Self-Sufficient Farming in East Prussia in the 1930s and 1940s, by Mrs. Icebear

Please keep in mind that English is not my mother tongue, and that these recollections are from the perspective of a young girl, now in advanced years.

My mother-in-law grew up in what was then called East Prussia (Ostpreussen) – now Poland. She was born 1929 – got twice evacuated – the first time at the age of 14. The beautiful area is called “die Mazurische Seenplatte” and  “die Mazuren” and is today developed for tourism.

I´ve picked her brains to learn as much as I can, and here are some of the things she remembers of life on the farm back then:

Father, mother and 8 children lived abundantly – with spare produce to sell (and saving up money to buy more land) on 35 hectares (about 75 acres) of ground.  8 hectares was mixed forest, 27 hectares tilled land and meadow for grazing. A river ran near the farm, there the animals drank, the geese and the ducks swam (one child had to keep fox-watch), and net fishing for dinner was done. From the meadow and forest they got wood for building the houses, firewood, all kinds of berries, nuts and mushrooms, healing herbs like peppermint and chamomile, linden flowers and birch juice, rushes were collected from the river.
They all had a lot of work to do, schoolwork was done in between farm chores. In the evening there was singing and storytelling while spinning, knitting, shoemaking, horse tack making, basketry, small carpentry, sorting peas, shelling beans, feathering the ducks and geese  was done by petroleum light. The children had almost no toys, but my mother in law got her first and only doll. She put the poor doll close to the oven so it wouldn´t feel so cold – and the doll melted.
The animals on the farm were: geese and ducks for down bedding, meat and eggs, chicken for eggs (own use and market sale), some sheep (less than 10) to make own wool, 6-7 pigs for sale and own use, around 20 cows strictly for sale of milk/ butter/cheese (i.e. not for slaughtering), three cats as mouse police living in the barn, a guard dog and 3-4 horses for traveling and farm work like plowing. The father was the exclusive handler of the horses, and even so he once got severely kicked by the most nervous horse and had to be hospitalized because he (in a tense market situation) forgot to talk to the horses before he came up to them! While the father was hospitalized the mother got (organized by the state) an inexperienced 15 year old “white Russian” forced labourer to help out on the farm – she had to teach him everything in sign language. He stayed on since both sons of the family had to go to war. Later, when the Red Army invaded East Prussia this boy saved the whole family by testifying that he had always been treated correctly, he even cried and begged to be allowed to stay. Families got shot to the last member if they had treated the forced labourers badly.

A doctor and hospital was 20 kilometers away in a bigger town, so the trip there was a big project. The school principal owned the only car in the village (a Volkswagen Beetle). The 3 kilometer trips to school and church were generally done on foot – the horses were spared for farm work apart from on very special holidays.

After the first evacuation to another village an “ordinary man” got the job of being local priest, grave digger and dentist. Dentistry meant getting a tooth pulled out without any ado and pain killers. Infections were completely avoided by rinsing with alcohol and chewing plantain leaves.

The children walked the three kilometers to school in summer barefoot or in “jesuslatschen”, (toe sandals) – in winter in wooden clogs the father made. Later he advanced to making leather shoes for the children – he bought the leather but the thread for rough sewing they grew on the farm: Linen/ flax was grown for the fiber and as animal fodder. The linen fibers got soaked in tar and were used to make tack for the horses and thread for sewing shoes.

Some things that the family bought: Petroleum oil for the lamps, linen fabric for sewing bedclothes, underwear and kitchen towels (dresses and such were made by the village seamstress), salted herrings, salt, sugar, pepper, cinnamon, feather pens, ink, schoolbooks (handed down to all the children in turn), small blackboards with chalk for individual writing, from the 5th class real schoolbooks for writing in. They also bought nails and carpentry tools of course, sewing notions and even a sewing machine. (The sewing machine got hidden in the earth cellar in the forest when they had to evacuate – sadly the family never came back to reclaim it.)
The family built their own house with relatives to help, they grew/ raised/ collected all their own food except the aforementioned herrings,  for instance meat got cured by smoking with juniper.
They also made their own bedding (mattresses filled with straw, exchanged when necessary, counterpanes and pillows filled with down and feathers), spun their own wool, made all knitted clothes like socks, sweaters, mittens etc. The father made baskets of all sizes and shapes, also for animal feed (through shape), either from willow or split and watered tree roots, and he also made some of the simpler farming tools out of wood. Strangely enough none of this got sold, just the farm produce. (During the war years nobody wanted to get paid in money, so the family paid the seasonal farm workers in meat, butter, cheese and eggs.) They collected all their own seeds, made jam, pickles and “sauerkraut”. Peat and wood kept the “kachelofen” running, an enormous oven built into the house, including a built in water heater and a big bread baking oven that got used for eight sour dough loaves once a week (cakes were made afterwards since the oven was heated up.)

The horses got fed hay, clover and oats, the cows got hay, clover and thinly sliced turnips, and the aforementioned linen seed/flax mix if ill or having just calved.
The dishes were first rinsed with clear water so the pigs could drink the swills.
The crops were: Potatoes, red beets, turnips, beets, carrots, peas, beans (pinto beans), red cabbage (got stored with the complete root in sand in the cellar) white cabbage for sauerkraut, oats, wheat, rye, barley, cucumbers for pickles, and squash/ pumpkin plus garden herbs like chives and parsley.  Flax and clover was grown for the animals.
Rushes of different kinds were cut up and put on the clay floor in the ”old house” – it smelled good and was easy to brush out again since it made no sense to wash a clay floor. This practice was discontinued after the new house was built with wooden floors.
 
My mother in law´s mother got struck dead by lightning during the years as a refugee. The sun was shining again after a thunderstorm , but she was leading a goat and a sheep in iron chains, one in each hand… The father died of pneumonia because of having to do forced labour in winter, one son barely survived Stalingrad (he “just” lost one and a half legs to frostbite) but all the children managed somehow to escape to the west and start their lives anew there. 

The most sought-after barter goods in war time (after food) were: watches, cutlery (a fork could buy a piece of bread) and fur coats! Guns made zero sense in this situation, since that only would have gotten one killed faster.  Being devious, hiding and/or keeping calm in the face of danger was the way – or simply appealing to the human side of war-traumatized soldiers: My mother-in-law had many narrow escapes – once she got found cowering behind the dresses by a Russian soldier rifling through the clothes cupboard with a bayonet, and he spared her life because mother cried and begged for her; once she came running to her father with Russian soldiers on her heels, so father fast dug her into the strawstack he was just making. He stood calmly still on the stack over the spot where she hid – the soldiers pushed bayonets through the stack but she thanks God they missed her every time. Her father did like the other farmers, they used coal “make up” to accentuate their wrinkles and thereby appear older and useless for other things than farming. The soldiers wanted to “take him” (i.e. to Siberia), but he insisted he had to feed the cows otherwise they (the cows) would starve – and food was the number one priority also for the Red Army, so he was spared.

My personal conclusion: Know when to keep your guns in the cupboard, get distilling equipment for making your own alcohol! In case your antibiotics get too old/ used up or you have a resistant strain of some bug or the culprit is a fungus or virus – get books on herbs now, grow Echinacea, stock up on tea tree oil and baking soda (for your teeth)! Thyme, sage and honey will fix almost everything. Grow paprika/ red peppers (window sill) and rose hips for vitamin C. Plantain chewed to a pulp heals cuts, sores, and acne;  aspirin was originally synthesized from willow bark. If you have a chance, grow tons of nut trees, and maples for the syrup, and when your vitamin pills get used up remember that nettles, nuts and dandelions contain lots of important vitamins and minerals.

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