Thursday 31 March 2016

Should Germany Get Kaliningrad Back?

"Kaliningrad, which...was home to philosopher Immanuel Kant, still exudes Germanic history, despite having served as a closed military area in Soviet times." 
(Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber, Moscow Times)

Two years ago the question was posed in the Moscow Times:  "If Russia gets the Crimea, should Germany get Kaliningrad?"  The latter, originally Koenigsberg, was the capital of East Prussia for about 700 years until 1945 when the Potsdam Agreement carved up Germany, ceding the area to Russia.  The former was part of the Soviet Union until Khrushchev annexed it to the Ukraine in 1954.  While only about 8 % of Kaliningrad's population remains German (originally it was close to 100%), a significant percentage of the Crimea remains Russian.  Judging by the numbers, then, Russia has more of a claim to the Crimea than Germany does to Kaliningrad.


This map explains why Russia invaded the Crimea in 2014 courtesy

However, as the writer of the Moscow Times article points out:  "Kaliningrad, which...was home to philospher Immanuel Kant, still exudes Germanic history, despite having served as a closed military area in Soviet times" (  Professor David Blatt weighs in on the subject by remarking that, given Germany's  history of aggression in the two World Wars, "I do not think Germany would ever propose such an idea..."  However, stranger things have happened in politics:  it cannot be ruled out.

The former Koenigsberg was the capital of East Prussia, Germany; now it is Kaliningrad, Russia courtesy  

Like Germany, my husband's Oma, who lived to the ripe old age of 96, never tried to make a claim on her homeland.  She could have easily fixated on the fact that she owned a prosperous farm in East Prussia that was violently taken from her, that she was entitled to get it back.  She deserved to live there, not the Russian family that now called it home.

However, that was not Oma.  I asked her how she survived such tragedy.  Her response?  I worked hard and I never showed fear.  And, I might add, she never felt sorry for herself.  She moved on.  She built a successful life in Ruhla, East Germany.  She crossed over a little barrier called the Berlin Wall ( And then she immigrated to Canada, where she built a life for her and her two children in Hamilton, Ontario (  Every time my sister in law gets discouraged about the hardships in life, she reminds herself that she has Oma's blood coarsing through her veins:  she can overcome anything!

Boat on the Pregel River in Koenigsberg circa 1912, the year after Oma's birth, courtesy

Wednesday 30 March 2016

Oma's Missing Son Found in Lithuania

German car leaders in Czechoslovakia were instructed "to tell any separated families in their cars that if questioned they were to state that the retained member was either dead or missing." 
(R. M. Douglas, Orderly and Humane:  The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War)

The Second World War and its aftermath separated many families in Europe. In East Prussia, the Soviets declared that all Germans would have to leave.  In 1947, Oma, her daughter, her nieces and nephew were all ordered onto cattle cars for the trip across the Polish Corridor to the rest of Germany.  However, Oma's son, Manfred, was in Lithuania scourging for food with his grandparents.  With the Soviet soldiers pointing a gun at her, she had no choice but to leave without her son.

In fact, Oma could have been punished by the Soviets if she had insisted on waiting for her son rather than get on the transport.  Such was the case for German minorities across Eastern Europe after the Second World War.Author R. M. Douglas points out that German car leaders in Czechoslovakia were instructed "to tell any separated families in their cars that if questioned they were to state that the retained member was either dead or missing."

In Ruhla, East Germany, Oma found a job in an auto parts factory.  But she ached for her son.  Wartime communication was unreliable.  Months passed without any news.  Oma, who couldn't afford to care for her nieces and nephews indefinitely, put them in an orphanage.  She and her daughter continued to live in a Ruhla apartment.

One day in 1948, Oma's sister, Doris, who worked for the Red Cross, was walking down the road in Lithuania when she saw a blond haired blue eyed boy -- it was Manfred!  She wrote a letter to Oma who was overjoyed to hear the news.  After a year, Oma was finally reunited with her son.

German children, deported from the Eastern provinces, arrive in West Germany circa 1948 courtesy,_R%C3%BCckf%C3%BChrung_deutscher_Kinder_aus_Polen.jpg

Tuesday 29 March 2016

Koenigsberg Cathedral Rebuilt

On August 30, 1944, 100 people, mostly children, hid under the spire of the Koenigsberg Cathedral, covering their ears to block out the sound of the bombs exploding over their heads (  Sadly, the bombs killed most of the people in the church that day.  However, the 600 year old Gothic cathedral, which sat on an island in the Pregel River, remained, the only building left standing on the island.  In the decades after the war, nature started to overtake the burnt out shell of the cathedral.  In the 1960's, there was talk of demolishing the cathedral, just as they demolished the Koenigsberg Castle, but local residents would have no part of its destruction.

Koenigsberg cathdedral prior to its restoration circa 1988 courtesy

In the early 1990's, with the opening of the Soviet Union to foreigners, people showed a renewed interest in the Koenigsberg Cathedral.  In 1994, a new spire was added to the roof using a helicopter.  Over the next decade, Koenigsberg Cathedral's interior was rebuilt, including an Orthodox chapel, a Lutheran chapel and a museum.  The Lutheran chapel is the location of where the 100 Koenigsbergers hid during the Second World War Allied bombing of their city.

Koenigsberg Cathedral today courtesy

Note:  For more information, read A Childhood Under Hitler and Stalin by Michael Wieck.

Monday 28 March 2016

World War II Aftermath: The Ubiquitous Presence of Hunger

"One of the few things that united Europe during the war was the ubiquitous presence of hunger...The struggle to stave off famine was every bit as important as the military struggle and was taken just as seriously." (Savage Continent:  Europe in the Aftermath of World War II)

When the war ended, while the sailor in Times Square grabbed the woman and gave her a big smooch on the lips and everyone celebrated with a ticker tape parade, the suffering escalated in Europe.  Cities were in ruins, diseases ran rampant, rapes proliferated, revenge killings were common and people were starving.

East Prussia, known for its precision and order, had turned into a land of chaos and disorder once the German Army started to lose the war.  While some East Prussians were killed by bombs, mowed down by Soviet tanks, died at the hands of Red Army massacres (Nemmersdorf, Metgethen) or sunk on German ships torpedoed by Russian submarines, tens of thousands of others were victims of famine.

Rob's Ur Opa and Ur Oma, their farm pillaged by the Russians, starved to death as well as his great aunt, Tante Lisbeth.  The only reason that Rob's Oma survived was that she, along with her children, was constantly on the move , searching for food.  Rob's Onkel Manfred had memories of picking fish bones out of garbage cans.  What saved Rob's great aunt, Tante Doris, was a plant called stinging nettle.  One day, Rob's Oma discovered it growing in patches on her parents' farm, pillaged by the Red Army in January of 1945.  She decided to boil it and make soup for her sister, a decision which restored her sister's strength and saved her life.

Note:  For more information, read Savage Continent:  Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe at

Sunday 27 March 2016

Koenigsberg Castle: Hornet's Nest of Militarism or Treasured Monument?

"At some point Russians living in Kaliningrad also began to fall in love with the old Koenigsberg.  They unearthed German street signs and hung them up in their apartments.  They protested when local officials threatened to pave over old cobblestone roads with asphalt." (

Koneigsberg Castle courtesy

Koenigsberg Castle, the focal point of Koenigsberg since the 13th Century, was heavily damaged by Allied bombs towards the end of the Second World War in August of 1944 (see "Koenigsberg Burning" at  Its thick heavy walls prevented it from being completely destroyed and its skeleton remained for several years.  In 1946, with the Soviet occupation of East Prussia and purging of the local Germans, the city was renamed Kaliningrad.

THe ruins of Koenigsberg Castle circa 1950 courtesy

In 1968, Breshnev ordered the castle, "a hornet's nest of militarism and fascism", demolished.  Photographers snapped photographs of the remnants of the castle which quickly became a cloud of dust.  On the original site was built the most ghastly structure in history, The House of Soviets, nicknamed The Monster.  Resembling a giant robot, the 20-story Soviet style structure was never completed. While the outside was painted for a 2005 visit by Putin celebrating the city's 750th anniversary, the inside remains incomplete.


Koenigsberg history has not completely been erased:  underneath the ghastly structure remain tunnels built by the Prussians.  In 2001, the German magazine Der Spiegel financed the excavation of the castle's cellar in an attempt to find lost art.  Rumour has it that the Amber Room was hastily disassembled and stored in the basement when the Red Army was advancing towards East Prussia in 1944.  

"At some point Russians living in Kaliningrad also began to fall in love with the old Koenigsberg.  They unearthed German street signs and hung them up in their apartments.  The protested when local officials threatened to pave over old cobblestone roads with ashphalt."  And they developped a fascination with the old Prussian castle.  In 2010, Russia's Minister of Culture announced a referendum would be held in 2011 regarding whether or not to rebuild Koenigsberg Castle.  In 2014, a competition was held to rebuild the city centre to reflect its German roots.  It remains to be seen whether Koenigsberg Castle will be part of the architectural project (

Saturday 26 March 2016

Frauenburg: East Prussian Town Rebuilt by Boy Scouts for Copernicus' 500th Birthday

Frauenberg Cathedral with Vistula Lagoon in the background courtesy

Frauenburg was founded as a stronghold on the Vistula Lagoon, off of the Baltic Sea.  The area was conquered by the Teutonic Knights in 1224 and became known as East Prussia. Emperor Frederick the Second declared the stronghold subordinate to the Catholic Church and appointed Bishop William of Modena to oversee it.  When the stronghold's lord died, his wife offered the town to the bishop, who named it Frauenburg in her honour (frau means lady in German).

In 1414 the town was plundered and burned in a war between Poland and the Teutonic Order.  In 1454, during the Thirteen Years War its hill and cathedral were occupied by Jan Skalski.  During the middle ages, most of Frauenburg's citizens were either merchants, farmers or fishermen.  Its most famous resident was Nicolaus Copernicus.  While he worked as a priest in the town for many years (1512-1516; 1522-1343) he was known for his work as an astronomer and mathematician. It was in the Baltic town that Copernicus wrote his famous De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.

The Red Army invades Frauenberg circa 1945 courtesy

In 1871, the region became part of the German Empire.  In 1899, the railway came to town connecting Elbing and Braunsberg through Frauenburg.  In 1945, war came to Frauenberg.  Many German residents fled the city via the frozen Vistula Lagoon, some drowning en route (see "Death on the Baltic" at  A vicious battle ensued between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht and 70% of the city was destroyed.  After the Second World War came to a close, most Germans were expelled from the area as part of the Potsdam Agreement. Frauenberg, now renamed Frombork, became part of Poland; it was resettled by Poles, many of whom were expelled from other parts of Poland by the Soviets (

Frauenberg was not unlike many German cities which were reduced to rubble by the Allied bombings during World War II.  However, whereas cities like Berlin, Cologne and Dresden were rebuilt by the rubble women (see "Trummerfrauen" Frauenberg was rebuilt by Polish Boy Scouts.  The project, which lasted seven years, was named Operation 1001.  The impetus was the 500th birthday of Copernicus in 1973 (see newspaper article about the occasion at,2704730&hl=en).

Frombork monument to Nicolaus Copernicus, whose revolutionary thinking at the time led to his discovery that the earth orbits around the sun (not the reverse as was previously thought) courtesy,_Toru%C5%84.

Friday 25 March 2016

Moscow's Capture Imminent: Wehrmacht Within Sight of Spires of the Kremlin

"The Germans were not equipped for winter warfare, and the bitter cold caused severe problems for their guns and equipment.  Furthermore, weather conditions grounded the Luftwaffe from conducting any large scale operations." (

There were 60,000 of them.  They marched 20 abreast.  They wore soiled uniforms and sober expressions.  Their parade took hours to complete.  Russian soldiers marched on either side of their column, armed with bayonet rifles.  In Moscow, spectators spit on them as they passed by.  How had the Wehrmacht, an army which goose stepped across Europe in the first part of the war, been forced to surrender?

When Hitler commenced Operation Barbarossa, the Wehrmacht waltzed into the Soviet Union and occupied republic after republic:  the Baltic states, the Ukraine, Moldavia and Belorussia.  They seemed to be racing towards Moscow uninhibited.

By September of 1941, Hitler announced Operation Typhoon, the drive towards Moscow.  The Wehrmacht occupied Leningrad where they commenced a two and half year long siege, starving the city into submission.  An early battle took 500,000 Soviet prisoners, bringing the total to 3 million.  The Soviet Union had a mere 90,000 men and 150 tanks to defend Moscow.  The German government announced the imminent capture of Moscow and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

On December 2, 1941, the German troops were within 15 miles of Moscow.  They could see the spires of the Kremlin.  This is where Mother Nature intervened:  the first blizzards had already begun.  Dressed in the same military uniforms as the troops in North Africa, the German troops struggled.  "The Germans were not equipped for winter warfare, and the bitter cold caused severe problems for their guns and equipment.  Furthermore, weather conditions grounded the Luftwaffe from conducting any large scale operations." 

In the meantime, newly created Soviet units, numbering 500,000 men, launched a counter attack on December 5.  By the end of 1941, the Germans had lost the Battle of Moscow.  Casualties numbered 830,000, many of whom were POWs.  

In July 1942, Hitler commenced Case Blue, an attempt to capture Russia's oilfields.  Once again, the German Army conquered huge areas of the Soviet Union.  However, their advance came to a halt with the Battle of Stalingrad in February of 1943.  

In June of 1943, Stalin commenced Operation Bagration which ended in August of 1944 with a decisive victory for the Russians.  The German advance had finally come to an end.  Millions were captured and sent to Soviet labour camps.  The surviving soldiers made a hasty retreat out of Russia, their army decimated, their air force non existent, their horses starving.  

German POWs march in Moscow after Operation Bagration in Belarus circa July 1944 courtesy

Thursday 24 March 2016

Epidemic Typhus Spread like Wildfire During the Second World War

It killed Anne Frank.  It killed her sister Margot.  It almost killed Rob's Oma.  It started with a cough, a severe headache and a rash; it led to severe muscle pain, chills, delirium and often death.  Its' name? Epidemic Typhus, otherwise known as camp fever.

During the Second World War, typhus hit at an epidemic rate.  Spread by infected lice, the disease ran rampant wherever hygiene was lacking and people's immune systems were low.  Typhus struck the Wehrmacht when they invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.  In 1942 and 1943, the disease hit North Africa, Egypt and Iran.  Camp fever killed thousands of inmates at Nazi concentration camps in Eastern Europe, particularly Bergen Belsen, where footage was taken of mass graves filled with typhus victims (up to 35,000 died just in the winter of 1945).  British troops burned the camp upon its discovery to prevent the spread of the dreaded disease.  Typhus spread even more often in cold weather, when its destitute victims were less likely to part with their clothing and bathe.

After the Second World War, Rob's Oma also stayed in a Soviet labour camp where she developped typhus.  For many camp inmates, that would have been the end.  However, the Russians recognizing what a hard worker Oma was, gave her quinine pills to fight the disease.  Thanks to the pills and Oma's determination, she cheated death.

For more information, read Epidemics Resulting from Wars by Friedrich Prinzing.

Pile of shoes from Bergen-Belsen

Survivors of Bergen Belsen sit in front of a massive pile of shoes from prisoners who perished, many due to epidemic typhus courtesy

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Frau Komm! Two Words That Every German Woman Dreaded to Hear

"They raped every German woman from eight to 80." (Antony Beever)

"Frau Komm!" was the command that every German woman dreaded to hear from a Red Army soldier.  My husband's Oma told me that rape was so rampant in East Prussia during the Russian Offensive of early 1945 that within a year, about 1 in 4 babies born in one East Prussian town was half German, half Russian.  These infants, called "Russenbabies", were sometimes abandonned, the shame of the rape too much to bear for their mothers.  According to history Laurence Rees, author of World War Two:  Behind Closed Doors, "Stalin explicitly condoned it [rape] as a method of rewarding the soldiers and terrorizing German civilians." (

Rape is often part of war, however, not usually on such a scale.  According to historian Antony Beever, "They [the Red Army] raped every German woman from eight to 80."  Not only vengeance but also alcohol fuelled the invading soldiers.  Beever points out that despite their horrific behaviour, Russian soldiers still saw themselves as above their German counterparts.  "When gang-raped women in Koenigsberg begged their attackers to put them out of their misery, the Red Army men appeared to have felt insulted.  'Russian soldiers do not shoot women,'" one responded.  'Only German soldiers do that'." (

It wasn't just East Prussian women who were raped.  The Red Army continued their rampage across Germany as the Wehrmacht retreated.  The memoir A Woman in Berlin is the anonymous account of a female journalist's traumatic experience in the German capital in the closing stages of the Second World War.  Reported in 2003 to be about journalist Marta Hillers, she was gang raped by Soviet soldiers and sought out a Russian officer to sleep with to "protect" her from the gangs.  Originally published as Eine Frau in Berlin in 1953, the book was either ignored or reviled by most Germans. Republished in 2003 in Germany, the same book met with critical acclaim and sat on the bestseller's list for 19 weeks.

Tuesday 22 March 2016

The Barbarisation of Warfare on the Eastern Front

"The nature of the dictatorships determined the savage character of the conflict"

Leningraders during the Siege circa

My husband's Opa Jonasson fought in the trenches of France in the First World War where he was taken prisoner of war by the British.  Even though he was held captive for about a year, he maintained a certain degree of respect for the British.  He always said that he and his fellow Germans were treated with a certain degree of dignity.  He never forgot that.

The same could not be said of the war between the Germans and the Russians during the Second World War.  Professor Overy explains:  "The so called barbarisation of war has a number of explanations.  Conditions were harsh for both sides, and losses were high.  German forces entered the USSR with instructions from Hitler's headquarters to use the most brutal methods to keep control and to murder Communist commissars and Jews in the service of the Soviet state." (

From the beginning, Hitler preached that the Russians were "untermensch" (subhuman).  This was evident in the way the Germans treated the citizens of Leningrad.  The Siege of Leningrad, which lasted from September of 1941 to January of 1944, will never be forgotten by Russians.  The 842 -day seige caused the largest loss of life in modern history:  one and one half million soldiers and civilians were killed or starved to death.  Another 1.4 million Leningraders, mainly women and children, were evacuated, many of whom died of starvation or bombardment.  Others died from exposure to the frigid -30C temperatures that first winter.

The Siege, along with other barbarities committed by the Germany Army, stirred up journalists like Ilya Ehrenburg who preached:  "We shall kill.  If you have not killed at least one German a have wasted that day.  Do not count not count miles.  Count only the number of Germans you have killed."  Ehrenburg dehumanized the enemy.

It is no surprise then that when the Russians invaded Germany in late 1944, they did so with hatred in their hearts and revenge on their minds.  Rolling over the hills of East Prussia, they pillaged houses, burned crops, and raped German women en masse.

The barbarisation continued even after the Second World War ended on May 8, 1945.  While the British, Canadians and Americans released all prisoners of war by 1947, the Russians were not ready to bury the hatchet.  Many German POWs were not sent home from the Soviet Union until 1956, more than a full decade after the war's end, some so emaciated they were unrecognizable.

Grateful mother thanks Konrad Adenauer for his role in the release of her son, one of 15,000 German POWs freed by the Soviets in 1955 courtesy

Monday 21 March 2016

Hitler's Private Airshow: Too Little Too Late

Me 262\

On November 26, 1943, Hitler left his lair at Rastenburg, East Prussia and made the 45 minute drive to Insterburg, 37 miles from the Russian border.  There, the Fuhrer was treated to a private airshow of German weaponry.  "The jet.  Show me the jet," he urged, meaning the new Messerschmitt.  When the jet finally appeared, racing across the blue horizon, Hitler asked if it was capable of carrying a bomb.  Told that it could carry one maybe two 250 kilogram bombs, Hitler exclaimed:  "This is the blitz bomber I have been requesting for years!"

Surprisingly, Germany did not get into aircraft production until late in the Second World War.  IN fact, half of its planes were produced in 1944 and 1945.  It was too little too late.  The Luftwaffe could not hold up to the Red Air Force, which was receiving an endless supply of aircraft from America through Lend Lease.  The Luftwaffe lost about 11,000 aircraft on the Eastern Front alone and could not replace them fast enough.

Therefore, when the Red Army invaded Intersburg in January of 1945, just a little over a year after Hitler had watched the Messerschmitt debut at the town's airfield, the Wehrmacht had no protection from the air.  The civilians, who fled the town in an endless caravan, were sitting ducks for the Red Air Force.  And Hitler, who had been so sure of Germany's victory, retreated to his Rastenburg lair.

A column of German prisoners on the streets Insterburg, April 1945:

A column of German prisoners makes its way down Insterburg's main street circa April 1945 courtesy

Sunday 20 March 2016

We Will Not Capitulate: Nazi Propaganda Shapes National Opinion

"We will not capitulate -- no never!  We may be destroyed, but if we are, we shall drag a world with us -- a world in flames." (Adolf Hitler)

Nazi rally in Nuremburg circa 1935 courtesy

The world knows about the role of Nazi propaganda in pre-war Germany where Hitler would hold mass rallies in giant stadiums, his arm outstretched, his lips spouting rhetoric in a clipped fashion, his audience mesmorized (see  We are familiar with the Hitler Youth, the group the Nazis used to indoctrinate the next generation. Most of us have heard of the Berlin Book Burning of 1933 where a stack of literature was destroyed, everything from H. G. Wells to Helen Keller, all because it did not embrace Nazi ideology (see Propaganda played a prominent role in 1930's Germany.

Wehrmacht soldiers remove Polish insignia circa 1939 courtesy

When the Second World War started, Nazi propaganda continued to play a major role in Germany and Europe.  The Nazis sent out a daily radio broadcast , the Wehrmachtbericht, to keep civilians apprised of what was happening on the battlefront.  In occupied countries, signs would be posted at the entrances to parks, cafes and cinemas announcing ""Nur fur Deutsche" (Only for Germans).  When the Allies questioned Hitler on the conditions of his concentration camps, he invited the Red Cross to inspect one, controlling every aspect of the visit like a master puppeteer.

The Red Cross visits a "beautified" Theriensenstadt circa 1944 courtesy

Yet even at the end of the war, Nazi propaganda played a large role.  The signs were there that Germany was losing the war, that East Prussia would be the first casualty.  The British Air Force dropped over 1000 tonnes of bombs on Koenigsberg in August of 1944.  That was their first clue.  Then the Red Army temporarily broke through the defense line at Nemmersdorf -- their second clue.  In late 1944, German commanders pleaded with Hitler to order an evacuation of East Prussia, but to no avail.  As late as early January of 1945, when the Red Army was at the gates of East Prussia, the official line was:  "Hold tight.  We will not capitulate."   It was said with such confidence that East Prussians believed it.  Rob's Oma was even told by her brother, an officer in the Kriegsmarine, that Germany would not lose the war.

In the end, while Hitler furrowed into his foxhole, the East Prussians -- the women, the children, the elderly -- faced the wrath of the Red Army.

Saturday 19 March 2016

East Prussian Offensive: A Goal Secondary to Victory...Payback

Russian troops in Frauenburg.jpg

Soviet troops enter Frauenburg, East Prussia courtesy

"And many of those Soviet soldiers, having endured three years of German barbarity on their own soil, came westward with another goal, secondary to victory...payback." 

In January of 1945, the Red Army launched the East Prussian Campaign.  Yet, Hitler called the Red Army "the greatest bluff since Genghis Khan" and chose to concentrate on the Ardennes Offensive on the Western Front.  It was a grave error.

The Russians outnumbered the Germans by a ratio of 11:1.  The Red Army boasted seven army fronts, 1.5 million men and a battle zone that would stretch 500 miles.  However, the exhausted and undersupplied Germans could only mount a force of 800,000 men.

America's Lend Lease program (1941 to 1945) had provided the Russians with 18,000 aircraft, 11,000 railcars, 2,000 locomotives and almost half a million trucks, keeping the Red Army mobile in a country that spanned about 6,000 miles.  For the East Prussian Offensive, in the latter stages of the war, the Russians still boasted 528 tanks, mainly built in the Soviet Union, 5200 artillery guns and mortar, along with 2174 aircraft, a third of the Red Air Force.  The German enforcement, however, had been depleted to 108 tanks, 170 Luftwaffe aircraft and 4000 artillery guns and mortar.

East Prussia didn't stand a chance.  "With a handful of possessions and an earful of stories", East Prussian refugees streamed out of their hometowns, now occupied by the enemy.  Historian Max Hastings points out that the stories were so horrific that even Soviet leaders recoiled at their telling, recommending that the troops exercise a little more restraint, a request that fell on deaf ears.

Map showing Red Army assault on East Prussia circa 1945 courtesy  Heiligenbeil is located across the sea lagoon from Pillau which sits on the Baltic Sea.   

Just as the Germans had trapped the Allies in a pocket at Dunkirk in 1940, forcing the Allied leaders to draft Operation Dynamo to free the encircled forces, the Russians trapped the Germans in the Heiligenbeil Pocket in an effort to cut off East Prussia's capital, Koenigsberg,   Heiligenbeil was a town almost directly across the sea lagoon from Pillau where Admiral Donitz launched Operation Hannibal to free both German soldiers and civilians. (see

It was only a matter of time before the Germans would capitulate.  At the battle's end, over 46,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner of war by the Soviets to languish in labour camps.  Many perished while survivors were not released until 1951 to 1955.

German soldiers in Koenigsberg surrender after the Soviet army stormed it on April 9, 1945:


Friday 18 March 2016

Pillau: Last Port of Call for East Prussian Refugees

Pillau was a fishing village founded in the 13th Century by the Prussians.  Russia's Peter the Great visited the town on three occasions, once in the 1600's and twice in the 1700's.  War was a constant in Pillau.  Russian forces occupied the town during the Seven Years War.  Napoleon's Grand Army occupied the port in 1807.  And in the closing months of World War II, the town was invaded by the Red Army.  Admiral Donitz planned the largest sea evacuation in history, Operation Hannibal.

By January of 1945, Pillau swelled to many times its size as East Prussian refugees, escaping the advancing Red Army, came through the town to board ships.  During the coldest winter in twenty years, refugees arrived by the cartload, loaded down with their worldly possessions.  They scrambled to board the hundreds of ships which departed from the port over the next fifteen weeks.  Some refugees had tickets, others did not.  Some used their babies as "tickets" to board a fleeing vessel.  All were desperate to escape the advancing Soviet forces.  In total, about 450,000 East Prussians escaped through the port of Pillau and found safety on the other side of the Baltic Sea.  However, others perished at the bottom of its icy waters, torpedoed by Russian submarines.

Note:  For more information, read "Death on the Baltic" at

Thursday 17 March 2016

Nemesis at Nemmersdorf

"Kill!  Kill!  In the German race there is nothing but evil.  Stamp out the beast once and for all in its lair!  Use force and break the racial pride of German women.  Take them as your lawful booty.  Kill!  As you storm forward.  Kill!  You gallant soldiers of the Red Army." 
(Ilya Ehrenburg, Russian journalist)

The small town of Nemmersdorf was caught sleeping in the fall of 1944.  Hitler had declared that "No Bolshevik will ever set foot on German soil," and many civilians believed him.  So when the Red Army crossed over the German border and descended on Nemmersdorf on October 22, 1944, no one was prepared.  Bent on revenge after three years of occupation by the Nazis, Red Army soldiers raped 72 women, nailing some of them to barn doors cruciform style.  They smashed the skulls of babies and summarily executed 50 French and Belgian POWs at close range.  When some townspeople fled, they mowed them down with tanks.

The Germany Army regained control of Nemmersdorf within 48 hours and witnessed the horror. The Nazis invited reporters from the neutral countries of Switzerland, Sweden and Spain to observe the atrocities committed by the Red Army.  The Nazi propaganda machine made newsreels which they replayed over and over.  They inflated the numbers in hopes that Germans would dig their heels in and fight even harder for Deutschland. Some joined the Volksstrum in answer to the massacre.  It would be another three months before the Red Army regained control of the area.  Nemmersdorf would remain a symbol of war crimes committed by the Russians during World War II.

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Hell on Earth: Koenigsberg 1945

Bitter fighting Koenigsburg

Fighting in Koenigsberg circa 1945 courtesy 

While Koenigsberg had survived the vicious fire bombing of August 1944, the assault on East Prussia was not over yet.  From January to April of 1945, East Prussia fought the Russians.  It came down to a vicious street battle from April 6 to 9.  Here are the final days of that beautiful city.

As 1945 dawned in East Prussia, there were still many who believed Goebbels' propaganda machine that there was nothing to fear.  However, on January 24, 1945, the Red Army severed all railroad and roadways to the West, essentially trapping the East Prussians.  The Germans could no longer pretend.  During a frigid winter, hundreds of thousands of refugees headed north to the Baltic Sea, part of The Big Trek, hoping for a marine escape.

At the end of January 1945, Koenigsberg was packed with 300,000 East Prussian refugees who had fled to the city hoping that it would be the first stop on their flight to freedom.  Unable to get any further, they parked their prams, sledges and carts along the roadsides, crowded into the bombed and damaged buildings and released the horses which had drawn their carts since they left their villages.  Many of these animals died of starvation and others were shot.  Werner Terpitz recalls how the once beautiful streets were strewn with the carcasses of dead horses from which all edible meat had been taken (,

For ten weeks, the Red Army encircled Koenigsberg.  Russian loudspeakers blared propaganda.  The city was under constant fire, the Soviet aircraft now unchallenged by the Luftwaffe.  Families were forced to take refuge underground.  Men as old as 60 and boys as young as 12 were drafted into the Volksstrum to help defend the city.

A German soldier's look of despair tells the story in East Prussia courtesy

On February 10, the siege was broken when the German Army retook the Samland Peninsula as well as the Koenigsberg suburb of Metgethen.  ONe hundred thousand citizens took the opportunikty to flee the city via Metgethen.  A temporary refugee camp was set up on the Koenigsberg canal where sickness and disease ran rampant.  Some refugees even returned to the city hoping to find food and shelter.  The frigid temperatures dropped and things started to retune to normal in Koenigsberg where restaurants and cinemas reopened.  THe young people felt a sense of renewed hope while the elderly were pessimistic, fearing banishment to the Gulag when the Russians returned.  "Many took refuge in they tried to ignore the deterioration of the city, the rubble, the rubbish, the dead horses, the abandoned trams."  

The inevitable came in early April with the drone of the Russian aircraft over the city.  Koenigsbergers heard radio broadcasts for the last tine on April 4 when the electricity went out.  On April 5, over 100 Russian planes flew over the city undisturbed; Koenigsberg was indefensible.  The barrage on the capital city was unparalleled; veteran officers had never seen anything like it. The streets crawled with Russian soldiers.  Stalin organs, rocket launchers mounted on the backs of trucks, fired off rapid barrages.  The young kids of the Volksstrum streamed "Help!" and "Mum!" as they hid in the trenches.  Under clouds of smoke, buildings blew apart and automobiles were riddled with bullets.

When the smoke cleared in Koenisberg, the landscape looked lunar. Gone with the great avenues and magnificent buildings.Ninety percent of the city sat in ruins.  Koenigsberg surrendered on April 9.

Tuesday 15 March 2016

East Prussia's Wolfskinder

Living in East Prussia during the Second World War, Rob's Oma always feared that her children would be orphaned if she were killed by an Allied bomb or by a disease.  That fear became a reality for many East Prussian children who were either orphaned, kidnapped, abandonned or raped during the latter stages and after the Second World War.  These children, called the wolfskinder, fled into the neighbouring forest and scourged for food like wolves.

Some of the wolfskinder fled to Lithuania where they were unofficially adopted by farmers. However, all efforts to aid them had to be hidden as the Soviet authorities had proclaimed that there were no longer any Germans living in the area.  Lithuanian farmers who sold their goods in East Prussia in 1946, looking for wolfskinder to aid them, would reward them for their efforts.  Many were condemned to roam, beg and steal.  Some rode the rails, hoping off before they reached an official station.  Others died from starvation, cold or typhus.

Liesabeth Otto, a wolfskinder, lost her mother to starvation after the war.  She returned to her hometown of Wehlau with her brothers and sisters where she begged and worked until 1953. Arrested for stealing, she was sentence dto a detention camp.  Later she looked for work in the USSR. It was not until the 1970's that she was reunited with her father in West Germany.

For more information, read:

1.  The Wolfskinder of East Prussia by Ruth Kibelka at ch/books/subject/World-Refugees-1945-Prussia-East-Poland-and-Russia/paperback.
2.  Abandonned and Forgotten:  An Orphan Girl's Tale of Survival in World War Two by Evelyne Tannehill.
3.  Wolfskinder movie (2013) at
4.  Wolfskinder:  A Post War Story by Claudia Heinermann at

Wolfskinder circa 1946/1947 courtesy

Monday 14 March 2016

Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans After the Second World War

"They agree that any transfers that take place should be effected in an orderly and humane manner."  
(Potsdam Agreement, Number XII)

The Big Three at the signing of the Potsdam Agreement courtesy

In July of 1945, Prime Minister Attlee, Premier Stalin and President Truman gathered at Potsdam to sign an agreement which would outline the plan for Germany's demilitarization, reparations and punishment of war criminals.  However, a lesser known section of the agreement, number XII, would carve up Germany,more benignly referred to as the "Orderly Transfer of German Populations".  Ethnic Germans living in Eastern Europe including East Prussia, the Sudetenland, Pomerania, Silesia, East Brandenburg, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia, were to be transferred to Germany proper, west of the Polish Corridor.  The Potsdam Agreement clause that stood out for me was:  

"They agree that any transfers that take place should be effected in an orderly and humane manner."

Rob's Oma, part of this population transfer in the five years after the Second World War, was rounded up like cattle.  She was barked at by the Red Army, announcing that she had ten minutes to gather together a few belongings to take with her.  Her daughter on one arm, her nieces and nephew following behind her, they were tossed into a cattle car at gunpoint.  With no toilet, disease spread like wildfire.  At one point, Oma's niece was so hungry she ate a bird's nest.  Their week long train ride across the Polish Corridor was painfully slow:  at night, the train came to a standstill since the conductor could not see the crooked sections of the tracks ahead, bombed by the Allies.  The journey saw the death of dozens of malnourished and diseased expellees in the adjoining cars, whose bodies were piled high at the side of the railroad tracks.  For those who made it to their destination, like Oma, they were now called "d.p.'s", displaced persons.  So much for "an orderly and humane manner'.

Note:  For more information, read Orderly and Humane:  The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War by R. M. Douglas.

The Expulsion of Germans from Eastern Europe circa 1945 courtesy

Sunday 13 March 2016

The Big Trek

Gridlock on the roads in East Prussia as refugees escape and the Germany Army retreats from the Red Army courtesy,_Ostpreu%C3%9Fen,_Fl%C3%BCchtlingtreck.jpg.

It was the winter of 1945.  The Red Army was knocking at the gate of East Prussia.  After the atrocities committed by the Germany Army over the previous four years (including the siege of Leningrad where almost 1 million civilians starved to death) the Red Army was bent on revenge.  

Hitler proclaimed that "No Bolshevik would set foot on German soil."  Yet, Russian soldiers had already invaded the town of Nemmersdorf the previous October where they had nailed the elderly to barn doors and murdered innocent women and children.  Even though the German Army repelled them, it would not be for long.  Hitler's orders remained firm:  the German population must stay put and to fight until the last man.

By January of 1945, Germans began to break this decree:  almost 8.5 million Germans began the Big Trek out of the Eastern Provinces.  The trains had ceased operation.  Many travelled by Conestoga wagons, pulled by the great Trakhener horses, some of which had won medals at the Berlin Olympics; some travelled on foot.  Like a line of ants on an anthill, they slowly made their way west.  Many headed for the Baltic Sea to board ships as part of Operation Hannibal, a last minute evacuation organized by Admiral Donitz.

During the coldest winter in twenty years, the German refugees commenced The Big Trek to the Baltic.  Anyone on the main roads risked being mowed down by army tanks.  They found alternate routes to travel.  Laden down with their possessions, the going was tough.  In order to reach the Baltic seaports, the refugees first had to cross the Frisches Haff.  An inland sea lagoon, the Frisches Haff, froze in the winter, allowing horses and wagons to cross, but not heavy tanks.

While the refugees were temporarily safe from the Red Army tanks, they were not safe from the enemy planes, which targetted them like sitting ducks on the ice.  Women, children and the elderly fell to the ground in a hail of bullets each time an aircraft droned overhead.  With the ice riddled with bullets, some of the wagons started to break through it, taking their passengers with them.

Once the refugees reached the Baltic seaports, many boarded ships which took them to safety in Denmark and other countries.  It is estimated that 800,000 to 900,000 refugees were saved by the sea evacuation.  However, thousands more drowned when their ships were torpedoed by Russian submarines like the Wilhelm Gustloff (see my previous post, Death on the Baltic, at

The Big Trek across the Frozen Frisches Haff circa January/February 1945 courtesy 

Saturday 12 March 2016

Wolfsschanze: Hitler's Bunker in East Prussia

Wolfsschanze, Gierloz, Poland 2.jpg

The entrance to Hitler's Wolfsschanze, now part of Poland, courtesy

East Prussia was the location of Hitler's Wolfschanze or Wolfslair, a concrete bunker built to launch Operation Barbarossa, Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union.  Wolf, Hitler's nickname, was used at several German headquarters including Werwolf in the Ukraine and Wolfsschlucht in Belgium.  The bunker was originally planned in the autumn of 1940 and constructed by June of 1941.  The Wolfslair was built in the middle of the forest, isolated from roads and cities.

Hitler's 6.5 square kilometre complex was actually a series of buildings, offices and headquarters. According to Armaments Minister Albert Speer, 36 million marks was spent on the Wolfslair.  The complex contained everything from a teahouse to a cinema to a firefighting pond.  It provided shelter for Hitler's inner circle including Hermann Goring, Martin Bormann, Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl.  The Wolfslair employed 2000 people, including many who planned strategies for the Wehrmacht, but even a few who acted as guinea pigs, eating Hitler's food for him to make sure it wasn't poisoned.

"Traudl Junge, one of Hitler's secretaries recalled that in late 1943 or early 1944, Hitler spoke repeatedly of the possibility of a devastating bomber attack of the Wolfsschanze by Western Allies."  Ironically, when the attack came, it wasn't from the Allies, but from within Hitler's inner circle.  On July 20, 1944, a  bomb went off in the Conference Room, a bomb intended for Hitler.  While the bomb destroyed the room, and killed four of its occupants, Hitler emerged with no more than tattered trousers and a shattered eardrum.  Claus Von Stauffenberg, one of the architects of Operation Valkyrie, was arrested and executed for high treason, one of almost 5000 implicated in the plot (

The conference room at the Wolf's Lair soon after the assassination attempt

The Conference Room after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20, 1944 courtesy

Friday 11 March 2016

War Comes to East Prussia

As a little girl, I would travel with my parents to the city of Koenigsberg to sell our potatoes at the market.  Walking along the sidewalk, I would look way up at the turrets of the King’s Castle where Frederick the Great was sworn in.

As an adult, World War II brought the British bombings, making the city a smouldering ruins and the castle, a burnt out shell. 

As a little girl, my sister and I would spot the flags on the ships sailing through the Frisches Haff, a freshwater lagoon opening to the Baltic Sea.

As an adult, thousands of refugees fleeing the enemy advance crossed the frozen Frisches Haff to waiting rescue boats.  But we never made it to the Haff, our horse spooked by gunfire.

As a little girl, I would dream of my wedding day. 

As an adult, I read the report saying my husband went missing in action on the Eastern Front

Photo of Elfriede (top left), Otto, Manfred & Irmgard circa 1943 courtesy Elfriede Neumann.

As a little girl, my father built U-boats in Hamburg.

As an adult, a Russian u-boat torpedoed and sank the ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, drowning 9000 East Prussian refugees in the icy Baltic Sea.  That was the ship I was supposed to board!

As a little girl, I used to hunt for Easter eggs in the forest only 100 metres from our house.

Photo of Easter eggs courtesy 

As an adult, the same forest was hiding the Red Army ready to invade our village.

As a little girl, my father would cut down a tree in our forest on Christmas Eve and decorate it in the parlour while we waited outside the door

As an adult, my parents’ parlour overflowed with Russian soldiers shouting:  “Ten minutes to get out!”

As a little girl, I would admire my mother’s jewelry, made from amber floating on the Baltic Sea

Photo of Elfriede's amber broach courtesy Thomas Jonasson.

As an adult, the Russians stole my jewelry, even my wedding ring.

As a little girl, I would receive a report card from my teacher, Herr Laucht, at the Nautzwinkel School.

As an adult, my little girl could not attend school since it was occupied by enemy soldiers.

As a little girl, my father ran for mayor; we went door to door, campaigning for votes from our Nautzwinkel neighbours.

As an adult, enemy soldiers took my farmhouse, livestock, crops and furniture.  My children and I went door to door looking for shelter, roaming the Prussian plains.

As a little girl, I would wake up to the birds chirping as they made nests in our forest.

Photo courtesy 

As an adult, I watched my niece eat a bird’s nest to survive.

As a little girl, I played truant from school since I had a fever.

As an adult, a fever kept me in bed for weeks.  A nice nurse said I had malaria and gave me quinine pills to get better.

As a little girl, I would devour the sausages cooked by my mother, purchased from our butcher.

As an adult, my little girl and her Opa went on a scrounging tour in Lithuania.  At one house, Opa stole the meat cooking on the stove so his granddaughter could eat.

As a little girl, my mother and I would bake topfkuchen, a marble cake, using an old family recipe.

As an adult, I dug a hole to bury my mother since she had no food to eat. 

As a little girl, my sister and I would play with the wooden kitchen set carved by our father.

As an adult, I buried my sister soon after my parents.  I took in her children whose father was still at the Front.

As a little girl, I would run as fast as I could when I played tag.

As an adult, my little boy ran as fast as he could away from Russian soldiers looking for German children to kidnap.

As a little girl, I was proud of myself the first time I went on the potty. 

As an adult, my daughter and I went to the washroom in a cooking pot on a cattle train, expelled from our homeland by the Russians. 

Photo of East Prussian expellees courtesy

As a little girl, I was separated from my father as he served in World War I.

As an adult, I was separated from my son for a whole year.  Thanks to a chance meeting my sister had on a Lithuanian road with my little boy and his grandparents, we were reunited.

As a little girl, Herr Laucht taught us about the Russian Revolution and the Communists.

As an adult, the Communists took over East Germany.  In Ruhla, I worked so hard at my factory job that I was given many medals by the Communists.

As a little girl I would hear the trains whistle as they left Koenigsberg station.

Photo courtesy

As an adult, my children and I escaped from East to West Berlin on an underground train. 

As a little girl, I was amazed by World War I flying ace, Manfred von Richtofen, nicknamed the Red Baron, who downed dozens of enemy planes.

As an adult, I flew in a plane for the first time from West Berlin to West Germany, my escape now complete.

As a little girl, I would listen attentively to Herr Laucht as he pointed out different countries on his map, including Canada.

As an adult, I steamed west across the Atlantic Ocean to Canada aboard the Castel Felice


Map of Oma's route from East Prussia to East Germany to West Germany to Canada courtesy Thomas Jonasson.  

As an East Prussian, I suffered under the Nazis and the Communists.

As a Canadian, I am free.

In memory of Rob's Oma, Elfriede Neumann (1911-2007).

Photo of Elfriede (Oma) courtesy Elfriede Neumann.