On the rare occasion, I drive cross-country to the city of Pécs, I pass through the village of Böhönye. On the edge of the town sits a cemetery that screams military. The sameness of the markers, the precision with which they’re placed, and the notable lack of flowers all say that soldiers, foreign soldiers, lie there. Curiosity got the better of me this last trip and I had to stop and see.
Walking through the wooden side-gate, unlatched by removing a leather hoop, the first words to catch my eye were Deutscher Soldat (German soldier). Each marker bears four names, two on the front and two on the back. They were all incredibly young. Too young. All 2040 of them. Just four had flowers. The rest stood naked, waiting perhaps, to be found.
This part of the world saw a lot of action in WWII, as one of the main defences of the Germans in the Carpathian Basin, the Margaret Line, stretched from Lake Balaton to the Drava. The Red Army broke through it after four months of fighting, leaving thousands dead.
The German version of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, maintains German military graves and graveyards in Hungary.
Since 1991, the Volksbund has repaired or reconstructed 331 Second World War cemeteries and 188 burial grounds from the First World War in Eastern, Central and South-East Europe. A total of 954,146 war casualties have been reinterred in 83 war cemeteries.
This one is one of five; the other four can be found at Budaörs, Debrecen. Sopron, and Veszprém. The VDK looks after more than 830 war gravesites in 46 countries with about 2.8 million war dead. From what I gather, they also work to exhume bodies from out of the way places and transfer them to one of the central sites in Hungary. The one at Böhönye was consecrated in 1993.
Interestingly, some of the mass graves discovered contained both German and Hungarian dead. Impossible to separate the remains, the Hungarian soldiers take up a small section of this cemetery, to the right as you approach from the main entrance.
In 2009 and again in 2015, soldiers from both countries came together to renovate the cemetery, paint the buildings and repaint all the names on all the markers. VDK is a huge organisation with thousands of volunteers who willingly give their time to make sure their dead are tended and cared for.
The one that caught my eye was the only one with a photo. Twenty-two-year-old Corporal Max Baumgartner. From what I can find, Max’s family are buried in Aidenbach, Passau, Bayern, Germany. His father died in 1965, his brother Franz in 1999. His mother in 1980. His brother perhaps visited and left the photo. What must that have been like? To visit the grave of a younger brother, killed in action so many years ago. I can’t begin to imagine.
Sergeant Adolf Schmidt’s wife Charlotte died in 1999 and is buried in Scharbeutz. Her marker also gives her husband’s name and life dates. I wonder if she came to visit, too. I could find Corporal Anton Klotz included in a memorial list in Bad Radkersburg cemetery in Austria. Same date of death but a different birthday. 6 February not 4 October. But what are the chances of two guys with the same name dying on the same day – even if different ranks?
Three hundred of the First Mountain Division (Gebirgsjagd division), which, as near as I can tell
… invaded Hungary in March 1944. From May to July 1944 the division was deployed again in Yugoslavia and in August 1944 it was relocated to the Nisch area. Defensive battles followed on the border with Bulgaria and, from March 1945, defensive battles between the Drava and Danube and at Lake Balaton.
The list of war crimes committed by the Gebirgsjagd in Greece makes for sombre reading. Were some of those in Greece in 1943 also in Hungary in 1944 and 1945? I wondered. I reread the VDK website:
The Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge commemorates the dead of both world wars and the victims of tyranny. This database, which is connected with the function of a graves list, has purely documentary character. We know that inconceivable crimes were committed by German politics and warfare, especially during the Second World War. The victims of war and tyranny deserve sympathy and remembrance. The death of every human being in war is a reminder for peace. The dead who have incurred guilt also have the right to a grave. Therefore we document here the names of all German war dead. The German War Graves Commission works for reconciliation and understanding and is committed to a united Europe.
The dead who have incurred guilt also have the right to a grave.
This is something I’ll be mulling over for a while. As always, cemeteries are places where lessons can be learned.