Monday, April 22, 2013

Rest in (Not-so) Peace

On a scale of morbidity, I probably score above average, but far below your archetypal black-clad teenager who taxidermies small mammals instead of trying out for choir. I'm not particularly drawn towards death and the macabre, but neither do I find them inherently repulsive. I've always approached dead things and the topic of death from a biological, anthropological, or historical perspective. History, after all, is more full of death than the entire CSI franchise, but I wouldn't say that, on the whole, historians are better versed in how to date a body from the kinds of maggots in it. Death is a fact of life, and every society has its own beliefs and behaviors associated with it. For people who bury their dead, cemeteries are important loci of memory, both personal and cultural. They are natural places for reflection on the past, and for contemplation about one's own place in time. In a city with such a conflicted relationship to its history, it was only a matter of time before I started investigating the cemetery situation. Let's just chalk up my last week to academic research then, and leave morbidity out of it. Besides, there's always something interesting to find in a graveyard.

Königsberg, like all medieval cities, started with a small core and slowly spread outwards as its population grew. Burials were usually around churches -- inside the church if you were very important, within the immediate grounds if you were wealthy, on adjacent land if you were an average person, and outside the hallowed fence if you were a suicide or itinerant actor. Safety concerns from continued outbreaks of plague eventually led to the establishment of cemeteries separate from churches. After the construction of the city's ring wall and defensive fortifications in the mid-nineteenth century, the major cemeteries were located outside the wall.

There were many small cemeteries in Königsberg, but with the growth and modernization of the city in the late nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century, they conglomerated into just a few large main sites. Four of these are interesting enough to merit discussion, not because they are well-preserved, but precisely because they are not. Each has met its own grisly fate in the decades since the war, and today they vary from somber to hair-raisingly eerie. I thought I was getting used to stumbling into bizarre and surreal corners of this city, but apparently I was wrong.

Current map of Kaliningrad, with cemeteries of note highlighted in red.

Today, the Kaliningrad city cemetery is located out towards the end of Проспект мира, which used to be Hammerweg Straße. It is a huge, sprawling property, crammed to bursting with graves and memorials. If you've never been in a Russian cemetery before, it can be overwhelming. Each plot is usually individually fenced, and they are rarely organized in clear rows or columns. Rather, you must squeeze and pick your way through a chaos of painted enclosures, cramped within each of which are usually raised flowerbeds. Headstones commonly have engraved pictures of the deceased, which I find a little creepy. The general atmosphere is one of quiet disorder -- which, considering this is Russia, is fitting.

I came there, not to see the Russian graves, but because the ground has not always held Russians. Smack in the center of the city cemetery used to be the Second Luisen Friedhof (that is, the second cemetery associated with the Queen Louise Church, which was located quite a distance away). Apparently, the city's new Soviet masters, in need of a graveyard themselves, dug up the Germans buried there and replaced them with Russians, eventually expanding the cemetery's area by six or seven times the original. Wandering without much purpose through the maze of burial plots there today, I managed to stumble upon what seem to be the last remaining German headstones -- collected in a haphazard pile behind a low building. A few names are all that's left, now quite literally disembodied.

Городское кладбище (City cemetery) today -- the large green rectangular
shape at center
City cemetery map overlaid with a map from 1938. The territory
of II Luisen Friedhof is visible underneath.
Russian memorials.
Soviet memorials.
Wandering around, I stumbled on the tomb of Andrey
Josephovich Sommer (Андрей Иосефович Соммер),
Major-General of tank forces and Hero of the Soviet
Union. The street I live on is named after him, and the
tank in the square by my dorm is, I believe, a memorial
to him as well. 
A German headstone (Karl and Marie Zummach, 1868-1934 and
1878-1942, respectively) lies atop a pile of garbage somewhere in the
center of the cemetery. 
More old headstones. 
This is all that remains of the German cemetery here. 

Skipping across town, the eerie-levels ramped up several notches. Looking at old maps, I knew there used to be a huge cemetery right behind the lecture hall/dormitory complex where I teach at the university, and I'd heard rumors that it was possible to find a few Jewish headstones still standing there. So, on a sunny Friday afternoon, I and my co-explorer Fabi traipsed past the dorm and into the woods. The trees had not yet leafed out, and the ground was still covered in a thick soggy mat of brown leaves. The whole area was littered with beer bottles and empty cigarette cartons, clearly being used for illicit parting. Unsure where exactly to find the headstones, we wandered through the underbrush and garbage for about fifteen minutes, stumbling up and down over the uneven terrain. The ground had clearly been shaped by people several years ago, and at first I thought it was more trenches, although within the city seemed like an unlikely spot for them.

Eventually, we found our way onto a path winding through the sparse trees, which led us to a black iron fence. Entering through a large gap in the bars   -- there was an open gate on the other side, we later learned -- we had found the Jewish cemetery. In fact, the entire area used to be one large cemetery, subdivided into sections for various congregations. A Jewish foundation must have contributed towards building the fence around that particular section, because the enclosed area was slightly better preserved than woods around it.

A few birds twittered overhead, and after just a few meters we stumbled on our first indication that this was in fact a cemetery. A large piece of stone was half-buried in the path, carved in a floral motif, chipped in many places. We stepped over and looked up, suddenly seeing weathered pieces of rock everywhere. To the right was a broken slab of a large marker, still standing, with similarly massive pieces laying flat under the leaves. We cleared away the detritus, and discovered inscriptions on one, the words too worn to make out clearly. Here and there, empty stone borders that used to mark graves poked out of the earth, half-buried themselves, more marked by the trees growing out of their centers than by any long-stolen headstones.

We found only a few remaining stones with legible writing on them, in our hour or so of searching. The whole time, the birds chirped, a teenage couple made out on top of a particularly large and vandalized tomb, and I felt like this place couldn't possibly be real. It was a movie set, not a cemetery. Cemeteries are carefully maintained, pilgrimages of memory for the relatives of those interned within. This was long since forgotten, the remaining stones left to return to the earth, along with their names. Cemeteries are places of mortality, but the plots themselves seem eternal. It is doubly shaking to be confronted with the fact that not only will we die, but the stones that mark our heads will one day too return to dust.

Map today of Nevskogo, Litovsky Val, and Yuri Gagarina Streets.
Darker brown represents building developments. The largest green
blob at center is undeveloped "park land," much of which overlays
the old cemeteries.
Overlay with map of 1938, revealing the chain of cemeteries underlying
both building developments and parkland. The Jewish cemetery (Jsrael
Friedhof) is farthest left. The large oblong shape at center used to be
a hippodrome, and is squarely under where I now teach.
The only surviving Hebrew headstone we could find. 
Most of the cemetery looks like this -- slowly being reabsorbed by
the ground.
Eduard Zachmann (?), dates illegible
Trees reclaim stone.
When reading German headstones, it's helpful to have
a German with you (thanks, Fabi!). This one belongs to
Lea Kunkowstein, née Muszcat (?), who was 80 years
old when she died 30 August, 1913.
The only sign that someone still cares for the cemetery is part of a brick
wall and plaque in Hebrew and Russian: "In blessed memory, let rest in
peace the souls of all buried in this cemetery, and all the Jews of this city
who died at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust, whose names and
places of burial are unknown."

From there, I journeyed back to see what had become of the Alte Pillauer Landstraße cemetery, without high hopes. This used to be another large cemetery, along both sides of what is now Дмитрия Донского Street. The area north of the street is now the City Central Park, housing the puppet theater, a small children's amusement park, and an outdoor ice skating rink. I had known that the western half of the park had once been a graveyard, but I didn't know that the bulk of the cemetery had been south of Донского, and I had never been there.

Walking along the street, I passed Baltika Stadium (which my 1938 map identifies as Erich Koch Platz, after the head of the Nazi Party in Königsberg), marking the beginning of the cemetery on my left. Today, a few apartments and businesses have been built there. Once I passed the roundabout, however, there was nothing but trees on the left -- trees and disturbed ground. The reason why no modern maps mark a cemetery there anymore is because there isn't one. Graverobbers from the sixties and more recently have systematically stolen almost every tombstone and exhumed almost every grave, looking for buried valuables. I'd known this beforehand, and was expecting empty parkland; what I saw was far different.

When you dig up a grave, it leaves a hole -- a hole about six feet long and three feet wide. When you dig up an entire cemetery of graves, it leaves a grid of holes, arranged in rows as orderly as there were once headstones. Graverobbers don't bother to replace the dirt that they removed; they pile it between the graves. The result, after weather and flora, is an eerily distinctive landscape of geometric holes and mounds, as unnerving by the cold thoroughness and symmetry of the work as it is by the concept. As I walked along the main path through the gravescape, careful not to deviate and risk breaking my ankle by falling into an open grave, I realized that what had looked like trenches by the Jewish cemetery had been the same phenomena as here. Robbers had dug up those graves too, and I had nothing else to compare the resulting terrain to except for products of war.

I find it difficult to describe the sense of unearthly disembodiment that accompanies walking along a path raised above row on row of holes for acres in all directions. It is the inversion of walking through a cemetery, surrounded by white tombstones that rise up from the ground like a forest of their own. But when you look down into a pit, at exposed roots in the muddy wall, and brown leaves and empty soda bottles at the bottom, you feel especially aware of the corporeal. There is an air of wrongness about it, something unnatural, like the dead have dug themselves up and forsaken their duties of memory, leaving us to stare helpless, without anything to mourn. Cemeteries have an eerie quality that comes of knowing you are surrounded by dead bodies -- but that feeling is compounded when the bodies are gone, and you are surrounded by only their holes.

I don't know what the robbers did with the skeletons. What does one do with a used coffin, anyway? Maybe many have been re-buried under just a few feet of dirt after being stripped of their valuables, I don't know. I can't imagine what else you'd do with something that unweildy. Or perhaps the Soviet government helped with the removal of remains, in the name of de-Germanification. At any rate, I was half expecting to look down into one grave too many and see a skull looking back at me. But I didn't. That's probably a good sign.

Prospekt Mira today. The city central park is the large middle green chunk
through which the creek runs, with the tan network of roads inside it.
Overlay with 1938, showing the network of cemeteries both in central
park and in the "park" below it. The lower part is where the graverobbing
is most obvious today.
Haunted ferris wheel, anyone? This amusement area in central park
is built on what used to be graveland.

Open graves and garbage.
Here the grid of depressions is clearly visible.
Watch your footing! 
That's a grave if I've ever seen one. The thing sticking up in the left corner
is a root, not a femur. I checked.

I ended my pilgrimage at the Gemeinde Friedhof out towards the end of Cranzer Allee, now ул. Александра Невского (Alexander Nevksy St). As Königsberg’s third main city cemetery, founded in 1913, the Cranzer Allee site was equipped with a crematorium, which was decorated with legendary frescoes of dancing dead. However, there appears to have been a nearby ammunition explosion in 1920 that damaged the building, although it was rebuilt and continued to function until July 1945, but no longer exists today.

The Cranzer cemetery is the only place I have found in this city that feels like a memorial to the people of Königsberg. As such, it's unsurprising that it owes its continued existence to the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge), and not to any Kaliningrad source. The Commission, an independent nonprofit organization founded in 1919 to care for German war dead, now administers over 800 sites in 45 countries, including eight in Kaliningrad Oblast.1 When the Commission began work on the Cranzer location in 2001, the cemetery was already the burial site of around 5,000 bombing victims, soldiers, refugees, and prisoners of war, later accommodating about 2,900 soldiers and 570 civilians moved from other parts of the city. Including its original civilian internees, the small area now contains about 11,000 dead.

It is a quiet, hidden corner of the city now, inset from the road behind several buildings. No individual headstones remain; now there is only a common memorial raised on a small hill in the center, and rows of tablets engraved with the names of the known dead. On separate pillars are those of the Red Army who also died during the battle for the city. Scattered throughout the field and among the sparse trees are groups of simple stone crosses, somber enough to mark the ground for what it is, but as anonymous as those resting beneath them.

Passing a small girl playing with her mother in the grass and a grandfather pushing a baby stroller, I sat on a fallen cross in the middle of the open field, enjoying one of the first truly warm days of spring. A group of students cut through on the path, followed by a trio of men with open bottles of beer at eleven in the morning. Although the grounds are under the Commission's care, no one seems to be regularly employed to clean up the empty bottles and other rubbish that accumulates in the grass. I would have thought the crosses are enough to designate a tone of respect and reflection, but perhaps I sense only what I have brought with me; for others it just a park, a shortcut between adjacent properties.

And what, after all, is my own relationship to this ground? I am neither German nor Russian; I have no known connection to this city beyond the fact that I have happened to live here for the last seven months. The destruction, suffering, and casualties that happened here were the product of a war that ended nearly half a century before I was born. Of course I am not personally responsible, and yet I cannot help but feel the weight of some fault. The RAF may have bombed this particular city without American planes, but U.S. air forces wrecked our own share of death and destruction on Dresden, Hamburg, Mainz, Kassel, and so many others that it's hardly important whose grandfather sat in the cockpit. Whether or not any of it was justified is a different question, but neither rebuilds cathedrals nor reanimates the dead.

There is a role for blame, but for me, two generations down from the war, it is farther and farther away. My generation has many lessons to learn from the twentieth century, but for us the imperative must come, not from personal experience, but from the weight of the horrors of which we must make sense, from the legacies of a war of which we are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The Europeans call this process peace and reconciliation, and that, after all, is precisely what this cemetery is designed to promote. I don't know more than the names of those who lie here, but they lived and died in this city where I live now, and they deserve to be remembered in it.

Cranzer/Невского cemetery map today, located in the large kelly-green
shape with the long driveway and little circle inside it.
Map overlay with 1938, the solid red H designating the crematorium's
location. Although the size of the cemetery today has shrunk from
what it used to be, little else of note has changed.
Entrance sign: Cemetery for the victims of the Second World War
It may feel like spring, but the trees haven't leafed
out yet. 
View towards the central memorial.
Soda can, cigarette carton. 
Central memorial.
One of the few remaining original tombstones: Mit Gott für König und
Vaterland / With God for King and Fatherland

1.  Their locations are: Königsberg/Калининград, Pillau/Балтийск, Schloßberg/Добровольск, Fischhausen/Приморск, Heiligenbeil/Мамоново, Germau/Русское, Insterburg/Черняховск, and Tilsit/Советск

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