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.

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