Sunday, October 26, 2014

Haunted Walk



Last evening, my daughter and I went on a haunted Winnipeg walk. It was a pleasant night for strolling around in the past.  We got to hear stories about various buildings around The Exchange District that had experienced ghosts. It was all good fun until we stood in front of the  Marlborough Hotel on Smith Street. A stranger joined the group and interrupted our speaker with unwelcome comments—but we managed to ignore him. Some people in our group, however, chose to focus on the intruder, rather than on our facilitator. An altercation occurred. It was frightening to watch the word fight quickly escalate into a fist fight and then a one-sided pummeling. Two men kicking a man when he’s down on the ground, is horrible to see. It’s hard not to believe that this was racially motivated. The uninvited stranger was First Nations and inebriated. He did not deserve the beating he got. 

It’s too close to what I’m reading just now about the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany, where the Brown Shirt thugs would attack Jews, homosexuals, or others they deemed unworthy. 

Violence added a frightening dimension to an otherwise creepily fun visit to the haunted places of Winnipeg’s Exchange District. The injustices of the past continue to live on in the pain, addiction and poverty of the present. Yesterday’s ghost walk was an in-the-gut reminder of haunted lives. Bone-chilling violence does not belong on our streets...past or present.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Amber Time


Some years ago I inherited a Bernstein...called amber....in English. My father bought the stone in the former Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) back in the 1930s.  After a storm the Baltic coast near there is littered with amber—hence the nickname Amber Coast.


Nowadays most of that Amber Coast belongs to Russia. (Lithuania and Poland border on its edges.) About six hundred tons of amber are mined annually in open pit mining near the town of Yantarny (about forty kilometers from Kaliningrad).  Yantarny, in German times, was called Palmnicken.   It was the scene of some truly horrific evemts. In January, 1945, when the Germans realized they were losing the war, three thousand Jewish prisoners were marched over from Königsberg and made to enter the freezing water.  The Nazis then shot at them—with only about a dozen surviving.

That this Baltic Coast area, so ambient with its sand dunes, waves, beachside spas and amber jewels can also be the setting of such cruelty is a poignant reminder that beauty can be deceptive.


Amber, by the way, is a fossil made of tree resin and is millions of years old. Some amber contains insects that remain in perfect formation. (Remember Jurassic ParK?)  My own piece of amber doesn’t contain any insect, but it’s still a time capsule to me. It was a gift my dad gave to his first love. That love got messed up by the chaos of the Third Reich...but it’s sparking a new love in my imagination. I must be patient, and let the amber tell its story.  

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Exploring East Prussia


           "History isn't about dates and places and wars. It's about the people who fill the spaces between them." (Jodi Picoult).

My first book, The Kulak's Daughter (first published, 2009 and to be re-released, Spring 2015)  is set in the Soviet Union. Its sequel, East Prussian Princess (Spring, 2015) is centered in East Prussia. Both books are for young people.  I intend to spend the next few months immersed in East Prussia where my mom spent her teenage years and will use this blog to share some of my research. I’ve got a stack of books, old movies and photos, along with some octagenarian memories to explore.

You can’t find East Prussia (or Ostpreussen) on any current map. Like Volhynia, (now part of Ukraine), East Prussia belongs to the past.  The southern part of this former German province is now Poland and the northern part, including the capitol city of Königsberg, is part of Russia.

 Here are a few tidbits, to pique your curiosity.

- East Prussia ceased to exist in April, 1945 after the Germans surrendered to the Soviets.
- The city of Königsberg was heavily bombed first by the British in the summer of 1944 and then by the Soviets during the winter months of 1945.
- Königsberg (East Prussia’s major cultural centre) was renamed Kaliningrad in 1946 in honour of  Mikhail Kalinin.
- My mom lived in a small farming community just outside the city limits called Kreuzburg (not to be confused with the bohemian suburb of Kreuzberg in Berlin.) Nowadays Kreuzburg is known as Slavskoye.

After the war, the German population was replaced with Russians. Today there are virtually no Germans living in Kaliningrad. The years 1945-1947 were tortuous for the remaining German civilians as the Soviets took their revenge. Family members refused to talk about those years.

Today, Kaliningrad is not a common travel destination. Last time I checked you could get a limited three day visa. There are access-restricted military installations in the area. The city gives Russia important access to the Baltic Sea. However, things are set to change for Kaliningrad.  It's to be the venue for a 2018 World Cup match and a new stadium is currently under construction.

I’d very much like to visit Kaliningrad and the surrounding area. The best I can do for now is find the old Königsberg in photos, books and memories.  If you have something to share about the former Königsberg or East Prussia, I'd be delighted to hear from you!