Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Amber Coast

The once East Prussian coastline along the Baltic is referred to as the a-political Amber Coast. Amber, fossilized tree resin—or Baltic Gold—is considered a semi-precious stone and before 1945, was one of the symbols of East Prussia. 

The major processing centre for amber was Palmicken (Russian: Yantarny) —about forty kilometers from Kaliningrad (German: Königsberg). Its population hovers around five thousand…up from the three thousand during Nazi times. The mine is about 20 kilometers south of Rauschen (now Svetlogorsk). My character, Katya, and her friends, would definitely be in amber hunting territory.

The town was renamed Yantarny after the Soviet occupation in 1945. (Yantar means amber in Russian.)  Today Yantarny is still a major amber processing facility with five to six hundred tons of amber produced annually.  Visitors can tour the facility and  I’d love to do this. Maybe they give out free samples? 

The beautiful amber of this area, however, is forever tainted by Nazi atrocities which occurred in the last months of the war. I might have written about this before, but reviewing my notes, I’m overcome, again, by this particular brutality.

During the January evacuation of various concentration camps in the East Prussian area, Jewish prisoners (mostly female) were marched towards Palmicken’s open pit mine— and into a shaft called ‘Anna’.  Many died there. The mine manager tried to disobey the SS and save the women from their fate of being buried alive in the mine…instead, he also died and the remaining women were brutally forced to march on…into the icy Baltic. Of the remaining 7000 Jewish prisoners, only a handful survived.  

For years, the human remains found in this area were treated as Russian bones…and celebrated as Soviet heroes. It’s not until recently, (2011), that these bones were recognized as in fact Holocaust victims.

It seems the more I read about this, the more I’m sickened by what my people…the Germans…allowed to happen in those years. Can ignorance be a crime, too? I remember what Irmgard Hunt wrote in her memoir, On Hitler’s Mountain:

“But most- and worst- of all, as we and all the world slowly learned about the full extent of Hitler's Final Solution, we realized that all Germans, no matter what they had suffered or whether they had participated in any way in the atrocities, would bear guilt, shame and dishonor, probably forever.”
Photos: Top: unpolished amber on beach. Middle: Polished Amber (by James St. John). Lower: Amber Mine in Yantarny (by  J Kossowski)

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Sandy Beaches on the Baltic

The Curonian Spit and the Vistula Spit…rich in history and natural beauty.

These two narrow spits of land—massive sandbars—in the Baltic near Kaliningrad, are shared amongst three countries. Both spits create lagoons. In January, 1945, when the weather of these unique beach areas was at its worst, German civilians struggled to flee the Soviet Army by crossing the lagoons to ships in harbor on the Baltic.

Curonian Spit
This is a 98-kilometer long, crescent-shaped, sand-dune-covered finger of land. Since 2000 it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and both Lithuania and Russia, who share the spit, have formed national parks…Lithuania on the northern half, and Russia to the south. (The Thomas Mann writing colony, Nida,—on the Lithuanian side—is the largest town). Tourism is carefully monitored to protect the fragile eco-system of the area.  (Map: H Padleckas)

The Curonion Spit (German: Kurisches Haff) harbours a fresh-water lagoon, known as the Curonian Lagoon, with the Lithuanian port city of Klaipeda at its northern tip. At its widest point, the spit stretches almost 4 kilometers, near Nida.  A single road runs the length of the spit, from Zelenogradsk in the Russian Obast of Kaliningrad, (German: Cranz) to Klaipeda (German: Memel), which is accessible only by ferry across a narrow strait. (Photo: A. Savin).

The Parnidis Dune is the largest dune on the spit at 52 meters high. Climbing is allowed only on designated paths to prevent too much sand movement. (Dunes by their very nature are always moving.) 

The Curonian Lagoon is home to diverse plant and fish life, which is threatened by pollution and algae blooms. (Like our own Lake Winnipeg.)

The area is at risk also because of natural threats like storms. In 2004, Russia began offshore oil drilling off the coast of the Curonian Spit which will further threaten this pristine natural setting.

Vistula Spit
Not much further down the Baltic coast, is the Vistula Spit. This peninsula, separated from the mainland by the Strait of Baltiysk (German: Pillau), is only 600 meters wide in some places. It shelters the Vistula Lagoon (German: as Die Frische Nehrung).  The Vistula Spit is divided between the Kaliningrad Oblast, and Poland and thus contains Russia’s most western point.
Poland plans to build a ship canal through the Vistula Spit to the Baltic.  The spit’s major tourist town is the Polish community of Krynica Morska (German: Kahlberg).

In the closing months of the Second World War, Germans attempted to cross the Vistula Lagoon in order to reach ships waiting in Baltiysk (Pillau) harbor. Soviets bombed the frozen lagoon making the crossing impossible for many women, children and horses. My mother was one of those attempting this risky escape. (Photo: German Federal Archives)

These beautiful, sand beaches have known their share of war and death. Beaches all over the world have welcomed invading armies or fleeing ones (I need to see the recent Dunkirk movie).

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Thomas Mann in Nida

Who doesn’t like spending summers at the beach? Life is short, and summers even shorter.  The 1929 Nobel Prize winning author, Thomas Mann, liked to spend his summers on the Baltic, in Nida with his young family. The beach town is on the Curonian Spit, a narrow piece of sandy land jutting out into the Baltic Sea. His summer home at 17 Skruzdynės Street has now been turned into a museum. Not only is his house a museum, but the Nida community supports an artists’ colony just like back in the early thirties.

Nida (called Nidden by the Germans), with less than two thousand inhabitants, was much smaller than the mainland tourist towns, formerly called Rauschen or Cranz back in the '30s. While the names have changed, sand dunes still range up to fifty meters high.   (Photo: Bernd Rostad http://www.flickr.com/photos/brostad/9614129325)

File:Nida ThomasMann cottage.jpg
Thomas Mann home, Wojsyl, 2005

The town first attracted writers back in the 1800s. Soon they were joined by other artists and intellectuals, especially those from nearby East Prussia.  I'm certain that my character, Katya, would have loved to have been a student in this colony. After all, she didn't live too far away and she'd read Thomas Mann's novellas. But Mann left the area in 1933 after his books were banned by the Third Reich. A few years later, during the war, his summer home became a retreat for convalescing Luftwaffe pilots. (Would it be possible that my own father spent time there, healing from his 1941 plane crash? I somehow doubt it...he was rather low-ranking, but I'll never know.)

After Lithuanian independence in 1991, the Nida Art Colony (NAC)  has been revived. May the sand dunes, the Baltic waves, and the wind continue to inspire art. It's inspiring me...and I've not even been there.