Oswald and Oskar—they survived where many didn’t

Oskar and Erich at Tomaselli Cafe in Salzburg, June 2015

Oskar and Erich at Tomaselli Cafe in Salzburg, June 2015.

In The Secret She Carried, an account of two German soldiers meshes with my mother’s story. Oswald Lustig and Oskar Halusa were my Uncle Eduard Hajek’s closest school friends and still teens when they first saw combat. Somehow, both came through the hellish fighting despite multiple life-threatening wounds. Sadly, Eduard didn’t.

I’d been communicating with both men for some time before our first face-to-face meeting in 2010. Fortunately for me, each had put considerable time and effort into preserving memories of their southern Moravian Sudeten homeland over the years. In Germany, Oswald had assembled several books about his part of Moravia and was still an indefatigable information gatherer at age 86 when I spent a couple of days in his home. He was a gracious host and I left loaded with new information.

Oskar in Salzburg shooting photos.

Oskar in Salzburg shooting photos.

In Austria, Oskar was no less gracious and likewise shared a great deal of information that went into the book. In the years since then, he has answered numerous questions by email, but email falls far short of meeting in person. So it was a great pleasure to get together again on my recent passage through Europe at the tail end of a trip that began in Vietnam (a story for another time), passed through China, Mongolia, much of Russia, and ended in Germany and Austria. Oskar, his son, and my wife and I spent a pleasant sunny afternoon sipping tea and coffee and eating cake outdoors at Tomaselli Café, Salzburg’s oldest café, and strolling among the grand historic buildings. Besides allowing us to catch up on doings in our personal lives, the reunion gave me a chance to fill in a few gaps of Oskar’s story as told in the book.

One of the things I was curious about was if Oskar too, like my mother and Oswald, had been present as Hitler passed through the village of Wolframitz in 1938. He told me he was on his way there but arrived too late for the event.

Another question I put to Oskar was whether he was aware of a second town called P’yatykhatky in Ukraine. The P’yatykhatky Oskar knew and described in The Secret She Carried would have become the place of his grave were it not for a combination of luck, fortitude, and perseverance. The second P’yatykhatky near the site of four German/Russian battles had a dark history all its own. Oskar assured me that he was aware of it and knew what had happened there.

US convoy passing through a 95% ruined St Lo after liberation. Public domain photo

US convoy passing through a 95% ruined St Lo after liberation. Public domain photo.

I also asked Oskar if he had ever learned what became of his buddy Ottomar at the bloody fighting in Normandy at Saint-Lô, one of the key battles where the Allies finally broke through the million-man German containment line in Northern France. I knew that immediately after the hellish American bombing that left Oskar gravely wounded he wasn’t in a position to inquire about his friend, but I wondered if he’d learned later what happened to Ottomar. When he told me that he never learned his friend’s fate, I didn’t ask why. Sometimes spotty records can’t answer a question like this, and sometimes an answer is feared and not really wanted.

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