About fortchoteau1

I first learned about Eastern Europe and the various nations in the region by watching the Olympics. The 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo was a formative experience in my life. I hold a B.S. in Political Science and a minor in History with an emphasis on International Affairs. My professional career reconnected me with Eastern Europe when I spent six years guiding tours and developing exhibits at a decommissioned Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile site that had been designated a National Park. From that point I began to read more widely about Eastern Europe and starting traveling throughout the region. I have now made thirteen trips to Eastern Europe. Much of this blog is the result of those travels. In my professional career, I currently serve as the Director of a large museum in the Rocky Mountain West.

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)

 

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

Years ago I had a discussion with an English friend, who also happened to be a Cambridge educated historian, on the reasoning behind Britain’s strategic bombing campaign, specifically the firebombing of Dresden. His historical focus was not on military history or World War II, BUT he had been born during the war. His mother was forced to take him into an air raid shelter several times when he was a baby. Of course he did not remember these traumatic experiences, but what he could recall were two things. One memory was of the four monuments on his street marking where German bombs had struck. The second, was that no one in the 1950’s talked about whether the bombing campaign was strategic or not. It was chiefly about one thing, “revenge”. He said that word with such brutal force and searing vigor that it startled me. At the time of our discussion many decades had passed since the end of World War II. Yet time had not moderated his opinion or assuaged his anger. I had the feeling that nothing ever would.

A target rich environment - Konigsberg along the Pregel River

A target rich environment – Konigsberg along the Pregel River

Beyond Recovery – The Irreplaceable City
Dresden. That name usually denotes one thing and one thing only in the English language, destruction of a beautiful, historic city by Allied bombers in the winter of 1944. To Germans it was a needless act of wanton destruction, to the Allies it was the targeting of a large and important city that was contributing to the German war effort. Was it revenge or good strategy? Perhaps an infernal combination of both? Another issue arises when the subject concerns the destruction of Dresden, the city seems to stand as a proxy for all other German cities bombed into smoldering ruins by the Allies. Other historic cities in Germany suffered grievous damage to irreplaceable architectural and cultural treasures, not to mention the horrific loss of human life by multiple bombings. And unlike Dresden some of these places would never be rebuilt or recover. Take for instance the historic city of Konigsberg, coronation site of Prussian kings and home to the Albertina, one of the most revered universities in Europe. After British bombing raids on August 26th-27th and August 29th -30th, the city would never be the same again. These bombings set the stage for the city’s apocalyptic destruction at the hands of the Red Army seven months later.

World War II had been ongoing in Eastern Europe since the conflict had begun with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 For most of the next five and a half years a war of unprecedented violence raged beyond the eastern frontiers of Germany. In a strange paradox, the conflict left Germany’s easternmost province of East Prussia relatively untouched. In its largest city of Konigsberg life went on much as before, except for the city’s mentally ill and its Jewish inhabitants  who were deported and subsequently murdered. The greatest hardship incurred by the ethnic German population of Konigsberg had been shortages of food and certain  goods. There were complaints, but compared with the suffering of other large German cities, such as Cologne and Hamburg – that had been intensely targeted by British and American bombers, the citizens of Konigsberg had little cause for grievance until a firestorm from hell was dropped from the skies and onto the city.

Targeted - Aerial photo of Konigsberg Castle

Targeted – Aerial photo of Konigsberg Castle

Falling From The Sky –  Zero Hour
It was late August 1944, summer in the northern part of East Prussia was slowly coming to an end. The days were getting shorter and the nights longer. The German Army was retreating on all fronts. The prospect of a Red Army breakthrough into German territory looked like a near certainty by the start of 1945. At the same time, British and American bombers were intensifying their bombardment of German cities. The citizens of Konigsberg were more worried about the looming Soviet threat on the eastern horizon. The city had not been immune from aerial attack, but such raids had done little damage. These attacks had come from the east. Soviet bombers had targeted the city on five separate occasions with minimal success. A bombing run by British or American bombers had seemed unlikely due to the distances involved. It was 950 miles one way from Britain to Konigsberg. Nevertheless, on August 26th-27th, as Saturday gave way to the first hours of Sunday morning, 174 British Lancasters began to be heard in the distance as they flew towards the city. The air raid sirens soon let loose their screaming wails.

The citizens of Konigsberg jumped out of bed and hurried into air raid shelters.  It was a crystal clear night, perfect for targeting. The entire city was lit up by flares and anti-aircraft fire. Only a handful of Lancasters were shot down, most were able to drop their bombs. These ended up a bit off target, striking the eastern part of the city. There was a great deal of damage in the neighborhoods that were struck. Casualties were light though. This was because many people were on the Baltic coast, enjoying the last bit of summer at the seaside. Those returning to the city on Sunday had narrowly escaped injury or worse. They would not have to wait long for the next attack

Among the ruins - Church in Konigsberg following August 1944 aerial bombings by the British

Among the ruins – Church in Konigsberg following August 1944 aerial bombings by the British

An Hour After Midnight – From The Ground Below
A mere three  nights later the whine of engines could once again be heard in the near distance. Konigsberg’s citizen were roused from their sleep an hour after midnight and made their way to the shelters. It was a cloudy night, so much so that the bombers nearly abandoned the run. They had to wait a good twenty minutes before there was a sufficient break in the clouds. This time there were 189 Lancasters with 480 tons of bombs zeroing in on the heart of Konigsberg. Four different aiming points were selected for their infernal payload. This bombing run was quick and efficient. Those in the shelters could only sit and wait in mortal terror. The booms, shockwaves from explosions and thunderous roar that vibrated through to them was horrifying in the extreme. If they were not in hell, than they were pretty close to it. For what must have what seemed like forever, a rain of terror fell upon the city. Then after an hour the bombers were suddenly gone, so too was much of Konigsberg, as those leaving the shelters would soon discover.

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

Leaving Life Behind –  Beneath Belarusian Soil: The Jews Of Konigsberg (Part Two)

No one can ever truly understand what the Holocaust was like unless they were unfortunate enough to experience it. The humiliations, suffering and depravity imposed on Jews were on a level that can only be equated with the worst aspects of humanity. It is little wonder that some of those who did survive later committed suicide. Those of us who read accounts or watch documentaries or movies about the Holocaust know that the closest approximation of the experience often comes by identifying with the victims on a personal level. Substituting ourselves in place of the persecuted, if only for a moment, can bring about a certain degree of empathy. To understand what the Jews of Konigsberg in the German province of East Prussia went through is impossible. The best that can be done is to try and make a rough parallel from a shared experience. One that might give some semblance of an idea concerning the choices that victims were forced to make. This can be revealing in the extreme.

Nazi Parade in Konigsberg

Nazi Parade in Konigsberg

Impossible Choices – Taking Belongings, Taking Lives
Let us say that you have been booked on a flight to travel from Warsaw to Kaliningrad (formerly Konigsberg). You do not want to go, but work demands it. If you fly business class than the weight limit for a piece of luggage is 32 kilograms. The central question quickly becomes how many shirts, shoes, undergarments and personal accoutrements can be stored in this lone piece of baggage. Now imagine that one suitcase must supply you not for just a few days or a week, but for the rest of your life. Look at that small space inside that one lonely piece of luggage and imagine that this must hold all your belongings not just for this trip, but they must last forever. Everything else is to be left behind. Family heirlooms, pets, furniture and photos, anything of entertainment value suddenly becomes worthless. The prospect of survival strips everything to its essence.

Filling up that suitcase with the proper items, while at the same time discarding all nonessentials, is an impossible exercise. But what if you had dark intimations about your journey, strange feelings that survival may depend on what you choose or do not choose to take. At least that is what you have been led to believe by insidious rumors that have filtered through. Oddly your ticket is one-way with no return date yet given. Little do you know that upon arrival at the destination, you have only about a ten percent chance of survival for a few months at most. And if you are lucky enough to survive it would be as a half-starved slave laborer. Those belongings that were so carefully and excruciatingly chosen for the journey are worthless upon arrival. Does this scenario seem unimaginable? You say this could never happen, especially not to you? Why you are from the professional classes, a doctor or lawyer, an accountant or professor. You are just going on a short trip, an excursion to a land you have never visited, a place where they speak a foreign language and use an entirely different alphabet. What really awaits you? There is no way of knowing.

The above scenario may be difficult to conceive, but it is not nearly as improbable as the Holocaust, which led to much tougher choices for the Jews of Konigsberg. An even more difficult and ultimately deadlier situation than can be imagined faced them just after the start of summer in 1942. Orders were issued for Konigsberg’s Jews to gather at a riding school. They were supposedly being transported for resettlement. Each Jew was only allowed to take 30 kilograms of personal belongings with them. That is two kilograms less than allowed on the hypothetical business class flight outlined above. Eyewitness accounts attest to the fact that many tried to take much more than was allowed. This despite the fact most looked beaten with empty stares of resignation on their faces. There was a certain sense of the inevitable. As for their belongings, they would eventually be taken from them, as would their lives.

Personal effects - Belongings of Jews killed at Maly Trostinets

Personal effects – Belongings of Jews killed at Maly Trostinets

Dark Forebodings – The Final Order
The resettlement was a malevolent fallacy, meant to placate the Jews and get them to death camps without maximum coercion or an uprising. No one knew for sure what was going to happen, but many had dark forebodings. Ever since Kristallnacht in the autumn of 1938, the Jews of Konigsberg had been subjected to prejudicial laws and onerous rules which stripped them of their livelihood and dignity. Schools for Jewish children had long since been closed. Anyone fourteen or older was forced to work. Jews were given the most dangerous jobs and hardest labor. Food was scarce and could only be purchased in special shops that held meager rations which were often cut. Jews were not allowed to take part in drills meant to protect the populace from Soviet air raids. All this added up to marginalization and demoralization.

Now on a Friday evening in late summer, the kind of day which had once been reserved for joyous occasions such as late nights spent strolling along the riverfront of the Pregel, the death knell was finally sounded. Once at the riding school, the 465 Jews who had reported there were given yet another order, the last one they were to ever receive in Konigsberg. They would now be marched to the city’s North Train Station for final departure. Guards soon ushered them on to a passenger train. None of the Jews had any idea where this transport was headed. Just after half past ten in the evening that train, known in documents as Da 40, pulled out of the station. Eighteen hours later they arrived in what is now Vawkavysk in western Belarus where they were transferred, along with hundreds of other Jews, into freight cars. The next morning, a day and a half after their journey had begun, they arrived in Minsk.

Far from home - Memorial at the main massacre site at Maly Trostinez

Far from home – Memorial at the main massacre site at Maly Trostinez (Credit: Homoatrox)

Far From Home – On The Outskirts Of Minsk
Later that same day, all but about 70 of the deportees – who had been selected for work battalions – were driven by truck to the outskirts of Minsk. The journey halted on the grounds of a former Soviet collective farm near the village of Maly Trostinez. This area was in the process of becoming the site of Trostinets Extermination Camp.  The Jews from Konigsberg were taken out to a wooded area and forced into pits where they were murdered by gunshots in the back of the neck. As for each one’s 30 kilograms of belongings, those had been taken away earlier and pillaged for valuables, just as their dead bodies would be. Then soil was thrown back over the pits. Such was the final act of the final journey for most of Konigsberg’s Jews. They spent their last moments far from the soaring spires and cobblestones streets of the magnificent city they had done so much to help develop. Their final resting place was in an obscure field, on the edge of an obscure village, buried beneath Belarusian soil. Such was the end to four centuries of Jewish life in Konigsberg.

Click here for: Prestige & Persecution – Rise To Cataclysm: The Jews of Kongisberg (Part One)

Prestige & Persecution – Rise To Cataclysm: The Jews Of Konigsberg (Part One)

Forgotten amid the wartime destruction of Germanic Konigsberg and its resulting transformation into ethnically Russified Kaliningrad were the Jews who once inhabited the city. They made up a vital part of the commerce and culture of Konigsberg. Just as the German Empire ascended to Great Power status in the late 19th and early 20th century, Jews were playing an important role in the booming economic development of Konigsberg. Their presence in the city had begun in the smallest yet most important way possible. The first Jews allowed to settle in the city served the Duke of Prussia in the mid-16th century. This began a long affiliation with power brokers in the city. By the 20th century, the community had grown to one of the largest and most cosmopolitan in Germany. Unfortunately, this led to discrimination and ultimately to their destruction. Tragically the Jews of Konigsberg would end up despised, excluded and ultimately exterminated by their fellow Germans. Their fate was much the same as that suffered by millions of other Jews in the borderlands of Eastern Europe. The difference was that the persecution of Konigsberg’s Jewish population began several years earlier than other Jewish communities in the eastern hinterlands that would prove so deadly.

East Prussia – the provincial home of Konigsberg –  was a hotbed of Nazi sympathies and conservative German nationalism during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The province would offer a proving ground for the initial iterations of what would morph into the Final Solution. The persecution of Konigsberg’s Jews took place several years prior to the Soviet occupation of the city in 1945. When Germans lament the demise of Konigsberg at the hands of the Soviet Union, they almost always fail to mention the Third Reich’s role in murdering some of its most productive and patriotic citizens. This is easy to forget because the pre-war Jews of Konigsberg, like the German population of that historic city, have all but ceased to exist. Thorough efforts to erase all traces of Konigsberg’s vibrant Jewish community were just as much a part of Nazi militarism as the invasion of the Soviet Union which ultimately led to the Third Reich’s destruction. The Jews, along with socialists and communists, were the chosen enemy within. Those living in the most prosperous city on Germany’s eastern frontiers were usual suspects so to speak. The Jews hard-won foothold in Konigsberg had been precarious ever since their arrival four hundred years earlier.

New Synagogue - Konigsberg

New Synagogue – Konigsberg

A Class To Itself – The Limits Of Tolerance
The first known Jews in Konigsberg were doctors brought in to care for the health of Duke Albert. It would take another two centuries before Jews would establish a foothold in the city. Even then they were administered and segregated by a system setup by Frederick the Great that was considered liberal by the standards of the time, but would be inconceivable today. They were broken up into three classes “tolerated Jews”, “non-tolerated Jews” and “protected Jews”. The classes were differentiated by residential rights. Most Jews were “non-tolerated” and could not settle or own property in Konigsberg, only “protected Jews” could. This kept the population at a very minimal level. Though the Jewish population in Konigsberg tripled during the 18th century, there were still less than a thousand Jews living in the city by 1800.

It was not until the latter half of the 19th century that Jews obtained full rights in Prussia. Their population, power and prestige grew to unprecedented levels during what turned out to be a Golden Age. The earned Influence and affluence as bankers, financiers, merchants and jewelers. They gained a foothold in the professional classes that only grew as Germany boomed during an age of rapid industrial development.  Synagogues were built for both Orthodox and progressive Jews. The most famous of these was constructed to host more liberal Jews. Completed in 1896 on Lomse Island, it was known as the New Synagogue and quickly became an iconic structure in a city filled with impressive houses of worship. At the same time, Jews were becoming more and more integrated in larger German society. The First World War proved this trend, as hundreds of the city’s Jews served with distinction. On average one out of every eight Konigsberg Jews serving in the German Army won the Iron Cross for heroism.

Lost World - Interior of the New Synagogue in Konigsberg

Lost World – Interior of the New Synagogue in Konigsberg (Credit: Herausgeber Landsmannschaft Ostpreusen)

Brutal Efficiency – The Horror Unfolds
Ironically it was not the Great War that brought Antisemitism and exclusionary tendencies to the fore in Konigsberg, instead it was the aftermath. The harsh peace terms imposed on Germany, followed a few years later by runaway inflation left many Germans looking for someone to blame. Rampant insecurities about the future of Germany and the threat from communism in the east offered fertile ground for radical right-wing fascism to take hold. Jews were a convenient scapegoat. They had risen as far as their countrymen would allow them. Following the Nazi Party’s rise to power in 1933, Jews found themselves increasingly prohibited from civil society. Their rights dwindled, as did their proportion of the population. Those who had the means heeded the dark portents of Nazi rhetoric and decided to emigrate abroad. Such foresight was informed by a sense that the situation could only get worse. On the night of November 9, 1938 it certainly did. The storm of Antisemitism broke in the form of Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass). The Nazis used a pre-prepared list of Jewish owned businesses to unleash a wave of brutal attacks. Windows were smashed, stores looted and Jews sustained physical attacks The New Synagogue was burnt to the ground and other synagogues were vandalized.

A desecreation - The Konigsberg New Synagogue after Kristallnacht

A desecration – The Konigsberg New Synagogue after Kristallnacht

Kristallnacht increased the rate and pace of Jewish emigration abroad. Just before the outbreak of World War II, the Jewish population of Konigsberg had dropped to a little over 1,500, its lowest level in a hundred years. Those left in the city group was now stranded in the city as emigration was banned. They were now at the mercy of a society that was undergoing creeping brutalization by the Nazis. Many prominent Konigsberg Jews either committed suicide or were deported to concentration camps. The overriding majority of them avoided being caught in the crossfire when the Red Army fought their way into the city because were already dead. Such was the catastrophe which beset the city, that there is still no accurate figure of the number of Konigsberg’s Jews killed from 1939 -1945. There was accurate testimony though of the horror that unfolded in the city as the Holocaust was carried out with brutal efficiency.

Click here for: Leaving Life Behind – Beneath Belarusian Soil: The Jews Of Konigsberg (Part Two)

 

A Library Brought Back To Life By A Single Book – Eleanor Perenyi At Szollos (Part Two)

It will be many months or years before I am able to visit Szollos Castle in Vynohradiv, Ukraine. I cannot go there at this time due to the simple fact that I am sitting thousands of miles and an entire ocean away from the castle. The only guide I have for now is Eleanor Perenyi’s memoir, More Was Lost, it will have to suffice as a substitute. That might just be good enough, because Perenyi’s writing offers a vivid description of the castle during those final years just before World War II descended on the castle and its inhabitants, altering the course of its history and destroying those that had given it such life. Fortunately, Perenyi keeps memory of the castle alive through the written word. It is a pleasant irony that she recovers some of what was lost at Szollos with her book. Ironic because books helped her learn about the Castle’s past while living there in the late 1930’s. She was one of the last to enjoy an incredible library that would be scattered to the winds just a few years later.

Aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes

Aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes

Man Of Reason – A Legacy Of Learning
Many of the great aristocratic families in Hungary had libraries consisting of hundreds or thousands of volumes collected over many centuries. These same libraries also could contain letters that told of everyday life for the nobility. The Perenyi family had one such library. It was discovered by Eleanor Perenyi not long after she arrived at Szollos. She found the library in a downstairs room tucked behind accessories used to run the castle’s wine business. The books were still locked away in glass cases. It turned out that there was much more locked in those cases, including decades of correspondence between family members and friends. The ultimate trove were the old books, some of these dusty tomes had sheepskin bindings and covers. Much of the collection came from a family forebear by the name of Alexei Perenyi who had inhabited the castle a century and a half earlier.

Alexei’s prized books reflected the influence and popularity of French thinkers during this time. Alexei Perenyi had come of age during the Enlightenment, thus the library’s greatest works were the product of men such as Rousseau and Voltaire. Latin and German works were also well represented. The purpose of reading during the 18th century in Hungary was to educate rather than entertain. Reading expanded the world and connected Hungary with a Europe enthralled by the Enlightenment. What influence these books had upon Hungarian political thought and discourse can only be imagined. The latter half of the 18th century was a time of relative peace and prosperity for Hungarian nobles. The Ottoman Turkish occupation was growing more distant with each passing decade, by comparison Habsburg rule were relatively benign. The Kingdom of Hungary was by no means independent or autonomous, but Hungarian consent in imperial affairs was often sought by the Habsburgs. Alexei Perenyi may have been in a European backwater, but his books showed that he was connected to a much larger and changing world.

Telling Tales – The Life Of A Family
These books were so inviting to look at and delicious to read that Eleanor Perenyi had them relocated to a room closest to where she slept. The true power of those volumes was not only in the ideas they transmitted, but the fact that she was following in the footsteps of a Perenyi forebear who also craved the written word. This continued a tradition of self-education that was central to the lives of Alexei and Eleanor Perenyi, a connection that stretched across a century and a half. It is hard to imagine the value of the Perenyi library during the 18th century. This has little to do with money. The books of Alexei Perenyi also acted as a sort of news of the day, filled with new ideas and information. It is hard to imagine just how remote Perenyi Castle was back then from the centers of political power in Vienna and Pozsony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia). The books Eleanor found were a lifeline to the outside world for Alexei Perenyi. And this world did not speak a word of English, since there was not one English language book to be found in the entire library.

And it was not just books that Eleanor discovered, she also delved deeply into an archive of family correspondence. Unlike the books that were filled with ideas and information, these personal letters were rich in narrative. They told of the everyday lives led by several generations of Perenyi’s and their friends during the heyday of Austria-Hungary. This was a time when the Adriatic was almost as much a Hungarian Sea as Lake Balaton. Trips to the seaside of what is today Croatia and northeastern Italy were a rite of passage. Governesses and archduchesses were as much a part of life as horse riding and hunting. This world had not quite been lost, but irreparably altered by the Great War. Viewed through the prism of personal letters it was both real and fantastical. Eleanor read love letters quaint yet romantic in their formality. I am quite sure that she was able to put herself in place of the author, imagining how she would have reacted or felt in similar circumstances. Time must have ticked backwards for her as she read the letters and relived the lives of people whose footsteps she was now following. In this sense, the library spoke volumes.

More Was Lost - A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

More Was Lost – A Memoir by Eleanor Perenyi

Reimagined & Recovered – The Glory Of Dusty Volumes
Then another cataclysm – World War II – executed the final death sentence for Perenyi Castle and the nobility at Szollos. Among the victims was their library. We can only imagine how the books and letters were either stolen or destroyed, scattered in a hundred directions or cast into the rubbish bin. The terrible birth of Stalinism in the Subcarpathians required this loss of lifeblood. An avenging Red Army set in motion a merciless destruction of the Perenyi’s past. For the Soviets had to destroy the past, so they could control the future. Eleanor Perenyi was the last in the family line to experience that wonderful library as it had existed for centuries. It had been a great gift for her and she paid it the ultimate respect, by recreating it in her memoir. Each sentence a shelve, every word a book or letter to be reimagined and recovered by future generations such as myself. Left to marvel at the glory of those dusty volumes and the woman who brought a library back to life through a single book.

In The Shadow Of The Carpathians -Eleanor Perenyi at Szollos: Finding What Was Lost (Part One)

I was looking to kill an hour before meeting friends for dinner in Budapest. I was already out and about in the city, so I chose one of my favorite activities to pass the time, looking in bookstores for English language books. This is how I ended up at the Libri bookstore across from Nyugati (Western) Train Station on a mid-winter’s afternoon. I had been in this bookstore many times before, always finding their selection of English language books in disarray. The fiction was interspersed with the non-fiction, making it difficult to differentiate between the two. Tourist guidebooks could be found in more than one section, as could the oversized picture books that are so popular with tourists. The arrangement made little sense and was haphazard at best. This left me at the mercy of serendipity.

While picking my way through the stacks I noticed a paperback with a deep red spine. At first I thought the book was fiction, perhaps a short novel. The author had a Hungarian surname which piqued my interest. I had never heard of Eleanor Perenyi or the book, entitled More Was Lost: A Memoir. The cover displayed a painting called An Autumn Landscape. In that painting the trees are colored a deep orangish-red, in the background hills tinged with a violet hue are set against a yellow sky. The painting evokes a world almost on fire. This was definitely an autumn landscape, but where? I soon found the place it was meant to evoke.

The Castle at Szollos - during the 1930s

The Castle at Szollos – during the 1930s

Teetering On The Edge – The Waning Days Of Nobility
A short description of the author and her memoir were written neatly across the back cover. I was surprised to learn that Eleanor Perenyi was an American who “falls in love with a poor Hungarian baron and in short order acquires both a title and a struggling country estate at the edge of the Carpathians.” That last word hooked me. Carpathians conjured images of dark forests, remote frontier and a mysterious land. The other grabber was, “observing the invisible order of the Czech rule, the resentment of the native Ruthenians and the haughtiness of the dispossessed Hungarians”. Perenyi had lived in an area where borders collided. That pre-World War II world where disparate peoples lived side by side, each with their own languages, cultures, customs and  political aspirations. I had traveled by train on a couple of occasions through this area known as the sub-Carpathians, which in the 20th century had been part of Greater Hungary, then Czechoslovakia, back to Hungary, the Soviet Union and finally Ukraine.

This was a region at a time in history – the late 1930’s -of which relatively little was written in the English language. Perenyi was one of the few Americans who had witnessed the waning days of Hungarian nobility as it teetered on the edge of destruction. I flipped through the pages, looking for place names. On page 33 I found a grainy black and white photo of a Baroque palace labeled Szollos. The photo drew me in like a magnet, I needed this place, not only in the past of this memoir, but in the future for my life. I impulsively made the decision to purchase the book. The purchase was an affirmation that I would plan on visiting Szollos. That is if it still existed.

Eleanor Perenyi - Author of More Was Lost: A Memoir

Eleanor Perenyi – Author of More Was Lost: A Memoir

Heirs To A Noble Heritage –  The Perenyi’s Place In The World
Immediately I read through the book’s introduction which gave an overview of Eleanor Perenyi’s life. I discovered she came from a wealthy family in the northeastern United States. She had been traveling with her mother in Europe, when she went to dinner one night in Budapest. That was where the young Eleanor, who was only of high school age at the time, met Zsiga Perenyi. It was not long thereafter that the couple was married in Venice. Zsiga was heir to a noble heritage, but at this point in history the Perenyi family was nearly impoverished. They did own a palace and small estate which had ended up in the Subcarpathia region of Czechoslovakia due to the post-World War One Treaty Of Trianon which had dismembered Greater Hungary. This was problematic. When they had first met, Zsiga did not have the right to live at his ancestral family home, only visit. The land reform following Czechoslovakia’s takeover of the region had led to shrinkage of the Perenyi estate. Despite this, there was still the palace, orchards, a garden and forests that might somehow be renovated into a viable estate. Zsiga obtained the proper permission to resettle there along with his new American wife. This was as far as I got into the book during my first reading.

I could hardly wait to do research on Szollos, to learn some of its history and locate it on a map. The place Eleanor Perenyi refers to as Szollos is actually Vynohradiv (Nagyszolos in Hungarian) in extreme southwestern Ukraine today. I had already learned from the book’s introduction that the castle still existed, albeit in a much different state from when the newlywed Perenyi’s lived there. The exterior looked much the same as it did before the war broke out. The interior was an entirely different story. From what I could see it had been greatly modified. Ironically the Soviets had made a museum out of it, but then Ukraine transformed it into an administration building for the local schools. This was nothing new for old aristocratic palaces and manor houses in Eastern Europe. Since the mid-20th century they have been valued as much for utilitarian purposes as for their history. Zakarpattia Oblast, the Ukrainian administrative district where the former Perenyi residence is located today, happens to be one of the poorest places in the country. Since the castle was such a well-built structure it has been used for a multitude of enterprises. Ukraine is not a member of the European Union, thus it is much harder to procure development funds for reconstruction. History is not number one on the list of priorities for a place struggling to survive.

Perenyi Castle

Perenyi Castle (Credit: ibulyah)

Haunted Castle  – The Ghosts of Love
From what I discovered  in my initial research the past is a different country in Szollos, lost in time, but not to memory because More Was Lost manages to capture the past. Perenyi’s love for that period of her life was so great that she could not fathom a return, the hurt went too deep. She was aware of how much had changed at the castle, it was one of the reasons she never went back, not once after writing her memoir, even though she lived until 2009. The couple’s only child, a son named Peter, visited in 2001. He brought back pictures which caused his mother to recoil in horror. The castle was a far cry from the way it looked in her day or for that matter today. It was on the verge of becoming, like her long ago love, a ruin. Since that time enough work has been done to make it look respectable and worth a visit, if no longer for the Perenyi family, then at least for me.

Coming soon: A Library Brought Back To Life By A Single Book – Eleanor Perenyi At Szollos (Part Two)

 

 

Scarred With The Same Memory – Fleeing East Prussia:  Arrival Of A Red Army

One of the most disturbing photos I have seen from World War II did not show any battlefield scenes, it was not of any wounded, sick or dying, fire bombed cities or death camps and had nothing to do with the Holocaust. It did not show anyone being humiliated or executed, for that matter it did not show any kind of damage whatsoever. All the photo showed was four people who had not yet been harmed. They were hurriedly making their way through the dark forests of East Prussia. The photo looks as though it was taken at night. It shows these people on the move, likely a family. Their image blurred, but not deliberately so. A man is in the lead, carrying a suitcase in each hand and a pack on his back with whatever belongings he had hastily gathered. Behind him is a woman with a scarf wrapped around her head, she also has a suitcase in hand. Further back, can be seen a woman with a small child in tow.

These are people running for their lives, trying to make a last-minute escape from an apocalyptic storm. One that had been creeping ever closer on the eastern horizon throughout the latter half of 1944. Warnings of what fate might befall them had been broadcast loud and clear by German propaganda. In a bid to get East Prussians to fight for every inch of this frontier Fatherland, Nazi propaganda had spewed forth in both words and pictures information on a massacre of German civilians by Red Army soldiers in the town of Nemmersdorf on August 20, 1944. Women, young girls and even the elderly were raped, other stories told of naked women crucified on barn doors. The propaganda was effective in putting fear into the East Prussian populace, not to fight, but to flee.

A photo that does the fear proper justice - Civilians flee through the dark forests of East Prussia

A photo that does the fear proper justice – Civilians flee through the dark forests of East Prussia

Hell On The Horizon – A Symbol Of Merciless Vengeance
As one of the bitterest winters in memory descended on East Prussia the dull roar of artillery fire had grown louder. Soon the night horizon was lit by the ghoulish glow of infernal fires. The population grew increasingly fearful, what horrors lay just a few kilometers away were not hard to imagine. The hellish horizon blazed brighter by the hour, a symbol of merciless vengeance. One can only imagine the fear and foreboding in those final weeks of 1944. Meanwhile Nazi administrators and party officials downplayed the threat, while threatening to shoot anyone who tried to evacuate and making plans for their own getaways. Thus, they left hundreds of thousands of defenseless ethnic Germans in the path of the bloodthirsty Red Army.

In January 1945, the storm finally broke, a hail of fire and steel, anger and vengeance fell upon East Prussia. This was the first piece of German territory the Red Army set foot on. All the pent-up rage from three years of apocalyptic suffering on Soviet territory – where German troops had plundered and torched thousands of villages, murdered innocent civilians and committed bestial atrocities – was now to be unleashed on anyone and anything unfortunate enough to get in their way. Soviet soldiers would fish in ponds with grenades, mass rapes occurred, family members who protested would be shot or even worse. No ethnic German was to be spared and most realized that. Thus, the hurried flights through dark forests, along snowy roads, across icy lagoons and wading into frigid waters. The scene in the photo was repeated hundreds of thousands of times, with varying degrees of success. There were those who wanted to stay and did. Witness to the final moment of a way of life that was about to become history.

East Prussian refugees on the move

Flight over fight – East Prussian refugees on the move

The Last Supper – A Countess & The Coming Chaos
The last supper must have been a hard one to swallow. Three women sat at a dinner table together for the last time. One was Countess Marion Grafin Donhoff, a scion of Prussian aristocracy and future publisher of the German news weekly Die Zeit. The other two were secretaries. It was a frigid Friday night in late January. The dinner took place at the Donhoff estate in Quittainen (now the Polish village of Kwitajny). Exactly two hundred and two years before, Philipp Otto Graf Donhoff had come into possession of the estate. Various improvements over the ensuing years had created an immaculately kept landscape. The castle house was a hub of refinement and culture in the heart of East Prussia. All that was about to come to an end. The word had been given by the local authorities that everyone should evacuate by midnight.

Countess Donhoff and her closest confidants could only imagine the dreadful fate which awaited them if they did not leave. When they finished their meal the women did not clean the table, but left the place settings just as they were. None of the women  locked the door as they walked out of the castle for the last time. Soon they were riding horses westward across a countryside covered with snow and consumed by bitter cold.  In a matter of minutes, Countess Donhoff went from a life of wealth and comfort to having next to nothing. We know about the last supper from Countess Donhoff’s memoirs, what we do not know is exactly what occurred when the first Red Army soldiers set foot inside that dining room. They would have entered with snow on their boots and blood on their hands. Almost immediately, the looting of valuables and the smashing of furniture would have begun.

Ruined rent house at the former Donhoff estate

After the fall – Ruined rent house at the former Donhoff estate (Credit: mef ellingen)

Staying Behind – Everything That Had Been Lost
The landowners and villagers in the immediate area who chose to stay behind and take their chances with the Soviet soldiers were subject to extremely harsh treatment. Out of thirty people, sixteen were executed, some of which included children. The other fourteen were deported to the Soviet Union for hard labor duty.  The scene at Quittainen was repeated all over East Prussia. The Junker (Prussian landowning aristocrats) estates were picked clean of any valuables, farmsteads put to the torch, summary executions and deportations carried out on those unfortunate enough to meet Soviet soldiers. As for Countess Donhoff, she eventually made it to safety and the west, but she never forgot her last supper in Quittainen or everything that had been lost in the immediate aftermath. She was one of many scarred with that same memory.

 

A Wild Picture Of Destruction – The Creation Of Kaliningrad: Expulsion Of All Things Germans 

In early May of 1945, about the same time that Berlin fell to the Red Army, a German prisoner of war by the name of Walter Tolkmitt was brought to the grounds of Balga Castle on the western edge of East Prussia. Tolkmitt, along with 600 others, helped bury hundreds of dead horses now festering in the spring warmth. He later recalled that, “The castle ruin has also lost half the turn and the new castle pitcher is totally burned down. All Kahlholz’s fields were full of debris from vehicles, guns, field kitchens and all kinds of equipment. A wild picture of destruction! Flour, legumes, bread, and even bacon lay around in the fields, so that the villagers did not need to starve for the first time.” The unsettling scene of destruction Tolkmitt witnessed, was the end result of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s monstrous ambitions in the East. In a modern crusade for Lebensraum (living space), the Germans had brought the wrath and fury of the Red Army down upon their countrymen and women. The Soviets aimed to annihilate the German presence in the area and keep the region as a prize of war. In the case of Germanic East Prussia annihilation was to precede occupation. This occurred as much after the war as during it.

A Wild Picture Of Destruction - East Prussia in 1945

A Wild Picture Of Destruction – East Prussia in 1945

The Merciless Conquest – A Clean Sweep Will Be Made
While Balga Castle was surrounded by dead animals, the fragmented remains of burned out vehicles, spent artillery shells and the flotsam of discarded belongings, the ground was soaked with the blood of German soldiers. In this marsh ridden, swampy soil the bones of some of the Reich’s finest soldiers were forever preserved as grisly artifacts of an apocalyptic fight they had no chance of winning and little of surviving. German soldiers had been outnumbered twenty to one when the campaign in East Prussia began. By the time of those final furious engagements around Balga in late March, the odds against the defenders were exponentially greater. Many fought to the death because the Germans knew what awaited them at the hands of the Soviets, namely a fate just as bad or worse than death. They might be shot or starved, deported and enslaved. The same fate awaited the German civilians who lived in what was about to become the former German province of East Prussia.

The land in which the still smoldering ruins of Balga stood would become part of the new Russian oblast (province) of Kaliningrad, named after one of Josef Stalin’s henchmen, a Communist Party grandee who somehow survived the numerous purges of the Soviet dictator.  Kalinin died in 1946 and received the bizarre honor of having a place he never came close to visiting named after him. One of Stalin’s worst purges was yet to come, but this one would have nothing to do with the Communist Party hierarchy. Instead it would ensnare the Germans of East Prussia. Four years earlier, after Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, Stalin said that East Prussia would eventually be “returned back to Slavdom, where it belongs.” He could not have been more correct. The moment had now arrived when that return was to be affected. Concerning the expulsions, Winston Churchill said, “There will be no mixture of population to cause endless trouble. A clean sweep will be made.”

East Prussian refugees - fleeing the Red Army in 1945

East Prussian refugees – fleeing the Red Army in 1945

Orderly And Humane – A Matter Of Interpretation
The Potsdam Conference between the victorious Allies called for population transfers of Germans to be done in an “orderly and humane manner”. Those words meant something very different to the Soviet leadership. The Germans were enemies who had been totally defeated, they and anything Germanic in origin would be dealt with on that basis. In the case of East Prussia, part of it was given to Poland, while a strategic wedge was to become Soviet territory. The latter included a swath of shoreline and the adjacent inland territory. The East Prussian capital and culturally rich German city of Konigsberg was part of this arrangement. Other lesser known remnants of the Teutonic legacy such as Balga fell within what Kaliningrad Oblast, a constituent part of the Soviet Union. The dreadful irony of this outcome could not have been lost on the ethnic Germans left in East Prussia. The war in the east had been a bid to expand the frontiers of Germany at the expense of the Soviet Union. Now the opposite was going to happen. The Soviets were going to put an end to Germans in the east. Meanwhile, far away from the high politics and fine print of peace treaties were those stuck on the ground within the old borders. Their fate was sealed.

Germans prisoners such as Tolkmitt were focused on one thing, survival. It is doubtful that he or the hundreds of others forced to work beside him spent much time pondering the ruins of Balga. They did not have time to contemplate history, because they were becoming part of it. A little over seven centuries earlier, the ethnic German Teutonic Knights had taken the wooden fortress of Balga from the Warmians, one of the pagan Prusai tribes (Old Prussians) that had inhabited the area. The Teutonic Knights also took the native Prusai’s land, livelihood and eventually their name. The Prusai were methodically eradicated or assimilated into the newly dominant culture. They did not stand a chance. The conquerors created a new and more permanent culture. Now it was the ancestors of those conquerors who had finally been conquered themselves.

The Way It Used To Be - Konigsberg

The Way It Used To Be – Konigsberg

Fragments Of A Former World – Vanishing Remains
The nearby village of Balga ceased to exist, the war had all but destroyed it. The ruined walls of the castle had long been uninhabitable and for a time during the prewar era they held a museum. Now those ruins were little more than a lost legacy of an alien culture. The few Germans in this area would soon vanish. Their existence was just as novel as what the little that was left of Balga Castle and even less permanent. The only traces of Teutonic culture on the shores of the East Baltic Sea were ruins such as the ones Tolkmitt noticed on that fateful day. Those ruins were symbolic, not just of a castle or the Teutonic Knights, but of a Germanic presence that was about to be banished forever.

 

The Spoils Of Victory & Defeat – From Kaliningrad To Konigsberg: Letting Them In, Only So Far

The Roman historian Tacitus recorded for posterity a speech that the Caledonian (present-day northern Scotland) chieftain Calgacus made to rally his forces. In it Calgacus said the Romans “make a desert and call it peace”. And they certainly did that time and again. The most notable instance of which was the Third Punic War (149 – 146 BC), where they wiped Carthage off the face of North Africa. In modern times, the closest historical parallel to that Roman aphorism was the Soviet Union’s transformation of Germanic East Prussia into a thoroughly Russified territory at the end of World War Two and its immediate aftermath. 80% of the old capital of Konigsberg was destroyed in an apocalyptic siege at the end of the war. The German population was deported and Russian speakers were resettled in the area. Eastern Prussia, which had once been the seat of power for the crusading Teutonic Knights and had provided the German Reich with many of its greatest generals, was totally transformed into a constituent part of Russia.  The Soviets made a desert and called it Kaliningrad.

Königsberg & the Pregel River in 1945

Königsberg & the Pregel River in 1945

From Teutonism To Putinism – Russia Moves West
Once known for its fairy tale Gothic architecture and serpentine medieval streets, also as the home of the philosopher Emmanuel Kant and where every Prussian King had been crowned since 1701, the former capital of Eastern Prussia was rebuilt in a planned Soviet style. With only a few notable exceptions, gone were any hints of the Teutonic. It was replaced by a concrete encased, brutalist architecture with all the imagination that totalitarian ideology would allow. In other words, not much.  Kaliningrad suffered mightily in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Much of its prosperity was built on military spending which dived during the 1990’s.

The Russian Baltic Fleet became little more than a rust bucket, bobbing in the half empty harbor of Baltiysk. Officers and sailors were reduced to penury, many forced to live with their families aboard rusting ships. Meanwhile, the citizenry suffered from crime, drug and alcohol abuse on an unheard of scale. Only with the rise of Vladimir Putin did the situation improve. Today, Kaliningrad is one of the most strategically fraught points in Europe, wedged between Poland and Lithuania, it provides Russia with a year round ice free port in the East Baltic Sea and a staging ground for nuclear weapons aimed at the heart of Europe. Kaliningrad is also a barrier for travelers, as I discovered while studying the map on my way back to Poland from Lithuania.

I have always been attracted to places that are difficult to access. Show me somewhere that entry is not freely granted and I am interested. It is hard to explain the allure, but I feel a magnetic pull to places that do not allow easy admission. I did not have time to try and get a visa to Kaliningrad, as I had to be in Warsaw for a flight back home the next day, but that did not stop me from lamenting the fact that I should have tried to go there earlier in my trip. After crossing the border from Lithuania into Poland, I got as close to Russian territory as I have ever been. I was less than 20 kilometers as the crow flies from Kaliningrad Oblast. If I had been able to take a sharp detour to the north, what would I have found?

Kaliningrad - Russian strategic wedge

Kaliningrad – Russian strategic wedge


Separation Anxiety – Parting of The Ways

In my mind, I envisioned shadowy forests, crumbling aristocratic mansions and shimmering lakes teeming with wildlife. This image was idyllic. Later after my trip was over I did some research. I discovered that Kaliningrad was a pale reflection of what it had once been. The reality is much different today. The culture of rural aristocracy in the countryside and brilliant intellectual life in the capital had died or was deported along with hundreds of thousands of Germans at the end of the war. Kaliningrad could not look back at its Germanic past with pride, only disdain for where that had eventually led.  It was a troubled territory suffering something of an identity crisis. This was to be expected since it was the Soviets who gave the oblast (similar to a province) its contemporary reason for being. Kaliningrad was part of Russia, but not of it. The neighboring countries close on its borders had now become members of the European Union. Where did this leave the place? With a massive bout of separation anxiety.

Mother Russia was hundreds of kilometers away, while Poland and Lithuania were just as distant politically and economically. Kaliningrad was a Cold War anachronism, but proved to be quite useful for Putin. Russia’s window on the west was no longer St. Petersburg, it had shifted southwestward to Kaliningrad and looked to stay that way. Russia had long since lost control of the Baltic States, most of Ukraine and the entire Eastern Bloc. Kaliningrad was the last thing left from the spoils of the Red Army’s ultimate victory on the Eastern Front in 1945.

Rising from the ruins - Kneiphof Island with reconstructed Konigsberg Cathedral

Rising from the ruins – Kneiphof Island with reconstructed Konigsberg Cathedral (Credit: Gumerov Ildar)

An Open Secret – Not To be Ignored
I knew that even if I had the time, inclination and most importantly, a visa to enter Kaliningrad, I would not be visiting Russia proper. Only a place that had been pacified and then Russified. Everyone might speak Russian and live like Russians, but this was a product of imposition, an unnatural ordering. There was a part of me that longed to see Kaliningrad, but only because of its Prussian past. The Soviet legacy hung over it like death, The Russian past and future offered some hope, albeit limited. To get beyond this, one would first have to get beyond a border which was still controlled. Kaliningrad had been a secret city when it was part of the Soviet Union, off limits to foreigners and most Soviet citizens. Now it was an open secret, that the world could not afford to ignore. It was always there, in the way. A reminder of what once was and never will be again. A reminder of the cost of conquest. A reminder of a place that only lets someone in so far. A reminder of a place I could only go in the imagination. And that would never be far enough.

Solving The Unsolvable – The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg: Euler’s Path To Genius

Math was never my strong suit. Basic Algebra was the limit of my arithmetical competence. Everything beyond that was a struggle. In geometry I struggled to a grade of C, Algebra II a grade of D and I dropped Trigonometry after one week. I knew getting through any university level math courses would be a struggle. Imagine my surprise then, after I got to college and found a course called Infinite Math. It was not nearly as daunting as its name. The course consisted of Maths that could be applied to the real world. My favorite of these was something called Euler Circuits, which meant finding the most efficient route for a journey. There was also the less rigorous Euler Path. Trying to figure out the most efficient Euler Circuit or Path became one of my favorite mathematical exercises.  As for the name Euler, it never meant much to me until I recognized it again after many years while reading about Konigsberg, the old capital of Prussia and today the city of Kaliningrad, in the Russian oblast of the same name.

The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg

The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg

A Problem Without A Solution – Explaining The Impossible
The Old Town of Konigsberg stood on both sides of the Pregel River. Uniquely, as the river flowed through the city it wove its way around two islands. The more famous of the two was the Kneipfhof which had five bridges going across arms of the river. Another two bridges crossed branches of the river from another island, Lomse. These seven bridges were the genesis of a puzzle that many in the town tried to solve. As one resident of Konigsberg related in a letter to Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler, couples in the town liked to try and figure out a route to cross every bridge once without ever having to re-cross any of the same bridges again. An even tougher problem would be to do this while ending up back in the same place they began. In 1736 Euler set himself the task of proving that a solution to this problem was impossible. He did this by focusing only on the land masses and bridges. He made each land mass a “point” or in modern parlance a “node”. Each connecting bridge was an “arc”. This abstraction could then be drawn as a graph. Euler’s proof was published in 1741, six years after he first began to study the bridges problem.

The essence of the problem was how to draw this upon a sheet of paper without retracing any line or lifting a pencil off the paper. This laid the basis for the first ever theorem of graph theory. Euler’s name was given to among other things, Euler Paths which is a continuous route that passes every edge once and only once. His name was also given to Euler Circuits, a path beginning and ending at the same starting point without retracing any part of the route. Many people in Konigsberg understood from experience that there was no route that could be followed to cross all Seven Bridges of Konigsberg once and only once without retracing some part of the route. Euler’s innovation was that he could explain the impossibility of a solution and used it to develop the basis for graphs, networks and topology. Euler’s mathematical genius extended to the counter-intuitive. With the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg he proved the rationale, reasoning and intellectual uses of a problem that could never be solved.

The Wooden Bridge - in 1930's Konigsberg

The Wooden Bridge – in 1930’s Konigsberg (Credit: Eigenes Werk)

Bridging A Divide – From Konigsberg To Kaliningrad
Crossing the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg as Euler knew them is impossible today, but not because of any mathematical problems. The difficulty arises from the fact that, like almost all of old Konigsberg, most of the bridges no longer exist in their original form. Two of the bridges – Blacksmith’s Bridge and Giblet’s Bridge – were destroyed in the British bombing of the city. Both of those bridges led to and from Kant Island. The bombing which took place on two nights in late August of 1944, also leveled much of the castle and cathedral, though the latter has been rebuilt. Two other bridges – the Shopkeeper and Green Bridge – disappeared after the war to make way for Leninsky Prospekt in what had suddenly become Kaliningrad, a closed Soviet city. Thus, the Seven Bridges of Konigsberg were now three bridges in Kaliningrad. The most popular of the three that still exists today is also the only one that goes to Kneiphof, the aptly named Honey Bridge. Like many other famous bridges in European metropolises it sports hundreds of padlocks which are symbols of those romantic couples hoping these symbols will secure their love forever.

The Honey Bridge leads between the reconstructed Cathedral and the Fishing Village, two of the most famous spots in the Old Town which only adds to the foot traffic. Another bridge which is original, the Wooden Bridge, was lucky enough to escape destruction by either bombs or Bolsheviks. For historical harmony, it would be nice if all the bridges were rebuilt, only one holds that honor and it was rebuilt before the war by Germans, not afterwards by the Soviets. It is known simply as the High Bridge. The upshot of all this bridge building, crossing and destruction is that only two of the seven bridges that existed during Euler’s time can still be found in their original form today. It is easy enough to cross those two bridges without having to retrace one’s footsteps. Yet there were and still are many more bridges in Konigsberg to cross, perhaps not as famous, but just as important in their own way.

Leonhard Euler - mathematical genius

Leonhard Euler – mathematical genius (Credit: Jakob Emanuel Handmann)

Fits Of Mathematical Imagination – The Seven Bridges Of Kaliningrad
One can only speculate as to all the different problems and solutions Euler could have concocted by adding or subtracting these bridges in his theoretical fits of mathematical imagination. Today Euler would have the option of adding the newly built or refurbished Flyover and Jubilee Bridges to his equation. This has brought the total of bridges in the city back up to seven. Many things have changed in Kaliningrad and Konigsberg is no more, but the Seven Bridges problem still exists, albeit in extremely modified form.