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

1 comment:

  1. How exquisite. The stories that glow in your amber are so moving and inspiring — thank you for sharing them so beautifully!