Wüstungen – sample excerpt

by Göran Gnaudschun

‘In the olden days’ – when is that exactly? In the olden days there was a village here, up on an elevation overlooking the lake: three large farms, two Büdner (or smallholdings), a wheelwright, and a fisherman. An inn, a few cottages for farm labourers and, for a while, even a school.

But then, in the olden days, everything became a border area: five hundred metres of protective strip and, behind it, five kilometres of restricted zone. A village that was cut off from all the others. Subject to entry permits and passes. No roads to take you there, just a country lane. So churned up by heavy army vehicles that there was only a narrow strip left along the edge for children to cycle down on their way to school.

In the olden days members of the GDR’s People’s Police (Volkspolizei) and border troops lived here, along with farm labourers loyal to the party line who came from industry to work in the LPG (Agricultural Production Cooperative) for a few years. There was a sewage plant, a paved road, and a retail outlet. Young Socialist families lived there.

In the olden days there were no trees left standing there, and no houses; everything was levelled; there was a patrol road along the river bank, border signal installations and fences of expanded metal; there were fence-meshed border fortifications right across the river; there was a pontoon bridge and, opposite, a watch tower with uninterrupted views across the entire Lankow peninsula.

In the olden days a commemorative stone was erected here so that, where heathland and woodland now grow, the old place would not be forgotten. Someone from the neighbouring village who comes here to gather apples from the old apple trees tells me, ‘There were people standing around the stone for the photograph who shouldn’t have been there; they came later, it wasn’t meant for them.’ There must have been a moment when those who had been forcibly resettled and their subsequent beneficiaries met up around the commemorative stone for a group photo. Perhaps some had even lived in the same house.

Now, today, which all too soon will also become ‘in the olden days’: mid-September 2015, a few tardy crickets still chirping at the grey leaden skies. At the entrance to the village a yellow sign that reads: Lankow, Kreis Gadebusch, Bezirk Schwerin. On the right stood the first two outlying houses, and now there are trees there. Beneath my feet the paved road, on the left a pine forest. According to my 1905 German Ordnance Survey map it was already there before the village was obliterated. I walk along the paved road to the former village. On the heath on the right a young beech tree has already grown tall; on the left, bushes and, in between, fruit trees – if you look more closely. An information panel with historical photos and the layout map of the houses of Lankow, and a little further, on the right, the commemorative stone. It has old tiles on it (that, I can understand), but also an almost entirely perished wellington boot, and a section of old cable. On the left between the vegetation and the trees the red tiled kitchen floor of what used to be the inn.

It’s slowly getting dark. I walk down the path to the Lankow lake, tall lush grass alongside me; easy to see why Lankow meant ‘located near swampland’. The further I go, the denser the trees. On the steep slope down to the lake they huddled into a dense forest. The houses all had views of the lake. Every evening the sun would set there. My path down to the lake leads to a clearing that already hints at the water. The leaves stand out as black contours against the sky’s dark grey.

No wind, no ripples. From the opposite shore I hear the gentle rustling of leaves. Now and again a large fish splish-splashing. This is where the wire barrier was, right through the lake. With the watch tower opposite. ‘We don’t go swimming here, even though it looks so inviting. No-one knows what’s still in the water,’ the local tells me. The trunks of the trees down here are still slender. Beech and birch, now so tall courtesy of the past twenty-five years. Time and again my torch picks out the remains of a wall. Crumbling there among the new trees, overgrown with shrubbery, grass, and leaves.

The founding of Lankow dates back to 1209. Recent excavations would seem to indicate that the history of the settlement could well be ten thousand years old. In 1942 Lankow had 59 inhabitants. By 1946 there were more than a hundred people living here, counting the refugees from former eastern territories. And now there’s no-one here; I’m completely alone. During the day you might spot the odd angler or two, and also, more often, keen spotters of rare species. The former border as a Green Belt and biotope reserve. I stare out at the lake. It’s drizzling, the drizzle so dense it swallows up the shore opposite. And soon it’s pitch-black: no light anywhere, so sparsely populated is the area. I walk back up the slope towards the commemorative stone. With my torch lit, all else around me is cloaked in darkness, and all that remains of the world is what I’m able to see.

Tall canopies of leaves and deep wallowing hollows of wild boar along the trail.

It’s as if vibrant life only becomes noticeable when there’s nothing of it left. There’s something literally unsettling about places such as these. You feel it almost physically. I wonder where it comes from. Would I notice it if I was just simply here, just for fun or recreation? I don’t know. In any case the more I know about the place the more its aura becomes stronger. And it’s not just the aura by itself: it seems to be coupled directly with my powers of imagination.

The outline of two women in bright dresses standing in front of a farmhouse with impressively sized windows. Their faces indiscernible. Too bright, as if overexposed. One woman’s dress is knee-length, the other ends just above the ankle. Plain in style and cut, which allow me to date the photograph to ‘the olden days’ that came after the First World War. Their house was right at the front, just in front of the slope. I was touched by this photograph on the commemorative stone, because it makes the place and its time palpable. Because it opens up the past. Are they mother and daughter? People like to put family members in front of their house when photographing it. On the info panel alongside it, the caption ‘Schmidt Family, full farmstead, 62.5 ha’; one photograph further down is entitled ‘Inn and fishery Steding’.

Not far from here, in Schlagsdorf, there is a museum, and it screens a documentary film. An old woman by the name of Erika Steding is seen walking through Lankow. ‘I can still remember the lilac bush because I planted it.’ Then she becomes uncertain: ‘But how did the trees get from here to there?’ Breathing heavily, she scrapes away the grass and sand with her grey crutch. Finds concrete underneath. Impressive – the crutch scratching away so vigorously, uncovering the past. A whole lifetime of strong arms accustomed to knuckling down. She finds something else iron-like in the grass. ‘Yes, that’s the last remains of the cowshed, a cow chain… That building was well maintained. Now it’s all gone. Ah, what the heck!’ She’s relieved to have found firm hard evidence that ‘the olden days’ really did exist.

They installed dog runs in those sections of the border area that were difficult to guard. The dogs were chained to a steel running chain that gave them fifty to a hundred metres of free scope. They kept them thirsty so they would stay aggressive. The man from the neighbouring village: ‘The dogs were so vicious even the border guards didn’t go near them. They gave them their food with a long pole, and if one of the dogs managed to get free it would immediately attack the others.’ They stayed inside the dog run their entire lifes, up to ten years, providing they didn’t die of thirst or hunger beforehand or chocked themselves to death on the cable.

Ilse Witt, also a former inhabitant: ‘We’ve been here in Lankow for four or five hundred years. Then all those of us who had long been established here left. My sister experienced the whole drama, how they were loaded up and driven away in twenty large trucks.’ She did one final walkaround with Father. He had tears in his eyes when he said, ‘Don’t let them see how tough this is for us.’ He died three months later, of homesickness.

By 1972 the village had been completely vacated. The first explosions took place on New Year’s Eve: they wanted their destructive blasts to blend with all the din and commotion of seeing in the New Year in other villages and therefore go unnoticed. They needed a clear line of fire. By 1976 the place had ceased to exist.