Kaffee Klatsch and History

I went for coffee on Sunday, after my book signing out in Transcona…a part of the city so far from where I live…it feels like another city. While out there, I met a friend of my parents­…a recent widow who seems to appreciate my company once in a while. I, in turn, enjoy connecting with someone who shares memories of my parents. A little German baking adds to the appeal. The fresh ground coffee and home-baked streusel kuchen with whipping cream was wonderful. But what made this visit especially delicious, was her company. Here I am researching about East Prussia during and after the war, and at this kaffee klatsch were two people who'd lived through it. My friend’s guests each had fascinating firsthand accounts of surviving the Second World War. Doing a quick blog post certainly doesn’t do them justice. So this this is just a summary of two incredible histories that I had a glimpse of yesterday, over coffee.

The older gentleman, still recovering from recent hip surgery, told of how he was sent to East Prussia as a child to escape the Allied bombing of Berlin. By January, 1945, of course, East Prussian civilians were fleeing by the millions from the Soviet attack. As a youngster, he came very close to becoming one of the 'wolfs-kinder'—who hid in the woods and lived off scavenged foods.  It was pure serendipity that led to an aunt claiming him. Otherwise, he too, would have been forced to be on his own, like many of his fellow child refugee orphans...some of whom grew up never knowing who they really were.

His wife, also survived the East Prussian flight (see the controversial movie "March of Millions")  when she was not quite six years old. Her father happened to be the locomotive engineer, and he insisted that she and her siblings board a freight train—the last train running through the (then) German city of Allenstein (today Polish and called Olsztyn) back in January, 1945.  While she escaped the front, but there were still years under Soviet occupation ahead of her before she came to Canada.

We sipped our coffee and dug into our streusel kuchen. War stories. Memories. History matters. And then the conversation slip-slided into current politics… 

Writing, Swimming and Islands

I’ve always wanted to live on the island. The island was way out there in the deep part of the lake. On the island lived the writers. I wanted to live with them, but I was afraid to get my feet wet. And so—staying on shore, I read about writers, about writing, and I imagined how wonderful it would be—some day. Every once in a while, I got brave and put my feet in the water. I sent out a little story or an article and when the rejection notice arrived, I quickly got back on shore and gazed wistfully back out to the island. The water was cold—just like I thought.

I’ve walked around the lake a few times now. I’ve gotten a view of the island from many sides. I’m slow, but I’ve finally figured out how to get to the island. You see, there’s no bridge, there’s no boat, and there’s no magic. You have to learn how to swim. And then, you practice and you practice and you practice. So, I took some lessons and discovered that I have a lot to learn. I will continue to take writing courses. But the most important part is I’m out there now—swimming. I mean—writing.

When I learned the technique of actual swimming I learned something else. I learned that the more I swam, the stronger I became. It got easier. I also learned different strokes. This variety in swimming helps keep me afloat. Trying different writing strokes keeps my writing afloat, too. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry and plain business writing, all involve putting word after word, stroke after stroke.

Swimmer’s cramp, or should I say, writer’s block, can happen at any time. This is not a reason to quit and if expected—doesn’t frighten. What does a swimmer do? A swimmer massages the pain and floats for a while. How does a writer float? I like the hammock method best myself…with a good book…letting my cramped mind float. Or, I use other muscles. Maybe I garden or shovel snow. Maybe I cook or de-clutter my closet. Forcing something that hurts to keep working doesn’t work for me. You see my thoughts are still writing—just not on paper. A swimmer who floats is still in the water.

Guess what? I’ve made it to the island. And, I’ve discovered that it’s empty. There are no living writers here. It’s no different than the shoreline I left behind. The living writers are all busy swimming in the water. Only their stories remain. Like snakes discarding too-tight skins, the writers have moved on.

You see, the island is only one of countless shores out there. One small success and then it’s on to the next island. It’s not the island that’s important—it’s the swimming. Being a writer is not a place or a noun. Being a writer is a verb—an action verb. To be a writer means you have to be out there writing. And, the more you write, the better you become.

Getting my feet wet was the hard part, but now that I’m out here, the water’s fine!

Amber Coast

The once East Prussian coastline along the Baltic is referred to as the a-political Amber Coast. Amber, fossilized tree resin—or Baltic Gold—is considered a semi-precious stone and before 1945, was one of the symbols of East Prussia. 

The major processing centre for amber was Palmicken (Russian: Yantarny) —about forty kilometers from Kaliningrad (German: Königsberg). Its population hovers around five thousand…up from the three thousand during Nazi times. The mine is about 20 kilometers south of Rauschen (now Svetlogorsk). My character, Katya, and her friends, would definitely be in amber hunting territory.

The town was renamed Yantarny after the Soviet occupation in 1945. (Yantar means amber in Russian.)  Today Yantarny is still a major amber processing facility with five to six hundred tons of amber produced annually.  Visitors can tour the facility and  I’d love to do this. Maybe they give out free samples? 

The beautiful amber of this area, however, is forever tainted by Nazi atrocities which occurred in the last months of the war. I might have written about this before, but reviewing my notes, I’m overcome, again, by this particular brutality.

During the January evacuation of various concentration camps in the East Prussian area, Jewish prisoners (mostly female) were marched towards Palmicken’s open pit mine— and into a shaft called ‘Anna’.  Many died there. The mine manager tried to disobey the SS and save the women from their fate of being buried alive in the mine…instead, he also died and the remaining women were brutally forced to march on…into the icy Baltic. Of the remaining 7000 Jewish prisoners, only a handful survived.  

For years, the human remains found in this area were treated as Russian bones…and celebrated as Soviet heroes. It’s not until recently, (2011), that these bones were recognized as in fact Holocaust victims.

It seems the more I read about this, the more I’m sickened by what my people…the Germans…allowed to happen in those years. Can ignorance be a crime, too? I remember what Irmgard Hunt wrote in her memoir, On Hitler’s Mountain:

“But most- and worst- of all, as we and all the world slowly learned about the full extent of Hitler's Final Solution, we realized that all Germans, no matter what they had suffered or whether they had participated in any way in the atrocities, would bear guilt, shame and dishonor, probably forever.”
Photos: Top: unpolished amber on beach. Middle: Polished Amber (by James St. John). Lower: Amber Mine in Yantarny (by  J Kossowski)

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