An ambitious project highlights unknown perspectives of Post-War-Life on an Estate
As told to Annika Kiehn, published February 2021
I have done many reports about villagers here in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania for a local newspaper. I found that especially the stories about war times were very captivating. Those of reconciliation, of enduring rough times with a truly humble attitude towards life. I have seen old men burst into tears while they opened up about difficult moments in their lives. I am glad that my job still allows me to learn through those stories and to understand how the rural area I grew up had been shaped by the fate of these people throughout the years – also to find connections to today and the conflicts we experience nowadays. In order to find out about the history of their manor in the village of Schmarsow, the new owners approached war-witnesses by interviewing them.
The outcome of the interviews of the war-witness-project was first published in 2008 in a booklet. It was now re-edited as a book with the title “Zeitzeugen – Schmarsow 1945 bis 1955” in January 2021. It was released by friends of the owners, who run the publishing company Thomas Helms Verlag. The book contains several historic anecdotes and many black and white pictures from former days at the estate, which were owned by Renate Weischet. She had lived as a secretary in the manor until 1945. These are copies of the original photos, which we are kindly allowed to expose here.
Owning an old house means you are now in charge of the stories of the past, which linger in every corner. A good friend of mine is currently reviving manor Damerow near Rollwitz, which had been owned by her family for more than 400 years before they were disowned after WWII. She quit her well paid job, to manage the place and every weekend she opens her little manor-café in the middle of nowhere. It is really hard to make money this way, „BUT“, she says, „nearly every weekend at least one person comes along and brings a story about this place that I had not heard yet, and that makes it worthwhile.“ That says it all, doesn’t it?!
Apparently, it is inevitable that every old house has seen dark moments. After World War Two, many manors in the occupation zone of the Red Army had been overtaken by the Russian authorities. They had no sympathy for nobility homes at all. Often, the original interior of the manors was either stolen or burned and Red Army turned the manors into a shelter for thousands of refugees, who had fled from Prussia and Western Pomerania. Different groups of people were forced to live together in small spaces and under terrible hygienic conditions – as was the case in manor Schmarsow in Western Pomerania, Germany.
These days, it is still quite common, that former aristocratic owners visit their former manors and share their memories with the new owners. They are the most original source new owners can get access to in order to find out about the past of his or her house. Andrea Ruiken-Fabich and her husband Falk Fabich had bought manor Schmarsow in the year 2000. Keen to hear historic anecdotes about the place, they started a survey amongst the villagers. „We felt the history and kept wondering: What about all the Schmarsow-memories about that post-war-time, which are still untold?“ This was the inital trigger for her and her husband to start a project on collecting stories from witnesses, which they collected in a little book. In this interview at manor Schmarsow on a bright atumn day, Andrea Ruiken-Fabich recalls what this project brought to light and how it helped her to understand the significance of her house.
Why did you start the project?
A.R.-F.: We thought it was important to know what life was like here in the manor after 1945. It was pure curiosity. We knew that many refugees had come from the lands of the other side of river Oder and that there must have been other people on the estate, who were abducted by the Nazi regime and exploited as forced laborers during the Second World War as well as still others: the prisoners of war, who both were keen to return home.
In the cellar, you can still see drawings on the wall, probably made by the children. We tried to imagine how the conditions were, when their escape ended in Schmarsow. It must have been very cold back then. We wanted to record the memories of those people who had lived here at that time in order to preserve a very important piece of history – not just the story of the house itself, but how was life at the manor after 1945? What did people eat? Where did they sleep? How could they built up a new life here after being expelled of their homes? So in 2005 we started the project called „contemporary witness of Schmarsow 1945-1955“. In June 2008 we had a nice booklet finished. Since we ran out of copies, we are glad, that we could re edit it as little book, which was just published in January 2021.
How could you motivate the villagers to tell their story?
A.R.-F. First we started with a plain inquiry for witnesses, which we dropped in each letter box. Sadly, we did not get much response to it. But later we got financial support by a new funding program, so we could pay the local interviewers a little bit for their efforts. Then it became more attractive for the villagers, who did the interviews, to get involved. We appointed general interviewer, who then sat down with them. We had worked out a questionnaire, so everybody had the same questions. I would have liked to do it myself, but I knew they would not open up to me as much as they would towards those, whom they considered to be equal and have known maybe all of their life. It requires a lot of trust to get access to their emotions. My presence would have impeded on that, so I decided to step back and let others dig into the past.
Later in the project, I also got much help from the historian Caren Dreyer. She lives in Berlin and I thought, since she is used to asking sensitive questions and reacting properly to rather difficult answers, she could be a valuable support. All in all, we could win over 18 former inhabitants of Schmarsow to share their memories with us. One of the most important ones is a Polish woman named Czeslawa Filipenko, who lived as a child at Schmarsow. She was the daughter of a Polish couple, who were forced labourer at Schmarsow. She was five years old, when her parents came to Germany and about ten when they left. She had such vivid memories. Her view on the matter is rare, because she had lived on the estate when it was still run in the traditional way, whereas most of the refugees, who mainly came after the end of the war, found the former order already shattered. Czeslawa Filipenko could tell her story in very much detail. She was the last witness Caren Dreyer interviewed in 2018 and in our new book, there is a long chapter about her childhood memories. We made use of the concept of Oral Tradition. We still have the recordings stored in my office. I do not know what to do with them, to be honest.
Andrea Ruiken-Fabich, owner of manor Schmarsow since 2000, guides her visitors through the house in the company of a member of the former aristocratic family, Gisela von Heyden (right) at the summer party 2001.
“As an owner of a manor, you represent an image full of stereotypes – not always in a good way, I‘m afraid. But taking interest in the lifes of the villagers, gave them a feeling of being special and I think they appreciated it. You need each other‘s goodwill in order to get along in the long run and such a project can really help breaking down barriers with the local people.”
Photo: private by Family Ruiken-Fabich
What did you learn about Schmarsow?
A.R.-F.: That people were trying to make the best of those difficult times. I appreciate that I am now aware of another piece of post war history, which was long untold as it was kind of forbidden to tell the stories about the Red Army. And it helped me understand, under what circumstances the people had lived. For instance, that Germans were not allowed to give bread to the refugees and that one baker boy even got hanged for having done so. Everyday life was harsh and full of restrictions. I grew up in a village in Franken, near Bavaria, so I know what it means to grow up in a rural area. But since this place here got shaken up so many times in such heavy ways, I wanted to find how the people, who witnessed those times, now feel about it and how life changed since then.
The whole project and the conversations with the former owners taught me why this house is so special. I think it was in 2004, when we had long talk on the telephone with the former family member of the last owners, Hubertus von Heyden-Cartlow. He had dubbed this place the „Hühnergut“, the chicken-manor, as he regularly came to fetch eggs from Schmarsow to take them to the neigbourging village of Kartlow. He had not a high opinion of the house, since it held a rather minor function for the family. He even sounded a bit despiteful. The villagers had already told us, that the house was home for the inspector Herr von Ramin and his secretary Fräulein von Rechenberg and not much of a representative house. Hence, hardly any money was invested. This can be seen as a positive fact, because it led to it being preserved in it‘s original construction and was neither torn down nor rebuilt, as it was fashion in the 18th century. That’s why it is a unique house among all the other manors in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. It seems almost a bit out of place. You would expect such a building in Italy rather than in the North of Germany.
Gisela von Heyden (woman on the left) at the summer party in 2001. She is a member of the former aristocratic family, who owned manor Schmarsow. Her husband was supposed to become owner of the estate. Since he was too young back then, his uncle managed the estate for him until the family was expropriated in 1945. photo: private by Family Ruiken-Fabich
What were the best side effects of the project?
A.R.-F.: How important it is to be aware of the past when you want to revive a historic place. We were lucky to learn how streets were diverted and about the original structure of the place. It helped us strengthening the bond with the villagers, too. As an owner of a manor, you represent an image full of stereotypes – not always in a good way, I‘m afraid. But taking interest in people‘s lives, gave them a feeling of being special and I think they appreciated it. You need each other‘s goodwill in order to get along in the long run and such a project can really help breaking down barriers with the local people.
In the 90s we had worked at the Embassy of Algier and we are still friends with the Ambassador today. He had a flyer of our project lying around in his home and one day, a woman who came as a guest, recognized Schmarsow because she – as it turned out – was a close friend of its former secretary, Fräulein von Rechenberg, later Renate Weischet, who had lived in the manor between 1941 and 1945. So, she contacted Renate Weischet and told her about our project and then Mrs. Weischet came to visit us in Schmarsow at her 80th birthday. She brought a photo album with her containing precious images from the past. One by one all her family came along as well – her grandchildren, even her greatgrandchildren, it was a surprise for her, which we did not know either. Nobody had told us that they had planned a family reunion at our place that day. It was a very funny situation. So we crammed on a long table into the foyer, because the other rooms were still unfinished. It was such a jolly day for everyone!
In 2001 the wife of the former owner, Gisela von Heyden, came to our summer party and she also brought some old photos with her. We consider ourselves lucky to be able to imagine the original structure of Gut Schmarsow on the basis of these pictures. The whole project was truly enriching, something I can only recommend to everyone with a similar house. I am glad we made the effort to do the interviews, write them down and then rewrite them into a story. We just completed the project with a lovely book and I am very happy to being able to tell visitors what life was like in those hard days.
What obstacles did you have to overcome?
A.R.-F.: Caren Dreyer told me, that she was surprised, that people did not have a very positive attitude towards the project. They were either sealed or they simply could not remember sharply what the situation back then had meant for them. She had difficulties talking to people alone, they were always suspicious what their neighbours would think about their stories. In the end, we asked for the help of the local pastor. We brought them all together around a the table, had some coffee, and slowly they opened up since they could now confirm each other‘s memories. There is a certain hierarchy in a village, which you must pay attention to. However, she also said, that such projects should be part of lessons at schools. A story told by a witness cannot be substituted by a plain book or a simple lesson. Hearing those stories from those, who had experienced them, has a great impact on young people and it helps giving them the empathy and compassion to be more aware of the role of these old houses. The same goes for the seemingly old lady across the garden fence.
The house was built in the 17th century in Vorpommern, Northern Germany and it is one of the oldest buildings in the region. In 2000 Andrea Ruiken-Fabich und Dr. Falk Fabich bought the manor and renovated it. These days the house serves partly as an event location and can be rented for birthdays, weddings or simply for a short vaccation. Once in a while the family Ruiken-Fabich organizes concerts and cooking sessions.
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