better off.”
There are 12-hour rotations in the hidden booth, where the soldiers take turns at 4-hour shifts, watching and listening for enemy activity. If anything happens, “the measuring starts.” They nap when action quiets. Each rotation is followed by a 24-hour respite. Then, on August 7, at 11:00 p.m., the unit is roused with shouts. Quickly they pack up and begin a long trek by foot, truck and train to the southwest, by Max’s compass. As they travel across the Russian border into Austria-Hungary, they are passed by an express train headed to Vienna. “Strange sight. Women who look elegant and clean observe this military swarm with curiosity,” Max writes his parents.
Once in Austria, they head east, again, still with no information about their destination, and stop at a town he identifies as S. “We meet train after train with wounded, munitions trains, military personnel trains are back and forth. We await new orders in S. It takes a long time and we help load the many wounded on trains. A terrible picture: Moaning, sighing, wild hallucinations, smell of blood and carbolic acid and in between the trucks bringing more wounded.”
They move on, to be stationed in Galicia. Food is in ample supply. Meat every night, potatoes, vegetables harvested from the gardens left behind by former inhabitants who fled from the invading forces. The unit settles into new quarters—a former pig sty with a straw roof and walls. ”I am fine, just very homesick,” Max writes.
On a late night, 8 km trip on August 29 with a comrade to fetch mail from the army post office, Max gets drenched in a downpour and falls in the puddled streets, soaking through all his clothes. They bring the heavy load of mail and packages back to their new observer post in an oak forest. Rain pours through cracks in the structure. He finds a bottle of cognac in a package from home.
“In two gulps it is half empty! Did that feel good!” he writes. “Huddled in a wet blanket and sitting on the backpack while it continues to pour without pause to accompaniment of infantry fire. Sleep is a figment of one’s imagination. Another swig of cognac! I am curious whether I caught cold. Up to now I just noticed increased heart activity.”
Two weeks later, he is transferred to a field hospital “for heart and nervous disorders.” By winter, he has returned to Berlin, working with factory administration, back where he had been before the war.
So ends my grandfather’s World War I odyssey. Max lost most of his hair during his tour of duty. When my grandparents would visit us as children, my sister and I used to love standing behind him as he sat in a chair and dance our fingers atop his very bald pate. He would pretend we were flies and swat his head with a newspaper, to our delighted giggles.
But I did not know him well. A modest, remote, serious man, he never shared all that he had experienced in the war or during the years after Hitler came to power. We never discussed what it took for him to leave his homeland, come to the United States and save many family members in the process—though not his parents, who refused to leave Germany and died in Theresienstadt.
If it weren’t for his heart problems, Max Kronenberg may never have made it back from the Eastern Front and on to become a path-breaking mechanical engineer, who, among other accomplishments, consulted to the U.S. Secretary of War during World War II and the United Nations. If it weren’t for his courageous heart, I would never have existed. May his memory be for a blessing.
Image Notes: The top photo was taken of Max in 1914. I believe he is wearing the uniform of his student fraternity, since he was not conscripted until 1916. The bottom photo is of my grandfather as I remember him. This was taken at a professional conference or an awards ceremony when he was in his 70s, to the best of my recollection. Some of his professional papers are housed in the Smithsonian Institution.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.