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


  1. This is especially moving and heart touching ... I can feel the quietly abundant joys your ancestors' lives held before the war, and the deep loss ... thank you for sharing this beautiful reminder of faith ... your words are such a gift!

  2. Danke,Marina.Hab Deine Geschichte gerade Tanja und ihren Kindern erzählt.Liebe Grüße.
    Ich hatte Dir ja immer versprochen,die Namen der Menschen in Berlin zu schreiben die die Familie von Sanden häufig im Munde führten:
    Rechenbach und Sandmeyer.Vielleicht kommen sie ja irgendwo in Deinen Unterlagen vor.
    Sommergrüße-Deine Ev