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Time capsule from a soldier long gone

Kurt Schimanski, his mother Elisabeth Schimanski and his sister Margot Seemann.

Kurt Schimanski was 24-years-old when he was killed on the cold and brutal Eastern Front, just months before the end of World War Two. His body was never found, and his heartbroken family never knew exactly what happened.

Now close to 70 years later, a discovery by a priest at a Russian monastery has given Kurt's descendants a glimpse into the last chapter of his life, and a secret treasure trove of memories.

That priest stumbled, by chance, upon a rusted, barely recognisable tin, hidden behind a furnace wall in the monastery. Inside the tin, a pile of disintegrating letters, photos and postcards to Kurt from his family and friends. With the help of Red Cross' international tracing service, the Priest Herman and his colleague Tatiana Mitrafanowa were able to track down Kurt's closest surviving relatives, now living in Australia.

A precious son conscripted to war

Kurt's sister, 93-year-old Margot Seemann, is amazed by the discovery, which includes a handful of letters she wrote to her brother. "I was so surprised and so impressed that they found me. It is wonderful." She only wishes their late mother, Elisabeth Schimanski, who penned many of the letters, was here to share the joy.

Margot's brother was a German conscript and had never wanted to go to war. "My mother loved him, she loved him a lot. When she received a letter from the army that my brother was lost, it was awful for us," says Margot, who moved to Australia in 1952.

Kurt was a gentle and kind young man, she says. "My mother was so happy that she had such kind and happy children. We both laughed a lot … it was Kurt who caused all this. He was only one-and-a-quarter-years older than I am and when I was invited to my girlfriends' birthdays (they would say) 'Bring your brother with you'. They all liked him because he was gentle and humorous and bright and very good mannered."

Margot's son, Kurt Seemann, who is named in memory of his uncle, says the tin found in the furnace in St. Petersburg turned out to be a cake tin, which belonged to his uncle's mother. "From what I remember reading she insisted he send it back: 'It was an important tin; I use it'. I sometimes wonder if that insistence on sending it back was more of a case of 'I want to see if you're still alive.'

Death on the Eastern Front

"I suspect the tin was a symbol of holding things safe. And to me it was like that: that's exactly what's happened for 70 years, all the correspondence from our family to Uncle Kurt endured the test of time in the tin."

And so too, by some stroke of luck in all those decades - in a city where the thermometer dips below 0°C in winter - that furnace, a soldier's hiding spot, was never once lit.

Kurt Seemann says the discovery at the Coastal Monastery of St. Sergius was like the unearthing of a time capsule. "Finding these letters was like rediscovering a part of the family that we assumed was lost."

The family only had sketchy details of Kurt's death and the find is concrete evidence of where he was shortly before he was killed. "It wasn't a nice war on the Eastern Front. What we understand is Uncle Kurt had a little group and they were in the trenches. He sent his group to fall back while he was fending off, then he got up to run back and he got shot in the back … that's the imagery we have and then nothing." A young soldier who survived told this story to Margot after the war.

The family hypothesis

Along with the cake tin and Kurt Schimanski's letters, Priest Herman found letters belonging to other soldiers, but all of those, which didn't have protection like the cake tin, disintegrated to dust when he pulled them from the furnace.

"My hypothesis is that this (the monastery's pump house) would have been the last shelter point before going in to battle I suspect, just by the fact that so many of the young soldiers stuffed these letters they received from family into this furnace."

The fact the letters were so well hidden "that's almost like saying 'This is my last chance to have someone remember that I was here.' It's like 'I don't want these to be found straight away because it's dangerous here, but maybe one day someone will find them. And if I get a chance to come back I know where they are'," he says.

If that is what those soldiers hoped, tragically they never got the chance to return.

Margot Seemann (centre) holding the rusted cake tin recently discovered in a Russian monastery with her late brother's wartime letters. She is surrounded by her children Uta (from left), Kurt and Heidi. Credit: Australian Red Cross/Lara Cole

Margot says she is indebted to Red Cross, the priest - who they only know as Priest Herman - and Tatiana, a nurse assistant, for their determination and all they did to find her family. Priest Herman and Tatiana, who spoke German so could read the letters, searched on their own for Kurt's family for two years without luck, before contacting German Red Cross.

Margot's daughters Uta and Heidi Seemann say the discovery means a lot to their family. Heidi says: "My mother is so glad. That a part of her brother Kurt is with her again, as he has touched, read and kept these letters.

A priceless bond to a beloved brother

"We are so grateful that the Russian Priest Herman and Tatiana made such an effort to find the nearest relatives. And we are appreciative of Red Cross for making this all happen."

Along with the tin and letters, Priest Herman and Tatiana sent the family a video of where they were found. Uta says the pair explain on the video that say they searched so hard for Kurt's relatives because they were so impressed by the humanity in the letters, they could tell he didn't want to fight, and had a loving caring family. "It was obvious to him (Priest Herman) they weren't there of their own volition."

Because of that chance discovery, an Australian family now has an extraordinary and priceless bond to a beloved brother and uncle, lost in the cold and brutal days of a long ago war.

Australian Red Cross' International Tracing Service helps reduce the suffering of families separated by war, conflict, disaster or migration. It is a free service and helps people to find lost loved ones, re-establish contact, exchange family news and clarify the fate of the missing.

In Australia, Red Cross began its International Tracing Service 100 years ago in 1915, opening bureaux to track wounded and missing serviceman during WWI.

Red Cross depends on the support of the public to continue its work. Support Red Cross as help families separated by war, conflict or disaster by donating online or by phone 1800 811 700.