On the 55th north latitude in Klaipeda, Lithuania, the sun shines for about seven hours a day in early December. Even at noon on a brisk sunny Monday, the slanting rays suggest that one should do one’s business with alacrity before hunkering down for a long winter’s nap. I myself had risen long before dawn that morning in Vilnius to ride the nearly four-hour “express” train to the Klaipeda’s (“CLAY-pah-duh”) location on the Baltic Sea in order to document a significant moment in the life of Robert “Bob” Sellmer. That was the day he was arrested and beaten for failing to return a Nazi salute while covering a legislative election on December 11, 1938 when the town was then named Memel.
As you might expect, there is a fair bit of back story that is necessary to understand this event in both actual world history and Bob’s personal journey. I don’t think I can keep it brief, but it deserves a respectful hearing.
Due to Klaipeda’s strategic placement as a (normally) ice-free port at the mouth of a major river on the Baltic Sea, it has had a long and colorful history in the region. At various times it has been controlled by the medieval Teutonic Knights, later the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire (and Reich), Lithuania itself for brief periods until recently, and of course, the Soviet Union for much of the 20th century. It was the most northern outpost of the German sphere for most of its lifetime, hence the dual names themselves and much of the architectural, historical, and cultural links with its more southerly German relations.
The city itself, now Lithuania’s third largest and boasting a population of around 150,000, is in the process of “rebranding” itself as a summer playground as well as a busy Baltic port. Nearby is located Curonian Spit, a World Heritage site consisting of a 60+mile sandy peninsula and national park with the largest drifting sand dunes in Europe and one of the biggest motherlodes of amber in the entire world. The downtown region, easily walkable from the train station, features a number of charming buildings, galleries, and museums dating from the centuries under German influence as well as a collection of fascinating and occasionally heart-wrenching statues commemorating various facets of the city’s turbulent past.
Because, frankly, heart-wrenching is a lot of what happened here in the first half of the 20th century. For me, even subtracting Bob’s little episode from the equation, there was a lot of suffering visited on the site of this maritime burg. Even before I reached the main drag of the Old Town, I began to feel the jitters that usually signal to me that I’m entering unsettled psychic territory.
Leaving aside various political machinations, the first wave of actual violence was against the Jewish population in the 1930s, similar to actions all over Europe at the time. The source of my material about the saga of Jewish Memel comes from jewishgen.org. A more complete reference will be found at the end of the chapter.
Jews had lived in Memel off and on since 1567 and were a vital part of the mercantile establishment. By 1938, there were nearly 8000 Jews living in the region, nearly 15 percent of the total population. One source reports “When Hitler took Austria (March 1938), the Memel Jews understood that heavy clouds were gathering over them and that a fateful time was coming.” Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, saw the destruction of the main synagogue in town along with related violence against people and property. I was particularly struck by this bollard I saw near the cemetery, made from shards of Jewish tombstones that probably dated from that moment:
(Bob was in town a month later than Kristallnacht, on December 11, 1938. His notes, which will be featured later, do not take any particular note of actions against Jews. He was there to cover an election, and then became a bit of a celebrity himself.)
The source continues, “On March 20, 1939 Hitler gave Lithuania an ultimatum, requiring its departure from Memel within 24 hours.
“The same day Lithuania bowed to the ultimatum. The entire city was covered with Hitler flags and Hitler’s photograph. 40,000 Memel Germans went out into the streets and with wild enthusiasm celebrated the world murderer. In one night, 7,000 Jews escaped from the area. The rest had left earlier or would leave later.
“In all of Memel, 7 Jews remained, mostly old people who owned houses in Koenigsburg or Berlin and hoped to live from [the income from] the houses. The departure of the Jews from Memel was horrible. The streets were filled with Germans from sidewalk to sidewalk. The buses did not take Jews. Jews dragged themselves on foot to the railway. The masses on the streets shadowed them with abuse. Along the sidewalks stood Germans. Choruses shouted: “Jews out!” “Go to Palestine!” “I never want to see you again!” “Hands behind the head!”
“On the 22nd of March 1939, Adolf Hitler himself arrived in Memel on a battleship. Memel was Yudn rein [free of Jews]. The Germans with discipline legally looted Jewish personal effects (estimates range to nearly 20 million dollars in the currency of the day), and the Memel Jews were scattered and spread over the cities and shtetlekh (small Jewish country villages) of Lithuania. The largest number went to Kovno, a smaller number to Shavli, Kretingen, Plunge, Tverech, Telz and Drobyany…The Soviet Army arrived in Lithuania on the 15th of June 1940. They frowned upon the Memel Jews. On the 22nd of June 1941, the Memel Jews with the rest of the Lithuanian Jews perished as martyrs. (Note: they were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, the German killing squads, not the Soviets.) http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/lita/Lit1427.html
Sigh. But even more sadly, this was not the end of the suffering of the citizens of the city, but here the details get sketchier. As I made my way to the train station to return to Vilnius, I saw the following statue:
The inscription, even with the help of translation, was vague. Abschield in German, Atsisveikinimas in Lithuanian…here’s Google Translate’s best guess:
“Farewell (to Motherland). The 750th anniversary of the city founded by the Association of Memel counties in Deutschland. Designed and modeled 2002.” A little research discovered the following from an online tourist brochure describing various statues around town:
“In 1941, the population of Klaipėda was about 41,188. In January, 1945, the Red Army soldiers found only six people: two elder Prussian Lithuanians, two Belarussian prisoners of war and two Polish architects, brought here for work. The rest of the population fled; some together with the retreating German army via the Curonian spit, others moved to Germany a year earlier. The statue marks a truly black period in the history of Klaipėda city. (Authors L. and R. Janišovskiai.)” Another account reads “the advancing Soviet armies found only some 20 local human beings when they captured the city in 1945,” but whatever way you slice it, Memel as it had once been known was gone forever.
As it seems to have turned out, the jubilation of the German Memellanders over the elimination of the local Jewish population was ironically short-lived. Before the end of the war, it appears that taunting citizenry itself would face a similar fate. And who was to take their place in the town by the sea? My ears told me that since I heard more Russian spoken in Klaipeda than in Vilnius, the Soviets might have taken advantage of the existing infrastructure to relocate some folks there. In fact, truelithuania.com tells us “Klaipėda was swiftly repopulated by Russians, (22%), Russophones, (5%) and Lithuanians from elsewhere (72%).” And so it was those Slavic accents I heard in the mid-afternoon gathering dusk, from pairs of well-appointed matrons arm-in-arm and young mothers with perambulators, walking slowly down the charming residential streets, all dressed up and with no clear destination in mind.
In the next installment, I’ll tell you more about Bob’s adventures on the evening of December 11, 1938.