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.