Yesterday, Herr Josef Reiser, one of the last Veterans of the Wehrmachts 1st Infantry Division, joined the ranks of the Great Army. A kind man, full of humor whom I contacted and met in 2006, after finding his address in one of 1st IDs veterans magazines (“Ostpreussische Kameraden”).
He joined the Wehrmacht as a volunteer in 1941, being transferred to join the ranks of Infanterie-Regiment 22 (later to become Fusilier-Regiment 22) which fought as part of 1. Infanterie-Division in the Northern Sector of the Eastern Front. After receiving his last wound in 1944, he got transferred to Grenadier-Regiment 1 which was also part of same Division.
In June,1941, the 1.Infanterie-Divison invaded Russia as part of Heeresgruppe Nord, and was heavily engaged during the drive on Leningrad. While suffering very heavy losses in the first campaigns of 1941, it would remain as part of 1.Armeekorps, a staple of the Leningrad fighting, taking part in the battles of Lake Peipus and Lake Ladoga, until October 1943 when it was seconded to Heeresgruppe Süd as part of XXXXVIII.Panzer-Korps. Here the Division saw heavy action in the battle of Krivoi Rog in the Dnieper campaign, and was later encircled with 1.Panzer-Armee between the Bug and the Dnestr rivers in March 1944. The Division managed to breakout as rear-guard of XLVI.Panzer Corps, suffering heavy casualties.
Rested and refitted, the Division was next sent to the Central sector of Heeresgruppe Mitte. Escaping piecemeal from the overwhelming Soviet Summer 1944 offensive, but still relatively intact, it remained with what was left of Heeresgruppe Mitte, later ending the war in early 1945 fighting in its native East Prussia.
He managed to survive the war and three wounds, one of them inflicted by a Soviet Sniper’s bullet. By 1945 he had been promoted to the rank of Unteroffizier, held both the Iron Cross 1st and 2nd Class and the Infantry-Assault Badge in silver . In May 1945 he was taken prisoner by the Soviets and was released from captivity in 1953.
When I first visited him in his house and while his daughter prepared cake and coffee for us he led me up to the attic where he showed me some of his remaining medals and photographs which he held in a little wooden box. Surprisingly this box also held a small, ragged and quite ugly Teddy Bear.
When I asked him about it, Josef smiled, and told me that this Bear, whose name was “Fredo”, had been his Talisman and lucky charm during the War. He had played with it as a child and took it with him on campaign in 1941. He told me that most of his comrades had some kind of Talisman with them. Some had old coins, some a cross or a rosary, most had photographs of their wives, sweethearts or children and Josef carried a small Teddy bear. He said that it spent most of the time wrapped up inside a sock in his backpack. When not carrying a backpack he had the sock containing Fredo in one of his uniform pockets. When under fire or in dangerous situations he used to squeeze the sock and even in 2006 he was sure that Fredo had been responsible for his survival. When he was awarded the Iron Cross 1st Class in Summer 1944 he was sent home on leave. It was then when he fell in love with Hannelore, a female Luftwaffe auxiliary from Cologne who was later to become his wife.
When he returned to the front he left Fredo behind and took a photograph of her with him.
Today I visited Josefs family to offer my condolences and a while later his granddaughter, in a most moving gesture, asked me if I wanted to take care of Fredo as her Grandfather would certainly would have liked me to have it.
Fredo has seen 4 years of total war and that certainly shows. He has lost all of his hair, he is squashed and ugly, his seams have opened and his straw filling in sticking out in places, but he is by far the best and most valuable and unusual war memento I have ever owned and he will always make me think of Josef.
If anyone can tell me anything on the Bear itself I would be most grateful (age etc.).
Tonight I will raise a few glasses to Josef. May he rest in peace.