Founded in the 13th century by Teutonic Knights bringing Christianity to the “pagans,” Prussia was once a dominion reigned by kings. And with access to the Baltic Sea through the Frisches Haff, the ice-free port of Königsberg was important to the shipping trade of the region. It also held cultural significance as a town of intellectual discovery — Albertus University was founded there in the 16th century; it was the city of philosopher Immanuel Kant, one of the central Enlightenment thinkers.
Königsberg became the capital – the coronation city of Prussian kings — where the last German emperor and King of Prussia, Kaiser Wilhelm II held reign, until the Weimar Republic formed in 1919 put an end to monarchy. East Prussia, the German Empire’s farthest eastern territory, consisted of Prussian domains lying east of the rivers Neisse and Oder, with its western border along the River Vistula.
Königsberg’s shipping industry became even more important when the Polish Corridor was created at the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War.
The newly-established Polish Corridor gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea, but as a result, East Prussia was cut off from the rest of Germany from 1919 till 1939. During the intense economic lows of the Great Depression following WWI, the Polish Corridor situation became a major source of malcontent for all of Germany, contributing to the lingering state of joblessness in the new republic.
The region regained some hope of stronger economic viability when Adolph Hitler’s promises of new jobs brought him into power. This may have been a reason behind Hitler’s invasion of Poland and reestablishment of pre-WWI territories. Surrounding Königsberg were the country districts; much of East Prussia was rural. From these regions, grain, horses, and timber were sent to the rest of the Reich.
The devastation of this proud capital first came in August 1944 as two British air raids destroyed Königsberg at the end of WWII; finally, under its surrender to the Red Army in April 1945, Königsberg was lost. The all-year ports of Königsberg and Memel (now Klaipėda in Lithuania) were of special attraction for Russia, hence Stalin’s strategic interest in East Prussia.
Of the 100,000 German people remaining in Königsberg in April 1945, only twenty-five thousand survived. The last of the Germans were ordered out of Königsberg by the Russians in 1948. For those people – for Katharina’s family and their descendants — East Prussia exists only as a mighty memory of its German elders, a wistful memory of their children, and in the nostalgia of history.
Königsberg, once the provincial jewel of East Prussia, a place of character and remembrance, is now Kaliningrad, an unremarkable Soviet city, unwanted by Poland and forgotten by Russia.
Near a suburb once called Kalthof, Königstor (the King’s Gate) still stands at the end of the Royal Road and was presumably the east entrance into the fortified city of Königsberg in the middle-ages. It was on August 30, 1843, that the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, first entered Königsberg as its new ruler.
Between Königstor and Kalthof are expansive areas of cemeteries, probably hundreds of years old, with houses, schools and businesses, rail and streets having been built around them.
It is here in Kalthof that we find Katharina’s paternal grandparents August Podack and Clara Hedwig Packhaueser Podack, both originally from the outlying regions to the east of Königsberg. Born into a family of farmers, August learned the trade of a miller, grinding grain into flour, and eventually became a dairy farmer and nurseryman. Hedwig grew up on a farm and was mostly illiterate but had a knack for managing money. The couple was successful in their time. They had two children; Walter, who was born in 1910, and another son who died in infancy.
Katharina runs her hands through her short hair. The cat, Simon, thrums a throaty purr and hurls his arched back against her legs. Reaching from her easy chair, Katharina scratches behind his ears.
“My grandfather August – my Opa – grew up as part of a family of farmers in the country outside of Königsberg. He was familiar with handling horses, and while serving as a soldier under Kaiser Wilhelm II during the First World War, he drove mule-drawn supply wagons to the Eastern Front during the Russian campaign.”
“During World War II, he used the Nazi party system, which gave men many advantages. He was a Gauleiter, head of the farming branch of that Nazi Party district. The farming community was the healthiest of the East Prussian economic drivers. Although August was not a political leader, he served in his capacity with the Gau Wirtschafskammer (the Economic Chamber) which coordinated and supervised every form of trade and industry in the Gau, or district. He was well-regarded in the area. Party bosses came to the Podack farm for Schnapps and cigars. August had a car and was able to use it longer than anyone else, while the German military effort was confiscating gasoline, tires, and batteries.
The Podack Farm
“The Podack farm was a whole city block deep with a frontage of four city lots, judging from the street address: Robert Koch Straβe 15-23. It had to be fifteen to twenty acres, and had a creek cutting through the middle; a path and a foot bridge allowed access to both halves. It was referred to as the ‘Gärtnerei Podack,’ which implies that August owned the business and owned, or at least leased, the real estate. It was a profitable plant nursery with many greenhouses. It is here that Hardy and I were born. First, I will describe to you a little of life with my Opa on Gärtnerei Podack as I remember it.
“Later, I can relate what I know of my grandparents’ and my parents’ lives there before I was born, and more of my family’s times there during the war. When they were first married, Mutti and Papa lived here with Papa’s parents – and that is a story in itself.”
“The main house was on one end of the property, facing a dirt road, along with four greenhouses with a center reception, work and sales area called the ‘Vorraum’ — the ante room.
“Beyond the house was the stable and a farmyard. The stable housed 24 milk cows, one bull, one horse, two pig stalls and a chicken coop above the pig pens. There were at least three men and one husband and wife team working on the farm and nursery. They had quarters separate from the main house.
“The northern half of the property consisted of planting beds, except for one large greenhouse close to the city street, Robert Koch Straβe, and a Gartenlaube, sometimes used to offer flowers and wreaths for sale. A tall fence with a gate enclosed the property, marked as ‘Gärtnerei Podack’ (Nursery Podack) on a sign in large lettering. Across were railroad and streetcar connections, and the grade school, Falkschule.”
“It is all gone now,” she said.
Katharina sits forward in her chair, placing her forearms across her knees. She stares intently at me for several minutes, remembering. I wait, smiling at her. Simon yawns, stretches, and wanders off into the bedroom. Finally, Katharina rocks back in her chair. She raises her eyes to the ceiling and breathes out a long, slow breath.
“Ahhhh yes,” she continued. “I loved to be there, I loved helping to plant seedlings, I helped selling Cyclamen in pots, determining the price according to how many buds the plant had, as Opa had taught me. If the customer wanted, the clay pots could be wrapped with colored crepe paper, the upper edge fluted on a special gadget and then tied in place with a narrow crepe paper ribbon. I loved the moist warmth of the greenhouses. I loved the smell of the stable, I learned how to milk the cows, I would sometimes climb up into the chicken coop while the cows were being milked and pet the chickens. I had Angora rabbits of my own, once Opa gifted me with a newborn calf. I watched it grow up; I brushed and petted it regularly; I picked the first green grass in the Spring by the handfuls and fed it to her. Her name was Mooshi, she had two large black spots on her right side and one on the left and a black blaze on her face. When she was old enough, she was bred, had a calf of her own and was giving milk. I milked her every evening; in the mornings, the other help would do it since it was too early in the morning for me to get up. She was giving about five liters of milk twice a day and whatever price Opa got for the milk, he paid into a savings account for me.
“Opa’s bull was always kept in the stable. His berth was at the back wall, the last of the long line of milk cows. He had a ring through his nose and was chained with plenty of lead to eat and lie down. When a cow needed his service, he was brought out into the barn yard – along with the cow – being kept under control with a long staff hooked through his nose ring.
“One time, as a girl of eight or so, I happened to walk into the barn yard and saw the bull on top of the cow.” Katharina flashed me a big smile. “My Opa shooed me back to the house very gruffly. I wondered why he was so angry with me! He really didn’t need to do that; I had no idea what was going on. I thought the animals were just having fun – just like I had seen dogs do,” she laughed.
“In the summer, the cows were driven to open pasture. The milk cans, milk pails and stools were loaded up, and the women would climb on board and drive the wagon out the pasture to milk the cows out in the open field, morning, and evening. This pasture was located on an unused military training ground leased by Opa. There were mock-ups of tanks, built of wood, all kinds of contraptions to climb or jump over, fox holes that had gathered some water and toads had fallen into. Hardy and I followed the wagon sometimes and explored. Inside the tank we found shell casings and tried to imagine how all these young men were made into soldiers.
A Wreathmaker’s Lesson
“For Totengedenktag (Memorial Day) the women would make wreaths from fresh pine boughs wound around willow branches fashioned into a circle, fastening the branches with wire from a spool and then decorating them with pinecones, holly, and other dried flower material. It was the tradition to take care of graves, decorate and cover them for the winter. Hence business was brisk about any time of year.”
Ingridpwrites: Want to make an evergreen wreath? Here’s how.
“For a time when we were living with our grandparents, probably around the time Mutti was in the last weeks of her pregnancy with Rudi, my youngest brother, Hardy and I had to take the streetcar to our separate schools across town. On the way home we often got out at the last stop at Königstor and did not wait for a connecting streetcar to take us home. So, we walked. Just a little past the gate to one of the cemeteries on our side of the street there was a roadside stand where an older lady was selling wreaths and flowers and dried arrangements. She always had a smile and a few nice words for me; she always wore long black gloves and a head scarf.
“One time — I guess I was feeling particularly mischievous — I jumped up and grabbed a small bouquet of dried flowers off her display and ran away. She tried to call me back, but I paid no attention. I knew she could not get out from behind her window very quickly. I did look back once and did not see her on the sidewalk. I walked back to the Gärtnerei still carrying the arrangement. Opa saw me and asked where I had gotten it. I told him, thinking it had been fun and not a big deal. He scolded me and told me to immediately take it back, explaining that this poor woman depended on the things she was selling.
“I hung my head but started walking back, feeling ashamed. About halfway to her stand, I stopped. I could not get myself to go any further. I could not admit to my misdeed and apologize. I threw the bouquet away. I was too ashamed to face her and too cowardly to fess up. After that, passing her stand I could never look at her again. And she never spoke to me again.
“Without any consequence or punishment for my misdeed I had learned my lesson. What I had done was wrong. I felt deep shame. Just my Opa’s stern words had been enough, and I never again took anything that was not mine.”
Katharina rises from her chair, moving to the window and back again. She paces this way for several minutes, thoughtful; engrossed in her memory. Finally, she stops at the dining table and picks up the arrangement of tulips that sits there. She moves to the kitchen sink and fills the vase with fresh water. Lifting the arrangement so that she can gaze through the clear water and the long stems of the tulips, she continues.
“In the winter, bulbs were planted in pots — tulips and hyacinths, for early Spring bloom. Opa received crates full of bulbs that he had ordered from Holland. Every year a mountain of peat moss was delivered, every fall the hay loft above the stable was filled with hay. There was no tractor, planting beds were turned with spades, sweat, and callused hands, the horse pulled a wagon to take the milk to the dairy, or to pick up slop for the hogs from the military post down the dirt road a way.”
Katharina returns the vase with the tulips. Dragging a dining chair from beneath the table, she sits, looking at me from across the room.
“The horse brought in the hay from the field, and the same horse pulled the wagon when my grandparents were fleeing from the Russians close to the end of the war.”
She pauses for so long I begin to think she is finished sharing her story with me for the day. Then, Katharina provides her final thought on this chapter.
“Thinking back, I realize that all these memories were gleaned in a relatively short time, but it feels like I spent my entire childhood there. Had it not been for the fact that the war uprooted our whole family I would likely be there today. Opa always talked about my taking over the nursery when I was grown up and even as a girl of age eight or nine I saw my future there, planning to grow orchids. I am certain that this environment filled with animals and plants and hard work had a profound influence in molding my character, the desire to get back to the basics of life, the simple joy and feeling of accomplishment of things created with one’s hands, and a deep respect for all living things.”