Sunday, May 29, 2011

Two Worlds - East Prussia and The Bahamas

  I spent the weekend in Abaco, the most northern island in the Bahamas. It is the place I call "HOME" even though I don't live there full-time. As I sat on my verandah, sipping a glass of champagne laced with Aperol, I watched the sun-kissed bay change into a myriad of rosy blues and sparkling aquas and I thought about the two worlds from which I come - Europe and the Bahamas.

The view  from my porch in Abaco, the island where I grew up

The view from what would have been my home had I grown up in East Prussia like my mom

Swans on the lake in Guja

  Two cooing tobacco doves were perched in the branches of the old gum elemi tree beside the wall. I listened to their song for a long time and then, suddenly, with a flutter of wings they took flight, vanishing into the thick forest that slopes down to the sea. Something in their swift and unexpected movements made me think about my parents, Ejnar and Owanta Gottlieb who, like the characters in my novel The Last Daughter of Prussia,  left their homes in Germany and fled into the unknown.

My parents, Ejnar and Owanta on their wedding day in 1944  during WW2

  Luckily for me, my parents, ended up in the Bahamas, this beautiful chain of glimmering islands surrounded by colorful reefs and swaying sea fans. But what a change it must have been for them! The icy winds of winter replaced by warm, tropical breezes, the snows by fine white sand, the bombs and gunshots finally silenced by the sound of lapping waves upon the shore. They must have felt they were living a dream when they climbed out of the small seaplane that finally brought them to Grand Bahama, the island where my father was first employed at a lumber camp as a medical doctor.

My father arriving at Northbeach, Grand Bahama after a journey to Nassau
where he purchased his medical supplies. He's the man standing at the back of the dinghy.

  How strange it must have been for them to imagine that this paradise existed while the war in Europe was destroying so many people. But that is is another story and anyone who is interested can read my mother's autobiography Angel Stand by Me. It is an fascinating account of the journey she and my father took from Germany to the Bahamas and it tells of both the difficulties and the fulfilling life they created here.

  But I digress. What I really want to give you, the reader, is a glimpse into the differences and similarities of life and landscapes in both parts of the world. As always photographs are portals that allow more insight than a thousand words.

Whereas in East Prussia my mom was friendly with the Roma Gypises,
in the Bahamas she took care of the native Bahamians, delivering babies
and tending to the sick with my dad.

My parents opening the door to their little clinic in Grand Bahama. (1948)
It was just a shack but  the people came from miles around to see the doctor.


The house in Guja, East Prussia where my mother, Owanta von Sanden, was born before WW2

The shack that my parents first lived in when they arrived in Grand Bahama.
Although she was an aristocrat, my mother never complained about this house.
She soon refurbished it with her own hands, built a chicken coop and planted a vegetable garden
 that yielded much of what we ate.
I lived here until I was 5 yrs old and then we moved to Marsh Harbour, Abaco,
 where my parents built a beautiful home.
In East Prussia, the hunt was on for all sorts of game.
Here you see the Guja estate forester, Herr Hellwig, holding a pheasant he'd shot.

Like Manya, the heroine in The Last Daughter of Prussia, my mother liked to go on the hunt
but only to be in the woods and in nature, not to kill.
Here she is with the wild boar hunter Lebree of Cherokee Sound, Abaco,  after hours of running through the forest
on foot in the hot tropical sun.
Lebree never used a gun. When his dogs had cornered the boar, he would tackle it with his hunting knife and quickly slit open its throat or belly.

(Courtesy of Erhard Schulte who wrote a most informative book entitled Trakehnens Pferde
This Trakehner horse is the perfect expression of everything I imagine my equine hero Aztec in the novel to be.
Trakehner horses were the proud symbol of East Prussia.
They were nearly brought to extinction because of the war.

This is a wild horse of Abaco - a proud descendent of the Spanish Barb brought here by Columbus.
His eyes are blue.
Like the Trakehners after WW2, these horses are very endangered by man's encroachment
upon their natural feeding habitat. When I was growing up the herd consisted of 200 powerful animals that grazed in the pine forests and galloped along our sandy shores. Now there are only 8 remaining.

Part of the dwindling herd of Abaco horses
In Trakehnen, East Prussia there were hundreds of horses on the meadows.

  As I post these photos and put together pieces of my life and family history, I realize that the archive of untold stories and unpublished pictures is vast – too vast for one post. So many impressions from childhood to this moment have influenced the writing of my novel. They are the configurations of my very being. And...I promise to bring you more.

(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

Thursday, May 19, 2011

First Published Excerpt: The Last Daughter of Prussia

  Below is a short introduction to an excerpt from my book The Last Daughter of Prussia. The excerpt  that follows was just published in the online magazine Wild River Review. I invite all of you to subscribe to this amazing magazine that seeks to raise awareness and compassion as well as inspire engagement through the power of stories.  

   In a climate of repeated media flashes and quick newsbyte stories Wild River Review publishes essays, opinion, interviews, features, fiction and poetry, while focussing on underreported issues and perspectives. And it's free.

My grandmother, Edith von Sanden at her window in Guja, East Prussia

  When I was a child growing up in the Bahamas, my grandmother came to visit from Germany. One day, while we were building sandcastles on the beach, she paused to tell me about East Prussia – a place of great beauty where Trakehner horses pranced across dandelion meadows and elk herds swam in green rivers.
  “Ost Preussen,” she said, with a soulful sigh.
  Hearing the sadness in her voice, I glanced up sharply.
  “Where is East Prussia?” I asked, as the sand slipped through her fingers.
  “Gone, child. It vanished in the last bitter winter of World War 2.”

The house in Guja

  As I grew older I realized that East Prussia truly is a vanished land. Most people I’ve met, even educated ones, have never heard of it. They don’t know that the largest mass exodus of civilians ever recorded in history took place in that tiny province during the winter of 1944-45, just as the Russian Army was invading. An estimated 2.5 million women were raped. Many died – travesties that could have been avoided had Hitler allowed the East Prussians to evacuate earlier. But he refused, and between the threat of being shot as traitors and the dire warnings of a fast approaching Red Army, the East Prussians were trapped.

    Finally, the people defied Hitler’s orders and fled their homes. Loading whatever of their lives they could fit into their carts, they marched in a long column through the snow, trekking across a frozen and treacherous part of the Baltic Sea, which was the only escape route open at the time.

  Their story was never told. Why? Because in the face of all the atrocities committed by the Nazis, the East Prussian Germans were too ashamed to talk. Many felt their suffering was deserved. Perhaps too, the world did not want to know.

  My grandparents were part of that great trek. Years later, after both of them had passed on, I found their diaries. As I huddled over those yellowed pages, poring through my grandmother’s crisp handwriting, I remembered our conversation on the beach. Ancestors have a strange way of calling the soul to a task. Urged on by voices from the past, I began to research my roots and write my latest novel – The Last Daughter of Prussia.

  I wrote so that the story lying hushed in German bones could be heard. I wrote knowing that all of humanity needs to be held in the heart of compassion; every side of the truth must be told. Only then can healing occur. Only then can both the dead and the living find peace.
Marina Gottlieb Sarles 

Fleeing civilians on the trek with their horses in the dead of winter 1944/45
                                                 Excerpt – The Last Daughter of Prussia
East Prussia - October 1944

  Swooping low across the Angerapp River, a flock of common cranes announced the arrival of dawn, their cries echoing through the willow trees that swayed like weary sentinels on the marshy banks. From her perch on a flat, moss-covered stone, Manya von Falken watched the cranes rise into the pale, watery sunrise.
  She’d been sitting at the river’s edge since just after midnight when she’d awakened from the dream. But like splinters, the images remained stuck in her mind – Russian soldiers breaking down the front door of her house, her parents lying in a pool of blood on the parquet floor of the winter garden. Unable to sleep or shake her sense of dread, she had risen from her bed, dressed and made her way through the frosty air to the stables and her beloved stallion Aztec.
  He had grown used to her nightly visits and had pricked up his ears the moment she unlatched the gate to his stall.
  “I had the dream again,” she whispered anxiously.
  He nuzzled her shoulder as she lifted the saddle onto his back and pulled the girth buckle tight. Outside the stable, she mounted him. Together they rode into the courtyard and down the grassy hill toward the river, the beat of her heart slowly adjusting to the rhythm of his gait.
  Now, the blackness of night had receded, the heavy fog clinging to the riverbank evaporating in the dawn air.
  The river had always been her refuge. When she was a little girl, her father brought her to this very spot, holding her tightly on his lap as Fidelio, his bay Trakehner gelding, cantered down the embankment. Here, he had taught her to listen to the calls of birds while she fished for trout, pike and eel. In the sacred stillness she had heard the spirits of her ancestors dancing in the rustle of the leaves, felt their presence in the gentle raindrops that touched her skin. And never once had she been afraid.
  But, everything was changing.
  For the past weeks, even the forest creatures acted strangely, as if they sensed the apocalypse she knew was coming. What else could explain the disappearance of the otters from the riverbanks? They were the happy-go-lucky freebooters of nature, always ready for a bit of fun. It had been months since she’d watched them toboggan down the slippery incline, their front paws tucked beneath their chests. And she missed them.
  If only I could forget the dream, she thought, staring at the river. But the sound of imagined gunfire still echoed in her head.
  The Russians would be ruthless. Their orders were simple. Women were to be raped; men shot or sent to Siberian labor camps. Their rallying cry was simple too. No mercy for Germans. Germans were evil. They had invaded Russia and slaughtered the innocent. Now they would be punished.
  Aztec’s shrill neigh snapped her out of her thoughts. She stood up.
  “The otters won’t be coming today,” she sighed, smoothing back her hair.
  Aztec pawed at a hard muddy ridge, letting her know he was ready to move on. She reached for his tanned deerskin bridle, woven expertly by Blacksmith Helling.
  She couldn’t remember a time when Helling wasn’t in charge of the family’s horses, ensuring they were impeccably shod, and that their bits and snaffles fit perfectly in their mouths. His reputation reached far beyond their Guja estate and the surrounding villages. An hour’s ride away, in Nemmersdorf, where he lived with his wife Karin and their daughters, Maritza and Zarah, he was much loved and respected.
  She shivered. The chill of the morning had awakened a hunger inside her, for food, surely, but also for the comfort of the blacksmith’s home.
  I’ll go to Nemmersdorf, she thought, pulling herself into the saddle and nudging Aztec forward. It’s a bit of a ride, but maybe Karin baked an apple strudel. She smiled to herself. If not, she’ll fry me an egg in butter.
  A breeze touched her face, bringing with it the scent of freshly turned soil. In the potato fields, the women would soon be out, digging up the precious sustenance they hoped would see them through the coming winter.
  Ever since she could remember, she had felt connected to the land, its essence transmitting itself to her through the forests full of oaks and poplars and elk, the rivers that poured into peaceful inlets bountiful with fish. She longed to be worthy of the estate where her family had lived for centuries. She always thought she would grow old here, farm and raise horses. But she wasn’t sure how much longer she could stay.
  Pulling her collar tighter against the chilly air, she cantered on gathering the warmth that came with the mid-morning sun. Finally, she saw the bridge that crossed the Angerapp River onto Nemmersdorf’s oak-lined Reichschaussee. She slowed Aztec to a walk, surprised to see the ground so churned up. The markings looked unfamiliar and yet, with a chill, she guessed they were tank tracks.
  She sniffed the air and smelled iron. Urging Aztec over the bridge, she turned off the main road onto a path that ran through the forest toward Nemmersdorf village.
  A quiver ran through Aztec’s neck.
  “What is it boy?” she murmured, gripping the handle of her hunting knife.
  Aztec shook his mane and turned to look at her, his eyes shiny with fear. She nudged him on with her heels, but he wouldn’t budge. Something was wrong. Dismounting, she led him off the path, deeper into the forest.
  “Stay here,” she whispered, stroking his muzzle. She thought for a moment and decided not to risk tying him to a tree. If a stranger found him, they would surely steal him. Untied, he could always run. “I’ll be back boy,” she said and then, swiftly, she set off.

  Nemmersdorf was a short distance to the north. She worked her way through brambles and branches, straining to hear the familiar sounds of the women calling to each other as they walked to the fields.
  Cautiously, she made her way through the smoke-filled air to the path bordering the village where groves of oaks lined the old road that led from Nemmersdorf to Gumbinnen town.
  Four Russian tanks were parked on the shoulder of the road. Gunshots punctuated the air. People were shouting. Another tank rolled down the hill toward the village crushing a cow in its path. The poor animal let out an anguished groan and then it was silent.
  “No,” she whispered.
  Soldiers holding submachine guns and bayonets leapt down from the moving tank. One grabbed a screaming woman and dragged her down the narrow cobblestone street that twisted past the inn.
  The quick, sharp blasts of another round of gunshots rose above the din. In Farmer Naujok’s field twenty old men were lined up. One by one, they jerked and fell as bullets ripped through their shirts.
  In the farmyard to her left, she heard a low moan. Creeping closer, she saw the tortured face of a woman whose hands and feet had been nailed to the barn door, her naked body stretched wide across the wooden frame. There was such terror in the woman’s suffering. And no sign of hope that her crucifixion would let her rise like the Christ who hung above the altar in church.
  Manya’s heart raced.
  Run, she thought. But her feet would not obey.
  A more urgent thought struck her. She had to get to Blacksmith Helling’s house.
  Quickly, she followed the path that led to Helling’s stone cottage, with its clay pots of red geraniums and rosemary at the gate. As she neared the edge of the forest, she saw that the front door was open. Two soldiers pushed Karin and Maritza down the stone steps into the road where more soldiers waited. Maritza was naked while her mother stood by sobbing, pleading for their lives.
  “Frau komm!” the soldiers shouted. “Woman, come!”
  The men surrounded Maritza, some of them laughing and jostling her with the ends of their rifles, others fondling her breasts.
  “Stop,” cried Karin, scratching the face of a burly Russian who had unbuttoned his pants. “Take me!”
  Maritza screamed. Karin lunged sideways to protect her, but the men grinned and shoved her to the ground.
  “Pigs,” she shouted over and over again.
  Another soldier pulled out his gun. Grunting, he grabbed Karin’s face, forced the barrel into her mouth and pulled the trigger.
  Manya stumbled backwards and vomited, the stream of bile landing on the dark square of earth beneath her feet. Her head began to spin. She raised her eyes to stop from fainting.
  The men took turns. One by one, they unbuckled their belts and thrust themselves between Maritza’s thighs. She struggled to fend them off, but soon, her long, blonde braids turned red, and finally, her cries faded.
  In the street, an injured goose was hopping back and forth, honking woefully. Its wing was soaked in blood and it kept falling over. Zarah’s goose, thought Manya, tears stinging her eyes. Where is Zarah? Where is she?
  Manya’s knees buckled. She felt the sky fall down around her, and then the noise in her head stopped.  

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(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, May 14, 2011

Landscapes of a Writer

    I want say a few words about what is going on in the inner landscape of my writer's being as well as the outer world of my novel - The Last Daughter of Prussia.  During these last weeks, I have been riding a personal tsunami. It has crested inside me with emotional turbulence only to fall away again like the breakers on the reef in front of my terrace here in the Bahamas.

Waves breaking in the Bahamas. 
How far away East Prussia seems from these shores.

     It is quite something to have finished the manuscript I've been working on for so long. I've been living with my characters for years, shadowing them through both intimate and dangerous situations, talking to them daily, even discussing their destinies in my sleep. And now, suddenly, they are not with me in the same way.

    Couple that loss with sending out query letters to unresponsive literary agents who have no idea who I am or who my characters are, and you have the recipe for despair. Now, add a pinch of not having a gripping project to work on and you have an empty soul bowl which seems to fill up with a river of salty tears and the repeated question: Why did I decide to write that book? Did I waste all that time?

      I'm beginning to think however, that these must be the in-between places when we find ourselves poised between an old reality that has passed away and a new reality that has not yet fully formed. Not comfortable – at least not for me. In fact, it feels quite chaotic. But then, in chaos there is transition. It reminds me of Nietzsche's quote, "You must have chaos to give birth to a dancing star."

  The central question then becomes - can I stay in the chaotic void long enough for something to unfold? Well...truthfully, I'm not so good at that. Nevertheless, I'm learning. I've been trying to learn this kind of patience throughout my entire life. And although it has been a challenge (it always is - no matter what my issue) I am becoming more and more curious and slowly, I'm beginning to expect miracles in the uncertainty.

  So that's where I've been.

  And now to the good news.

This is me in February of this year,  holding my manuscript in a prayer circle of like-minded, conscious women friends.
I truly feel that I have written what I was called to write. I have told my ancestors story.
Now I trust the universe to guide the book into whatever final shape it takes.

    After weeks of sending out query letters, I was approached by several agents who wanted to read the manuscript, who have it now and who seem to think that the story has a place in the world. But even more exciting is the fact that I am in discussions with a publishing company - one that is run by two amazingly conscious women with high ideals and integrity and whose mission statement is: "to raise awareness, compassion, and inspire engagement through the power of stories."

  This is like a breath of living air for me, a new heartbeat because I feel that any project we undertake in life needs co-creative support. So, having said that, I am beginning to believe that the next phase of the manuscript, by that I mean a book with pages and a cover, is commencing.

(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, May 8, 2011

Five Generations of Daughters of East Prussia on Mother's Day

As I celebrate this Mother's Day I am thinking of the generations before me, my ancestral family of women from East Prussia. What a span of lifetimes!  How did they live?  I know they were all engaged in taking care of the home and the workings of the estate. They rode horses and had a deep relationship to nature. Mostly though, I think they loved their children - each woman in her own way, to the best of her ability.

My great-great grandmother Coelestine Baroness von Schenk zu Tautenburg-1821-1891

My great grandmother Magdalena von Sanden.
I'm told she was a spiritual woman with a  keen psychic ability - a healer in her own way.
I feel very close to her even though I never knew her personally.

My grandmother Edith von Sanden.
She achieved great fulfillment in  the arts, in painting and sculpting.

Owanta Gottlieb von Sanden.
She was zoologist but much more than that – she was my mother.
An extraordinary woman, she worked beside my father in the Bahamas as a midwife and nurse.
She tilled the Bahamian soil like a farmer. digging and sweating and planting.
There wasn't an animal she didn't admire.
The list of her accomplishments and gifts is long.
She wrote a book called Angel Stand by Me/Engel Steh mir Bei
She wasn't always easy as a mother - I had a lot to live up to and she could be tough but she was loving.
I'm grateful for the gifts and wisdom she passed on to me through her being
 and the long line of strong women before her.

So here I am -  the last of the daughters in this line.
By the way, this photo was taken just a few years ago, near my grandfather's estate Guja, formerly in East Prussia but now Poland.

And this is my family.

Jamie Sarles, my amazing husband and me.

My son Nikolai Sanden Sarles.
For the moment the generations stop here but I can hardly wait to meet the next.

And so with the words of Joseph Campbell, I end this post on Mother's Day.

When it's all love,
all must be love.
Nothing must interfere:
love conquers all.

(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

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Letters and Love: the power of a blog

The cow herd grazing near the Guja Lake

    Although I haven't published a blog in the last two weeks, I'm very conscious of wanting to be in touch. So funny, because I don't always know who reads the blog or where in the ethers and continents my posts are landing. All the same, this medium is an authentic form of contact with you, myself and the unknown. And, I like that. 

    Moreover, I need it. It is sustenance for my soul. I'm so grateful for your interest and the support you give in following my Blog. Just this morning, I received a note from  a woman I have never spoken to or met. She wrote that she was touched by the story on my blog about the Roma gypsy woman, Mrs Florian, who was friendly with my grandparents in East Prussia.   

Ingo, my grandparents' tame otter 
stealing a drink of milk from a teacup at the breakfast table. 
He must have been quite spoiled and from what I  gather, 
he always visited the milk shed where he begged the milker for more.

    Then, another woman wrote to tell me that her mother had been born in Guja, East Prussia in 1935 and her grandpa had tended to milking the cows on my grandfather's estate. (I bet the milk Ingo drank from that cup was procured by his hands.) Her grandma went to school with my mother, Owanta Gisela von Sanden. For me, this is a connection beyond words.

My mother, Owanta Gisela von Sanden as a little girl in East Prussia.
    When I receive letters like these I have to confess I'm so moved, I cry. It's as if somewhere out there little heart flames are bursting forth and connecting strangers from familiar worlds. I love it.

(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