This little album is a piece of history, not just family memorabilia. In 2009, a cousin in Germany received an e-mail from Mr. Imants Lancmanis, Director of the Rundale Palace Museum, a gorgeous, 18th century buttercream palace in Latvia, designed by Rastrelli, architect to tsars, creator of St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace. By happenstance Lancmanis had unearthed a family photo album in the museum at Valmiera, (German: Wolmar), not far from Alt Ottenhof, a family estate. The album was being included in an exhibition on the local Baltic aristocracy.
The photos date from the early 1930s, when my father’s younger brother Georg was farming the last 50 hectares remaining to the family after the rest of Ottenhof had been expropriated. The family had convened at Ottenhof for the christening of my brother Michael, born May, 4, 1931. One photo taken at this time, shows my young father looking intently at his son, who seems to be returning his serious scrutiny.
In September, 1939, Germany’s Blitzkrieg seized western regions of Poland, and soon after, Stalin seized the east. Then Hitler traded Latvia and Estonia to Stalin in return for Polish provinces now under Russian control. Hitler immediately launched a campaign of massive Hitler immediately launched a campaign of massive dislocation, expelling Poles and Jews from Polish provinces to repopulate them with Germans and “ethnic” Germans uprooted from the Baltics and elsewhere in Europe. Georg and his family were to leave within a week’s time, with the clothes on their backs and one suitcase, to establish a Germanized Utopia in the east.
Straying through the empty house after Georg’s family was gone, did someone pick up the album – just one thing too much to carry? Along a circuitous route, it found its way to an exhibit on the long-gone Baltic aristocracy, one more artifact in the story of war, empty houses, and dislocation.