About Chess

I’ve finally finished watching the Netflix series called The Queen’s Gambit. I loved the fifties and sixties sets . . . all that wallpaper and the turquoise. And the clothes!  Then there was the sad, dark underside. I don't want to give away anything. I want to focus on the chess! Yes.

Wikipedia
My dad was a serious chess player. He’d have his Sunday-afternoon chess friends come over and they would sit in a silent bubble for hours. My brother and our friends learned to carefully tiptoe around the sanctity of the game. 

Curiously, Dad’s chess mates were also former POWs. As a kid, I paid little attention to Dad’s war stories . . . that was my brother’s territory. Talk about airplanes and uniforms would make my eyes roll. In any case, my dad was not one to dwell on the past . . . but I did know that chess helped Dad survive his almost five-year-long sentence in a coal mine outside of Moscow. The camp commander saw in my dad a worthy chess opponent and I’m rather sad that Dad never saw me that way. I played Chinese checkers, instead. Much simpler.  Go here to look at some great images of gulag-made chess pieces. 

Anyway, now I’m curious about the role of chess in the Soviet Union and in the gulags. After a quick surf on the web, I’ve found some books to add to my ‘to read’ list.  Stefan Zweig, wrote The Royal Game a novel about chess and madness. Nabokov wrote The Luzhin Defence. 

from Wikipedia
Woodcut
Schachnovelle
S. Zweig


Natan Sharansky survived more than a hundred KGB interrogations using imaginary chess moves. Like other gulag survivors, living in the mind was one way to escape the brutalities of the physical reality. Other chess-playing prisoners somehow managed to carve chess figures out of wood.

So why was chess so popular in the Soviet Union? 

Fact: Marx played chess before there was a USSR and then after the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Lenin loved and encouraged the game.

Fact: Chess was used as a tool to enlighten the proletariat masses. Chess schools instead of bingo halls. Chess was considered an athletic sport. 

Fact: Chess could demonstrate to the rest of the world how cultured and advanced the Soviets were. The Soviets were determined to prove that communism was best.

Russia continues with the Soviet chess obsession. It’s cheap and portable . . . doesn’t require an internet connection, or electricity. Just the rules, a board, some wooden figures (or made of anything, really, even breadcrumbs if you're in the gulag) and a teacher. 

I’m disappointed that I never got to learn. Turns out only 15% of elite chess players are women. Huh? I was being trained to fold laundry and vacuum when I was a girl. 

My kids had chess lessons in elementary school and it's too bad my dad never got to play with them. Teaching chess moves is akin to teaching life skills and I could have used some of those lessons while growing up. Instead I had to learn things the hard way. And some moves, I’m still trying to figure out. 


Christmas is Complicated


For the record (no pun intended) I didn't listen to just German music as a young person.

 “Sometimes change comes at you like a broadside accident.” That’s Joni Mitchell’s line and I consider it my line, too. It’s been 35 years since that December 3rd collision with the Greyhound bus. I wasn’t in the car, but when the police drove me past the crumpled heap that carried my firstborn and my husband, I was too terrified to ask questions. 

I spent the rest of that December holding my only slightly injured daughter (car seats work!) while visiting her father in ICU. I still remember the beeps, the smells, and stranger sniffles from another bed over. I remember visiting a mall during those pre-Christmas weeks and feeling like an alien.

For Christmas Day, we got promoted to the Neurology Ward. It was our first Christmas as a family and our daughter was cutting her first tooth at seven months old. Her dad, still alive after surgery and a two-week coma, had a serious brain injury which has haunted my 37-year marriage. I took home a reasonable facsimile of the man I’d married and, I can’t lie, in spite of  hope and positive thinking, it’s been a struggle. 

All this about my personal life, just to say that December is complicated for many, if not most, folks.

The other day, I heard a podcast interviewing the wonderful Shelagh Rogers, host of the Next Chapter (her weekly program should be required listening for any writer) on CBC. She spoke of her own experience with an accident when she went through a car window. The splinters of glass in her face took years to emerge. That describes my process of dealing with our own traumatic event. The splinters lie there, sometimes for decades, but eventually they surface. 

What’s that other Joni Mitchell song? The one about Christmas and about the river? Yes, that one. That fits, too. A snowy river? Sounds perfect.

 

Winter Solstice in nazi times

The family canine insists on three regular-scheduled daily walks and nowadays, by five p.m. it's dark out. Of course, the snow helps to brighten things up and besides, it’s not ever really dark on the streets of suburbia. 

Broken Sun Wheel - Silsor  Wikipedia

Yes, winter solstice is almost here and soon the light will again champion the dark. I take great comfort in the consistent rhythms of the seasons . . . old enough to know that darkness, like light, never lasts. It’s all good. 

The Nazis embraced winter solstice and used old pagan symbols to their advantage. I've included this pagan representation of the broken sun wheel. The Nazis had a hard time with Christmas and the birth of the Jewish baby that it celebrated. Most German people loved the holiday and so the Nazis tried to accommodate both Christian and pagan traditions.

Part of my research for my upcoming novel involved interviewing . . . I’d rather call it, sharing a kaffee klatsch . . . with old family friends who grew up during the Nazi years. One particular image from a conversation stayed with me. 

A woman showed me a picture she’d drawn, as a young child using crayons, of a swastika rolling up (or is it down?) a hill. It was such a striking image that I had to borrow the idea for a scene in my book. The swastika represents the sun and it rolls up the hill to bring light into the world. Nature, pagan tradition and political propaganda . . . succinctly tied into one child’s drawing. Terrifying.


Cover for Tainted Amber

I received an early Christmas present from my publisher—my book has a name and a cover—and I’m absolutely delighted to share. TAINTED AMBER is due for a spring release. The cover—while not exactly what I expected—wonderfully evokes the setting and mood of the story. 

The story happens in 1937, it's a time when Hitler's intolerant ambitions still seem benign.

I can’t wait to share this story with readers. Historical fiction inspired by a piece of amber and by my family. Katya’s story continues! It's been a long journey for me as an author. 


This beautiful beach along the Kaliningrad coast opens the story. I hunted, but never found any amber.


You'll have to read the book to find out if my characters have any better luck finding amber. 

Krampus in Berchtesgaden

Back when I was a young university student, I spent a glorious, crazy time in Europe . . . backpacking with my trusty Canadian flag and working whenever I ran out of money. 

public domain
Berchtesgaden became my home base. You might have heard of Berchtesgaden before because Hitler also considered it his home base. Half an hour from Salzburg, Austria, it’s an absolutely beautiful spot and sadly cringe-worthy to think that he enjoyed the same views that I came to love. 


When I lived there, signs of the Nazi influence still permeated the town. A hotel manager where I worked actually had a portrait of Hitler on his office wall. Creepy. There were, however, older ghosts lingering in the mountain vales of the Watzmann and Kehlstein—a pre-Christian tradition called Krampus



On the eve of December 5th, fur and straw-clad mountain creatures descended into the town to beat evil out of unprotected citizens. The noisy, bell-clanging ogres meandered down the main street of the Christmas-card setting lashing whips and chains at innocent bystanders. 


I much preferred St. Nicholas. He'd stuff my shoes with oranges, trinkets and chocolates. There was always the possibility that he would leave coal instead of treats and perhaps a cane for my parents to use on me if I didn’t behave in the weeks leading up to Christmas. 


As a poor traveller, I couldn't afford the regular tour bus of the Eagle's Nest.  So I climbed to the top of the Kehlstein and looked down at it. My photo is poor quality but it sure brings back the memories.


I explored Nazi Christmas traditions as background research for my upcoming novel. Hitler’s circle was eager to eradicate Christian traditions and encouraged the pagan rituals—but without much success. One pagan tradition, however, that continues to be embraced worldwide is the Christmas tree. The Nazis preferred to call it the Jul Tree or Tree of Lights. 


The pain caused by the Nazis has left many more lingering wounds than the childhood fears of any pagan rituals.

Remembering the Holodomor during COVID19

In Canada, the fourth Friday and Saturday of November are Holodomor Remembrance Days. I remember my grandfather, Eduard Ristau, who survived the Holodomor in rural Ukraine. He would have spent 1932 and 1933 in hiding—trying to avoid arrest—after his farm had been confiscated for collectivization. Mathilde, his wife and my grandmother, died in distant Siberia a year earlier. My mom, Else, and his other kids had been safely sent to East Prussia just in time. But my grandpa couldn’t get his documents in order. And so he lived through Stalin’s starvation agenda enforced by the OGPU (Soviet secret police).


During those long months of starvation, my grandfather received letters and money from his East Prussian extended family. In 2004, I read those letters in the Zhytomyr secret police files. It was so precious to me to make this connection with him and I am forever grateful that he let his kids get out of the country in time. My mom and her siblings, already half-starved after their time in Siberia, would probably never have survived the Holodomor. 


While visiting various villages in the former Volhynia area, one old woman told me of how she would cower in the fields with the mice as the OGPU came around confiscating grain and the seeds for the next year’s crops. 

 Wikipedia
Our local Human Rights Museum educates visitors about the Holodomor and reminds us of the suffering caused by deliberate starvation by the Soviet government. 


Today, during  COVID, I am grateful to be living in Canada—a country that is trying hard to help each of us stay alive, fed, safe and warm. It’s mind-boggling to me that anti-maskers would see masks as anti-freedom.


And yes, you can miss what you’ve never had. I’ve always missed my grandparents and it took me half a century to learn their story. Opa Ristau—homeless and starving in the empty barns of rural Ukraine—I remember you today on Holodomor Remembrance Day.


FYI:   28,000 people died daily at the height of the famine. Today—with a pandemic raging—I’m finally beginning to grasp what that number means. Another sad fact: 30% of those deaths were under the age of ten. 

 

Finding Bremer Stadtmusikanten in Riga

Instead of singing along on Saturday mornings with Popeye, the sailor man, I sang German folksongs under the enthusiastic leadership of Freddy, our German school teacher.  That’s where I first learned about the famous Bremer musicians—a donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster. Based on a Grimms' fairytale, the four aging animals, worn out and rejected by their owners, become traveling musicians finding happiness through adventure and comradeship.

Last fall, I was delighted to meet those musical animals again in Riga, Latvia. It turns out that Bremen and Riga are sister cities. Bremen presented Riga with a replica of their historic bronze statue back in 1990 to celebrate Latvia's independence from the Soviet Union. 

from Wikimedia
The Riga statue was re-imagined by Christa Baumgärtel and has the animals surrounded on either side by wide metal bars. This frame represents the broken iron curtain through which the animals now peek to create their music. 

Here’s an image of the original 1953 statue in Bremen by artist Gerhard Marcks.

Politics aside, rubbing noses with any of the four animals is supposed to bring good luck.  These famous animal bards are also depicted by sculptures in places as diverse as Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Fujikawaguchiko, Japan. 

Back to Saturday morning cartoons . . . if I’d been a kid in Russia back in 1969, I could have experienced the Bremen town musicians on TV since it was a popular Soviet cartoon

It was fun to find a connection to childhood on my Baltic adventure.



'Their' Country

I have a guilty pleasure (besides the Abba one) of following the young royals. It’s hard not to with this smart phone of mine that constantly puts them in the headlines. I find little Princess Charlotte to be absolutely adorable but will keep my opinions about the older royals in her life to myself. Anyway. One recent article shared that Prince Harry laid a wreath in LA rather than in the UK. Now let me digress.

I am a Canadian and yes, I am infinitely grateful that my parents chose this country as their new home after the ugly Second World War. Yes, I know the Nazis were beyond evil. Yes, I know that my father, by fighting for them, could also be called evil. 

But, he was my dad and somehow, I have had to come to terms with what he did and with the uniform he wore. The education system I shuffled through did nothing to address this predicament—and I have decades of shame and struggle behind me—one that thousands of immigrants continue to experience. 


Buffy St. Marie’s song, The Universal Soldier, supports me in this struggle and so does the memorial that Prince Harry visited. It reads “In Memory of the men who offered their lives in defense of their country.”  May our country never be the aggressor, may it never be the evil one. May my son never be called to be a Universal Soldier.


My publisher, Ronsdale Press, will be doing a panel discussion, via Zoom, about the war on Tuesday, November 17th.  "Second Generation WWII: A German Perspective."  Panelists include, Michelle Barker, author of the award-winning books including My Long List of Impossible Things, The House of One Thousand Eyes, and A Year of Borrowed Men, along with, Heige Boehm, debut author of Secrets in the Shadows. Email ronsdalepress@gmail.com for a Zoom invitation. 

Red poppies, red stones.


While wandering through the Schleswig-Holstein cemeteries, I found a few memorials dedicated to the Second World War. One was remembering those lost at sea during Operation Hannibal. 

Operation Hannibal was the 1945 desperate naval attempt to save civilians, stuck in East Prussia, from the Soviet advance. My mom wanted to board one of the ships . .. the Wilhelm Gustloff, (read Ruta Sepetys's amazing novel) or the Steuben, or maybe the Goya . . . waiting in the Pillau harbor. Mom never made it across the Vistula Lagoon and instead ended up in a Ural coal mine. 

Later, while biking back, I found poppies growing on the side of the road. Poppies—a Flanders field icon—and a poignant reminder of the paradox of life. Fragile and yet so tenacious. This was fall and the poppies were re-blooming. Maybe just for me? Those poppies belong to my dad's past love. But that's another story.

Red poppies, red stones. These are the travel souvenirs that I treasure. 






About Cemeteries

I enjoyed hearing a podcast about cemeteries as travel destinations the other evening while out dog walking. 

Last year I visited a few graveyards in northern Germany looking for neglected relatives. Since the living ones I’d been visiting weren’t too interested in the old stuff, I toured on my own.

The graves of my dad’s parents, buried in Schleswig-Holstein, have disappeared through neglect. Seems like nobody’s wanted to remember them and graves in Germany have a limited shelf-life of up to thirty years. So even though I had this nostalgic notion of finding my long-lost grandparents, I only found a few random Schröders in the Wesselburen graveyard. Maybe some of them have a family connection, but I’m not enough of a genealogy sleuth to find out. 




Instead, I enjoyed the company of the old cat who guided me amongst the graves. I noticed he had a decent little house for inclement weather.  The cemetery itself was quite beautiful and I enjoyed spending time in it. It’s much more park-like than the ones I’m used to here in Canada which are wide open with only cut flowers adorning the graves



As I ambled along the paths, imagining past lives, the orange cat followed. But the weather—suitably grey and misty—soon turned to rain. So I got back on my bicycle and the graveyard cat retreated to his shelter.


Happy hauntings. May the dead rest in peace.


A friendly travel advisory

The other day—a beautiful, windless October morning—I was hiking off trail with my faithful canine, when I had to go! Try telling that to a dog who considers any place suitable for when he has to go. Dogs have us well trained, catering to their lack of discretion with pretty little bags of every colour. But for me? Stuck in the middle of nowhere with no porta-potty in sight? Sorry, dear dog, we gotta get back to the car. NOW.  

My first thought, as we bee-lined through the farmer’s field, was of homeless people. How do they do it? Seriously, toilets are one of the basic necessities of life. When I delivered mail, I got out of the coffee drinking habit mostly because I couldn’t be guaranteed a rest stop when I needed one. 


As I hurried the sniffing dog along, I remembered a similar situation during last year’s bike trip. After we’d crossed the border from Lithuania into Russia on the Curonian Spit, there was a sudden decline in the availability and the cleanliness of the washroom facilities. We were cycling past a lot of empty fields and decided that the wilderness was a better place to go. 


Romus, our tour guide, warned us to watch out for the stinging nettle. Yes, the field was full of the waist-high weed. I’d grown up hearing about stinging nettle, called brennessel, in German. My mom and her sisters survived on it during the hunger years in eastern Germany, using it for soups and teas. 


A quick reference check, and I learn that stinging nettle, once dried, does indeed count as one of nature’s powerhouses. An anti-oxidant, it can lower blood pressure, treat arthritis, provide necessary nutrients, and even cause abortions—something the local women might have sought out in 1945 after the Red Army frenzy of rapes. 


But you shouldn't let fresh stinging nettle touch your skin . . . unless you want an itchy rash for the rest of the day.  The leaves are not to be used as a replacement for the double-layered softness of bathroom tissue.  Just a friendly travel advisory. 

Music in the Rec Room

As a kid, growing up in the sunny suburbs of St. James, the family rec room was a place for cast-offs. While my dad’s hunting trophies hung on the walls—dead deer heads, trophy fish and rifles—it was also where my mom put stuff no longer good enough for the living room. Because it usually seemed cold and had bad lighting, nobody spent much time down there—except me. 

It was where I catalogued old 78s and listened to them over and over. While my school friends listened to the Beatles or Beach Boys, I listened to Dad’s music collection comprised of hits from the thirties, forties and fifties. I loved the music and while upstairs the TV ruled with either hockey or football, I filled the basement with Dad's old music. 

Growing up in a church where dancing was considered sin, I could only invent dances to the fox trot, waltz and tango melodies, in private. I breathed in the romance of another time. 

One of my favourites was Ich Weiss es wird einmal ein Wunder Geschehen by Zarah Leanders. I imagined the German soldiers—my dad—fighting a hopeless war and yet hoping that a miracle would happen to save them from their inevitable end. No, I wasn't cheering for the Nazis, I think I was just trying to relive the tragedy of it all. 

Zarah Leanders, photo from 
Wikipedia

Another favourite singer was Lale Andersen, singing the original Lili Marlene. (Later released by Marlene Dietrich who'd left Germany for the States.) How many times did I listen to that song and visualize the lamplight and the endless waiting?  I imagined my dad’s heart broken over and over again by his first wife whose name it was taboo to mention. I imagined Dad dancing the tango, to Roter Mohn, sung by the Chilean nightingale—Rosita Serrano. Hey Jude or Good Vibrations could not compete with my favourite music down in the rec room. 

Then one day, most of those records got broken. (I'd leaned back and put the weight of my hand on the fragile pile I’d been sorting). Now through the magic of technology, streaming has brought back the music and while out walking the dog, I'm down in that basement rec room all over again. Trying to imagine how it all went so wrong. 

Grateful for October

                                                                               

                                                            Moody skies, crisp temperatures, strong winds


                                                             Deep blues, golds, browns and reds


Undecided melancholy


Month of contrasts, re-found joy


Thick socks, toques, slow-cooked stews


Walking quickly, warming up.


Spotting  blossoms on tenacious plants


 refusing to succumb to killer frosts.


Tease of hauntings, whispering ghosts.


Creaking trees and burning wood.


  October.  



Children of War



I have no photographs of my dad’s first marriage. The only photos I have of that 1940 union is of a gravestone for Wilhelm, who died as an infant, and another one where my dad holds a toddler. Two young boys. And my dad was their father? How could this be? 

I only got to see this photo once when I was growing up, while hiding under the dining room table. My hiding place was discovered and the album grabbed away from me. (The same thing happened when I viewed a medical book with nudity in it). It was enough to ignite my imagination. 


Who were these little boys? Why was a photo of a baby’s gravestone in the family photo album? No one would tell me. It was just one of those secrets that kids weren’t supposed to know and you know how it is about secrets . . .. It’s a challenge I’ve embraced and explore by writing my novels. My current work-in-progress focuses on my dad’s broken first marriage.


The Nazis were all about strong families, with programs to keep mothers pregnant and in the home. It’s ironic that after the war there was a higher than normal divorce rate and my dad’s first marriage was one of the casualties. He married Lydia in 1940 when mass-weddings were popular. Armistice Day November 11th—was a popular choice and each couple received a copy of Mein Kampf as a wedding gift. It was required to prove Aryan-purity and acquire an Ahnenpass —proving Aryan heritage

—before getting the marriage license. The Nazis wanted their soldiers to impregnate their Aryan women and produce new soldiers for the Third Reich. 


My dad and his first wife created two potential soldiers. Unfortunately, with the ultimate failure of Hitler’s ambitions, the two little boys died in the final months of the war. My half-brothers never got to grow up in Hitler’s planned utopia. No doubt, their deaths helped in the dissolution of my dad’s first marriage. Another factor was his five-year-long silence. As a prisoner of war, his mailings never made it to his wife and she gave up on him. Found a new lover amongst the Allies who occupied Germany.  My dad returned from USSR in late 1949, and in 1951 the marriage was officially over. 


A simple story that was never shared with me. I had to be a sleuth and figure it out on my own. Now it’s fodder for my writing brain. German readers might consider Heimkehr, 1948 edited by Annette Kaminsky where a collection of essays describes the broken marriages faced by returning prisoners of war. 

 

Another Mystery

Growing up without grandparents has only increased my need to know who they were. While I've sort of figured out my mom's side of the family and how they were affected by the Stalin years, my dad's side has remained elusive.

I’ve been working on a novel partially set in northern Germany, where my dad was born back in 1918. One thing leads to another—as things do during research and writing—and I’m wondering, what would daily life have been like for my grandmother, Elisabeth,

when she was a young mother.


Germany had just lost a war and my grandfather had returned from it with serious injuries. He became mostly bedridden (although that didn’t stop him from fathering five children). Hyper-inflation destroyed family finances. Not only that, but in 1918 the Spanish Flu was raging across Europe. 


I never met my grandmother and she died before I started school.  When I asked about her,last year while visiting Schleswig-Holstein, she was dismissed as a bitter, unloving woman. 

 

But my curiousity is piqued. People aren’t born bitter. Personalities are created—at least partially— through relationships and circumstances. Because she played an important part in the dissolution of my dad’s first marriage and thus in my own life, I’m now hooked. Another mystery to explore. 





 

What's in a Name?

At the end of the war, Germany was quite broken. It’s no wonder that organized religion took hold—replacing their faith in a crazed Führer. Going through my parents’ old red leather photo album, I came across several photos of nuns, with the label Die Diakonessen.

Who were these Diakonessen? I’ve now found out that they are still active—still working with refugees and immigrants. They're a faith-based charity made up of Germany’s Protestant churches—apolitical and social welfare-minded. At the end of the Second World War they expanded their mission to meet the intense needs of the millions of homeless. They were there for my mom as she recovered from her time in the Soviet mines. 

 

In the late forties and early fifties, my mom helped out in a hospital run by these Sisters. The experience must have had a strong impact on her because I was named after a set of twins she helped to deliver. I used to complain about my German-sounding names and express relief that Gabriele was at least born before Ulrike

 

My poor parents, how were they to know what the trendy names were here in Canada? What's in a name? Maybe it's honour towards the past and hope for the future.





 

 

Rebuilding history?


The cities of Gdansk and Kaliningrad (both former members of the Hanseatic League) were each re-built differently after the Second World War. Gdansk, now again part of Poland, has a beautifully restored old inner-city tourist area. Eighty-one Septembers ago, the Nazis had claimed the port city for themselves, called it Danzig and left it largely intact. Not until later, in 1944 and 1945, as Germans civilians fled to the harbour city to get on ships to avoid the advancing Soviet Army,was the city crushed by Soviet bombs. 

Last September I was in Gdansk, Poland finishing up a cycling trip. I’d biked in four countries and through some intense family history. The books I’ve read, both pre, and post trip, continue to enhance my appreciation of these lands. 

It was also interesting to view Lech Walesa’s shipyard office—the beginning of the end for the Soviet communism. Gdansk—a place of beginnings and ends.


A few days earlier, I’d been guided through Kaliningrad, once Königsberg. It was also destroyed by the Allies in 1944/45. When the former East Prussia was divided up after the war, Konigsberg stayed under Soviet control, and renamed Kaliningrad in honour of a Soviet hero. Because the local population was expelled, there was no effort to showcase or remember any of its history. It wasn’t until the 1990s that efforts began to rebuild the massive cathedral and even honour Immanuel Kant a German philosopher. Once quite revered by the Soviets, he's now causing irritation. Reminds me of our own changing views of history here in Canada.

Our yesterdays are complicated. We can try to erase the past by pulling down monuments, buildings, or renaming cities. It will continue to haunt our present. Educating ourselves is key to awareness, acceptance and finally, action.

Old stuff. So many stories. I was struck by how proud the guides were of both their cities and their complicated histories.

A Tale of Two Frankfurts


One place that’s confused me during my research into my parents’ history is the town of Frankfurt. It served as the eye of the needle for all returning German prisoners of war as they left their Soviet labour camps and headed back home. Turns out there are two Frankfurts. Both defined by their rivers. 

Frankfurt am Main has the Main River, a tributary of the Rhine, flowing through it. The city might be best known for its busy airport. 

Frankfurt an der Oder is on the Oder River which, for 187 km. forms the border between Poland and Germany.  The Oder river divides Frankfurt an der Oder (Germany) from Slubice (Poland).  It’s a quiet place now, but back in the late forties and early fifties it was a hub of activity.

Returning POWs first stop in Frankfurt (Oder) was the Hornkaserne run by the Soviet NKWD (until 1947). Here they were given new clothes, toiletries and a chance to clean up so they would look presentable for the 3 km walk to Gronenfelde barracks run by a German administration. In Gronenfelde they were divided into destinations and sent further on to their homes. 


It was a thrill for me, last year, to travel through both Frankfurts and to appreciate the history of Frankfurt (Oder). On the train from Gdansk to Berlin, we crossed the Oder River. I was surprised at how wide it was and how green its banks.  I couldn’t help but imagine each of my parents crossing that same river—Mom in the summer of 1947, and Dad in November, 1949. They were not yet aware that their separate journeys would eventually become one journey, together, to Canada.


Luftwaffe Graduates

 

Here’s a story. In this photograph, my dad (second from the right in the second row) has graduated from Luftwaffe pilot training school. It’s 1936. He’s eighteen . . . and he’s flying high. 


Aren’t we all just a collection of stories? You get enough stories and you have a book (and a life)!


In Defense of Physical Books

 

 

I was casually putting away some books, absentmindedly rearranging others on my shelf, when it struck me how I see my books as an extension of myself. I’ve got books exploring the past, helping me problem-solve current issues and books letting me dream. I’ve used books to escape, to self-isolate (with or without pandemic) and to connect.  


So I notice these three books and I think, yup, that’s the history part of me summed up in three books.  The Germans from Russia, the photo book of East Prussia and a book listing the refugees who streamed into Canada with the support of one particular church organization after the Second World War. Of course, my history collection is incomplete. One book always makes me hungry for another book. 

 

So even though I’m wanting to purge and declutter, my books and most of my rocks must stay. Let me keep the stories, the rest is just stuff.

Sandcastle Anyone?




Now available: Abandoned sandcastle. New inhabitants needed
to maintain this scenic lakeside property. Some repairs required,
but has endless possibilities. 

Full disclosure: Prone to flooding and intrusive human footsteps. 

Fairies only need inquire. No royal lineage required. 

Price: A good imagination. 

 

Inside July

Not a breath of wind in the garden today. It’s like July doesn’t want to leave and I want to stay with it, cocooned in its heat, its light and its growth. Like a bird in its nest, I want to stay inside July. For at least this one last day. 

Prairie Trails

Probably because of the pandemic, one of my favourite Manitoba places—Hecla Island—was terribly overcrowded when I visited two weeks ago. I’d never seen it so busy. At least twenty vehicles were lined up to pull their boats out of the water when storm clouds threatened. Nature seemed second place to all us humans trying to socially distance ourselves. Oh, the irony.

So, the following weekend I headed in the opposite direction. We went south to the Tolstoi area and hung out with hordes of wood ticks enjoying the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. The dog wore a tick collar, but I had no such protection. Anyway, we survived both the ticks and the heat and discovered some interesting blooms, including an endangered orchid—the yellow lady’s slipper.

Also interesting, was the town of Tolstoi (Why was it named after a Russian author? I don't know, but I like it!). Its Ukrainian church, built in 1927, has been beautifully restored. With the landscape and the church, I could imagine being in Ukraine and not rural Manitoba. It had bothered me, while visiting Ukraine, to see their beautifully restored churches amidst such abject poverty. Here in rural Manitoba, there were no babushkas sweeping the steps, hoping for a few alms. I wonder if they’re still sweeping entranceways in Ukraine and Russia? 

Further up the road, we crossed the fast-moving Roseau River using an historic swinging bridge partially made of old farming equipment. When we visited, swimmers using rubber mats and kayaks were enjoying the cooling currents. 

Always great to find new corners of Manitoba while exploring history and nature.




Peony Dreamer

Maybe nothing special for you experienced gardeners,  but I'm so excited about my first-ever peony blossoms.

My mom used to pick me a peony bouquet every June and I grew up thinking of them as my special flowers. This is the first year I’ve been able to continue on with my mom’s tradition. 

For years I was convinced that I had too much shade for peonies and that I was not a good-enough gardener to nurture them. Well, I've proven myself wrong. I wonder what other misconceptions I’ve held over the years. 

So to all my June birthday friends, I say, just go for it. Do it. Whatever it is you’ve been afraid to try. Don’t listen to the nay-sayers. The world needs more peony-dreamers. Yes?

Victory Day—Ends become Beginnings.

May 9th, Victory Day in Russia. 75 years. A really big deal—still. Although the pandemic has limited the crowds in Russia, over in Minsk, Belarus, crowds were as big ever.

Back in May, 1945, my parents became official losers.  Soviet POWs. They didn't know each other then. In fact, my dad was married to another woman—a woman who lost track of him and subsequently, their marriage. But that's another story.

With many rail tracks broken, the defeated had to walk much of the way into the work camps. What a walk that must have been. Defeated, discouraged, guilty. Their country and their belief system crushed. Their charismatic, insane, Führer dead. Six years of sacrifice for a cause that killed millions of innocents and changed the world order. Losers in every way.

Dad headed towards Moscow, working in coal mines and using chess skills to survive. Mom ended up in an open-pit mine near Shadrinsk in the Kurgan Oblast.  Russian language skills helped her manage.

So for them the war was over but peace, freedom and mere survival were still years away.  The Soviet Union had sacrificed 26 million people in their fight against the Axis. So in May, while the victors celebrated, my parents were trudging into the enemy's backyard. No wonder they found support in each other later in the fifties.


The Dangers of Turning Ten


April 20th. Hitler’s birthday. The day ten-year-old girls loved because they got to be inducted into the BDM. Such proud little souls—eager to belong. Oh the pomp and ceremony. Not a sci-fi novel. A living memory. My mom was too old to be forced to join the Nazi youth groups, but my dad was eager to wear a uniform and march to Hitler’s beat. What a wicked time to be young and vulnerable. 

I have to recommend the movie, The White Ribbon, with the sub-title, A German Children's Story, released in 2009, as a chilling glimpse into the mindset that formed a people who swallowed up the Nazi’s warped view. 

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