French village divided as Nazi commander grandkids attend memorial for victims

  • People
  • Friday, 24 Nov 2023

Dominique Foinant, mayor of Pexonne, speaking during a memorial service for the victims of Aug 27, 1944. Photos: Philipp Von Ditfurth/dpa

When the grandchildren of a Nazi commander appeared at a commemoration ceremony for those who died in his raid on a French village, the descendants of his victims had mixed feelings.

The ceremony remembered the deportation of 112 villagers from Pexonne, in eastern France, in 1944, on the orders of SS captain Erich Otto Wenger.

Dozens of the deportees became forced labourers or died in German concentration camps.

Many of the French villagers had their doubts when Wenger's three grandchildren came to a ceremony marking the events of Aug 27, 1944.

They and French media watched closely as the grandchildren laid a wreath at the ceremony attended by 400 people. They did not give a speech.

"We are not coming to apologise, we are not guilty, but we can share the grief," Wegner's granddaughter Anne said ahead of the commemoration.

She said they wanted to make "a gesture, as discreet as possible".

Together with her sister and a cousin, the message they wanted to share was, "we share your pain and we are sorry", she said.

She was referring to the events of August 1944, as German soldiers regrouped in Nancy after Allied soldiers liberated Paris.

The Nazis were planning to stamp out the French Resistance in the Vosges mountains in the border region.

The armed forces of the Third Reich, the Gestapo and SS soldiers then looted and devastated numerous villages and towns in Lorraine, deporting thousands of people in a scorched earth operation cynically named "Waldfest" or "forest festival".

In total, 1,500 French civilians were killed and nearly 14,000 were deported and 7,500 buildings destroyed in the operation.

Under Wenger's command, Nazi forces moved into Pexonne and two neighbouring villages. They rounded up 109 men and three women. They released the youngest, shot nine and deported the others.

After a lengthy journey, 79 of the villagers reached Mauthausen concentration camp where they became forced labourers in armament factories nearby. Just 18 of them survived the inhumane conditions at the camp.

Dozens of families in the French village spent weeks and months waiting and hoping before becoming resigned to the fact that their husbands, fathers or relatives would never return.A wreath of flowers with the inscription 'Commune de Pexonne' lies in front of the church of Pexonne.A wreath of flowers with the inscription 'Commune de Pexonne' lies in front of the church of Pexonne.

Wenger, meanwhile, prospered. After the war ended, he rose up through the ranks at Germany's Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the domestic intelligence service, until his role in World War II became public in 1963.

Anne Wenger was raised in France, after her mother turned against her father and his dark past, and married a Frenchman.

At school in France, Anne recalls being teased because of her German origins.

"We knew that our grandfather was a Nazi," she says.

But back then, they did not know much more than that he had been deployed in Paris.

"We asked questions but didn't follow up to discover more," she says.

Grandpa never came to France, she adds.

The past remained buried until a cousin started to look more closely into the war period. A brother made the connection between their grandfather and the raid in Pexonne, a village west of Strasbourg.

Wenger's descendants then found a relative of one of the victims, Guillaume Maisse, whose grandfather died in the concentration camp.

Maisse had been working with an association to commemorate the raid since 2017. He recalls the very moment that the Wenger grandchildren first made contact with him.

"Their very first words on the phone were that they wanted to come to a commemoration and apologise," Maisse says, of Anne's telephone call.

When Maisse told the commemoration group he works with that Wenger's grandchildren wanted to attend the memorial to the raid, they liked the idea.

But some in the village were angry. When Maisse suggested raising the German flag alongside the French flag at the ceremony, the villagers said no.

The ceremony itself focused on the French victims of the raids. One woman wore a solidarity scarf with the pattern of prisoners' clothing in the German concentration camps.

At the time, political prisoners from France were made to wear red triangles marked with the letter "F".

In general, Maisse says, there has been little interest from Germany in the French village and that particular raid, although a few years ago, a German school class studied the events in Pexonne.

Back in 1944, Wenger himself was held briefly as a French prisoner of war and was then interned by the British under a false name.

He joined the German domestic intelligence service in 1950 under the name "Eduard Wolters".

Only after the media revealed his role during the Nazi period was he transferred to another government agency.

He was never held accountable for his crimes in France. – dpa

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