VII. A haven

Nidden 1924 to 1939

All prewar photos in this chapter are postcards, have been copied from a pamphlet of the photographer Paul Isenfels or have been taken from Lotte Simon's photoalbum

Nidden is a village of fishermen who harvest the fish of the Baltic Sea as well as of the large lagoon, the Kurische Haff, into which flows one of the major rivers of Northern Europe, the Memel. For centuries, the more than 100 km long and 2 - 3 km wide peninsula, the Kurische Nehrung, separating the two water bodies, provided the fastest and most convenient route from Western Europe to St.Petersburg. Many important personages travelled along this route and commented on the beauty and solitude of its dunes and beaches.

With the advent of railroads in the Fifties of the Nineteenth Century this traffic ceased abruptly. Among the few villages that survived the eternal threat of the predominantly westerly winds, Nidden fell into a slumber from which it awakens only towards the end of the Twentieth Century when modern conveniences become prerequisites of holiday makers.Until then Nidden is the paradise of painters, writers, musicians and others who visit it regularly during the warm seasons of the year to recover under its primitive detachment from the Twentieth Century. The entire peninsula has become officially a natural reserve from which motor vehicles are barred.

Nidden's Italy view overlooking Purwin

I guess I am four or five years old when I first walk by the hand of mother off one of the paddle wheel steamers which were built by my grandfather and since years trudge regularly between June and September along the lagoon side of the Nehrung from Cranzbeek, some 30 km from Königsberg, to the market town of Memel, where the Haff and Sea meet. More than the garden in Königsberg, Nidden becomes my home to which my thoughts will resort in times of stress. I visit it uncounted numbers of times with the family and alone during all seasons of the year. During off seasons we go there by

The Radoks on skis meet a sledge party returning from Nidden on 11th January 1931

horse drawn carriage or sledge along the deserted postal road or over the frozen lagoon. When I am old enough, I ride mostly alone on my bicycle, at rare occasions with Jobst or Gundula.

The way to the sea

When 1933 comes, Nidden becomes a temporary refuge for many artists whose freedom of action is quickly curbed by the booming dictatorship in Germany.

My godfather, the pianist Alfred Schröder and his wife Lisa, neé Spolianski with my piano teacher Grete Giedat on the terrace of Hotel Herrmann Blode

Among them is Thomas Mann who builds there his dreamhouse after receiving in 1929 the Nobel Price for Literature. Nidden becomes my refuge from the strict discipline in Königsberg and not fully understood worries hovering over the family. My last prewar visit takes place Whitsuntide 1939, when I bid farewell walking all along the Nehrung to Nidden over the dunes and along the beach of the Baltic Sea.

Nidden's church

A whole book can be written about the rhythm among Nidden's thatched, wooden, oiled cottages behind paling fences permanently in need of repair and surrounded by sandy potato patches. Cornflower blue window trimmings and white fascias ending in primitive horse heads together with colourful, home made weather vanes on the masts of heavy, flat bottomed boats with rectangular sails complete the inhabitants' display of luxuries.

House with special lever well

On Sundays and on other special occasions, when the bell calls, they wander along the dusty village road to the church on a tamed dune overlooking the village which stretches for several kilometers between tree covered dunes and the lagoon. The heads of the women, unmarried, married or widowed, are covered with white, coloured or black scarves, respectively. The men have a swinging gait; they are more used to walking on boat decks than firm ground. At these gatherings, news of approaching christenings, weddings and funerals are exchanged. The men may also meet in the evenings in the bars of the few hotels.
Nidden's village road

At dawn or dusk, from Spring to Autumn, the shepherd blows daily his horn while he collects or delivers his charges. Cows and sheep stir up a cloud of dust which moves along the village. They will graze north of the village between the elk district and the lagoon or towards the south at the foot of the Great Dune after passing through the Valley of Silence formed by wandering dunes.

Hotel Queen Louise opposite fisherman's house where she spent a night

Twice a week, as long as ice dös not cover the lagoon, the market steamer Herta leaves before dawn for Memel. Carrying heavy bundles, the villagers rush along the road, while the boat's horn penetrates the silence. When they return in the evening, they are met by almost everyone including summer guests, in order to learn the latest news of the world, mainly those of Memel.

View of Nidden with passengership

The arrivals and departures of all other boats are regular, social events, when horse carts and horse carriages pick up new arrivals and deliver departing guests.

Weather permitting, holiday makers walk in the morning across the central, tree covered chain of dunes to the wide, white beach lined by foredunes which have been covered with hardy grasses, between large squares formed by pine branches stuck in the sand, during decades of careful nursing.

Valley of Silence Wandering dune

After lengthy swims and basking in the sun, walks through the woods, to the naked dunes to the south or into the elk district to the north offer ever changing experiences. As I become familiar with the seasons, I fall under their spell. I become accepted by

In the elk district

the villagers who tend to show reserve against the summer guests who, however, provide them with the little cash they can make good use of. I return to Nidden whenever I can. In Spring, the soft green of the first birch leaves, small birds finding their way northwards towards their nesting grounds, deers grazing between firs and alders, elks gazing suspiciously from their favourite, water logged haunts and stalking off with clumsy hind quarters, geese and swans drawing their arrowed formations in the sky, crows and birds of prey flapping or sailing along, always in search of a victim.

In Summer, during storms, the beach transforms into a battleground between hungry waves, running right up to the foot of the foredunes, occasionally forcing them into partial collapse, while strings of white caps arrive from the horizon, the woods resound to the collision of the wind and the tree tops, bending away from the wind before it catches them. In the forests, wild strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries cover the ground in the shade of dense foliage. In Autumn, when storms occur almost daily, birds are returning eagerly to the South with shrieks audible all night, dense clouds, occasionally lined with silver, rarely permit the Moon to show itself while the untiring beam of the lighthouse on the dune behind the village touches the tree tops, the birches wear their last, radiant, yellow coat before frost will strip them, good and evil mushrooms wait by the way side, the crests of the dunes carry long pennants while the sharp grains of the sand bite bare legs.In Winter, the lagoon becomes a huge mirror which cracks audibly during severe frost, the wind ripples of the dunes harden and cease to yield to the wind, hoary frost creates out of all boughs of the forest trees crystal artifacts, one day large, soft snowflakes descend, at first hesitatingly, and cover noiselessly the lagoon, the dunes, the heath, the forest and the swamps with a thick eiderdown, the sea becomes sluggish with ice crystals, ice floats form, it immobilizes until a storm breaks up its cover and packs it against the foreshore, the animals of the forest come to the village in search of food, occasionally a squirrel leaves its nest and as it jumps from tree to tree clouds of snow dust fall to the ground.The Kurische Peninsula is one of the main routes of European and African migrating birds. In spring and in autumn, they are seen in the sky and in the forest on their way north or south. Their voices are best described in Selma Lagerlöffs "Wonderous Journey of Nils Holgerson with the Wild Geese". The black or black-grey crows travel in groups, flapping here and there, always in search of nourishment. Chains of wild ducks, geese and swans untiringly pursue their route, to escape winter or reach their northern breeding grounds. Eagles, hawks and falcons behave more like crows, but they travel alone and are also always hungry. Small birds travel at ground level, where they often get caught in the wire nets of Professor Thienemann, the director of the Migrating Bird Institute in Rossitten, another village on the peninsula on the German side of the border. They are released after identification and tagging. After months, or even years, the Professor may recapture them or receive a letter or postcard from far away places, reporting their capture. In this manner, over the years, he has gained a good idea of their migrating habits.

Nidden's light house

My friend Nurmi, a fisher boy who was named after Paovo Nurmi, the nine-times Olympic runner, because he always was up to some mischief, but never got caught, like other boys in the village, uses the migrating seasons to catch crows which often are the fishermen's principal source of meat during the winter. Several times, I accompany him on his expeditions after spending the night at his house, lying under one of those heavy crow feather beds which for me at least make sleep almost impossible. The evening before, we have prepared a bag with the tame crow which normally sits outside the house on the fence, the net and some fish as baits. After a quick cup of corn coffee, we trudge with a piece of home-backed rye bread in our hands along the sandy road over the central chain of dunes, while the light from the lighthouse regularly lights up the deep tracks cut by carts into the sand. The sky is almost fully covered with heavy clouds, but shows a few signs of the moon's presence. The calls of the wild geese reassure us that indeed life above gös on as usual. We do not talk, because the road is steep and sandy, and walking requires all one's effort.

Crow catcher's hut

When we reach the peninsula's main road, Nurmi leads the way through the undergrowth to his operations site, where he has rebuilt last year's hut, consisting of a few arched branches covered with fresh pine branches. By the time we have established the net, fixed the tame crow and the bait, the horizon shows signs of the sun's arrival. When the first crows fall in, Nurmi and I crouch in the little shelter and hope for success. I do not assist Nurmi with the traditional method of killing the captured birds which involves holding their body in one hand, their head in another and crushing their temples with one's teeth. This is the reason, how the local people earned the name "crow biter".

Nidden's wooden barges