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Olaf Hansen and his Elisabeth
Elmshorn 16.09.2017

From Lars Haider
Olaf Hansen and his Elisabeth married in 1944. When the war ends, the pilot is lost. But the family continues to search.

Couple separated during the war - and united after 72 years

Olaf Hansen and his Elisabeth marry in 1944. When the war ends, the pilot is lost. But the family continues to search.

Hamburg. This story begins with its end, because there is no one who can tell from the beginning. The end, this is the funeral of Olaf Hansen, Friday a week ago, at the cemetery Elmshorn. It's uncomfortable, too cold for a September 8th, and it's raining. The mood of the mourning community is nevertheless solved, almost cheerful. This burial is like no other: the undertaker does not want money, the coffin is small, and there is no one among the guests who knew Olaf Hansen.

And yet they are all close to him, the scientists from the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf, as well as a well-known German medical examiner and two men who are looking for lost world war pilots and airplanes in their spare time. "We are experiencing a legal-medical sensation today," the pastor says in his speech. "A young man finds his family after 72 years." They are, of course, also there on this Friday morning, which they have all been waiting for so long. Olaf Hansen's daughter Ulrike with her husband Klaus, Olaf Hansen's grandson Meik and Sophie, his great-granddaughter. Only one is missing: Elisabeth Hansen. His wife.

This is also a story of war and love, and it is likely that the story moves so many people to whom this story is told. The Second World War did not end in May 1945, it radiates into our time until our families. Up to my family. Elisabeth is not my real grandmother, she is my wife's grandmother. But when I asked her, after the wedding with her granddaughter, how I should call her, she simply said, "Grandma Elisabeth, how else?

So, Grandma Elisabeth. Here is your story, which has also been the story of thousands of other women in the years 1939 to 1945 and beyond. We are returning to the dark times of the Second World War, where there were also young people between the air raids, hunger and fear who did what young people do. They fall in love and contempt, they marry and get children, as if there was no such damned war, as if the man did not have to go back to the front.

Millions of people die, hope does not.

Grandma Elisabeth has written her memories of this time fortunately, so that the beginning of our story can at least be reconstructed. It begins in the night from the 29th to the 30th of August 1942 on a train journey from Hamburg to Elmshorn. Elisabeth is with her friend Ruth on the last train, "the Lumpensammler" on the way: "At the last moment," she writes, "a Flight Lieutenant entered the train and stood beside to my seat. In Prisdorf he took a heart and spoke to me, introduced himself, and asked if we could meet again. (...) He called the next day, and we met in Elmshorn, but he soon had to return to his unit in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. That was the beginning of a great love. "

Olaf Hansen learns by post that he becomes a father

Christmas Elisabeth and Lieutenant Olaf Hansen get engaged, it was neither necessary nor the time to wait a long time. They rarely see each other, "because the soldiers in the war did not have much holiday," says Elisabeth's recollections. On the other hand, "thousands of letters go back and forth," wonderful declarations of love from the front. "As long as the world exists, I believe, there has never been a man made by a woman as happy as you have done with me," writes Olaf to his “Lieschen”, so he calls her.
"Just now, in the last two weeks. My dear, how beautiful it was, how unimaginably beautiful, how immensely fortunate were the days, so rich in beauty, every hour, whatever happened. Whether you were laughing or crying quietly, whether you were happy or quiet, I did not know what was more beautiful. We wanted to hold the hours, but they were running like minutes."

Wedding on 25 June 1944

One can guess how it must have gone to the young men at the time in the war, who had a girl at home, when you read Olaf Hansen's letters. "I am so alone, you, my love, so lonely, it is not always beautiful and easy to be your man. If you could still cry, that would bring relief, but so there is no gate through which you could create relief. All the sorrows are eaten and condensed in themselves, it only gets worse. Just as in the past I was tormented by the wanderlust of getting to know other countries, people, and customs - so now it drives me back, not to the home, first to you."

On June 25, 1944, Olaf and Elisabeth had a civil marriage, and married to the church on June 26th. It is a double wedding, together with Olaf's brother Enno. Double weddings are not untypical for that time, and yet a working colleague says to Elisabeth: "Double weddings bring disaster." Grandma Elisabeth will remember this sentence decades later.

Enno Hansen dies already three months after the marriage in an air battle over France.

Olaf is in action as a pilot in the whole of Europe for the Seeaufklärungsgeschwader 126, the couple Hansen rarely see themselves. That Elisabeth is pregnant, the father will be informed by post as the war approaches its end. It should not last more than a month and a half, when Elisabeth sees her husband the last time. It is the 26th March 1945. "Olaf had pulled the emergency brake in Elmshorn on the ride by train with his comrades, had jumped out quickly, the suitcase was thrown to him," writes Grandma Elisabeth in her memories. In the suitcase were food, sausage and fish preserves, "and above all baby clothes: a saving angel". Once again a common day. "On the afternoon of March 27, 1945, I brought Olaf to the station with heavy heart, and the farewell was heavy. His last words were: I will return."

In 1950 she declares the missing husband dead

Only two more letters arrived, the last at April 4, 1945. From then on, Elisabeth would never again hear of her Olaf. The war ended with the German capitulation, the longing for the husband and father of her child remains. Grandma Elisabeth writes: "Now I began to wait for Olaf. That my father and my brother had survived the war even well, we knew, but no news from Olaf.
Germany was completely collapsed, no way to find out anything about missing soldiers."

Where was Olaf? What had happened after April 4 with the man, who seemed invulnerable over the many years of the war, who laughs at almost every picture of him? Grandma Elisabeth was to know it later, after the end of the war and despite “great secrecy“ as she write. Olaf had become a “Rammjäger”. “These had to ram the incoming bombers and then jump off with the parachute, which was quite possible," she writes. This was in the literature Elisabeth had read about the German Rammjäger. That the chance of survival was only ten percent was probably not written there. And so the woman, who was now a young mother, ran to Elmshorn station two or three times a week, also long after the end of the war, to see whether her Olaf was among the returning soldiers. In the baby carriage always with her: Ulrike, his daughter.

Where was her father, where was Olaf? Apparently, he had volunteered for the Sonderkommando Elbe, which was to try to stop the overpowering air forces of the Americans. On the 7th of April he sat down at the Fliegerhorst Gardelegen in a Messerschmidt 109, also called Me 109, a German hunting aircraft. What happened after that can not be reconstructed clearly. It is likely that Olaf Hansen's machine was hit in an air combat, and then he tried to land on a field near Celle.

„He was the best pilot we had”

What may he have thought in the last minutes of his life? That he still manages it somehow, as always? And, much more important to his wife Elisabeth: Why did he climb up at all? Why did he just say no, especially since he knew Elisabeth was pregnant?

Grandma could never let go of that question, it will never be answered. There are only the statements of a comrade from Olaf, whom Elisabeth was to find long after the end of the war. He wrote: "I can not imagine that Olaf volunteered for such a bunch. I know how much he was devoted to you. He was probably the one air force lieutenant we had on the whole airfield who was most in love. He was the best pilot we had.” And further on in the letter from the year 1981: "But I can understand that you can not accept this fact and still have the hope of seeing him again one day.
According to my own experiences, I can not, however, make any hopes for you.”

A few years after the end of the Second World War, Elisabeth seems to think so as well. On January 7, 1950, she declares Olaf Hansen to be dead, later she married again. For almost three decades, the search for her husband comes to a rest. But there is someone else who is interested in missing planes and missed pilots. As a 16 year old boy, Werner Oeltjebruns, together with his friends, found his first crashed plane in a thick moor layer in Achternmeer near Oldenburg. The experience in 1975 characterizes him for his whole life.

Oeltjebruns begins to collect documents on disappeared airplanes, and decides to look for them himselves. He founded the club Flieger, Flugzeuge, Schicksale. "Then at the end of the 80s I became acquainted with the fate of Olaf Hansen, which began to interest me more and more," he says. In his research, Werner Oeltjebruns gets Elisabeth's phone number in his hands. He decides to call her.

After a phone call in 1993, hope re-emerges

Grandma Elisabeth has meanwhile also lost her second husband. Suddenly the thoughts of Olaf are back. "My past is catching up with me," she wrote in a letter in the early 1980s. "The memories become oversized, the present has trouble to assert itself. (...) Suddenly everything that was in time was alive again before me. I am sad, unhappy. I have a maddening longing for all that has suddenly been interrupted, which I have supplanted to be able to survive in some way." She writes a love letter to Olaf: "Are you near, are you with me? Do you influence my thinking and feeling, my whole life in the last few weeks?" No, the Second World War is not over for her, and the search for Olaf Hansen certainly not. It begins anew, stronger and more intense than ever before.

On May 21, 1993, Grandma Elisabeth and Werner Oeltjebruns telephoned for the first time. It is the beginning of a fate community: "From the beginning, I realized how important it was for Elisabeth to find her Olaf. That's why we did everything in the searchers' scene to help her," says Oeltjebruns.
But the years go by without his friends and him finding a clue. In the meantime, it is clear that Olaf Hansen must have flown with the Sonderkommando on April 7th. But where is he, where is his plane?

Once, it is already the year 2009, Oeltjebruns is very close to the later find place. In the Lower Saxonian Spechtshorn in the district of Celle, he discovers the crash site of a missing US soldier. A farmer said that two other planes were still in the area. "But that Olaf might have sat in one of them, I did not think of that in my dreams," says Werner Oeltjebruns.

Man had seen a crash as a boy

The Second World War has been over for more than 70 years, when something terribly normal but for our story sensational happened. In Garrel, a municipality in the district of Cloppenburg, pensioner Hermann Luemann reads his local newspaper as every day. It reports on a man who also lives in the region and who has been tracking missing aircraft for years. "I'll just call him," Luemann thinks, looking for Werner Oeltjebrun's number. They live only 20 kilometers apart.
"I will never forget this day," says Oeltjebruns about the phone call, which was supposed to change the life of the seeker, but above all that of Grandma Elisabeth and her family. It is July 29, 2015.
At that time, Luemann tells him that he was a small boy in the war, as a plane crashed on a field in his neighborhood. He had gone there with his friend, and he had seen the dead pilot, a sight he has not forgotten to this day. And to which he had to think again, when he read the text about Werner Oeltjebruns in the newspaper. He listens with interest, even if he knows such stories in hundreds.
But then comes the sentences, in which the plane-seeker "almost fell off the chair": "I also know the name of the pilot," says Luemann. "It was in the collar of his uniform, I will never forget that name. His name was Oberleutnant O. Hansen."
"O. Hansen?" asks Oeltjebruns. "Yes, O. Hansen," says Luemann. "Do you know what you have just told me? I've been in touch with the relatives of an Olaf Hansen for years."

The smile, the fearlessness: everything as it was then

Grandma Elisabeth is meanwhile 92 years old. She is fine, but she has asked her grandson Meik to help in the search for Olaf. "I can not do it alone," she said, giving Meik the thick folder with everything she collected about his grandfather. That Meik reminds her of Olaf, she told him years ago. The smile, the fearlessness, the interest in distant lands: everything as it was then. Anyone who sees the picture of Olaf in Elisabeth's living room and Meik next to him is a bit frightened. The similarity is striking. Perhaps it is because the grandson is interested in the fate of his grandfather like no other in the family. A few days before the 29th of July, he had been in contact with Elisabeth's allied Werner Oeltjebruns for the first time. To find out, unfortunately, there are no new hints with which one can start something.

And then that! In the next, the second e-mail tells Oeltjebruns of the telephone conversation with Mr. Luemann. The search for Olaf Hansen goes into the decisive phase, Werner and Meik become a team. In the coming months, the two will get American aerial photographs from Olaf's alleged crash site on the field in Spechtshorn, on which Oeltjebruns has been already years ago. They compare it with today's aerial photography, and the clever viewfinder really find a conspicuity.

That might, yes, that could be the remains of an airplane. Oeltjebruns asks a seeker friend, Rüdiger Kaufmann, to look at the field. Kaufmann goes there, he looks, he digs, and he finds - wreckage parts of a Me 109. After an infinitely long time the references to the whereabouts of Olaf Hansen begin to get together.

Rüdiger Kaufmann calls Werner Oeltjebruns, who reports as fast as he can at Meik. His family is gathered in the house in Elmshorn. 30 hours before the ultimate trace of her great love was found, Grandma Elisabeth has died.

The grave of an unknown soldier will be opened

"It's so sad that Grandma did not know about this find," says grandson Meik. "But the story was not over yet, we had the machine, now we had to find the pilot." A wreckage part of Olaf's plane comes into Elisabeth's grave. Then Meik and Werner go back to the search again. They check the cemeteries around the crash site. It does not take so long until they find something. In Wesendorf, in the district of Gifhorn, there is an unknown soldier, at his reburial in 1964, the remains of a parachute were found. Also the age could be right:

Is it Olaf? Meik applies for the exhumation, struggles through the bureaucracy and against a mayor,
to whom the peace of the dead is, first of all, more important than the wish of the members of a world war victim to finally obtain clarity about his fate. The negotiations are tough, but Meik does not give up. And he has prevailed.

DNA matching with the daughter brings certainty

On April 24, 2017, most of those who will return to Olaf Hansen's funeral service will be standing in front of an unadorned grave in Wesendorf. Experts from the legal medicine of the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf have come, the biologist Oliver Krebs and the anthropologist Eilin Jopp-van Well, Meik and Werner, Elisabeth's daughter Ulrike and her husband Klaus, plus two men from the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge. Only the excavator, which is supposed to lift the grave, is too late. But who is still impressed according to this prehistory? It takes time for the scientists to find something, but then a bag looks out of the ground. Krebs and his colleagues open it, they find several small and large bones, almost all broken, and a skull. "An almost complete skeleton," says Oliver Krebs, and you could see from the very first glance: "Everything fits together: the age, the sex."

Olaf? Very likely Olaf, because the bones also have signs of burns, which he has suffered according to the Eyewitness report. Still at the grave, Oliver Krebs takes a DNA sample from Ulrike, the daughter with whom Elisabeth was pregnant at the end of the Second World War. As spectacular as the whole story is, so simple is this moment: Cotton swab into the mouth, saliva on it, done. "In the end, this is no more than a paternity test," says Krebs and laughs. A paternity test after 72 years. The first results are found after a week, with the DNA extracted from the bones can be worked. On May 22, biologist Krebs is certain: it is Olaf Hansen.

They found him.

After 26.453 days Olaf is again together with his great love

This story has also begun with its end, because it is great that there is one at all. "26.453 days after his death, Olaf returned to his great love," says Meik after the funeral on the previous Friday, when everyone in Elisabeth's former living room sit together. "This is the most spectacular event I've ever witnessed, and with the most beautiful outcome," says Werner Oeltjebruns, who has until now cleared up nearly 20 missing persons fates. "Until now, I only knew the bones, now I know the people and the relatives who are behind them," says Oliver Krebs. His leader, Professor Klaus Püschel from the UKE, is also present when Olaf Hansen is buried in the grave next to his Elisabeth. "The case shows that it is always worth not giving up hope," says one of the country's best-known law-makers.
This was a story of war and love, and the proof that love is stronger.
Or, to quote one last time, Lieutnant Olaf Hansen from one of his letters to Elisabeth from the front: "You could ask me now what I have experienced since yesterday, I have experienced nothing but the thought of you."

A picture from the time when Olaf and Elisabeth got to know each other.

Olaf Hansen at a sailing course, which was
part of the sea reconnaissance training

Double wedding with Olaf's brother Enno (left)

One of the last pictures of the 23 year old Lieutenant

“He was probably the one air force lieutenant we had on the whole airfield
who was most in love”, wrote a comrade about Olaf Hansen

With the help of these aerial photographs, the airplane searchers found the crash point of the machine from Olaf Hansen

The search team: Elisabeth's grandson Meik (l.) and Werner Oeltjebruns

The grave is opened with a small excavator

Experts from the UKE examine the found bones

A Messerschmitt 109 G fighter, which was also flown from the Sonderkommando Elbe against US bombers - Photo: Mary Evans / Interfoto

Olaf Hansen was buried next to his wife in Elmshorn on September 8th 2017

The British Library is preserving this site for the future in the UK Web Archive at All Aircrew Remembered on our Remembrance pages, are therefor not just remembered here, but also subsequently remembered and recorded as part of our nation’s history
and heritage at The British Library.