My parents lived in Königsberg and were married there in 1940. The city was the capital of East Prussia in Germany. I remember a photo of them in 1937 in a rowboat on this large castle lagoon, the one pictured here. And stories of how they had dinner in the somewhat spooky Königsberg Castle’s Blutgericht (Blood Court), a restaurant in a space once used in medieval times by the Teutonic Knights as a courtroom for capital crimes. And how they would go to the famous Café Schwermer and sit there for hours just talking, slowly nursing their Kaffee und Kuchen, under the massive old oaks that shaded the outdoor seating area in summers,
Even tragic memories are evoked, particularly the evening of 29 August 1944. On that night the city of Königsberg was targeted by the British RAF for indiscriminate firebombing of its civilian population. After dark, 189 bombers attacked with 450 tons of explosives and used a new type of bombing to carry out one of the most devastating attacks of the war. The first wave of bombs caused traditional destruction. As survivors and first responders came out of their shelters and basements to survey the damage, they were caught by the second wave…this time by phosphorous bombs. People were sucked into a vortex of fire so intense that their bodies shriveled to the size of infants. Those who tried to escape by jumping into the castle lagoon were boiled to death. The city burned for several days.
It so happened that my father was home on military leave on August 29th and both my parents were in their apartment, lucky to survive the repeated phosphorous fire bombing. Lucky because their apartment was near the airport at the edge of the city, away from the hell storm in the central district… they covered themselves in wet blankets and escaped the rapidly expanding fire, running to safety through the Friedländer Tor, one of the medieval gates of the original walled city.
In early January 1945… just two weeks before the city was surrounded and under siege…they were again lucky and successfully escaped westward. My father was continuously moved west of the front lines due to his job as a code-breaker in an elite Luftwaffe unit on the Russian Front. As outnumbered German forces retreated westward, the Wehrmacht High Command ordered that this Code-Breaker unit was not to be stopped at checkpoints, nor forced to join last- ditch combat groups, nor to allow themselves to be captured by Russians. Then, as this unit moved westward through Königsberg, my father was able to get my mother assigned as a secretary to his unit commander…. and so she too was moved safely westward.
They went on to survive the war but would never see Königsberg again.
Some notes on the history
The city of Königsberg represented a long history of Germans in the northern countries along the Baltic Sea. It represented the 700 years that Germans were crusading for the church, building cities, developing farming estates, and governing the populations adjoining the Baltic Sea.
Königsberg was founded by Teutonic Knights in 1255 during the Northern Crusades and named in honor of King Ottokar II of Bohemia. The German-language name Königsberg literally means “King’s mountain”. This fortress city of the Teutonic Knights eventually became the capital of their Monastic State of the Teutonic Order, which included in modern reference: West and East Prussia., parts of Poland, part of Lithuania, and all of Latvia and Estonia.
After the Catholic Knights became Lutherans in 1525, Königsberg became the capital of the Duchy of Prussia and in 1701 it became the capital of the Kingdom of Prussia. The Brandenburg Elector Frederick III of Hohenzollern became Frederick I, King in Prussia. Because Berlin and Potsdam in Brandenburg remained the main residences of the Prussian kings, soon “Kingdom of Prussia” was increasingly used to designate all of the Hohenzollern lands, and thus the former ducal Prussia became known as East Prussia, with Königsberg as its capital.
As time progressed, the Baltic port of Königsberg developed into a German cultural center, counting among its residents the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant and the writer E. T. A. Hoffmann. Even Richard Wagner lived in Königsberg for a while.
The land of East Prussia, famous as the breadbasket of Germany, was also known for its landed aristocracy, the Junkers, who contributed with great honor to the officer corps of the German Army.
After WWII, 700 years of German rule came to an end when East Prussia, West Prussia, Pommerania and Silesia were removed from Germany and split between Russia, Lithuania and Poland. Overall, 17 million ethnic Germans were expelled from their traditional homelands. These 17 million people lost everything they owned, but they were the lucky ones…2 million of the expelled died during the largest forced migration in the history of the world.