Owning an old house means you are now in charge of the stories of the past that linger in every corner. A good friend of mine is currently reviving manor Damerow near Rollwitz, which her family had owned for more than 400 years before they were disowned after WWII. She quit her well-paying job to manage the place. Every weekend, she opens her little manor-café in the middle of nowhere. “It is tough to make money this way,” she says, “but nearly every weekend, at least one person comes along with a story about this place that I had not heard about yet, and that makes it worthwhile.“ That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?!
Apparently, every old house has inevitably seen dark moments. After World War Two, many manors in the occupation zone of the Red Army were taken over by the Russian authorities. They had no regard for noble residences. Often, the original interior of the manors was either stolen or burned, and the Red Army turned the manors into shelters for thousands of refugees who had fled from Prussia and Western Pomerania. Different groups 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 for former aristocratic owners to visit their former manors and share their memories with the new owners. They are the most original source that new owners can use to find out about the past of their house. Andrea Ruiken-Fabich and her husband Falk Fabich bought manor Schmarsow in 2000. Keen to hear historical 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 that are still untold?“ This was the initial trigger for the couple to start a project of collecting stories from witnesses, which they compiled into a small book. Andrea Ruiken-Fabich recalls what this project brought to light and how it helped her understand the significance of her house in this interview at manor Schmarsow on a bright autumn day.
Why did you start the project?
A.R.-F.: We thought it was important to know what life was like at the manor after 1945. It was pure curiosity. We knew that many refugees had come from the other side of river Oder and that there must have been other people on the estate who had been abducted by the Nazi regime and exploited as forced laborers during the Second World War, including prisoners of war, who 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 what their conditions were like 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 the time in order to preserve a very important piece of history—not just the story of the house itself, but also how life was at the manor after 1945, what they ate, where they slept, and how they built up a new life here after being expelled from their homes. So, in 2005, we started a 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 a small book, which was just published in January 2021.
How could you motivate the villagers to tell their stories?
A.R.-F. First, we started with a simple inquiry for witnesses, which we dropped into each letterbox. Sadly, we did not get much response. But later, we got financial support from a new funding program, which enabled us to compensate the local interviewers for their efforts. Then it became more attractive for the villagers who did the interviews to get involved. We appointed a 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 they considered equal and had known maybe all of their lives. Gaining access to their emotions requires a great deal of trust. My presence would have thwarted that, so I chose to withdraw and allow others to dig into the past.
Later in the project, I received invaluable assistance from historian Caren Dreyer. She lives in Berlin, and I thought she could be a valuable support since she is used to asking sensitive questions and reacting properly to rather difficult answers. All in all, we were able to win over 18 former inhabitants of Schmarsow to share their memories with us. Among the most significant is a Polish woman named Czeslawa Filipenko, who lived as a child at Schmarsow. She was the daughter of a Polish couple who worked at Schmarsow as forced laborers. Czeslawa Filipenko 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 traditionally, 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. To be honest, I am not sure what to do with them.
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 that was long untold, as it was forbidden to tell stories about the Red Army. It helped me comprehend the circumstances in which the people had lived. For instance, Germans were not allowed to give bread to the refugees, and one baker boy was even hanged for having done so. Everyday life was harsh and full of restrictions. Since I grew up in a village in Franken, near Bavaria, I know what it means to grow up in a rural area. However, because this place has been shaken up so many times in such heavy ways, I wanted to find out how those who were present at the time felt about it and how life has changed since then.
The whole project and conversations with the former owners taught me why this house is so special. I think it was in 2004, during a lengthy telephone conversation with the former family member of the last owners, Hubertus von Heyden-Cartlow. He had dubbed this place the “Hühnergut,” or the chicken-manor, as he regularly came to fetch eggs from Schmarsow to take them to the neighboring 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 primarily used as a residence for inspector Herr von Ramin and his secretary, Fräulein von Rechenberg, and was 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 its original construction and not being torn down nor rebuilt, as was the fashion in the 18th century. As a result, it stands out among 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 northern 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 attempting to revive a historic place. We were lucky to learn how the streets were diverted and about the original structure of the place. It helped us strengthen our bond with the villagers, too. As the owner of a manor, you represent an image full of stereotypes—not always in a good way, I‘m afraid. However, taking an interest in people‘s lives gives them a feeling of being special, and I think they appreciate it. You need each other‘s goodwill to get along in the long run, and such a project can really help break down barriers with the local people.
In the 90s, we worked at the Embassy of Algier, and we are still friends with the Ambassador to this day. He had a flyer of our project lying around in his home, and one day, 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 informed her about our project, and Mrs. Weischet visited us in Schmarsow on her 80th birthday. She brought a photo album with her that contained priceless memories from the past. One by one, all her family came along, including her grandchildren and even her great-grandchildren; it was a surprise for her, which we did not know either. Nobody had informed us that they had planned a family reunion at our place that day. It was a very funny situation. So we crammed 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 based on these pictures. The whole project was truly enriching, something I can only recommend to everyone with a similar house. I am glad we made an effort to do the interviews, write them down, and then rewrite them into a story. We completed the project with a lovely book, and I am very happy to be able to tell visitors what life was like during those hard days.
What obstacles did you have to overcome?
A.R.-F.: Caren Dreyer told me she was surprised that people did not have a positive attitude towards the project. They were either sealed or could not remember clearly what the situation back then had meant for them. She had difficulties talking to people alone; they were always suspicious of their neighbors’ thoughts about their stories. In the end, we asked for the help of the local pastor. We brought them all together around a table, had some coffee, and they slowly opened up since they could now confirm each other‘s memories. In a village, there is a certain hierarchy to which you must pay attention to. However, she also said that such projects should be part of school lessons. Besides, 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 greatly impacts young people, and it helps them develop empathy and compassion for the role of these old houses. The same goes for the seemingly old lady across the garden fence.