First & Final Traces – Oppression, Prominence & Prejudice: The Jews of Szombathely (Part One)

In 1960 a remarkable photograph was taken in Szombathely by a man named Gyula Nagy. There is no way of knowing whether Nagy set out to show the remains of two lost civilizations when he snapped the black and white image, but that is exactly what he ended up doing. Nagy took the photo while standing at the ruins of the Temple of Isis, a religious site from the ancient Roman city of Savaria. In the photo’s foreground are three ruined columns, through these would have passed Roman citizens entering or exiting the temple. In the background and to the right of one of the columns, can be seen the Moorish styled synagogue of Szombathely. Its twin domed shaped towers rising above everything else in the photo. The temple’s ruined columns and the synagogue’s towers provide an intriguing architectural expression of all that remained of the Romans and Jews in Szombathely. The Romans had long since passed into history, but the Jews of Szombathely had only recently vanished by the time this photo was taken. The temple ruins are the immediate point of fascination in Nagy’s photo, causing one to reflect on the greatness of Rome and the legacy it left behind.

Whether or not Nagy was trying to evoke the loss of these peoples is open to conjecture, but the fact remains that his photo did just that. The site of Szombathely’s synagogue looming in the background provides a tragic parallel to the temple ruins. Though the synagogue is still intact, the Jews of Szombathely were nearly extinct by this time. The building was no longer a working synagogue, while the culture it stood for was nearly as remote to Szombathely as the ancient Roman one of Savaria. The fall of Savaria, like Rome itself, had taken centuries. The collapse of Szombathely’s Jewish community took just a few months. Both left traces behind that are worth exploring. Many do just that at the Roman ruins, considerably less at the synagogue and associated Jewish sites in the city. The difference in interest is massive. Discovering ancient Rome in Szombathely is enthralling, while discovering the history of the Jews in the city is tragic

Traces of Vanished Civilizations - Szombathely

Traces of Vanished Civilizations – Szombathely (Credit: Gyula Nagy/

Persecution & Pogroms – A History Of Harassment
It is interesting to note the proximity of the ruined Temple of Isis with Szombathely’s most impressive synagogue. This proximity could be interpreted as a historical metaphor. The first Jews likely arrived in the territory of present day Hungary during the 2nd century AD. Roman legions, who had been sent from the province of Pannonia (which included much of present day western Hungary) to put down a revolt in Judea, brought Jews back as slaves. Many of them settled in Savaria. When the Barbarian invasions overran the city in the 5th century, Jews fled along with the Roman inhabitants. A Jewish presence in the area would not be recorded again in this area until the 17th century. During that period and in the centuries that followed, Jews with very few exceptions were not allowed to settle within the city of Szombathely. Instead, they were relegated to the outskirts and surrounding countryside on land set aside at the Bathhyany estates, one of the most powerful noble families in Hungary.

The local Hungarian population viewed Jews in the area with extreme suspicion. The prejudice towards them would never completely vanished and would come to a head on multiple occasions beginning in the mid-19th century. In 1840 Jews finally secured rights to settle in Szombathely after the Habsburg Empire gave them freedom of settlement. By 1848 three hundred had moved or were planning to move into the city. This stirred up antisemitism among the locals. The Jews were viewed as a threat, an alien race that could not be assimilated with the majority Hungarian culture. The more Jews that moved into the city, the greater the chance of a nasty backlash developing. Less than a month after an independent Hungary was proclaimed in the spring of 1848, locals in the city went on a rampage. They attacked the synagogue, ripped up the Torah Scrolls and looted Jewish property. The local administration did nothing to prevent these attacks and subsequently proclaimed that all Jews were being banned from the city. A forcible expulsion was to take place on April 24th for those who failed to leave the city voluntarily. At this point, officials of the national government intervened. The ban never took effect and peace was soon restored, but trust could not easily be repaired.

The Rise To Power  – Freedom From Fear
Most of Szombathely’s citizens continued to view its Jewish populace with skepticism. It would not be until 1867, with the unification of Austria and Hungary in the Dual Monarchy that the Jewish citizens of Szombathely were emancipated and received full civil rights. It was from this point that the city’s Jewish population began a meteoric rise in business and culture, one that would lead directly to the construction of the richly patterned, exotically wondrous edifice of the Neolog (Reformed) Synagogue in 1880. It was built on one side of Bathhyany Square, which only seemed right since that family had afforded invaluable protection and living space for Jews in the area prior to emancipation.

Freed from the shackles of discriminatory legislation the Jews of Szombathely soon came to dominate the business and industrial enterprises in the city. Their wealth, influence and number all grew during the Dual Monarchy era. In 1869 there were 1,154 Jews in Szombathely, by 1900 that figure had grown two and a half-fold to over 2,600. The most common occupation of those with a steady income were merchants. Several major enterprises were owned by Jews, including textile mills and several different industrial concerns. These provided employment for hundreds of non-Jews in Szombathely. Assimilationist tendencies among business minded and progressive Jews, who were a majority of the Jewish population in Szombathely resulted in their widespread acceptance by non-Jews. Their ascent was halted, as with so much else in Hungary, by the First World War.

An Unmitigated Disaster – The Great War Changes Everything
It is no secret that the First World War was an unmitigated disaster for Hungary, the same could also be said for Szombathely’s Jewish inhabitants. This can hardly be disputed, as the post-war Treaty of Trianon resulted in two-thirds of the Kingdom of Hungary’s land area and population being stripped away from it. The scale of this cataclysm serves to obscure the suffering inflicted on Hungarians Jews after the war. Business owners saw their profits plunge as Hungary was cut off from markets in the hinterlands. This was certainly true in Szombathely which lay close to the new border with Austria. Jews were blamed for both the political and economic turmoil that plagued Hungary during this time. Jews were blamed for the Red Revolution which brought a short-lived communist government to power in Hungary. This was followed in turn by a “White Terror” that persecuted anyone suspected of leftist tendencies. Being Jewish was synonymous to many Hungarians with being left wing. Such extremism foreshadowed the rise of fascism and the resulting threat to all Jews in Hungary, including those in Szombathely.

A Mysterious Paradox – The Jews Of Vizsoly: From Indifference To Reverence (Part Two)

Jews did not arrive in Vizsoly until the mid-19th century, around the time of the Hungarian War of Independence. That war gave them their first experience of emancipation. It would take another eighteen years until they were fully free with full civil liberties. Allowed to settle wherever they liked, several Jewish families came to Vizsoly. The community was never large, numbering no more than fifty at its peak. Nonetheless, they opened a synagogue, a photo of which still survives today. It was a small building, perhaps a home that had been converted specifically for worship. This was likely all the community could afford at the time. There was also a kosher butcher, who met the dietary needs of the community as well as those of other nearby villages such as Gonc. The most famous Jew to hail from Vizsony was the artist and writer Auerbach Lipot (Acs Lipot), who was born and completed some of his primary schooling in the town. He would eventually move away to study in Budapest, Vienna and Venice. Lipot opened and taught at Applied Art schools in Hungary. His paintings and publications focused on Hungarian folk art.

Headstone in the Jewish Cemetery of Vizsoly

Headstone in the Jewish Cemetery of Vizsoly

The Little That Is Known – A Survivor & Four Families
Those Jews in Vizsoly with ambition and talent who were looking to get ahead would have had to follow Lipot’s lead and move to larger urban areas. The Jewish population of Vizsoly reached its highest peak in 1930. English language information on the Jews of Vizsoly is scant, even for those who suffered in the Holocaust. At least one Hungarian Jew born in Vizoly managed to survive. Erszebet Bretter was born in Vizsoly in 1906. She was thirty-eight years old when the Holocaust struck Hungary. She would end up surviving Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, living in the west until her death in 1977. Whether she was in Vizsoly at the time of the Holocaust is unclear. Probably not, because she was deported to a different camp than the unfortunate Jews of Vizsoly.

Those living in Vizsoly during the spring of 1944 did not pose a threat to anyone, not the Hungarian state nor the German occupied one that imposed its will on the country beginning in the middle of March 1944. What was clear though, is that every Jew in provincial Hungary was to be rounded up and deported, the majority of whom would end up inside the lethal confines of Auschwitz. How large or small the community did not matter. Case in point Vizsoly, where only four Jewish families lived at the time. It is deeply unsettling to think how pervasive the prejudice must have been against Jews. Deportation was so widespread that it consumed the lives of a minority community in a small, out of the way town in one of Hungary’s most rural areas.

The Vizsoly Synagogue

The Vizsoly Synagogue

Doing The Dirty Work – Genocide & The Gendarmerie
It is almost certain that the Hungarian gendarmerie did the dirty work of arresting Vizsoly’s tiny Jewish community for the Nazis. Their job was to gather and deport Jews. Everyone in Vizsoly would have known who was a Jew in the town. Did any gentile raise their voice in protest? Silence would have been futile, in this case it was also deadly. The gendarmes would have told those four families to gather a small amount of their belongings in a matter of hours. They were headed to Kassa (present-day Kosice, Slovakia), a little more than an hour to the north. The Vizsoly Jews would then be grouped together with other Jews from nearby communities. Were they unsuspecting or did they assume the worst when arrested? We can only imagine.

Once in Kassa they were likely taken to a local brickyard which was transformed into a ghetto. It was there that the thousands of Jews deported from rural areas were gathered. Treatment by the Hungarian gendarmes who policed these collection points was harsh. Beatings and torture were a regular occurrence. Hard labor was not so much punishment, as a fact of existence. Word of mouth in the ghetto, the poor living conditions and pervasive ultraviolence would have then made clear to the Jews from Vizsoly what fate likely awaited them at their last destination. From Kassa, which was a major railway junction, it was just a matter of time before they were taken onto Auschwitz.

The Brutal Finale – Deportation, Desperation & Death
Beginning in mid-May this is exactly what happened. Between May 19th and June 4th five transports, each carrying thousands of Jews including those from Vizsoly, were sent to Auschwitz. This was how 15,770 Jews were liquidated from German occupied Hungarian territory in a little over two and a half weeks. The breathtaking speed and brutality with which these deportations were carried out gave these Jews no time to organize any real resistance. Most would have been murdered soon after arrival at Auschwitz, some may have been selected for labor duty, but this was just a slower death sentence. Vizsoly’s Jewish community died in southern Poland, far away from the snow covered Zemplen Hills they had been forced to leave behind.

Time was of the essence throughout this murderous process. Consider that in a matter of three months those four Jewish families from the rural backwater of Vizsoly had been forced out of their homes, moved to a brickyard/ghetto in the closest city, then transported to a death camp in another country. Both their lives and property were liquidated during this time with extreme prejudice. Three months is little in the span of a normal human life, in the case of provincial Hungarian Jews it was a matter of life and death. In Vizsoly the belongings and property of the town’s Jewish inhabitants was either taken by the gendarmes who rounded them up or offered to the locals. Material items came to be the property of people who a few weeks earlier had been their neighbors and acquaintances.

Jewish Cemetery in Vizsoly

Jewish Cemetery in Vizsoly

The Unrecovered Memory – Forgetting To Remember
Most traces of the Jews in Hungary vanished, but in Vizsoly no one touched the Jewish cemetery. Whether it was left intact out of shame, respect or even fear, there is no way of knowing. Its continued existence a sign of reverence and indifference, one of many paradoxes that sums up the legacy of its small population of Jews. Standing in that cemetery on a cold winter day, looking at a handful of headstones whose engravings were covered by moss and weathered yellow by time, I could not help but feel that this little cemetery was a symptom of something larger that stalked the memory of Hungarians when it came to the Holocaust. It is something they do not care to remember, but it is something they can never forget.

Click here for: Last Rites – The Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery: Zsidok In The Zemplen (Part One)


Last Rites – The Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery: Zsidok In The Zemplen (Part One)

I was speeding through the undulating foothills of the Zemplen range in northeastern Hungary on my way to Vizsoly, a small village on the fringes of more mountainous terrain. The sky was colored a slate grey, the trees were leafless and the dark fields of turned up earth were lightly covered with a dirty snow. It was December, less than a week before Christmas and the landscape was just as dead as the towns. The road was filled with holes large and small, that could be dodged by driving in the middle of the road. Traffic was light and scattered. The small, covered rural bus stops were deserted. At times when the sun threatened to peek through, the mist, fog and cloud cover blended together into a blinding light that made the eyes ache. Despite a good night’s sleep, I almost dozed off a few kilometers out of Boldogkovaralja. No amount of coffee could make a person truly alert in this pervasive and permanent gloom. It was easy to see why there was no traffic, except for a few locals this time of year. The entire region looked as though it was asleep. The people and landscape were in winter hibernation.

All that remains - Headstone in the Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery

All that remains – Headstone in the Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery

Getting Religion – A Visit To Vizsoly
I was traveling to Vizsoly for one reason only, to see where the first Hungarian language translation of the Bible had taken place in the late 16th century. This seemingly out of the way village had once been a hot bed of Protestantism, bequeathing it an outsized role in Hungarian literary and religious history that was well beyond the scale of contemporary Vizoly, which was little more than a small village. Yet Vizoly’s history in the service of Protestantism, the Hungarian language and book printing was magnetic. It drew me to the village out of curiosity. This out of the way town had once been the hub for a printing operation that helped change Hungary I soon caught sight of the town’s outskirts, beginning to search the roadside for any sign of the museum and adjacent Calvinist church that contained remnants of medieval frescoes. Just as I was beginning to enter the village, my attention turned to something else.

Just off the roadside I caught a glimpse of several stone markers and a few larger stone monuments in a small field surrounded by a thin wire fence with a gated entrance. The gate was half open. The stone markers looked like ones I had seen in a photo the night before. The photo was in a Hungarian language tourist atlas of the Zemplen Hills provided by my accommodation. That photo had shown a Jewish cemetery in Mad, which was a large town further down the valley. I made a mental note to stop and look at these markers on my way out of Vizsoly after I had visited the Bible Museum. It was hard to believe that a small place would have a Jewish cemetery, let alone an intact one. Then again, the place was remote enough that there was a chance that it had survived the Holocaust, unlike the Jewish population who once inhabited the town.

Reverence, Neglect, Indifference – Preservation Of An Existence
The scope and scale of the evil perpetrated by the Nazis and their allies during the Holocaust in Hungary can be understood in two numbers, both horrifying in the extreme. 596,000 – the number of Hungarian Jews murdered. 90% – the chance that a Jew in rural Hungary would be murdered. The first figure is built upon the second one which is often overlooked. The sheer thoroughness of the Holocaust in rural and provincial Hungary is just as witheringly catastrophic as the total number killed. I began to understand the scope of this murderous rampage when I stopped on my way back out of Vizsoly.  What I had assumed earlier, that the stones I spotted from the road were part of a small Jewish cemetery, turned out to be true. The headstones were in various states of disarray, while there were a couple of larger monuments that had been erected for individuals who were buried there. The cemetery was not exactly well kept, though it did have green grass. The fence surrounding it was constructed out of thin wire and was intact. The gate was open for anyone who cared to visit. That made me wonder just who visited this place.

The cemetery was remote, even by Hungarian standards. It stood on the margins of the town, much like the town’s Jewish community. It was a part of Vizsoly, but apart from it, separate and distinct. I doubted those who lived in Vizsoly gave it much thought, other than the fact that by allowing it to remain they were honoring history and memory. That was more than could be said for many old sites of Jewish presence in Eastern Europe. As for Jews who might come to visit, one thing was for certain, they would not be from Vizsoly. Its small Jewish community was now but a memory and this cemetery was all that was left. The last Jews to inhabit Vizsoly were not buried here, they had lost their lives far away from their hometown. No one knows of Vizsoly, everyone knows about Auschwitz. A little less than a century of Jewish life in Vizsoly died during the Holocaust.

A Poignant Sadness – A Legacy Written In Stone
The only remnants left of the town’s Jewish inhabitants were to be found in the cemetery. Not its most recent ones, who had perished in a concentration camp, but their ancestors. Sadly, they had been lucky in death. To die before the war meant a legacy preserved with a stone marker in this cemetery. These traces of Hungarian Jewish history were poignantly sad, if not to say tragic. Despite the continued existence of the cemetery, it was a place more about absence than presence. A reminder of a lost world and a place that raised more questions than answers. Why was it left untouched? Out of reverence, neglect or indifference. The insidious passions of World War II had long since subsided, but the Jewish legacy of Vizsoly lived on or at least that is what I wanted to believe.

Click here for: A Mysterious Paradox – The Jews of Vizsoly: From Indifference To Reverence (Part Two)

A Strange Sort Of Resurrection: Unfinished Dreams: Schirwindt, East Prussia (Part 3)

After the war, the expulsions and the demolitions, Schirwindt ceased to exist, at least in a physical sense. It was renamed and reclaimed. Befitting the martial nature of its destructive decline, the area was renamed Kutozuvo, after the great Russian General from the Napoleonic Wars. It was reclaimed as part of a large military training ground, a situation that still exists today. The lone structure of any significance still standing was taken over by Soviet and later Russian border guards. With each passing year, Schirwindt was one step closer to oblivion. The former inhabitants, including approximately two hundred that lived in communist East Germany, were not allowed to visit the old town site until a few years before the Soviet Union collapsed. Only after the Cold War ended did popular interest about Schirwindt slowly resurface. Just as fast as interest grew, so too did an increasing number of its former inhabitants begin to die off. By the first decade of the 21st century, it was estimated that less than fifty were still alive. It would not be long – the youngest original inhabitant of the town was born in 1944 – before living memory of the town was gone.

A Memory & A Dream - Schirwindt

A Memory & A Dream – Schirwindt

Final Foundations – A Repository of Remembrance
A funny thing happened on the way to total oblivion, a little bit of Schirwindt was salvaged. In the post-war years, Lithuanians who lived in the nearby town of Kudirkas-Namestis collected whatever material they could reuse from the debris of Schirwindt. Many artifacts were to be found among the ruins. They were unwittingly saved by this scavenging. Years later, a man by the name of Antanas Spranajtis took an interest in collecting artifacts from Schirwindt. Spranajtis was retired with a great deal of time on his hands. He was able to use his local connections to collect artifacts from the villagers. These efforts led to the creation of the “Schirwindt Museum” where a collection of artifacts from the town are on display in this small museum. These relics include bricks from the once towering Immanuel Church, along with the accoutrements of daily life that were left behind by the citizens of Schirwindt. The East Prussian frontier city lives on within the walls of this museum. It is not much by the standards of museums, but it manages to honor the memory of Schirwindt. That is more than could be expected considering the circumstances surrounding its violent destruction. Time may never heal the wounds inflicted on Schirwindt, but it can also lead to the preservation of them.

Preservation is more than dusty artifacts in a museum or architectural wonders restored to their former grandeur. The goal of preservation should be to keep historical memory alive. When all physical structures have been destroyed, artifacts shattered and scattered into thousands of pieces, the written word forms the final foundation. The basis for knowing what happened and when comes from copious documentation. In this regard Schirwindt’s afterlife has been blessed with a treasure trove of information concerning its day to day history. This repository was published during the first decade of the 21st century. Over half a century had passed since Schirwindt had been wiped off the face of the earth and now a strange sort of resurrection began. This took place in the one nation people would have least expected for it to happen, Russia.

Calm before the war - Scenes from Schirwindt in 1927

Calm before the war – Scenes from Schirwindt in 1927

Prussia Rather Than Russia – Mental Reconstructions
This latent nostalgia was cultivated not by a historian, but by an actor. His name, Alexander Shirvindt. He was well known for his roles in over forty feature films and voiceover work in another ten. No one had any idea that later in life Shirvindt would turn his attention to history. History of a place in Prussia, rather than Russia. The similarity between his last name and the town of Schirwindt was not a coincidence. Shirvindt’s father, a violinist and music teacher had Prussian blood while his mother was an opera singer from Odessa. The father was forced to hide his ethnicity for fear of reprisal. Prussian blood was a death sentence in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Shirvindt’s surname had been Russified, but it still gave the son a clue as to his true roots. This tangential relationship eventually blossomed into Shirvindt’s interest, some would say obsession, with the town of his ancestry.

In 2007, he published a 200 plus page booklet that provided a withering array of historical detail on East Prussia’s most eastern city.  It became an improbable best seller in Russia. Much of the booklet was based upon a 500 page chronicle of information on Schirwindt that had been collected over several centuries. Everything was there, exhaustive lists of its citizenry, street layouts and city maps, along with the trivial minutia of daily life. There was also a numerical tabulation showing where the refugees of Schirwindt ended up after the war. Such an immense amount of detail allowed for a thorough mental reconstruction of Schirwindt. This was more than anyone might have expected, but Shirvindt wanted more, much more.  His goal was to purchase the former town site, privatize it and rebuild the city to the same exacting specification cataloged in the book. The degree of difficulty in doing this was exponentially greater than anything Shirivindt had attempted up until then. This part of Russia, located in the Kaliningrad Oblast, was in a military zone off-limits to private developers. Here was a situation that proved impossible overcome, at least thus far. Yet such obstacles have never stopped Shirivindt from continuing to dream.

Alexander Shirvindt - The Impossible Dream

Alexander Shirvindt – The Impossible Dream (Credit: Dimitry Rozhkov)

Closing Statements – A Semblance Of Schirwindt
The true value of Antanas Spranajtis and Alexander Shirvindt’s work to remember and resurrect Schirwindt is that they have succeeded in bringing a bit of it back to life, at least in a historical sense. Using fragments from the past they have recreated a semblance of the city. Though it has long since been demolished, Schirwindt still exists in the hearts and minds of those who refuse to let it die. A connection has been forged across time, bringing the present back to the past. No less a personage than the most famous son of Schirwindt, archaeologist Alexander Milchhofer would be proud of their efforts. Pieces of the past have been put back together, the image they form is incomplete and unfinished, much like the history of Schirwindt.




Picking Through The Pieces – An Archaeology Of Defeat: Schirwindt, East Prussia (Part 2)

Alexander Milchhofer was the most famous person to ever come from the tiny East Prussian city of Schirwindt. Milchhofer became well known for his archaeological work on ancient Greece, most notably for discovering that the island of Crete was the epicenter of the Second Bronze Age. He also wrote important books on the topography and history of ancient Greece. Milchhofer’s work took him far away from the frontier town where he grew up on the edge of Eastern Prussia. Munich, Berlin and Gottingen were the places where he taught, thought and wrote his most noteworthy works. Ones that are still read today. Schirwindt was just a starting point for Milchhofer’s life, one his ambitions quickly superseded. Yet if Milchhofer were alive today, he would find Schirwindt of great interest and not just because he was born there.

As an archaeologist, Milchhofer could have spent a lifetime excavating the fields that now cover the area where Schirwindt was once located. He would have been rediscovering the places of his youth, the shops and markets that were so much a part of daily life, the residences of hardworking, earnest and quietly prosperous townspeople. Milchhofer would be amazed and almost certainly saddened to see that the Schirwindt he so intimately knew has all but vanished. Overgrown fields, a few traces of foundations, a cross marking the site where Immanuel Church once stood are all that is left. Here is the nothing of nonexistence that Schirwindt suffered, a place that suffered total destruction in a total war. Milchhofer may have been able to reimagine ancient worlds, but how would he have interpreted the residual ruins of his hometown? The first question he would have likely asked, is what the hell happened to Schirwindt? The answer might be that hell happened in Schirwindt.

Location of Immanuel Church in Schirwindt as it looks today

Location of Immanuel Church in Schirwindt as it looks today (Credit: Martin Kunst)

A Nightmare Dawning  –  Futile Fight For The Fatherland
A town of just over a thousand inhabitants never stood a chance when faced with a Red Army measuring in the millions. An apocalyptic storm rained down on Schirwindt starting in the summer of 1944, months before the main Soviet Offensive into East Prussia. The town, which had stood for centuries as a Teutonic community, ceased its ethnically German existence at exactly 6:00 in the early evening of July 31, 1944. Its citizens were evacuated further to the west due to constant aerial bombardment by the Soviet Air Force. By autumn, Soviet forces were ready to make their first incursion by trying to punch a hole in the German defenses. They would find plenty of resistance in Schirwindt. where German forces were prepared to fight to the death. The Germans were no longer on enemy territory. It was now the Fatherland they were fighting for.

In the early morning hours of October 16th, Schirwindt which had traditionally been the first place where the sun rose over the German Reich, instead saw a Red Army rising. The opening salvo of missiles, mortars and shells set the eastern horizon alight. A tempest of fire and fury descended on the town. This nightmarish dawning of the new day was heralded by two solid hours of Red Army artillery shells exploding along a wide swath of east Prussia’s border. As they closed in on Schirwindt, the Red Army could easily calibrate its shots by siting their guns on the neo-Gothic spires of the Immanuel Church (Immanuelkirche). What had been the foremost symbol of Schirwindt’s permanence was now under furious bombardment. The next day Red Army soldiers moved forward into a rubble strewn townscape, a town that was a mere shell of its former self. Furious house to house fighting ensued. Despite fierce resistance, the Red Army took the town. They would never give it back. Then again, by the time they were through, there was nothing to give back.

Schirwindt - The aftermath of battle

Schirwindt – The aftermath of battle

Disappearing Acts – To Never Be Seen Again
Those who had called Schirwindt home were lucky to have been evacuated long before the invasion. They unwittingly avoided the bestial atrocities that Red Army soldiers inflicted on German civilians in cities and towns across East Prussia. The violence was especially ferocious in the first few days that accompanied their initial foray into fascist territory. Rape, summary executions, arson and wholesale theft were the norm. Schirwindt’s citizens may have lost their town, but at least many of them escaped with their lives. Years later, a rough census of the inhabitants that fled Schirwindt came to light. 415 had escaped to West Germany, 191 to the German Democratic Republic (communist East Germany), 26 died and hundreds more were missing. Those in the latter category had something uniquely in common with their former hometown, both would vanish and never be seen again.

There are some telling photos of Schirwindt taken after the fight for it was finished. One shows a lone figure in the foreground, bundled up in winter clothing. This person is making their way down a street which once teemed with life, that was obviously no longer the case.  To the right and behind the person several two story houses have collapsed or been blown apart. Nothing is left of their roofs, shattered timbers look like matchsticks and only the outer walls along with a few chimney tops can be discerned. Further down the street a young boy rides a horse while looking at the structural carnage. In the background can be seen one of the two towers of Immanuel Church, the nearer one has been blown half off. The striking thing is how everything in the photo has become temporary. It is just a matter of time before these ruins will be swept away.

A conquest is complete - Red Army soldiers in Schirwindt

The face of victory – Red Army soldiers in Schirwindt

Completing A Conquest – The Face Of Victory
Another photo taken on the same street from a different angle shows two Soviet soldiers in the foreground with machine guns strapped across their chests. They look to be on patrol. Once again the ruined church looms in the background. Damage along its exterior is noticeable, even from a distance. Closer up the physical remnants of Schirwindt lay in pieces, a jigsaw of debris covers the sidewalk and street. A leafless tree has become a signpost for some sort of notice attached to its trunk. The only thing definite in this photo are the Red Army soldiers striding toward the photographer. One looks to have a grin on his face, the other grips his machine gun. This is the face of victory surrounded by the residue of defeat. The conquest, unlike the destruction of Schirwindt, is complete.

A Place Of Teutonic Pride – Clash Course: Schirwindt, East Prussia (Part One)

You can never go home again. That famous sentence was written by Thomas Wolfe in his classic novel Look Homeward Angel. There is a great truth to Wolfe’s words. Those of us who have left home know that though you can return, things are never the same as you remember them. It is not so much that home has changed, as the fact that you have changed. When you experience this sense of loss, there comes a feeling of melancholy that is indescribably sad. Something has been lost that you realize will never return. This is bad, but it could be worse. What if there was no home to return to? No physical structure, no family, friends or familiar faces. Nothing except for memories, fragment of experience that flickered and faded with age. It is hard to imagine this happening, especially to a once thriving place that was marked by prosperity and tradition. A place that no one could have ever imagined would be wiped from the earth, let alone history. A place that existed and then vanished.

This place was a town on the far eastern frontier of the German Reich’s easternmost province. The town was called Schirwindt. Today there is next to nothing left of it. Schirwindt’s absence would make a profound statement on the impact of total war, if only there was something left to comment on. Schirwindt is the only German city badly damaged during World War II that was never rebuilt. There are two reasons for that, it was made a total ruin by war and it no longer was part of German territory. Quite an end to a place that had been for centuries where Germany started the day.

The Way It Used To Be - Windmill in Schirwindt with Immanuel Church in the distance

The Way It Used To Be – Windmill in Schirwindt with Immanuel Church in the distance

Sunrise Over The Reich – Looking To The East
The first place in modern Germany to see the sunrise was Schirwindt. This was where the opening rays of dawn could be detected by watchful Teutonic eyes looking towards the eastern horizon. It would also become the place where the sun began to set over the German Reich near the end of World War II.  Schirwindt was a thoroughly provincial town, small, remote and on the fringes of a sprawling German Reich. For administrative purposes it was listed as a city, though it was by far the smallest one in all of Germany. The population never grew above 1,500. Prior to the 20th century, those who lived in the town made a healthy living through cross border trade with the Russian Empire. Rather than fear their neighbor, Schirwindt’s residents saw Imperial Russia as a market for their merchants, tradesmen and farmer’s to sell their products.

Despite being a border community, the city’s sense of permanence was sealed with the construction of the neo-Gothic Immanuel Church (Immanuelkirchen) in the mid-19th century. For years the town had struggled to raise enough money for a proper church. Schirwindt’s citizens had to make due with a wooden church that needed constant repairs. The situation only changed after a visit by Kaiser Frederick William IV in June 1845. The Kaiser was presented with a petition by the town’s mayor for the construction of a new church. His response was positive. The Kaiser believed that Schirwindt should have just as grand a church as any of the ones he had commissioned in the central and western parts of Germany.

Immanuel Church (Immanuelkirche) in Schirwindt

Immanuel Church (Immanuelkirche) in Schirwindt

Crossing The Border – Too Close For Comfort
This set into motion a process of construction that culminated in the completion of Immanuel Church in 1856. The Kaiser returned to the town that September for the church’s dedication. It must have been quite a boost for the town. The Kaiser felt Schirwindt was important enough for him to make what was now his third visit to the tiny city. The Church’s Neo-Gothic spires soared above the surrounding flat landscape. Such was their scale that they were quite visible from Russia. Those spires were as much a boundary marker of the division between German and Russian territory as the Scheshuppe River which formed the actual border between the two empires. That border and the relatively prosperous existence of Schirwindt was first violated in August 1914.  The invaders were Tsarist Russian forces. Their boots clomped along the cobblestone streets and inside the red brick residences of those Germans unlucky enough to be on the frontline of what would become known as the First World War.

The invasion of East Prussia caused an outcry in Imperial Germany. It was an affront to Germans everywhere that the supposedly less civilized Slavs had penetrated the fatherland. And this was just the start for Schirwindt. No less than three times it was invaded and occupied during the war. The inhabitants all fled to safer points further to the west, while Russian troops stole, looted and committed arson. By war’s end only a handful of residential and farm buildings were still standing. These were mere hollow shells of their former selves. Immanuel Church also survived, towering over the tattered townscape. Little did anyone know at the time that this was just a precursor for much worse to come. What could be worse than the comprehensive destruction inflicted on Schirwindt during the Great War? A quarter century later the inhabitants would find out.

World War I damage in Schirwindt

World War I damage in Schirwindt

On The Horizon – A Future Of Worry & Insecurity
Schirwindt could have been abandoned, but the Germans had won the war in the East. Until they were forced to surrender due to their failures on the Western Front in 1918, the Eastern Front was a point of Teutonic Pride. This was an area into which they could possibly expand in the future. As such, frontier cities like Schirwindt had to be rebuilt. It had lost buildings, inhabitants and a sense of security, but it was still located on German Territory. Under the skillful supervision and design of architect Kurt Frick the city rose from the dead. It was not the only place resurrected in the region. An independent Lithuania had been formed from a remnant of Imperial Russia. It seemed to be a much more agreeable neighbor for Schirwindt. Lithuania was also a temptation for German nationalists. The nation was small and weak. On the other side of Lithuania was the menacing Bolshevism of the Soviet Union. This was a threat that might eventually have to be dealt with. Until that day Schirwindt was safe, but not for long.

Wide Awake & Half-Asleep – To the Point Of Exhaustion: Brussels To Budapest (Part 3)

The wait to board our Wizz Air flight from South Charleroi to Budapest finally came to an end. For no discernible reason the delay had lasted nearly an hour after the first call had been made to line up. Everyone around the gate gave a sigh of relief that we would finally be able to start boarding. Surely the plane was ready, and we would be Budapest bound in a matter of minutes. I had never done priority boarding in my life, but it felt good walking by the Hungarian toughs fiercely guarding their position at the front of the line for other passengers. After scanning our boarding cards, the attendant wished us a nice flight.  Speaking of flights, we went down a flight of stairs where the line suddenly stopped. Standing at the bottom of this stairwell we could see the tarmac with a Wizz Air jet sitting there waiting for our arrival. The problem was another attendant stood in front of the glass door that exited out onto the flight deck. Surely, the delay would not be long.

From the outside in - Wizz Air airplane

From the outside in – Wizz Air airplane (Credit: Guillaume Speurt)

The Ultimate Wake Up Call – A Portal To Another World
Seconds of waiting soon turned to minutes. The bottom of the stairwell was little more than a frigid concrete corridor. Everyone stood in place shivering while staring out at the object of desire. No one seemed particularly upset by this latest inconvenience. Most of the passengers were Hungarians, whose faces were frozen, if not by the chill air than by a stoic reserve developed through decades of living in a less than comfortable country. The corridor soon turned into standing room only. It was not an appealing place to wait unless one was looking to suffer frostbite. Here was discomfort only a sadist or a Soviet could imagine. I could see my breath and feel the heat off everyone else’s. The only good thing about waiting in this forsaken corridor was that it woke us up. Fifteen minutes passed before we were finally released from the arctic incubator onto the tarmac where an icy wind wafted through me like a lost soul. The sky was spitting what felt like rain and looked like tiny flakes of snow. This walk across the tarmac was the ultimate wake-up call.

Approaching the plane, I noticed that there were two sets of stairs. These were setup at the front and rear of the aircraft for boarding. Whatever else might be said about Wizz Air’s boarding process, this was the one thing they had right. It was much quicker in getting everyone onboard, to stow their luggage and get seated by having them board at two separate places. Or should I say it would have been quicker, but after getting to the top of the stairs we were stopped once again. For some unexplainable reason, perhaps the same one which had led to the multiple delays so far, we were not allowed to enter the plane just yet. This delay was only a couple of minutes long, compared to the other delays it was nothing, but standing in hypothermia inducing weather it only served to exacerbate my irritation. The plane was turning into our forbidden fruit. Then suddenly we were allowed entry. Stepping into the plane was like entering a whole new world, a portal of warmth and comfort.

Distraction & Attraction - The Wizz Air Trench Coat

Distraction & Attraction – The Wizz Air Trench Coat

Distraction & Attraction – The Wizz Air Way
The stewardesses were beaming from ear to ear as though everything was going according to plan. They were elegant, attractive and gracious, Wizz Air’s answer to conflict resolution was to distract passengers with these stewardesses. Color therapy was also used. Wizz Air’s colors are pink and purple. The stewardesses wore enchanting pink overcoats. It is difficult, if not impossible, to lose one’s temper when confronted by pink. It is a color expressive of warmth and openness. I doubt many of the passengers were paying attention, at least on a conscious level. They were just glad to be aboard and I assumed, heading home to Hungary. Of all the flights Wizz Air ran out of South Charleroi, its twice daily service to Budapest was by far the busiest. In 2016 over 300,000 passengers flew between the two airports on a Wizz Air aircraft. It had also become the de facto national carrier for Hungary since Malev (Hungarian Airlines) folded due to bankruptcy in 2012.

The closure of Malev was one of the reasons there were no longer direct connections between the United States and Hungary. At the time of its downfall, Malev had over 2,500 employees and accounted for nearly half of all the flight traffic in and out of Budapest. I had once flown Malev from Bucharest to Sarajevo via Budapest. The service was good, the planes were clean, and it seemed like a well-run airline. While that may have been true, competing against the new budget airlines that popped up across Europe proved impossible. The Hungarian government subsidies that had kept Malev afloat for several years was deemed illegal by the European Union in 2012, this sounded its death knell. It was a blow to Hungarian national pride, but nationalism is one thing, capitalism quite another. Wizz Air proved a salve to heal the wounded pride of Hungarian egos. It may get knocked for bare bones service and ancillary charges, but the Wizz Air’s prices can hardly be beat. Air fares as low as ten Euros afford those with even limited incomes the opportunity to fly all over Europe.

The Path to Budapest - Wizz Air Airbus A320-200

The Path to Budapest – Wizz Air Airbus A320-200 (Credit: Kudak)

Getting Grounded  – Arrival At Ferihegy
Wizz Air was just like any other airline at 20,000 feet. A smooth flight and arriving alive were of the utmost importance. We landed in Budapest, the home of Wizz Air, an hour and 55 minutes after we took off from South Charleroi. The four flights odyssey had come to an end. We had left Denver at 1:00 p.m. MST on a Saturday afternoon and arrived on Sunday evening in Budapest at 11:00 p.m. CET (3:00 p.m. in Denver). An entire day plus two hours had passed. At journey’s end I was wide awake and half asleep, wired and exhausted. Fortunately, passport control and customs were a breeze at Budapest Ferihegy Airport. One journey had ended, another was beginning. I was looking forward to two weeks’ worth of travel around Hungary, especially since none of it would take place on an airplane.

Fight or Flight Response – Waiting Games: Flying To Budapest Via Brussels (Part Two)

I have this belief that if you expect something bad to happen, it rarely does. The check-in process for Wizz Air at South Charleroi Airport was not the nightmare I anticipated. On the contrary, It was surprisingly easy. Despite already having downloaded digital boarding passes to our phones, the desk attendant printed boarding cards for us free of charge. Perhaps this was a perk of the “priority” membership which I had purchased along with the flight. For a nominal fee, priority membership allowed us to avoid some of the more onerous charges such as fees for printing boarding passes and an extra luggage allowance which we needed. I had flown Wizz Air before and was wary of being nickeled and dimed to death, but I did appreciate the fact that they had to make their money somehow. Flight tickets were so cheap that add-ons were the main driver of profits. I was cautiously optimistic that Wizz Air was going to be better than I expected. Of course, I had lowered my expectations to such a low level that it was not hard for them to be exceeded. Unfortunately, security at the airport did manage to jangle our nerves.

Shuttle Diplomacy – Bringing Europe Back Together
Imagine a seething mass of temperamental foreigners all packed together in an overcrowded hall. There was no line, only mobs of people standing shoulder to shoulder. When we got near the scanners, a line was forced to form, which resulted in a near melee. This would not have been so bad, but being jostled back and forth for over an hour was a test of patience and reserve. Nevertheless, we made it into the waiting area a good three and a half hours before our evening flight was due to depart. All we could do was hang out in a  food court that brought to mind a bad school cafeteria without janitorial services. From time to time I got up to check the departures board. This allowed me to study the range of destinations Wizz Air flew to from South Charleroi. Eastern Europe could not have been better served.

In addition to Budapest, Wizz Air flew to four cities in Romania as well as the capitals of Poland, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Macedonia. I started imagining what it would be like to fly to Skopje, a city I had never visited or take a return trip to Ljubljana which I had visited six years before. All sorts of strange travel odysseys began to materialize in my mind. Best of all, these destinations were easily affordable. A whole new world of possibilities was just a few Euros away.  Studying the departures board made me see Wizz Air in a whole new light. They made travel affordable to Western Europe for millions of Eastern Europeans. This was also true in reverse. Wizz Air made Eastern Europe accessible to millions of Western Europeans. Wizz Air was doing as much or more than anyone to bring Eastern and Western Europe back together from the artificial geopolitical divide caused by the Cold War. Borders may have existed in the skies, but passengers could not see them. Borders may exist in the mind, but the departures board carried them away. Eastern Europe had arrived on the wings of Wizz Air.

Wizz Air - Connecting Eastern and Western Europe

Wizz Air – Connecting Eastern and Western Europe (Credit: Thomas Romer)

Boarding Calls – A Delayed Response
Wizz Air and Eastern Europe had something else in common, they were both rough around the edges. Case in point was the boarding process, which left much to be desired. We were in priority boarding and had paid a little bit extra for our seats. This allowed us to queue in a separate line from the mob that was gathering close to the gate. A desk clerk notified everyone that boarding was going to begin any moment. This turned out not to be true. The clerk should have said that the waiting was about to begin. We stood there for over half an hour waiting to board. Nothing had happened that would provide a plausible reason for delay. While standing there stiff from exhaustion, I suddenly recalled how the same thing happened last time we flew Wizz Air from Istanbul to Budapest a few years ago. In that case, the wait after the initial call to board was over an hour for no discernible reason.  We were in the exact same situation all over again. It was incredibly pointless and served to irritate the growing non-priority mob that was queueing close to the gate.

Because Wizz Air does not assign seats except to those who have purchased a specific seating assignment in advance, the non-priority passengers were preparing themselves for a stampede to get the best possible seat when boarding was finally allowed. Several Hungarian men that looked as though they enjoyed street fights on a regular basis headed up the line. No one dared go around them for fear of being grounded, not by Wizz Air personnel, but fisticuffs. The most maddening aspect of the entire process was seeing the three attendants at the gate stand around seemingly unaware that anything was amiss. They were taking the delay in stride, it must have been a common occurrence. I imagined working for Wizz Air would cause a person to develop the stoicism of Seneca. This would have been the only way to ignore the beseeching eyes of passengers, begging with their every expression to be allowed on board the plane.

Grounded - Playing the waiting game at South Charleroi

Grounded – Playing the waiting game at South Charleroi

Pity Party – Waves Of Anger & Desperation
I felt waves of anger followed by desperation as the wait continued. Anger at myself for such a foolhardy plan. How could I have thought four flights in a row was a good idea, with the final one on Wizz Air. Then desperation would take hold. I would stare at one of the attendants for prolonged periods with an expression of sadness, hoping they would take pity on me. I had reached the point of seeking someone else’s pity just to board a plane. This is what happens when you get one hour of sleep in a 30-hour period. Flying to Hungary had never been easy, but I made this trip particularly hard. In the end, I knew all this irritation would be worth it. At least that was what I kept telling myself.

A Fool & His Sanity Are Soon Parted – Bound For Exhaustion: Flying To Budapest via America (Part One)

Flying to Hungary from the United States is not easy. This because there are no direct flights to Budapest. The last ones were discontinued by Delta and American Airlines in 2011, but an announcement was recently made that LOT Polish Airlines would start nonstop service to Budapest from both New York and Chicago beginning in the spring of 2018. Flying to Hungary from anywhere other than the largest American cities means at least two transfers before arriving in Budapest. Since I live far away from a major international airport – the nearest is in Denver five hours by car – a trip to Hungary usually takes anywhere from thirty to thirty-six hours. This can mean up to four flights in a single day. Factoring in the exorbitant cost of a ticket for the trip, this is like paying a small fortune to take part in a travel endurance experiment that leads to days of jet lag. That has never stopped me from going, but I always closely scrutinize what flights to take for both price and relative comfort in a vain effort to mitigate travel exhaustion.

The Ultimate Goal - Budapest Ferihegy Airport

The Ultimate Goal – Budapest Ferihegy Airport

For Some Strange Reason – Making Connections
My wife and I decided to travel to Hungary this past holiday season to visit family, but there was a limit on the days we could fly out and back due to work. When flexibility is limited, searching for a less expensive ticket becomes a crap shoot. I found myself searching for the cheapest tickets possible while trying to avoid 46 hour layovers, super tight connections and bizarre transfers. These three possible problems were not mutually exclusive. This was easier said than done. A ticket on any of America’s legacy carriers or their alliance partners flying from Denver to Budapest with a couple of transfers was $1,800 and up. I viewed such prices as extortionate and not worth the cost. This sent me searching for flights to other airports in nearby countries. Vienna was just as expensive, Munich a bit cheaper, but not enough to make a difference and that was about it. Then I hit upon an idea. Why not try finding the cheapest airfare to a major city in Europe on a legacy carrier, then take one of those ultra-cheap European budget airlines to Budapest. This idea was how I ended up with a cheaper total ticket cost, but also on an exhausting journey by train, metro, bus and taxi in addition to four flights, all just to arrive in Budapest. There is a famous saying, “a fool and his money are soon parted.” In this case, the fool (me) was not parted from his money, but nearly lost his sanity.

The first flight I selected would take us from Denver to Brussels on American Airlines/British Airways via Chicago & London. Then we would take another airline, the budget carrier Wizz Air, from Brussels to Budapest. At first glance the plan looked simple, but it was not. The last flight on our first tickets was from London to Brussels. It would land at Brussels Zaventem. This is the city’s main airport, located in the Flanders region of Belgium. While the Brussels to Budapest flight on our second tickets was not really from Brussels at all, but from an airport known as Brussels South Charleroi. Charleroi is not very close to Brussels, unless the distance is judged by the standards of tiny Belgium. The airport is in Wallonia, an entirely different region of the country. For some strange reason it was listed as Brussels South Charleroi. Perhaps it was an attempt to get foolish passengers such as myself to try connecting through an airport that was “only” seventy kilometers away from Zaventem.

Voices In My Head Screaming No – Irritation beyond Belief
Why walk to another terminal at the same airport when you can ride every type of public transport imaginable in a single afternoon just to arrive at a different airport? The only person this plan made sense to was me. I ignored the obvious factor that we were bound to be exhausted by the time our first set of flights was over. Thus, we found ourselves bleary eyed, but arriving on time just after noon at a rainy and cold Brussels Zaventem Airport. Our transfer from Zaventem to South Charleroi was nothing less than head spinning. First, we had to catch a train from Zaventem to Brussels Central Train Station. The train showed up late, generating an insane amount of confusion. Even the locals wondered whether they were boarding the correct train. This was because the correct train showed up late at the exact same time another train was due to arrive. Fortunately, this did turn out to be the right train, it just never felt like it. At the Central Station we had to find the metro which would take us to Midi Station. This turned into a series of mad errors, involving a ticket machine that refused to take anything other than Euro coins and listless wandering in, out, back in and back out and finally in the correct metro access.

At Midi Station we walked through a steady drizzle to a bus that would take us to South Charleroi. We had been told earlier that payment for the bus was only by credit or debit card. Of course, the driver demanded cash only. From here it was a swerving ride in and out of traffic to South Charleroi. At this point I was questioning my sanity, caused both by the trip and the thought that I inflicted this maddening journey on me and my wife just to save a few dollars. Getting to Budapest this way made little sense, irritated me beyond belief and looked like the kind of itinerary only a chintzy madman would attempt. When I booked the trip, I told anyone who would listen – including the voices in my head screaming no – that it would be an adventure. That turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In Transit - Brussels-South Charleroi Airport

In Transit – Brussels-South Charleroi Airport

Cost Savings – A Different Type Of Fare
Arriving at South Charleroi, I shuttered to think what else might happen. The dreaded Wizz Air flight was next on the itinerary. Wizz Air was known for ultra-cheap fares, charging for every little thing and setting up shop in out of the way airports that were either on the fringes of major European metropolises or in provincial cities that only the locals knew existed. South Charleroi Airport looked to be a little bit of both. It was crowded, dingy and ugly. The terminal felt retro, like the 70’s on steroids. I humored myself with the thought of the money I was supposedly saving. Unfortunately, I was having to pay for every bit of it.


Flames That Could Never Be Extinguished – Infernal Rendering: The Firebombing Of Konigsberg (Part Two)

There is a great amount of truth to the idea that the Red Army destroyed Konigsberg militarily and then the Soviet Union followed up by destroying it politically. A majority of the damage was done by the Soviets, but the destruction of Konigsberg really did not start with their military or political forces. It began in earnest at 1:00 a.m. on Wednesday, August 30th. That is when a firestorm started by large payloads of incendiaries dropped on the city by British Lancaster bombers conjured up a flaming false dawn. In the darkest hours of night, the city was lit by all-consuming fires that burned a deadly swath across whole parts of the city. The factual tone of the official British military report only provides a hint of the destructive force of the bombing: “Only 480 tons of bombs could be carried because of the range of the target but severe damage was caused around the 4 separate aiming points selected…..Bomber Command estimates that 41 percent of all the housing and 20 percent of all the industry in Konigsberg were destroyed.”

British Lancaster bomber - dropping incendiary bombs on Germany during World War 2

British Lancaster bomber – dropping incendiary bombs on Germany during World War 2 (Credit: Imperial War Museums)

Ground Zero – Total War Delivered By Air
One of those aiming points was likely the Konigsberg Castle. Just as Cologne’s splendid cathedral had provided a large target that could act as a central focus for strategic bombing of that historic city on the Rhine River, so too did the soaring Gothic styled Konigsberg Castle provide an inviting target in another historic German city, this one straddling the Pregel River. The Castle sustained a multitude of hits and was set alight. The heat was so ferocious that civilians who sought relief in the nearby castle pond found that its water was nearly past the boil point. This liquid fire was just as deadly as the blistering heat which raged in a tornadic vortex throughout the city center. Most of the castle burned and was still burning several days later. The only thing left standing were some of the walls and towers in very poor condition, anything wooden had been mere kindling for the napalm laden bombs that fell in, on and around it. The first stone castle on the site had been constructed by the Teutonic Knights in 1257. For nearly seven centuries the castle had been the iconic symbol of the city. After the bombing it was still iconic, albeit a very different type of icon. A smoking ruin symbolic of the old Konigsberg, one that would soon cease to exist.

The human toll exacted by the firebombing was just as horrific as the priceless architectural and cultural losses. The innocent, which included a  large proportion of mothers, small children and the elderly were most vulnerable. Some who thought they were safely sequestered in shelters were never able to escape them, burnt alive in what quickly became closed door infernos. Even those who safely fled from them found the medieval streets and alleyways engulfed by a firestorm of hellish proportions. In the Old Town there was nowhere to seek relief from the searing heat that torched nearly everything and everyone. The close quarters only added to the catastrophic damage. Apocalyptic scenes with flaming people running through the streets were a common sight during and after the bombing. In some areas of the Old Town, it would be several days before anyone could walk on the white hot cobblestones such was the ferocity of the firestorm. Eyewitnesses reported that the Pregel River caught on fire. In actuality, it was the wooden pilings in the river which were aflame. Hell could not have burned any brighter.

Streetcar in front of badly damaged Konigsberg Castle in 1944

Streetcar in front of badly damaged Konigsberg Castle in 1944

Mortal Danger – Chaos & Conflagration
When dawn arrived later that morning, a gruesome cloud of ash, debris and residue mushroomed ominously above the city. Smoke billowed forth from hundreds of burning buildings. The detritus of structures and materials floated through the air falling both on the city and in villages across the East Prussian countryside. Konigsberg had been home to the largest bookstore in Germany, Grafe und Unzer. All those books filled with information and invaluable knowledge, printed to educate and illuminate, now blew through the air as incomprehensible specs of flickering dust. Debris fell from the skies like drizzle. Emergency services were overwhelmed by the human casualties, many of whom were gruesomely burned. This was a dire warning of the horrible atrocities that would befall ethnic Germans in Konigsberg during the coming year.

Much of the industrial infrastructure and war making capacity of the city was still intact after the bombing. This was a telling sign. The fact that twice as much housing was destroyed as industry meant that the Allies were looking to make the population suffer and break their will. The damage to the civilian infrastructure was immense. The British calculated that well over a hundred thousand people had been left homeless. Half of all housing in the city was now uninhabitable. The Old Town was a burnt out shell of its former self. Both the Central and North train stations were in ruins. World class cultural and academic institutions would no longer be operable. Those left in Konigsberg suddenly realized how insecure their situation was. Many either fled or began to make their initial plans to flee the city. The city had been a second home to Germans that were bombed out of cities further west, such as Berlin. Now they realized there was no escaping the war. The war fronts were closing in, Germany was surrounded and even the most far flung cities were in mortal danger.

Where It All Ends - The Ruins of Konigsberg in 1945

Where It All Ends – The Ruins of Konigsberg in 1945 (Credit: FriedrichTh)

The Face Of Total War – Suffering For The Sin of Nazism
The firebombing of Konigsberg was just the beginning of a very long and drawn out ending. The attack signaled that East Prussia was now within reach of the Reich’s mortal enemies both east and west. That the Allies would be merciless in dealing with a province they considered to be the heart of German militarism. The city’s role as an historic outpost of Germanic learning and culture, the home of Immanuel Kant and the highest intellectual discourse cultivated within the walls of Albertina University for five centuries, the coronation capital of Prussian kings and all of its splendid Gothic architecture meant nothing in the face of total war. Rightly or wrongly, Konigsberg and East Prussia was to suffer gravely for the sins of Nazism. It was to be a place where the Soviets could sate their appetite for revenge. As deadly as the British bombing was, even worse would soon follow.

Click here for: A Lower Level Of Hell: Rain of Terror: The Bombing Of Konigsberg (Part One)