BY MARINA DUTZMANN KIRSCH
Click here to read Flight of Remembrance excerpt.
Rolf Dutzmann Lilo Wassull Ernst Dutzmann Gertrud Wassull
A Boy with Vision
As the Flight of Remembrance story opens, the author's father, Rolf is a Latvian aeronautical engineering student at the University of Riga. In October of 1939, just two months after commencing his university studies, he receives a phone call that will completely alter the course of his life and send his plans for the future into a tailspin.
Born in 1919 in the Rhineland to a German mother and a Latvian father, Rolf was only two years old in 1921 when the family returned to Latvia, the place where his father Ernst had been born and raised. It was in the brief interlude of relative peace and tranquility in Latvia between the two World Wars that Rolf grew up. His passion for aeronautical engineering began to emerge when he was about ten years old. With the history of flight itself still in its infancy, he was inspired to build a succession of prize-winning model gliders, then a full-sized glider and finally to begin working on a full-sized, motorized plane.
But even though the tiny Baltic nation was his home, Rolf's future was not to be in Latvia, a country doomed to imminent destruction. The alternatives were daunting, but in the end the family chose the option that would save their lives—repatriation to Germany, a country under Hitler's thrall and already at war. It was a decision that came with its own peculiar risks and with a heavy price that no one could foresee, since the future would henceforth no longer be in their control, but rather at the command of Hitler and the Third Reich. The Flight of Remembrance story follows the family's movements at the behest of the Reich, from the northern Baltic coast of Germany to occupied Poland, to the Free City of Danzig (Gdansk), to Berlin. Once Rolf's university education was completed and he could no longer postpone the dreaded draft, the story follows the twists and turns of not only his, but also his father's military service sending them both ever deeper into the service of a violent and corrupt regime even as the Allied troops closed in on the borders of Germany.
The experience in Germany was a far cry from the career dream that Rolf had entertained since childhood, but it was in Germany that he would meet the love of his life—a woman by the name of Lilo...
Rolf, age five, with his mother, Maria, 1924
Rolf, age fifteen, with one of his model gliders, 1936
Rolf, age twenty, just prior to the flight from Latvia, 1939
Rolf in his Luftwaffe uniform, reading a Berlin newspaper, the Berliner Illustrierte, 1943
A Girl Who Dreams
Lilo, the author's mother, was born in 1921 Berlin into a family that suffered serious financial reversals between the World Wars and also during the Great Depression. The divorce of her parents' when Lilo was thirteen years old came as an additional bitter blow. Already during her formative years, Lilo noticed differences in the families around her, and despite her mother's warm affection and attention, as an only child, she often felt alone and vulnerable. From an early age, she decided what was most important to her in life and became determined to make her most cherished ideals a reality.
Unlike Rolf, Lilo grew up in Germany and experienced many of the changes wrought by the Nazi regime, even though she did not understand all of what was going on. But by the time Lilo was thirteen years old, she already began to see the first sinister signs of what was coming to pass under Adolf Hitler.
Before and during the war years, music brought much joy both to Lilo and to her mother, Gertrud, who had aspired to becoming an opera singer or concert soloist from a young age. Wherever she lived throughout her life, Lilo's mother taught voice and piano from home and also trained for her singing career. Life was always brighter, more hopeful and more beautiful when it wafted along on musical notes. Music even made the hardships of wartime more bearable.
Then one day Lilo attended a dance at the Olympic Stadium Cafe in Berlin where she met a man who would forever change the course of her life and her vision of the future. It was in December 1940 that an enchanting dream of love began, but very soon, a forbidding nightmare would unfold...
Lilo, age three, sitting near the family’s Kacheloffen(tile stove), 1924
Lilo posing at the photographer’s studio, 1931
Lilo, age nineteen, around the time of meeting Rolf, 1940
An Officer Under Three Regimes
By the time he was in his teens, Ernst had already developed a profound interest in electrical engineering, astronomy and chemistry. Shortly after graduating from engineering college in 1914, World War I broke out, and he enlisted in the Czarist Army. He was sent to officer's training school in Vilna, Lithuania, then to Moscow for assignment to the 19th Infantry Regiment of the Russian Army, then promptly dispatched to the front. When his unit became encircled by German troops near Sauliai, Lithuania in 1915, he was taken prisoner of war by Germany.
After his time in the POW camp was over, Ernst met and married Maria Bens, a woman from the Rhineland, and in 1919, their son, Rolf, was born. Two years later, they returned to Latvia, by this time an independent republic, where the family spent the brief window of peace between the two world wars. During his long and eventful military career, Ernst served as a military officer under three different regimes—the Czarist Russian regime in World War I, the independent Latvian Republic between the two World Wars, and, although he refused to join the Nazi Party or the SS, the Nazi German regime during World War II.
The most controversial phase of Ernst's work began in the fall of 1942 when he was assigned to train under Wernher von Braun at Peenemünde to carry out V-2 rocket inspection. In early 1944, he was sent to the top secret underground installation of Mittelwerk to oversee inspection of the V-2 rockets produced there. The facts of his work and activities there continue to be a mystery that the author began to unravel during the writing of the book, piecing together Ernst's story via a family history written by her parents, photos and documents in the family archives, books and articles in which Ernst is mentioned, and transcripts of his statements after the war.
There are two things that stand out in the author's memory about her grandfather: his wide-ranging intellect that was always ready to explore unconventional subjects and, despite the fact that he rarely smiled in photos, his sparkling sense of humor.
Ernst, age twenty, as Czarist Army lieutenant, 1915
Ernst as Latvian army officer with daughter, Ruth, 1924
Ernst as Wehrmacht major, Peenemünde, 1943
On Wings of Song
Unconventional and bold, with a fiery, outgoing personality and an extraordinary, lyric coloratura soprano voice, Gertrud, the maternal grandmother of the author, was a talented, adventurous and determined woman who could accomplish virtually anything to which she set her mind. From a young age, she had lived to sing, undergoing voice training in Poland starting in her early teens. After tragically losing her mother at age sixteen, surviving first the hardships of World War I and then an incompatible marriage, it seemed that the worst times of Gertrud's life might be behind her, but that was before World War II broke out. The advent of yet another war threatened to permanently shatter her most cherished dreams including the further development of her voice and the establishment of a singing career.
Even her passion for singing, however, could not rival the love that Gertrud felt for her only child, Lilo. For her daughter's wellbeing and happiness she would risk almost anything, even undertaking a series of dangerous journeys. All of this, she would do with an exuberant sense of adventure that bordered on reckless abandon and with an unquenchable joy and enthusiasm that remained her trademark throughout life.
Gertrud, left, age 11, with father, Carl Röhrich, and one of her four younger sisters
Gertrud with Lilo, age two, in Berlin, 1923
Kirschstone Books • Kensington, New Hampshire • 978-270-3523 •