Kaliningrad Story – Part Two
Gisela’s father was an American Finn living in Nazi Germany with a Finnish passport. He was accused of spying by the Gestapo in the Fall of 1944 and executed as the Russians advanced into Germany. This happened in what was then the city of Königsberg and is now the Russian exclave called Kaliningrad.
In January 1945 the temperature fell to -25 degrees Celsius each night and rarely rose above freezing during the day. The ground was frozen and the Baltic Sea was covered with a solid layer of ice. As the Soviet Army advanced on the 24th of January they severed all road and railway routes to the west and the province of East Prussia, cutting Königsberg off from the rest of the Germany. Hundreds of thousands of civilians packed their possessions onto sledges and horse-drawn carts, fleeing from the Russians.
There were only two routes of escape for those fleeing. The first was from the Baltic port of Pillau just a few kilometers from Königsberg. There, a fleet of vessels waited to transport those who managed to get there. The other route out was over a frozen lagoon, the Frisches Haff. This route led to a narrow sandy spit called the Frisches Nehrung. This route lead the refugees to Gotenhafen or Danzig where they could also escape by sea.
Wooden stakes were placed across the frozen lagoon to show where the ice was safe, and thousands of refugees trudged across this pathway. The lines of people moving made easy targets for the low-flying Russian aircraft that spotted them. Abandoned luggage, carts and the bodies of the dead were everywhere. Although their goal, the line of trees in the distance was in sight, many died of exposure in the two days or so it took to cover the distance. Those who did not die of exposure fell through the ice or were killed by Russian artillery, their blood staining the frozen surface of the lake.
Gisela Virtannen, who was only five years old at the time, fled with her 23-year-old mother Eva Virtannen and several neighbors across the ice. Because of complications in her health, young Gisela was later told, her mother was unable to go on walking and left behind in an abandoned overturned cart on the ice covered in a thick wall of blankets, all amidst the sounds of cracking ice and bombs. Gisela was told he mother simply needed to rest and would soon catch up.
Gisela survived the flight from Königsberg and was sent off to the US. She grew up with her uncle and aunt in the northern part of the US state of Georgia, ensconced in a family of Finnish Americans on the edge of a great forest. For years after moving there she would imagine her mother being rescued by a German U-Boot or the ice floe she was on slowly but surely carrying her to safety, beaching upon a safe shore where she was discovered, treated, and lived on.