Thursday, 12 December 2013

PHOTOS: Back to the Fatherland

I've just posted photos from our trip on its own page in the Blog - Back to the Fatherland.

It was THE trip of a lifetime.

Thanks to my brothers and sisters for being such wonderful travel companions. I can still hear the snoring.

Thursday, 27 June 2013


We can go no further to retrace our mom's flight from the Russian invasion. This is where our journey ends. On the shore of the Frisches Haff Lagoon. A little town called Heiligenbeil.

From "Where Hoffman Told His Fairytales" Page 254...

From their accommodations, Gretel and her group had a good view of the vast stretch of ice that was the lagoon. However, it was now February, it had been raining and there were signs of early thawing. The sky was clouded over that morning which meant that vehicles traversing the ice would be somewhat concealed from low-flying enemy planes which were known to target civilians. Gretel knew that not only was the weather conducive for the perilous crossing, it was also one of the last few days such a crossing would be possible.

Still, Gretel couldn't help shuddering when the horses finally took their first steps on the ice. She knew it was risky, but it was their last resource. They had been advised to keep a considerable distance from the wagon ahead.

With each step of the horses the mainland was left further behind, and was soon out of sight. All the refugees could see was an interminable white surface of ice. The Frisches Haff Vistula Lagoon was 20 kilometres wide at this spot. They would need one full day before they could hope to reach the shore of the Nehrung Spit.


As the five of us stand on the shore of the lagoon and look across the open water on this hot summer day, it is hard to imagine the number of wagons, filled mostly with women and children, that had to cross the lagoon. Under enemy fire from circling Russian fighter planes. Over ice that was melting below their feet. To another shore that brought little hope and no certainty. All of them leaving family behind. After a few minutes of silence we got back in the van and headed back to the hotel. Our search for the past was over, but really it was just beginning.

Now we are in Germany and over the last few days we have met several cousins, and they all have their own stories to share about their escape from Ostpreussen and the Russian invasion. Our cousin Alice, who was about 15 at the time, followed in a wagon with her family about a day behind our mother. Her family made it across the lagoon as well, but soon after they were stopped by the Russian army, striped of all their belongings including their horses and wagon and were forced to return to Ostpreussen by foot. They could not escape. They were destined to be one of the millions evacuated in later years.

So many stories. So little time here in Germany to learn them all.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013


It has been three days since we visited Klein Engelau and surrounding areas. Since then we have flown to Germany and spent one night in a really quaint village called Hammoor. Yesterday we drove to Rönne where mom and Omi were sheltered as refugees with Hans and Klaus.  Hans lived there for 8 years with Omi while mom, dad and Klaus started a new life in Allerdorf. We stopped in Hamburg to visit the world's largest memorial cemetery where Omi is buried. Her grave is no longer tended so we could only find the general area where she is buried. Now we are in a small town called Verden and in about an hour we will be meeting our cousin Alice and her daughter Bettina for the first time. For those of you who have cousins this may not seem "eventful", but when your entire extended family is in a country an ocean away and you have spent a year researching your roots, this is indeed an important moment for all of us.

Now back to Klein Engelau. Under the watchful eye of several soviet soldiers we wandered up what we thought was the old long driveway towards where the family farm would have stood. Two long dilapidated barracks are on either side of the large yard. There is an old chestnut tree up ahead and Klaus and I muster up the courage to wander over to it to gather some leaves from low hanging branches. We all head back to the van, but before getting in Klaus asks Alex if he thinks it's OK to fill his water bottle with good clean Klein Engelau water from the well. After waiting several minutes for the soilders to finish splashing themselves, Klaus pumps some water from the well. We all have a sip and it is delicious.

As we pull onto the dusty road Alex says " Quick, take some pictures". And as he slowly passes the fields that once belonged to the Fischer family, we snap some pictures and then we are off. We are heading to some of the villages mom would have stopped in for the night but because of road conditions we cannot exactly follow the same route. Some roads are miles and miles of cobblestones. It is hard to imagine how long it may have taken to lay the road.

The day takes us through Friedland, Domnau, Zinten and finally to Heiligenbeil. We make several stops to wander around small towns speculating on where mom may have sheltered for the night, whether it was in the wagon, in a shed or stable or sometimes a deserted house. Sometimes they were welcomed into someone's home and offered a hot meal.

There are ruins of churches in almost every town. One church has tall spires on every corner with storks nesting on each spire. We went inside one orthodox Russian church where a funeral was just finishing. Alex led us up several stories inside the steeple, brick steps turned into narrow wooden steps which turned into ladders. Once at the top we emerged onto a platform surrounding the top of the steeple and were treated to an amazing view.

Sunday, 23 June 2013


Saturday morning we hit the road early because it was going to be a long day covering almost 100 kilometres of territory with several important stops along the way. By this fourth and last day of touring with our guide, Aleksandre, we were beginning to know him pretty well and I think he had us figured out too. Over the last three days he had heard us talk so much about our mother and we told him so many stories from her book, that sometimes he would say things like "I bet your mother would have come this way." Or he'd ask what our mother had written in her book about a certain church or village. We certainly would not have been able to explore so much of the Konigsberg area without him, and if he's reading this blog... Thank you Aleksandre.

Our first stop was at a T intersection on a dusty country road about 10 kilometres from our parents' farm in Klein Engelau. We are now near the beginning of mom's trek. On the wagons with her is her mother, her two small sons Klaus and Hans, and three farm hands who in the end probably saved all their lives. She wanted to turn the two wagons right to travel to Konigsberg to get her father but the road was completely blocked by hundreds of wagons coming from that direction, with passengers intent on their own escape efforts.  She had no choice but to direct the wagons to turn to the left, and in their panic to merge into the "traffic" and in the icy winter conditions, one of the wagons slipped into the ditch with its passengers still on board.  Some soilders on the road helped them lift the wagon out of the ditch, and then they were on their way to Friedland, the next town on the escape route. Mom never had a chance to say goodbye to her father. Omi never had a chance to let her husband know that she had survived her own escape on a train out of Konigsberg a few days earlier.

Our next stop was a few kilometres down the road towards Klein Engelau.  We are in the middle of no mans land. There is nothing here, but as we get closer to Klein Engelau we can make out the tall ruins of a church, the only thing still partially standing is the steeple. This is the church where Klaus was baptized over 70 years ago. These are the church grounds where our father's father is buried along with a sister who died very young (dad came from a large family of five boys and five girls, most of whom did not survive the war). We tried in vain to find an indication of where there might be a cemetery or some gravestones. We did find a couple of old rusted door handles which Klaus is bringing home as a souvenir. Before we leave, we reenact Klaus' baptism by pouring some drops of water on his forehead.

We get back into the Dodge Caravan to continue down the narrow dirt road. Oue next stop is the old village of Klein Engelau which is now a military zone where they detonate unwanted ammunition and destroy old military equipment. There are a few buildings where they house some military personnel, and we see a few soldiers in the distance at a well, which is their only water supply, pumping water out of the well to splash themselves to cool off in the stifling heat ( it's about 30 degrees in the shade). Our guide Alex is looking for a senior officer to talk to; we already have our papers in hand giving us permission to be so close to the border. We are ready to bolt if the situation gets out of hand. Alex is clearly nervous. He returns to the car and tells us that we have permission to walk around for a few minutes but we cannot take any photos.

TO BE CONTINUED. We have to pack up and check out of the hotel. We are on our way to Berlin.

Saturday, 22 June 2013


On Friday June 21 we visited Konigsberg. This is the second part of the blog started yesterday.

After visiting the Friedland Torr Museum we took off for The Dom which is a huge church where our mother got married. It was mostly destroyed during the war but in recent years has been restored to its previous glory. We spent a good hour wandering around the grounds of the church, along with several brides and their wedding parties. Friday is the day to get married in Russia and apparently the Dom is the place to get pictures taken. It was also graduation day for military schools so there were lots of "cadets" and their dates driving around in stretch limos.

We had dinner reservations at 5:30 at the Rossgarten Torr Restaurant and had to catch a 7:10 train and time was running out. We quickly went through the amber museum and bought some beautiful amber jewelry. Then dashed to the restaurant next door and wolfed down Konisberger klops and Lithuania soup in record time. We had to catch the last train to Crantz and our tour guide drove crazily through rush hour traffic to get us to the train station on time. We literally ran through the station, throwing rubles at Alex so he could buy our tickets. Then dashing onto the platform and into the waiting train which was just about to pull out of the station. We caught our breaths on the 30 minute ride back into Crantz. This is a train ride mom and her family would have taken many times to spend the day on the beach.

Some more observations on life in Russia. First off, nothing is on time in Russia except for the train. Secondly, in Kaliningrad they have very few traffic lights. We came to one intersection where it seemed like four or five major streets were colliding. Alex demonstrated extreme confidence and promised us that Russians navigate these intersections by making eye contact with the other drivers. We found it to be a little like playing russian roulette. After several agonizing minutes we were through the intersection and on our way.

Friday, 21 June 2013


Our trip into Kaliningrad yesterday was not exactly like going home because there are very few traces of Konigsberg intact. Most of the buildings are Soviet-era and are about 50 to 60 years old, all look very much alike and it appears that no one is responsible for their upkeep and maintenance. There are cracks in every foundation and stucco is falling off exterior walls. It is hard to imagine living in apartment buildings like these in downtown Kaliningrad.

We spent several hours exploring what is left of Konigsberg. Our first stop brought us to the neighbourhood where our mother lived and went to school. Her school and her brother's school are still standing and one is still a school and the other we believe is an apartment building.

The small walk up apartment building where her family lived has been replaced by one of the big ugly soviet apartment buildings. We found a couple of large chestnut trees that looked old enough to have been there in the mid-thirties so we gathered a few leaves for our scrap books and shed a lot of tears.  Around the corner is a small park which had been a cemetery where our grandfather was buried during the war. He died thinking that our grandmother and mother had already perished; never knowing that they both made it out of east Germany alive. We collected some maple keys to bring back and scatter on our mom's grave.

We visited the Friedland Tor which is one of the few remaining gates that made up the fortress wall that at one time surrounded the city of konigsberg. It is now a museum and we had the luxury of touring around in private until a bus load of German tourists arrived. Hans and Klaus became instant celebrities having been born in konigsberg and they spent several glorious minutes enchanting the Germans.

To be continued. It's time to head out for today's tour to Klein Engelau and to follow part of the escape route.

buildingare soviet era

Thursday, 20 June 2013


Yesterday was the first day we did not have a tour scheduled.  It was a beautiful sunny day with an unusual high of 31 so we spent a good couple of hours walking the long white sandy beach. Some of us thought we could walk as far as the old fishing village of Sarkau but being 12 kilometres away that proved to be unrealistic. You can in fact walk that far along the coast if you wanted to, which is what mom would have done with her parents to get away from the crazy crowded Beach at Crantz. By the way, a couple of kilometres down the beach you can stumble across completely nude sunbathers. Something that seems to both titilate and shock Hans!

In the afternoon we took a stroll to the market, which is rows and rows of small stalls and shops selling everything from cleaning supplies to ladies clothing. As you walk along the narrow streets of Crantz you have to step lively to avoid being run down by a car.  Two cars can not navigate the street at the same time, one has to wait patiently for the other to pass. Everywhere there are partially completed buildings that have fallen into disrepair because the owners apparently ran out of money.  There are very few new houses. There are lots of pre-war houses that stood here when mom visited. They are severely delapitated. Wait until you see the photos. We can't believe that families actually still live in these houses.

After our visit to "downtown Crantz" we went for a swim in the Baltic Sea. Well some of us went for a swim. OK. one of us went for a swim - can you guess who? The others waded knee-deep in the freezing cold sea water.

Dinner was on a patio in a local restaurant that specializes in grilled meat. No one here speaks any English but somehow we manage to order something from the menu, mostly by pointing at things and  at what other customers are eating. Sadly for Klaus, Hans and Ushie the waitress thought they pointed to the one litre mug of beer instead of a half-litre. They were a little too happy on the walk home, which was in bright daylight even though it was 10:00 at night. Even babies and toddlers are still up at that time of night.

Some quick observations about Russia. Passengers can consume alcohol in a moving vehicle but the driver must not have any alcohol in their system. Russians are not quick to smile but when you engage them they quickly respond with a grin and lots of Russian words. In the hotel restaurant where we are having breakfast right now they pipe in only songs in English. Mostly light elevator music and they obviously don't understand a word. For breakfast they serve vegetables but don't try and get a vegetable for dinner.

Sorry there are no photos being posted but we did not anticipate  the difficulty of browsing to select and upload photos on an iPad. Photos will be posted upon our return to Canada.

From Russia with love.