Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Lost Home – First Impressions

Writing a book about a certain time period requires research. When I decided to write The Last Daughter of Prussia I knew that I would have to learn about the Great Trek of 1944/45, Trakehner horses, Roma gypsies, and concentration camps (the latter being the most difficult of all for me to read about.)  I decided to retrace my roots and travel to East Prussia (now Poland) to find my family's estate, see for myself, the forests and lakes they so loved while letting the spirits of the land feed my inspiration.

Twice I traveled there. Each time was a revelation, an unveiling of unconscious memories stored in my bones and my ancestral DNA.

I kept a diary. From time to time I'd like to share excerpts with you, my readers to give you an insight into my travels.

Diary Excerpt: First Impressions 

  As the car bounced along, I clutched the Polish map I had bought in Warsaw at the train station, my index finger gliding across all the undecipherable Polish names of towns and villages. I gave a sigh of relief, grateful that out of all the names in Poland, the government cartographers had left my grandparent's village - Guja - unaltered. 
  The car braked. Andrea, my college classmate from Berlin who had decided to come along with me and my son Nikolai, turned onto an oak-lined road bordered on both sides by blindingly bright fields of yellow rapeseed.

Fields of yellow in East Prussia
(C) Photo Christine Matthäi

  My heart beat fast in my chest. There was the street sign indicating we were close, but where was my family's home? And how on earth would I find it? I had no clue where to go. I sent a silent request up through the ethers to my dead mother, asking her for help.

The first sign I saw for Guja
(c) Photo Marina Gottlieb Sarles

  We drove on. Just ahead, I saw a small building where several Polish farmhands were drinking beer on porch. Andrea stopped the car and waved. A bearded man with a apple-sized tumor growing out of the side of his neck hobbled up to my window.
  "I'm looking for the von Sanden estate," I said, knowing he didn't understand a word.
  "Von Sanden?' he muttered, repeating my grandparent's name as a question. 
  My heart sank. How would he know? My grandparents had been gone for 55 years.
  Much to my surprise he nodded.
  "Von Sanden – Malla Guja." (von Sanden - Guja estate) He smiled and pointed up the road and to the back seat of the car, gesturing that he wanted to climb in and show us where to go.
  We drove alongside a river, (a tributary surely of the Angerapp) turning onto smaller roads and finally passing through a forest thick with poplars, oaks, firs and birch trees. This must be the Guja forest, I thought. The one that Grossvati told me about. I could just imagine him riding along this same road in his green hunting jacket and high riding boots on one of his fine Trakehner horses. 

The Guja Forest
(c) Photo Marina Gottlieb Sarles

  The car bumped up a muddy hill, the tires falling in and out of potholes, kicking up stones.
  Had my mother skipped up this hill as a little girl? My heart was pounding now. Where was the house she'd been born in? Was it still standing or had it collapsed in ruins after all these years? I looked back at Nikolai as if I might see answers in his young eyes, but at ten, he was more interested in the rap music coming through his headphones than the scenery. Still, something in him understood that I needed contact with a blood member of my family and he stopped his head bobbing long enough to lean forward and pat my arm. 
  The Polish man said something and just then the forest opened. Before me I saw a house. I don't know what I was expecting but because of all the stories I'd heard and photographs I'd seen, I knew that this was the place my mother and grandparents had so lovingly called Guja.

Guja before the war
(c) Photo Gottlieb Property-Familienbesitz Gottlieb

  Dilapidated, run down and uninhabited, the house seemed smaller than I imagined yet as I opened my car door I felt the spirits of my ancestors looming larger than ever.

Guja as I found it
(c) Photo Marina Gottlieb Sarles

  I looked around. Though old and falling to pieces the structures still were standing – the coach house, the red brick building used for firing bricks, the barns and livestock quarters, and finally, the stables I had heard so much about. Nikolai and I waded through the high grass and blooming cornflowers entering into that sanctuary that had once housed so many horses. I thought about my mother and her beloved Dandy - the Trakehner pinto she'd so loved. How many times had she come running into his stall to saddle him and ride out over the endless meadows? And where was his stall? 

Baby swallows nesting in the barn in Guja before the war.
(c) Photo Gottlieb Property-Familienbesitz Gottlieb

  Suddenly, I felt as if my mother had fallen in step beside me and I was drawn to a soft chirping sound. Glancing up I saw a pair of nesting swallows. Was it a sign? Was she telling me that this was where I should stop? She'd always spoken of swallows nesting in Dandy's stall. She'd said they were fearless because they knew Dandy would never hurt them and they would always have grains. I smiled. I knew she was happy I'd come.

Nikolai in the stables.
It's strange to think that if the war had not happened, if my family had not fled the estate,
he might have grown up in East Prussia.
But growing up in the Bahamas wasn't too bad either!!
(c) Photo Marina Gottlieb Sarles

  I realize there are so many more passages from my diary to share but I think blogs posts are better kept short. So, I'll be back with second impressions. Til then... Tschüss

– 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


  1. I was riveted to this post. Thank you for this peek into your amazing journey ... I can't wait to read more!

  2. Have just finished Walter Kempowski's "All for Nothing," (2005, English translation 2017) a fictional portrait of the 'Georgenhof' of the "von Globig" family that could as well be that of your family. If you don't know it, get it!

  3. Hallo Marina,ich war im Mai 2000 in Guja. Ich würde gerne deine ganzen Eindrücke von deiner Reise lesen. Mein Vater Siegfried Heyer, geb.05.01.1918 war früher zum Geburtstag bei Harro von Sanden.Herzlichst Joachim Heyer.Das Buch Schicksal Ostpreußen von deinem Großvater habe ich verschlungen.