I’ve been curious about this Erich Koch who was the top Nazi in East Prussia during my mom’s time there. Who was he and what is a Gauleiter?
The word Gau means area and leiter means leader. It's not been used since the Nazi defeat, except in a derogatory way. In the Nazi hierarchy there was the one and only Führer, and one level lower were the 16 Reichsleiter (later, 22), and then the third highest tier were the Gauleiters of the various districts throughout the Third Reich. In East Prussia, aka Ostpreußen, it was Gauleiter Erich Koch.
A career-Nazi (born in 1896), Koch joined the Nazi party in 1922 and become East Prussian Gauleiter in 1928. He whole-heartedly endorsed the master race theory, later promoted to Reichsleiter of Ukraine and known for his brutality.
|Erich Koch at his trial in Poland in1958
As the war was ending, East Prussian civilians were finally permitted to flee via Operation Hannibal on January 23, 1945. Koch's faith in the master race had faded and he didn’t wait around either. A ship waited for him in the Pillau harbour (avoiding the chaos of the masses) and he headed to Flensburg (close to my dad’s home turf) in Schleswig-Holstein. Koch’s plan had been to follow other top Nazis to South America.
Captured in Hamburg in 1949, he was tried in Warsaw and imprisoned in Barczewo, Poland (former Wartenburg, East Prussia). Spared a death sentence because the Soviets thought he might know what happened to the Amber Room, he died at age 90. Like my grandfather and my grandmother, and several of my uncles—and like Hitler himself—Koch was buried in an unmarked grave. During this month of remembering, when graves and memorial sites are visited and bedecked with flowers, it’s poignant to think that the perpetrators of war and so many of its victims lie in unmarked graves.
But then who needs a grave to be remembered? Seems rather unnecessary. The whole idea of what to do with a person’s body after its life has left seems irrelevant to the actual memory of what that person meant to the living. I’m reading the 2021 Booker prize winning book, In Memory of Memory, right now and perusing the idea of how to remember the past. A fascinating read.
Maria Stepanova's quote from Bertolt Brecht seems appropriate here. “And you see only those who stand in the light while those in the darkness nobody can see.”