Friday, November 18, 2011

The Amber Room—A Lost World

  One spring afternoon, while Manya was walking down the garden path, she saw Joshi running toward her past the beds of purple irises. Breathless, he handed her a rough piece of amber. “For you,” he said. “East Prussian gold. I found it myself by the Baltic Sea on the beach near Kahlberg. Look! It even has a butterfly inside. Mama says butterflies are a symbol of change.”
  “It’s beautiful,” she murmured, holding it up to the light. “But why are you giving it to me?”
  He laughed. “Because you’re my best friend.” 

Excerpt from The Last Daughter of Prussia                                                                   

A beautiful Trakehner who like amber is a symbol of East Prussia
 This picture is from the book Trakehnen's Pferde by Erhard Schulte
  Last week I wrote about my mother's amber—a glowing orange piece of Baltic resin that prompted an East Prussian family friend to tell me her tragic story after years of keeping it to herself. As I  thought  more about what I had written, I realized that this woman's story must have lain dormant in the recesses of my unconscious for decades—almost like the amber that lies embedded in the earth's mantle under the sea. Then, when I finally decided to write The Last Daughter of Prussia the piece of amber my mother had given me seemed to surface, becoming—metaphorically speaking—alive with scenes of history it had witnessed in WW2 and prompting me to bring awareness not only to the plight of the East Prussian people and their brave Trakehners, but also to the holocaust that brought death to so many Roma gypsies and Jews under Hitler's rule.

The Old Amber Room before WW2
  As I was researching amber I came across an interesting WW2 story regarding the disappearance of the famous Amber Room—an 11 foot square chamber fantastically decorated with several tons of amber panels carved with decorative figures and backed with gold leaf and mirrors. Due to its singular beauty, this room was dubbed "The Eighth Wonder of the World." Designed in the early 18th century by the German sculptor, Andreas Schlüter (an ancestor of my own grandmother Edith von Schlüter),  it was first installed at Charlottenburg Palace, home of Friedrich I, and later presented to the Russian Czar, Peter the Great who admired it on a visit to Berlin in 1717. The Amber Room was then transported to Russia and when Catherine the Great came to power she moved it to her summer palace in Tsarskoye Selo.

Catherine's Palace
  So that is a very brief background about the Amber Room. 
  Now, fast forward from that historical era to WW2 when the Germans were invading the Soviet Union. Apparently the Russian curators tried to dissemble the Amber Room, but over the years the resin had become brittle and started to crumble. In an attempt to keep the Nazi forces from seizing the treasure the curators tried to conceal it behind wallpaper but that effort failed. Within 36 hours German soldiers had dissembled the Amber Room and ordered the evacuation of 27 massive crates to Königsberg in East Prussia. Sadly, from that day on, the Amber Room was never seen again, though reports have occasionally surfaced stating that a few components survived the war and ended up on the black market. Some historians claim that the amber was burned by the Russians when they invaded Königsberg. Others say the crates went down with the Wilhelm Gustloff when the ship sank in the Baltic Sea. A few investigators even believe that the amber is hidden in a secret underground catacomb that Hitler had built for stolen war treasures. Until now though it has been lost. 
  You may ask why I'm writing all this. Well, after reading about the Amber Room, the carved golden images of that light-filled chamber would not leave me alone. No matter where I was—food shopping, cooking, walking the beach, they lit up my third eye and with them came East Prussian landscapes of swans floating on lakes, otters splashing in rivers and big-antlered elk moseying through forests of birch, lark and pine. I saw hardworking men and women humming and sweating as they worked the land with their bare hands. 

Swans on the Guja Lake in East Prussia
Photo (c) Gottlieb Family

Ingo, my mother's tame otter - he's not splashing in a river here
 but rather in her tub!
Photo (c) Gottlieb Family
  The more the images came, the more I sensed a connection between the disappearance of the famous Amber Room and the disappearance of East Prussia. Before the war both existed. After the war there was no Amber Room, no East Prussia. 

  As I pondered these losses I felt there was a correlating significance in their symbolism. Amber was an East Prussian specialty and the Amber Room was created out of tons of amber mined from that small province. Perhaps they both disappeared to show the world that looting and violence, greed and lack of respect for beauty, life and nature bring loss and separation. 

Baltic Amber Map
As you can see East Prussia no longer exists on maps today
but it used to be situated in that yellow-colored coastal area which is now labeled Russia and Poland
It was the area where most of the world's amber was mined. That is still the same today
 although now there are also mining sites in the Dominican Republic.

  Still, I'm hopeful that one day the Amber Room will reappear. If amber can last for millions of years, then those carved golden panels can remain buried in the earth or under the sea forever. And even if they are hidden they will continue hold the stories that belong to heart of history. 

The piece of East Prussian gold/amber my grandmother carried on the trek across the ice in WW2 .
She believed it would bring her luck.
In later years, she would press it to her ear and say she heard the heartbeat of her land.
Photo (c) Christine Matthäi
  As for me, I hope to give my piece of amber to my grandchildren and tell them the story of East Prussia and the Amber Room so they learn about the past and remember their heritage.

Replica of the Amber room

  (Note: In 1979 a reconstruction effort of the Amber Room began at Tsarskoye Selo based on the black and white photographs of the original chamber. With financial aid from the German company Ruhrgas AG the chamber was completed and dedicated by Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder at the 300-year anniversary of the city of St Petersburg.)

Until next time...
—Marina Gottlieb Sarles

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Amber and the Arachnid

  I remember the first time my mother showed me her jewelry box—a rusty old Maxwell House coffee tin which she kept hidden behind a stack of Stern magazines on the bookshelf. I watched her pry off the plastic lid and empty the contents onto the bed, fascinated as her heavy gold bracelet—made like a horse's snaffle—fell onto the bedspread, followed by a ruby ring, a pair of diamond earrings, a pink conch pearl brooch and some less valuable baubles. She tipped the can again and magically, a black velvet bag appeared. An object slipped out and my eyes fastened on a large carnelian-colored stone, clear and red as a burning ember.

The amber piece my mother kept in her Maxwell coffee can.
Photo by Christine Matthäi
  "What's that Mummy?" I asked, feeling a chill on my skin that let me know it was something important.

  My mother, a no nonsense zoologist, wasn't the kind to spout fairy tales. 

  "It's called Bernstein in German. Amber. It's fossilized resin from spruce trees and it's old—maybe even as old as a hundred million years. Your grandfather found this large cobble by the Baltic Sea in East Prussia." Suddenly, her eyes grew wistful. "It's one of the only things your grandparents took with them when they fled the old country. Your grandmother used to hold it close to her heart on the dangerous trek over the icy lagoon called the Frisches Haff when they were fleeing from the Russians. She thought it would protect her and bring her luck. It must have done its job because they survived. Here," she said handing me the piece. "Have a look." 

  To my surprise I found that it was as light as a feather. As I held it up to the light, I spotted a small black spider encapsulated in the transparent material. I turned the amber sideways to get a better look. 

A spider (arachnid) trapped in amber

  "Amber provides a window into the past due to its remarkable embalming qualities," my mother said, noticing my curiosity. "Sometimes, in a piece such as this, insects or pieces of earth, leaves, pine needles, even small plants are trapped in the fossilized sap giving scientists a unique opportunity to study the DNA of extinct species." She smiled. "Your grandmother was an artist and a poet. She believed that spiders are creative in nature and that they weave webs that are like roads to help us travel through life. For me though the amber will always hold the history and energy of my homeland—a land which no longer exists." 

  When I turned eighteen, my mother gave me the piece of amber. Now it went to my jewelry box—which was a much prettier that the coffee can and inlaid with silver. It was around that time that an East Prussian family friend named Marianne came to visit us in the Bahamas. One evening, she and I were sitting on the bed looking at the amber and talking about the war. Suddenly, she clasped the amber to her heart and began to weep, tears splashing down her round cheeks. I was young and not sure what to do, so I sat still, listening. In brief words, Marianne told me her story.

  "I was only fifteen," she murmured. "The Russian Army was invading. They were close so I hid in a haystack. But they came...with pitchforks...stabbing at the hay. They dragged me in front of a battalion of soldiers who all took turns raping me. When they were done, they thought I was dead and so they left me battered and unconscious by the side of the road. Later, some American soldiers found me and took me to a hospital for medical treatment, but I was already full of syphilis."

Russian Soldiers enter the town of Eylau in East Prussia. February 6, 1945

 I remember how Marianne sat there holding the amber in her trembling hands as if it could heal her pain, draw out the memory of that terrible experience. When she saw my concern, she apologized. "I'm sorry. This story is better forgotten. I don't have a right to tell it because I am German and too many people suffered because of us. Jews, Gypsies, Ukranians and many others. Still... this piece of amber is special," she whispered. "Somehow it transported me back to the beautiful town where I grew up, where my roots are buried, but then the painful memories came too." 

  After that evening, the amber went back into its velvet bag where it lay in darkness for years—I think with Marianne's story right beside it. It was only when I contemplated writing The Last Daughter of Prussia that I took it out and began looking at all the striations and veins running alongside the trapped spider. It seemed the more I looked, the more I felt drawn to the past, to stories from that time in history. Strangely, the spider was my guide. It seemed to move inside the orange resin, bringing me strands of lost lives and loves, webbed tales of forgotten Trakehner horses, forests and lakes that called out from the past asking to be remembered and woven into the present. I followed that spider's spiraling web and wove my story. But really the story isn't mine. It belongs to others—to women like Marianne, whose voices were silenced.

My amber in the sunlight—a living fire
Photo by Christine Matthäi

  Just as a side note—the piece of amber no longer inhabits the black velvet bag. It sits on my desk now where the sun lights up its veins and brings the dark red resin to life with a soft golden gleam.

Until next time...
—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