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Memoir: Oskar Stillmark

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On October 6, 1939 I listened on the radio to Adolf Hitler’s address to the Reichstag. Strangely, it never occurred to me that the planned repatriation could also include us Baltic people. Our tradition had always been to hold on to our homeland that we had fought for and to the small piece of earth that was still ours after the expropriation in 1921. Thinking of German ethnic groups in the East, only the people from Galicia, Wolynia and Bessarabia came to mind. I never thought that we might be included.
The next day, I had some business in Talsen, our district town. As usual I dropped in on my dear friend George von Heyking who gave me the shocking news that we were first in line for repatriation. Pastor von Taube had gone to Riga to get the latest news and was expected back on the evening train. During the drive home I had plenty of time to think about these problems and to organize my thoughts. Although at that time I could not comprehend the ramifications and the practical execution of this monumental task – to move a whole ethnic group – I concluded that an undertaking like this would only be attempted if there was a very serious reason for doing so. This reason must mean a threat to the very existence of our group. It was quite useless to ponder whether to join the repatriation or to decline.
Over supper, I discussed the news I heard in Talsen with my family. All of a sudden George von Heyking walked through the door bringing us the following message:
  1. Repatriation of the Baltic Germans to start now!
  2. The German minister of foreign affairs, von Ribbentrop, is negotiating this matter in Moscow.
  3. Since it is uncertain how these negotiations will go, and the Russians are at the border, ready to invade, we have to be prepared to “trek”. The German Cultural Council in Riga will notify us.
  4. The neighbourhood has to be alerted immediately in order to prepare. Telephones are not to be used. All messages are to be delivered in person by reliable messenger.
That meant saddling up right away and conveying the message that very night to the 16 families that belonged to my neighbourhood. My wife took the southern part of the district and I took the north. Alerted by the news on the radio, most neighbours had already considered the possibility of repatriation. Actually, I was pleased with the calm and composure that met the news. In most places there was only one question: when? Any worry about property and assets seemed not important at this time. All of us knew the instinctive fear of the Soviet Russian steamroller lurking in the East.
At dawn we were home again and considered what could be taken along if we had to trek. Thank God we were spared this hasty departure. The negotiations in Moscow finally yielded an agreement, which set the final date for our departure as the 31st of December 1939. It gave us time to take care of our business and our obligations, to sell off farm equipment and livestock and to pack up our most valuable possessions to be taken along. The following weeks were filled with mental anguish, conflicting emotions and sad farewells. We departed from the port of Windau on November 15th, 1939. I can only be grateful that during this time there was so much work and responsibility for my family and for the neighbourhood that it did not leave me much time to think.
Each day brought new instructions and news. German ships were already anchored in Riga and Reval (Tallin) to take the first transports of old and sick people to Gotenhafen (Gdynia) and Swinemünde. In Riga they called up all German men aged 18-25 as volunteers. At the same time, a Central Office for the Repatriation of our ethnic group was established in Riga, which quickly managed to sort out all the conflicting news and instructions. From then on, it turned into a focused and well thought out effort of unbelievable precision and attention to detail. Thanks to this remarkable organization, it was possible to move 80,000 people with their most valuable possessions and some thousand horses and head of cattle, most of them registered breeding stock, in less than 2 months. Besides, they had to list and evaluate all assets left behind and cope with any problem that might arise. On the negotiated date, December 31st 1939, the repatriation was concluded.
Now came the problem for us. What could and should be taken along? The instructions were to take only valuable furniture, paintings, artifacts as long as they did not pertain to Latvian culture, good books, especially Baltic literature, clothing, silver etc. Room for freight was limited, so there was a general appeal to the good sense of the public to take only the most essential items. Everything else, home furnishings, farm inventory and supplies, should be sold.
Of course there was a sudden oversupply of all these goods and the prices dropped rapidly. A lot of things had to be sold much below value or given away. Money was scarce in Latvia, particularly in rural areas where the harvest had not yet been sold. A lot of things simply could not be sold and the incurred losses were considered at the time of compensation in the Warthegau (the Western part of Poland where the Baltic Germans were to be resettled). Besides, all debts and taxes had to be paid up. We wanted to leave with a clean slate.
The conduct of the rural Latvian population, especially my neighbours, was correct and understanding to the last day. The following is an experience I had with Krisch, my foreman of 14 years. I got him out of bed the first night the repatriation was announced.  I told him we might have to leave in a few days and under these circumstances I would not be able to reward him properly for all the years he had worked for me. Instead I handed him a document stating that I had transferred to him 2 young horses, 1 very good cow, 1 heifer, 1 calf, 2 sheep, 2 pigs, all the machines he would need and his full wages to Georgi (April 23) next year. This would have given him the opportunity to lease some land. His reaction was surprising. Although I had supplied him with the tools to realize his lifelong dream, my Krisch collapsed into a chair, and tears choking his voice he said: “Please sir. Take me with you.”
A lot of us had similar conversations with our Latvian neighbours. The owner of the threshing machine, who had been threshing for me for years, came by one evening on his bicycle to tell me I could have the machine any day, though he was working 28 km from my farm at that time. Only someone who has farmed in Latvia in those days can understand what that offer meant. Hauling the heavy machine with horses over muddy, rain soaked roads was not an easy job. I gratefully accepted his offer because the summer grain (oats and barley) had not yet been threshed.
Threshing was a communal effort because on our small farms we did not have enough hands to run the large old fashioned machines. All the neighbours would come together for threshing bees, helping each other in turn. Since I would not be able to help my neighbours with their threshing, I offered to pay them but they would not hear of it. The answer was, “Sir, we have been threshing together for years, and we always got along well so let us thresh together this one last time.”
Even the Latvian government officers and commissioners were very helpful and obliging. A few days after threshing, I took my grain to Saβmaken where the government grain board was buying grain. Since it was known that I was one of the people soon to leave, I was immediately looked after, got my money and went to the municipal office to pay my taxes. When I went to say goodbye to the town council president and the town clerk, the whole council appeared, and the president thanked me for years of honest and loyal cooperation.
The next weeks brought a lot of hard work. The heavy luggage had to be packed and shipped, furniture and other household items had to be sold as well as farm equipment and inventory. The house looked strangely empty. Besides, the fall ploughing and seeding had to be done. My staff and the Latvian neighbours were rather surprised that I got everything done just as in normal years despite our imminent departure. That little piece of soil which had for so many years provided our daily bread, deserved its due to the last day we were there. This was an obligation I could not and would not avoid. I regarded it as providence when 5 weeks later I was to manage a farm in the Warthegau where all the preparations for the next harvest had been made just as meticulously.
There were constantly news bulletins and circulars from the Council in Riga, which had to be forwarded. People from my neighbourhood came to get information and advice. Also buyers and the curious came in large numbers. Old Marie, our nanny from years ago, came quite a distance to help with the packing and to see us off. Mr. Tieger, one of the Latvian new farmers, came to say goodbye. He had a few beers and was in a mellow mood. As he was leaving, he gave my father a great big bear hug and said: “Now that you will be gone, whom are the Russians going to kill?” Whom indeed? During the time of departure from our old homeland, I came to the conclusion that our hard work and perseverance had been appreciated by our Latvian countrymen.
In the evening of November 13th we left the house that had been our home for so many years. It had seen joy and pain, happy days and tragedies. Most of the neighbours had gathered in front of the house to say goodbye. I was the last one to walk through the empty house and check all the rooms. By the stairs I found my old raincoat. It was to serve me well later on in Russia and during the “trek” in 1945. Handshakes, tears, blessings, and our wagons rolled into the starlit November night. Krisch and two other men took us to the train station in Cirul. In Talsen a special train was waiting for us ready to go to Stenden and on to the port city of Windau. Each coach had the name and number of a “neighbour-hood” attached to it to help the travelers find their designated coaches. Later on, walking through the coach, I noticed that everybody was unpacking sandwiches. No one had had time to eat anything at home.
We reached Windau in the morning and walked to the German elementary school. The large classrooms had been transformed with straw bedding into temporary shelters. There was hot coffee and then we went to the Latvian immigration office. The formalities were short. We passed by the desks of the officials to turn in our Latvian passports and received a temporary identification card, a boarding pass and a very large questionnaire. We handed over the last of our Latvian money for a receipt and we were done.
The ”SS Orotava” was waiting for us and she was to sail the same evening. We went through customs and by 3 pm we were on board. There were cabins for new mothers and seniors. Everyone else was housed in the cargo spaces, which were equipped with cots and deck chairs. An aide was assigned to each room, and the ombudsmen were responsible for their schedule. The ship cast off at about 6 pm. We stood on deck, hat in hand and for a last time sang the Latvian anthem. “Dievs sveti Latvia, God bless Latvia” rose into the dusk. Out of the shadows of the warehouses came a shout “Branc elle”! = Go to hell !” This farewell jarred all of us out of our sad and pensive thoughts. The bridges behind us were irrevocably burnt. Now we had to look to the future. What would it bring us? Would we find a motherland? There was little time for reflection. Soon we reached the open sea. With increasing winds, the ship was pitching and tossing badly.
All the group leaders and ombudsmen were asked to a meeting. We were told to catalogue all the repatriates and their assets as well as claims for compensation. By the time we landed in Germany, the lists had to be completed, particularly those pertaining to the farmers amongst us. They were needed in the Warthegau as soon as possible.
The next day at about 8 pm the ship docked in front of the large immigration hall in Gotenhafen (Gdynia). A band played marches. A party official greeted us with very kind words ending with the German anthem. Swarms of H.J. (Hitlerjugend), young people in the Arbeitsdienst (labour helpers) and Red Cross helpers came on board. The old and frail were carefully escorted, luggage was carried, baby carriages led over the long bridge with great care. Before we knew it, we were sitting at long tables covered with white linen, a bowl of nice soup in front of us. By each plate was a large package with sandwiches wrapped and ready to go. Lively music was streaming from the loudspeakers, interrupted by announcements of where to exchange money, where new mothers and small children could get special food etc.
We continued our travels the same night by special train. Boarding was well organized. New mothers and those with small children had second class coaches. Everybody else had a seat in third class. Our group went to Wartenberg in Pommerania to temporary quarters because the camps in Posen (Poznan) the capital of the Warthegau were already overcrowded. Slowly we realized that Germany was at war. There was no light on the train and the towns and villages we passed lay in total darkness. Only at the railroad stations were blue light bulbs shielded from the view above. At each stop N.S.V. (women auxiliaries) and Red Cross helpers boarded the train, checked on new mothers and small children, asked if anybody was sick and passed out sandwiches and drinks. The organization was flawless and the sympathy and willingness to take us in heart-warming.
While waiting in Wartenberg, the young and strong people in our group helped out with the sugar beet harvest, which was running late. The women helped with household chores. I encouraged these activities. They kept us on good terms with the locals, and besides, I was worried this involuntary rest and unemployment could lead to depression and homesickness. So as not to waste time, my wife started teaching a small group of the children in our room.
Our presence in the village unexpectedly infused new life into the local parish. The church had burnt down and services were held in the parish hall. The hall was not large, and most  Sundays the pastor was preaching to just to a few old women. Now all of a sudden, there was hardly room for all the guests. The pastor was obviously pleased to see so many faces. As a special gesture to us, he asked our old Pastor Jehnich, who was billeted with him, to preach a sermon occasionally.
I visited my flock in their quarters and there were trips to Pyritz (the district town) to exchange money and to get instructions. After a few weeks I received a telegram from the former head of our Council, Erich von Sievers, asking me to come to Posen right away to help with the placement of the members of my group on farms in the Warthegau.
Mr. Stillmark was given the district of Dietfurt (North-East of Posen) to find farms for settlement. It took him several months to accomplish this. He had to travel to all the available properties and inspect them. Once he had found suitable farms, he had to arrange for the transportation of the families to these farms and help them to settle in. He dealt with all the paperwork and supply requests with the German authorities in Posen and Gnesen and visited the farms at regular intervals.  Since the use of automobiles and gasoline was restricted, he traveled by horse and buggy and by horse drawn sleighs during the winter months.
During this time I traveled almost every day by sleigh to attend to placement problems. The majority of my countrymen seemed to adjust well to their new circumstances. They assumed responsibility for the farms entrusted to them and managed to overcome problems and shortcomings with a bit of humour. Pleased to have escaped the inactivity of the temporary quarter these people were eager to get established and plan for the spring seeding. To the joy of the settlers the large luggage arrived in good condition in the spring. Despite these tiring and cold travels it was a rewarding time. People were happy to see me and I was able to offer help and advice to make the new start a bit easier.
Mr. Stillmark’s family was assigned a large farm in the same district and he threw himself into the task of administering and developing the property.
The following months were one of the happiest times of my life. Success on the farm and appreciation as an ombudsman for the Baltic Germans in the district marked the years 1940 and 1941 until I was drafted in the fall of 1941. During this time I managed to produce two very good harvests and milk production increased tenfold. Neglected buildings were repaired and machinery overhauled. Also the housing of the Polish staff was improved. I managed to provide them with a better and healthier environment and getting paid in cash, farm produce and bonuses gave them a standard of living not known to them during Polish times.
After Mr. Stillmark had been drafted, his wife took over the administration of the farm. He served as an agricultural adviser in the newly conquered Belarus region and was discharged in the Fall of 1944. He returned to his family on the farm and a short while later (Jan. 1945) they had to flee by trek before the advancing Red Army. They survived this ordeal and ended up in West Germany.
Many years later I realized that the ”Umsiedlung” was only the beginning of our odyssey, which was to last for over 10 years. As I am writing these notes in 1950 in Winsen/Aller the village in Western Germany that became our refuge in 1945 after the “trek”, I still do not know if this is the end of our exodus:  an escape from communism which – apart from us 80,000 Baltic Germans – displaced another 15 million people who left their homes, possessions, their livelihoods and the graves of their ancestors, to save their lives.
At this point I would like to refute the accusation that we frivolously abandoned our homeland because we were fanatic supporters of Hitler and were tempted by the promise of a better life and opportunities. The truth is, nobody promised us anything. Actually, the opposite is true. In all notifications and at meetings at the Council Office in Riga, it was stated that we could expect adequate compensation for our assets, but our new start in the war ravaged Warthegau would require a lot of hard work. It was even suggested that we take carpentry and other tools to build temporary shelters for the families. As it turned out, things would be quite different. There was hardly any destruction and all of us found a place to live. But we did not know this and I too had a box of tools in my heavy luggage and could have started from scratch. In fact, we knew nothing of what to expect in the Warthegau. The future was a total blank. Only someone who has experienced this would know what it means to abandon one’s homeland and the essence of one’s life to face a completely uncertain future. Besides, Germany was at war and there was no predicting how that would end. It proves that 80,000 Balts who followed Hitler’s call despite these facts were trying to save their lives. Further proof is the repatriation of the people from Wolynia, Galicia and Bessarabia who also had a 100% relocation rate. But it was not only Germans. A lot of Latvians and Estonians tried to escape the approaching terror. People were willing to pay a fortune for membership cards to the German Baltic Associations just to join the repatriation. A mass exodus of epic proportions had started.