Recently we were all surprised and pleased to read of the new statue of ‘Elizabeth von Arnim’ (1866 – 1941) which has now been erected in Buk, near Rzedziny, Poland. We read too that the town of Buk is now celebrating Elizabeth’s connection with the area by holding a rose festival there in her honour each June. We wish the organisers every success with this venture and hope it will bring many visitors.
When I visited Rzedziny in 2009[i], I realised that there is much potential for research into what remains of the extensive estate where ‘Elizabeth’ and her family lived from 1896 until 1909, long before the First World War.
This location, then called Nassenheide and situated in Prussia, inspired her first best-selling novel: ‘Elizabeth and her German Garden’ (1898). In the book, ‘Elizabeth’ writes a fictional diary, describing her love of the landscape and her ideas for creating a naturalistic English-style garden in her adopted land.
At the time of my visit, I could see that Nassenheide had remained virtually untouched since the end of WW2. The ruins of the former manor house, the surrounding estate and many of its outbuildings were covered in vegetation. This site must indeed be rich in undiscovered historic, literary and horticultural treasures.
So I was interested to see, in the recent Polish article (translated and posted below) about the statue, a reference to a fairly recent visit to the site of the estate by Juergen Weichbrodt, who went there in September 2014. I contacted him through the British Society of Historical Gardens and he has been kind enough to send some photographs (attached) which convey the enchantment the place still holds. He was also able to tell me more about his visit there and his personal connection with the place. It is a fascinating story.
His visit came some seventy years after his boyhood refuge in the ‘Schloss Nassenheide’ (as it was then still called) in its last days, before its destruction by British bombs on 6th January 1944. Indeed, as he so graphically describes, he was a witness to this terrifying event. He and his family had been evacuated to the Schloss from Stettin (now Szczezin), which was a prime target for allied raids.
He quotes (in translation) from the family’s history of the time, compiled from his and his sister’s shared memories:
- From the main entrance to the left are the windows where we lived. The building had been hit with phosphorus bombs and the slow burning allowed the removal of all our furniture, out into the snow. On the second day (the target of the attack was the nearby Stettin) all walls were pulled down to allow the smouldering and glowing fire to burn itself out. At this stage the big right wing of the building was already completely burned down.
- On the first evening of the fire many people ran through the door to see the fire, among them my sister. I saw the phosphorus run, or rather, drip like honey and the upper level of the building broke down with all the furniture already burning. For us children it was a thrilling experience.
- We then had to move into a very small flat in the mayor’s house. Our father remained in Stettin. The mayor was also a farmer and his son protected me at school, where all the local kids, wearing wooden shoes, were amused when I appeared with my lace-up boots. There was only one class at school for all the kids of Nassenheide and we had only one teacher.
- I remember the visit of our father over the weekend while we were living in the manor house. The house was dark after sunset because any light could give away our position. There was a long, dark way to the toilets and at the weekends my father had to take my hand and walk me to the toilet and wait for me. I was afraid in the dark.
- There was another family with four sons with us. The youngest was my playmate. We built little houses from reeds in the park. On one of the meadows, we found broken up bombs covered with a fine yellow powder; all were later blown up. On another meadow we found our sleeping ‘knight in silver’, there were strings and sheets of a white material. It was an airman, his plane had been shot down.
It is somewhat ironic that the final destruction of the site of Elizabeth’s famous ‘German Garden’ was brought about by British bombs, even if this was an accidental strike by returning bombers off-loading, after attacking the port and ship-building facilities of Stettin.
We would like to extend our warm wishes to the inhabitants of Rzedziny and Buk, and hope that some of us might visit their beautiful area one day and celebrate with them the writer who loved their land all those years ago.
Jennifer Walker, March 2016
[i] I went with ACE Tours, Cambridge, whose 10 day tour includes a brief visit to Rzedziny and the former Nassenheide estate as well as visiting the Island or Ruegen.