Permanece in Change -or- Reaching Through Time
by Ute Carson
34th Paralell Magazine, Issue 49, December 2017

A huge oak tree stretches its leafy crown and branches, heavily laden with foliage, through a gaping window frame of castle Bielwiese. The tree looks like a giant firmly rooted in the ground, spreading its arms toward the sky.

Our family of six has arrived at the ruins of our former estate in Poland which was in the family from 1727 until 1932 when the land was in German hands. It has taken us much longer than the two predicted hours from Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) to the village of Wielowies. Our rented van has bumped over rutted country roads, past golden wheat fields studded with poppies and blue cornflowers swaying in the summer breeze. Suddenly I hear my mother humming her favorite song, "Geh aus meim Herz und suche Freud in dieser schönen Sommerszeit." And when we pass by tiny ponds I remember her telling of swimming here as a child with her two brothers and other neighborhood kids among algae, water lilies and croaking frogs, always without a stitch on and giddy with joy.

We stand and gaze at the ruins of the castle, a massive heap of red brick and crumbling mortar. The entire front façade is still standing three stories high with the original molded crowned seals of ancestral Baron von Lüttwitz intact and a stork nest firmly planted atop the gable. Otherwise, jungle-like vegetation abounds in the rubble and makes climbing into the interior over walls and through high piles of stones difficult. My American family mistakes the nettles sprouting in huge clusters everywhere for poison ivy and retreats at first. Only when I assure them that nettles sting but cause no permanent discomfort does Zachary slip his shorts down slightly to protect his bare legs and follow my lead. The others explore the perimeter. Zachary and I continue to struggle over rugged obstacles, determined to venture into our family's past.

"Nothing is built to last forever," my son-in- law Tommy comments when he first spots the ruins. And my husband Ron sighs, "Everything vanishes in the end." But Zachary and I marvel at the abundance of nature that has endured here for centuries, always being reborn. As we forge through the thicket not entered by other people for many years we spread our T-shirts out like aprons and gather red bricks to take home as gifts for relatives. "Can you believe," Zachary says," that these bricks have survived?" As we swipe spider webs from our faces and trample down brush to make our way forward we suddenly halt at a huge black hole in the ground. It is still recognizable as the furnace in the cellar that heated the fireplaces in the large rooms in the upper stories. My maternal grandmother recalled waking up under thick feather bedding and hearing the servants stoking the coals downstairs on cold winter mornings.

We arrive at a window in a turret and survey what lies before us. The air is still, holding its breath before exhaling with stories which now resurface in the July calm. How much sadness and drama has played out in these serene surroundings. And how much happiness.

Adjacent to the main building we spot the ivy-covered guesthouse, now broken down, walls supported by large poles, with the roof caved in and swallows darting from under the eaves. In this guest house a Russian born piano teacher instructed our forbearer, Clara. They fell in love. In 1832, having been married for twelve years to Heinrich Baron von Lüttwitz and borne six children, Clara followed her teacher to America. It was said that her last child died of a broken heart after her mother left. There is a marker at the village church bearing the name of Clara's daughter. According to family legend, following Clara's departure, her husband had the interior walls of the mansion draped in black and forbade the utterance of his wife's name.

Still, this bucolic setting was the site of a great deal of gladness. In our mind's eye we see an aunt riding side-saddle and smiling. She was written up in the local newspaper as the first woman to go fox hunting with an all-male retinue. Of her carefree childhood my mother recalled, "We had so much freedom to roam and explore." When one of her brothers was killed at Stalingrad in the Second World War a letter was found in his tattered uniform pocket with the words, "Only the memory of our idyllic childhood in Bielwiese makes it possible for me to endure this hellhole."

The last owner of Bielwiese, Nicholaus Baron von Lüttwitz was adored by his family and servants alike. He was known for his kindness and generosity. Lavish events took place on his estate and in his manor. Wedding parties were celebrated under lanterns dangling from trees in the park. Wakes were held in the large entrance hall and no birthday went by without surprises and sumptuous meals. At Christmas a tall fir tree was cut in the nearby forest and brought in smelling of snow and green sap. It was decorated with white candles that lit up Christmas Eve festivities. My mother remembered how all the servants were given their presents first before any family member could approach their gifts. Easter was a holiday designed for the children. Adults and youngsters alike dressed in their finest clothes. Following obligatory church attendance, the park echoed with jubilant squeals and laughter. Children of all ages ran from nest to nest, nests they had made themselves with moss and grass the day before. Soon their baskets brimmed with painted eggs and freshly baked treats.

The highlight of the harvest festival was the arrival of a team of horses pulling a wagon carrying the last load of wheat into the courtyard. A crown woven by the field hands from grain stalks and held together with colorful ribbons hung from the rafters in the clean-swept barn. Before everyone was invited to an evening of dancing and fun, the Baron blessed the richness of the annual harvest. Then a band began to play and the entire community sat down at long tables stacked with food. Korn schnapps was poured in bountiful quantities. The Baron was lenient when his workers stumbled from their dwellings the following morning long after the rooster had crowed its wakeup call.

Opapa, as he was affectionately known by his offspring, was a man full of the joy of life. But he could not manage his money. He was deeply in debt by the time of his death in 1929. As his estate fell into disrepair, his beloved wife Isa became addicted to pain medication following a complicated childbirth. She was admitted to the hospital at the nearby Lubiáz monastery for treatment and died soon thereafter.

Bielwiese was confiscated by the state and the mansion stood vacant for many years. Then it housed local workers for a while until the Russian army demolished it in 1945, leaving only the façade and front walls intact. The devastated interior gave free reign to plants, rain and wind as well as deer, rabbits and foxes. A farsighted aunt had transported much of the artwork and furniture to western Germany soon after Nicholaus died.

We sit down on some logs for a picnic, feeling that Bielwiese has become like an old friend to us in the short time since we arrived. As our fantasy wanders between recent stories and more remote ones, we experience a sense of déjȧ vu. We snap another round of pictures, knowing that these ruins have been designated for demolition by the government. Only their isolated location has spared them until now. A local priest had written to us before our trip, "Maybe the spirits of your ancestors have guarded the ruins so that you can still see them before they disappear." The nettles' sting, the summer heat, the crumbling bricks, the imposing front of the castle and the stories are all burned into our memory to be taken back across the ocean.

We are not yet finished with our journey into the past. Another family shrine awaits a visit. We drive from Poland into the Czech Republic to Svaty Jan Pad Skalan (Saint John under the Cross) near Prague. The village is quite small, gently nestled in a sun-dappled valley near rugged rocks under a gigantic cliff. A cross stands like a weathervane atop the cliffs' edge. Before our family owned the castle which leans into these cliffs, legend has it that Saint Ivan lived in a cave beneath the manor house and performed miracles in the surrounding communities. Soon after our arrival we drink from the Fountain of Life that still bubbles fresh spring water from an ancient stone reservoir under the castle.

Once again it is a grandfather who connects us to this remote spot. He was a jeweler in Prague and quite wealthy, but a passion for gambling was his downfall. One night in desperation after losing large sums of money he shot and killed himself. As was the custom regarding suicides, he was not permitted to be buried in the church. Instead he was laid to rest in front of the family chapel. Only its stucco walls and lovely interior have been renovated. A weatherworn monument bearing the image of a guarding angel hovers above the grave, the family name Berger still legible. At the time of his death, he was survived by his wife and several daughters, one of whom was my great-grandmother Marie Berger. When she married in 1871 her endowment included an ornate hand-carved Baroque-style armoire with the artist's initials chiseled into the sideboards, a big rounded trunk for linen and a delicate hand-painted fan from one of her sisters who was a lady-in- waiting at the Prague court. These beautiful heirlooms now have an honored place in our American home, much admired by many.

To atone for the suicide, the family willed the castle and the estate to the Catholic Church which eventually turned it into a cloister. Subsequently, under the Communist regime, it served as a military academy, and is now a state music school. All the rooms are lovingly restored. The ceiling in the ample music room has been stripped of old plaster and paint, revealing beautiful original paintings of biblical scenes. A piano stands in the middle of the arch-domed room. Alexander gingerly approaches the instrument, lifts the lid and gently sits down on a swivel stool. Softly at first and then full-force, he starts to play. I am covered in goosebumps as the melody floats into the invisible realms above us, blending with the chorus of our ancestors. Claudia has knelt against the statue with the guarding angel. She closes her eyes as the sun licks her face and a murmuring breeze plays with her hair. "I would want to be buried in this peaceful place," she whispers. "I feel at home here." We share her feelings and lower ourselves down next to her into the lush grass.

We have encountered enduring nature, seen impressive monumental ruins and artful handicrafts that defy time, and our souls have been touched by music echoing through ancient halls. We have shared many stories of family members. Before we departed on this journey we had leafed through old photo albums with faded, yellowed pictures and were told many stories of our ancestors. But it is as if these stories were phantoms when we first encountered them. The photos could have been of strangers. Now the places where the stories were lived made the inhabitants spring to life in an unexpected and powerful way. They step from the shadows of oblivion and we see them walk around, talk, laugh and cry, and we feel as though we are among them. "It's not just in telling about but in visiting historical places," my husband muses, "that the past comes alive. There is always loss and tragedy, and things fade away, but there is also love and joy. Everything does change but embedded in that change is permanence. To keep the connection we have forged we must now add our own stories to those of bygone generations."

- ~ -