The Kiwi Who Was German: Search for Identity Reveals World War II Crime

March 18, 2012

Der Spiegel:

New Zealander George Jaunzemis spent 30 years searching for his true identity. Now, with the help of the International Tracing Service of the Red Cross, he finally knows who he is. But his story, which involves a World War II crime, turns up more questions than answers.

They were standing behind a rustic fence on a small street in the eastern German city of Magdeburg, men in ironed shirts and women in blouses, waving to George Jaunzemis as he got out of the car. He felt them touching his arms and slapping him on the back, and he heard their voices, which seemed nearby and distant at the same time. He looked around at these people he didn’t know, and yet many of them knew him.

They served traditional crumb cake on the patio behind the house. Jaunzemis ate some cake, answered questions and asked some of his own. He sat on the green artificial turf and held his glasses tightly in his hands. He looked around a second time. He didn’t recognize the house. But when he stood in the garden later on, surrounded by the fruit trees and with the wind blowing, he thought that perhaps he had been in this place once before.

He had spent half of his life without knowing where he came from, and without memories of his childhood days. In this garden in Magdeburg, some of it returned, but it was more like a distant, colorless memory, like something in a dream.

He says that he often had the feeling that something wasn’t right about the story that supposedly was his life. “I spent 32 years searching,” says Jaunzemis.

He had no birth certificate, no information — and no past. Then, in the 33rd year of his search, he received a brown envelope in the mail in Riga, Latvia, where he lives. It was the envelope that brought him to meet these people behind the rustic wooden fence.

The envelope is now lying in front of him on the coffee table in his apartment in Riga. Jaunzemis has entered the dates and places from the documents in the envelope into a timeline on graph paper: Riga, Magdeburg, Brussels, Munich, Christchurch. He wants to set things straight about his life.

The search is over, as is the desire to know. At 70, George Jaunzemis finally knows who he is.

A Story with a Beginning and End

Jaunzemis speaks quietly and slowly about his biography, occasionally glancing at the graph paper. He still has to practice his biography. He is an old man with round shoulders and soft, rosy skin. He is wearing a T-shirt with an image of colorful palm trees and the name of the city where he grew up: Christchurch, New Zealand. From New Zealand, he moved to Riga, where the winters are dark and last six months, and where the snow doesn’t melt until April. His wife Vija listens to him talk. He met her during the search for his life, and she is the reason he now lives in Latvia.

Vija Sarmite had responded to an ad Jaunzemis had placed in a Riga newspaper in 2000. The ad said that he was looking for someone who could help him find his family. “I am responding to your ad because I like archives,” Vija wrote.

Who am I? A person wants to know where he or she comes from, and who their mother, father and grandparents are. They want to be able to tell a complete story about themselves, with a beginning and an end. It’s an understandable human desire, especially in the confusing modern world in which relationships are often tentative.

People need exact place names and reliable numbers. They want answers to all their questions, believing that these answers will lead them to their true story. Who are my parents, and who are my siblings? What is unique about me? What is my identity?

Killed in the War

Jaunzemis had been searching for his real identity since his mother died in New Zealand in 1978. She was Latvian. She spoke very little about his father, except to say that he had been killed in the war, and that the rest of the family was also dead. There were times when he didn’t believe her.

“Mother: Anna Jaunzemis from Riga.”

“Father: Jaunzemis, officer, killed in the war.”

That was the information Jaunzemis provided to Vija Sarmite, his new assistant. She got to work in the Riga archives. First she began searching for his father. She found a man named Jaunzemis who seemed to match the description, a captain named Alexander. She found out where he was buried and wrote a second letter. Jaunzemis came to Riga, and he and Sarmite took flowers to the captain’s grave.

But according to the gravestone, the captain had died in Australia, which meant that he couldn’t be George’s father.

Jaunzemis stayed in Latvia for four more weeks. He helped Vija with the research, and sometimes they went for walks in the small park in front of the apartment building. Vija was in her early 60s and had been in an unhappy marriage for the last 30 years. She had three children, all grown and living on their own. George, a retiree from Christchurch, had been a flight sergeant and airplane mechanic with the Royal New Zealand Air Force, and now he was leading a quiet life in retirement. Once a week, he would treat himself to a meal of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, with ketchup and mayonnaise, which he would eat while walking.

In Riga, he went to the archive with Vija, and she invited him over to her apartment for coffee and chocolate cake. Finally, at the end of his Riga trip, she gave him a very personal letter and told him not to open it until he was in the plane. When the flight landed in New Zealand, he called Vija and told her that he was going to book a flight back to Latvia immediately. He sold his apartment in Christchurch, gave away his furniture, packed his records and some of his clothes, and went back to Riga to be with Vija. She got a divorce. And then they married…

Read it all.

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