Letters reveal life of a Jewish soldier fighting for Germany

By Andrea Edan, February 6, 2014
Otto Meyer with his family

Otto Meyer with his family

Two years before the Second World War broke out, Otto Meyer prepared five potassium cyanide capsules, one for himself, one for his wife, and one for each of his three children.

But luck was on his side. By the end of 1937, he managed to wind up his affairs, sell his machine factory in Rheda and take his family to Palestine before the onset of the Holocaust. The capsules remained unused.

Among German Jews, Meyer’s grisly desperation was far from unique. But he was no average citizen. Only five years earlier, he had been decorated by the Führer with the Cross of Honour for his loyal service to the Fatherland in the trenches of the First World War.

Meyer’s pride in fighting for his country is evident in a collection of his letters, photographs and drawings sent to his wife, Trude, during his service from 1915 to 1918.

The letters, which are being shown in a First World War centenary exhibition in Dresden later this year, show that Meyer saw himself as a deferential and respectful Prussian-German officer who did his “duty” without striving for battlefield honour.

Otto Meyer's letter home

Otto Meyer's letter home

Meyer, who studied architecture at the Technische Hochschule in Charlottenburg, received his call-up papers in 1914 and joined an artillery regiment in March 1915. Within six weeks, he was sent to the Western Front, where he remained until the end of 1918.

In his letters, Meyer made it clear that he did not join up wholeheartedly; he knew he would be away from his young family and was aware of the discrimination that Jews faced, even in the army, but he realised he had to serve the Fatherland.

In a letter dated November 11 1916, he writes: “The way in which the Jews in particular are being spied on at the front is a complete and utter disgrace, and has outraged me to my core.”

Despite the existence of what Meyer calls a “scandalous” list of Jews in the armed forces, he remained determined to abide by the rules: “For me, this list is the best reason why I should not apply to be released from the army. At least nobody will be able to make any insolent comments about me later.”

Remarkably, even with such antisemitism swirling around him, Meyer continued to express pride in his role as a soldier.

In a letter dated May 15 1918, he writes excitedly about his promotion to “First Lieutenant, Trained Reserves — I immediately rubbed out the ‘Vice’ in the sender line and proudly replaced it with ‘First Lieutenant’.”

He notes, however, that as a Jew he “certainly wouldn’t have had this promotion in peace time”.

Otto Meyer’s son, Andreas, now 94, lives in the north of Israel. He still has the cyanide capsules.

He wonders if he should “hold on to them for the next war… Today’s dictator is already there, not far from here in Iran, and he has declared, repeatedly and unequivocally, what he plans to do with us.”

For more information on Otto Meyer and a preview of a book about his life, email Andrea Edan: andiedan@me.com

Last updated: 4:45pm, February 6 2014