Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Dr. Josef Halfter passed away this month at age 88 in Berlin, Germany. He was my second cousin twice-removed, and a man I would not have known if not for his own efforts. My great-grandfather, Julius Halfter, came to America in 1909 with his family, but the other Halfters remained in Europe. The families eventually lost contact and even awareness of each other. "Dr. Josef", as our family came to refer to him, sought out the American Halfters, eventually locating my great-uncle Erich. This phone call led to an eventual visit by Dr. Josef and one of his daughters, Gisela, and a subsequent visit by the two with Gisela's husband, Matthias, at our family Thanksgiving.
Dr. Josef had researched the Halfter family tree, all the way back to the birth of my great-great-great-great grandfather, Ignatz Franz Xavier Halfter in 1776. It seemed fitting, then, that on my own genealogical pilgrimage to Germany that I would visit him in Berlin. I stayed with Dr. Josef and his wife, Ilse, in their home in Frohnau, a suburb of Berlin. We did touristy things, like a bus tour of Berlin and a philharmonic concert. We ate at a Chinese restaurant, and at a French restaurant where his meal seemed to be a deep dish of cooked asparagus covered in cheese. We also had dinner with Gisela's family, and I noticed that everyone was referring to him as "Tee-ger". I quickly learned they were calling him "Tigger". It was a term of affection from Gisela's childhood, where she and her sister were Pooh and Piglet (if I remember correctly) and Ilse was Owl. My favorite activity was the two evenings that Josef and I spent just talking at the dining room table, drinking sparkling wine and eating Crunchips, passing the German-English dictionary back and forth. It was then that he told me some of his life story...
Josef was born in Poland, but in an area that had been part of Germany when his father, Johann, was born, so the Halfters all retained German citizenship. The exemption for their German citizenship was to expire in 1936, when they would have to choose between becoming Polish citizens or emigrate to Germany. They chose the latter in 1935, which presented another problem. Johann Halfter ran five large greenhouses, which he had modernized with an automated sprinkler system. He couldn't get a good price for his business, because everyone knew he had to sell. Good fortune came when the ground cracked open and the business flooded. A nearby coal mine had dug under their land. The coal company agreed to buy the land for so good a price that Johann bought two houses in Berlin.
Josef was drafted into the German army in 1941 at age 20. He originally worked as ground personnel for the Luftwaffe. When it was discovered that he also knew Polish and English, he was sent to the French coast. Polish pilots who had escaped the German invasion were now flying for the R.A.F. in separate Polish squadrons, such as the celebrated No. 303. Josef's job was to intercept the Polish pilots speaking with the ground (sorry, R.A.F.!) He then went to Paris for 14 months duty with the health service. This was his best duty of the war, far from any fighting.
Six days before D-Day he was sent east to the infantry to serve in Vlasov's army. General Andrei Vlasov (pictured at left) was a Russian general who had been defeated and captured by the Germans. In prison he asserted his position as an anti-Stalinist and collaborated with the Nazis to create a Russian Liberation Army, which was comprised of Russian and German soldiers.
My details are sketchy as to when he left Vlasov. He told me he was in Dresden for the bombing, which was in February 1945. Then he was sent back to France where he was soon captured by the U.S. 11th Armored Division. He was discharged in June 1945. Discharged German soldiers were normally sent home, and Josef's I.D. listed his home as Berlin. He did not want to return at that point because Berlin was under Russian control and he heard rumors that Germans who had fought Russia were being sent to Siberia upon reaching Berlin. Josef convinced the authorities to let him go to his sister's in western Germany. He later moved to West Berlin after it had been divided into sectors by the Allies.
I'm kicking myself for not asking him about the Berlin Airlift, the Berlin Wall, etc. Now it's too late. I will miss this kind, generous man and fellow genealogist. Rest in peace, Tigger.