This is a story which must have been repeated many times in Nazi Germany, German men married to Jewish women and the anxiety and fear they must have gone through, However there is also a uniqueness to the Machemer’s family situation. And in a bizarre way this is also directly connected to me.
Helmut Machemer was a German ophthalmologist who served as “Truppenarzt” with the rank of “Unterarzt”, corresponding to the rank of sergeant with the wehrmacht in the USSR.
He worked with Professor Aurel von Szily in Münster during the 1930s and, with him, pioneered an electrical treatment for retinal detachment, to form a chorioretinal scar , that’s where my connection comes in. The retina in both my eye had become detached, one eye could not be saved.
Machemer dated Erna Schwalbe, who studied medicine at the university of Kiel.
In 1932 Erna found out her mother was Jewish. The couple were aware that this could become an issue due to the rise of the Nazi Party. Erna’s father wrote her a letter which confirmed her mother’s ancestry, which he had tried to keep hidden. Erna immediately offered to separate from Machemer, but he refused to do so on the grounds that he loved her. They married in October 1932. Erna’s mother divorced her father and moved to the Netherlands the following year, after the Nazis came to power.
The couple had 3 children. When the war broke out in 1939,Machemer decided to volunteer. He knew that due to his age he would not be drafted. He was born on May 7,1903 so he was 36 at the start of the war. Now one might think it odd that he volunteered. He could have stayed at home with his wife and children, but because of the Nuremberg laws he knew that his half Jewish wife and quarter Jewish children would not be safe.
He therefore volunteered in an attempt to make use of a little-known exception in the Nazi racial laws: that the “non-Aryan” family of an Aryan could be classified as being of “German blood”, if the man made a significant contribution to the Nazi state. Machemer became convinced that if he was awarded the Iron Cross, first class for bravery on the battlefield then he could secure the reclassification of his family.
Machemer served during the 1940 invasion of France and the 1941 invasion of Russia, in which he served as an Unterarzt (medical officer aspirant) of the reconnaissance unit of the 16th Panzer Division.
For his part in the latter operation he was awarded the second class Iron Cross. At one point he worked in a captured Soviet hospital, operating on captured Russian soldiers.
Whilst in action Machemer was shot in the neck, but after checking it was not serious, returned to duty treating soldiers who had been shot through the lungs.
He noted this in a letter home to his wife and Erna’s reply was that he “shouldn’t consciously put yourself in danger again, it seems to me like a challenge to fate”. Helmut also wrote to Erna of his concern that he might be withdrawn from the front line and placed in a field hospital where he would be unlikely to be recommended for a bravery award.
In a letter dated December 12,1941 he wrote:
“My place is at the front here, and the front line, which suits me perfectly. Therefore do not think that I am reckless and put myself in unnecessary danger”
To his 3 sons he writes:
“Daddy is not yet allowed to leave here, because not all Russians have been shot dead or captured yet. But it won’t be long now.”
He was also a enthusiastic photographer and took many pictures on the battlefield and even filmed it. Some of his film footage can be see in the BBC documentary “Lost Home Movies of Nazi Germany” especially in the 2nd part.
He describes the horrors of the battlefield.
“An unforgettable picture presents itself here. The whole height is thickly covered with dead Russians. I count around 200 corpses, and there could be more than that. The Russian came here in numerous waves throughout the night, but each new wave was mowed down like the previous one. (…) Such a harvest of death, said an experienced tank commander, he had never seen in France or Russia during the entire war. This is the picture of the Russian war with its unheard of cruelty.”
On May 14,1942 he receives his coveted Iron Cross. He hopes that this will reclassify his wife and kids as of ‘German Blood’. He tells his wife:
“Since I also receive the wounded badge in addition to the EK II and I as well as the assault badge, I now have all the medals and badges that can be bestowed to me.” He also records that he celebrated this decision with sparkling wine and, the next day had a hangover.
Four days after receiving the Iron Cross ,Machener was killed at mid-day , while on a trip to screen the battlefield for wounded soldiers. He was hit in head by shrapnel from a grenade during the Second Battle of Kharkov. He was travelling in a car at the time, his companion was heavily wounded, but survived.
Machemer, who was 39 when he died, in his final diary entry of 18 May he says that he had slept well and was awaiting orders. In March 1943 Erna and her children were granted “German-blood” status, in what is believed to be the only known case of such an exemption.
As a scientist, he wished to document his and his company’s way through wartime. His partly critical writings would have been unacceptable for promotion by the Nazi party and may have placed him at risk of arrest and he would not have been able to accomplish his mission. His collection included more than 160 letters, 2,000 photographs and five hours of film footage.Some of the records included depictions of dead German soldiers, dead civilians, burnt houses and dead horses. The majority of Machemer’s reports and private letters were sent via “Feldpost” through the postal service.
Machener did not go to war for hate, but for love. Undoubtedly he will have killed too, but as the saying goes ‘All is fair in love and war’ He was a husband and a father whose only aim was to safe his family.
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