Christmas in East Prussia, 1944

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-J28377,_Volkssturm_feiert_Weihnachten.jpg ‎(788 × 542 pixels, file size: 50 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg)
A scene from seventy years ago. Christmas in an East Prussian bunker. The soldier in the middle is handing out mail. A month later the Soviet offensive would start and East Prussia would cease to be. 

No doubt these men were quite aware that the end was near. But nobody knew how much the civilians, the women and children, would suffer in those last months of the war. My mom's younger brother disappeared during that time. (I only recently received confirmation of where his remains were put.) My mom was months away from being taken back into the Soviet Union as a prisoner of war, while my aunts were months away from being brutalized by the Soviet victors. (One aunt could never bare children as a result.) The Nazis were nearing the end of their reign of terror. Big changes were coming.
For everyone.

But first, there was Christmas. A pause in the fighting. A sham of peace. 

Youth Groups

Back when I was a kid, belonging to a youth group was common, and so was wearing a youth group uniform. My church-sponsored youth group was the Pioneer Girls. with Pilgrims being for the younger girls and Colonists for the older ones. We had a lot of fun. Working on badges, going camping, having singsongs and making things. I was totally involved.  Of course, being a church-sponsored organization, it did have an underlying motive. It wasn’t just about having fun and learning new skills. It was about absorbing an evangelical Christian doctrine.

My own children started off in Girl Guides and Boy Scouts. After a few years, their interest waned and I didn’t encourage them. I began having my doubts about the badges, the marches and the salutes. To the cynic in me, it all smacked of militarism.

And so, my kids traded in their uniforms for team jerseys. Camping trips turned into tournaments in other cities. The great outdoors became a soccer pitch, a baseball diamond, or a chlorinated swimming pool.  Competition became more fun than co-operation.

When I asked one of my kids about her memories of belonging to Girl Guides, she said they were good memories. It was mostly about the friends.  And when I look back, I remember much of the good things, too. That’s where I learned how to crochet, to embroider, to make a fire, to share a good ghost story.  I made a lot of friends too and had some exciting adventures. 

By joining a soccer team, kids gain physical fitness, learn to be a team player, learn self-discipline, make friends and grow as people. They don't  learn how to crochet or make a fire.  But then, I guess those skills aren’t necessary anymore. Me? I’m grateful for them anyway.

Why am I meandering on about youth groups? Because I’m looking into the BDM (aka Bund Deutsche Maedchen)—the Band of German Girls—especially during the Nazi, pre-war years.  The BDM was a highly structured organization open to girls ages ten and up. Their joining date would be on the eve of the Fuhrer’s birthday in April.  When they joined they became “property of the Fuehrer.”*

 (Photo Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-04517A / Georg Pahl / CC-BY-SA)

Belonging to the Hitler Youth became mandatory in December, 1936.  For two hours a week a girl would hike, camp, do sports, home economics, music and handicrafts, all the while being immersed in the Nazi principles of race. The goal of the BDM was to form young German girls who would be “physically healthy and strong, and to become the mothers of the future Nazi generation.”*

 ( *from STUDIES OF MIGRATION AND SETTLEMENT Administrative Series Subject: Women in Nazi Germany—I Organizations   Date: July 25, 1944)

Kids are sponges. They soak up anything and everything. What a gift to us adults—and what a responsibility. 

Haunted Walk

Last evening, my daughter and I went on a haunted Winnipeg walk. It was a pleasant night for strolling around in the past.  We got to hear stories about various buildings around The Exchange District that had experienced ghosts. It was all good fun until we stood in front of the  Marlborough Hotel on Smith Street. A stranger joined the group and interrupted our speaker with unwelcome comments—but we managed to ignore him. Some people in our group, however, chose to focus on the intruder, rather than on our facilitator. An altercation occurred. It was frightening to watch the word fight quickly escalate into a fist fight and then a one-sided pummeling. Two men kicking a man when he’s down on the ground, is horrible to see. It’s hard not to believe that this was racially motivated. The uninvited stranger was First Nations and inebriated. He did not deserve the beating he got. 

It’s too close to what I’m reading just now about the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany, where the Brown Shirt thugs would attack Jews, homosexuals, or others they deemed unworthy. 

Violence added a frightening dimension to an otherwise creepily fun visit to the haunted places of Winnipeg’s Exchange District. The injustices of the past continue to live on in the pain, addiction and poverty of the present. Yesterday’s ghost walk was an in-the-gut reminder of haunted lives. Bone-chilling violence does not belong on our streets...past or present.

Amber Time

Some years ago I inherited a Bernstein...called English. My father bought the stone in the former Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) back in the 1930s.  After a storm the Baltic coast near there is littered with amber—hence the nickname Amber Coast.

Nowadays most of that Amber Coast belongs to Russia. (Lithuania and Poland border on its edges.) About six hundred tons of amber are mined annually in open pit mining near the town of Yantarny (about forty kilometers from Kaliningrad).  Yantarny, in German times, was called Palmnicken.   It was the scene of some truly horrific evemts. In January, 1945, when the Germans realized they were losing the war, three thousand Jewish prisoners were marched over from Königsberg and made to enter the freezing water.  The Nazis then shot at them—with only about a dozen surviving.

That this Baltic Coast area, so ambient with its sand dunes, waves, beachside spas and amber jewels can also be the setting of such cruelty is a poignant reminder that beauty can be deceptive.

Amber, by the way, is a fossil made of tree resin and is millions of years old. Some amber contains insects that remain in perfect formation. (Remember Jurassic ParK?)  My own piece of amber doesn’t contain any insect, but it’s still a time capsule to me. It was a gift my dad gave to his first love. That love got messed up by the chaos of the Third Reich...but it’s sparking a new love in my imagination. I must be patient, and let the amber tell its story.  

Exploring East Prussia

           "History isn't about dates and places and wars. It's about the people who fill the spaces between them." (Jodi Picoult).

My first book, The Kulak's Daughter (first published, 2009 and to be re-released, Spring 2015)  is set in the Soviet Union. Its sequel, East Prussian Princess (Spring, 2015) is centered in East Prussia. Both books are for young people.  I intend to spend the next few months immersed in East Prussia where my mom spent her teenage years and will use this blog to share some of my research. I’ve got a stack of books, old movies and photos, along with some octagenarian memories to explore.

You can’t find East Prussia (or Ostpreussen) on any current map. Like Volhynia, (now part of Ukraine), East Prussia belongs to the past.  The southern part of this former German province is now Poland and the northern part, including the capitol city of Königsberg, is part of Russia.

 Here are a few tidbits, to pique your curiosity.

- East Prussia ceased to exist in April, 1945 after the Germans surrendered to the Soviets.
- The city of Königsberg was heavily bombed first by the British in the summer of 1944 and then by the Soviets during the winter months of 1945.
- Königsberg (East Prussia’s major cultural centre) was renamed Kaliningrad in 1946 in honour of  Mikhail Kalinin.
- My mom lived in a small farming community just outside the city limits called Kreuzburg (not to be confused with the bohemian suburb of Kreuzberg in Berlin.) Nowadays Kreuzburg is known as Slavskoye.

After the war, the German population was replaced with Russians. Today there are virtually no Germans living in Kaliningrad. The years 1945-1947 were tortuous for the remaining German civilians as the Soviets took their revenge. Family members refused to talk about those years.

Today, Kaliningrad is not a common travel destination. Last time I checked you could get a limited three day visa. There are access-restricted military installations in the area. The city gives Russia important access to the Baltic Sea. However, things are set to change for Kaliningrad.  It's to be the venue for a 2018 World Cup match and a new stadium is currently under construction.

I’d very much like to visit Kaliningrad and the surrounding area. The best I can do for now is find the old Königsberg in photos, books and memories.  If you have something to share about the former Königsberg or East Prussia, I'd be delighted to hear from you!
Fall's the season to gather together. If you're a squirrel, you gather pine cones. If you're a goose, you gather goose friends.  And if you're a bookworm, you gather books. Let the season change. I'm ready (almost).

Camp Morton, 1920.  This former children’s ‘fresh air’
camp is now a provincially-run park with rustic log cabins in a beautiful setting by the lake. It was probably even more beautiful back in the twenties and thirties when the buildings were new and the stone walls, (built from shoreline rocks in Italian style), weren’t collapsing. But maybe not. There’s something compelling about ruins—something that evokes melancholy, and a sense of time and forgotten memories. Lake Winnipeg crashed then like now against the shoreline and silver moons lit night time highways over the brooding depths of this huge lake. (Lake Winnipeg is one of the largest lakes in the world.)

I’ve come back here every fall for more than twenty years.  It’s peaceful, it’s rustic, it’s ghostly, it’s magical.  Disadvantaged children from the Winnipeg area would come to this Catholic-run camp for the a week in the summer. Old steps lead down to a crumbling beach house. A few of the other old buildings still stand—the water tower, the former chapel, the arcade. The sunken garden still blooms.  

I’d like to think I can hear the sound of children laughing on the swings, but maybe that’s just some bird twittering.  And is that the sound of a homesick child crying on a windy night?  Probably just a drafty window.

Camp Morton is an hour and a bit north of Winnipeg on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. It's now closed for the season...(for us regular folks, But who knows what memory does when left alone in an empty place?)

You know how a novel has several sub-plots—just to keep things interesting? A life is much the same. My meandering has led to a few unplanned detours with unexpected views. (Oh how I love metaphor!) I’m of the firm belief that no experience is bad, but some experiences are more challenging, more tiring, more confusing, than others.

I'm thrilled to share that I’m focused on my main trail again...that of exploring my roots. This has been a lifelong preoccupation of mine—to find the family that was crushed in another place and time. Always I’ve wanted to see the unseen, hear the unspoken, feel the untouched.

Things are never simply as they appear. There’s a story to the geese flying overhead, to the murder headlines in the paper, to the photos in my mother’s old photo album. I feel compelled to find story. The beauty of being a fiction writer is that I can make stuff up, I can embellish. I’m grateful for this gift of imagination. I’m not always able to transpose this into perfect words, but I’m working on the craft called writing and perhaps with practice I shall improve.

I’m over-the-moon grateful for the opportunity gifted to me by Rebelight Publishing. Not only are they publishing my sequel, East Prussian Princess, in the spring of 2015, but they’re simultaneously re-publishing The Kulak’s Daughter which went out of print soon after it was released due to the closure of its Texas-based publisher. And not only that, but there’s a third book in the works. More about that later.

It’s possible that this is all a dream, a made-up reality that my overly active imagination has invented. I’ll let you know.  On another path...this one now six months long and therefore truly day job is done. No more walking through rain and wind and snow delivering mail. Finished. Over. I can finally claim to be a full time writer. Now I’ll just meander with my dear canine through rain and wind and snow. Walk on!  

I intend to continue sharing some of my story research on this blog. 

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