MAP OF EAST PRUSSIA SHOWING REFUGEE ROUTES
(Hover for graphic overlay of Margot's route. Click for larger map.)
Maps borrowed from the National Geographic Atlas of the World, 1975.
East Prussia was eventually divided between Russia (pink) and Poland (blue). The route of Margotís family roughly straddled this border, from Angerburg (now Wegorziwo) to Heiligenbeil (now Mamonovo), across the ice on the Frisches Haff (now Vislinskiy Zaliv), down the spit toward Danzig (now Gdansk), then back to Gumbinnen (now Gusev).
During the ethnic cleansing of East European Germans (1944-1950),
15,000,000 people were displaced and 2,000,000 people died.
source: A Terrible Revenge (The German Expellees) by Alfred-Maurice de Zayas,
1986, trans. 1993, St. Martin's Press, NYC
The region now belonging to Russia is a favored resort area.
(See Kaliningrad map,
(Off-site links open a new window.)
Before the Russian invasion, we owned a farm in Angerburg. My father was from Goldap and my mother and grandparents were from Gumbinnen. When I was 8 months old, my mother took me swimming in the lake between Angerburg and Rastenburg where Hitler had a bunker in the woods. These places are not far apart, 20 or 30 miles. Our refugee journey of perhaps 200 miles, across East Prussia and back, took months because the wagons had to go in columns, often in the mud next to the road. Soldiers always got priority on the roads. Some days we could only go a few miles and were often diverted. We spent a lot of time just waiting for the next move.
We left in October 1944 in our horse-drawn wagon hoping to escape the fighting. We intended to go north to my sister and grandparents in Gumbinnen, but we were cut off by the advancing front. We went west instead to Heiligenbeil on the Frisches Haff. The Haff was frozen over and many people crossed the ice, then traveled down the spit to Danzig to get boats to Denmark. We waited our turn in "Hell" in the cold and chaos and got shot at from airplanes. The German army often used civilian disguise to move troops. When an early thaw made the ice unstable, whole wagons were lost -- families, horses, and belongings.
Once the Russians had seized East Prussia, they expelled all the Germans. Since our name, Serowy, sounded Polish, we were ordered to go back home. Our belongings, the horses and the wagon we'd lived in so long were confiscated and my father was taken to a Russian camp. Typhoid fever struck in the spring thaw and my mother and little brother were very sick. It was up to me -- at seven years old -- to pull a hand cart she had built from found parts and find our way to my grandmother in Gumbinnen.
Peace time in spring 1945 was not very peaceful. There was little food and much destruction as well as continued harassment from the Russian occupiers. We barely survived. My middle brother didn't. He was put on a train to Siberia and died there. The war was over for two years before my mother finally convinced them to let us go. They collected us with others in what seemed to me a big hole -- probably the train station -- to wait for a cattle train. We were on the train for a week, since some of the war-damaged rail bed had to be fixed before we could proceed. When we got to Mecklenburg (East Germany), we found my father sharing a single room and two beds with a feisty old woman, her daughter, and a little pig! Things were better in Mecklenburg. There was food and shelter.
We managed to cross through the Iron Curtain one night, but the West Germans didn't want us. The next time we tried, we found a relative who would take us in. I remember him as a nice uncle with vivid blue eyes who played the piano. We waited for permission to stay and were finally put in a camp where we had food and shelter. My oldest brother had been a soldier and now worked in a coal mine in Bochum in Westphalia (West Germany). With his special privileges, he was able to help us. Eventually we were sent to Godelheim, one of many West German villages forced to give us homes. It was a pretty little farm village and I got my early schooling there.
I married at 18 and emigrated to New York City at 21. Iíve lived in Vermont since 1981 where I try to resolve these old haunts by painting my memories and studying whatever history I can find to place my childhood recollections in an adult context.