Sunday, June 19, 2011

Prologue to The Last Daughter of Prussia (Part 1)

  Here is a draft of the actual prologue from my soon-to-be published book The Last Daughter of Prussia  that I wanted to share with my Blog readers.

  The Last Daughter of Prussia is the story of a young aristocratic woman and her Roma gypsy friend during the perilous evacuation of East Prussia at end of World War II. I hope it will be enjoyed as an intimate novel about love and survival. However, it was inspired by many true stories passed down to me by my family and documented in their diaries.

   Known as ‘The Great Trek,’ the evacuation of East Prussia claimed the lives of nearly half a million women, children and old men who were attempting to escape the Russian Army as it rapidly advanced on Berlin. I want to give the reader some background on what really happened during the winter of 1944/45 and in so doing shed light on a dark chapter in history that has rarely been discussed, yet remains the largest mass exodus of human beings ever recorded. Manya von Falken is a fictional character, but she could be any strong-willed daughter of East Prussia who was swept up in that life-threatening wave of terror and fleeing refugees.

Winter 1944/45
Civilans fleeing through the snow..
If you look closely you can see the column of people stretching for miles behind.

  Up until 1944, East Prussia, the easternmost province of Germany, had been only slightly affected by the war and the people, misinformed by Nazi propaganda about the true state of military affairs, believed that Hitler’s Wunderwaffe (super weapon) would make Germany victorious. Then, on October 22, 1944, a Russian battalion ambushed the small East Prussian village of Nemmersdorf, shooting the grandfathers who weren’t enlisted in the army and raping and killing nearly every woman and child. Reports of this massacre and the atrocities committed spread fear throughout the countryside. The East Prussians realized that they were in grave danger but by then, the harshest of winters was upon them. Adding to their panic was the fact that Hitler and his Nazi henchman, Gauleiter (governor) Erich Koch had protracted the evacuation of all civilians demanding that they stay and fight or be shot as traitors. 

This is not a detailed map but it shows where East Prussia once was.
My family's estate lay near the border of Lithuania (right near the northeastern corner)
Their escape took them to the coast of the Baltic Sea, across the lower lagoon you see pictured,
 into the City of Danzig and then on to the west.
The area that is colored blue has now become Poland and Russia.

  Trapped between two dangerous forces, the people took courage and defied orders. Gathering their lives in boxes and buckets, they harnessed their horses to carts and wagons and fled westward into the icy unknown. Targeted by Russian bombers and artillery they traversed a dangerous, frozen lagoon which was the only escape route open, and where, in many places, the bullet-riddled ice collapsed sending thousands to their watery graves.

The arrows on this map depict the Russian Army's routes of invasion.
By this time, there was no way out for East Prussian civilians other than across  the water.

Hundreds of thousands of people died in this crossing over the Frisches Haff Lagoon,
With them, their brave Trakehner horses.

  My grandparents, Walter and Edith von Sanden, were part of this perilous journey. They survived, albeit with broken hearts and scarred souls. I know because I saw the emptiness in their eyes when I was child. And I read their diaries. I wrote this story for them and for those who did not survive.

My grandfather, Walter von Sanden-Guja
My grandmother, Edith von Sanden-Guja
 I wrote The Last Daughter of Prussia  for the 2.5 million German women and children who could not break the taboo of silence over the rapes they endured at the hands of Russian soldiers. To have been violated in that way surely made them ashamed, but to have been part of a German nation guilty of genocide kept them silent. From accounts I have read and stories told to me firsthand, many women felt that they were paying for their country’s sins while the rapes were happening to them. It is understandable that the Russians were full of wrath after Hitler’s invasion had left 26 million of their countrymen dead. Who is to say how any of us would have behaved in such terrible times? But the systematic rape of women and children was and always has been an unfair act of retaliation. The Russians’ rage should have been vented on the Wehrmacht–the German Armed Forces.

The house in Guja, East Prussia
I imagine this is what my grandparents saw when they turned to look one last time
 before fleeing in that final winter of the war.
As they headed west through the snow, they would have passed the Guja forest.
My grandfather, who was an environmentalist, always said that the forest
was the land's greatest treasure.
Thinking my mother would inherit the estate, he advised her again and again to keep the forest intact,
but of course they left before Guja could ever be passed down to the next generation.

Their thoughts must have remained with the many sentimental objects they left behind;
the photos on the walls, the old hunting knife, the candlestick holders, the dangling watch chain.
  More parts of the prologue to come....

– 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

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