Fleeing the Red Army: from Memel to Seesen

Eibau, 24th October 1944

Dear Daddy,

We’re now in Saxony. We’re doing really well. If you’re ever unsure of where we are, you just need to write to Gitta in Deutsch Eylau and ask her. Her address is:

Brigitte Hermenau

Deutsch Eylau (West Prussia)

Jorkstraße 38 c/o Mans

Where is Odo? Our address is:

Szameitat Eibau (Löbau district)

in Saxony

Hindenburgstraße

What’s happening in Memel? Apparently there’s debris and rubble everywhere. Is it true?

I’m going to close now.

Lots of love,

Your Irene

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This letter, from my then twelve year old grandmother to her father, was the very first of Johanne’s documents that I, myself a child at the time, pored over in both wonder and sadness. Wonder that a piece of paper so full of a daughter’s love for her father could survive the chaos of war and forced displacement, sadness at the loss of her childishness, so evident in the simplicity of her words, that those terrible events must have caused: by the time she wrote this letter, her father Oskar, with whom we were led to believe she had been very close, was already dead. I cannot imagine the grief and hopelessness she must have felt on receiving this letter a month later when it was returned to sender. Part of her must have died when she saw it, her childhood and any ability to make sense of the chaos around her evaporating in an instant as she faced the reality of a life without the father she so loved, away from the only home she had ever known with no knowledge of if or when they might return. This one piece of paper is our only connection with my grandmother as a child, the only window into her German past, because right up until her death in 1994 she would never speak of any of it. She belonged to the generation that the war and its aftermath damaged the most: children.

And yet, for all its poignancy, reading it unleashed the armchair detective in me even aged thirteen, and I found myself wondering when, where and how Irene and Johanne, and indeed other members of the family, fled Memel in 1944. Where was Eibau? Or Deutsch Eylau, for that matter? And who was Brigitte Hermenau? Where did they go after Eibau? How did they end up in Seesen? I had vague memories of Mum telling me about them swimming across the Elbe, spending the night in the bombed out cathedral in Cologne, and being put up by apparently horrible (and, my great-grandmother took pains to point out, Catholic) peasants in Oldenburg … Were these family legends true? Because for millions of Germans, recounting their Flucht is a kind of oral history, passed on from one generation to another, forming part of the family identity.

The truth is that my family’s account is nothing remarkable: around 12-14 million Germans fled or were forcibly expelled in the years 1944-50, and possibly as many as 2 million died en route, including Emil Szameitat, my great-great-grandfather, whose story will have to be the topic of a subsequent blog post. Yet learning individual stories gives meaning to statistics, and everyone has a story to tell. My grandmother was, because of her grief and loss, unable to tell hers, and my great-grandmother only ever hinted at what happened. This is my attempt, from the available evidence, to tell their story for them.


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Irene’s temporary refugee ID card from 1948

Mum told me often that her grandmother Johanne had always spoken of “the Russians” (like so many referring to them in the singular, der Russe) with abject fear. While she may well have been influenced somewhat by Nazi propaganda, there was good reason to be fearful: she had lived through the First World War, which, for East Prussians, was characterized by destruction, fleeing their homes, enemy occupation and deportation. There is no evidence for it, but Johanne and her family must have fled in the summer of 1914, when she would only have been nine years old, along with most of the area’s other residents. On this occasion, their flight was short-lived, the Russians being pushed back out of East Prussia in the decisive and infamous Battle of Tannenberg.

Fast forward a world war, and Johanne had children of her own who would end up facing the prospect of leaving their home as she had done some thirty years earlier, only this time the Red Army came seeking revenge for the Wehrmacht’s atrocities in the East. Up until the summer of 1944, Memel had been relatively unaffected by the events of the war, so much so that many evacuees from Germany’s numerous bombed out cities were sent there (Pölking 2013:343). The Szameitats, in any case, had been consumed by other concerns, namely Oskar’s imprisonment and dismissal from office. The tide began to turn in the summer of 1944 as the front got closer, notably when the evacuees were evacuated back home, and this caused widespread panic among the Memelländers (Pölking 2013:344). Surprisingly, this was one of the few occasions when Hitler allowed the timely evacuation of a civilian population (all preparations for evacuation were normally strictly forbidden), and on 30th July 1944, Memel’s citizens were instructed to leave the city (Kossert, 2008:143). Of the nearly 40,000 residents, only 4000 remained. The U-Boat commander Karl-Friedrich Merten was largely to thank for the successful evacuation: he set up a marine evacuation personnel who, apparently against party orders, also organized the civilian evacuation via sea, chiefly to Pillau, Danzig and Gotenhafen (Gdingen).

At the very least, Johanne and Irene were evacuated in the summer of 1944 for a few weeks, though frustratingly their destination is unknown. There is a letter in the documents from Oskar to Johanne, dated 15th August of that year, that tells us this much, even mentioning that Johanne had made the right decision not to go to Braunschweig where her sister Berthe lived, given that bombing raids were likely there, but the letter’s envelope (presumably with the address on) is lost. It’s not clear from what he writes whether Odo was with them or not: as a sixteen year old he was almost certainly called up to the Volkssturm (Home Guard) at a later date, but from the documents it is impossible to tell what he was doing in the summer of 1944, and, in all likelihood, I’m not sure his parents knew either. But his movements will have to wait for another blog post.

Back home, Oskar, then aged 47, seems to have been called up in some form to work the land and help bring in the harvest: his letter is written in Buddelkehmen outside Memel, and he writes much of the affliction of the rural population, the cattle roaming feral across the land and the unharvested crops going to waste in the aftermath of the evacuation. He gives the impression however that the worst is over, and mentions that from his perspective, the order to evacuate was met too early: “We heard today that even the farmers’ wives are allowed to return now.

Despite the fact that many Memelländers chose not to return home, Johanne and Irene evidently decided to. At this point, the call of their Heimat and the desire to be near Oskar and Odo must have been greater than their fear of a sudden advance by the Red Army. And I get the impression that Johanne had the 1914 evacuation in the back of her mind: the Russians had been decisively driven out then, it was likely, so she thought, to happen again.

The trail goes cold in late August and September 1944, but the family must have kept an eye on the front nervously during that time. The worst did indeed seem to be over, and yet the decisive victory over the Red Army had not happened. And then, on 5th October, Irene’s twelfth birthday, the Russians launched their major offensive on East Prussia. Again, the Memelländers started preparing, at least mentally, to flee.

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The Russian advance in 1944, taken from Pölking (2013:349)

Marianne Peyinghaus was a teacher from Cologne who worked in Gertlauken, an East Prussian village much further from the border and whose residents fled later when the front approached in January 1945. She captured the atmosphere of the civilian population and gives us an idea of how Johanne and Irene must have felt shortly before they had to leave:

“We didn’t know how much we could take with us. Maybe we would only be able to take hand luggage. And the worst thing: we didn’t even know by what means we would leave. We waited and hoped that something would happen. But nothing happened. We were totally left to our own devices. Rumours flew round – people were talking about considerable Russian advances. Evening came, night came, still we waited to be told what to do – but no message came. The hours crept by unthinkably slowly. We couldn’t sleep. […] In the East the horizon was red, and we could hear the front, so terrifyingly close.” (Quoted in Kossert, 2008:158, my translation)

This time, the evacuation was not well organized: despite plans being made by the regional NSDAP leaders to evacuate the population of the Memel Territory within three days, they had not taken into account the many thousands of refugees from Lithuania and Latvia, along with the hastily retreating Wehrmacht, which clogged up the road and rail networks (Pölking, 2013:352). As a result, much of the rural population, especially in the Memel district, were unable to escape before the front caught up with them, leaving them at the mercy of their Russian captors, who exerted revenge in uncompromising ways.

I have often wondered how the Szameitat family celebrated Irene’s birthday on 5th October, if indeed they did at all. Did she go to school that day? Was it the last time the family was all together? Could they hear the rumbling of the front in the distance? Did they already have their bags packed? Was there any sense at all that this was the beginning of the end?

Wilhelmine Pierach, a Memel resident, summed up the chaos of the town in the final days before the Flucht in her diary (my rendering into English):

“Endless wagons full of refugees, herds of cattle, horses, dogs that had lost their owners roaming around searching for help. Horses and cattle perishing in the middle of the street. On the upper street, countless refugee wagons were going past; the lower street was filled with military vehicles and tanks.”

The instruction to evacuate apparently came at different times, depending on which part of town you lived in. Manfred Teweleit, a year younger than Irene and from the southern suburb of Memel-Schmelz, describes how soldiers riding motorbikes through the streets gave the order to flee via megaphone on 7th October, a Saturday: “Der Bevölkerung wird befohlen, zum Bahnhof zu gehen” (‘the population is ordered to go to the railway station’) (Teweleit, 1992:23), but Pölking (2013:353) suggests that the vast majority of the town’s inhabitants were evacuated by ship across the Curonian Lagoon and out into the Baltic. The last train left Memel on 9th October, the railway between Tilsit and Memel having been taken back from the Russians the day before (Pölking, 2013:354). Memel itself became a beach-head, the town along with the Curonian Spit not falling into Russian hands until late January 1945.

In the latter stages of the war, there were refugees everywhere. Teweleit (1992:237) describes how unwelcome they were in their new quarters, and how they lost their social bearings over night:

“And so we arrived: the despised refugees, in the eyes of the village’s inhabitants on a par with gypsies. We had had to bid farewell to secure living conditions and a respected existence and we had fallen, within only twenty four hours, to the bottom of the social pile: no home, nothing to eat, carrying our belongings on our backs and in our hands. The villagers, who had up till now enjoyed uninterrupted rural peace and quiet, had never clapped eyes on such a mob of perfect strangers. And how they spoke and acted around us reflected how they thought.”

Like Irene, Johanne also wrote to Oskar from Eibau in Saxony, and there are three complete letters and one fragment in her documents, all of which, like Irene’s letter, never reached Oskar and were returned to sender. From these letters, it’s possible to piece together some of their movements, but there are tantalizing questions that remain.

We know from one letter, for instance, that they left Memel by train on a Friday, and since the call to evacuation on 7th October that was mentioned above fell on a Saturday, I assume that means they left on 6th. This tallies with an account in Meyer (2014:42), who lived in the same part of town as the Szameitats and who describes being woken up at 6am on 6th by a mobile megaphone announcement instructing all women and children to leave via the port or the railway station by lunchtime.

Evidently Johanne and Irene opted for an evacuation by train. It certainly seems that they were on a packed train and traveled in freight wagons, suggesting that it wasn’t a scheduled passenger train and instead had been assembled to aid fleeing civilians. They also attempted to send luggage on to Johanne’s sister Helene in Kukoreiten from the railway station, which perhaps indicates that there wasn’t enough space on their train for lots of luggage. Where were they trying to get to? Did they know? From Teweleit’s and others’ accounts of evacuation by train, it seems that no one had any idea where the train was ultimately heading, the driver probably included. The hope was just to get as far away from the front as possible and not be bombed by Russian low-flying aircraft en route. On their arrival in Eibau, a sleepy little village in the Oberlausitz, Johanne wrote the following, dated 22nd October:

“Finally I am getting in touch after such a long time. We had a terrible journey and are full of cold. We had to sleep on straw for fourteen days without changing our clothes once. Even the journey by train was in cattle wagons, meaning that we all have a fever. Now I’ve finally got hold of a room for us. Tell me, are you still alive? Where is Odo? Is our house still standing? Were you able to get anything else from home? Or did the radios end up staying there?”

She goes on to lament that she has no idea what’s going on because they haven’t seen a newspaper in two weeks or been anywhere near a radio. Teweleit (1992) also writes of how difficult it was to get hold of information, and his detailed description of his flight from Memel by train helps to fill in some of the gaps of the Szameitat story. He explains how trains would stop for long periods of time, how the passengers would be unloaded and reloaded in seemingly random stations, how they spent several days sleeping in an old concert hall in Seckenburg, watching the thousands of refugee wagons plod by along the roads and looking out for loved family members, unaware of when they would be evacuated further into the Reich and trying to ignore the rumours of Russian atrocities committed on East Prussian soil. I can’t imagine that Johanne and Irene spent fourteen days straight on one train, so they are likely to have had stops of a similar nature en route.

She wrote again on 31st October, questioning whether their letters were getting through and telling Oskar she’d dreamt of him a few times. Contrary to Irene’s declaration in her letter that they were doing well, Johanne writes that she doesn’t like it in Saxony at all. There is a sense of resignation in her letter: “Nun ist ja schon alles egal.” (‘But nothing really matters any more.’) Yet one section of her letter is very perplexing:

“Do you know what? Every day I’ve been thinking about what you always said. I’m beating myself up about the fact I didn’t follow your advice. Lots of people that I’ve spoken to here say the same. But now we can’t change anything.”

She wrote again on 7th November, again inquiring as to whether they were receiving any post and asking what was happening back home. She writes about how little they have to eat, describing it as “ein Elend in der Welt” (something like ‘utter destitution’) and wonders what the rations are like in Memel. At the end of the letter, she seems to clutch at straws and says she’s heard how some soldiers have been given special leave to bring their wives’ belongings to them. She then gives him a list of food items to bring if he can.

The final letter from this period is a fragment, and is the most intriguing. It is undated, and seems to be the last few pages of a longer letter.

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It’s worth translating most of it as it raises some interesting questions (and the images above give you an idea of how hard the Sütterlinschrift is to decipher for modern readers):

“I had travelled once more from Liebenfelde to Tilsit, that was on the Monday, and I had to spend the night in Tilsit in the midst of a barrage of bullets because there were two big raids happening there. Then on the Tuesday morning, I managed to walk as far as Übermemel. The soldiers there said I had to turn back, the Russians are here. If I had arrived two hours earlier, then I would also have found myself among the Russians.”

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The railway route between Königsberg and Tilsit (Source)

Liebenfelde was the Germanized name for Mehlauken, on the branch line from Königsberg to Tilsit, and if indeed she was following that route by train, she was going in the wrong direction, towards rather than away from the front, though she is likely not to have known where exactly the front was. Indeed, Übermemel was the first dwelling on the other side of the Memel river from Tilsit, so she must have walked over the famous Königin-Luise-Brücke to reach it. She wrote that she stayed in Tilsit on a Monday night, presumably 9th October, as that fits with her description of where the front was at the time. The bridge was blown up by retreating German forces later on 22nd October (Kossert, 2008:143), the Memel river proving to be a natural boundary for a short while, preventing the Russians from advancing further into East Prussia from that direction.

These letters leave me with many questions. What was it that Oskar ‘always said’, that Johanne wished she had done? She wrote of her reverse journey in the singular, does that mean she made that journey alone? If she travelled alone, was she going back to fetch something? Where was Irene? Or perhaps Irene was with her, and she just wrote in the singular out of habit. Why did she decide to go back, getting dangerously close to the front in the process?

The most likely answer is that the apparent journey back was just part of the chaos of not knowing where the front was. Many refugees seemed to go back and forth and round in circles, trying to keep their distance from the fighting but having little accurate information about where the front actually was. But Johanne had been on a presumably organized refugee train out of Memel that was supposed to be heading away from the front. Part of me will always therefore wonder whether she chose to try to return home, thinking that being at home near her husband and son, even under enemy occupation, was better than being homeless in an unknown place, dependent on the kindness of strangers, their only possessions that which they had on their person. Was that the thing that Oskar had ‘always said’, that Johanne referred to in her letter? That being all together, come what may, was the most important thing, especially after their enforced separation during Oskar’s time in prison? I will always wonder.

In any case, it was not to be, and two weeks later after stops and starts they turned up in the remote village of Eibau in Saxony and were assigned a room in the Hindenburgstraße in someone called Alfred Weikelt’s house. A few weeks later they moved to Kirchstraße, staying with a Frau Ebert, and they remained there for some time, certainly spending Christmas there, before being transferred to a transit camp around the new year. It’s possible that they chose to leave of their own accord, but more likely that they were moved on to make way for more incoming refugees or citizens from local cities that were the targets of (mainly British) bombing raids. A letter that Johanne wrote to Odo in January 1945, posted to Deutsch Eylau, was returned to sender in Eibau in February, only to be forwarded again on to an address in Hartmannsdorf near Chemnitz in March. Was that forwarding address another place they were billeted for a while? It’s possible, but there’s not enough evidence to say for sure.

We do know, however, that they must have witnessed the end of the war in the Sudetenland in a village called Reischdorf. That’s because there is a document in the files (a Räumungs-familienunterhaltsbescheid, notification of a kind of monetary allowance for evacuated citizens, to be precise) that places them there on 7th May 1945, the day before the end of the war.

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There they must have witnessed some of the last fighting during the war, the front catching up with them at last. But it was the Americans, not the Russians that liberated that area, handing over power to the Czechs only a few weeks later on 21st May 1945. We don’t know anything about their experiences in Reischdorf or how or when they left, but this website suggests that in the immediate post-war period the local population faced murderous violence, forced labour and inhumane punishments under the Czechs. They were likely deported as part of the “wilde Vertreibungen” in the summer of 1945, given minutes to assemble their belongings and then driven over the nearby border.

The next address we have is Altmoorhausen near Oldenburg, and they must have been those Catholic peasants about whom Johanne always spoke so disparagingly. We might be tempted to chuckle at her confessional stereotyping, but the post-war refugee crisis caused the huge rifts in society to become apparent as Germans of many different regional, economic and indeed confessional backgrounds had to rub alongside each other. The refugees were unanimously unwelcome almost everywhere, as they also had to be quartered in the little housing that had survived the war. Out in the countryside, where most of the intact housing was to be found, those differences in background were felt more keenly. Hence the disparaging comments about Roman Catholic peasants from a formerly town-dwelling Lutheran.

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The route Johanne and Irene took from the evidence available

What of swimming across the Elbe, and spending the night in Cologne cathedral? There’s no evidence for it in the documents, but that doesn’t mean those things didn’t happen. Indeed, they must have had to cross the Elbe somewhere when they headed west from Eibau, and refugees were transported around to all sorts of unlikely places after the war, particularly within the same occupation zone, so they could have feasibly ended up in Cologne at some point. Mum says that it’s possible she was confusing their story with that of people they knew, so we’ll never know for sure. And I haven’t yet managed to ascertain what the connection with Deutsch Eylau was either, or who Brigitte Hermenau was. Perhaps my future research will shed light on these unanswered questions.

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Johanne’s ID card from 1946

Somehow, by February 1946, Johanne and Irene had made their way to Seesen and into their own flat. How they ended up in Seesen is not known, but recall that Johanne’s sister Berthe lived not far away in Braunschweig, and her other two sisters also ended up living within an hour or so’s drive of each other. I half wonder if, in the event of another Flucht, the sisters didn’t all agree to regroup in Braunschweig and go from there. In any case, it was in Seesen that they began to settle down properly and rebuild their lives in this strange new reality, while never losing hope that they would return to Memel, maybe one day, in the future.


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Memorial for those who fled at Klaipeda’s railway station (Source)

Last month we visited the Harz mountains on a family holiday and dropped in again briefly on Seesen. Having familiarized myself (at least virtually) with the landscape of the Memel area over the last few months, I was struck by how totally different this mountainous landscape, so far away from the sea, must have seemed to people so used to growing up near a large flat river delta on the coast. Yet Johanne loved the forest in the Harz, Mum says, as despite the hills it reminded her of the East Prussian woodlands, and it became a home away from home. Did she know that there was something else that united her two homes? In the nineteenth century, the sand dunes on the Curonian Spit, where the Szameitats later spent many a happy afternoon on the beach, were in danger of consuming whole villages and silting up the small channel south of Memel. An extensive project of planting and reforestation began. This website suggests that initially Danish pines were used. Kurschat (1990:54) tells us, however, that mountain pines from another area were intensively planted. Where did those pines come from? The Harz. Perhaps that was the reason why Johanne so loved the forests around Seesen, her new home from home.

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References

Kossert, Andreas. 2008. Damals in Ostpreußen. Munich: Pantheon.

Kurschat, Heinrich. 1990. Das Buch vom Memelland: Heimatkunde eines deutschen Grenzlandes. Oldenburg: Verlag Werbedruck Köhler.

Pölking, Hermann. 2013. Das Memelland: wo Deutschland einst zu Ende war. Ein historischer Reisebegleiter. Berlin: be.bra verlag.

Teweleit, Manfred. 1992. Memel. 43 Jahre verbotene Stadt. Gütersloh: Bonewie Verlag.

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Setting the scene: the Memel Territory and the Szameitats

When deciding on the tagline for this blog I found myself unsure of how to refer to the little strip of land in Lithuania that was once home to the Szameitat family. The German names Memelland and Memelgebiet are mostly unknown in the UK, and Lithuania Minor, a direct translation of the Lithuanian name Mažoji Lietuva for a once larger area, erases its German heritage and was promoted intentionally in the Soviet era to play down its Prussian past (Lithuania Minor was once more commonly known as Prūsų Lietuva – Prussian Lithuania). But when I mention the name Memel Territory, a translation of Territoire de Memel, because it was the French who were in control of the region immediately after the First World War, I am also usually met with blank stares.

In fact, it turns out it’s not just the name that’s little known, but the area itself. For some reason, our History GCSE textbooks fail to inform us about how, as stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles following the First World War, this small strip of land north of the Memel/Neman river was separated from Germany and placed under the control of the League of Nations, nor how, in 1923, there was a coup staged by the newly created Lithuanian nation to annexe it (interestingly enough making Lithuania the first nation to break the Treaty of Versailles), nor how it was technically in a state of war from 1926-1938, nor how it was Hitler’s final territorial gain before the outbreak of the Second World War. We learn about the occupation of the Rhineland and the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, but somehow the Memel Territory gets missed out as insignificant.

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Source

It really shouldn’t, because the events that took place in this small strip of land were like a microcosm of what happened all over Europe during the twentieth century. And researching it over the years has taught me much about perspective and the lens through which we view history.

Because depending on what your source is, history can look quite different. For Germans, the Memel Territory has been traditionally understood as an area that was once Prussian, the majority of whose inhabitants were German or at least identified culturally as Prussian up to 1945, by which time they had fled or been expelled. For Lithuanians, it has been thought of as an area in which its culture and heritage were suppressed by a foreign power for hundreds of years and was returned to the homeland provisionally in 1923 and for good in 1945.

Perspective matters in history telling, and that will become clear in subsequent blog posts. Even the name we choose is significant. By calling it the Memel Territory, people might think I am implicitly suggesting that the region should be thought of historically as German, or at least Prussian, whereas referring to it as the Klaipėda Region implies its Lithuanian heritage is the more significant. The truth is, of course, much more nuanced, and most historians these days try to reflect that complexity by not sliding into the old dichotomy of German versus Lithuanian. Cultural exchange between the two countries has become important especially in light of Lithuania’s relatively recent membership of the EU, fostering for example university exchange programmes and projects like the Annaberger Annalen. Nevertheless, an awareness of this difference in perspective is important when attempting to understand the history of the region.

As it happens, both German and Lithuanian settlers came later to an area that was already inhabited by Curonian and ethnically Prussian populations. For hundreds of years under the rule of one German state or another the cultures mixed and coexisted, sometimes happily, sometimes not. The ethnic identity of the region’s inhabitants in the twentieth century is therefore unsurprisingly complex. As a rule, the towns were predominantly made up of native German speakers, and the countryside had a Lithuanian majority, though it’s hard to ascertain what ‘German’ or ‘Lithuanian’ really meant, as there were many bilingual inhabitants who identified as Memelländer and who probably spoke Lithuanian as their first language but had assimilated in other ways. It’s a very modern idea to assume that national boundaries should follow linguistic ones, and native tongue was certainly not the defining factor in the expression of identity for those living in the Memel Territory between the wars. Unlike the people over in Lithuania Major, those who identified as Prussian Lithuanians leant culturally towards Prussia and importantly shared their Protestant confession in contrast with their Roman Catholic brothers over the border. German perhaps enjoyed greater prestige than other languages in East Prussia, but it was in Tilsit, on the river Memel, that Lithuanian books were printed and smuggled over into the Russian Empire in the nineteenth century (Lithuania’s struggle for independence has historically been mostly concerned with freeing itself from Russian rule).

The area retained a provincial feel, being so far away from Berlin, the heartland of Prussia. This was magnified by the fact that there was a real absence of heavy industry and the majority of the population was engaged in agricultural pursuits and wood cutting. The largest city, Memel (called Klaipėda by the region’s Lithuanian speakers), had a modest population and was overshadowed industrially and culturally by its great rival Königsberg (modern day Kaliningrad). Life was largely determined by weather and the sea: it could be warm in summer but winters were often very cold and the area was prone to stormy gales which affected harvests and trade. But it was – and is – a remarkably beautiful place, defined by huge changeable skies and the vast expanse of the sea, separated only by a long thin strip of sand on the horizon: the Curonian Spit. My grandmother rarely talked about anything to do with her German past, but Mum told me how she sometimes spoke fondly of playing on the sand dunes as a child there, just a short ferry ride away from where they lived in Memel.

The sense of being at one with nature and escaping the stresses of modern life led several well known cultural figures to seek refuge on the Spit: Thomas Mann had a summer house in Nidden, and there was an artist’s colony that formed there in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

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Lovis Corinth’s 1893 painting Friedhof in Nidden (‘Cemetery in Nida’) Source

But although the Memel Territory was right at the edge of the German Empire, it was right in the middle of major European events. Armies passed through backwards and forwards in the Napoleonic and First World Wars, and its inhabitants lived on the cultural frontier between East and West.

Political tensions were probably at their peak between the World Wars. Despite the ethnic and cultural mélange, most inhabitants in the region did not wish to be under the authority of Lithuania (and in spite of the territory being designated an autonomous region). In the 1938 Landtag elections, 97% of the eligible residents voted, and 87.2% of those votes were for the German Einheitsliste, which was a list of all German political parties who sought a return of the region to Germany (source). The 1930s had seen a complex rise of right wing nationalism partly in response to the developments over the border in Germany and partly because of the growing dissatisfaction with Lithuanian rule. Two National Socialist political parties were founded, the CSA (Christlich-Soziale Arbeitsgemeinschaft, or Christian-Socialist Workers’ Party) and the Sovog (Sozialistische Volksgemeinschaft, or Socialist People’s Party), and both competed for the status of the Memel Territory’s ‘true’ National Socialist party. The Lithuanian authorities were concerned about these developments, and implemented a series of measures which strained the nation’s relationship with Germany further: several officials, including the head of the Memel directorate, were dismissed, and over a hundred members of the two Nazi sympathising parties (which were subsequently banned in 1934) were arrested and tried in Kaunas in a well publicized and internationally criticized trial that Lithuania still upholds as the world’s first trial of Nazi war criminals. Germany responded with economic sanctions and international pressure. (For more information on German-Lithuanian relations in the period see here and here.) The Memelländers thus became enveloped in political and economic tensions that surpassed their borders and had consequences for the world stage. They also turn out to have had significant implications for the Szameitat family, as will become clear in subsequent posts.

It was into this atmosphere of political and social unrest that my grandmother was born. I don’t recall ever learning how her parents met, but I do remember being told that Johanne’s family, the Pätzels, didn’t approve of the union. Johanne was raised in Rudienen, a small farming village near to Heydekrug (modern day Šilutė), and the Szameitats were only a few kilometres away in Paszieszen. We’re not certain of the reason for the Pätzels’ disapproval, but I have a hunch. The name Szameitat is of Prussian Lithuanian origin (see here if you read German) and refers to the name bearer being of a Samogitian background. It is the Germanized version of Žemaite, or ‘lower Lithuanian’, with a pronominal suffix –at on the end. As is often the case with minority cultures, Prussian Lithuanians were associated with being less economically prosperous, less learned and more provincial. Although assimilation must have occurred generations earlier, as none of our Szameitats seemed to have spoken any dialect of Lithuanian, maybe Oskar was just not considered German enough.

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Extract from the Szameitat Stammbuch recording Johanne and Oskar’s wedding (they’d also had a church blessing in Werden near Heydekrug on the same day)

In any case, he was eight years her senior and they married in April 1927, two days after Johanne’s twenty second birthday. They had clearly sought refuge together in the (more socially progressive?) city and already co-habited, as the same address is given for each of them in the family Stammbuch: Verlängerte Alexanderstraße 19.

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The Johanneskirche in Memelwhere Odo and Irene were baptized. It was damaged in the war and later destroyed by the Soviets (source)

Their son, Oskar Glaubrecht Odo, was born in August 1928. They then moved a few doors up the road (which had also been renamed to commemorate the dismissed head of the Memel directorate, Otto Böttcher) to number 14 before my grandmother, Alice Toni Vera Irene, was born in October 1932. Soon after, Oskar was transferred in his work as a police detective to the more rural Pogegen (Pagėgiai), which we know from Johanne’s documents, but which is supported by the fact that the family is not found in the 1935 Memel address book (they are in the 1929, 1931 and 1942 address books also accessible online).

The only photograph we have of the children must have been taken during the Pogegen stay. By the time of the incorporation with Germany in 1939, Oskar had been promoted to Kriminalsekretär (something like detective sergeant) and the family had returned to Memel, now living at Hospitalstraße 22. It was here that Oskar would fall foul of the establishment, and here that the events unfolded that, two years later, would turn the family’s world upside down.

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My grandmother Irene with her older brother Odo in the early 1930s

Why Hospitalstraße 22?

It’s 1994. I’m seven years old, and Mum has just returned from a trip to Germany without us to see Great-Grandma Johanne. Mum, in the midst of her own grief at the loss of her mother, my grandmother, Irene, had the difficult task of counselling her grandmother through the death of her daughter. Great-Grandma Johanne was, at 89, too old and frail to come to the UK for her daughter’s funeral. Mum arrives home with a pile of unsorted documents that ‘Mama’ (the name she uses for Great-Grandma, because her own mother referred to her like that) has given her, telling her to keep them safe. They are put in a drawer in the study. Other documents and pictures are still in my great-grandmother’s apartment because they are too precious for her to give up.

It’s 1995. We arrive as a family at the nursing home in Seesen, Germany, that Great-Grandma Johanne has moved to. My brother and I don’t speak much German, and she can’t speak English, but we sing her some German children’s songs Mum has taught us and she plaits my hair, telling us that she always wanted to be a hairdresser but her mother wouldn’t let her. Her apartment has been cleared by the local authorities and with it seemingly all the photos and documents that Great-Grandma didn’t give to Mum the year before. They are never found.

It’s 1996. We are at the cemetery in Seesen, standing around my great-grandmother’s grave, listening to the liturgy in German. When the vicar begins the Lord’s Prayer, my parents start praying the English words at the same time. Her grave stone bears her name and dates, and the place she was born: Rudienen.

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In the years following I ask my mother more about her German heritage. Where is Rudienen? Why did Great-Grandma Johanne and Grandma Irene end up in Seesen? Why did Grandma come to Britain? Why didn’t she want to talk about where she grew up and why did she pretend not to be German? What happened to Great-Grandma’s husband Oskar and her son Odo?

It’s the year 2000. I begin formal German lessons at school and enjoy the sense of connection I feel with a culture that seems to pulse through my veins. People ask me why I chose German instead of Spanish as a second foreign language and I explain a little about my German heritage. They ask me what my German family’s name was, because my surname doesn’t sound very German. I say Szameitat, and they look at me strangely. That doesn’t sound very German either, where were they from? Memel, I say. ‘Where’s that?’ they ask, wondering which bit of Germany it’s in. I explain it’s now called Klaipėda and is in modern day Lithuania, and they look even more confused.

I ask Mum if I can look at Great-Grandma’s documents again as I am fascinated by the past and we are learning about the Second World War in History. My beginner level German prevents me from understanding much, but I can’t stop myself poring over one document: a letter my grandmother wrote in 1944 as a refugee to her father back home on the Eastern front. She was only 12 when she wrote it, and I am 13. The letter is simple and conversational, and I can understand nearly all of it.

The other documents are impenetrable. They are mostly legal documents, with a few letters thrown in. Most of them date from the 1960s. Mum tells me that they are details of a compensation claim for a widow’s pension, because Great-Grandma’s husband Oskar had been a policeman before he died in the war but had been imprisoned by the Gestapo and sacked from his job unfairly. They had also had property confiscated, and the compensation from that had been handed down and is now in trust, the interest on which is paying for my school fees. My curiosity is piqued. What did Oskar do to get imprisoned by the Gestapo? Why did he get sacked from office? Where was their land, and why was it confiscated? When did they leave Memel and where did they go? And what happened to my great uncle Odo? Mum says she’s had a go at deciphering some of the letters already. I make a promise to myself that one day, when my German is better and I have more time, I will sort through the documents and attempt to make sense of the story. I even dream of writing a book about it one day.

Great-Grandma Johanne and me outside her flat in Seesen in c. 1994

It’s 2005. I’m 18 and about to embark on an undergraduate degree in German and Linguistics. Over the summer before I go up to university, I ask to dig out those documents again. My A level German is a bit more up to the task and although the handwritten letters are largely still very difficult to decipher, I can understand enough to start to see a broad picture emerging. I translate one of the legal documents but I know that it would take too long to translate them all and I am not fluent enough in German yet to read them easily without translating them. I put them away again with a view to come back to them when my German skills improve.

It’s August 2008. I’m back at my parents’ house after having spent a year in Germany as part of my degree. I am avoiding university work and decide with Dad to sort through my great-grandmother’s documents and put them in date order. Since I am now a lot more fluent in German, I am able to read through them much more quickly, but as they are at my parents’ house and I am about to move back to Oxford for my final undergraduate year, I have little opportunity to work through them systematically. I am hopeful that at some point in the future my parents will entrust them to me so that I can peruse them at leisure.

It’s April 2013. I’m married now and doing a PhD in the history of the German language, but I still haven’t forgotten my resolution to make sense of my great-grandmother’s compensation documents. During a visit to my parents with my husband, I skim read through all the documents over a period of days. Each time I look through them I realize how much I have forgotten in the months and years that pass between the times I have access to them. I know that the only way I’ll be able to get to the bottom of the tale is to have unlimited access to the documents. Sensing my parents’ current unwillingness to part with them, I start to consider digitization as a viable option so that I can read them electronically, and blogging as a way of sharing my findings with those who are interested in the history of the former German territories in Eastern Europe.

It’s March 2016 and on another visit to my parents I ask to get the documents out again. The last few years have been a blur of looking after our needy first born and I am newly pregnant with our second (the PhD is still on the go too). I scan and save as PDFs about two thirds of the documents. I don’t have time for any more than that and the third I don’t scan are documents like life insurance receipts and other bills that do not tell me a great deal about the overall story. I save them to our desktop and my smartphone and spend a lovely holiday in North Wales reading, transcribing and writing notes. Pregnancy fatigue and toddler intensity take over my life and again the Szameitat story sits on the back burner.

January 2017. Despite now having two small children, I feel like if I don’t start now, I never will, and decide to set up a new blog. In those rare moments to myself over the last few months I have become more familiar with some of the documents, especially the handwritten letters written in the latter part of the war. Many of them were written by Johanne to Oskar, and the reason we have them is stamped across the yellowing envelopes: Gefallen für Großdeutschland (‘fallen for Greater Germany’). My great-grandfather Oskar Szameitat was killed in October l944 defending the city he called home, hit by an artillery shell only a few streets away from where he had lived for many years: Hospitalstraße 22, Memel, East Prussia, Germany.

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Great-Grandma Johanne in Seesen in the 1980s

Property always seemed very important to my great-grandmother Johanne and her daughter Irene, and you can kind of see why. They’d had the land that they owned outside Memel confiscated and handed to Nazi sympathisers. When they fled from the Russians, they naively assumed that they would one day return home (neither ever did, despite the borders opening up in 1991). My grandmother used to keep her money in diamonds because she didn’t trust the banks not to go bust. The only time she ever hinted at her traumatic past was shortly before her death, warning us not to put all our money in real estate, because you never knew when you might lose everything. In Johanne’s letters to Oskar, I kept noticing the question Steht unser Haus noch? (‘Is our house still standing?’) It was always the second or third thing she wrote, and it clearly mattered to her a great deal.

The Lithuanian street name for Hospitalstraße is a direct translation: Ligoninės gatvė. By looking at old maps of Memel and comparing them with the modern old town of Klaipėda, I could work out where Hospitalstraße is now and, well, Google translate did the rest. Imagine my excitement when I realized a few months ago that you can access Google Streetview there too. I hastily looked up and down the street my grandmother had grown up on. Practically all of it must have been destroyed in the war, as it was mostly made up of modern residential flats, but I could make out just one older imperial looking building. I scrolled over to it. I nearly cried. The number painted over the house, underneath the date the house was built (1905), was the number 22. Ja, Mama, euer Haus steht noch, I heard myself say quietly.

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Modern day Hospitalstraße 22 as seen from Google Streetview