It was a cold winter in 1916 in Königsberg. It was during the 1st World War, which was still called the Great War, which was already in its 3rd year. In the West, armies dug in and those who were not fast enough in the trenches died miserably. In the East, the situation looked better for the German Empire. The Tsar’s troops were pushed back to Russia from East Prussia. The war was very near when a preemie was born on this cold February 13th. The precious bundle weighed hardly more than 2 ¾ pounds. An incubator wasn’t thought of yet, and despite the odds, the little girl stuck to it. 102 years later, Ruth Geede, probably the oldest active German journalist, died. We can look back not only on her own eventful life, but also on that of her countless compatriots, to whom she always reached out with a helping hand during the last decades, when they found themselves fleeing.

When I was a little child, I used to spend the afternoons with my grandparents and my youngest uncle, who still lived in the same house. My grandfather was an old Silesian. He worked hard in the sugar factory his entire life and when he came home in the evening he first sat down in his chair, lit one cigarette after the other and looked at the stove. He was a quiet man who didn’t waste words. He said only what needed to be said. At the end of each day, my mother would pick me up. On Fridays, one could almost guarantee that the little boy, me, began to beg to stay the night with my grandparents. I was known to be quite persistent about it, too!

No complaints, and yet longing for the old homeland

Photo: Von mef.ellingen – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11398552

My uncle worked in a bakery a few streets down, and as you know, bakers must leave the house quite early. My grandmother took on the responsibility to wake up her youngest for work. While my grandfather remained asleep, she stayed in the parlor to wait for the morning. But on those happy Fridays, my grandfather would silently leave his chair (where no one would have dared to sit in during the day!).  Then, almost as quickly as he left I was sitting in that chair. My grandmother took a chair, sat across from me and started talking. She spoke often of Jesus. She was a deeply religious Protestant. But she also spoke much of her childhood and youth in East Prussia. And she told me about the escape across the Baltic Sea. As a young widow, her first husband, the father of my two older uncles had died in the war. Thereafter she fled with her boys from the Red Army. Via Denmark she reached the British occupation zone and was finally taken to Franconia, where she started a new family and had another three children, including my own father.

When I was a little boy, I didn’t understand much of what she told me. I lacked the understanding, the knowledge and experience to classify it correctly. I always felt a certain comfort with her and how somber she still was. How much she missed her old home made an impression on me, as well as the fact that it had never occurred to her to complain about her fate. Especially to God.

When she died, I was still a little boy…

The displaced people from those former German territories, some of whom now belong to Poland, some to Russia or Lithuania, organized themselves after the war. That was their way of keeping their old home alive in their new homeland. They founded their own newspapers, which is how the East Prussian newspaper came into being. Today it is only a supplement of the so-called Preußische Allgemeine Zeitung. It has become a weekly publication I can’t really recommend to anyone because it’s a paper with a rightwing tendency. In short, it’s not a hallmark of the German newspaper landscape. And yet I bought the newspaper again and again because of the supplement “Ostpreußenblatt”.

“We were Germans, and we all had the same fate, even if those who still had everything sometimes did not want to believe it. We’d all lost the war.”

Ruth Geede

The category “East Prussian Family” has always existed there. At first it was intended as a kind of bulletin board for the displaced, but over time the section also took on a completely different function. Instead of mere search queries, the section became a weekly trip to the former East Prussia. Even in my time, the “East Prussian Family” always took up the entire second Page. And somehow many of the things I read there sounded as if my grandmother was telling it.

For almost 40 years Ruth Geede headed the section, even when she had already turned 100. Nothing could prevent her from continuing to manage “her” section. One can rightly claim that she had become something like the mother of the East Prussian family.

Reuniting People over the years

This section had no longer just the purpose to find missing relatives and friends, something that suddenly became topical again after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but it also became a tool to narrate. It told about childhood and youth in a homeland most of them have never seen again. Always embedded in her own experiences and her own knowledge of her old home, Ruth Geede combined these stories into a unit. And of course, she especially liked to write about the reunion she made possible for many people through her column. Children who had played together in a staircase in Königsberg and who fell in each other’s arms 70 years later as old men. Brothers who found their sisters, sisters their brothers. Parents their children, children their parents. The consolation, in the face of the many who were denied a reunion: from the icy floods of the Baltic Sea, the breaking ice under the wagon tracks or – probably worst – the Russians contemplating bloody revenge because of German crimes.

“I was also chased by a farmer and his dogs from the farm because I was asking for an egg for my mother, who was bilious.”

Ruth Geede

Ruth Geede was what we we’d call a real thoroughbred journalist. She was a writer and playwright. And often her old homeland East Prussia was the focus of her work. As a young woman she made her first journalistic attempts at the radio station in Königsberg. There she fought for the preservation of the East Prussian dialect. Already then dialects were dying out. After the escape she worked for the Lüneburger Zeitung, but in parallel began working for the Ostpreußenblatt as early as 1950. She wrote children’s books, radio plays and stage plays. In 1985 she received the German Federal Cross of Merit, in 2000 the Prussian Shield award, the highest award of the East Prussian Landsmannschaft. It must not be stressed that she undoubtedly deserved both. Born in Königsberg on 13 February 1926, she died in Hamburg on 17 April 2018. Ruth Geede, mother of the East Prussian family, her family misses her.

Foto: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1990-001-30 / Unbekannt / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Link

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