Thursday, August 17, 2017

Sandy Beaches on the Baltic

The Curonian Spit and the Vistula Spit…rich in history and natural beauty.

These two narrow spits of land—massive sandbars—in the Baltic near Kaliningrad, are shared amongst three countries. Both spits create lagoons. In January, 1945, when the weather of these unique beach areas was at its worst, German civilians struggled to flee the Soviet Army by crossing the lagoons to ships in harbor on the Baltic.

Curonian Spit
This is a 98-kilometer long, crescent-shaped, sand-dune-covered finger of land. Since 2000 it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and both Lithuania and Russia, who share the spit, have formed national parks…Lithuania on the northern half, and Russia to the south. (The Thomas Mann writing colony, Nida,—on the Lithuanian side—is the largest town). Tourism is carefully monitored to protect the fragile eco-system of the area.  (Map: H Padleckas)

The Curonion Spit (German: Kurisches Haff) harbours a fresh-water lagoon, known as the Curonian Lagoon, with the Lithuanian port city of Klaipeda at its northern tip. At its widest point, the spit stretches almost 4 kilometers, near Nida.  A single road runs the length of the spit, from Zelenogradsk in the Russian Obast of Kaliningrad, (German: Cranz) to Klaipeda (German: Memel), which is accessible only by ferry across a narrow strait. (Photo: A. Savin).

The Parnidis Dune is the largest dune on the spit at 52 meters high. Climbing is allowed only on designated paths to prevent too much sand movement. (Dunes by their very nature are always moving.) 

The Curonian Lagoon is home to diverse plant and fish life, which is threatened by pollution and algae blooms. (Like our own Lake Winnipeg.)

The area is at risk also because of natural threats like storms. In 2004, Russia began offshore oil drilling off the coast of the Curonian Spit which will further threaten this pristine natural setting.

Vistula Spit
Not much further down the Baltic coast, is the Vistula Spit. This peninsula, separated from the mainland by the Strait of Baltiysk (German: Pillau), is only 600 meters wide in some places. It shelters the Vistula Lagoon (German: as Die Frische Nehrung).  The Vistula Spit is divided between the Kaliningrad Oblast, and Poland and thus contains Russia’s most western point.
Poland plans to build a ship canal through the Vistula Spit to the Baltic.  The spit’s major tourist town is the Polish community of Krynica Morska (German: Kahlberg).

In the closing months of the Second World War, Germans attempted to cross the Vistula Lagoon in order to reach ships waiting in Baltiysk (Pillau) harbor. Soviets bombed the frozen lagoon making the crossing impossible for many women, children and horses. My mother was one of those attempting this risky escape. (Photo: German Federal Archives)

These beautiful, sand beaches have known their share of war and death. Beaches all over the world have welcomed invading armies or fleeing ones (I need to see the recent Dunkirk movie).

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Thomas Mann in Nida

Who doesn’t like spending summers at the beach? Life is short, and summers even shorter.  The 1929 Nobel Prize winning author, Thomas Mann, liked to spend his summers on the Baltic, in Nida with his young family. The beach town is on the Curonian Spit, a narrow piece of sandy land jutting out into the Baltic Sea. His summer home at 17 Skruzdynės Street has now been turned into a museum. Not only is his house a museum, but the Nida community supports an artists’ colony just like back in the early thirties.

Nida (called Nidden by the Germans), with less than two thousand inhabitants, was much smaller than the mainland tourist towns, formerly called Rauschen or Cranz back in the '30s. While the names have changed, sand dunes still range up to fifty meters high.   (Photo: Bernd Rostad

File:Nida ThomasMann cottage.jpg
Thomas Mann home, Wojsyl, 2005

The town first attracted writers back in the 1800s. Soon they were joined by other artists and intellectuals, especially those from nearby East Prussia.  I'm certain that my character, Katya, would have loved to have been a student in this colony. After all, she didn't live too far away and she'd read Thomas Mann's novellas. But Mann left the area in 1933 after his books were banned by the Third Reich. A few years later, during the war, his summer home became a retreat for convalescing Luftwaffe pilots. (Would it be possible that my own father spent time there, healing from his 1941 plane crash? I somehow doubt it...he was rather low-ranking, but I'll never know.)

After Lithuanian independence in 1991, the Nida Art Colony (NAC)  has been revived. May the sand dunes, the Baltic waves, and the wind continue to inspire art. It's inspiring me...and I've not even been there.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Beach Weather and the Amber Coast

Back in the 1930s, over in East Prussia…how would one spend a steamy hot day in August? Well, you might end up in a coastal spa town like Rauschen or Cranz. Both of these towns have been tourist magnets for hundreds of years.

Cranz (re-named Zelenogradsk by the Soviets after the Second World War and also known by its Lithuanian name of Krantas) sits on the Baltic Sea, about 34 kilometers north of the former Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). This part of the Baltic coast is also called the Amber Coast. The name, Cranz, comes from the Prussian word for coast and was once considered a royal spa town. The sleepy little fishing village soared in popularity when Cranz got a rail connection to Königsberg in 1885 and its population reached about 6000 in the 1930s… doubling in size during the summer months.  

Tourists could soak up the sun on sandy, white beaches, hike along the many sand dunes, or promenade along the town’s boardwalk.  Kiosks dotted the beach selling locally caught smoked flounder. Spa treatments included aromatic hot springs. 

Along with the natural beauty and fresh air—tourists were treated to open-air concerts, dances, art displays and even fireworks. There were sailing regattas for boaters, equine events for horse-lovers, even gliding lessons for would-be flyers.

If staying overnight, a tourist could choose one of many bed and breakfast places, or stay in the Hotel Königsberg or Schloss am Meer (Castle on the Sea). 

In 1946, the Germans were expelled by the conquering Red Army and without them, the tourism industry collapsed. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Zelenogradsk is once again a booming seaside resort, this time attracting wealthy Russians. 

But if Cranz doesn’t appeal to you, you might—like the characters in my upcoming novel Amber Stone—consider a visit to Rauschen (now Svetlogorsk), high on the cliffs of the Amber Coast.  It’s down the coast from Cranz, 39 kilometers northwest of Königsberg and about twice the size. Rauschen was a tourist destination even before the railway which connected it to Königsberg in 1900. It became Svetlogorsk in June, 1947 and, like Cranz, continues to be popular with Russian tourists. (photo: Vladimir Sedach)

Today this Amber Coastline features two UNESCO World Heritage sites containing some of world’s largest sand dunes. It celebrates not only physical beauty, but teems with biodiversity…quite possibly Europe’s only remaining true wilderness.    
Both these towns are on my travel bucket list. For now, I can visit them only through my imagination.  Of course if I do visit, they won't be the same beach towns that existed when my characters passed through. Time-travel happens only through books. 

1929 Nobel Prize winning author, Thomas Mann, liked these Baltic beaches too.  “They walked, and the long waves rolled and murmured rhythmically beside them; the fresh salty wind blew free and unobstructed in their faces, wrapped itself around their ears, and made them feel slightly numb and deliciously dizzy. They walked along in that wide, peaceful, whispering hush of the sea that gives every sound, near or far, some mysterious importance.” 
― Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

About Genealogy and Broken Trees

Back from the inaugural International German Genealogy conference in Minneapolis, USA.  Truth be told, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy it. Truth be told, I thought of genealogists as rather narrow-minded individuals, focused on dates and lists. I was expecting to be bored. (Did I just say that out loud?) Well, this conference convinced me that genealogy is much more than lists…and that being narrow-minded, is sometimes a good thing. It’s about being focused, about being able to extrapolate from that endless data, from those lists, and discover family. 

There were more than seventy different presentations over a full three-day schedule. ‘Classes’ started at eight in the morning. Yes, I took notes, and have a syllabus to fall back on. It was intensive and will take me weeks to process. 

Because I’m fluent in German, I especially appreciated conversing with some of the German guests. As a first generation Canadian, I’m still strongly influenced by my German roots, but because my mom was born in Ukraine, I spent years confused about her identity. It wasn’t until I met Don Miller  that my mother’s childhood (and her jumbled memory), was given context and I was able to write my books. My family tree was once quite broken. At some point, I have to start exploring my father's North Sea roots. 

So much history, so little time. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Mom, I'm bored?

Summer is about escape from routine. It's about exploring new worlds. It's about being lazy. How can you do all three at the same time? Read a book! And then read another one. And another. Whether you're swaying on a hammock in the dappled shade; smelling like coconut oil on a sandy beach; drifting nowhere on a rubber dinghy; or hiding in a veranda on a rainy day....a book makes summer so much better. 

Mom, I'm bored? Never, not when they've discovered the power of books. 

My publisher, Rebelight, has a summer reading program which  encourages young readers to explore local writers. I'd like to extend the challenge to adults, too.  Read what your kids read and travel with them to these exotic worlds that come alive without pictures, without technology, without anything but mind power. Engage in conversations about what they read, and then review the books like a critic. 

Along with the muscles that grow through biking, hiking and swimming, there are the muscles that grow through's called imagination. 

Summer's here and the living's easy. Page after page after page. 

Monday, July 3, 2017


I avoided the Canada 150 Fireworks the other night…well maybe I didn’t avoid the explosions, but I avoided the crowds. All around me the sky exploded with light and with noise. It was awesome to sit in the backyard, in the dark, and hear the night sky, rife with sound.  Because I’m reading a book centered around a war, I tried to imagine the explosions of fireworks, as bombs. It truly is hard to imagine what millions upon millions of people have (past and present) experienced…bombs falling around them in the dark. My mom told me of bombs that fell like burning Christmas trees over Königsberg in August, 1944. It sounds pretty…pretty horrific, too.

But last night, here in Canada, is was only my dog and cat who were terrified. When I think of the little children, the innocents, not understanding how one minute there is quiet, and then the next moment, there is only chaos, it baffles my mind. I have this incredibly peaceful life, here in the middle of Canada. It’s early summer. We’ve had lots of rain and everything is a vigorous green. Squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, robins, jays, even humming birds visit my yard. The explosions from the other night were celebratory fireworks. There is peace in our country, and yet, this tranquility, this peace is not to be assumed. It is to be appreciated, like summer, like children…fragile, like innocence.