In the late summer of 1944, the Red Army reached the border of East Prussia. Despite the imminent danger of a Soviet advance, Nazi authorities forbade the evacuation of civilians. In October, the Russians finally broke through German lines, resulting in a rush to evacuate. Only three months later, East Prussia was surrounded.
During this period, around 2.5 million people were desperately trying to escape and save their lives; hundreds of thousands of people died. Thousands went missing while trying to escape, while countless others remained behind. In both instances, most of these people were children. On each side of the River Neman, they fought a battle of life and death against starvation, illness, bitter cold and Soviet despotism.
Alone, these children struggled to survive in the forests of the Baltic countries. They were called Wolfskinder, German for “wolf children.” Some found shelter with Lithuanian farmers who secretly took them in and cared for them as best they could. In return, the children worked the land and looked after the livestock. Most of them were never able to attend school; even today, many cannot read or write. Many of them were given new identities and Lithuanian names to disguise their origins. Under these conditions, they were able to escape deportation to Siberia.
For decades, they remained behind the Iron Curtain and were largely untraceable—even by relatives searching for their loved ones. Until now, their fate has been unknown to the general public.
I first heard about the fate of the wolfskinder in 2011, and the topic has gripped me ever since. I traveled with journalist Sonya Winterberg to Lithuania many times in search of them. I discovered that around sixty wolfskinder are left in Lithuania today; many of them well advanced in age.
To date, Sonya and I have visited 42 of them. I took portraits of them and documented their living conditions and residential environments while Sonya conducted interviews. I eventually created a book of our endeavors; the book was nominated for the Prix du Livre at Arles in 2016. It contains interviews, portraits, and landscape shots of the surrounding area. I wanted to give the viewer the feeling of walking through the landscape of their memories. Continue reading.
Photographs and text by Claudia Heinermann