Questions & Answers

The commonly spread “legend” outlines some of the questions that arise about Julius Erasmus. Some of these questions shall be answered in the following, according to the present state of research. These are not meant to give more than a first overview; detailed explanations together with indication of the underlying sources remain reserved for the final printed work.


Date of the information provided:   2 June 2023.


1. Was Julius Erasmus a captain of the engineer forces (“Pionierhauptmann“)?

Very likely not. In none of the registers examined so far is there any indication that he was even an officer. He was called up to the Wehrmacht in 1938 and was a member of an engineer replacement battalion when the war started. However, he was discharged from this battalion in the fall of 1940 for an unknown reason. He had sustained health problems at a young age, which could have been the reason for his discharge. Whether and where he served in the immediate aftermath has not yet been determined.

Documents from 1944 and 1945 indicate that Julius Erasmus was a civilian employee of the Wehrmacht at least towards the end of the war. This was apparently as a member of the then Fortress Engineer Headquarters 22 (“Festungspionierstab 22”) in Düren.


2. Was Julius Erasmus a “textile manufacturer“ prior to World War II?

Very likely not. He came from an old-established family of Aachen cloth manufacturers, but was a farmer and, according to his own statements, practiced this profession until the mid-1930s. Before he was drafted into the Wehrmacht in 1938, he seems to have worked as an accountant in a wood-processing company in the Hürtgen Forest.


3. Was Julius Erasmus living in Aachen at the outbreak of World War II?

Very likely not. He was born and raised in Aachen, but likely left the city in the 1920s. He may have lived in the Vossenack area for some time before World War II. During World War II, an address in Vossenack was his registered home address. The statement attributed to Julius Erasmus, “In summer of 1945, I came back to Vossenack” – provided that it actually occurred and is true – would also indicate that he had already lived there before the war.


4. What exactly did Julius Erasmus do after the Second World War?

At the end of the war, Julius Erasmus was probably taken prisoner of war in Lower Saxony, to where his unit had been evacuated. A document from the military administration shows that he was released to the government district of Aachen in May 1946, shortly after which he presumably returned to Vossenack.

Like the surrounding villages, Vossenack had been completely destroyed during the battles for the Hürtgen Forest and showed a picture of total devastation. As part of the reconstruction, a task was to recover and bury the still present fallen soldiers who were sometimes only buried in a makeshift manner or not at all. An equally important and difficult part of this work was the identification of these soldiers, whose relatives had until then usually only received a MIA (“missing in action”) notification and who had feared for their whereabouts for years. If the identification of a fallen soldier was successful, his relatives were informed and thus gained certainty about his fate; otherwise, the soldier in question was buried as “unknown”.

Julius Erasmus took over these tasks, initially assisted by the then Vossenack village priest Dr Werner Eschweiler.

At first, Julius Erasmus apparently carried out his activities essentially alone and without remuneration. Seemingly still in 1946, he was then paid by the municipality of Vossenack, and some workers were made available to assist him. As of the currency reform in June 1948, the municipality had to discontinue its support, whereupon Erasmus continued his activities again without remuneration. In September 1949, he was employed by the Volksbund deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V., which had taken over the construction of the Vossenack military cemetery. In April 1951, Erasmus was initially taken on for a limited time in the services of the then district of Monschau, becoming a full employee from February 1952. He became the first warden of the Vossenack military cemetery, which opened on 31 August 1952. As such, he was responsible not only for the reburial and identification of fallen soldiers, but also for taking care of their graves and was available to relatives as a contact person.

Julius Erasmus achieved nationwide fame for his actions. Numerous press reports have dealt with the “undertaker of Vossenack” and his story since the early 1950s. Some elements of today’s legend may have originated from this reporting.

Julius Erasmus exercised this activities officially until his retirement in February 1960, “unofficially” even beyond that. As late as June 1960, several fallen were apparently buried by him.


5. Has Julius Erasmus recovered “1,569 German fallen soldiers in Hürtgen Forest“?

That Julius Erasmus recovered such a large number of fallen entirely on his own is unlikely, but this will not be possible to determine with absolute certainty.

Already the origin of the number of “1569 German fallen soldiers”, which can be read again and again, is unknown. It seems to have been taken from newspaper reports from the 1950s, in which this number can be found as well as others. For example, in a 1959 interview available on the Internet, Julius Erasmus himself mentioned having recovered the 1592nd fallen man on 10 June of that year (also cf. the article on this interview here). In another interview in the following year he stated that he had “recovered 1600 and buried them here or helped to bury them” (translation from German). Thus, he himself certainly mentioned the participation of third persons in the salvage operations.

At least the following seems to be certain at the moment:

From August 1949 until the retirement of Julius Erasmus at the beginning of 1960, the mortal remains of more than 2,100 individuals were “reburied” in the military cemetery at Vossenack. That means they were moved to there from their original place. These were mostly fallen German soldiers, but also minesweepers and civilians killed by the effects of war. Each of these reburials was documented and recorded in writing, and the accuracy of the information had to be confirmed in writing by two witnesses. The records of these reburials still exist and have been studied. Each one of these so-called reburial protocols was signed by Julius Erasmus as the “leader of the reburial crew” (“Leiter der Umbettungskolonne”). He therefore took part in the recovery and burial of these dead in a leading position, together with his helpers.

In addition, the reburials were not limited to the area of what is now known as the Hürtgen Forest – consisting of the former forests of Hürtgen, Merode, Roetgen and Wenau – but sometimes extended well beyond this. For example, a considerable number of burials were transferred to the military cemetery in Vossenack from Kalterherberg and Losheim.

It should also be taken into account that the initial destination of burials and reburials of fallen soldiers was the Vossenack municipal cemetery near the church and that they were subsequently reburied on the present military cemetery, after its location had been designated. Thus, a number of fallen soldiers may well have been reburied several times and by different persons.


6. What is the significance of Julius Erasmus’ actions?

Reducing Julius Erasmus’s actions to the number of dead recovered captures only a part of the human dimension of his efforts.

When asked about the motives for his activities, in interviews he himself repeatedly referred to the certainty he had wanted to provide to relatives about the whereabouts of their missing family member. This, he said, was his motivation for “going outside” again and again, clarifying fates and then notifying relatives. In press reports of the time, this is summarized to the effect that Julius Erasmus had given back their names to the dead. This is certainly true, at least for those who could be identified.

That his desire to provide certainty to the fearful relatives was not just an assertion can be seen from his preserved correspondence with numerous relatives. In many cases, he even took care of those who had no indication as to the whereabouts of their missing family member, but who, in their desperation, wrote at random to Julius Erasmus, who had in the meantime become widely known through press reports, and asked him for help. The fact that he tried to relieve the relatives of the agonizing uncertainty about the whereabouts of the missing family member seems much more significant than the question of how many fallen he ultimately recovered and where, and whether he did so alone or together with others.

For their work, Julius Erasmus and priest Dr Eschweiler were awarded the Federal Cross of Merit (“Bundesverdienstkreuz”) as early as 1952.


7. Did Julius Erasmus “live for more than 15 years in a hut near the forest, close to the cemetery”?

As a warden of the military cemetery in Vossenack, Julius Erasmus lived in the so-called “warden’s hut” at the cemetery. This building still exists today, but it is located on private property and is not accessible to unauthorized persons.


8. Did Julius Erasmus leave Vossenack in the 1960s and has “his further trace been lost”?

As a recognition for his efforts, Julius Erasmus had a lifelong free right of residence in the “warden’s hut” at the Vossenack military cemetery. Apparently as a result of sustained disputes, in particular with his successor as the cemetery warden, he left Vossenack in 1963 and moved to Heimbach-Blens, before moving on to Nideggen-Abenden in the following year. He died on 3 September 1971 in the Lendersdorf hospital.


9. Does nobody know until today where the grave of Julius Erasmus is?

The cemetery and the (former) grave location are known. Julius Erasmus was buried in the cemetery in Nideggen-Abenden. The resting period there ended in 2001 and was not renewed, so that the grave was leveled and reassigned.


10. Are the activities of Julius Erasmus commemorated by the state and if so, in what form?

In 2004, the history of Julius Erasmus came to the attention of the North Rhine-Westphalia branch of Volksbund deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V. and it was decided to pay tribute to “the old captain of the engineer forces”. This consisted of the erection of a memorial stone in the Vossenack military cemetery directly at the so-called high cross in front of the burial ground and a so-called “legend board” (“Legendentafel”) in the entrance area of the cemetery, on which Julius Erasmus and his activities were described. The text in this regard corresponded essentially to “the legend”.

Both were inaugurated during an official memorial ceremony on 21 May 2005 under the patronage of Wolfgang Spelthahn, who was the acting Administrator (“Landrat”) of the Düren District at that time already, and with the participation of, among others, the Volksbund and the then mayors of the municipalities of Hürtgenwald, Heimbach and Nideggen, where Julius Erasmus had lived before his death.

According to information provided by District Administrator Spelthahn on 16 July 2021, the District of Düren, in agreement with the North Rhine-Westphalia branch of Volksbund deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge e.V., apparently removed the “legend board” in question from the Vossenack military cemetery at the beginning of June 2021. He indicated that the board was “not primarily a ‘memorial board’ to Julius Erasmus”, but “generally an information board about the Vossenack war cemetery “ (translation from German). According to him, six new information boards erected in June 2015 fulfilled this purpose in greater detail, so that the original board was no longer needed.

On the subject of the information board on Julius Erasmus and its removal by the District of Düren in 2021, please note further articles here and here.


You have hints or comments about Julius Erasmus and/or his activities? Feel free to get in touch!