Irme Deraitus, a native German who has lived in Birchwood with husband Ed since 2001, reminisces with Fr. Dennis Mullen. She expressed gratitude for the priest’s help in discovering where her father, a fallen World War II soldier, was laid to rest. She holds some of the few tangible connections she has with him – two German military medals and a funeral card her mother made. Deraitus was just 6 when her father was killed in what is now Ukraine with no information other than his date of death provided to the family. For more than 70 years, she prayed for closure. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)
Catholic Herald Staff
Young Irmgard Freckmann’s earnest and sincere prayers would not be offered up in vain. Day after day, year after year, they seemed to have gone unheard, but she never stopped sending them to God.
With vague news of her father, German soldier Bernhard Freckmann’s death in March 1944 on the Eastern front, the girl’s emotions lived in limbo as she did her best to be respectful of her mother’s silent grief. Nonetheless, she would listen to the Sunday morning radio broadcasts with shreds of hope that some mistake had been made, longing to hear her father’s name read as a missing soldier who had been found.
“Your Dad is no longer an unknown soldier.”
These were the words Irme Deraitus, young Irmgard grown and living her retired years in Birchwood, would hear on a winter morning in early 2022. The decades-long search was over and all those prayers were finally answered through Deraitus’ friendship with Fr. Dennis Mullen.
Sitting at breakfast in Rice Lake for an interview with the Catholic Herald, the two mused on God’s providence in introducing threads more than half a century prior and woven across the Atlantic to tie together the loose ends of a German girl’s loss with a young seminarian’s studies and introduction to stamp collecting.
Christine and Bernhard Freckmann were married in 1936 in Germany and welcomed a daughter – Irmgard, or Irme for short, in 1938. Bernhard would ride to visit his parents on their farm in Havixbeck by bicycle, a ride of about 30 kilometers, with his toddler daughter in the bicycle basket.
A carpenter by trade, Bernhard was drafted into the German army and unwittingly left his young daughter with very few memories of him and an almost severed tie to his family. Even the story about the bike trips was shared by Deraitus’ grandmother during one of a few visits with her Freckmann grandparents. As a teenager, Deraitus was able to convince her mother to allow her to make the trip by herself to maintain a connection with her deceased father.
The one personal memory she has of her father is from a furlough he was given in late 1943. It was at the farm where Deraitus and her mother had moved, seeking shelter and sustenance, after Bernhard was drafted into the German army.
“I remember sitting on his shoulders,” Deraitus recounted, adding that they saw a white weasel running across a saw in one of the buildings. She finds it strange to remember a weasel but holds it dearly because it connects her to the dad of whom she has no other memories.
She also said that during those 10 days, many advised her father not to return to his assignment as it was becoming clear to civilians that Germany would lose the war. Deraitus’ understanding is that he returned to duty figuring if he did not, “they would for sure come get him,” and he felt his chances for survival were better in trying to outlive the war.
Deraitus remembers well the farm owned by Johanna and Arnold Raumann, where she lived with her mother from the ages of 5-12.
“Those farmers became like my surrogate parents,” she said. “They were in their 50s, but my mom had to work all day, so Johanna, the lady of the house, effectively raised me.”
She also remembers Arnold and the daily treatment his World War I leg wounds needed. The couple had a son with whom she became close friends, but he died at home from tuberculosis. Already seeing God’s providence and protection at work in her life, Deraitus said it’s a miracle she never contracted the illness even though she visited him while he was sick.
Another significant connection was made at the farm during those years. Even before she lost her father, the man who would become her stepfather came into the lives of Deraitus and her mother.
Jan Kowalski, a Polish prisoner of war, also lived and worked at the farm. During those times, a program was in place where prisoners of war were put to work on German farms in the absence of able-bodied men who were fighting in the army. After the war he and Christine would marry, although he had already become another father-figure for Deraitus during the war years.
“My stepfather was the best person I’ve ever known,” she stated.
She felt so loved and cared for by him that she would have never questioned being Kowalski’s daughter if she hadn’t known her biological father died at war. Although the lack of closure regarding his death remained unsettling and her mother never wanted to discuss Bernhard or be questioned about him, Deraitus said she was raised in a good home and has always been grateful for Kowalski’s role in her and her mother’s life.
When Deraitus was 18, the family came to the United States seeking better work opportunities for Kowalski, who couldn’t shake the stigma of being a former prisoner of war and Pole in post-war West Germany. Their move to Milwaukee in 1957 would lead to great challenges and great blessings, but Deraitus admitted it was somewhat traumatic leaving everything behind – her family, friends, language – “everybody and everything.”
After Deraitus and husband Ed moved to his family’s farm in Birchwood in 2001, the first priest with whom she connected was Fr. Dave Oberts. She said his temperament has always reminded her a lot of her stepfather.
When her oldest son was in an accident, Fr. Oberts called her daily. As she accompanied her middle-aged son in a coma and on a ventilator, they would pray together. One of those daily calls came just minutes after he died – another moment Deraitus saw the hand of God acting providentially, as the priest was best able to help her process the loss with faith.
Deraitus credits Fr. Oberts, “so loving and God-like,” as being responsible “for huge personal and spiritual growth.”
Some years back it was Fr. Oberts who encouraged Deraitus, still restless from never feeling closure with her father’s death, to process her grief through a healing exercise.
He suggested she write a personal letter to her father, opening her heart and sharing her feelings, her good memories, her sorrow for the lack of closure and the life they had missed together, her sorrow at not knowing what his voice sounded like or where his body had been lain.
The letter was left in the adoration chapel at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Dobie, where Deraitus is a regular adorer, to be added to the other prayer intentions. Every so often the papers are burned to signal the surrender of those petitions into God’s providence and care.
“It was helpful for me to release all that,” Deraitus said. “It freed me to receive this other gift through Fr. Mullen … in God’s perfect timing.”
Referring to Frs. Oberts and Mullen, now both retired, Deraitus commented, “I have never known priests like them. It seems like people are so much more caring up here than in the city or urban areas. You can actually connect with your priests.”
During one of their regular Friday morning breakfasts, Fr. Mullen mentioned an article he’d read in a stamp collector’s magazine. It was about Germany’s World War II stamps and spoke of a German semi-official organization called Volksbund that sounded like a VFW of sorts.
Knowing the open-ended story of Deraitus’ father, he shared that their website had an archive with records for German soldiers killed in the World Wars. He asked for Bernhard’s dates of birth and death so he could do research.
As Deraitus was adapting to a new life in a strange land in 1958, young Dennis Mullen, also having lived his early years on the farm, was beginning high school at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.
Those years at the Josephinum introduced the young seminarian to stamp collecting. He helped organize the college’s collection and continued doing so into the early 2000s whenever he would return to his alma mater for a visit.
It was also during his years in seminary that Fr. Mullen studied German as his modern language requirement.
That knowledge was key in his finding death and burial records for Deraitus’ father. With the information from the funeral card, Fr. Mullen navigated the Volksbund website and found what he was looking for in about 10 minutes.
Born on Sept. 15, 1914, Bernhard Freckmann died at 29 years of age on March 28, 1944, near Brody, approximately 100 kilometers east of Lviv, Ukraine. The history of German military presence in the region at that time indicates a loss of troops from late March into mid-April as the Germans were being surrounded before what would be a major Russian offensive at the Battle of Brody.
The website noted Freckmann’s place of burial as a German military cemetery in Potelytsch, just east of Ukraine’s border with Poland, 70 kilometers northwest of Lviv.
When Deraitus received Fr. Mullen’s call, he asked if she was sitting down.
“Your Dad is no longer an unknown soldier,” Fr. Mullen said and told her she could receive documentation of her father’s record in the cemetery’s memorial book.
Coincidentally, or rather as one more act of providence, Deraitus had signed up for an extra hour of adoration that day.
“What better place to give the Lord a thank you than in the adoration chapel,” she said. It was the same chapel where she had surrendered her grief to God by letter, the same chapel just steps away from Fr. Dave Oberts’ residence.
When Deraitus shared the news with Fr. Oberts, they both got very emotional.
“Father,” Deraitus confessed, “I feel that this is a real miracle. Can I tell people this is a miracle?”
He answered that she most certainly could.
As for Fr. Mullen’s involvement, Deraitus said, “To this day I’m still in awe that he did this. I never asked him to do it.” She feels “so humbled” that he took the initiative.
“I’ve been thankful ever since,” she added. “I thank God every day,” and the technology and information she had no idea were available.
“It took the Lord almost 75 years to answer my prayer, but he did answer it. He’s a true Father,” Deraitus reflected. “And Fr. Mullen, as well.”
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