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.
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  1. Marina,

    Just a wonderful taste of this incredible story - I can't wait to get my hands on the book. You've hooked me already!

    Thanks so much,


  2. Hi Marina, just happened upon your blog because I am looking for something else but you came up in my Google search. I will now search for your book because it appears rather interesting. It reminds me of the movie "Everything is illuminated" starring Elijah Wood. I do hope it is turned into a movie. Good material should be.