In the late summer of 1944 the Red Army reaches the border of East Prussia. Despite the imminent danger of a Soviet advance, Nazi authorities forbid evacuation of civilians. In October, the Russians eventually break through German lines, resulting in huge numbers of civilians starting to evacuate. Three months later, East Prussia is surrounded. 2.5 million people are desperately trying to save their lives; hundreds of thousands die. Thousands go missing trying to escape, while countless others remain behind. In both instances most of these are children. On both sides of the River Neman, they fight a battle of life and death against starvation, epidemics, bitter cold and Soviet despotism… On their own, these children struggled to survive in the forests of the Baltic countries. They were called Wolfskinder (German for ‘wolf children’). Some found shelter with Lithuanian farmers who secretly took them in and cared for them as best they could. In return, the children worked the land and looked after the livestock. Most of them were never able to attend school; even today, many cannot read or write. In general, the children were given a new identity and Lithuanian names to disguise their origins. Under these conditions they were able to escape deportation to Siberia. For decades they remained behind the Iron Curtain and were almost untraceable by relatives searching for their loved ones. Until now their fate has being unknown to the general public.
This essay was Shortlisted for the EPF 2016
Bernhard Keusling, *1937 Gerdauen Our home had been taken over by Russians and we had to found shelter in an abandoned house nearby. There was not enough food to survive. My mother died in front of my eyes from starvation. My little sister cried inconsolably and lay next to our dead mother for days until she herself passed away. I was eight years old and on my own now. I had heard about Lithuania every now and then and the abundance of food there. So I made my way there.
Wolfskind Alfred Pahlke *1935 Königsberg During the war I was injured during a bombing raid on Königsberg. Russians took me to Lithuania for treatment. That is how I got separated from my family. In 1947, when I had recovered, I found work on a farm. By then I spoke some Lithuanian. I always had a great longing for my family. Years later a doctor wrote a letter to the Red Cross and I found my family. They were living in the GDR.
Bos in de herfst
Annemarie Haupt, *1936 Tilsit When the Red Army entered Tilsit, my mother was first raped and then deported to a labor camp in Siberia. Fleeing the Soviet invasion, I was being separated from my father and two of my siblings. I started begging across the East Prussian villages along the River Neman. One day in 1946 a Lithuanian man showed mercy and passed me off as his child at a Russian border post. In Lithuania I was started wandering from one homestead to another begging for food. Eventually a farmer took me in as cowherd. The family began calling me Janina, which was less conspicuous than the German Annemarie.
Waltraut takes care of her doll, something what she never had as a child.
Waltraut Minnts bedroom
Waltraut Minnt, *1939 Uderwangen During the war I lost my father and my eldest brother. Four of my siblings and I stayed with our mother on the family farm until the Red Army arrived. One day Russian soldiers run in our house and raped my mother for hours. She was badly injured. Soldiers brought us to the station and we had to get on a train to Siberia. My mother died in the train and my sister and me were deported to a labor camp. My sister didnt survive the Gulag. In the early 1950ies, , I was released and deported to Lithuania. There I didnt know anyone. I didnt speak the language and I was afraid of people. I wandered the countryside until I found a place to stay at a farmers family.
Waltraut (in the middle) in Lthuania as young women
Ewald Gustav Bork, *1934 Königsberg In the winter of 1945 there was a great famine. We managed to survive for two years, but then we became terribly sick my mother died lying right next to me in bed. I stayed on in the apartment for a few days, after her body had been removed. I was desperate and didnt know what to do next. In the end I decided to go to Lithuania. I had heard that there was food.
The Neman River (Memel in German) is a natural border between Lithuania and Königsberg (Kaliningrad). Many children tried to get over the frozen river to Lithuania, or they tried to paddle on wood. Many children did not survive.
Peter Bundt, *1936 Königsberg. I still find it difficult to talk about what I experienced in those days. It was a tough time. We had been chased away by the Russians. In the chaos I lost track of my sister Regina and I had to move on alone. Hunger was my constant companion. In the winter, I traveled alone on an open freight train to Lithuania. It was bitter cold and I suffered from frostbite on my feet. When I had arrived in Lithuania the worst thing was that I had not been able to communicate. When I finally spoke Lithuanian I had almost forgotten my mother language.
Peter Bundt, as a child in Königsberg.
In 1945 Germans tried to flee East-Pruissia across the frozen Curonian Lagoon (Kurisches Haff)
Heinermann was born (1967) in Germany. She studied Fine Arts and Documentary Photography. She engages in long-term observational documentary projects with an emphasis on 20th century historical topics and the consequences of war. She made projects about German war graves in Russia, the Aftermath of war in Bosnia & Hercegovina, Young Bosnians in the Netherlands, Resistance Fighters, Aftermath of Genocide in Rwanda and about German war orphans (Wolfskinder) in Lithuania. Her work has been shown in several Memorials, War museum, Galleries, Photo festivals, and been published in magazines and photo books. Her book ‘Enduring Srebrenica’ was nominated for the Dutch Doc Award 2013 (best Dutch documentary photo stories) and her newest book ‘Wolfskinder A Post-War Story’ was nominated as one the 15 best photo books of 2015 in the Netherlands.
Heinermann lives and works in the Netherlands.