Between beauty of the landscape and the tragic past – Yantarny, Russia

I love travelling, especially if the place I visit hides some kind of a secret, some happening from the past, a very tragic one, something you cannot notice at first because the place itself is beautiful and you can’t comprehend how come it had been a witness to something so terrible. I’ve been to many places like that, places connected to First and Second World War as I’m interested especially in these period of history, but I guess nothing shocked me more than the contradiction between the beauty and terrible past of Yantarny, a small village situated within Kaliningrad Oblast, a federal subject of Russia which is separated from the rest of the country, being placed between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic Coast.

This area used to be part of Germany before 1945, the Russians took over this land only after the war, but about Kaliningrad and its history I will post separated entries in the nearest future. Now let’s come back to the year 1945, winter, to the time of fierce battles between German and Soviet troops in order to take control over the whole area of East Prussia. Kaliningrad was still called Koenigsberg, Yantarny – Palmnicken, its inhabitants were still Germans and the future of this region was blurry – the Third Reich was on the verge of collapsing. Around Koenigsberg there were a few subcamps of Stutthof concentration camp which was situated 50 km eastwards of Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland), which was the main Nazi German concentration camp of the whole region. In January 1945 the camps were already cut off from each other as the Soviet troops were heading westwards and the Germans couldn’t send the Jewish inmates back to Stutthof. They decided to evacuate them to Palmnicken, having no specified plan what to do afterwards. They are different opinions how the situation developed and because of that I will not quote any of them, enough to say that during the night of 31st January 1945 approximately 3000 Jews  were gathered on the beach of Palmnicken and, being under rifle fire, they were forced to march into the sea. Only a few of them survived this execution .

Nowadays Yantarny is a small village which doesn’t impress you with anything as it looks like thousands of other villages in the world. Nevertheless, I was really impressed. Having lived my entire life at the seaside, never had I seen such a wide, enormous beach, surely the most beautiful beach of the Baltic Sea. I knew the tragical story of this place already before due to my strong interest in history and I used to wonder: how come they gathered thousands of people on the beach and managed to shot them all without bigger problems? I imagined the same kind of beach like the one 5 minutes away from my house – narrow, flat, with not a lot of space. The beach in Yantarny is nothing like that, it’s huge, standing where it begins you don’t see the sea yet, you need to walk quite a long while to finally reach it.

Only after seeing it with my own eyes I could imagine how the horrible night of January 31st 1945 must have looked like.

The architecture in the village is typically German, with massive brick houses from the beginning of the 20th century. Maybe it was just me, but I felt this enormous contradiction there, on one hand a quiet little village with a landscape that takes your breath away, with a beach you can’t stop looking at, but on the other a place where so many lives had been destroyed. Such places never leave me indifferent.

for those who speak Russian and want to find our more about the massacre of the Jews in Palmnicken/Yantarny: