A Shot In The Dark – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Six)

I am not entirely sure where my fascination with the suicide of General Alexander Samsonov at the Battle of Tannenberg started, but what I am sure of is where it led.  That was to a wooded area beside a dirt road west of Wielbark (Willenberg), Poland. The area is not the Poland of popular imagination or tourist literature. Warsaw or Wroclaw, Krakow or Gdansk have nothing in common with the place. Only a few fanatics of the Eastern Front during World War I would give much thought to such a spot, especially considering it is where Samsonov committed suicide. For reasons that will likely always remain elusive to me, I was obsessed with visiting the place. Obsession has little regard for space or time. Traveling thousands of kilometers across the Atlantic Ocean and into a relatively obscure region of Eastern Europe was no barrier. Neither were the fifteen years that elapsed from the time I first read about Samsonov at the Battle of Tannenberg and the moment I stood before the place where he took his last breath.  

Date of death – Plaque on the Samsonov Monument

Taking Account – Firing The Imagination
The journey to get there was quite an adventure, one that started after I read several accounts of Samsonov’s suicide in three different books. The first account I read was in Barbara Tuchman’s famous book about the beginning of World War I, The Guns of August. Another one was from British Major-General Sir Alfred Knox’s book, With The Russian Army 1914 – 1917. Knox was the British military attache to the Tsarist Army. The most vivid account I read and one that that embedded itself in my memory was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalized retelling of Samsonov’s final moments in perhaps his least known work, August 1914. That account lit a fire in my imagination. I read it a decade and a half ago with no idea that one day I would find my way to that sinister spot. This made the actual moment when I finally found my way there nothing less than sublime.

Samsonov prepared to end his life on August 30, 1914, the region in which he died was a much different place than the one that exists today. The area was part of East Prussia (German Empire) rather than Poland. The latter had not existed as an independent state since 1775 and would not be resurrected until the German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires that ruled over different parts of it were destroyed by the First World War. In August 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm II led the German Empire, Adolf Hitler was a corporal, and communism a fringe ideal of radical revolutionaries led by Vladimir Lenin. The Romanov Dynasty’s rule over Russia had just surpassed its three hundredth year. No one could imagine the upheaval to come.

Before the fall – General Alexander Samsonov

Monumental Task – Teutonic Strength
Tsarist Russia had invaded East Prussia on August 15th and their initial success sent the German Empire into panic. This would not last. By the time a bullet passed through Samsonov’s brain, the train wreck that was the Russian Imperial Army had been exposed. While Tsarist forces would fight on for three more years, the defeat at Tannenberg was an ominous sign of further losses to come. Like Samsonov, most Russian leaders on and off the battlefield would not survive the war. The suicide of Samsonov – commanding general of the Russian 2nd Army – was a unique event amid a devastating defeat. His suicide symbolized the decisiveness of Germany’s victory, one they would never repeat. German pride during the interwar period demanded some sort of satisfaction. That is why they must have felt compelled to mark the spot where Samsonov shot himself.

The monument that still stands there today was a place of pilgrimage for German battlefield buffs, tourists and nationalists looking for signs of Teutonic victory in a war they lost. If not for this singular act of understated monumentalism I would never have been able to find the place where Samsonov killed himself. By going there, I was not only following Samsonov’s final steps, but also the path trod by interwar German nationalists. Strangely enough, the Samsonov monument commemorates Russia’s first catastrophic loss in World War I and Germany’s spiral into nationalism that led to the rise of Nazism. There are few obscure monuments so fraught with history.  

The destination – Signboard at the Samsonov Monument

Getting There – Out of the Way     
Getting to the Samsonov Monument was not easy. Public transport in rural Poland is reliable, but infrequent. Travel arrangements in this part of Poland require careful planning. Train travel to the site was impossible unless I wanted to spend an entire day walking to and from the monument along a roadside. A train did run near the place when the Battle of Tannenberg occurred. I was over a hundred years too late. Grass now covers parts of the derelict tracks. Buses do travel between Wielbark and Nidzica (Niedenburg). There was only one problem. Walking to the monument from the nearest bus stop would have still required an hours-long walk to and from the monument. In addition, I would have probably spent an inordinate amount of time standing at a forlorn rural bus stop. These are little more than a wooden shelter where a couple people can sit. That was if I could locate one. I did not intend to find out.

The only option was to rent a car. This is what me and my travel companion decided to do. My friend did not have an obsessive interest in Samsonov, but he was curious about what happened at Tannenberg. That was good enough for me. Thus, the two of us stationed ourselves in Olsztyn (Allenstein), the nearest major city to the monument. This being the Masurian Lakes region of Poland, Olsztyn is a prosperous provincial city with 150,000 people. It has a small, elegant Old Town, a clutch of magnificent churches, the look of prosperity, and a peacefulness that is far removed from its wartime past. The Samsonov Monument would give an approximation of that past. That was as close as I could get to Samsonov, the battle, and the First World War on the Eastern Front.  

Click here for: The Wilderness of Tannenberg – Searching For Alexander Samsonov’s Suicide (Part Seven)

The Perils of Parenting – Prague: Glittering Unhappiness (Eastern Europe & Me #8)

The girl looked miserable and her mother even more so. I met them while on a Free Tour of Prague Castle. That day was one of the greyest imaginable. The mother and daughter duo were headed for stormy weather. Their mood just as grim as the sky which hung over the Castle District like a shadow. Anyone who has spent winter/early spring in Central or Eastern Europe will surely know what I mean., The sky turns to slate, a chill permeates the air and seeps into the skin. Stepping outside induces an immediate need to go back to sleep. Even the widest-eyed travelers find themselves in a perpetual fog as the day becomes one with the night. On this day, Prague’s ambiance was like that found in a funeral home. The day could hardly be differentiated from night.

Gray day – The view in the late afternoon from Prague Castle

Family Ties – The Coming Conflict
When a first-time visitor starts wishing for darkness to descend and put the day out of its misery, you know the situation is dire. This was my main thought as I tried to fight off sleep. The sky could not have been heavier. Even those with the sunniest dispositions would start begging for a cloudburst. Anything to break the monotonous weather. Some days seem longer than others, this one felt infinite. Thus, the mother and daughter duo were as reflective of the climate as they were of one another. I distinctly recall speaking with them after passing through the Golden Lane where Kafka once lived. Even in the permanent dusk that cloaked everything in dullness the pastel homes on either side of the cobblestone lane were of such warmth that it could not but help but make me feel better about the world. Unfortunately, beauty, charm, and history did nothing to brighten the mood of mother and daughter. They were headed for an epic row, their time on this tour was only serving to exacerbate the strain.

The coming conflict between them was quite simple. From what the mother told me, they had been on a sort of grand tour of Eastern Europe. I surmised the reason was to make the daughter more worldly. From the look on her face, it had only made her surly. I am not quite sure if she wanted to be in Prague, but one thing was certain, she did not want to be with her mother. After the latter told me about their trip it was easy to understand why. They were from New York City and the daughter went to an elite private school. The kind that probably made a mother-daughter trip to Eastern Europe sound like the sort of extracurricular activity that would look good on a college application. I was certain the mother had plans for her daughter that included an Ivy league school or some other institution of higher education whose yearly tuition cost more than the average salary of an entire Czech family.

The Golden Lane – Twilight in Prague Castle

Ball & Chain – The Parent Trap
The daughter had her eye on the door, an invisible one, that imaginary escape hatch where she would be released from the ball and chain of parental control. From the looks of it, the daughter was under intense pressure from the mother to excel in everything. This would guarantee a glittering life and lead to no end of unhappiness. I sensed illicit drug use, excessive drinking, and other acts of unspeakable behavior in her future. It was either that or a profoundly upper-class existence where everything was defined as superior. I have often wondered what it is like to be wealthy, if this iteration was any indication than I must consider my working-class roots akin to winning the lottery.

The scene between the two was rather depressing. I probably would never have noticed, but an inquiry about where my fellow Americans were from led to the mother inquiring about my travels. She seemed to be both fascinated and bemused by the fact that I had been traveling around Eastern Europe alone. This was something of a novelty to her because they were in throes of a rigorous travel schedule that had led to considerable angst bordering on exhaustion. The mother wore an expression of frustration, the daughter a look of repressed anger. This situation was eventually going to end badly for them. The unhappiness was palpable. Prague was not their final destination. Instead, the itinerary called for a visit to Budapest. They were probably not going to make it, either literally or figuratively. Each for their own reasons, they were looking for a way out of this self-imposed madness that had brought them both to the edge of sanity.

Exhaustion & angst – Sculpture at Prague Castle

Scandalous Ideas – Nothing But The Best  
I knew the mother must be desperate when she began asking my advice about visiting Budapest. With my strange southern drawl, public school education, and carefree attitude towards travel, I was not exactly wise in the worldly ways of the northeastern elite. My idea of a good day of travel was to experience the spontaneous and pseudo-seedy. I had been lurking around an abandoned district railway station in Prague earlier that day. For me, that was the right thing to do. I am sure the mother would have been mortified by such an idea and her daughter elated. And now the mother wanted my opinion of Budapest. Of course, I said it was incredible. That no Eastern European journey would be complete without a visit. I had a feeling that my reasons for visiting Budapest as opposed to theirs could not have been more different.

The mother wanted the daughter to gain a worldly education which meant she had to see the very best of everything. The idea of anything seedy would have been positively scandalous. My idea of Budapest at its best was seeing the shadow world that lurked in faded fin de siècle buildings and less touristy districts. I vaguely mentioned this aspect of the city, but it seemed lost on the mother. She already had her mind made up for the daughter. The trip had been too much. Budapest was a city too far. The mother said the daughter would need to get back home, to prepare for the rest of the spring school year. The daughter did not have much say in the matter, but her expression said it all. She wanted to be done with this trip, but not as much at that moment as she wanted to be done with her mother. Ironically, their Eastern European journey was going to end with a Free Tour in Prague. I imagined they had all the money in the world and none of it was going to buy happiness.

Click here for: Making That Call – Riga: Land of Narvesen (Eastern Europe & Me #9a)

Magnetic Attraction – All Too Human In Prague (Eastern Europe & Me #7)

Playing memory games used to be one of my favorite habits. I can still recall with joy the long drives across the United States where I would recite to myself various lists such as Roman Emperors, American Presidents, and Chinese dynasties in sequential order. I did not always get them right, but I found this to be a compelling exercise to sharpen my memory and provide me with a better appreciation of the power that chronology plays in history. This was not just a dull recitation of facts, these lists lent themselves to the power of interpretation.

For instance, I realized the comparatively low number of Roman Emperors in the 2nd century versus the number in the 3rd century showed just how chaotic the empire had become. Civil Wars and problems on the frontiers with barbarian invasions had led to emperors being replaced at an alarming rate. Later as my interest in Eastern Europe grew, I began to memorize lists informed by the region. These included all the counties and country seats in Hungary or as many battles as I could recall on the Eastern Front during World War I. This later evolved into various mental games such as trying to see how many names of cities, towns, and villages I could recall in various Eastern European countries. While some might consider this habit mind numbing, I found it both educational and joyous.

Out of focus – Tijo at Prague Castle

Fallible Blessing – Less Than Total Recall
Memory can be a blessing or a curse. For me it has mostly been the former, particularly when recalling my travels. One day a couple of years ago, I sat down and listed every one of my trips to Eastern Europe. This started with points of arrival and departure for each trip along with the year they occurred. I then added many of the places I visited on these journeys. This gave me a general, but not quite exhaustive list of everywhere I had been. I began to realize that there were many places that I could barely recall. Memory being fallible, I sometimes mixed up the dates and places of my travels. This was especially true when I returned to some of the same countries on multiple occasions. As one might imagine, I found recalling the first time I had been somewhere much easier to remember.

Nevertheless, I still struggled to recall places, people and events from those travels. When this happened, I knew that I needed do a better job of documenting my journeys. Breaking them down into days would have been helpful, but I was too busy traveling to really care. My main form of documentation became photographic images. This is ironic because I crave the literal. I would always prefer to work with words, but Images are much easier to make in the digital age. Photography with a smart phone lends itself to moment-by-moment documentation. Looking at a set of photos in the order which they were taken is an easy way to catalog a journey. Not long ago, I went through over a hundred photos I took of a visit to Prague in 2012. Looking back at those photos I saw mostly buildings rather than people. Yet one of the images did show someone I had all but forgotten until he popped up on my screen.

Vivid & faded memory – As seen from Prague Castle

Passers By – All Too Human Experience
His name was Tijo, he spoke near perfect English and led several different Free Tours of Prague. I had not thought of Tijo in years until I saw him in one of my photos. I immediately recalled that he was from the Netherlands. Tijo had fallen in love with a Czech woman whom he met in Finland. They had moved back to Prague, which happened to be her hometown. The photo of Tijo was a memory trigger, helping me recall someone I had long since forgotten. This got me to thinking about all the other lost memories from my time in Prague. And for that matter, the lost memories of the people, places, and experiences I had in Eastern Europe. How many could I recall? There might be something meaningful – at least to me – lurking deep in my memory.

Prague was much more to me than world-famous attractions such as Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, Old Town Square, and the Astronomical Clock. Those are the sites which make for photogenic moments, but they also threaten to turn any visit into a vanity project. Photos are fine as proof of what someone has seen. What they cannot replicate is the human experience. And Prague for me, as in so many of my travels, was more about my interactions with people and places. The places I usually do not have trouble recalling, the people often get lost somewhere in my memory.  The ones I met in passing, the ones that met my eyes with a glance, the ones I felt were fellow travelers on a journey that like everything else in life would end all too suddenly. The ones who for whatever reason made an impression upon me and found their way into my memory bank. I have come to realize that it is time to open the vault and recollect forgotten treasures of these travel experiences.

Prague as people – On Charles Bridge

The Catch Basin – Tears In The Rain
While traveling, many of my human interactions seemed benign. Only in retrospect have I realized they must have meant something more to me. Otherwise, I would be unable to recall them. Perhaps it was the environment that made these interactions so memorable. I was alone, thousands of kilometers from home, at the mercy of a language I could scarcely understand. This brought me into contact with people I would come to know for only a few moments or minutes or hours at the absolute most. Their impressions upon me faded until one random day over a decade later they came back to confront me.

The people are inseparable from the places in which we met. Prague or Pula, Budapest or Bratislava, a squalid village or a scenic vista made them possible. The places act as miracles of magnetic attraction pulling wanderers from all over the world towards one another. If it was not for memory these moments would be lost in time like tears in the rain. Fortunately, I had a catch basin of cognitive recollection. And now the time has come to satisfy my thirst. To dive more deeply into a very personal past. This is my own personal voluntary memory project that begins in Prague and will continue across all my travels in Eastern Europe. I have no idea when this journey will come to an end. Hopefully never.

Click here for: The Perils of Parenting – Prague: Glittering Unhappiness (Eastern Europe & Me #8)