Joseph Julius Simmeth, 83, butcher known as `Peppi'

May 17, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,SUN REPORTER

Joseph Julius "Peppi" Simmeth, a retired Bel Air butcher who as a German World War II prisoner spent six years in Soviet captivity, died of cancer Saturday at his Bel Air home. He was 83.

Born in Passau, Germany, he enlisted in the German army at 17 and fought on the Eastern Front.

In a 2003 talk at John Carroll School in Bel Air, Mr. Simmeth recounted his wartime experiences, including the winter siege at Stalingrad, where the German army was defeated.

Days before Stalingrad fell, he was sent to fight at Kursk, a battle that involved nearly 400 tanks. Mr. Simmeth recalled that he was one of nine in his unit who survived. He was taken captive and for the next six years was a prisoner of war.

Mr. Simmeth recalled for The Sun in 2003 how his Russian captors marched him to a railroad station, put him in a packed cattle car and fed him salted herring and water.

"We had no idea where we were going," he said, adding that in a few weeks he was in Siberia.

As the men left the railroad cars, they were counted.

"They hit us with sticks as they counted," he said, but added that his hunger was more painful than the beatings.

As a prisoner of war, he helped build a camp. His food consisted of bread and cabbage soup.

During his imprisonment, Mr. Simmeth said, his weight dropped to 90 pounds.

"I couldn't walk anymore," he said. "My skin became like fish skin." He recalled being kept alive by a Russian doctor who gave him vodka and a little bit to eat.

In 1947, more than a year after the war ended, the prisoners were taken to the Ural Mountains and put to work mining asbestos, he said.

"We would hit the hammer into the walls, chew and swallow the asbestos like gum because we were so hungry," he said in the newspaper article.

He was sent home to Germany in 1949 and briefly returned to his family's 300-year-old butchering and meat preparation business.

"When you're a prisoner for six years, everything's different when you return," he said in another interview. "You're a different person."

As a result of friendships with U.S. servicemen involved in the postwar occupation of Germany, Mr. Simmeth visited the U.S. in early 1950s after his marriage and the birth of his first son. He came to Baltimore for six months and worked in a meatpacking house. He spoke no English, found the city unfriendly and went back to Passau. But he soon became "homesick" for the U.S., he said, and returned. He took a job as a bologna maker in the Bronx, N.Y.

In early 1959, in search of a small town that reminded him of Bavaria, he moved again - to Bel Air, where a brother and sister had settled. "It was like a dream almost," he told a Sun reporter in 1968 - the same year his brother, U.S. Army Maj. Maximilian H. Simmeth, was killed in action during his second tour in Vietnam.

His former New York employer lent him a couple of old machines so that in 1961 Mr. Simmeth was able to open Peppi's Meats on Bel Air's Thomas Street. He did his own beef, lamb and pork butchering and made his own sausages, lunchmeat and frankfurters in a smokehouse behind the shop. He also sold a line of German-style groceries, along with cheeses, breads and salads.

"He had a wonderful shop and sold the best lamb chops I've ever tasted," said the Rev. Charles K. Riepe, retired headmaster of John Carroll School.

Mr. Simmeth joined the Bel Air Rotary and in the mid-1960s was made a guest member of the Harford post of the American Legion.

"What we sell, we try to have the best," Mr. Simmeth said, adding, "In a small town, you have to be damn honest."

He retired in 1987 and sold the business to an employee, David Moser.

"Peppi was a rare breed, a bull worker who handed a slice of bologna to every child who came in the store," Mr. Moser said yesterday from the shop. "You would be surprised at the number of people who come in and remember that tradition."

Father Riepe will conduct funeral services at 11 a.m. tomorrow at the McComas Funeral Home, 50 West Broadway in Bel Air.

Survivors include Mr. Simmeth's wife of nearly 56 years, the former Elizabeth "Lisa" Entfellner; three sons, Joseph Simmeth of Mesa, Ariz., William J. Simmeth of Delaplane, Va., and Gary Simmeth of Waxhaw, N.C.; a daughter, Elizabeth Simmeth-Ensor of Jarrettsville; four sisters, Albine Hart of Bel Air, Carla Landers of Hamilton, Texas, Maria Feld of Manhasset, N.Y., and Katherine Coryell of Miami; and seven grandchildren.

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