Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Another Untold Story: My Lenape Indian Lineage

Hi Everyone,

  Last week I shared a story of hunger and faith about my grandmother that was edited out of the final draft of The Last Daughter of Prussia. I want to share another one. I enjoy this process because these  pieces reveal a lot about my East Prussian roots.

Crest of my forefathers in East Prussia

  The story I'm going to tell you is true. (At least that's what I was told by my mother.) My editors thought it could be a book of its own because it is almost too farfetched and presented in the novel it would have detracted from the main storyline and readers would not have believed it. So, at my editors request, I relinquished it, albeit with a twinge of regret as I think all writers who have to give up beloved pieces do.

  The story is about my ancestor, Wilhelm Schlüter who lived in East Prussia during the mid -1700's. Wilhelm was a horse breeder and a businessman who travelled to America— the Philadelphia area to be exact. Not only did he make a good part of his fortune there, he also found the love of his life—a Lenni Lenape Indian woman whom he married and took back with him to East Prussia. (It sounds crazy, right? But it's true. My brother Fred wears their wedding band on his finger. So we kids who are of Prussian and Danish descent, actually have Native American Indian blood in our veins). Even back then the world was small!

The woman above is NOT my ancestor.
 However, I imagine Elkwoman might have had a face
like this—so strong within herself.
I believe  that she and Wilhelm had 3or 4 children.
(Photo FB  Native American Indians - Old Photos)

My grandmother Edith von Sanden (born von Schlüter)
—a direct descendant of Wilhelm von Schlüter and
his Native American wife.
Here she is teaching me, as a toddler, about flowers
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)
  Sometime after Wilhelm returned to East Prussia he was summoned to appear before King Friedrich Wilhelm I. The King had decided that he wanted to assume the responsibility of breeding a perfect cavalry mount—later known as the famous Trakehner breed—that was both beautiful, trainable and enduring. He enlisted my ancestor to bring his best horses to the royal stable. In return he bestowed  a title of nobility on Wilhelm whose name then became Wilhelm von Schlüter. (The von denotes nobility.)

Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia
who bestowed a title of nobility on my ancestor
Wilhelm von Schlüter.
My ancestor bred good horses and
this king was interested in establishing
a powerful breed fit for his army.
(Photo taken from the internet
  Anyway, before these scenes (which I had written in fictional form) were edited from my manuscript, I had created a powerful, mystical character out of my Lenape Indian ancestor. (Lenni Lenape means Human Beings or Real People in the Unami language.) I called her Elchfrau—Elkwoman and throughout the book she visited my heroine, Manya, in dreams and visions showing her the way and giving her guidance about her horses, the trek and her love life. I loved Elkwoman. I still do. So often I think of what it must have been like for her in the 1700's coming from her Native American way of life to East Prussia. I imagine her to have been a wise medicine woman. I see her walking through the rich green forests of my forefathers' land, stopping to pick herbs and comparing the fauna and flowers, the birds and wild animals to what she had left behind.

A moose in East Prussia that
Elkwoman might have encountered.
The Lenape depended on the meat of the animal
and they used the hides to make moccasins
and clothing items. Sadly the moose has
been extinct in the Northeastern USA for over 150 years.
However, there are large numbers in Poland
which used to be East Prussia.
(Photo from a book:Von Memel Bis Trakehnen)

Grasses and bull rushes by the bank of a river tributary
in East Prussia
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)

A bathing spot in the Angerapp River
How gorgeous the sight must have appeared
 to Elchwoman
who came from the Delaware River region.
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)
  When I sense into her soul I feel that she was happy in East Prussia because it was rich, untouched land, full of clean rivers, fresh air, and rolling hills beneath azure skies dotted with fluffy, cumulus clouds. It must have reminded her of the land along the Delaware River. I see her fishing in the lakes and cantering across fields full of dandelions. I hear her singing her native chants while she tanned the hides of deer, wolves and moose. I watch her bare feet stepping softly on the wet moss by the riverbanks, her hands deftly picking the tall grasses and bull rushes which she wove into mats and baskets. I feel her gratitude for the sacredness of all nature, the life-giving warmth of the sun, the protective spirit of the sky, the ever-present cycles of the moon. These are images that run through my head, things I feel inside me. Are they real? I don't know but I am keenly aware of my own intimate connection to nature and my spirit whispers that her knowledge is in my genes.

A lake in East Prussia that Elchwoman
 would have walked along.
My grandfather  in East Prussia
before the war preparing to set his
fishing nets.
As a  Lenni Lenape, Elchwoman
would have known how to fish too.
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)
  So before I ramble, let me include an outtake from my novel. This was how it read before. It's different now— you can read the new version in the book which you can purchase on amazon if your interested, but hopefully this will give you a glimpse into my heroine's life. And just a note here: my editors were right. It couldn't stay the way it was because the story of the Great Trek was so strong in and of itself that it needed to be told in a straightforward way. So I bow to them with gratitude. (And maybe I'll just write another book about Elchfrau.)

My editors Joy Stocke and Kim Nagy
of Wild River Books
enjoying a glass of champagne at
the launch of my historical novel
The Last Daughter of Prussia
Photo Courtesy Christine Matthäi

OUTTAKE  from the novel:

   No matter how depressed the baroness might be, she loved birthdays. She never forgot to place a wreath of violets and white chrysanthemums on the breakfast table. She always brought out the Meissen porcelain, too, and the antique silver cutlery and the gifts.
  Overcome with eagerness to see what gifts awaited her, Manya pulled her dressing gown on and hurried down the stairs to the glass-enclosed winter garden.
  Usually her father was the first to greet her, but this morning she saw only her mother, who smiled from her seat at the breakfast table.
  “Happy birthday, Liebchen,” she said. “I have a special gift for you this morning.” She set a buttered Semmel roll on Manya’s plate. “Until now, your father gave you presents meant for tomboys, but at twenty-one, you’re a woman.”
  Manya blushed. Her mother was not usually so direct. She sat down in her chair and watched as her mother retrieved a small silver box from her powder blue cardigan pocket. “Take it,” urged the baroness, holding the gift across the table. “It’s a piece of your heritage.”
  Manya took it and looked at the lid.
  “Who is this?” she asked, running her finger over the miniature portrait of a woman with dark braided hair and chestnut colored eyes that were kind yet penetrating. Behind the face stood an elk with imposing antlers.
  “She’s beautiful,” said Manya. “But she looks foreign. What does she have to do with our family?”
  “Open the box, and look your other gift. Then, I’ll tell you the story.”
  Carefully, Manya lifted the lid. Inside, was a gold ring, set with a large amber cabochon, carved and polished into a glowing oval. Two diamonds sparkled on either side of the honey-colored resin. The gold band was engraved with WvS + MvS, 1744.
  The baroness spoke softly. “That ring has been passed down through six generations of women in our family. You are the seventh.” She paused, as if weighing her words. Then, quite suddenly, she whispered. “I believe the ring has mystical powers. Those who’ve worn it claimed to have compelling dreams.” She swallowed, “I can testify to that.”
  A chill ran across Manya’s skin. Something in her mother’s voice sounded fearful.
  “I’m not sure I understand,” said Manya glancing up.
  The baroness let out a sharp sigh and picked up her teacup with trembling fingers.
  “It is a strange story,” she murmured. “But here’s what my mother told me.” She took a sip and continued. “Long ago, in the 18th century, we had an ancestor named Wilhelm Schlüter. He traded furs and amber, traveling all the way to America to a city called Philadelphia. He worked with an Indian tribe, called the Lenape, who had settled on a river called the Delaware. One day, while he was in a village bargaining with the tribal elders, he fell ill with a terrible fever. They brought him to the chieftain, whose daughter, Moshanna, was a medicine woman. When Moshanna saw Wilhelm she recognized him as the white man who had appeared in her dreams and who would take her to a foreign land. And that’s what happened. Moshanna nursed him back to health and when he came around Wilhelm fell in love with her. Not long after, he returned to East Prussia with Moshanna as his wife. Strange, no? A Lenape Indian and an East Prussian.”
  Manya studied the tiny portrait. “Mother,” she said, astonished, “is she the Elchfrau, the Elkwoman that people talk about in the villages? The spirit Helling says can bring back any horse that gets lost in the forest?” Her mother nodded. “Why haven’t you told me about her before?”
  Her mother’s eyes fixed on the ring. “I couldn’t talk about her. When I wore the ring I saw terrible things, bodies without faces lying dead in the village square. Our forests burning. Our rivers crimson. I didn’t want to see anymore so I buried the ring in the garden.” She chewed at her lip. “Oh, child, I’ve never been strong! Sometimes I feel like the slightest thing pushes me over the edge. But you are different! You are strong! You will know what must be done when the visions come.”

Until next time,

—Marina Gottlieb Sarles

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Bread of Life

Hi Everyone,

  So many people who read The Last Daughter of Prussia ask me if the story is true. My answer is always, "Yes, the novel was extensively researched and everything you read is based in truth and steeped in anecdotes passed down to me by my family and my grandfather's diaries. It is an honest piece of rarely told history. However, the characters are fictional and certain parts were invented and intricately woven to make the plot interesting and real to the reader."

My East Prussian grandparents in peaceful times
before the trek
Photo (C) Gottlieb Family

  There were many stories that I wanted to weave into the heart of the book but it would have been way too long and my editors were firm in their decision to cut anything superfluous and keep the narrative moving. Lately though, I've been thinking about the stories that didn't make it into the various chapters. I want to share one of them with you today because it speaks to what the people on the "Great Trek" out of East Prussia went through. More importantly, it speaks to faith.

My grandmother Edith von Sanden
before the war.
Photo (C) Gottlieb Family

  I will try to tell it as my grandmother, Edith von Sanden once told it to me. I want it come through me in her voice, that soft, near whisper-of-words that has stayed with me ever since I was a little girl and we sat on her garden bench in Hüde, northern Germany, watching hazel pot beetles with red wings and  black heads crawl around the trunk of a large birch tree. Every so often she would touch my hand and point to a goldfinch flitting through the bushes. Sometimes her grey eyes would travel up to the sky, her gaze capturing an osprey that swooped down toward the nearby Dümmer Lake. She loved nature. For her, nothing in nature went unnoticed. The smallest ladybug, the tiniest wriggling earthworm, a broken stalk of flowering hawkweed, a green tree frog hidden in a bark crevice, stones with odd shapes, dragonflies, a shy hedgehog, feathers; they all caught her attention.

Hawkweed (painted by my grandmother)
Photo (C) Gottlieb Family

Green frog
(photographed by my grandfather Walter von Sanden
 an avid naturalist)
Photo (C) Gottlieb Family

Baby swallows in the barn nest waiting
to be fed.
(Photo  by my grandfather Walter von Sanden)
(C) Gottlieb Family
A dragonfly resting on a plant
Photo by my grandfather Walter von Sanden
(C) Gottlieb Family

A hedgehog looking at his reflection
in the water.
Photo by my grandfather, Walter von Sanden
(C) Gottlieb Family 

  But back to the story. When I looked up from the beetles to ask her about the war and the trek that had taken her so far away from her old home, this is what she told me:

On the trek
(photo from the internet)
The house my grandparents left in the winter of Jan 1945
Photo (C) Gottlieb Family
  "It was so cold on the journey, child. Snow lay thick on the ground. In the bitter wind that turned against us that January, my hair, face and hands turned to ice. We travelled alongside thousands of refugees, the roads and fields jam-packed with carts and horses and silently grieving people. When we got to Elbing we learned that the Russians had taken the city. We were afraid. We were surrounded by enemy soldiers. They weren't far from the Frisches Haff, the frozen lagoon your grandfather and I had to cross to try and get to safety. I was so hungry. I hadn't eaten for days, not even a coffee or a crust of bread. The snow was dirty, the edges of the fields lined with bloated corpses so I couldn't drink any melted water. Overturned prams lay by the wayside, the little babies inside frozen, lifeless. I remember looking at your grandfather and telling him that I wanted to lie down in the snow beside them, go to sleep forever. I thought it would be a painless passing.

Awful images along the way
  Your grandfather started to weep and shook his head no. He said he loved me too much to let me go. I cried too. Everything cherished was gone: our home in Guja, our friends, our beloved Trakehner horses, the sparkling lakes and rich land that had been tended to for so many generations before us.

Gone were the horses
Photo (C) Gottlieb Family
Gone the land tended to by caring hands for generations
Photo (C) Gottlieb Family
No longer would my grandmother see the lakes at sunrise
Photo (C) Gottlieb Family
The horse drawn wood wagons would remain empty
Photo (C)  Gottlieb Family
  I saw your grandfather reach into his pocket and pull out a tiny golden, leather-bound bible that your Aunt Clara had given him before we fled. He carried it with him all the time. He wanted me to read it but I couldn't. I was too weak and I didn't care much anymore about God. Still, it reminded me of The Lord's Prayer so I recited it to myself to keep my mind focused on other things. When I got to the part that says, Give us this day our daily bread, I looked up at the sky and started to rail at God. I shook my fist at Him, raging at the grey clouds above me. "You said you would take care of us if we remembered this prayer, but you have forgotten your people! There is no food, no solace, only death. We're lost. Why don't you keep your promise dammit and help us!"

Aunt Clara who gave my grandfather the bible
working on a tapestry in the garden before the war.
She didn't make it to the west
Photo (C)  Gottlieb Family
  A short while later we came to a wood. I had to empty my bladder so I trudged into the forest to squat behind a bush. As I looked down, I saw the most amazing thing: a loaf of bread, half hidden in the snow and slightly gnawed on the top by a horse whose teeth had been unable to bite through the hard frozen mass. It was the turning point for me. Hugging the loaf to my chest, I fell to my knees and sobbed out thanks for this bread of life. I knew for certain that God had given me a sign. He had heard my prayer. He wasn't angry at my railing. Instead He restored my faith. From that moment on, I knew we would survive, no matter how treacherous the journey. So remember this story my child, when you grow older and, God forbid, you face hardship. There are miracles that happen, not just in holy places but in our lives. Whatever happens, hold fast to your faith. Don't be afraid to trust your unknown future to a known God."

And planting a kiss on my forehead, she bent forward to let a beetle climb into the palm of her hand.

Photo courtesy of Christine Matthai

Until next time.
—Marina Gottlieb Sarles