Friday, March 2, 2012

Horses in my Blood

Trakehner mares with Arabian lineage whose faces express the beauty
 and intelligence of a fine breed of horse.
Photo (C) archive Schulte after a painting by K Volkers

  Sunday night I watched the Oscars. Excited to see that Steven Spielberg's film War Horse was nominated, I remembered that before the film came out, I had used The War Horses as the working title for my novel—a story also set against the sweeping canvas of war in Europe that describes the remarkable friendship between a bold young woman named Manya and her Trakehner stallion, Aztec. The movie led me to think about the bond that has existed between humans and horses throughout history. As Winston Churchill once said, "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man." Nothing could be more true and by now, whoever reads this blog knows that horses run deep in my blood as well as in my novel which now is titled The Last Daughter of Prussia.

When I imagine my equine hero Aztec, I see him standing proud like this amazing
Trakehner, Pythagoras—a famous  stallion (chief sire in Trakehnen prior to WW2)
whose lineage carries on today

  As a little girl, growing up in the Bahamas,  I had horses. The rocky limestone terrain of the islands was certainly not as conducive to riding as the East Prussian meadows in Europe, nevertheless, when the sun sizzled in the Bahamian sky, I cantered along the white beaches on my pony Sparky, splashing bareback into the foamy turquoise waves. Sparky was part of the family. In the the evenings, at cocktail hour, he would climb up the wide stone steps that led to the verandah overlooking the bay and trot over to my father who was usually resting in a lounge chair after a long day at the clinic. Whinnying impatiently, Sparky would nudge my father's hand until he opened his eyes. Once contact was established, Sparky would stick his long pink tongue into my dad's whiskey glass and quickly drink the bitter-sweet mixture. No matter how tired my dad was, this little ritual always made him howl with laughter.

That's me on my frisky little whiskey drinking friend Sparky.
I'm almost ashamed to show you this picture when I look below and
see how elegant my mother looked in the saddle.
Photo (C) Gottlieb /family

  My mother Owanta was the real horsewoman though. An accomplished equestrian she won many medals in East Prussia before WW2 riding her spirited pinto Trakehner, Dandy, in shows. Her talent for riding, her keen eye for the lines, structure and the gaits of horses were imprinted on her DNA via a long line of horse connoisseurs. 

My mother Owanta Gisela von Sanden on her beloved pinto, Dandy
Photo (C) Gottlieb Family

  Even as far back as 1714, her ancestor—a horse breeder named Schlüter, bred such fine horses that Friedrich Wilhelm 1, King of Prussia, wanted them for his cavalry and own personal stables. Pleased with the horses Schlüter presented him, he made him a baron overnight, adding the 'von'  to his name which was a sign of aristocracy in Prussia. 

Friedrich Wilhelm 1
The King of Prussia who, around 1714, gave my ancestor Schlüter an aristocratic title
because of his superb horse breeding skills.   

  Two hundred years later, von Schlüter's descendent (my great grandfather) Arnold von Schlüter was still in the horse business and was the appointed administrator in 1895 for the royal stables Gudwallen in the district of Darkehmen, East Prussia—a stud farm directly linked to the famous horse farm Trakehnen—the so called 'City of Horses.' Arnold's eye for horses was so renowned that he had to employ people secretly to bid for him at auctions. If he raised his hand for even the most scruffy looking horse the price shot up as buyers knew that if Arnold von Schlüter wanted the unlikely animal it could be transformed into a winner. 

Trakehnen 1885.
My great grandfather Arnold von Schlülter would have visited this estate
many times from the horse farm he ran in Gudwallen.
In the background you can see the beautiful estate home.
 It was called the 'City of Horses'
Stallions lived like kings in heated stables with liveried stablemen standing guard
and looking after their every need.
Photo (C) Archive Schulte

  From stories passed down I learned that Arnold always wore white gloves. In fact, he carried several pairs with him wherever he went because of a personal obsession which showed itself whenever he saw horse manure in the middle of a busy street. Evidently, horse apples in the wrong place were an affront to his sense of order and muttering angrily, he would hop out of his carriage and remove the apples with his hands. I guess he went through a lot of gloves!  

Trakehnen Manor house before WW2

  Trakehnen and horse farms like Gudwallen do not exist anymore. At the end of WW2 most of the fine Trakehner horses had been requisitioned by the German Army or shot by Russian soldiers who invaded East Prussia with minds and hearts set on revenge for the atrocities committed by Nazis in the Ukraine and other parts of their nation. Anything German was to be slaughtered and primarily that meant women, children and animals as they were the ones left in East Prussia. Most of the men were at war. It was a terrible time. Millions of women were raped. The Trakehner breed suffered tremendous losses. Only a handful of pedigree mares and stallions made it to the west through snow, over long stretches of ice in that bitterly cold and final winter. My book The Last Daughter of Prussia is set in this time and brings witness to this terrifying exodus called The Great Trek.

Farewell parade of the Trakehners on the marketplace in Gumbinnen
before they set out on The Great Trek where most of them perished.
Painting by Carl Engel in the East Prussian LandMuseum Lüneburg

  As an author I would love to see a film made out of The Last Daughter of Prussia—one that opens the heart to courage and love like Spielberg's War Horse. The novel itself already sheds light on a dark, untold chapter of history, but a film with sound, music, living characters and moving images has the power to add another dimension to the lost voices that lie hushed in the bones of innocent people and brave dead horses. 

Until next time...

—Marina Gottlieb Sarles

PS. I want to give a huge thank you to Erhard Schulte. Most of the pictures in this post have been taken from his beautiful book called Trakehnens Pferde. His research of Trakehners is deep and accurate and he writes with unsurpassable knowledge and sensitivity that truly honors the breed and its history.


1 comment:

  1. thank you so much for posting this Marina! I hope you don´t mind that I shared your blog on mine. You have no idea how thrilled I am that I found your blog!
    There is a big piece of East Prussia in my heart!
    Greetings from Sweden Marion & Milva