History matters to me. When I look at a place, I crave to know how it came to be. What it is built upon. To truly appreciate it, I need the conduit history provides. This also extends to people. And in the case of this post, a beautiful breed of horse called the Trakehner.
I first learned about the history of the Trakehner horses while doing family genealogy and research on my novel, Maelstrom. Lucy, my father's cousin, helped fill in the blanks. From her, I discovered that my great-grandfather and great-grandmother had lived on a farm in the small town of Kallehnen, East Prussia. Tilsit was the largest nearby town. Lucy told me the family had eight children, one of whom was my paternal grandfather, Georg. Besides farming, Georg's parents bred Trakehner horses for the Prussian cavalry. The family was extremely proud of these strong, beautiful, and intelligent horses. One horse, said Lucy, held a special place in their hearts:
"The family owned a particularly beautiful and valuable mare named Falla. She had on her flank a brand in the shape of a crown. She was deeply loved by the whole family. On his trips back from town (Tilsit), your great-grandfather would nod off from having had too much to drink. Falla always got him and the wagon home safely. But one day, Falla stumbled into a ditch and broke her leg. She had to be shot. My mother said that is the only time she saw her mother weep."
The Fate of my Great-Grandfather's War Horses
East Prussia's Trakehners were raised for farm work and for the military. Thousands of Trakehner horses died in battle during WWI. By war's end, the population had been reduced by half.
In the years between WWI and WWII, breeding resumed at the main Trakehner stud farm in Trakehnen and on the farms of area Prussians, like my great-grandparents. Slowly, the population grew again.
At Trakehnen, dubbed the "City of Horses." Trakehnen horses lived like royalty. During their free time, they frolicked in wide, open pastures. The most prized studs on the farm lived in elegant stables graced with chandeliers. Although the below video is in German, it shows the luxurious lives of Prussia's prized Trakehners at the state stud farm, Trakehnen.
The Long Trek of 1945
By January of 1945, the Russian Army had advanced into East Prussia. The exodus of East Prussians is a cruel and barbaric story. Egged on by Stalin, the Russians were eager to avenge German atrocities at Stalingrad. Sadly, many beautiful Trakehner horses were innocent victims of the onslaught.
Together the people and horses tried to escape in the harsh January weather across snow-covered fields and stretches of frozen sea. From above, the Russians shot at them, breaking up the ice so the refugees and horses would drown in the frigid water. On the ground, Russian tanks rolled over the frightened people and horses. Starvation, illness, and the severe weather claimed many more.
Reaching Trakehnen, the Russians razed the stud farm and took the bronze horse statue that stood out front to Russia as war booty. Fetsyz Ox, the farm's most prized white Trakehner stallion, was shot by Russian soldiers.
Trakehnen, The City of Horses stud farm, no longer exits. Neither does East Prussia. Or Tilsit.
After the war, much of East Prussia, like Tilsit, was given to Russia. German city names were changed to Russian city names. I assume the farm and village where my great-grandparents lived met the same fate. I will probably never know for sure.
Perhaps that is best.
As for the horses, only roughly 100 out of East Prussia's 18,000 Trakehner horses survived the war in Germany.
The breed is still beloved, still alive. To me, knowing their history makes them even more beautiful.