Family Stories, German Genealogy

My Family, Henschel and Sohns, Kassel Germany, and World War II

My great-grandfather worked for Henschel and Sohns, a mechanical and automotive engineering company, during WWII in Kassel Germany. August Heinrich Burghardt was born on 6 June 1899 in Kirchditmold, Hesse, Germany to Heinrich Jakob Burghardt and Maria Klapp.

August Heirnrich Burghardt, with the red x, as an appretice shoemaker.

On 24 December 1925 he married Erna Lena Gossman in Kassel, Germany. Over the next several years Heinrich and Erna would have four daughters Anneliese, Anne, Traudel and Gretel.

August Burghardt, Anneliese, Erna Lena and Anne (in the back) Burghardt

According to my great aunt Anneliese, August and Erna’s oldest daughter, life was hard for the Burghardt family. They had little money for food and clothing. With the start of WWII August went to work for Henschel and Sohns in Kassel. This provided much needed income to the Burghardt family, but harder times were ahead.

One of the challenges faced by my family in Kassel during the war were the Allied bombings. Bombings in Kassel were from February 1942- March 1945 with the deadliest bombing occuring on 22-23 October 1943. In an article The Allied Destruction of Kassel they described the Kassel bombings:

“The bombings were frequent, and the bombings were heavy, none heavier than the night of October 23, 1943. The attack began on 20:45, five minutes after a fake raid on Frankfurt that the Germans saw through, but that helped little. Martinsplatz was the target area, and 569 bombers dropped 1,800 tons of bombs and some 460,000 magnesium fire-sticks on the old centre of the city. Many of the buildings were made out of wood and stood little chance against the hell raining down on them from the skies. Within 15 minutes, the centre was ablaze. Temperatures reached a terrifying 1500 degrees, with winds hitting speeds of 100 mph. All of the oxygen was sucked out of the air, and those who made it to the initial safety of the cellars soon died of asphyxiation. Hell on Earth? An understatement. Kassel burned for seven days. The telephone lines were almost immediately damaged, meaning fire and rescue operations were compromised from the get-go. The city’s water supplies were also hit, and you don’t need to be a professional fire fighter to see how that would hurt. More than 150,000 civilians were left homeless as a result of the bombing, with more than 10,000 dying in the blazes. 90% of downtown Kassel was flattened. It would never be the same again. The horrible irony of it all, despite the obvious, is that many of the city’s factories survived the annihilation. It was the residents of Kassel that suffered and the residents of Kassel alone.” (“The Allied Destruction of Kassel.” The Allied Destruction Of, 2019, http://www.inyourpocket.com/kassel/the-allied-destruction-of-kassel_76982f.)

Image of dmage to Kassel after a bombing. Image from wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Kassel_in_World_War_II#/media/File:Untere_koenigsstrasse_1945.jpg

With August working for Henchel and Sohns I wanted to learn more about how the bombings may have affected him. I learned from reading the wikipedia article on Henschel and Sohns that “early in 1935, Henschel began manufacturing Panzer I tanks. During World War II, the firm was responsible for license production of the Dornier DO 17Z medium bomber, and in 1939–1940 it began large-scale production of the Panzer III. Henschel was the sole manufacturer of the Tiger I [tank] and alongside Porsche the Tiger II [tank]. In 1945, the company had 8,000 workers working in two shifts each of 12 hours, and forced labor was used extensively.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henschel_%26_Son)

Tiger I tank from Henschel and Sohns. Image from wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henschel_%26_Son#/media/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1972-064-61,Kassel,_Verladen_eines_Panzer_VI%22Tiger_I%22.jpg

I found a very interesting report on Google Books called The United States Strategic Bombing Survey of Henchel and Sohn, Kassel, Germany. According to the survey “Before the war, Henschel & Sohn, Kassel, had been mainly a producer of locomotives and heavy trucks. In 1939 these two items represented 90 per cent of total sales, tanks and guns combined composing the other 10 per cent. During the war, the company’s major contribution to the German army was the development and production of the Tiger tank. The 1,828 tanks produced made up the entire German output of this major war item. Total tank production accounted for 34 per cent of the wartime activity of the plant. This increase was made
possible by building expansion of the Mittelfeld Works and stoppage of truck production. Locomotive production remained at its peacetime level during the war and amounted to 22 per cent of all German production for 1940 – 1944. Truck production declined progressively and finally stopped in September 1943.” (U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey: Henschel & Sohn, Kassel, Germany, Dates of Survey May 25-26, 1945. United States, n.p, 1947 page 14, section. Accessed October 14, 2020 on google.com/books)

I learned in this report about employees. “At the outbreak of war in September 1939 Henschel & Sohn had a total labor force of around 13,300 employees. The only effect of the first two years of the war on this total was a gradual drop amounting to 2,000 employees as army drafts exceeded hiring’s. Coinciding with the start of production of Tiger tanks at
Mittelfeld in August 1942, the number of employees rapidly increased to a total of almost 24,000 employees at the time of the first heavy raids on Kassel and the plant in October 1943. The heavy damage to both city and plant effected a drop of 3,500 employees. In 1944, employment was practically constant until the heavy plant raids in September 1944. A loss of almost 4,000 employees as a result of these raids and the final disintegration of German industry in early 1945, left a labor force of 16,000 at the end of March 1945.” (U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey: Henschel & Sohn, Kassel, Germany, Dates of Survey May 25-26, 1945. United States, n.p, 1947 page 21, section a. Accessed October 14, 2020 on google.com/books)

Tank production by year for Henschel and Sohns. (U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey: Henschel & Sohn, Kassel, Germany, Dates of Survey May 25-26, 1945. United States, n.p, 1947 page 21, section a. Accessed October 14, 2020 on google.com/books)

When I read about the bombings to Kassel during World War II, I often wonder how my family survived. How did not one member of my direct family lose their life? I know very little about the lives of my great-grandfather August in Germany during the War. I know that this must have been a very scary time. My grandmother (Anne) never really talked about her life during the war. After my grandmother had passed, I started to email my Great-Aunt Anneliese and she gave me some information but not a lot. The one thing she did tell me was that after the bombings on Kassel that August had to go to Berlin to work. While August was in Berlin Erna, his wife and daughters Anna, Traudel and Gretel left to live in a village close to Kassel. Anneliese stayed to work for the town office in Kassel. After the war, every family in Kassel was asked to help rebuild the city.

My grandmother, Anne, in 1946 working for the streetcar, helping rebuild Kassel.

The one thing my grandmother did tell me is that after the war each family was required to provided birth, marriage, and death dates to the town office for their family because all the records were destroyed. I have copies of several of these certificates and it is what I used to start my research into my German family. My grandmother told me for years that this was all we had on our family because all the records were destroyed. I am happy to report that this is not the case. I have found that some of the records were destroyed but most of them survived the war.

August Burghardt recreated birth certificate. You can see the orginial dates and his parents names but it was filed on 24 Novebmer 1944.
August and Erna’s marriage certificate, created after the war.
From the information I gathered from each document my grandmother had I was able to locate orginial marriage record for August and Erna Burghard. Image from archion.de. (Landeskirchiliches, Archiv Kassel, Kasselstadt, Wehlheiden, Trau, 1906-1935, Bild 426)

I remember learning about World War II in school and wondering what it was like for my grandmother and her family to live through that. One thing that I do know is that I will always be proud of my German family. What they survived is truly a miracle.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s