Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Spirits who Inspired

    It occurred to me this morning that we never create alone. We often write alone yes, but the ideas and  energies flowing through us – the creative transmissions – come from many other sources. They come from unseen worlds, from people – friends, family members, even strangers, and from nature too, animals, places and experiences.

Photo by Christine Matthai

    This week I wanted to take time to remember some of the people who stood by me as I was writing The Last Daughter of Prussia, people who championed me through so to speak. As you know from viewing this blog, I love using photographs, but I must confess that there have been a number of invisible advocates for this novel, spirits who appeared to me in dreams, and they must remain faceless on my blog.
    However, I  see them clearly in my mind's eye and I bow to them. They are the spirits of the men, women and children who never made the trek but stayed behind in East Prussia to face the Russian Army, hoping they would not be raped or killed. I honor their courage. 

Photo from the book, OSTPREUSSEN by Adam Kraft Verlag.

   This picture was taken in Goldap, a town just kilometers away from Guja, East Prussia where my grandparents lived. Theirs are the kinds of faces that would visit me and whose eyes would beg me to write pieces of their story.

    Other spirits came to me as well, those who had risked the arduous trek in that bitterest winter of 1944-1945 hoping to escape the oncoming invasion, but who did not survive, people who could have been saved had Hitler given the go ahead for earlier evacuation.

   And then there were those spirits who never left the concentration camp in Stutthof - the prison which I write about in my book. Once a peaceful sea-side resort located in a deep green forest full of larks, it became a death camp, a veritable hell hole, where many thousands perished. Oh, how I wept and still weep for them. 

    I felt I could not honestly write about those victims without going there, so I did. (see my essay about Stutthof  in Wild River Review) This shot I took is the entrance to Stutthof - the so-called 'Death Gate.' Never have I felt such an unbearable emptiness in my bones as when I passed through those swinging iron doors. Never will I be able to give full expression to the pain that lies invisibly congealed between the cobblestones or that still saturates the air in heavy silence.

Photo in  Stutthof  Museum  in Poland


 Many spirits walked beside me for the five years it took to complete the manuscript. I always felt that they were transmitting information – chapters of lives and threads of stories that needed telling. Many a night those voices pierced my sleep, explaining what needed to be written. Many a day they urged me to sit down at the computer and work without stopping.

Cobblestones on "The Himmler Allee" running through Stutthof Camp

    In a sense, writing the book became my own trek. Like the refugees who were stuck for days in the snow, I was often stuck on a page or on a sentence searching for something to help me move forward. Often I lost sight of the end and swore I would abandon my keyboard – leave it behind like those tired travelers who abandoned the fleeing columns of humanity to lie down in the snows of forgetfulness from which they never awoke. Sometimes the characters were so alive that I could barely distinguish between who was real and who was not. But the gift in this was that, despite my being a lonely writer, I was never alone.

Photo by Christine Matthai

    They held my hands when I needed guidance. They lifted me up when I stumbled into the pit of despair. From my heart, I thank them for these fallen angels truly were my inspiration.

-Marina Gottlieb Sarles

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Roma Gypsies: The Forgotten Holocaust

Roma Wagon
    The idea to introduce gypsies into my novel came to me one morning several years ago as I was reading my grandfather, Walter von Sanden's, book Schicksal OstPreussen  'East Prussia's Destiny ' (LandBuch Verlag, 1968).  I was fascinated to learn about the Roma gypsies who lived just west of the Guja forest and with whom my grandparents were friendly. 

    My grandmother, Edith, was especially close with a gypsy woman named Frau Florian. Frau Florian would often visit her and they would sit in the drawing room in Guja drinking coffee, which I understand Frau Florian loved to drink very sweet.

The drawing room in Guja

    Sometimes the two women would wander outside to the garden benches near the big black poplar tree where they’d sit for hours talking about their different lifestyles and customs. Grossmutti, as I used to call my grandma, truly cared about Frau Florian. Frau Florian taught her about the Roma culture, about music and dance, and spices for cooking. When winters were cold and money was scarce, my grandmother gave her food and money for her family. Horses from the Roma camp wandered about my grandfather's meadows, grazing freely.  

The garden in Guja

    Forester Hellwig, whom you see below, guarded the Guja forest like a hawk, yet for the camp of Roma who made their home on the edge of that woods, the land was theirs to gather berries and hunt for fowl. And, while Hellwig insisted they must never light fires too close to the trees, they always had bundles of wood for their stoves. The Roma and my grandparents were neighbors, living off the same land in very different ways.

Forester Hellwig
 But liking gypsies in those times was heavily frowned upon, and as the Nazis gained more power their hostility toward that minority group grew more violent. Soon gypsies were seen as ‘asocial’ and as ‘subhuman beings.’ The collaboration to exterminate another so-called inferior race began. It is estimated that 1.5 million Roma were murdered from 1935 to the end of WWII. 

    Unprejudiced as she was, my grandmother did not care about anti-gypsy laws. When Frau Florian was sick she went to see her with freshly baked Semmelbrötchen (rolls). If she found the gypsy woman in bed under a thick eiderdown, Grossmutti would make a hollow in the feathery blanket and empty out the bag of rolls. Of course, Frau Florian's children would all be standing by the door waiting with wide eyes  for the delicious buns to manifest.

     But then one night, the inevitable happened. All the gypsies disappeared. They were either shot or carted off to a concentration camp. My grandfather went to the police to inquire about them, but he was told that associating with gypsies was a terrible crime and that he’d be shot if he asked any more questions. 

    Grossmutti never saw Frau Florian again. My grandfather writes that she cried for days. All that remained of Frau Florian was a sculpture my grandmother had made of the gypsy woman's daughter, and that too was lost in the war.

Gypsy History 

    Reading my grandfather's words, I felt a deep and painful stirring inside. It dawned on me that the Roma gypsies were part of a 'forgotten' holocaust and I wanted somehow to bring their silenced voices to life. That is how I chose the gypsy (Joshi Karas) as the hero in my novel. Although in the story he breaks with Roma tradition to become a medical doctor (and you have to read the book to discover how this happens because gypsies were definitely NOT allowed to study in Germany), he is a man whose voice and strength of character, serve to illuminate the collective soul of an unusual and gifted people whose lives were brutally cut short.

Karl Stojka
While I was researching the internet I came across this picture of a gypsy victim.  His sensitive face and intelligent, direct gaze coupled with the readiness to smile touched my heart and stayed with me throughout the entire time that I was writing the novel. In some ways, he inspired and helped breath life into Joshi's character.

    Frau Florian too plays an important role in The Last Daughter of Prussia - only there her name is Vavara and her voice is like a lark's echoing tales of spirits and Baltic amber back to us through time. If you have a moment, listen to what I believe was her favorite song. Although there are no words in this you tube version of Dark Eyes, the music and the child's hauntingly beautiful face tell us all we need to know....

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Synopsis: The Last Daughter of Prussia

   For those of you who keep asking to know more about my recently completed novel The Last Daughter of Prussia,  here is a short synopsis that will hopefully leave you wanting to know more...

    In January, 1945, in the final winter of World War II, Manya von Falken, a self-possessed young woman of the East Prussian aristocracy and her family, famous breeders of Trakehner stallions, are caught between the advancing Russian Army and orders from Adolf Hitler forbidding them to leave.

    Near the home of the family blacksmith, Manya is almost raped by Golitsin, a Russian Major determined to become a member of Joseph Stalin’s inner circle and under orders to kill all Germans in his path. A skilled huntress, Manya badly wounds Golitsin, slicing his arm from shoulder to fingertip before escaping with her horse, Aztec.

Fetzy Oz, the horse that inspired Aztec
 Fearing for their lives, she and her family defy Hitler’s orders and flee. Before they leave, Manya shares her escape route with her lover, Joshi Karas, a gifted and charismatic twenty-six year old Roma Gypsy who has broken with tradition to become a medical doctor. When his clan is murdered in a Nazi raid, Joshi is captured and taken to a concentration camp.

 While Joshi fights for his life, Manya travels north to the Frisches Haff, a frozen part of the Baltic Sea, which she and her family must cross to get to the west. However, the journey across the ice holds an even greater danger. Golitsin is just behind her. His goal: to track her down and kill her.

Will Manya and her family reach safety? Will she reunite with Joshi?  And what happens to the people of East Prussia and their beloved Trakehner horses?

 (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.
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Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Poem From Out of WWII: Ich Möchte Nach Hause Wandern/I Want to Wander Home Again

    Edith von Sanden, my aristocratic East Prussian grandmother, lived to escape the invading Russian Army during that final, bitter winter of World War II. At her home in Guja, East Prussia, she was a sculptress and a poet. When paging through one of her old, published books, Bunte Blumen Überall (Bright Flowers Everywhere), I found a creased and yellowed paper folded in the pages. The poem below was written on that paper.

    I think she must have written the poem while she was making her dangerous passage across the frozen part of the Baltic Sea - that part which is called the Frisches Haff. I can only imagine the fear she must have felt- many people died on that ice when it cracked, giving way to the angry, frigid waters below.

    She never returned to Guja. She never again looked out of her window to the courtyard below where her beautiful Trakehner horses stood, but I know she always dreamed of home. Her words so moved me that I translated the verse into English, but I'm also posting it in German for those of you who can read the language. Somehow, it seems more powerful in its original form.

Ich Möchte Nach Hause Wandern

Ich möchte nach Hause wandern
In einem Bettlergewand
Auf stillen und einsamen Strassen
Von niemand erkannt.
Und ob auch die Füsse bluten
Die Kräfte langsam vergehen
Ich wollte wandern und wandern
Bis ich die Heimat gesehen!
Und wenn meinen Händen entglitte
Zuletzt auch der Bettlerstab
Nur Glück wärs für meine Seele
Ich fand in der Heimat mein Grab.

Edith von Sanden-Guja

I Want to Wander Home

I want to wander home
In torn beggar’s clothes
On peaceful, lonesome pathways
That no one else would know.
And should my feet be bloody
And all my strength be gone
Yet, shall I keep on walking
Until I see my home.
My beggar’s staff may slip
Slowly from my hand
But my soul shall be in heaven
In the grave upon my land.

(Translation by Marina Gottlieb Sarles)

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Monday, March 7, 2011

Away From War

    As I gaze out over the peaceful turquoise waters that lie directly in front of my balcony I realize how fortunate I am to be here in the Bahamas far away from the calamities of war. Here, the essence of nature permeates my every breath. As I stare at a stingray passing, as I dream of swimming with dolphins, I see the sacredness in each living creature. 

    I recognize that the same sacredness is in me, in all human beings. 

    I really think this knowledge was imparted to me by my grandparents, Edith and Walter von Sanden and my mother, Owanta. They had such an intimate connection to  the land in East Prussia, to the forests, the roaming elk, even the smallest dandelion in the meadow. They taught me about these things.They knew that nature could bring me to stillness, to another dimension of awareness. 

-Marina Gottlieb Sarles

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Friday, March 4, 2011

I AM a Daughter of Prussia

Guja, East Prussia. The land where my soul wanders

    All my life I have been aware of a hidden facet of my being, a sadness in my bones. It walked with me wherever I went. Even as a young child I was serious and introverted, more concerned with the world of spirit. Quite frankly, I hated being like that. I wanted to be more like other kids - laughing, uninhibited, funny. Now, after writing The Last Daughter of Prussia, I have discovered that the roots of my sadness were buried in the soil of my lost heritage. 

My mother, Owanta Von Sanden,
in East Prussia as a little girl

    See, I AM a Daughter of Prussia

    I carry the stories of my ancestors in my bones, but the beautiful thing is that writing has freed me from that heaviness of spirit. Perhaps, (at the risk of sounding new-agey) I came into this world with the task of giving a voice to the East Prussian people who fought their way westward through the snows of that last bitter winter in World War II. Maybe the Trakehner horses who carried those families across the ice wanted their whinnies turned into words. And maybe too, the Roma Gypsies of that province needed the world to know that, before they were slaughtered like the Jews, they danced there too

My grandmother, Edith Von Sanden,
an author from East Prussia

    I may be crazy, but I believe that people do have life tasks. Writers are not exempt. Spirits from other realms do talk to us if we are open to listening. Personally, I don't feel I had much choice - especially when they came around my bed at night, pulling on my pillows and my limbs. I fought them. I would shout at them to go away. Cry that I couldn't write a novel that encompassed their story. Still, I ended up following orders and what a gift it was, because when I wrote those final words  - The End - I felt at peace and I was able to laugh. 

My mother, and my two brothers, Cay and Frederik
 Even now, I laugh to myself because I think I grew up backwards. How can it be that by finishing a book I can laugh more than I did as a child?  

-Marina Gottlieb Sarles

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Marina on her book, Sand In My Shoes

An inspirational story for authors who choose to self publish:

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Why I Tell the Story of the East Prussians...

 This is photograph of me standing beside
 a giant, age-old tree in Guja, Poland, formerly East Prussia.

     As I stood by that tree, I remember feeling the old world in its trunk, hearing the roots and the hidden sap whispering stories about my forefathers who had lived on the land for generations. All I could do was be still and listen.

    The other day a friend asked me why I chose to write The Last Daughter of Prussia

    Actually, I think the book chose me. Or more likely it was those spirits, now long dead, who wanted their story told and who, while they were living, never dared to speak about their own plight because they were German. 

    How could they? In light of all the atrocities committed by Germans, they had no right to tell their grief-filled story. For years, the word "German" elicited images of black-booted Nazis, swastikas and concentration camps. But the times are changing. Consciousness is breathing us and with the breath of consciousness comes compassion. The world is calling out for healing, and although we must NEVER forget what happened in the holocaust I don't think there can ever be peace until all the suffering is named, until all the broken souls are held and able to tell their side of the story.

Another tree in Guja, before the fighting began.
    You may ask why I have a right to speak about these things. Perhaps, I don't. Still, as the grand-daughter of two broken souls who were forced to flee their land in East Prussia, on a trek that claimed the lives of some two million people and left an even a greater number of women and children raped and bleeding in the snow, I need to say that I felt compelled to write their story. Not as a documentary, but as a novel so that readers would come to know the real -life characters who fought so hard to survive in the omnipresent face of death.

-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