Recently, we marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp. Unfortunately, however, the Holocaust didn't end the the January 1945 liberation. The mass murder of Jews continued on, even though the fate of the Third Reich was certain with the rapid advance of the Soviet Red Army.
For three decades, Arno Surminski has chronicled the fate of Germans who were forced to flee his beloved East Prussia. In 2008 Surminski turned his attention to the Holocaust. Die Vogelwelt von Auschwitz, a novella based on a true event, examines the Holocaust from the Polish perspective. With his 2010 novel Winter Fünfundvierzig oder die Frauen von Palmnicken Suminski brings the Holocaust home to his native East Prussia. This novel is also based on a real historical event: the massacre of more than 3,000 (mostly female) Jews on the beach of Palmnicken (today Jantarnyi, part of Russia).
Winter 1945 is structured as a "frame novel": in 1998 Max Broders is mourning the death of his father when he encounters a former officer of the Waffen SS who knew Hans Broders, Max's father. The man informs Max that his father "shouldn't be blamed" for what happened in Palmnicken in January 1945. Max has no idea what this means; his father never spoke about his time as a 21-year old soldier. So Max travels to Kaliningrad to try to uncover the truth about his father. The action then shifts to the final months of the war as Surminksi follows the fate of 6 women: Lisa Kretschmann is forced to flee the advancing Red Army with her children, as is the widow Levine Gedeitis with her daughter Olga, who plays a key role in the novel. But at the center of WInter1945 is the fate of four young Jewish women who were working as slave laborers at a concentration camp in Lodz. We follow these women on their death march across the frozen landscape until they reach the beach of Palmnicken. During the night of January 31, 1945 the 3,000 women were killed by the SS, their bodies thrown into the freezing Baltic Sea. Miraculously, one of the novel's characters survives, just as in the actual massacre 13 women somehow escaped death.
Max Broders keeps running into brick walls as he investigates the massacre - and his father's involvement. There were virtually no records of the events of the night of January 31, 1945, and the Russian officials denied that even had been a massacre of Jews. The Red Army had recovered some of the bodies and reburied them as "anti-Fascist martyrs." In general, they are baffled by Broders' obsession with the past:
Ihr Deutschen seid wunderliche Leute, erst stürtzt ihr die Welt ins Unglück, dann wollt ihr sie verbessern. Siehst du nicht, wie sich die Geschichte überall wiederholt? Hier gibt es Massaker, und dort Todesmärsche. So sind die Menschen nun mal, wir werden sie nicht ändern.
(You Germans are incredible people: first you plunge the world into misery, then you want to make everything better. Don't you see how history keeps repeating itself? Here there are massacres, there you have death marches. That's just how people are - we'll never change them.)
As a footnote to Winter 1945, I should point out that my good friend Gunter Nitsch was instrumental in bringing the Palmnicken massacre to light. In his memoir, Weeds Like Us, Nitsch recalls how his grandfather was forced by the Soviet occupiers to dig up the bodies of women on the beach. The horrible experience broke the man's spirit and he died shortly after this. The German version of Weeds Like Us - Eine lange Flucht aus Ostpreussen - contains a lengthy introduction by Arno Surminski.