Tuesday, January 21, 2014

One Last Time

Hi Everyone,

As we recover from the holidays and settle back into our daily lives, I think about the many, who, over Christmas and New Year, traveled to different places via cars and planes, boats and trains only to travel home again when the festivities came to an end. I wondered what it must be like NOT to have a home, NOT to be able to return to a corner of the world that means so much to us—a house, an apartment or a cottage we love and cherish, a garden or a wood we frolicked in as children, a sapphire blue ocean or emerald green lake that filled our summers with fun, fishing and an array of curious sights.

As I contemplated these things, I picked up a book my grandfather had written. In German it is called "Die Zugvögel" which loosely translated means  "Migrating Birds." The theme encapsulates The Great Trek out of East Prussia at the end of WW2. In it he describes what he felt like to be walking westward—along with thousands of homeless refugees—away from everything he loved while simultaneously noticing the migrating birds flying back to his beloved homeland.

 I've taken the liberty to translate a few paragraphs as well as one of my grandmother's poems. I've also included a series of photographs that give expression to the things he felt homesick for. I'm grateful; for the legacy of photographs he left behind. I hope that the excerpts will give you, the reader, some insight into what that time must have been like for those whose land vanished, for those who could never return home.

Edith von Sanden leaning on one of
her favorite trees in the garden in
East Prussia before the war.
Once she fled, her hands never stroked the
bark again.
(C Property Gottlieb Family)

Excerpt from Die Zugvögel written by grandfather...

How thankful we would be to God if after all this suffering and grief we could go home to die in peace. If we could just see everything one last time: the river, the lake, the old trees, all the sacred and beloved spots that are woven into the tapestry of our childhood memories. We are a part of these things.

My grandfather Walter von Sanden-Guja
fishing by the River Angerapp
in East Prussia before the war.
(C Property Gottlieb Family)

The lake in Guja
(C Property Gottlieb Family)
(C Property Gottlieb Family)

The tiny temple my great-grandmother had built
by the River
(C Property of Gottlieb Family)
The drawing room in the manor house
(C Property Gottlieb Family)
The pond  that was  home
to the old green frog—a beloved friend
of my grandfathers.
(C Property of the Gottlieb Family)
Excerpt cont…

We long to turn to dust in the same way these things and these living beings will—in the same way our ancestors did. I know that a home is earthly and transitory, yet God placed such a fervent love in our hearts for its existence. For that reason, it seems it would be a beautiful thing if our hands that loved to work the earth could rest there; if our hearts that sang in tune with nature could fall asleep in the same place where so many of our loved ones' hearts stopped beating.

Walter von Sanden


And here is the poem by  my grandmother — I hope my translation does it justice.
It doesn't have a title but I would call it:

One Last Time

If those of us ravaged by grief
Could walk home just one last time,
Our tired eyes would come alive
Our heavy hearts would fly.
If we could hear the birds on the wing
And breathe in the fresh, forest air
Then surely the rest of our lives would be
One endless, grateful prayer.

Edith von Sanden

I wish I could have spoken to my grandparents about their journey, their loss, their grief, their beautiful East Prussia but I was only a child at the time. Now, having extensively researched The Great Trek and East Prussia, their words have a very deep meaning, one that binds me not only to them but to the land of my ancestors, the very earth. Often, I wonder how their genes and interests have influenced me—my love of nature, horses, writing, the spiritual world.

I wish I could tell them that I have been back to visit their home twice in the last years. It looks so different from the vibrant manor house and estate it once was but I still feel the soul of it deep in my bones. In some ways, I know I am a part of it too. While there, I heard the spirits of the land rustling through the birch leaves. I listened to their soft voices whispering between the bullrushes before they were carried across the lake on the beating wings of a pair of swans. I understand what my grandfather meant when he said he would have wanted Guja to be his final resting place. And yet, for all his longing, I trust his soul has found peace.

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

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Dichotomy of a Bird Song

Hi Everyone,

2014 has arrived! I want to wish you, my readers, the very best. Thank you for your support. I hope that you stay healthy and happy and that you prosper and grow in all aspects of your lives while following your bliss. In my heart, I pray for planetary peace.

A peaceful dawn
(Photo courtesy Christine Matthäi

This year was a milestone for The Last Daughter of Prussia. After years of research and writing, the book was published. My gratitude to Wild River Books for helping me birth the novel into the world and to Joy Stocke and Kim Nagy for their creative ideas, brilliant editing, constant support and follow through in the PR arena. It was a busy travel year for me with many book signings in the north eastern USA as well as California. The novel was celebrated in Los Angeles via an amazing party organized by my generous friends, Leonid Minkowski and Linda Marlin. Their kindness has brought the story to the attention of people in the film industry. Fingers crossed.

My friend Linda and me at the party
in Los angeles

A pic of the party which was so elegant
and well thought out by my generous friends

As I reflect on the dawn of this new year, my thoughts travel back in time to what it was like in East Prussia at the beginning of January 1945 when my story takes place. Beside my keyboard lies an open book written by my grandfather, Walter von Sanden, in which he describes the Trek through the snow and wintry landscape as he and my grandmother fled the invading Russian Army. I want to share a few excerpts which I will translate from German to English. I hope do his writing justice.

Just a little paragraph of my grandfather's handwriting.
This is not from the book I'm translating, but it is a
prayer that he once wrote.
Some of the words say:
Dear God, I know that you are love.
Everywhere, everywhere, I feel your presence…
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)
… Moving with us in a long column are many sad people, exhausted horses, creaking wagons and worn out prisoners of war. The sky is gray. The endless stretch of ice before us is gray. Our lives are gray. On the howling wind an old hymn reaches my ears: "I call on the power of love which reveals itself in Jesus.…". And then a folk song:  "Be patient my soul, for a new spring follows every winter…". It is my wife whose voice rises above the suffering around us and inside us. Forehead pressed to the wind, she pushes through the snow singing songs about faith in God.

My grandmother Edith von Sanden
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)
There is a long passage following this one which describes their journey across the frozen Frisches Haff lagoon— it corroborates what I wrote in my book. After several days of heartbreaking, gruesome sights they make it on to the Nehrung, the thin strip of land that leads to Danzig.

The trek

Here my grandfather continues:
… The road is far too narrow for the amount of traffic it needs to contain. The wagons come to a grinding halt. There must be some kind of obstacle in front of us. Suddenly, we are overtaken by speeding cars. Our hands shake as we stand terrified on the slippery ice. I look inside the passing vehicles that honk at my nerves. I see the Powerful Ones—the so-called leaders—warm and dry in their leather seats—and my thoughts turn bitter with rage. Again we move. It is a cruel and hard trek. My wife's strength is failing.

Exhausted, we finally arrive at the first arm of the Vistula River. The ferry is still sailing. We find a spot between another wagon and some horses. Chunks of ice float on the river's current. The air, gray and wintry, lies over the water and the land. The Russians are a dangerous threat here too. Our escape route lies parallel between their front and the Baltic coast and we must tarry here for quite a while longer.

My grandparents did make it to the other shore and then Grandfather wrote…
The roar of cannons is always present.The high road we are on runs through the flat countryside which is bare, except for the silent linden trees that stretch their wet, black branches to the heavens. Oh! What's that? A cheery birdsong—a brief, little verse, repeated only twice. "Much too early, much too early," a titmouse warbles as it flits to the upper limbs of a dark tree.

A Tufted Titmouse
(Photo Wikipedia)
I trudge on as if in a dream and find my soul at home again. I'm coming from the lake, along the well-worn path that runs beside the bubbling brook high with spring water. I'm carrying my fishing nets and turn toward the park, into the alley lined with linden trees that my grandmother planted. I stop and hang my nets to dry in the sun. The catkins on the hazelnut trees swing in the breeze…the  titmice sing…the soil is rich and black. 

The park in Guja, East Prussia
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)

The river that ran past the house in
East Prussia
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)
My grandfather preparing to go fishing
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)
Spring is coming! Spring is coming! Soon it will burst forth in all its beauty as it only does here at home….But then, I return to harsh reality. I am plodding through the snow and now  the titmouse sings, "Nevermore, nevermore. Nevermore will you go home."

The house in Guja as my grandparents left it
in January 1945 when the Russian Army was
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family

Those words, written so long ago in the middle of a bitter winter, led me to think about my grandparents, who, at the dawn of a new year, faced death with every coming day. How good my life is, how quiet and sunny and abundant compared to theirs 69 years ago when they fled East Prussia through snowdrifts and sleet with bullets flying at their backs. How grateful I am never to have known that kind of terror or the need to stay vigilant in order to survive.

I sit here at my desk in a state of relaxation overlooking the Bahamian sea. Outside the mockingbirds whistle their lively tunes from the silver buttonwood trees. A yellow crowned night heron on the prowl for a crab, squawks impatiently when the gardener disturbs him. And oh! 'What's that? A tiny yellow breasted banana quit has come to sit on my window sill and is chirping a tiny, high-pitched verse—"tsip, trip,"that sounds more like" peace, peace." I pause to reflect upon the meaning this bird's song has for me…It's very different from what my grandfather heard because, unlike him,  I am not gripped by the cruel hard hand of war. I wish the whole world were free of guns and hatred and fighting. I wish we could all hear the birds sing a song of peace.

A little kingfisher.
 My grandfather was an ornithologist
who took a legacy of photos before the war.
He loved birds.
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)

A photo he took of a little ringed plover.
(Photo (C) Gottlieb Family)

'Til 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