My Heritage Story: Amanda's Maternal Ancestors
My Maternal Family
Blum: also Labes, Nickelwarth, Baier, Schulz, Matz, Nolle, Jürgen, Berndt, and Seidenswirker
My mom was born in Germany and emigrated to Canada when she was eight years old. I can trace my mom’s maternal family back to around the year 1800, all of whom were Lutheran until my Catholic grandfather married in (but my grandmother refused to convert, so we’re still Lutheran). My grandmother Marlies was born in Pölitz (now Police, Poland), near Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland) which was the capital of the Prussian province of Pomerania, birthplace of the empress Catherine II of Russia, and has the oldest Christian church in Pomerania, founded in 1124 and restored in 1817. This is the area where my mother’s maternal family largely originates from; Pölitz is located near the mouth of the Oder river from the Ostsee, or Baltic Sea, in what is now known as the “lost” eastern German provinces in former West Prussia.
Historically, Prussia was ethnically German Teutonic lands, with the exception of the years between 1466 and 1772 when Prussia was a vassal land of the Kingdom of Poland following war with the Teutonic Order. Between 1815 and 1945 Pomerania ('Pommern') was a province in the former kingdom (until 1918) and free state of Prussia. The head of the province of Pomerania was the socalled Oberpräsident ('super president') who had his seat in the Pomeranian capital Stettin. The Province of East Prussia was part of the German state of Prussia, and its capital city was Königsberg.
Prussia/Preußen was a German kingdom and historic state originating out of the Duchy of Prussia and the Margraviate of Brandenburg. For centuries, the House of Hohenzollern ruled Prussia, successfully expanding its size by way of an unusually well-organised and effective army. Prussia shaped the history of Germany, with its capital in Berlin after 1451. In 1871, German states united in creating the German Empire under Prussian leadership. In November 1918, the monarchies were abolished and the nobility lost its political power.
In the aftermath of World War Two, between 1945 and 1950, Prussia was ethnically cleansed of Germans by Poland, Russia, and the Allies. Between 10 and 14 million Germans were forcibly expelled from their homes when the 1945 Potsdam Conference divided German land in two land transfers and authorized the expulsion of ethnic Germans. German land was given by the Allied Forces to the Soviet Union because Russian dictator Stalin wanted a year-round ice-free harbor and lands on an ice-free sea. The city of Königsberg was renamed to Kaliningrad after Mikhail Kalinin. Prussia was effectively abolished in 1932, and officially abolished in 1947.
Following the forced German relocations, millions of Slavic peoples – most notably the Polish and Ukrainians – were forcibly relocated into the areas ‘evacuated’ by the Germans. As many as 3 million Germans and other Eastern Europeans lost their lives during the ‘population’ shift between 1945 and 1950. Destruction of German property was massive, with countless homes, churches, graveyards, civic buildings, records, traditions, and communities destroyed; the same likely happened for families who were Polish, Mennonite, Jewish, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Czech, etc. 99% of Prussian Germans were expelled by the Polish and Soviet governments between 1945 and the 1950s, and the local German governments that had cared for and managed their data and vital statistics are now completely gone. These Germans and their records are now a ‘diaspora’ and today’s Poland rests on the great majority of former German land, with smaller amounts going to Russia (Kaliningrad), Lithuania, and France (Alsace & Lorraine), among others. The East Prussian land and population transfers were finally made permanent by treaties between West Germany and Poland and the USSR, which were signed and ratified between 1970 and 1972.
The father of my great-grandmother Irmgard, Hermann Matz, was a sailor on the Baltic Sea, or Ostsee. In those days, when ships went through canals they took the ship’s chimney down (today, the bridges go up to allow ships through). Irmgard’s father died when she was eight years old when there was an accident with the chimney. Her mother Klara suffered from asthma, so Irmgard cared for her, brother Emil, and sister Renata. Irmgard’s mother died shortly after the war ended when there was no medicine.
Irmgard married Willi Labes in 1939, the year the Second World War began. Willi worked at a company related to hydro, something essential that required him to keep working there throughout the duration of the war rather than fighting as a solider. At one point, he was sent with others from the company to Hamburg for an extended time. In Prussia, the propaganda was the Germans were defeating the Russians and close to victory, so the German civilians were taken by surprise when the Russians invaded in the last year of the war, indiscriminately murdering and destroying homes and buildings. In 1944, Irmgard and her daughters had to flee to underground bunkers many times and Marlies lost a pretty red shoe in the snow, running for shelter. Marlies remembers the three of them running through the forest away from the invading Russians who were bombing the trains of women and children trying to escape westward.
There were two kinds of Russians – the uneducated soldiers from rural areas who didn’t know what toilets were, so they would take them (things like bicycles, too) out of the homes and stack them up in the street - it was one of these soldiers who raped Irmgard, from whom she managed to hide and keep her wedding photo, so they didn’t destroy it. The educated soldiers were often kinder, and in the year after the war when the remaining Germans (who had not yet been expelled) worked for the occupying Russians, Irmgard worked in a kitchen making food for them. She could eat at work but wasn’t allowed to take any food home, so one night she told Marlies to hurry over. Irmgard gave her a loaf of bread to hide under her shirt and told her to wait and hide behind the door. A Russian saw Marlies, left the room, and returned with a second loaf for her to bring home.
After the war, Willi came back to find his family and ended up working for the Russians as a truck driver, making deliveries between Pölitz and Berlin. On his last trip, the Russians went to the bar, got drunk, and wanted to drive back, so they made Willi sit in the back of the open-tarp truck that night, in January 1946. He came home with a cough, had caught typhus, and died a couple of days later. The Russians felt so horrible that the General even came out and they built Willi’s coffin and helped bury him, when there was no wood around to make coffins.
During the war, a bomb landed in the backyard of Irmgard’s house in Pölitz, where she was living with her daughters Marlies and Ute, brother Emil, and mother Klara, but luckily it didn’t go off or they all would have died. Irmgard’s parents’ house and beautiful farm where she grew up in Jasenitz, however, was bombed and destroyed. Working in a potato field, the Polish women wouldn’t let Irmgard bring any potatoes home to feed her starving children. After the war, the three were forced to leave during the German expulsion by the Russians and lived in a refugee camp at Anklam, northeast of Berlin, without food or shoes, even in winter. The rubble of bombed out Germany was largely left for nearly two decades because two generations of men had died in the First and Second World Wars and the women and children did their best to rebuild their cities.
After the war, Willi’s parents Franz and Alwine Labes moved to live on a farm near Hamburg where they were so integral with the St. Margarethen church and community that when Alwine died, the whole town came out to mourn at her funeral. Franz, who was a city foreman, passed away a year later. Willi’s brother Reinhard had moved to Mannheim after the war, where my grandma Marlies later moved to live with him and his wife for a while.
Living in Mannheim, Marlies met her husband, Werner and Irmgard and Ute moved to Mannheim as well. In the same building, Werner sold televisions and radios on the first floor and the family lived upstairs. Afterward, Irmgard opened a post office in the same space. She lived there into her 80s and passed away when I was in my early 20s.
My grandfather Werner Blum was an electrician who worked the radios in World War Two. He was captured by the Americans for the last year or two of the war and had said they were very nice to him. He loved to play musical instruments and his father played either violin or cello (perhaps both and other string instruments) in the Mannheim Philharmonic Orchestra. Werner moved to Calgary, Canada in the 1970s to create a better life for his family and built the original scoreboard in the gymnasium of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT).