70 years on, German soldier's Vietnamese story searches for closure

By Sen    February 29, 2020 | 04:00 pm PT
He was five years old when he saw his father hanging from a ceiling.

Adults explained to the uncomprehending boy that his father had suffered a heart attack.

Years later, the boy became a man and learned that his father, a German soldier, had committed suicide after leaving Vietnam and his Vietnamese family.

Today, he searches for answers and his half-Vietnamese sister.

The search has lasted 11 futile years so far, but Friedhelm Redlich remains hopeful.

Friedhelm has a fascinating, searing, unique story to tell.

Most, if not all the stories about relatives and lovers searching for each other that Vietnam has heard so far have to do with the American War, known to the world as the Vietnam War, which ended 45 years ago.

Redlich's story goes back much further to the earlier war Vietnam was forced to fight – the war that ended the second colonization of Vietnam by France, ending in the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

His father was a German legionnaire, a foreigner who worked for the French army.

The first hint of his Vietnamese past came when Friedhelm's father, Wolfgang, insisted that his daughter be named Karin. But then, no one knew why, especially not Friedhelm.

Decades later, Friehelm discovered that his father had a daughter with a Vietnamese woman in Vietnam who was named Karin.

He yearns and searches for his half-sister now.

Wolfgang Redlich, a former German soldier of the French army in Vietnam, his Vietnamese wife and their daughter, Karin, then five years old, in Nha Trang, December 1960. Photo courtesy of Friedhelm Redlich.

Wolfgang Redlich, a former German soldier of the French army in Vietnam, his Vietnamese wife and their daughter, Karin, then five years old, in Nha Trang, December 1960. Photo courtesy of Friedhelm Redlich.

Family mystery

In 2009, when Redlich and his wife went to Vietnam for their honeymoon, the urge to solve a family mystery kicked in.

"My father was in Vietnam a long time ago, maybe I should start to find out a bit about his life here," he remembers thinking to himself.

Since then, when the husband and father is not working at a chemical firm as a human resources manager, he spends hours digging into his father's mysterious story, in newspaper archives, talking to family members for tidbits of information and officials for documents, connecting the dots as he goes.

One glimmer of hope emerged this year.

When Vietnamese families were celebrating the Lunar New Year festival in January, Redlich, his daughter Lotta and his younger sister Karin were in the country, hoping to unite with his father Wolfgang’s first family in the Mekong Delta.

With the help of local police in Rach Goi Town, about 30 km from the Mekong Delta capital of Can Tho, Friedhelm found the rice mill his father used to work and had registered as his address with the German embassy in Hanoi, according to the archives in Berlin.

It was an emotional visit for the family. "I was full of hope about finding out more and was deeply moved to see the place."

The family talked to many people in Rach Goi, mostly the elders, with whatever pictures they had of Wolfgang and his Vietnamese family, but drew a blank.

Seven decades ago

A picture of Wolfgang Redlich sent to his mother when he was serving the French military in Vietnam, age unknown. He also had a Vietnamese name, Nguyen Van Duc which means handsome man from Germany. Photo courtesy of Friedhelm Redlich.

A picture of Wolfgang Redlich sent to his mother when he was serving the French military in Vietnam, age unknown. He also had a Vietnamese name, Nguyen Van Duc, meaning 'man from Germany'. Photo courtesy of Friedhelm Redlich.

Wolfgang had come to Vietnam when he was 23 to work for the Légion étrangère (French Foreign Legion) as a radio operator in 1952. The French Foreign Legion was a branch of the French Army open to foreign recruits. This was around the time that the French re-colonized Vietnam after the end of World War II. The anti-colonial resistance succeeded in overthrowing the colonialists with the Dien Bien Phu battle in 1954.

Two years later, Wolfgang deserted the legion and went to Rach Goi and lived there with his Vietnamese family.

"When I started this search, I wanted to understand why my father had committed suicide. But the journey now is of course to find my sister too," Friedhelm said.

As he dived deeper into the unknown, surprising pieces of the puzzle turned up.

Last August, he unearthed 130 letters his father had written to his grandmother, Agnes Redlich, for ten years starting in 1952, detailing his life in Vietnam. His cousin had found them hidden in his uncle’s basement after he died. The box didn’t include his grandmother’s responses.

Some of the letter and postcard exchange between Wolfgang Redlich and his mother, Agnes Redlich between 1952 and 1962. Photo courtesy of Friedhelm Redlich.

Some of the letters and postcards that German legionnaire Wolfgang Redlich wrote to his mother, Agnes Redlich, between 1952 and 1962. Photo courtesy of Friedhelm Redlich.

"This was really a surprise to everyone. My uncle had hidden the letters on purpose from me. I had asked him several times and he said he had no information at all," Friedhelm said.

For years, his mother and grandmother had also hidden the truth about his father's past in Vietnam.

"I’m still struggling with the fact that they didn’t tell me the truth. This is something that is very emotional for me," Redlich said, his voice breaking and tears welling up in his eyes.

The letters

For years, the German legionnaire had jotted down the ups and downs of his personal life in Vietnam. 

In December 1954, he wrote to his mother from Tourane (Da Nang today), that he had met and begun living with a Vietnamese girl from the northern city of Hai Phong who followed him wherever his legion went.

"Unfortunately, he never mentioned her name, but his writing was always full of love about her," Friedhelm said.

They got married in 1954. The half-Vietnamese, half-German Karin was born on January 7, 1955.

The letters mention that Wolfgang’s wife became pregnant again but miscarried "because of the stress and hardships they faced after he deserted from the legion in January 1956."

That year, he was about to be sent to Algeria to fight another war. Wolfgang left the army without permission to live with his wife, daughter and the wife's family in the Mekong Delta where they believed they were safe.

In December, Wolfgang’s mother received a Christmas card with greetings from him, his Vietnamese wife, and their then almost two-year-old daughter Karin.

Karin, believed to be about two years old at the time of taken, and her father Wolfgang Redlich in a picture sent to Wolfgangs mother. Photo courtesy of Friedhelm Redlich.

Karin, believed to be between two and four years old at the time this photograph taken, and her father Wolfgang Redlich in a picture sent to Wolfgang's mother, date unknown. Photo courtesy of Friedhelm Redlich.

One of the anecdotes mentioned in the letters about the wife that captured Friedhelm’s attention is about a time she walked 17 kilometers to the next town to find a pharmacist for Wolfgang who was seriously ill and local medicines and herbs had not helped.

The pharmacist, who was also the owner of the rice mill in Rach Goi, gave Wolfgang a job as a machinist and later promoted him to be a manager. With the help of his wife’s family, Wolfgang also bought some land to grow rice and generate a second income.

He later worked for a German import company as a sales representative for nearly two years, keeping the small farm in Rach Goi with the support of his brother in law until March 1959.

In January 1961, Wolfgang informed his mother that he was happily living in a tobacco farm near Nha Trang. According to his letter, Karin was going to a Catholic boarding school for girls and he could only see her every second Sunday.

There were no more letters until October 1962, when Wolfgang told his mother in a postcard that he was returning to Germany. 

He didn't tell his mother why, only that he was "finished" with Vietnam, that he was trying to bring Karin with him but local authorities were not cooperative.

According to a letter sent to Wolfgang by the German embassy in 1960, Vietnamese authorities had requested him to leave the country as he didn’t have an official residence permit.

"He didn’t mention his wife in this letter. He only talked about the daughter and that he wanted her to follow him," Friedhelm said.

In another discovery, Friedhelm found letters Wolfgang’s mother had sent to his sister, in which she mentioned that he’d met a bishop who was visiting Münster from Can Tho in January 1963. 

It turns out that the bishop, Philippe Nguyen Kim Dien, knew Wolfgang and his Vietnamese family and had agreed to help bring Karin to Germany.

The visit of the bishop, Philippe Nguyen Kim Dien of Can Tho in Münster was covered by a local reporter in Munster, Germany, which Friedhelm found in newspaper archives. Photo courtesy of Friedhelm Redlich.

The visit of bishop Philippe Nguyen Kim Dien of Can Tho to Münster was covered by a local reporter in Germany. Friedhelm found the article in newspaper archives. Photo courtesy of Friedhelm Redlich.

His grandmother also told her daughter in another letter the following month: "Wolfgang is very disappointed that his wife is not answering his letters," meaning Karin’s mother was still alive when he left Vietnam in 1962.

Sister, where art thou?

"My sister might not even live in Vietnam anymore and may have migrated to the U.S. or Australia after the reunification in 1975," Friedhelm said, recalling what locals had told him during his visits to Vietnam.

It is common knowledge that mothers of mixed kids fathered by Americans or Europeans in Vietnam were scared of their being discriminated against, especially in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Many such mothers gave up their kids for adoption under an infamous program called Operation Babylift launched by former U.S. President Gerald Ford as the Vietnam War wound down, and stories keep surfacing of mothers, lovers and children looking for loved ones decades later.

The search for clues to his father’s stay in Vietnam and his half-sister’s whereabouts has taken a toll on Friedhelm, and he suffers a variety of stress-related health issues.

He also admitted that the intensity of his search has led to his wife being neglected.

"Friends have told me I have to be careful not to mix up my life and my father’s personal life. ‘It is not your life’, they say."

"But to have a sister, this story is part of my life. I’m somehow connected to Vietnam. My heart is with Vietnam. I have a sister who I don’t know," he said, pausing between sentences and words as he struggled to keep his emotions in check.

Karin Redlich, Wolfgang's daughter named after the missing sister, regards her brother's journey highly. 

"If Friedhelm had not started in 2009, I would never had thought about starting it myself. If we find her, we will try to meet her in person and learn everything about her," she said.

As Friedhelm keeps piecing together the puzzle map that he hopes will lead him to his Vietnamese half-sister one day, he thinks that life might be tough for her too.

"She also experienced the things as I did. Her father also left her when she was little. She must miss him like I do.

"She’s a member of my family."

(From L) Karin Redlich, Lotta Redlich, Friedhelm Redlich posed with local Vietnamese they met in Hoi An during their trip in Vietnam in January, 2020. Photo courtesy of Friedhelm Redlich.

(From L) The Redlichs - Karin, Lotta and Friedhelm pose with a Vietnamese family they met in Hoi An during their trip to Vietnam in January 2020. Photo courtesy of Friedhelm Redlich.

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