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Heinrich Ahrens * 1906
Kalischerstraße 22 (Harburg, Harburg)
VERHAFTET JULI 1942
TODESURTEIL 20.5. 1943
Heinrich Ahrens, born on 8 Sept. 1906 in Harburg, convicted of high treason and "undermining of military strength” ("Wehrkraftzersetzung”) on 9 July 1943 and shot dead in Bordeaux on 30 May 1943
Kalischer Strasse 22 (formerly Feldstrasse 32) (Harburg Altstadt)
Heinrich Ahrens, born in Harburg, lost his father, a laborer, in 1913, and his mother Elisabeth Ahrens initially got him through on her own by going to work. Sometime between 1915 and 1922, she remarried, to the tallyman (controller of shiploads) Hermann Schiemann. She moved with her son from their rented apartment at Feldstrasse 32 (now Kalischerstrasse 22) in Harburg’s Phoenix quarter to join Hermann Schiemann in his apartment at Werderstrasse 78.
Heinrich Ahrens, together with his stepfather, had been active in the milieu of the German Communist Party (KPD) since mid-1929 and he had been known as a Communist activist in Harburg since 1931. In the fall of 1931, he was sent to prison for three months on charges of illegal weapons possession, an episode that earned him the nickname "Revolver-Ahrens” in the city.
In early 1933, he went underground or went back to sea on the spur of the moment to evade the Nazis’ "protective custody” ("Schutzhaft”). In Oct. 1933, he showed up in Antwerp. The Belgian police took him into custody as an illegal immigrant in the sailor’s house there. On 20 Oct. 1933, they deported him across the French border because of his "political motives.”
At his point, the documentation has a gap of one and a half years in his life. On 7 Mar. 1935, he entered Germany from Denmark without papers. He was briefly arrested in Lübeck, and his entry was communicated to the Harburg police, who ordered him to report to them twice a week.
Heinrich Ahrens then stayed in Harburg for the time being. In 1935 and 1936, he worked as an assistant gas station attendant at the Paasch Shell gas station at the entrance to the city on Bremer Chaussee in Appelbüttel.
Around this time, he met Elisabeth Schenke from Hamburg; the two moved in together in Altona in 1938 and married in Feb. 1939. The couple initially earned a living from casual work in the port and in various fish operations. In Nov. 1939, Heinrich Ahrens found permanent work in the construction and primary operations of the Polte munitions factory in Duderstadt; the couple moved there. Whether Heinrich Ahrens had been enlisted for this work or whether he had sought work himself, we do not know. The latter is supported by the fact that Elisabeth Schenke was born in Nesselröden near Duderstadt. A girl was born in Mar. 1939 and a boy in Jan. 1941.
At the age of 33, Heinrich Ahrens was initially not drafted when the war began in Sept. 1939. Probably because of his KPD history and his political prison sentence, he was considered "unworthy of military service.” In July 1941, however, a request by the labor administration forced him to take leave at the Polte plant and to be temporarily employed on the supply and repair ship "Südmeer,” a converted whaler that the German Navy had stationed in Kiel by then. He ended this stationing prematurely because of severe middle ear inflammation. In early Feb. 1942, he was drafted into service again, this time on the cargo ship "Tannenfels.”
In the spring of 1942, the "Tannenfels” made a voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to Yokohama. It was carrying chemicals and machine tools for the Japanese war ally and supplies for the ports of call of German submarines. In Japan, the ship loaded basic supplies such as oils and fats as well as raw materials relevant to armaments for industry in Germany and in the occupied countries of Europe, most of all rubber and metals.
In the summer, Heinrich Ahrens was given three weeks’ leave in a German soldiers’ home in Japan. Shortly before his re-embarkation, he received a letter from his wife telling him that she had given birth to their third child, a girl. Also shortly before his departure, the ship’s command in Tokyo learned that Heinrich Ahrens had made defeatist statements during his leave and that he was also suspected of conspiring with the Russians, which could not be proven. Nevertheless, the argument went, he was not allowed under any circumstances to fall into the hands of the Allies alive.
On the return voyage from Japan to the French Atlantic coast in late summer/autumn 1942, the "Tannenfels” sailed a loop past the Cape of Good Hope into the South Atlantic waters off Brazil to supply German ships there. This resulted in a skirmish with an armed American cargo ship on 27 Sept. 1942. That vessel was sunk, as was a ship of the German escort. The "Tannenfels” took the 350 German marines aboard, whereas the ship’s command left the American sailors to drown.
On this occasion, Heinrich Ahrens reportedly expressed doubts regarding the German final victory and demanded that the ship’s command be locked up and the ship be taken to a neutral port. He was detained while still on board and in Nov. 1942, he was handed over to the German naval jurisdiction in France. From his detention, he did not yet inform his wife of his fate in his first – censored – military letter dated 22 Nov. 1942. Only on 16 Dec. 1942, did he disclose the sad news, but without being able to explain it in more detail.
His wife then began questioning several fellow sailors for more precise details. On 2 Feb. 1943, one Georg Wiechmann from Rodenkirchen replied to her that her husband had been engaged in Communist activities during the entire voyage and that would now be punished for it.
The Naval Court in Bordeaux sentenced Heinrich Ahrens to death for incitement to "treasonous acts and continued undermining of military strength” on 20 May 1943 and ordered him shot in Bordeaux on 9 July 1943.
He left a handwritten farewell letter to his wife, to which a list of his possessions at the time was attached, of which she never saw a single item though.
"Dear wife and children!
This morning, I was informed that the sentence is to be carried out. I do not understand how it could have come about that I am to be shot. I must go this path with courage, and you, too, be courageous, and rely on justice and truth that will emerge.
I have received your letter, you will receive my last one. I would have liked to see the children again. May the little ones have lots of sunshine on their path through life and may fortune duly help them.
greets and kisses you a thousand times”
List of personal belongings, July 1943:
50 pieces of soap
2 tins of Japanese tea, 500 g each
3 pairs of new shoes
14 pairs of socks, new
13 packets of cigarettes containing 20 pcs. each
2 packets of cigarettes containing 51 pcs. overall
7 packets of tobacco
1 pound of pepper, whole
box of children’s toys
2 women’s dressing gowns, Japan
fabric – cloth
Japanese silk, natural silk for coat
children’s pajamas made in Japan
12 pairs of socks
17 shirts new
Translator: Erwin Fink
Kindly supported by the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, Hamburg.
Stand: December 2020
© Christian Gotthardt
Quellen: Allgemeines Reichsarchiv Brüssel, Dossier Ahrens A 94.785; Briefe und andere persönlichen Unterlagen der Familie Ahrens, die der Autor einsehen durfte; Staatsarchiv Hamburg 213-12 Nr. 0718/ Bd. I; Staats-archiv Stade Rep. Stade 171 a Nr. 246; VVN-BdA Harburg (Hrsg.): Widerstand und Verfolgung in Harburg und Wilhelmsburg 1933–1945, Harburg 2005; Gotthardt, Christian: Die radikale Linke als Massenbewegung. Kommunisten in Harburg und Wilhelmsburg 1918–1933, Hamburg 2007, S. 152ff.; Volksblatt für Harburg und Umgebung v. 18.9.1931, 6.10.1931, 16.1.1932, 5.4.1932; Spiegel v. 20.10.1965, 7.3.1966, 26.9.1966; Gotthardt, Christian: Auf Geheiß der Gestapo von der Marinejustiz ermordet. Der Harburger Seemann Heinrich Ahrens, http://www.harbuch.de/index.php/frische-themen-artikel/Ahrens.html.