Among the people my father, Dr. Otto Bruck, was acquainted with in Tiegenhof, and may even once have considered good friends, were the owners of Tiegenhof’s Dampfmahlmuehle (steam-operated flour mill), Hedwig “Hedsch” Schlenger, nee Fenger (b. June 13, 1899, Tiegenhof, Free State of Danzig-d. June 3, 1982, Hannover, Germany) and her husband, Alfred “Dicken” Schlenger (Figure 1). Using the membership list in the Tiegenhofer Nachrichten, the annual periodical for former German residents of Tiegenhof and their descendants, I had the good fortune to locate Hedsch Schlenger’s grand-daughter, a delightful lady by the name of Beate Lohff, nee Schlenger (Figure 2), living in Meppen, Germany. Readers will recall from an earlier post that my father had recorded Hedsch Schlenger’s name by June 13th in his 1932 Pocket Calendar, a date Beate would later confirm was when her grandmother was born in 1899 in Tiegenhof.
Not only was I fortunate enough to locate Hedsch Schlenger’s grand-daughter, but I also had the indisputable “luck” to learn that Beate had inherited some of her grand-parent’s personal papers and surviving pictures, which Beate graciously shared with me. The pictures, some of which have been discussed and shown in previous posts, included people whom my father had once known, including two personal friends, Kurt Lau and Hans “Mochum” Wagner. Perhaps even more valuable was a 12-page diary Hedsch Schlenger had written covering the period from roughly September 1944 through August 1947 that I had translated into English; readers will correctly surmise this overlaps with the period when the Russians overran Tiegenhof and East and West Prussia and worked their way westwards towards the heart of Nazi Germany as the German war-machine collapsed. Hedsch Schlenger’s diary provides a fascinating, albeit limited, look at this period. The initial entry is dated June 1, 1945, with subsequent entries dated, respectively, June 24, 1945; July 22, 1945; August 29, 1945; May 1947 and August 1947. According to Beate Lohff (personal communication), a portion of Hedsch Schlenger’s diary has been lost and was likely destroyed.
In this Blog post, I have extracted several sections of Hedsch Schlenger’s diary to highlight contemporary personal and historic events; provided brief commentary on the events or people discussed; depicted some of the individuals mentioned; and, finally, illustrated, using a few of my father’s pictures, the areas through which Hedsch and her entourage likely passed. Since most of the people mentioned will be of scant interest to the reader, I will focus primarily on the broader contemporary historical events that Hedsch Schlenger touches on that readers may find more entertaining. The complete translated diary can be found under Historic Documents for anyone interested in reading it, although readers should be prepared to go through it with an Atlas in hand.
Hedsch Schlenger’s initial diary entry dated “Schwerin, June 1, 1945”: “By September 1944, we had survived 5 years of war. My husband [Alfred] passed away in August  after being severely ill for 8 weeks; my 19-year-old son Eberhard was an aircraftsman in Breslau (today: Wroclaw, Poland) and only my second 13-year-old son Juergen was with me in Tiegenhof, where I lived with my mother-in-law in the mill and where my husband used to work as a mill merchant.”
Commentary: I was able to locate the 1944 Death Certificate for Alfred Schlenger, Hedsch Schlenger’s husband, in the database discussed in previous posts: Östliche preußische Provinzen, Polen, Personenstandsregister 1874-1945 (Eastern Prussian Provinces, Germany [Poland], Selected Civil Vitals, 1874-1945). Alfred’s Death Certificate is one of the few records in this database which is typewritten.
Throughout her diary, Hedsch Schlenger refers to her mother-in-law as “Omama,” although her given name was “Martha Schlenger, nee Ruhnau.” More will be said about her fate later.
Hedsch Schlenger’s diary entry: “The Russians advanced further and further into East and West Prussia and on January 23, 1945, the first tanks appeared in Elbing [today: Elblag, Poland], 20km (ca. 13 miles east-southeast) away from Tiegenhof. At 8 in the evening we received the first order to evacuate. . . At 11 p.m. it was all cancelled as the danger should have been over, but at 5 in the morning the situation became very serious. . . It was the 24th, my husband’s birthday, when we left the beautiful mill site at 8:30 in the morning.”
On the road, we were soon driving in convoy and moved forward very slowly because of the ice. We drank hot coffee for the first time at 3 p.m. in Steegen [today: Stegna, Poland] (15km), and all the vehicles gathered at 7 p.m. . .in Nickelswalde [today: Mikoszewo, Poland] (25km). Our Wanderer (car) soon crossed the river on the ferry. . .”
Commentary: Steegen was a beach community north of Tiegenhof where my father often recreated (Figures 3 & 4). Nickelswalde was the major ferry-crossing point across the Weichsel River [today: Vistula], a ferry my father often took on his way to Danzig (Figure 5 & 6).
Hedsch Schlenger’s diary entry: “In Danzig, I met Ruth van Bergen. . .thanks to her, I went once more to Tiegenhof by car. Our house was completely occupied by soldiers and plundered. . .The mill was in use, which means new flour and whole grain were produced by means of an electric motor. . . Ruth van Bergen and I spent the night in [Tiegenhof] and one could hear shooting from the front-line, which was 8km away. The next day we drove back through Burnwalde [on the Weichsel], where another pig was slaughtered and packed for us to take. The ferry from Rothebude took 10 hours because the roads were full of convoys all the way to Danzig.”
I made it once more to Tiegenhof with Erna Baumfolk. . .That night we stayed with the Regehrs (uncle). . .In the afternoon, we drove back with the Wehrmacht. I had a feeling then that I will never see my home again. The cemetery was the only place that remained untouched. I will never forget that peaceful image amidst the war. Will I ever see my husband’s grave again?”
Commentary: The above describe Hedsch Schlenger’s last two visits to Tiegenhof from Danzig. Following the war, the Communist Government in Poland not only expelled most remaining Germans but also made a concerted effort to remove traces of German occupation, a pattern we see repeated in other cities and towns across the country. Consequently, while many German-era buildings still stand today in Nowy Dwor Gdanski, the cemetery where Alfred Schlenger and other Germans were once buried in Tiegenhof no longer exists.
Hedsch Schlenger’s diary entry: “The situation in Danzig became increasingly dangerous. The Russians reached Graudenz [today: Grudziądz, Poland], Schneidemühl [today: Piła, Poland] and were close to Dirschau [today: Tczew, Poland] and were close to Stettin [today: Szczecin, Poland]. If we stood a chance to go west by train we had to leave Zoppot [today: Sopot, Poland] (Figure 7) again. Many of our friends had left by ship but it was very difficult to get tickets; train tickets were hard to get. Philipsen, my brother-in-law, left on the “Gustloff” as boatman. The ship was torpedoed at the beginning of February near Leba [today: Łeba, Poland]. Most likely he died in the attack. My sister [Lisbeth] often went to Gotenhafen/Gdingen [today: Gydnia, Poland] to get some news but always in vain.
All of a sudden, Doempke, my brother-in-law, managed to get me 3 places on a hospital train, and on February 24th, my mother, Jürgen and I set out from Neufahrwasser [today: Nowy Port, Poland] towards an uncertain destination. There were 15 wounded in the carriage who arrived by boat from Königsberg [today: Kaliningrad, Russia] and were loaded onto the train. . .It was very cold in the compartment and it took us 3 days to get to Stettin [today: Szczecin, Poland] through Pomerania.
On the 27th we arrived in Bad Kleinen in Mecklenburg, where we got off the train. Then we travelled through Schwerin, Ludwigslust, Wittenberge and Neustadt (Dosse) to Rathenow. . . [roughly 45 miles northwest of Berlin]”
Commentary: Here Hedsch Schlenger identifies some places the Russians captured as they were closing in on Pomerania and West Prussia, and touches on one of the lesser known disasters of World War II, specifically, the torpedoing of the former cruise ship known as the Wilhelm Gustloff.
Hedsch Schlenger’s contemporary account details how the Russians were advancing into West Prussia and Pomerania from the South and East. Other informant accounts I’ve collected suggest the Russians were even backtracking East to capture pockets of German resistance they may have bypassed on their way West. Some readers may recall from my earlier Blog post dealing with “Idschi and Suse [Epp]” that their brother, Gerhard Epp, did not evacuate from near Stutthof until May 6, 1945, indicating this area east of Danzig was likely one of the last captured by the Russians. On Figures 8, 9 & 10, I have circled some of the places that Hedsch Schlenger mentions in her narrative as she travels from Danzig to the German State of Mecklenburg.
Elsewhere in her diary, Hedsch Schlenger identifies her sister by name, “Lisbeth,” without providing her married name. In the section quoted above, Lisbeth’s husband is merely identified as “Philipsen.” It was initially unclear to me whether this was her husband’s prename or surname. However, I was eventually able to locate a birth record from the Evangelical Church in Tiegenhof for a “Otto Wilhelm Max Philipsen,” a child that Lisbeth, nee Fenger, had with her husband which confirmed that “Philipsen” was Lisbeth’s married name and that she was married to Otto Philipsen. I even found Lisbeth Philipsen’s name and address in Bremen on a page in Alfred Schlenger’s Address Book, given to me by Alfred’s grand-daughter (Figure 11).
The “Philipsen” mentioned in Hedsch Schlenger’s diary is this Otto Philipsen who died when the Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk in the Baltic Sea by Soviet Navy submarines. An American scholar by the name of Cathryn J. Prince, has written a riveting account of this little-known disaster in a 2013 book entitled “Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.” As the Russians were advancing from the East, Berlin made plans to evacuate upwards of 10,000 German women, children, and the elderly from West and East Prussia aboard a former cruise ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Sailing from Gotenhafen/Gdingen [today: Gydnia, Poland] through the icy waters of the Baltic Sea on January 30, 1945, the ship was soon found and sunk by Russian subs. An estimated 9,400 people lost their lives, six times the number lost on the Titanic!!
Hedsch Schlenger’s diary entries: “On April 12th, the Americans were already marching into Stendal [roughly 100 miles northwest of Berlin]. On this occasion, I wanted to leave Rathenow again for I did not wish to fall into the hands of the Russians. I did not flee from the East for that. . .
In the meantime, the Russians were getting closer and closer to Berlin, the Allied forces kept advancing from the West, and the Russians began new attacks even close to Stettin. They were now near Mecklenburg, and on May 1st, they were now no more than 20km away from Krakow am See [located in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany, and the place where Hedsch, her mother and her son had temporarily taken refuge with friends as she was writing her account].
My mother. . .still wanted to stay there [Krakow am See]. However, in the morning one of the soldiers advised us to get on the truck going in the direction of Schwerin and make our way to Lübeck. By 9 we had packed everything and set out again to flee from the Russians, who were supposed to reach Krakow by 12. They were constantly on our heels during our journey. The streets were lined with tanks again, between them were soldiers, wounded and prisoners—a bleak string of hardened people, who had lost their homes and their country.
And suddenly the war ended. . .
June 24th: We are still in Schwerin, although every minute there is a rumor that the Russians will occupy this part of Mecklenburg as well. Many people from Danzig walk around with Danziger coat-of-arms on their clothes, and the rumors are circulating that a Free City shall be established again. But they lack any foundation.
Commentary: In the closing weeks of fighting in Europe, the Allied powers had actually pushed beyond the previously agreed occupation zone boundaries determined at the 1945 Yalta Conference by the “Big Three” (Russia, America, and Britain) on how to split up Germany following WWII. In the case of the Americans, they had sometimes pushed by as much as 200 miles beyond the agreed boundaries. So, after about two months of holding certain areas meant to be in the Soviet zone, which was clearly the case with Schwerin, the Allied powers withdrew during July 1945, which corresponds with Hedsch Schlenger’s account.
Clearly, there was an unrealistic expectation among some former residents of Danzig that a Free City would once again be established there, a situation that obviously never came to pass.
Hedsch Schlenger’s diary entry: August 29, 1945: “We are still in Rostock. The refugees from the East keep coming still. Amongst them was also the Schritt family from Zoppot [today: Sopot, Poland], who knew for sure that Omama [Hedsch Schlenger’s mother-in-law, Martha Schlenger] had died there. . Allegedly the Doempkes tried to take their own lives. . .
. . .Many have taken their own lives, like my mother-in-law in Zoppot, who [died and]. . .is buried in the garden at Heidebergstraße. The Doempkes. . .also took poison. . . “
Commentary: Here, Hedsch Schlenger learns that her mother-in-law, Martha Schlenger, nee Ruhnau (“Omama”) (Figure 12), died in Zoppot as did the Doempkes, her brother-and-sister-in-law.
Many Germans who decided to stay in West Prussia as the Russians were approaching in the closing days of WWII were either killed or eventually took their own lives; those that survived were later expelled or naturalized as Polish citizens. In the case of women who stayed, they were the repeated victim of rape by Russian soldiers. My father’s friend from Tiegenhof, Peter Lau, to whom an earlier post was devoted, told me that his aunt decided to stay in Danzig to protect her property only to eventually arrive in West Germany months later a shattered woman on account of her brutal treatment at the hands of Russian soldiers. Peter also recounted that German women took refuge in what was once Tiegenhof’s Käsefabrik (cheese factory), and what is today the Muzeum Zulawskie, as the Russians were approaching; after the town was captured, these women were systematically removed from the factory and repeatedly raped.
Hedsch Schlenger’s diary entry: August 29, 1945: “Recently I met a Mr. Kurt Schlenger who is a distant relative of ours. He lives here in Rostock; he’s married and is a distinguished violinist. They live in Massmannstraße 10, have an 18-year-old daughter who wants to become an artist. I even met a sister of this Mr. Schlenger, a widow named Mrs. Seidel, who lives in Tremsenweg 4. They are very nice people, but completely different to us. They are dark, small and not as handsome as our Schlengers.”
Commentary: This entry took some time to unravel. Hedsch’s husband Alfred had a brother by the same name, Dr. Kurt Schlenger, who coincidentally was also a musician (Figure 12). Readers may recall from an earlier post that this Dr. Kurt Schlenger, born on April 20, 1909, was mentioned in my father’s 1932 Pocket Calendar. I spent a considerable amount of time searching for a Kurt Schlenger from Rostock, Germany on ancestry.com who could be the “distant relative” to whom Hedsch was referring. Eventually, I found one Kurt Schlenger in Rostock, Germany, born on June 11, 1893, who is likely the relative in question; his marriage certificate is attached and shows he was born in Preußisch Holland (Prussian Holland) [today: Pasłęk, Poland], 46km or less than 30 miles from Tiegenhof.
From German refugees continuing to arrive from the East, Hedsch Schlenger was either able to re-encounter people she knew from West Prussia and Tiegenhof, including people my father also knew, or learn about people who’d decided to stay behind. The fate of those who stayed behind, however, is often unclear.