Why shut down Memorial?

So sad and disappointing to find out that the human rights organization, Memorial, is now an illegal entity in Russia. Why? Supposedly, Memorial has received foreign agent status after receiving funding from abroad. Technically, the NGO is supposed to acknowledge this funding on every web page, instead of just on the home page. Memorial also received internal funding, in tiny amounts, by family members oppressed during the Stalin years. 

Family members affected by Stalin. Grandparents far right. 

It’s like Putin and his cronies have decided that my grandparents, whose stories I only discovered after the collapse of the USSR, never died because of Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks. It’s like Putin saying that I have no right to know why my mom became orphaned at the age of 12 out in Yaya, Siberia. It’s like saying my grandfather was not wrongly accused for treason under Article 58 and shot during the 1937/8 Great Terror. It’s like the Russian present is afraid of its Soviet past.  Why would Putin deny his country’s atrocities? Because he wants his countrymen to be nostalgic for the good old days as a communist powerhouse. He wants to re-write history, but why? So he can affect the future?

Germany has accepted its dark Nazi past with numerous monuments, memorials and most importantly, education of the young. True, it took a full generation for the silence about Nazi atrocities to be broken and for the guilt to be admitted. But now we can look at Germany as a role model of how to reconcile the wrongs of the past and create a better present.

Here in Canada we have declared a national holiday on September 30th, as Truth and Reconciliation Day. It’s a tiny step  . . . as is renaming schools, streets and removing colonial oppressor monuments. We here have our own horrendous past with indignities perpetrated through the residential schools. Our racism is still alive and well, as our jails and our poor neighbourhoods can attest, but we are acknowledging its existence. Secrets lose their power in the light. 

Why is Putin silencing Memorial? Why is he so afraid of the truth? Memorial or not, inter-generational trauma is real. We see it on the streets of my city where I grew up seeing homeless drunks and being told that it was their race that was the problem not us—the colonizers. 

My family members. . . grandparents, mother, aunts and uncles, were victims of Stalin’s atrocities. Putin can silence Memorial but he can’t silence our stories. We have to tell them. It’s too bad the year has to end on such an ominous note. May the new year bring positive change. Happy 2022 to us all!


In her Own Words: Christmas in the Urals, 1945

Someone recently asked me whether it was my mom's voice or mine that expressed writerly ambitions in Tainted Amber.  

While my mom regularly derided my interest in books as 'brotloße Kunst' or 'breadless art,' I've scavenged bits and pieces of her own words written in her hard-to-decipher handwriting. Just recently, I found, inside what I thought was an empty journal, pages called "Die Fahrt nach Russland, 1945" or 'The Journey to Russia, 1945.'  Such a treasure which served to underline her oral sharings of those dark times. Crow Stone is based on her memories, after doing much background research.

My mom actually had a piece published in Kanada Kurier a German-language newspaper, based here in Winnipeg. (It morphed out of the 1969 closing of  Der Nordwesten.)  I found Mom's yellowed newspaper article amongst her scattered papers, in between recipes and budget plans. Both newspapers were ubiquitous in our house when I was growing up. Now I scrounge to find copies!  Here's a translation of her published piece about Christmas as a prisoner of war. 

The Story of the Coal-shippers’ Christmas

by Else Schroeder 

(translated & edited for flow and clarity from the German by Gabriele Goldstone)

A group of twenty girls, called the coal-shippers, is working at an electric energy plant near Kurgan and Chelyabinsk in the Urals. I am one of them.

The distance to work is about seven kilometers. The temperature is -40 degrees and we travel there in the back of a dilapidated truck. Because it is Christmas Eve, two other girls and myself go back to our camp early to warm up the room we all share and to decorate it to look a little bit festive.

When the rest of the girls return, we eat our evening meal: thin soup and a slice of dry bread – not a very satisfying, elaborate Christmas dinner!

Back in our barrack, it becomes quiet. Here you hear someone sobbing, and there someone wipes away a tear from her cheek. Homesickness and longing for loved ones fills the room. I suggest we sing some Christmas songs, but there is opposition.

“Are you able to sing in this dreary place?”

There’s a knock at the door. A girl from another group is looking for company. I ask her, “Do you want to sing some Christmas songs?” She says yes, and so the two of us sing Silent Night, Holy Night.

Suddenly it’s dark in the room. We can hear footsteps in the hallway and expect an inspection. We had been told not to burn homemade candles. But instead, we receive orders to line up immediately to go back to work.  The electric plant is out of power and needs more coal. The old truck is already waiting for us.

We head back out and fill up two lorries. The truck driver has a nice nap while we slave. Then, when it’s time to return to our camp, the truck won’t start. It’s probably frozen.  Now what?  

“Wait here until someone comes to get you,” is the order. The guard points to a building not too far away—a stall for animals. It’s filled with cows, sheep and even a donkey.  

The night is cold, the sky, clear, starry. After the guard heads back to the main camp in his own vehicle, peace and quiet surrounds us. The animals are lying on their beds of straw, and us girls, tired and worn out from the cold and work, do the same, trying to get some sleep.

Kurgan Area in the Urals. Wikimedia Commons
But one of us has to stand guard, and that one is me, because I have been made their leader. While the others sleep, in my mind, I am participating in the Christmas story. The stars so bright. The animals in the barn. Everything leads me to Bethlehem. I am celebrating Christmas with twenty other girls and still I am all alone. 

Finally, it’s morning.  Another truck fetches us for some breakfast and then it’s back to work again, back to shovelling coal.

That was my Christmas in the year 1945.


Christmas Milestones

After the war, my parents, like many involved in the Second World War, had a lot of catching up to do with regards to raising a family. My parents married in 1952, came to Canada in 1953, and I was born in 1954. I was an important piece of their dream for their new life in Canada. 

Homelessness had defined the first 35 years of my mom's life and she was eager to be tied down by domesticity. My dad, on the other hand, having lost his first two children along with his marriage during the war, was eager to rebuild what he'd lost. 

Little Gabi's first Christmas was spent in the Wolseley area of Winnipeg on Lipton Street. I cycled past the house this summer, imagining my parents fussing over this new little Canadian in their life. Little angel, I was not!

Christmas always seem to mark milestones in people’s lives. What will Christmas, 2021, be remembered for, sixty+ years from now? The final year of the COVID pandemic, or the peaceful year before things got really bad? Grateful for what I have, right now. 


Grüß Gott from inside a Snow Globe

As winter snuggles in to rest during the dark days of December, I remember my first December away from home. I’d been backpacking through Europe and my friend and I used our Youth Hostel or Jugendherberge guide to show us the way. Some hostels had closed for the season and so we had fewer options. However, our Inter-rail Pass continued to open up new worlds and new experiences, even as we found ourselves colder and a tad lonelier than in the fall. 

Traipsing through the Austrian Alps was like being in a Christmas card. I don’t recall the name of the village where we disembarked, this one time, but it was off the beaten track. The train station attendant nodded a curt good-bye and pushed us out of the station with a “Guten Abend, my Fräuleins.”  He then locked the door behind us and we were on our own. Snow fell in the purplish light of the growing night as the mountains seemed to close in around us.

My friend and I stood under a lamplight trying to figure out which way we had to go to find the youth hostel. Nothing made too much sense, so we decided to just started walking. The place was tiny. Very tiny. More of a hamlet than a village. We passed by a woman wearing a kerchief and shawl, sweeping snow from her sidewalk. 

Grüß Gott,” she called out. I responded with my own “Grüß Gott.” I’d learned the expression months earlier while working in Berchtesgaden. It literally means, “Greet God” and is a blessing, of sorts. After we passed the woman, we soon came to the end of the road and the end of the village. No hostel. No restaurants. Not even an expensive Pension to consider.  

We studied the hostel guide. Turned out that there were two similar-sounding villages in the area and we’d gotten off at the wrong stop. Now what? The train station was obviously locked but still we headed back there to read the train schedule. Next train wasn’t scheduled until morning. 

So we stood in front of the station, snow falling, darkness growing, my feet wet and cold and my backpack suddenly feeling much too heavy with my Canadian flag on it quite useless.

The only soul in sight was the woman, still sweeping snow. She now gestured to us. Was she was going to tell us not to loiter?  We’d discovered this was frowned upon at other train stations. 

However  . . . close-up, the red-cheeked woman’s eyes twinkled with warmth. Her German, full of mountain dialect, was hard to understand and I had to concentrate on every word—but her welcoming invitation was obvious. 

Inside her quaint, alpine-style cottage, with its gingham tablecloth and heavy wood furniture, a blue-tiled Kachelofen (ceramic wood stove) kept the place warm. We ate a satisfying soup with dumplings and then sausage and bread with hot cocoa. She smiled as we gobbled down the delicious food.

Later she brought out a photo album and shared pictures of a young man . . . her son.  It turned out that he was hitchhiking through the States and she hoped that by looking out for us, someone would be looking out for her traveling son. 

Later, we slept up in the loft, under comfy feather duvets. In the morning, we ate a Bauern Frühstück with ham and eggs, hearty bread and good strong coffee. We hugged our good byes and headed off to catch the morning train as the sun reflected brightly off the snow-capped Alps. 

I’d almost think I made all this up, but my friend remembers it too. Such is the gift of travel and of being vulnerable. It was one of the best Christmas memories I’ve ever received. 

Doing our Best

Throughout the pandemic, my personal disruptions have been mere irritants. I’ve not lost my job, I’ve not had delayed medical procedures, and I’ve not cancelled travel plans. I’m old enough to be retired, lucky enough to be healthy and grateful to be able to satisfy my need for novelty with local trips. I’ve also been able to meet new and interesting people via the internet. 

Canada's Human Rights Museum, Winnipeg
As an EAL volunteer with a local immigrant centre, I’ve learned about faraway places. Mostly, I’ve learned that people are people, no matter what their home language might be or the nature of their government. Through them I get a human view of current affairs, but it also helps me appreciate history. Just as cultural and political environments shape a person today, so it shaped the people of the past. As someone who’s often immersed in the past, it’s empowering to recognize the humanity of us all. Whether Chinese or Ukrainian, living in a fascist country or a democracy, we all have the same range of emotions, basic needs and desires.

The opportunities that this pandemic, through the magic of modern technology, has given me to connect one-on-one with newcomers to Canada makes me again appreciate the choice my own parents made back in the fifties. Engaging with current immigrants, whom I admire for their courage and their hope, reminds to never be complacent about the opportunities in this country. 

Imagine living in China where the work motto is ‘996’. That’s shorthand for working from nine until nine, six days a week. Imagine living in Ukraine where in some towns, it's cheaper to get a fake vaccination certificate than an actual shot . . . a country where no one trusts that what the doctor injects in you is in fact a vaccine and not some random liquid. Imagine living in Russia where my new release, Tainted Amber, would be banned because it depicts Nazi youth on the cover and might distort Russia’s determination to revise the Stalin years. A new piece of legislation,  Federal Law No. 280-FZ , was enacted in Russia back in July which forces bookstores to pull offending materials.

I know that Canada has problems. Lots of problems. But we’re trying. Aren’t we? 

All that Glitters is not Gold and other Tooths

Besides fragmented stories, and a fragmented family, there were other leftovers from my parents’ war experiences. For example, my dad had a deadly fear of dentists. His prisoner of war release papers stated that he had ‘defective teeth.’  In fact, he lost most of his teeth and just pretended he didn’t like any foods that required chewing. 

It wasn’t until just before he died that he finally shared his deadly fear of dentists with me. Together we found a supportive dentist who got him some great-fitting dentures and Dad smiled the smile that he’d lost decades earlier. My mom had also struggled with dental health although her fear of dentists was less than perhaps her vanity (I don’t blame her!) or the need to eat a variety of food.  She had a complete set of dentures by the time she was forty and would often express surprise that I still had all my teeth as a fifty-year-old.  Yes, Mom, Canada is a good country.

When I visited Ukraine back in 2004, I was struck by the golden grins of many babushkas. Seemed that the Soviet Union had honoured their toothless grannies with gold teeth. Nowadays we go for a more natural tooth repair, but I can see how displaying gold teeth might have had a certain status in poor villages. The bottom photo, of a younger woman in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, shows off her gold dentures.

The other place in Ukraine where I saw a lot of gold was on the roofs of newly renovated churches . . . in front of which, there would inevitably be a gold-toothed babushka sweeping the ground and possibly begging for a few coins to supplement her meager pension. Happy cats bathed nearby in warm puddles of golden sunlight. 

The act of smiling. . . of showing one’s teeth . . . can be a subtle divide between cultures. In the West we smile readily and easily at strangers. In former Soviet countries, smiles come more slowly but are sincere and meaningful when they do appear, whether glinting with gold or struggling with decay.

Cropped from https://www.flickr.com/photos/64749744@N00/476724045
Steve Evans

Walter Kempowski

Photo: Walter Kempowski /public domain
I’d never heard of Walter Kempowski until this fall. Coinciding with Remembrance Day, I’ve now finished my third book by this noted German author, who is relatively unknown in the English world. The first novel I read, in the original German, was released in 1992. Mark und Bein tells the story of a young journalist, Jonathan, who takes advantage of an opportunity to follow a road race throughout parts of Poland that once belonged to East Prussia. Having done my own cycle trip through parts of the former East Prussia, I was immediately hooked. With a strong undercurrent of wit and irony, the author contrasts the bitter history of a lost East Prussia with the ramshackle present, still caught in a bit of a time warp.  I loved the characters, the tone, the setting and the issues and so I had to read some more.

Günther Grass Blaues Sofa 
Next, I read Kempowski’s All for Nothing which was originally published in Germany in 2006 as Alles Umsonst.  Again set in East Prussia, this book focuses on the last months of the war. It’s a time period and a location that I’ve become familiar with through my own research and family memories. My new book, coming out next spring, begins at the end of the war. For Germans, the end of the war was difficult. Hitler might have committed suicide, but the German people had to figure out how to live with their shame and loss. 

All for Nothing has put Walter Kempowski, alongside Günther Grass and Heinrich Böll, as one of the great novelists exploring Germany’s experiences of the Second World War.  Böll has long been one of my absolute favourite German writers. Both he and Grass received the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Böll in 1972 and Grass in 1999). Kempowski was supposedly disappointed that he didn't receive that particular award, however, he got many others. It's been thirty years since I've been so engrossed in books by German authors, ever since I finished my MA in German back in the eighties, and it's a treat to revisit these authors, those times and to discover new German authors.

Heinrich Böll Bundesarchiv,
B 145 Bild-F062164-0004 / Hoffmann, Harald / CC-BY-SA 3.0

I finished Kempowski’s Swansong 1945 in the final hours of Remembrance Day. This book is not a novel. It’s a collection of diaries entries from people as diverse as Field Marshal Keitel and Hitler, to Thomas Mann, Albert Schweitzer and unknown prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors and an international motley of prisoners of war. The diary entries are limited to 3 days:  April 20th, (Hitler’s 56th birthday), April 30th, (Hitler’s suicide) and May 9th (capitulation). At one point, I almost stopped reading. The entries are so disjointed and the material so dark, that I felt stuck. But I’m glad I kept going because it’s the juxtaposition of entries that gives the book its power. It’s the kind of Second World War resource that I can see myself returning to again and again. However, there are more Kempowski books to read and I am quite grateful to have discovered his work. Swan Song 1945 is only the final chapter (more than 400 pages) of Echolot (English: Echo Soundings), a ten-volume chronicle that he produced, documenting personal reflections on the Second World War. 

Walter Kempowski was born in Rostock in 1929 and died in 2007.  As a youth, he spent eight years in Soviet custody for supporting American efforts at the end of the war.  His efforts to collect such diverse points of view make his work both incredibly humble and powerful. 

Growing Up in the Shadow of War

Remembrance Day. For me, war has never been about ceremony or about monuments. For me, war has been about two broken people—my parents—and all the baggage they carried in spite of immigrating to this country to start over. 

I was cleaning out some ‘stuff’ the other day. What might look like a box containing an old airplane model to others, is a poignant reminder of my dad and his years in the Wehrmacht.

In 1936, age 18, he joined the Luftwaffe It gave him a smart-looking uniform, stability and status. When the war started he flew, among other planes, the Junker 52. According to the description on the model box, the plane was nicknamed “Tante Ju” or “Aunt Ju.”  It was a transport plane and when my dad crashed in 1941, he had 17 paratroopers on board. All died while he, as pilot, was the lone survivor, spending more than a year in the hospital. The crazy thing is that I only learned about this during the pandemic when my brother and I went for a walk. My brother said Dad always felt responsible for those 17 deaths on his plane. 

You see, war talk was boy talk and so I never heard Dad’s war stories. While my brother and our dad focused on building model airplanes, I was learning domestic stuff like cooking and cleaning. The stories I heard were about the dangers of promiscuity, of unwanted babies, of disease-bearing fleas and bedbugs. I learned about recycling, reducing and reusing. 

Growing up in the shadow of the war was not glamourous or monumental. It was shameful and quiet. As someone (Churchill?) so aptly noted, history is written by the victors. 

Science along the Amber Coast

Nikolaus Copernicus lived and worked in Frombork, Poland. Once known as Frauenberg, it's an idyllic small town on the Baltic’s Vistula Lagoon. I’d first heard about this astronomer and mathematician while studying Bertold Brecht’s play, The Life of Galileo, at university. The play had made a strong impression on me, as had Brecht’s connection to Berlin. I thought the Netflix series, Babylon Berlin, did a great job of revisiting the avant-garde atmosphere of the Weimar Republic. A communist sympathizer, Brecht left the Berlin theatre scene when the Nazis came to power. He returned to East Berlin after the war and was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954. 

Copernicus, you might know, had the radical idea that it was the sun, and not the earth, that was the centre of our universe. While visiting Frombork, I was able to climb a watchtower, (refurbished after the Second World War bombings), from which Copernicus studied the sky and developed his revolutionary (in both senses of the word) astrological models. Our world, and the influence of the Church, would never be the same.

During that 2019 bike trip, I grew to appreciate not just the natural beauty of the Amber Coast, but how much incredible history is concentrated there.  No wonder its current residents embrace the past, showcasing it like a piece of amber. 

Old Castles and History

Grosse Remter”—a beautiful meeting hall in the former Marienburg Fortress on the Nogat River in Malbork, Poland—was the inauguration site for select children when they joined the Hitler Youth at age 10. 

The ceremony would be done annually as part of Hitler’s April birthday celebrations. The children’s voices would no doubt echo in the cavernous chambers as they sang the Nazi songs and pledged their allegiance to the Führer. Young girls, part of the BDM (League of German Girls) would fundraise to attend pilgrimages to the historic site. Being inside such an impressive and ancient Prussian castle would no doubt have had a dramatic effect on the children being inducted into the Nazi’s thousand-year Reich. 

Daniel.Widawski  - Malbork_castle_after_IIWW
During the war, the Nazis used the castle as a prisoner of war camp . . . Stalag XXB.  Later, it was badly damaged in the final months of fighting. 

The Marienburg/Malbork Castle—built by Teutonic Knights beginning in 1274—was rebuilt by Polish people.  It took until 2016 to finish the restoration as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now a proud part of Poland, back in my mom’s day, Malbork/Marienburg would have been considered part of West Prussia.

By 1945, the annual Hitler Youth celebration had to be transferred to the Reich Sports Field in Berlin. The impressive, historic Marienburg Castle was in ruins. Berlin was soon to follow.  Hitler’s 56th birthday on April 20th that year was not much of a celebration. 

Old castles and history—the ingredients of a haunting experience. 

Stablach Then, Dolgorukowo Today

Another place that I managed to get close to, back in 2019—but still didn’t get to visit—was the former Stablach, East Prussia. Once known as the Gartenstadt (Garden City), what’s left of the town sits in a forested area between two rivers in the southern area of the Kaliningrad Oblast near the Polish border. Now forlorn and neglected, dotted with ruins, connected via bad roads lined by stately linden and chestnut trees, it’s sparsely inhabited by relocated Russians. 

Stablach was first established in the mid-thirties and by 1939 it had almost three thousand inhabitants. Back then, this entire rural area bustled with growth.  Construction of the nearby Berlinka Autobahn had slowed down, while energy was redirected towards constructing support networks for the military. Stablach became an important military training centre for the SS and others in the Wehrmacht. A new church along with new homes were built for military staff, with plenty of room for the Aryan soldier’s dream family and their gardens. Another priority was a new prison, hastily erected by the first crop of Polish prisoners in 1939.

My mom lived in one of the newly erected barracks built for the munition factory workers. Being about eighteen kilometers southeast of Kreuzburg (now Slavskoye), which I did get to see, I could imagine my mom cycling on nearby tree-lined roads to visit her aunt and uncle.  My mom had been recruited—like many single women—to work in Stablach’s ammunition factory.  By then the prison (Stalag1A) would have been filling up with Poles, Belgians, French and fellow Germans.

The place is now, as part of the Kaliningrad Oblast, called Dolgorukowo. Supposedly the church was not damaged during the war and later used by the Russians as a horse stable, a cinema, and has now become a cultural centre. I’m curious about what this cultural centre shares.

There’s so much more to explore and how I would love to go back! My mom left the Stablach munitions factory in January, 1945 when the Soviets were closing in to finally destroy the madness of the Third Reich. It’s been so fulfilling for me to retrace her steps, especially as she moved closer towards the hell of the Second World War.  I hope my new book will bring these times to life. 


Baltiysk, once Pillau

Pillau 1945, Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1989-033-33

One of the Baltic ports that I didn't get a chance to visit back in 2019 was Baltiysk in the Kaliningrad Oblast. It's situated on a narrow spit, separated from the mainland by the Vistula Lagoon.

To visit Baltiysk (Russia’s western-most town, population ~32,000) requires a pass from the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service), so I didn’t see it, but I sure heard it.  As we cycled along the Baltic Coast, past Yantarny (former Palmicken) with its amber mine, we could hear nearby military hardware exploding and could feel it rumble the earth under our tires. 

Leftovers from German times near the former Fischhausen

We got to within about ten kilometers of the militarized area, changing direction again when we got to Primorsk (the former Fischhausen). Hearing the explosions from such a distance was the closest I’ve been to such lethal weaponry and it made me shudder with a vague realization of war’s power.  

Ruins near Primorsk

Once known as Pillau, the Baltiysk port was renamed after the Nazi defeat. Originally a fishing village, it has a storied and much-conquered past. Swedes, Lithuanians, Teutonic Knights and pre- Soviet Russians all left their mark on the town. Located on the Vistula Spit, the Germans used it primarily as a harbour for passenger ships, (although it did have a sub building industry) with commercial shipping routed on towards the improved and expanded Königsberg (Kaliningrad) docks.

Back in the final months of the Second World War, Pillau was the coveted goal of many an East Prussian . . . people like my mom. Until the second half of January, 1945, civilians had been told to stay put and believe in the ‘final victory.’  Like me, she never got to see Pillau, now Baltiysk, either.  The Vistula Lagoon was mostly frozen in the winter of 1945. In the bottom photo, a fellow cyclist looks over the Vistula Lagoon towards Baltiysk.  This lagoon, shrouded in fog, was the slippery path forward for the desperate women and children. Many a horse and wagon crashed through the ice as the Soviet bombers strafed them from above.

Of course, I had to explore this further by writing another book. Coming out next spring. More details available soon.

Exploring the Hanseatic League

“Part of the Hanseatic League.”  I heard that descriptor repeatedly as I traveled through cities of interest during my historical novel research.  Enthusiastic tour guides in Riga, Klaipeda, Kaliningrad, Elblag, and Gdansk made references to the centuries-old trade union. ‘Hanse’ root word of Hanseatic, is a German word and refers to a union of merchant traders along the sea. The air industry appropriated ‘hanse’ with the well-known Lufthansa Airlines.  

P. D. Hanseatic Trading Route

Perhaps a modern equivalent on this side of the ocean would be the USMCA (US, Mexico, Canada) trade agreement, better known as the former NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). 

The original Hanseatic League existed from about 13th to 17th centuries. Up to 200 cities along the Baltic and North Seas benefitted from the lucrative trade deals. Other port cities would include Talinn (Estonia), Hamburg (Schleswig-Holstein), and Gotland (Sweden).  There were a fair number of inland cities included in the trade pact, too, including the Russian city of Novgorod on the Volkhov River between Petersburg and Moscow and Krakow, Poland on the Vistula River.  A new Hanseatic League was established in 2018 with many of the original cities included. 

During walking tours in the cities of Riga (Latvia), Klaipeda (Lithuania), Kaliningrad (Russia), Elblag (Poland) and Gdansk (Poland) it was the Hanseatic past that came up repeatedly.  The term helped me appreciate how closely connected these places are and that political borders may come and go, but the geographic influences remain the same. I know some people shun organized tours, but these were small and intimate, led by knowledgeable and enthusiastic historians. I found them extremely useful as a key to unlocking the past. 

Hamburg's Hanseatic Flag
My dad grew up on the North Sea near Hamburg (also a Hanseatic port) and his favourite old German sea chanties also became mine. Having the opportunity to be a "tourist" in five of these historic cities back in 2019 was a privilege . . . something neither of my parents got to be when they lived near those Hanseatic ports.

Reconciliation with Past

1968. I was thirteen and in grade eight at Ness Junior High here in Winnipeg.  Our music teacher, Mrs. Lohr, gave us an assignment: pick out a piece of music and share why you like it. It was a fun assignment for most of the class, but caused me a fair bit of anxiety. My church frowned upon rock and roll music and I’d had little exposure to it. So, while the other students were bringing in evil 45s like “Lady Willpower” by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap; the syrupy “Honey” by Bobby Goldsboro or the angry political hit “Sky Pilot” by the Animals—I brought in the theme from “Born Free.” I was allowed to be in love with the baby lions . . . Little Elsa, Jespah and Gumpa, but I was not allowed to have crushes on any pop stars. 

1968. The year that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. I remember feeling that the world was a dangerous place. I remember thinking I didn’t want to be an adult.

1968. The year that Prague was repeatedly in the news, but I had little comprehension of where it was or what was happening.  For me, Eastern Europe was as far-away as the moon.

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

1968. The year of anti-Vietnam protests. Those made an impression in my young life. The hippies and the flower children strumming about peace . . . also taboo . . . as it was laced with drugs, long hair and free love.

1968. Student protests in West Germany that led to changes with how that country dealt with its Second World War history. Being a German-Canadian here in Winnipeg, I missed out on that history lesson. My parents didn’t talk about the war and at school they taught me nothing about Germany’s guilt and recovery. My parents taught me little. We might have spoken German in the house, but we didn’t discuss German guilt or the Holocaust. Maybe that’s why I’m still so fascinated with it. 

If I’d been living in Germany in 1968 as a teenager, I might have been more aware of  that country's student protests.  I might have become aware of the changes forced upon German institutions, as they reckoned with their war history and demanded that ex-Nazis be removed from positions of power.

1968. When German society began to face its past. Monuments were built, textbooks were re-written and Nazi crimes were confronted.  Meanwhile, over here, I focused on American protest movements about Vietnam and women’s lib. There was no re-education here for children of German immigrants. 

Remembering Stutthof Camp

The 1968 student protests in West Germany led to a wake-up call. While West Germany had prospered economically, there was more needed for that country to heal. Vergangenheitsbewältigung. The Germans love long words. It means, ‘coming to terms with their past.’ We Canadians are going through it right now with the ‘truth and reconciliation commission.’ German young people, born post-World War Two, were tired of the hypocrisy of their leaders . . . many with Nazi pasts still in power.  Now here, in present-day Canada, young Indigenous people question the colonial mindset that has named, honoured and controlled much of this country. 

It takes courage to admit guilt and silence doesn’t make the past go away. It just keeps festering, getting infected and causing problems. I think as Canadians, during this official week of Truth and Reconciliation, we’re trying to own up to the wrongs of the past. And I dare say, the Germans have tried, too. 

Ode to the Linden Tree

I noticed a social media post about it being National Tree Day yesterday, September 22,

(different day in every country) and thought I’d share, a day late, a bit about one of my favourite trees, the linden. 

Thirty years ago, I’d planted a linden tree in my garden because it reminded me of my mom. I remember a song she would sing about the linden tree and it seemed to me that my sparsely treed garden in suburbia wouldn’t be complete without the nostalgia of a linden tree. The sapling has grown big and strong. It’s graced my garden with spring blossoms, summer shade and amber fall colours. Squirrels, blue jays and various migrating birds seem to love it, too. It lends support to my summer clothesline and could have been a perfect hammock supporter if I’d been clever enough to space the trees properly. But that’s okay . . . the green ash and Manitoba maple have assumed that job. 

When I travelled through the former Volhynia in current-day Ukraine, our roots group was led to aging, broken lindens . . . damaged by war and by lightning strikes. Thick stumps stand as markers to past villages and lived lives. In The Kulak’s Daughter (aka Red Stone), it’s blossoms of the linden tree that help sustain the exiled family in Siberia by brewing linden tea.

In my own garden, the linden tree also stands as a measure of time. Three decades of raising three kids. . . weathering sunny days and storms, always growing . . . reaching up towards the light.

Famous lindens in German culture include the Berlin street known as “Unter den Linden,” and the linden tree that marks Werther’s grave after his suicide in Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (a novel which had a big impact on me back in university along with most everyone who's read it!)

But mostly, when I think of lindens, I think of my mom, softly singing. 

Vor dem Haus steht eine Linde/Sie weht ihr Äst im Winde/ Da sitzen davor ein altes Paar/Sie sitzen als waren sie schon immer da/ Sie denken zurücke/an Jugend und Glücke/Vorbei, vorbei/Mein Schatz vorbei.

Translated:  In front of the house stands a linden tree/It waves its limbs in the wind/There sit an old couple/They sit as if they’ve been there forever/They think back/on their youth and their joys/It’s over, it’s over/My love, it’s over.

I’ve searched the internet for this song and have still not found it. I only have the snippet of these words and melody . . . sourced from memory. But like the linden tree itself, it’s rooted deep into my life. 

The Great Purge

I missed out on having grandparents and as I got older that lack became a need to know WHY. Discovering my maternal grandfather’s signature on his interrogation papers back in the secret police files in Zhytomyr (now in Ukraine, in 1937 part of the

My mom, top right.
USSR) back in 2004 changed my world. It meant he was real . . . that he existed. 

September 19th continues to have a special meaning to me. The NKVD Troika found the former kulak guilty of counter-revolutionary activities under Article 58 (SFSR Penal Code) and in 1937, at 3:13 in the morning, Eduard Ristau was shot in the back of the head.  That was 84 Septembers ago during the Great Purge (aka The Great Terror). Why was he found guilty? He had letters from his children who were now in Germany . . . letters with money in them. He was obviously selling state secrets to the fascist enemy. 

Once, Eduard Ristau (called Franz Halter in my novels) was a husband, a father of several children, a farmer and a windmill owner. His wife died back in 1931, faraway in Siberian exile, his youngest son died enroute, but his older children made it to safety with relatives in another country.

My grandfather managed to survive the famine years of the Holodomor, hiding and always running, but in the end the NKVD got him. . . a penniless, persecuted man. Still, he tried his best and I wouldn’t be here, if he hadn’t found a way to send his children, and my future mother, to safety. Rest in peace, grandpa. And, thank you.

And thanks again to Don Miller, author of Under Arrest, who helped me find the files in the Zhytomyr archives. 

The Hyphenated Canadian

Just finished reading Being German Canadian, which was released this past May by the University of Manitoba Press. This collection of essays by various academics contains writing styles that vary from hard-to-digest to accessible. Writing style aside, I recognized a fair bit about my own experiences as part of the immigrant community.

I already knew that Canada's prime minister, Lyon Mackenzie King, had been a Hitler supporter . . . but reading it in this book underlined it for me. I was also fascinated with how one of the contributors connected the German intergenerational guilt with the contemporary Canadian reconciliation with its own blemished past . . . the treatment of Indigenous Peoples who lived here before the European invasion. 

I love when a book sends me off to research in another direction. This time, I want to look at the 1968 student riots in West Germany which became the turning point for that country's efforts to educate its own about the atrocities of the Holocaust. It's something that the immigrants to Canada missed out on. 

In spite of some essays with challenging/off-turning (to me) academic prose, I recommend this book to those interested in the German-Canadian experience. If you read only a part, then read the Afterword by Roger Frie.

This book reaffirms for me the power of novels and my favourite Kipling quote (sub-heading on my blog). Dry facts are fascinating, but on their own they lack the power of engagement that an empathetic character can provide. Some folks see fiction as untruths, I see fiction as a way to illustrate truths. 

Okay, now on to explore those 1968 German student riots. I’m glad somebody’s writing nonfiction. I guess we do need all kinds of writers . . . researchers, historians and novelists. . . to figure out who we are, where we came from, and where we might be going. 

Riga Hangars

It’s hard to believe that two years have passed since I visited the town market in Riga, Latvia. That had been the starting point for our 12 day cycling adventure along the Amber Coast. What made Riga’s central market so memorable was the huge former zeppelin hangars. When I think zeppelin, I think of the doomed Hindenburg that caught fire after crossing the Atlantic back in May, 1937. Before that, however, they were— for a short while at least—considered a viable way of air travel.

Riga's zeppelin hangars were built originally for German zeppelins but in the 1920s they were remodelled and incorporated into the city’s vision of having a Central Market place. By 1930, the Riga Central Market was considered the biggest and also the best market in all of Europe. After the Soviet takeover it was renamed the Central Kolkhoz Market. Kolkhoz is the Russian word for collective and the market sold meat, eggs, potatoes and vegetables, etc. produced by over sixty Soviet collectives. On weekends, more than a hundred thousand people would visit and shop for produce. 

In 1997, with Latvia once again an independent country, the Riga Central Market was named a Unesco World Heritage site.  

Only ten minutes from our hotel, the market was our first stop after a fifteen-hour plane ride. Hungry and curious, we got a great taste of an area overflowing with charm and history. Rather than tearing down structures no longer needed for out-dated zeppelins, these hangars are a striking reminder of the past. 

The city of Riga is a real treasure. There’s much to explore in this proud Latvian capital that’s seen plenty of struggle during the violent 20th century. I love how they embrace their history. When we visited, everyone was buying flowers. It's a Latvian tradition for students to bring their teachers bouquets for the start of the new school year. 

Silent Mysteries

I grew up in a house with different kinds of silence. I won’t call them all secrets, because some were born of ignorance and not deliberate. My mom’s family past, for example, belonged to the former. She didn’t know what happened to her dad. She didn’t understand the politics of communism and then later, Nazism. She was an uneducated pawn, shuffled around for authoritarian agendas. First as a kulak child, later as a munitions worker, still later as a forced labourer. I couldn’t judge her as guilty, merely naïve.

My dad’s silences, however, were deliberate secrets. Some of these were based in guilt, others based in shame. The difference, you ask? In its simplest form, guilt is based on others’ judgment of you, while shame is a self-judgment. My dog might feel guilty because I caught him stealing the cat’s food, but he has no sense of shame. I might tell him he’s a bad dog, but all he wants is my approval. In fact, his only goal is to next time not be caught in the act. 

German soldiers talking to French women 
 Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-129-0480-25 / Boesig, Heinz / CC-BY-SA

My dad voluntarily joined the Luftwaffe when he was 18 in 1936. He participated in the invasion of France and once shared how he drank cognac in Cognac, France. That’s where I—the know-it-all, Canadian-born daughter—judged him as a guilty perpetrator of war. I didn’t want to hear more of his war exploits. So he kept quiet around me.

But he had other secrets. One included a failed first marriage and dead children. That was a silence I wish he’d broken, and a secret I wish he’d shared. It took a bit of sleuthing on my part, but now I can only pity him when I finally learned the details about that secret. That was his private shame. It’s a book I’ve been working on. Complicated . . . filled with guilt and with shame. There’s nothing like a mystery to keep me exploring and writing family history. 

About Refugees

Like everyone, I’ve viewed videos of the horrible scenes at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. Was there no way to avoid this calamity as the Western forces withdraw and the Taliban re-establishes its sharia rule of law?

I’m reminded of what it might have been like for the East Prussian refugees clambering to board ships in the Baltic ports like Balitysk (once Pillau) and Gdynia (once Gotenhafen) under Operation Hannibal. That could have been avoided if the Nazis had only admitted defeat a few months sooner.

The desperation and fear of the Taliban, both men and women, is comparable to the desperation and fear that the German civilians had of the Soviet surge. 

Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-092-05 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Back in '45, women and children lost track of each other in the mayhem at the harbours.  They had trekked to the coast to try and board ships to the relative safety of northern Germany. They tried desperately to avoid the revenge-seeking Red Army. Winter conditions were miserable. Yet the ships, like the ill-fated Wilhelm Gustloff and the von Steuben, offered only temporary refuge . . . torpedoed hours later on the icy Baltic.  More than ten thousand, mostly women and children, drowned. 

In the news report I watched this week with the desperate Afghans clinging to loading ramps at the Kabul airport, I could only see men and wondered what had happened to the women and children. 

Being a refugee, today from Afghanistan, a few years back from  Syria, or back in 1945 from the Soviet Army is something I’ve been lucky enough to avoid. But the word refugee or ‘Flüchtling’ in German is a word I’ve been all too familiar with. It was a label describing my own mom in the church community where I was raised and it continues to resonate with me—evoking feelings of loss, despair and poverty. 

I wish today’s refugees and their children Godspeed, but they will carry the impact of this crisis with them throughout their lives. If they’re lucky, their homelessness will be temporary, but their sense of self will probably be forever damaged. Being a refugee is life-changing. 

More about Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (Full Film)

I've blogged about Sophie Scholl before and recently watched a documentary about her. What an excellent, if heart-breaking, film inspired by the two siblings behind the doomed White Rose movement. Sophie, 21, and her brother, Hans, 24, were university students in Munich when, in 1943, they were caught spreading leaflets promoting the Nazi war as a lost cause. If you haven’t seen it, and have any curiosity about the German point of view during that terrible war,  I highly recommend that you watch it. 

 Scattered Pamphlets Memorial
remembering White Rose Resistance

Hans, a medical student, had spent time on the eastern front to help out with the injured during the Stalingrad battle, which many say was the turning point for the Nazis. Hans witnessed much suffering and upon his return to Munich to continue his studies, he and fellow students began writing anti-war pamphlets. This undermined the Nazi’s new approach and motto of “total war.”  

Goebbels gave his infamous speech at the Berlin Sportpalast (broadcast on radio to the rest of the country) under the banner, “total war/shortest war” on February 18, 1943. It’s the exact same day that the doomed siblings were arrested.

The film highlights how fear turns people into cowards. It’s ironic that while Hitler and his cohorts were rewarding fearlessness on the battlefield with Iron Crosses and status, it was weapon-less and naïve young people who managed to conquer their own fears and call out for the truth. “The Emperor has no clothes” . . . a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale applies here. I hope the little boy of the fairy tale met a better end than the White Rose students. 

Sophie Scholl’s legacy is a hard one to follow. I have to look at my own life . . . how can I find courage to defend truth? Can I risk being ostracized for having a different viewpoint? Would I risk my life?

Using our Senses in Writing

Life is a sensory experience and we deepen our writing by using all five senses. I try hard to weave them into my stories. 

Seeing. This is an obvious one. Describing landscapes, faces, clothes, etc. is an essential part of setting and character building. The trick here is to see the detail and to focus on what matters to the story. In Tainted Amber the setting is East Prussia and I needed to travel over to that part of the world so I could see the Baltic, the chestnut and linden trees and, of course, the ubiquitous amber. 

. This is a most intimate and private sense. Very subjective and very powerful. Through food, a writer has an opportunity to be culturally specific and also to use food as metaphor. Taste can also be used to show character or illness. All for the book, I got to taste-test some Jägermeister Schnapps and Königsberger Klopse

Smelling. Smell evokes memory. Who hasn’t experienced the déjà vu of smell? Whether it’s a specific soap, the scent of a real Christmas tree, or a baby’s hair . . . we often have a visceral reaction to smell. For Tainted Amber it was smell of salt spray off the Baltic and the sweet smell of September hay that stayed with me. In my current WIP it's the smell of Kölnisches Wasser that sends me deeper into the story. 

Touching. Again, this is a private sensation. Touch works well in showing relationships. It’s underused and has the ability to lessen distance with the reader. It’s a way to show love and reveal character. A tight handshake. A stiff hug. Touch can show also temperature. In Tainted Amber Katya's deepening relationship with David is shown using only the slightest touch of a hand.

Hearing. This is a shared sensation. You can hear sound with others. Whether it’s crashing waves, the crunch of boots on snow, a roaring motorcycle or the keys of a piano, using sound adds a dimension to writing that a film or audio production takes for granted. Accessing story through sound has been an important part of my writing journey.  Sound is also a way to build tension and fear as any horror film will quickly affirm. In Tainted Amber I let the roaring sea, the power of a motorcycle and the insidious music of the Horst Wessel Lied add a sense of danger to the setting. 

All five of our senses have the ability to ignite emotion and it’s emotion that connects a reader to the characters and makes them come alive. 

Zoos, Butterflies and Books

I visited the Assiniboine Park Zoo here in Winnipeg last week. The coordinator at the Immigrant Centre where I volunteer had given us passes and I was curious . . . I’d not been there for quite a while. 

Our local zoo used to be quite affordable, but now it’s a rather expensive outing for a family. Of course, my kids are way past an age where going to the zoo would be considered fun, but I’m not sure who this renovated zoo actually caters to. Rich, entitled tourists? Definitely not young families with limited disposable income and definitely not the animals trapped inside.

We have to maneuver our conversation around the roar of ascending and descending planes . . . the zoo is under the airport flight path. How do the animals, with their sensitive hearing, manage? I think of the special events during the winter when even long winter nights get lit up for our entertainment. What a barrage of sensory pollution we force upon them. 

The polar bears provide us with entertainment in their pool of water. Orphans rescued from Churchill, they seem to have the largest area to roam. Seals dance underwater to unheard rhythms, while the grey wolf towers above us on his artificial rock ledge. Does he miss his pack?

Camels meditatively munch grass, while antelope and buffalo flip their fly-swatter tails back and forth. . . politely ignoring us. People point and gawk, lick cones and sip from water bottles. 

Most beautiful is the Amur tiger (also known as the Siberian tiger).  Pacing, pacing, back and forth. I’m reminded of the book by John Vaillant, set in eastern Russia: The Tiger: A True Story of Vengence and Survival and I can’t help but feel sorry for this magnificent creature.

My mood improves immensely in the butterfly cage. Glorious colours. Wings and blossoms. Fluttering. Constant motion. I connect the butterflies with art and with life. So many stages to the butterfly. The egg, the caterpillar, the pupa or chrysalis, and finally the letting go and flying away. 

So it is with writing a book. You have the idea. You let that idea grow, gorging it with words and more words . . . let it grow big and fat. Then you let it sit. This is the pupa or chrysalis stage. Okay, maybe the comparison falls apart here. 

Every writer knows that there’s more whittling and shaping required before that butterfly emerges ready to take off. We don’t have quite the magic or privacy of the butterfly whose big changes happen hidden from view. But in the end our idea gets wings and takes off into the world’s big garden to live its short and fragile life . . . hopefully laying eggs along the way. 

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