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Our Trip into the Past

Schaible-Fieβ, Erika and Fieβ, Heinz. "Our Trip into the Past." Mitteilungsblatt,  January 2013, 19-21.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO.


Subtitle:
Places from our Childhood: Sudetengau, Warthegau, West Prussia;
and Erika’s Escape Route to Lower Saxony

Although we have traveled often and far, this nostalgic trip left a very deep impression on us. A detailed description of our many experiences would certainly exceed by far the space offered by the Mitteilungsblatt, therefore we’ll deal not so much with tourist highlights, but primarily with highlights relating to our family history.

For some time now I, Erika, have been thinking of getting to know my place of birth, Rosental, in what was once West Prussia. My husband Heinz, too, soon became eager to trace my [1945] escape route from there all the way to Kirchlinteln in Lower Saxony, the end point of our escape. When I was a 13-year-old school girl, one of my class assignments was to describe that escape route my mother and we four children had taken. At the time, that was a genuine challenge for me, and I would not have been able to complete it without the help of my parents. From my own understanding, I made up a map on which I noted all the stops along our escape route that mother, Elfriede Schaible, remembered.

Since we also wanted to get to know Heinz’ birthplace in the former Sudetengau [German part of Western Czechoslovakia] and his settlement locale in the Warthegau [German-occupied area of Western Poland, until 1945], we decided, despite all reservations and prejudices of our friends and acquaintances, to attempt a private car-and-RV trip even through Poland. Researching various travel guides and the Internet, we made intensive preparations, during which our contacts with the Polish Tourist Office in Berlin proved to be especially helpful. Very happily we quickly received from that office a multitude of information and materials regarding the various locales, a large map and – especially important – a listing of campgrounds, albeit with their Polish names. Equipped with a laptop (knowing that in Poland there are many opportunities for using free WiFi), a fire extinguisher satisfying Polish regulations, (as a precaution) a steering wheel lock, and the all-important electronic navigation device, we were now ready to go..

Places along our Route

From Göppingen/BW [Baden-Württemberg] we took off in the morning of May 12, 2012 and, without any serious traffic problems, by 5 PM we were able to reach a campground in Groβschönau/Oberlausitz, part of the three-country triangle formed by Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland. Together with friends Christine and Gerhard of Ebersbach in Saxony, whom we had become acquainted with right after the major political changes [of the late 1980s and early 1990s], we attended beautifully restored Görlitz and, of course, Heinz’ nearby birthplace Bömisch Kamnitz in the Czech Republic, the site of a resettlement camp where he was born in 1941.

Czeshka Kamenice (Bömisch Kamnitz), Heinz’ Birthplace 
Bömisch Kamnitz is a venerable city with much history and is surrounded by the Lausitz Mountains and lies within the so-called Bohemian Switzerland area. Because it has one of the best preserved historical city centers, in October, 2006 it was awarded the title “Historical City of the Year 2005.” Between 1938 and 1945 the former Bohemian (Habsburg) town was part of the German Reich.

In front of a café an elderly woman addressed us in German. We were surprised when she told us that she had remained a German even after marrying a Czech in the Czech Republic. She had not come to Bömisch Kamnitz until after the war and, unfortunately, did not know anything of a resettlement camp for Germans. Inside the café we found an old photo of the market plaza, taken in Heinz’ birth year of 1941. Here, too, our inquiries regarding a former resettlement camp remained unsuccessful.

We spent another day with our friends discovering the city of Görlitz, which impressed all of us with its nicely restored building facades.

Following a very cold night – as several subsequent nights would also be – we took off again around 8 AM, leaving the choice of a specific border crossing up to our navigation device. It directed us across the border to Zwittau, and we had hardly noticed that we had crossed into Polish hinterland until we realized it from the buildings and road conditions. For the first few kilometers we experienced slow going, driving at barely 40 kph [ca. 25 mph]. We were all the more surprised when we got to the sparsely traveled, but well maintained major highway, which we then drove toward Vrozlav [Breslau, in German]. This day, though, we wanted to go only as far as Svidnovka (Schweidnitz), there to visit the largest half-timbered church building in the world (and a World Heritage Site). The search for a campground, the address of which we had entered into the navigation device, became rather exciting. Nowhere in the town was there a sign for the camping place. Fearing we might have to continue on to Breslau, we suddenly found ourselves directly in front of the desired site. However, the gate was locked, and the place seemed to not to be in use. But we were lucky. Upon ringing the bell at the office, the door surprisingly opened, and we were given a friendly reception. It turned out to be a clean place, and we were the only guests in it.

After Schweidnitz and a visit to a very large wooden church in Javora (Jauer) we spent two eventful and impressive days in the wonderfully restored old part of Breslau, before continuing on on May 18 to the religiously significant town of Trzebnica (Trebnitz, with its Cistertian Nuns’ Cloister of St. Hedwig of Silesia, today the patron saint of Polish-German reconciliation.). From there we drove to Heinz’ settlement place called Jaraczevo (Obragrund) in Jarocin County.

Jaraczevo (Obragrund), Heinz’ Family’s Settlement Town in the Warthegau

With the help of the Internet (used in Poland) we located the only camping place in the whole area, “De kleine Stad,” operated by a Dutch couple. From there it was only twenty kilometers [ca. 14 miles] to Jaraczevo and Jarocin. We saw that the place was indeed open, and the Dutch folks welcomed us with coffee. We then drove off to Jaraczevo.

Heinz’ brother Walter, two years his senior, actually remembers the placement of the building in which the family lived in Obragrund. Before we left Germany on this trip, he explained that it sits on a corner of a market plaza, from which the street leads to the small creek called Obra. With deep emotions, we were standing in front of the house and took pictures while observing a man, perhaps eighty years of age, looking at us through a window on the upper floor. In earlier times the lower floor had housed the carpentry shop of father Otto Fieβ. The man spoke neither German nor English, but through sign language he understood that Heinz had lived here as a small boy. Spontaneously he came down and invited us to coffee in his well-kept apartment decorated in the style of the 1960s. He called his wife, a daughter and a grandson (who has been learning English for six months) to join in. For Heinz it was a strange and overwhelming feeling to be in the apartment where he lived nearly seventy years back. Despite great difficulties in trying to understand one another, we stayed more than an hour with the family. The man had always lived in Jaraczevo and even knew its German name Obragrund, but did not remember Heinz’ parents. Since we had not expected to be able to be in the actual earlier apartment, we had not brought a present, so we drove back to the campground and returned with two bottles of Württemberg wine. Of course we did not accept the polite invitation to come back.

After our visit to Jarocin, we continued on to Gnesen (oldest city in Poland and coronation site for the Polish kings), then to Hohensalza and on to the beautiful city of Thorn, where, fortified with the famous local gingerbread “Thorner Kathrinchen,” we ascended the tower of the Johanneskirche, and by 6 PM we were ready to visit Museum Night at the Kopernikus House.

We had planned to spend the next day in Ilava (Eylau, in German) and to drive from there to Erika’s birthplace of Rosental. We had looked forward to Ilava because our information indicated that a fine campground was located nearby and right on a lake. Because of its pretty location on the Gerichsee [Gerich Lake], the German Eylau was once called “Perle des Oberlandes [Pearl of the Upper Land].” Eylau’s strategic railway junction position caused it to be fought over tenaciously by the Red Army and the German Wehrmacht, and it had received heavy damage.

Things got a bit tough for us in Ilava. Because of a huge construction site stretching as far as 600 meters away from our campground, our approach to it was completely blocked. We would have had to take a detour of forty kilometers, so we opted for searching for a campground in the Ostrada, even farther into the Masur Mountains. After a long stretch of driving back and forth, thanks to some friendly and helpful Poles we were pointed to a parking spot in a small boat harbor in Ostrada, and to welcome us there, the harbor master even raised the German flag in a friendly gesture of greeting. But because we had to spend the night between some rather neglected structures, we did not feel exactly comfortable there.

The Escape Route from Rosental to Kirchlinteln – the Trek during the icy January of 1945
[Escape here meaning fleeing from the advancing Red Army. – Tr.]

Driving from Ostrada we reached Rosental, where nobody we could speak to was on the streets that Sunday. Besides ancient farmsteads, the only place we were able to determine worth seeing was the village church stemming from the 17th Century.

The description of our escape route of 1945 will necessarily be an abbreviated one. And now that we were there, we did not wish to miss tourist highlights such as a boat trip on the canal from Osterode to Elbing, the overwhelming fortress Marienburg, the grandiose city of Danzig [Gdansk], among others. But our emphasis will now be on our attempt at tracing the 1945 escape route.

After visiting the modern county seat Löbau, we took off the next morning from Ostrada, past Rosental and Ilava, then followed the detour toward Gradenz and returned to the road toward Marienwerder. This must have been the road taken by the refugees. It is rather bumpy and often lined with trees. The landscape is varied, and one can see forests, lakes, canola fields and grain fields. Well, in January of 1945, the temperatures were icy cold, and the wind must have whistled strongly through the rather flat landscape. On January 19, 1945, mother and we four small children had taken our place in the trek of horse-drawn wagons. Alacio, a female Italian prisoner of war, whom we children adored, had accompanied us during the first few days before she unfortunately disappeared in the chaos of the escape.

After a very worthwhile excursion to Danzig, we returned to tracing the escape route. If at all possible, we wanted to find the old bridge over the Vistula in Tczev (Dirschau) which Erika with her mother and siblings managed to go over just in time during that icy January of 1945. Very soon after they had done so, the bridge had become impassable due to the bombardment by the Russians. The only option for the wagons caught short was to try to reach the opposite bank by driving across on the frozen Vistula, and during that attempt some wagons bunched up too closely and broke through the ice, and people and horses ended up drowning.

Currently in Dirschau there were no signs pointing to the old bridge. The navigation device indicated that we use the new bridge to cross the Vistula, but in our Shell atlas we discovered a minor road leading from Tczev across the Vistula to a small town called Liseve (Lisau). After we entered that name into our navigator, we were led on a very bumpy road to a gigantic parking facility directly in front of the historic bridge and there we were able to park our car and RV. To reach Liseve we would need to use a detour because the historic bridge was closed to all traffic, including pedestrian crossings. Deeply moved that we were standing in front of the colossal bridge with its modern railway bridge close by, we took many photos. It was easy to imagine how the refugees had driven across here. Being at that particular spot was for all of us a very moving experience. Erika reminded us of her sister Elvire’s story of how, after reaching the right side they had been forced to watch the bombardment that would make the crossing impossible for many who were following behind. Mother, trying to protect the children, had thrown herself across them, saying, “If it hits us, let it hit us all.”

With an elated feeling that our wish to find the escape bridge had been fulfilled, we drove onward, consciously avoiding the faster new roads, just as the escaping refugees had done, albeit for them under driving snow, icy roads and icy winds, and at times even under partisan fire.

We then drove through Stargard, 70 % of which the Russian bombing raids had destroyed in early March of 1945, then through the hilly Kaschubei area dotted with lakes, and we kept being reminded of Günter Graβ’ book The Tin Drum. Afterwards we passed Berent and Bütow, but near Slupsk (Stolp) we missed the route toward Koszakin (Köslin) and drove a needless detour on small, narrow roads before rejoining our desired route in Slavno. Driving parallel to the Baltic Sea, we then reached Kolobrzeg (Kolberg), the city that was to be defended to the last drop of blood, but had been destroyed almost entirely. The name Kolberg became famous through the epic film “Kolberg” that had been produced by Veit Harlan by orders of Goebbels and included 18,000 soldiers as extras. The film was intended to muster Germany’s last energy reserves.

We continued on the coastal road, past large old farmsteads, to Dzinovek on the Baltic Sea, where we found the four-star “Viking” campground. Except for a few campers from the Greifswald area we were the only other guests there. It is said, though, that when Polish vacationers travel in the summer, not a single camping spot will be available.

After a refreshing day at the beach and a stopover into Germany via Swinemünde to Usedom, our “escape route” continued on narrow roads past Karnien, Novogard and Gollnov. Near Stettin we crossed the Oder River back into Germany. Via Pasewalk in the Uckermark area and via Neubrandenburg, in the afternoon we reached the tourist town of Waren on Müritz Lake, by which time we felt almost at home again. We strolled through Waren and ate in the Kartoffelscheune [Potato Barn] at the harbor before taking on our last leg of the trip the following morning.

Via Parchim we continued on to Ludwigslust, where we visited the restored old town and the castle. We were especially impressed with Dönitz on the former border [between East and West Germany]. Strolling through the narrow old streets with their impressive and historical building facades, we walked to the fortress, where even the drawbridge had been restored in 2011. This is where one crosses the Elbe River. The old bridge the refugees had gone on was torn down and replaced by a new one. On a sign near the bridge we read the moving inscription, “Here Germany and Europe were divided until 10 AM on December 7, 1989.”

Near Uelzen we were forced to take a long detour via Bad Bevensen. This was caused by extensive road construction. Then, after passing Soltau we reached Kirchlinteln, the endpoint of the escape route. We spent a few days there because Erika needed some time to digest childhood memories and to visit early acquaintances. Unfortunately, the house in Kirchlinteln in which Erika’s mother and her children initially had stayed was completely burned, along with all its contents, just before the end of the war. Therefore there are no photos from Erika’s prior childhood years.

Having traveled 4,500 kilometers [ca. 2,600 miles], we safely and happily reached our hometown in Baden-Württemberg. We had experienced an extremely impressive trip that provided us with much to remember.

(Photos by Erika Schaible-Fieβ and Heinz Fieβ)

1941: Mothers and their small children in the resettlement camp. The first days of Heinz’ life.
Erika with our car and RV.
Having arrived safely.
The overnight rest areas of the refugees may have looked like this.
The historic (restored) bridge over the Vistula, near Tczev.
Erika’s birthplace.
Brothers Walter and Heinz on a Sunday at the Obra Creek.

 

The building in which Heinz spent his early childhood years.
This school building may have been the site of a resettlement camp. Details were not available.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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