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

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