November 11, 2008

Real Visit to an Imaginary Country

to my friend Mona, Happy Birthday

I had lived in Germany from 1946 to 1958 and travelled extensively.
But I do not claim to know all of Germany, and East Prussia in particular was to remain terra incognita until the 1960’s.
My paternal Grandfather had always been in love with East Prussia, it was horse country, and as a member of the German cavalry close to his heart. My friend Mona loves horses almost as much as Grandfather did. It was decided to make the trip after Grandpa had reestablished contact with a friend who wanted to see his former home once more.

East Prussia has always played a prestigious and poetically charged role in the German spirit. Nations have long been fond of claiming possessions of distant, legendary lands. Such remote territory functions both as a reservoir for dreams and as a hinterland to which can be packed off mystics, miscreants, and other social misfits. India filled this role for England. America had its fabled Far West. Spain and Portugal had the South American Continent; France the Sahara.

East Prussia was the home of the Teutonic knight and the cradle of Prussia itself-the first Prussian king got his crown at Konigsberg in 1701. It has long retained the wavering aura of a dreamland, with its shifting dunes and lakes speckled by flocks of migrating birds. Its denizens include the European bison, the wolf, and the black swan. East Prussia was also the first German territory claimed by Russian forces in WW II. After the war, East Prussia was divided up between Poland and Russia. Danzig became Gdansk; Königsberg, Kaliningrad.

To make up for my lack of knowledge of the region I carried off all I could find in way of maps, photographs, memoirs, historical studies, and travel guides. My best find was the publishing house of Grafe & Unzer, formerly located in Königsberg. Moved to Munich, and continued stocking the memoirs of 2 million eastern refugees, with an imperturbable production of picture albums, memoirs, calendars, local recipes, and short stories written in the dialect of the lost land.

I also had the good fortune of finding the memoirs of Walter Frevert, the last keeper of the Rominten preserve. Rominten was the site of Göring’s chalet, the Jägerhof. Romingten became Russian territory, Fervert relocated to Baden-Baden in Germany. We met and talked and exchanged many interesting stories.

In Summer of 1968 we finally got to see it. I call came trough from Grandpa’s friend, he was leaving for East Prussia there was room for us in his car. We immediately accepted.

He welcomed us with all the cordiality his natural timidity and reserve permitted. He was as I had imagined, only more so. I had expected him tall and thin. He was very tall-6feet, 4inches, (2 inches taller than Grandpa)-and skinny as a rail.

I knew that his only reason for becoming a surgeon had been to devote his life to helping others. It was said that the royalties from his books-including an East Prussian diary that sold over 500,000 copies in Germany-went to the ecumenical monastery of Taizé, France.

This voyage into Poland (formerly East Prussia) had the quality of a film. This was due partly to my total passivity. Seated in the back of the big car with Mona, intermittently dozing and only half conscious of the talk coming from the front seat, I let myself be carried along without concern for itinerary or stops, as inactive as a moviegoer. Whence too, I suppose, the seeming unreality of it all. For our actions alone give reality its weight.

Our first stop was Berlin. It was not my first visit to the pseudo-capital, that absurd and tragic symbol of the gash the ideological war had cut between East and West.

The next day, we sped along the Autobahn towards Pomerania and the Baltic shore. East Germany was crossed with little fuss, and Poland entered with still less. First conclusion: the Eastern countries are easier to get into than out of. (We were to verify that on our return).

Our main destination was Olsztyn (formerly Allenstein) on the edge of Masuria. Once there we conducted forays through the countryside trying to locate the castles and subjects of our friend. These were surprising expeditions ending more often at charred walls and desecrated tombs. Our friend was most disturbed by the transformation of the grounds. After 35 years, old trees had fallen, new trees had grown. Some path had vanished and others had appeared.

Once, we walked for hours in a forest while searching for a manor. Three times we met living souls, as the expression goes, but the souls were in bodies so odd and twisted that doubt and alarm held us back. What manner of evil forest was this? The building loomed at last, handsome, well maintained, and haunted-but by most contemporary ghosts: the manor had been turned into an insane asylum. Steinort Castle, where Heinrich von Lehndorff was arrested in 1944, was being restored with considerable care, as was Preussisch Holland; as a matter of fact, a painter was in the process of restoring, high on the façade, the arms of the Dönhoff family, to which Preussisch Holland had belonged. On the other hand, homes more famous than these had been reduce to cinders by the Russians before they handed the sector over to Poland. This was true of Finkelstein Castle, where Napoleon stayed in 1812, and of the Teutonic fortress of Schönberg. At Rastenburg, bombs had devastated Hitler’s Wolfschanze, an imposing, windowless structure that seem to lean in all directions, at once off-balance and absolutely indestructible.

Our friend’s reunion with the woodsmen, craftsmen, and peasants of his estate completed his moral exhaustion. After an emotional exchange of greetings and old memories, he would have to accept their hospitality and spend the night. We returned to our comfortable hotel in Olsztyn, leaving our friend to fold his big frame into a sagging sofa. These people were Germans, naturalized as Poles. The elders said that they had never been able to learn the new language. The 40-year-olds spoke both languages fairly well. The children spoke only Polish. Their extreme poverty was neither worse nor better than before the war. It is easy to think that political regimes and economic fluctuation have little to do with everyday life at this level of simplicity, but such proposition is probably false. A rise of a few cents in the price of milk and potatoes can have an immediate effect on the very existence of these families.

We spend a week at the Liski stud farm, a veritable village serving the last breeding ranch for the Trakehnen horses; over 5,000 acres, including 2,000 in pastures, to feed 600 animals. We rode in hunting carriage-the driver in livery-around the splendid estate. Its large, traditional farm abounded with calves, cows, pigs, flocks of geese, turkeys, ducks and even storks astride great nests of branches balanced on chimney tops. The old-fashioned Polish farm, a hymn to the peaceful and bucolic life, is doubtless the equivalent of French farm 100 years ago.
The horse remained king in Poland (there were some 2,500.000). Cars were constantly held up on narrow roads behind teams of horses driven by women, their muscular forearms bared and brightly colored scarves on their heads. Wherever you went, the familiar, hypnotic clatter of shod hooves was never far out of earshot. It would be unfair, though, to say that progress had made no inroads: all carriage wheels had air tires.

A landscape is a state of mind. Ensconced in a big car laden with food for a king, we saw East Prussia as a gentle rolling countryside, fertile and sensuous, studded with majestic trees and dotted with picturesque lakes.

I have mentioned the storks, which plant their familiar angular forms on chimney tops and strut cautiously in the marshy prairies. We also saw black swans. From a lakeshore, we saw an island wholly given over the cormorants perched in black –and-white clusters in trees-big beeches that their droppings had stripped to resemble gallows. They go south every autumn, but when spring comes they return to take over that island in that lake, and none other in the entire region.

Our excursion led one day to Mohrungen, now Morag, a small town that boast a Herder museum in a big square house flanked by bronze cannon from Napoleon’s Russian retreat. Johann Gottfried von Herder-philosopher, critic, and leading theoretician of German romanticism-was born in Mohrungen in 1744. The letters, manuscripts, engravings, and maps in the little museum testify to his refusal, shared by other early romantics, ever to choose between science and poetry, mechanics and mysticism. With the same impassioned curiosity as Diderot, Lessing, d’Alembert, and other encyclopedists, Herder was to claim all of his life as his subject matter.
As we were leaving, a boy approached; clearly he had been waiting for us. With his long blond hair, blue eyes, and a Madonna-like face with salient cheekbones and pointed chin, he reminded of Novalis, the angled mechanic who had so well mixed metaphysical dreaming with his profession as mining engineer. The boy fell into step with us, insistently repeating a word we had trouble understanding. The mystery cleared when we reached the car. Motor! Said the young Pole, pointing at the hood of the car. He wanted to see the engine.

The hood was raised, and half of the angel disappeared from view as he plunged into the engine’s greasy, smoking entrails, and he caressed with loving respect, the still warm sides of the crankcase.

Our voyage ended in Krakow, once the royal residence and religious capital, and now a living museum miraculously spared in the war. We witnessed the remarkable turnout for Sunday morning Mass. We were told that for Poles, the church was the old and unconquerable fatherland, and impregnable camp that foreign-dictated political power could never invade. We heard a story that had circulated a few years ago when Archbishop Felton of Paris visited Warsaw. He had attended Sunday mass and been impressed by the crowd that overflowed into the square outside.”How do you attract so many people to church?” he asked the priest. “Me?’ the priest answered. “ I ring the bell.”

The next day we were on our way back to the West.


ms capshaw said...

i enjoyed this as i do all your travel posts

Tommy Lee said...

wow, that is interesting!

mona said...

thank you