Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Sweeping Saga of Love & War

The Last Daughter of Prussia

"Well-rendered, keenly felt, and quite vivid.
Sarles adapted her novel from the real-life experience
of her grandparents,
and readers will appreciate the
characters' quiet heroism
and be intrigued by this affecting tale of WWII."

—Publishers Weekly

This picture was taken in the bitter winter of 1945 when thousands of refugees 
defied Hitler's evacuation orders and fled across the only escape route open.
Many did not make it to safety in the west.

A vivid, riveting book that captures the intense human dramas
of love and family, persecution and rape
amidst a chilling WWII winter where
the last hope of escape becomes a narrow lagoon
of rapidly melting ice...
One of the most moving animal stories ever written—
the writing is as sure-footed as the peerless race of East Prussian
Trakehner horses who trekked through snow and
falling bombs to save their owners' lives,
and their rare breed from extinction.

—Patricia Clough, Author
The Flight Across the Ice

About the Novel:

Germany, in the winter of 1945. Hitler's Reich is crumbling. The Russian army is advancing, hell-bent on revenge for the atrocities committed by the Nazis in Stalingrad and other cities. The quiet province of East Prussia sits in the middle of it all. The Prussians have no choice now but to flee against Nazi orders—an act punishable by death—or risk being butchered, the women raped to death by invading soldiers.

This is the story of two families caught in the eye of this catastrophic hurricane, one of East Prussian nobility, the other Romani Gypsies, and the unlikely love between Manya von Falken, a beautiful, courageous heroine and Joshi Karas, a Gypsy, brilliant and passionate, who has crossed incredible barriers to study medicine until he is sent to a concentration camp.

While Manya and her family take part in the "Great Trek" west with two of their famed Trakehner horses who must lead them across a large, dangerous frozen lagoon, along with thousands of refugees, Joshi must find a way to survive and reunite with his soul mate.

The story is based on true events passed down to me by my grandparents who were survivors on the Great Trek out of East Prussia—a tragic, historical moment, rarely discussed.

A Welcome to My Blog Readers:

Author Marina Gottlieb Sarles
with a portrait of her great great grandmother
photo courtesy Christine Matthäi
Thank you so much for visiting this blog which was created while I was writing my novel—The Last Daughter of Prussia. The posts cover what inspired me to write the book. I share a lot of history about what actually happened in East Prussia during 1945 when the Russians were invading. I felt called to give a voice to the some three million women who were raped by the invading army and who felt they never had a right to talk about the violence because they were German.

Further, I wanted the Roma Gypsies, so unique in their ethnicity, to be remembered as millions of them were murdered by Hitler in yet another Holocaust—a Forgotten One. 

Finally, I wanted to honor the famous Trakehner horses whose determination on the "Great Trek" was the purest expression of courage, love and selflessness. Without their help hundreds of thousands of civilians would not have escaped.

I believe our world is crying out for healing and although we must NEVER forget what happened in the Jewish Holocaust, we must also recognize that peace will not be possible until ALL suffering is brought to light, and ALL the broken souls—be they human or animal—are  able to tell their side of the story while being held in the heart of compassion. I hold this same space in my heart for the millions of people in our world who have been forced to flee their beloved homeland to escape death, torture and persecution. 

Although The Last Daughter was written as a novel, the story is based on actual events. Much of the information was passed down to me by my grandparents, Walter and Edith von Sanden—survivors of the "Great Trek." Other parts of the story were handed to me by ghosts I encountered hovering by my bedside at night while I slept, imploring me to bring threads of their lives to the tapestry of the tale. All of it has been extensively researched and though the characters are fictional, my intention was to stay grounded in factual details.

There are lots of photos in this blog. They are all real. Many were taken by my grandfather. Some I found on the internet and have taken the liberty of using them. Thank you to whoever took them.  You'll also see photos by my talented friend and photographer, Christine Matthäi.

There are various posts about my family lineage—East Prussian and Lenape Indian, as well as reflections on my inner landscapes as a writer. There are posts about the Roma Gypsies, the Trakehners and the amazing horse farm—The City of Horses—where they were bred. Some posts address the characters that inspired the book and the publishing process. Others will take you to my life in The Bahamas—the islands where I was blessed to grow up as my parents immigrated there. 

Take your time, dear reader, to peruse whatever calls you. My hope is that you gain insight into the vanished world of East Prussia and the heart of its people.

The book can be found on Amazon.

Thank you. Enjoy. And please, please I would love to hear from you—feel free to write to me and let me know your thoughts.

In peace and with blessings,


Marina visiting a Trakehner in Poland
near what was her grandparents' estate in East Prussia.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Holding of Hearts

(Photo courtesy Christine Matthäi)

Hi Everyone,

I just spent a beautiful day in the sun, watching kids play on the beach. The magnificent colors of the Bahamian waters enlivened my eyes, and as I watched the sunset, enthralled by the wild array of colors I settled into a deep sense of peace. Nature here is like an ever-changing painting, yet its gift is constant.

At times like these I feel I never want to leave but The Last Daughter of Prussia is taking me out on the road again. My next speaking engagement is at the Rogers Memorial Library in South Hampton, NY.   I have been invited as a special guest speaker because National Holocaust Remembrance Day falls in April and my book discusses another side of WW2 along with a tragic piece of German history that has remained largely untold. If any of you can attend, Id love to meet you. My talk will be on Wed. April 9 from 12:00 to 1:00 pm. (Phone # 631 283 0774 Ext 523.)

The topic of the holocaust is a painful one for Jews but also for non-Jews—especially those of German heritage, like me. Somewhere deep inside I feel that a hidden, shameful mark has been stamped on my soul for being German, for knowing that my country of origin is where such heinous crimes against humanity were conjured up and committed. Although these atrocities happened before I was born, I carry the fear, guilt and shame of them in my heart, my bones, my very DNA. Even if people say, “That was another time, you weren’t involved, you aren’t responsible,” I sit in my personal dungeon and say, “It was evil. The Germans knew it was evil but they did it anyway.”

It is from this raw and vulnerable place that I will be talking talk about my book, The Last Daughter of Prussia. It is from this painful place that I want to tell my audience about another shocking side of the war—a side that is also my inheritance. In telling it I cannot make right anything the Germans did. What was broken, ravaged, and dead remains broken ravaged and dead. However, this story, which concerns a group of East Prussian Germans, is also a part of the greater grief and suffering of humanity.
In telling it I want to hold all people who suffer in the heart of compassion. I want to bring awareness to all tribes who have been abandoned to cruelty and death. I don’t know exactly what repair would look like in this shattering legacy of WW2 Germany, this time in which humans did the unimaginable to each other, but I have a deep hope that in confronting the pain, in naming it, we may, as human beings, have a chance to come together in a circle and hear each other, and from that place move toward reconciliation. 

My prayer is that in giving our broken hearts space for the expression of sorrow, we bring light to the darkness and love to fear and hatred. In the simple compassionate act of staying present with each other and our stories, healing can move into past, present and future generations.

(Photo Courtesy Christine Matthäi)
Until next time

—Marina Gottlieb Sarles

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

One Last Time

Hi Everyone,

As we recover from the holidays and settle back into our daily lives, I think about the many, who, over Christmas and New Year, traveled to different places via cars and planes, boats and trains only to travel home again when the festivities came to an end. I wondered what it must be like NOT to have a home, NOT to be able to return to a corner of the world that means so much to us—a house, an apartment or a cottage we love and cherish, a garden or a wood we frolicked in as children, a sapphire blue ocean or emerald green lake that filled our summers with fun, fishing and an array of curious sights.

As I contemplated these things, I picked up a book my grandfather had written. In German it is called "Die Zugvögel" which loosely translated means  "Migrating Birds." The theme encapsulates The Great Trek out of East Prussia at the end of WW2. In it he describes what he felt like to be walking westward—along with thousands of homeless refugees—away from everything he loved while simultaneously noticing the migrating birds flying back to his beloved homeland.

 I've taken the liberty to translate a few paragraphs as well as one of my grandmother's poems. I've also included a series of photographs that give expression to the things he felt homesick for. I'm grateful; for the legacy of photographs he left behind. I hope that the excerpts will give you, the reader, some insight into what that time must have been like for those whose land vanished, for those who could never return home.

Edith von Sanden leaning on one of
her favorite trees in the garden in
East Prussia before the war.
Once she fled, her hands never stroked the
bark again.
(C Property Gottlieb Family)

Excerpt from Die Zugvögel written by grandfather...

How thankful we would be to God if after all this suffering and grief we could go home to die in peace. If we could just see everything one last time: the river, the lake, the old trees, all the sacred and beloved spots that are woven into the tapestry of our childhood memories. We are a part of these things.

My grandfather Walter von Sanden-Guja
fishing by the River Angerapp
in East Prussia before the war.
(C Property Gottlieb Family)

The lake in Guja
(C Property Gottlieb Family)
(C Property Gottlieb Family)

The tiny temple my great-grandmother had built
by the River
(C Property of Gottlieb Family)
The drawing room in the manor house
(C Property Gottlieb Family)
The pond  that was  home
to the old green frog—a beloved friend
of my grandfathers.
(C Property of the Gottlieb Family)
Excerpt cont…

We long to turn to dust in the same way these things and these living beings will—in the same way our ancestors did. I know that a home is earthly and transitory, yet God placed such a fervent love in our hearts for its existence. For that reason, it seems it would be a beautiful thing if our hands that loved to work the earth could rest there; if our hearts that sang in tune with nature could fall asleep in the same place where so many of our loved ones' hearts stopped beating.

Walter von Sanden


And here is the poem by  my grandmother — I hope my translation does it justice.
It doesn't have a title but I would call it:

One Last Time

If those of us ravaged by grief
Could walk home just one last time,
Our tired eyes would come alive
Our heavy hearts would fly.
If we could hear the birds on the wing
And breathe in the fresh, forest air
Then surely the rest of our lives would be
One endless, grateful prayer.

Edith von Sanden

I wish I could have spoken to my grandparents about their journey, their loss, their grief, their beautiful East Prussia but I was only a child at the time. Now, having extensively researched The Great Trek and East Prussia, their words have a very deep meaning, one that binds me not only to them but to the land of my ancestors, the very earth. Often, I wonder how their genes and interests have influenced me—my love of nature, horses, writing, the spiritual world.

I wish I could tell them that I have been back to visit their home twice in the last years. It looks so different from the vibrant manor house and estate it once was but I still feel the soul of it deep in my bones. In some ways, I know I am a part of it too. While there, I heard the spirits of the land rustling through the birch leaves. I listened to their soft voices whispering between the bullrushes before they were carried across the lake on the beating wings of a pair of swans. I understand what my grandfather meant when he said he would have wanted Guja to be his final resting place. And yet, for all his longing, I trust his soul has found peace.

Until next time,

—Marina Gottlieb Sarles

(c) All content and photos are the private property of the Gottlieb family, unless otherwise stated or linked,  and may not be used without permission.
(c) Privatbesitz Gottlieb Familie

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Dichotomy of a Bird Song

Hi Everyone,

2014 has arrived! I want to wish you, my readers, the very best. Thank you for your support. I hope that you stay healthy and happy and that you prosper and grow in all aspects of your lives while following your bliss. In my heart, I pray for planetary peace.

A peaceful dawn
(Photo courtesy Christine Matthäi

This year was a milestone for The Last Daughter of Prussia. After years of research and writing, the book was published. My gratitude to Wild River Books for helping me birth the novel into the world and to Joy Stocke and Kim Nagy for their creative ideas, brilliant editing, constant support and follow through in the PR arena. It was a busy travel year for me with many book signings in the north eastern USA as well as California. The novel was celebrated in Los Angeles via an amazing party organized by my generous friends, Leonid Minkowski and Linda Marlin. Their kindness has brought the story to the attention of people in the film industry. Fingers crossed.

My friend Linda and me at the party
in Los angeles

A pic of the party which was so elegant
and well thought out by my generous friends

As I reflect on the dawn of this new year, my thoughts travel back in time to what it was like in East Prussia at the beginning of January 1945 when my story takes place. Beside my keyboard lies an open book written by my grandfather, Walter von Sanden, in which he describes the Trek through the snow and wintry landscape as he and my grandmother fled the invading Russian Army. I want to share a few excerpts which I will translate from German to English. I hope do his writing justice.

Just a little paragraph of my grandfather's handwriting.
This is not from the book I'm translating, but it is a
prayer that he once wrote.
Some of the words say:
Dear God, I know that you are love.
Everywhere, everywhere, I feel your presence…
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)
… Moving with us in a long column are many sad people, exhausted horses, creaking wagons and worn out prisoners of war. The sky is gray. The endless stretch of ice before us is gray. Our lives are gray. On the howling wind an old hymn reaches my ears: "I call on the power of love which reveals itself in Jesus.…". And then a folk song:  "Be patient my soul, for a new spring follows every winter…". It is my wife whose voice rises above the suffering around us and inside us. Forehead pressed to the wind, she pushes through the snow singing songs about faith in God.

My grandmother Edith von Sanden
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)
There is a long passage following this one which describes their journey across the frozen Frisches Haff lagoon— it corroborates what I wrote in my book. After several days of heartbreaking, gruesome sights they make it on to the Nehrung, the thin strip of land that leads to Danzig.

The trek

Here my grandfather continues:
… The road is far too narrow for the amount of traffic it needs to contain. The wagons come to a grinding halt. There must be some kind of obstacle in front of us. Suddenly, we are overtaken by speeding cars. Our hands shake as we stand terrified on the slippery ice. I look inside the passing vehicles that honk at my nerves. I see the Powerful Ones—the so-called leaders—warm and dry in their leather seats—and my thoughts turn bitter with rage. Again we move. It is a cruel and hard trek. My wife's strength is failing.

Exhausted, we finally arrive at the first arm of the Vistula River. The ferry is still sailing. We find a spot between another wagon and some horses. Chunks of ice float on the river's current. The air, gray and wintry, lies over the water and the land. The Russians are a dangerous threat here too. Our escape route lies parallel between their front and the Baltic coast and we must tarry here for quite a while longer.

My grandparents did make it to the other shore and then Grandfather wrote…
The roar of cannons is always present.The high road we are on runs through the flat countryside which is bare, except for the silent linden trees that stretch their wet, black branches to the heavens. Oh! What's that? A cheery birdsong—a brief, little verse, repeated only twice. "Much too early, much too early," a titmouse warbles as it flits to the upper limbs of a dark tree.

A Tufted Titmouse
(Photo Wikipedia)
I trudge on as if in a dream and find my soul at home again. I'm coming from the lake, along the well-worn path that runs beside the bubbling brook high with spring water. I'm carrying my fishing nets and turn toward the park, into the alley lined with linden trees that my grandmother planted. I stop and hang my nets to dry in the sun. The catkins on the hazelnut trees swing in the breeze…the  titmice sing…the soil is rich and black. 

The park in Guja, East Prussia
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)

The river that ran past the house in
East Prussia
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)
My grandfather preparing to go fishing
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)
Spring is coming! Spring is coming! Soon it will burst forth in all its beauty as it only does here at home….But then, I return to harsh reality. I am plodding through the snow and now  the titmouse sings, "Nevermore, nevermore. Nevermore will you go home."

The house in Guja as my grandparents left it
in January 1945 when the Russian Army was
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family

Those words, written so long ago in the middle of a bitter winter, led me to think about my grandparents, who, at the dawn of a new year, faced death with every coming day. How good my life is, how quiet and sunny and abundant compared to theirs 69 years ago when they fled East Prussia through snowdrifts and sleet with bullets flying at their backs. How grateful I am never to have known that kind of terror or the need to stay vigilant in order to survive.

I sit here at my desk in a state of relaxation overlooking the Bahamian sea. Outside the mockingbirds whistle their lively tunes from the silver buttonwood trees. A yellow crowned night heron on the prowl for a crab, squawks impatiently when the gardener disturbs him. And oh! 'What's that? A tiny yellow breasted banana quit has come to sit on my window sill and is chirping a tiny, high-pitched verse—"tsip, trip,"that sounds more like" peace, peace." I pause to reflect upon the meaning this bird's song has for me…It's very different from what my grandfather heard because, unlike him,  I am not gripped by the cruel hard hand of war. I wish the whole world were free of guns and hatred and fighting. I wish we could all hear the birds sing a song of peace.

A little kingfisher.
 My grandfather was an ornithologist
who took a legacy of photos before the war.
He loved birds.
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)

A photo he took of a little ringed plover.
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)

'Til next time….

—Marina Gottlieb Sarles

(c) All content and photos are the private property of the Gottlieb family, unless otherwise stated or linked,  and may not be used without permission.
(c) Privatbesitz Gottlieb Familie

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Making Tracks with Trakehners

Feiner Prinz
(Photo courtesy of Terry Armstrong)

Hi Everyone,

Meet Feiner Prinz, a gorgeous Trakehner stallion! I had the pleasure of meeting Feiner Prinz at the American Trakehner Association Convention in Ohio this month where I was invited to talk about
The Last Daughter of Prussia. Here he is in all his regal beauty! A truly fine prince! (Thank you to his owner Margaret MacGregor for allowing me to stand beside such royalty!) As I held his halter strap, he placed his soft muzzle close to my ear and for a moment, The Great Trek out of East Prussia flashed before my eyes. In the warmth of his breath I thought I heard him whisper, Hey Marina, what if my equine ancestors and your grandparents helped each other on that dangerous journey, that fateful flight across the ice? Maybe we're connected through our families.

Photo Courtesy Terry Armstrong

Yes, I thought, we're e all connected—humans, animals, the whole world and probably all meetings have a reason even though we might not know it. As I held him I wondered how many of his equine ancestors had been touched by my family's human hands—especially my East Prussian grandparents and great-grandparents who loved and bred Trakehners for so many generations. Certainly, we know that after World War II, the re-establishment of this magnificent warmblood breed—and beautiful modern horses like Feiner Prinz — depended on that handful of pure-bred Trakehners that survived the bitter trek. They were the unsung heroes of that journey giving their hearts to pull their human families westward in wagons through snow, artillery zones and finally over a treacherous frozen lagoon where many fell to their icy deaths. I wrote the book for them because the horses could never tell their story and in saving hundreds of thousands of lives, the Trakehners did the impossible.

Photo Courtesy Susan Bertke

Photo courtesy Susan Bertke

Photo Courtesy Susan Bertke
I met such wonderful people at the ATA Convention. Everyone was so down to earth, their dedication and love for the breed visibly palpable in that warm Ohio air. Majestic Farm is a wonderful place with clean, airy stables and riding halls. I loved watching the mare and stallion inspections, seeing their graceful fluid movements and floating trots, assessing their measurements and the ways they conform and are put together. I even got to sit next to Erhard Schulte and ask him questions as a few of the horses were being shown. Meeting Erhard in person was special as he is one of the foremost specialists on Trakehners who freely shared advice with me while I was writing.

 Erhard Schulte and me at the ATA Convention Oct 2013
(Photo Courtesy Ann Dionne)
Thank you Ann Dionne for driving to see me after so many years.
There is no time. Friends forever! Many lifetimes!
At this same exciting event another one of my supporting angels drove to visit me —Donald Bertke. It was our first face-to-face meeting and I was thrilled to be able to personally thank him for his expertise. Without him, my heroes, Manya and Joshi, might never have made it out of East Prussia. He explained barges and loading procedures, broken steam lines and escape routes to me, all via e-mail for a couple of years without even knowing who I was. Some people are just like that.

Donald Bertke and me at the convention
Photo courtesy Susan Bertke
(Thanks Susan for your great pics!)
It really was a fabulous experience, the icing on the cake being that I could talk freely about my book to a captive audience and share my innermost feelings about the East Prussians, Romani Gypsies and brave Trakehner horses during World War II. I only wish my mother could have been with me but perhaps she and my grandparents were watching from the bleachers on high.

That's me telling my story
(photo courtesy Terry Armstrong)
Thanks Terry for your patience with pics
In conclusion, I want to thank everyone who invited me to the convention and helped me while I was there: Karen Stopek, Eileen Krause, Wally Cullen, Margaret MacGregor, Tim Holekamp and Kelly Gulick and so many others. Also thanks to the many who bought books. Never in a million years would I have dreamed that when I started writing The Last Daughter of Prussia I would be presenting the material to such a prestigious, knowledgable group of Trakehner lovers.  I feel a true bond and deep gratitude.

Until next time,

—Marina Gottlieb Sarles