Posts Tagged ‘East Prussia’

Ernst Wiechert: The Jeromin Children

May 5, 2018

51n8In4582L._AC_US218_It’s been quiet lately on this blog because I took an 1100-page novel away on holiday and have only just finished it… a long book, which will end up with a long review.

I’ve read and loved Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life several times; it’s a hauntingly lovely novel, one of my all-time favourites. The Jeromin Children is nearly as good. Wiechert wrote in the 1930s and 40s and fell foul of the Nazis; after a few months in a concentration camp he was let out but threatened with ‘physical annihilation’ if he put another foot wrong. He didn’t. This novel appeared after the Second World War, when its subject-matter had gone forever.

It’s a family saga, set in a village in the middle of nowhere, deep in the forest lakeland of East Prussia. It’s a lost world – East Prussia ceased to exist as a result of the Second World War and its German inhabitants were expelled, the land divided between Poland and the Soviet Union. As a family saga, at times it reminded me of Naguib MahfouzThe Cairo Trilogy, but it also belongs to a subset of post-Great War novels where writers, so horrified at the events they had experienced, sought mental and spiritual refuge in flight from cities and ‘civilisation’ in the timeless values and lives of simple rural folk; Jean Giono is a prime French example of such a writer.

It’s also a bildungsroman, of a very German kind. There are seven children born to the family, and although we do learn of the lives of them all (and the deaths of some of them), the hero is clearly Jons, the youngest, whose story we are most intimately concerned with. But all seven of them have different and significant stories which Wiechert uses to bring out meanings in various ways. And he skilfully brings out the timelessness of the place, the meaning of existence for its inhabitants, the complex interaction of characters, thoughts and feelings, locating all in a powerful sense of eternity and continuity.

To break out of such a village, to leave and to make one’s way in the big wide world is a huge and frightening undertaking. To leave the peasantry and the poverty and to hope for more – I can see my own father’s story in much of this. Will Jons lose the village and the people, and his soul? For he has gifts, talents, and various people in the village make enormous sacrifices so that he can go to school, and then to university, where he will train to become a doctor…

The village is overwhelmed by the Great War on the Eastern Front, and though burnt to the ground, it is rebuilt. The utter insanity, the meaninglessness, futility and sheer evil of the war is briefly but powerfully portrayed, almost through the absence of detail; the good and the bad die, and the scene where one of Jons’ mentors, the student Jumbo, dies, is heart-rending in its pointlessness.

Mentors are obviously of significance in a bildungsroman, and I was inevitably led to reflect on the importance of those who clearly influenced me in my younger days – teachers, student friends, professional colleagues all play their part. In a similar way, Wiechert had me thinking about the differences between generations, how we change and yet how in so many ways we remain just the same as those who went before us.

His studies interrupted by his military service in the war, Jons returns and eventually qualifies as a doctor, and returns to his village to be a doctor for the poor; despite his evident talents and much brighter prospects, this shapes up as his deliberate and the right choice. The unspeakable horrors are left behind, and idyllic peacetime village life continues, except that as readers we know that this cannot last.

The novel is very long; at times it palls and feels didactic and verbose. The view of village life is surely romanticised, though the paeans to the physical beauty of the regional landscape are true to life. It seems utopian, powerful and seductive at times, and we must remind ourselves whence it sprang; it’s comforting, in the same way that the life of the hero of The Simple Life attracts us. And yet, like all utopias, it cannot be. The insidious creep of Nazism is only vaguely hinted at, and seems all the more sinister for this way of portraying; its true horrors and darkness visit the village chillingly in the death of a Jewish doctor who is Jons’ friend and professional mentor, and in the senseless cruelty the regime inflicts on a couple of the villagers. In some ways the ending of the novel is unsatisfactory, for Wiechert leaves it hanging, as I suppose he had to. The Nazis have invaded the Soviet Union; anyone can see that it will all end horrifically. And Wiechert, in a brief afterword, reminds us that this did happen, and tells us that we must invent for ourselves what happened to the villagers and Jons…

It’s not War and Peace, it’s not Life and Fate. It’s clearly flawed. But it’s also a work of love, a call from a generation scarred by the Great War, realising that civilisation is not what it says; it’s a book to take you away from yourself, to make you think, and at times to make you weep. Sadly, the only English version, published over sixty years ago as The Earth is Our Heritage, must have been a bowdlerised version as it’s only a third the length of Wiechert’s novel; I read the French translation which was published last year.

Advertisements

My travels: W for the Wolf’s Lair

June 6, 2017

Wolfsschanze, or the Wolf’s Lair lies deep in the forests of northeastern Poland; before 1945 it lay in East Prussia, and was Hitler’s Eastern HQ, from which he directed his insane attempt to conquer the Soviet Union, and where he lived from 1942-44. It’s also the place where the unsuccessful assassination attempt of July 1944 took place.

In communist times, it was on the tourist trail after a fashion: you could park your car, and go and wander around the ruins, clamber all over them, risk your neck in collapsing tunnels – once my sisters and I had seen ‘Achtung! Minen!’ (yes, it really said that) painted on a wall, we got out pretty quickly – and generally pose for photos where you liked. It was quite a rambling site, quite open, and there wasn’t a great deal of information around, no clues as to what any particular wrecked chunk of concrete had been used for.

Last year I took myself there again, for a proper look, 45 years after that first visit. It’s a serious tourist attraction now: entrance and parking fee with proper tickets, guides, leaflets and a souvenir shop, and tourist buses from many countries, especially Germany. There’s a bar and restaurant, and a trail around the ruins that you’re expected to stick to. There’s a lot more information, now: you know which bunker was whose, where the assassination attempt took place (a modest memorial to the conspirators who gave their lives marks the spot) and you get a real sense of the vastness of the place. The bunkers have ten metre-thick reinforced concrete roofs – you have to see this to get your mind round the colossal waste of resources involved; apparently the Nazis used an entire trainload of high explosives when they attempted to destroy the complex before the advancing Russians got there. They failed. And the thing I found most strange, the whole area gradually has been taken over by forest and woodland, creepers and vegetation, almost a jungle; the concrete is dripping with damp and mineral stalactites leaching out of the concrete, covered with greenery; visible metal has almost rusted away…

The place is awesome in the sense of huge, and utterly bonkers: such a ridiculous waste of space and materials; by the time it’s a century old, I wonder if anything discernible will be left. Certainly a sort of Ozymandias moment here.

My travels: B for Bartoszyce

January 9, 2017

Once upon a time there was a region of Germany called East Prussia. What I’ve read about it makes it sound like a rural idyll, small towns, well-organised peasantry, prosperous, with a large city – Koenigsberg – as the provincial capital. One of my very favourite novels, Ernst Weichert’s A Simple Life, is set in rural East Prussia; it’s another of those magical books that capture the vanishing of an era, like Lampedusa’s The Leopard, or Josef Roth’s The Radetzky March. The population was mixed German and Polish, proportions varying according to sub-regions, and various bits were plebiscited post-WW1; most chose Germany. The whole area had been mixed nationalities for several hundred years, at least since the times of the Teutonic knights. And all this was to change, irrevocably, in 1945…

My uncle, and his parents, were taken by the Germans as forced farm labourers to East Prussia during the war. His parents – my grandparents – returned home; my uncle didn’t, and ended up living in what had been East Prussia until it was divided between Poland and the Soviet Union, and all the Germans forcibly expelled. After the way the Germans had treated the Poles in the war, this ethnic cleansing was inevitable, understandable, and probably justified. But it changed the area forever, as, indeed, so much of Eastern Europe was irrevocably transformed: the people went, the buildings remained; former East Prussia was now populated by Poles moved out of the territories Poland lost to the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Lithuania. The town of Bartenstein became Bartoszyce. It’s a medium-sized town now, with a typical gothic town square and brick gothic churches. Almost all trace of Germans has been eradicated. On my first visit there in 1970 I remember being very shocked that the old German area of the town cemetery had been bulldozed; all the broken gravestones were higgledy-piggledy, in vast heaps…

It felt like quite a sleepy little place, partly because the border with the Soviet Union was less than ten miles away. The main railway line that used to link Bartenstein with Koenigsberg had been dynamited; there was a single freight track remaining. So it was the edge of nowhere, really. The roads were appalling. A mound where a castle used to stand, a river, forests, a lake, farmland. And where our family lived. Further east one moves into the beautiful Masurian Lakes region. I’ve been back several times. It’s still a backwater, still right next door to Russia, more prosperous than it was, and visited by hordes of wealthy Russians doing their shopping; unemployment is at least 20%, so it’s not part of the better-off new Poland yet. And for some reason, one of the main streets is still Karl Marx Street, over a quarter of a century after the fall of communism…

Peter Unwin: Baltic Approaches

November 26, 2016

61tgouatogl-_ac_us160_This was an excellent find in a secondhand bookshop. The author was an experienced British diplomat, and this shows through in the care of his writing, which succeeds in portraying the broad sweep of two thousand years of European history from the specifically Baltic perspective. I hadn’t fully comprehended the vastness of the region, which Unwin likens to a northern Mediterranean, a perspective that had never occurred to me, but which makes eminent good sense, particularly when you take a good map and rotate it a little… it will never be the same in my mind and imagination from now on.

The book was written just over twenty years ago, and it’s quit astonishing how much things have changed dramatically in such a short period of time: he’s writing shortly after German reunification, before the accession of Eastern European nations to the EU, and he’s not able to imagine their joining NATO, which of course has happened. He follows the coastline as it limits Germany, Denmark, Poland, the Kaliningrad exclave, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and back to Germany again.

He’s particularly thoughtful and sensitive about East Prussia, analysing its contribution both to Germany and to Europe, and expressing sadness at its disappearance, inevitable and understandable though this was. My one gripe with him would be his attitude to Poland and Lithuania which I felt lacked subtlety, especially in his glossing over the significance to Poland of Wilno, and not just in the inter-war years. Overall it is hard to fault his careful, detailed, balanced and sensitive exploration of the complexities of the ethnic minorities questions which have bedevilled the Eastern Baltic region and to some extent still do today. He’s good on national traits and characteristics, insofar as this is possible when one is inevitably generalising. His prognostications about the future, outlined in his concluding chapter, are, unsurprisingly, overoptimistic, dated, and about as far as it’s possible to be from where we have got to today…

But, a good little book that does the subject justice and which has some nice outline maps which help when you turn to the atlas for more detail.

German literature and me

August 29, 2015

I’ve always been fascinated by Germany, its history and its past. I first read Günter Grass in the sixth form at school, the short Cat and Mouse first, a little thrown by the nature and development of the narrative and the authorial interaction with his reader, but drawn in by his yearning for and love of his home city Danzig which I’d visited the year previously in its Polish incarnation as Gdansk. For me, The Tin Drum, his first novel, remains his best (and Volker Schlondorff‘s film is a wonderful version, but only of the first half of the book); some of the later ones are a little self-indulgent. His memoirs, the cause of much controversy, are fascinating.

Grass, and his contemporary Heinrich Böll, were two German writers who made the attempt to come to terms in some way – if that is possible – with their country’s Nazi past; Siegfried Lenz also does this in two novels little-known in this country, The German Lesson and The Heritage. On my travels in Germany I’ve noticed that nation’s recent attempts to be honest with itself, and to ensure that the past is not forgotten (though it was not always thus). However, I have found the occasional slight hint in some quarters ‘don’t forget, we were victims too’ à propos of the damage inflicted by bombing on the country, or the expulsion of Germans from former territories, to stick quite heavily in my craw.

My reading of German literature has been mostly twentieth century novels, though I have read some Goethe (Elective Affinities) and loved Fontane‘s Effi Briest. I have been unable to get anywhere with Thomas Mann, I’m afraid. My favourite read of all remains Ernst Wiechert‘s The Simple Life, a haunting tale of a sea captain’s response to the horrors of the Great War: he flees everything and buries himself in the depths of the East Prussian countryside, to live the life of a hermit. It’s a beautiful book, which I’m sure appeals to the ex-hippy in me; I have to go back and re-read it every few years and it never palls.

Hermann Hesse was the big discovery at university – another writer briefly popular in the sixties and seventies but who has now slipped back into obscurity. Siddhartha was the most widely-read novel (there’s an excellent Librivox recording, too) although it was Narziss and Goldmund, a tale of two young men and their relationship in mediaeval times, that really spoke to me. Again there was a really clear sense of time and place, and of the longing for something sought for and lost.

This seems to me, on my limited acquaintance with German literature, to be one of its markers or strengths: the past as somewhere beautiful and hearkened back to, along with the need to know and find oneself. Perhaps it’s something about the landscape and territory the further east one goes? The plains and the forests stretch on for miles and miles and it’s possible to get really in touch with one’s relative insignificance. Being reasonably familiar with Gdansk, and what was East Prussia (most of it is now part of Poland) I think I can understand the feelings of Wiechert, Lenz and Grass.

What I know of Germany, and what I have seen of it, I love. For me, as a half-Pole, its recent past does render it ultimately incomprehensible, though.

 

Siegfried Lenz

October 13, 2014

I learnt from a casual visit to the New York Times yesterday of the death of the writer Siegfried Lenz; nothing seems to have appeared in the British press so far.

Lenz was another German writer – rather less known over here than the likes of Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll – who wrote about the Nazi period in Germany, the issues of resistance, and what was lost with the war. The German Lesson tells of an artist out of favour with the regime who is sent to live in a remote village near the Danish border, and his relationship with the country policeman who is deputed to keep a vigilant eye on him. It’s a long time since I read the novel, but I do recall vivid descriptions of the area and its remoteness, and of the understanding that develops between the two characters.

The Heritage shares rather more with Grass, I think. Both came from the same region: Grass from the former Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk in Poland) and Lenz from rather further east, the town of Lyck in East Prussia, now Ełk in Poland. It’s from this convoluted geography that springs the tragedies they both recall in different ways, for before the Second World War, the region was inhabited by Germans, Poles and other, smaller, minority groups who had lived side by side for centuries. The Versailles settlement of 1919 began the process of separating peoples via plebiscites in various parts of the region, with the choice of belonging to Germany or Poland; the special status of Danzig/Gdańsk became one of the focal points in the lead-up to the Second World War.

It seems to me that extremism – nationalism – furthers division between people, and after the horrors of the war, nothing could remain the same. Ethnic cleansing came to this corner of Europe: the Germans were removed from Gdańsk, which became a purely Polish city, and so many of Grass’ novels and writings paint a picture of a vanished world, and the sadness that it was lost; similarly, East Prussia could no longer exist: the population fled in before the advancing Soviet armies. Lenz depicts this trauma in The Heritage; centuries of a shared past vanish in a few months. Those who didn’t flee were expelled by the new Soviet and Polish administrations. And you can’t say that they could or should have done anything else, when you read of what the Nazis did and encouraged Germans to do to non-Germans in those areas.

All of this is, of course, fading into history with the passing of those who knew it and could write so well about it; it exists in old maps and place-names, and in the ideal of different peoples being able to live together. Of course, this was an ideal; the history of the borderlands tells a grimmer story, and yet something has surely been lost for ever with the coming of national homogeneity.

%d bloggers like this: