Tracing Myths in the Curonian Spit
We are interested in legends, myths or fictitious stories created by people not only because of their story line, romantic nature of the plot or daunting endings, but also because they invite us to search for a grain of truth. Myths about a particular place often relate to some historic circumstances, long-gone events that due to collective memory or narrative tradition transcend into the present times.
The Curonian Spit is full of such mysterious places. Some of them are well known, some – less so, however, all such places raise more questions than provide definite answers. Partially, it is due to this blurriness between fiction and reality, a kind of concoction of the past events and their contemporary interpretation that makes the Curonian Spit so attractive.
Valley of Death. Everyone in Nida knows of it; even the name itself sounds creepy. It is a small depression in between grey dunes on the Southern side of the Parnidis Landscape Reserve, bordering with the Grobštas Natural Reservation. Next to fragments of a little javelin fence, some low, almost fully decayed wooden crosses are sticking out of the sand. Is it a mere trap for tourist? Or, perhaps, it is really a place commemorating some tragic events? One would be able to answer this question only by carefully piecing together the historic puzzle.
We can find a sentence in historian Johannes Sembritzki’s records, who states that coastline works in the Curonian Spit “were carried out by French prisoners from Nida’s retaliatory camp for prisoners of war”. There is a short explanation that this was a form of revenge to French for setting camps for German prisoners in Algeria. Germans, as a retaliation, set up a camp for French prisoners in sand dunes near Nida.
Some details about this camp can be found in chronicles written by Henry Fuchs, who was a head teacher in Nida’s School. In his notes of 1916, he states that “there was a camp for prisoners set up in the Valley of Death”. Being himself a local of Nida, he tells us that guards lived in barracks, while French prisoners - in tents. On the other hand, the place-name mentioned in the original German language text reads as Valley of Silence (Ger. Teil des Schweigens) rather than incorrectly translated Valley of Death. The later name appears only during the Interwar period and it is not fully clear, who used this word first.
“Living in sand dunes must have been a retaliation for making German prisoners work in hot African sands. Every day the French marched to Pruvynė and dig the sand dune, clearing a site for construction works. Because of their letters, it was achieved that German prisoners were recalled from Morocco. Consequently, by October the Nida camp was abolished was well. By April 1917 a group of Russian prisoners ceased their work, too”, states Henry Fuchs in his chronicles.
Authors who wrote about the Curonian Spit during later periods, started adding new fictional details to this interesting historic narrative. The Interwar press provides a tearful story titled “A Story of Grey Dust”. Presumably, the story is fictional. It was printed in 1939 in the Lithuanian language press. The main characters of the story were a French colonel and a boy, who were captured by Germans and “finally sent to Nida camp for prisoners, to the Valley of Silence, where they ended up in hell, finding themselves among other 10 000 prisoners of war here”, goes on the story in an article which has no authorship.
The 1929 Nida tourist map indicates that the Valley of Silence is located to the South of the Parnidis dune. There is a rectangular shape marking on the map which indicates a building located about half kilometre South-West from the Parnidis dune. The legend of the Map says it is a former French camp (Ger. Ehemal Franzosenlager).
The location indicated in the map must have looked like a sand drifted wasteland at that time. There is no reason to doubt that the camp for French prisoners could have been set up right there, in the searing heat of this hellish cauldron among the sand dunes.
Since then, the legend about the camp for prisoners started to develop on its own. Ethnographers loved to use the story, too. “There is a place on a coastal slope called the Valley of Silence, where, during the war of 1870-1871 Germans had set up a camp for French prisoners”, - wrote Bronius Kviklys in 1968. This is when yet another legend emerged about French prisoners being exiled to Nida with reference to yet another Franco-German War which took place at the end of the 19th century.
A book about Nida written by Jurgis Bučas, which was printed in 2001, gives more concreate numeric information about those events: allegedly, there was an entire city of barracks built in the Valley of Death, which housed “twelve thousand prisoners”. The author tells that “the most beautiful and tranquil place on earth was turned into real hell”. According to Bučas, due to outbreaks of diseases, heat and hard labour (fortifying coastline, planting dunes, etc.) prisoners died in dozens and were buried right on spot in the sand. This is how 10 000 prisoners have turned into 12 000.
According to historic sources, there was, indeed, a camp for French prisoners in the Curonian Spit during the First World War. However, it is difficult to find reliable facts about such camp being set up before that, in 1870-1871.
The legend about the Death Valley became very popular in Lithuania and even beyond. Interested in the fate of their countrymen, a whole delegation of honourable French diplomats visited the place of the alleged camp for French prisoners: including his excellency ambassador Philippe Jeantaud, defence attaché colonel-lieutenant Alain Moulia and others. Having returned from Nida, French diplomats made necessary requests with German archives in order to obtain more precise and extensive information based on historic documents about the alleged camp for French prisoners on the Curonian Spit.
After a couple of years of correspondence in collecting bits of historical information, the French diplomats confirmed that they had no doubts about the fact that there was a forced labour camp on the peninsula. Moreover, they even managed to find a Great-Granddaughter of a person who was imprisoned on the Curonian Spit, Valley of Death, during the First World War. Accordingly, the camp was closed in 1916 and her ancestor managed to return to France.
In two years since the high ranking diplomats visited the dunes, a noble gesture came – the French Ministry of the Defence financed construction of a symbolic memorial on the Parnidis dune, which is dedicated to French prisoners of war, i.e., a monument with a bird (by sculptor Kęstutis Musteikis) next to which there is a stone bench facing the Valley of Death.
Another village on the Curonian Spit, Juodkrantė, has a very important mythological place of power. It is the only place on the Lithuanian Curonian Spit where we can find traces of the old Baltic religion, a likely place of worship. There are two trees marked in the 1910 Juodkrantė map, which are located near to the Northern border of Juodkrantė. First, it is a pine called the Admiration of Marry, which is surrounded by nine maple trees. Next to it, across the road, there was an ancient linden tree, which was called the Sin Linden tree. The pine tree has survived until the present times, the linden tree, unfortunately, was destroyed under unclear circumstances in 1939 (some authors claim that it was cut down at night by Nazi). Judging from the Interwar period photographs, the linden tree must have been about four hundred years of age.
They say that even by the 18th century people would gather around the wide Sin Linden tree and prayed to Baltic gods, repenting for their sins. The tree would be decorated by flowers; old people would come to this tree to contemplate. Even the local youth, should they transgressed the norms of morality, were tried here under the Linden tree.
Surroundings of the Sin Linden tree were special too - the tree grew in a ghastly place, close to a deflation hollow of a parabolic dune, in the middle of dark, boggy forest. In German the place was called Grickinn or Griekinn. The name is used in the 1859 map already. The fear-inspiring hollow is called Griekyne, meaning a sinister place or a hollow of sins. To add to this mysterious atmosphere, not far away there is Blocksberg’s dune that Lithuanians called the Hill of Witchesduring the Interwar period. (After the Second World War, the place was called in the singular the Witch Hill. There is Juodkrantė lighthouse on this hill now).
The history of the Hollow of Sins which is hiding in the Royal Forest is a very mysterious one. However, we may find some explanation about it in a tourist guide written by Eugen Lotto in 1903. Eugen Lotto came to Juodkrantė to serve the local parish as a Lutheran Priest. In his guide book he indirectly explains how the name Grikinn came about. During the 19th century, when dunes were still bare and wind drifted the sand all over the coastline, a piece of ancient forest remained in a marshy spot near Juodkrantė, and in this grove of woodland, there was a linden tree which was worshipped since the olden times by the locals, who called it the Sin tree. As a matter of fact, the Gricken Orth (the Coast of Sins or Sin Place) was already indicated on the 1730 map, just a bit further North from Juodkrantė.
“The last remaining high hills surround a deep hollow; when leaving the hollow one notices a very old linden tree which grows near the road. The hollow is called by a strange word “Griekinn” which is of unclear meaning. Most probably the word originates from the Old Prussian language, where “grikas” or similar to it Lithuanian-Latvian words “grieks” mean a sin. If we connect Grikinn to the linden tree or the hollow, we may derive a phrase “linden tree of sins (or griekų)” or “hollow of sins or griekų”, writes the minister.
“Having in mind that the folk who lived in the Northern part of East Prussia had not much departed from their old pagan ways, because even by 1750 there were, quite clearly, pagan gatherings and meetings taking place at night, and the pagan worshiping services with sacrifices were still persecuted by law. Taking into consideration that such gatherings would often take place in secret, remoted places near old oaks or linden trees, the interpretation of the word “Grikinn” (meaning “of sin”) <…> should be considered as acceptable. There could have been sacrificial fire burning under this Linden tree at night some 150 years ago, where, following old pagan traditions, locals would carry their service. It frightened the fishers and people who lived across the lagoon, because the fire meant a pagan sin which still existed on this land”, - analyses Eugen Lotto. Therefore, we may assume that the place was called “sinister” because there could have been a Baltic sanctuary, remains of worshiping practises following the rites of the old religion.
The Hollow of Sins is described similarly as a mysterious place by a famous Interwar period ethnographer and traveller Juozas Pronsku in his book about the Curonian Spit: “It has not been long that remains of the old religion were eradicated here. Even today there is a place in Juodkraty, the so-called Sin Linden tree, which grows in the Hollow of Sins. 200 years ago there would still be a sacrificial fire burning in this place. In 1750 German authorities punished many fishers for secret gatherings near old oaks and linden trees, which still were many on this island behind the lagoon at that time”.
Cleverly crafted fictitious stories which are based on intriguing true facts is a great bait for attracting visitors to any touristic location. Every resort tries to play a similar game, however, the boundary between resourcefulness in describing true facts, literary imagination or clearly misleading information is rather thin.
It looks like that this boundary was overstepped in Juodkrantė, when a made-up story started to spread by word of mouth about one splendid villa in the Kalnas street. The villa was built by court official Hins in 1881 and it was called Monbijou(Fr. My Jewel). Someone made-up a story that German Reich Marshal Hermann Göring stayed in this villa, and the story started to spread from one generation to the next. After the Second World War the villa was even called under his name. During the Soviet times when school children came to excursions to the Curonian Spit they would be taken to shown this the so-called Göring’s villa. According to one tourist brochure printed during the Soviet times, the two-story villa on a hill in Juodkrantė was build in 1939, when Klaipeda region was occupied by Germany. “The Villa belonged to German Reich Marshal Hermann Göring who enjoyed coming to Juodkrantė for elk and boar hunting. For security reasons the villa was surrounded by a steadfast iron fence”. In reality, Hermann Göring had never visited Schwarzort.
Journalist and Ethnographer
- One of the first times when the Sinister Place (Ger. Gricken Orth) was mentioned. The Map of 1730.
- Mud in the Hollow of Sins. Scary, remote place that one was warned to bypass.
- Hollow of Sins (Lith. Griekynė) on the 1859 Map.
- The famous ancient Sin Linden Tree, which was one of Juodkrantė’s symbols before the Second World War.
- The Sin Linden Tree grew very close to the present-day roadway. A Photograph of 1889-1902.
Photos from Personal Archive of Denisas Nikitenka
- BUČAS, Jurgis, Kuršių nerijos nacionalinis parkas (Curonian Spit National Park). Vilnius, 2001.
- FUCHS, Henry. Chronik der Schule Nidden (Chronicles of the Nidden School). Vilnius, 2013.
- FUCHSAS, Henry. Nidos mokyklos kronika (Chronicles of Nida School). Vilnius, 2016.
- KVIKLYS, Bronius. Mūsų Lietuva (Our Lithuania), Volume IV. Vilnius, 1991.
- LOTTO, Eugen. Illustrierter Führer durch das Seebad Schwarzort (The Illustrated Guide Through the Schwarzort Seaside Resort). Memel, 1903.
- MEŠYS, Judas. Kuršių Neringa (The Curonian Spit). Vilnius, 1957.
- NIKITENKA, Denisas. Vadovas po Kuršių nerijos nacionalinį parką (Guidebook to the Curonian Spit National Park). Vilnius, 2015.
- NIKITENKA, Denisas. Tarptautinis tyrimas Mirties slėnyje (International Research in the Valley of Death)printed in the Lietuvos žinios on 17 May 2016.
- NIKITENKA, Denisas. Mirties slėnis sulauks archeologų desanto (Archaeologists will Land on the Valley of Death, printed in the Lietuvos žinios on 20 February 2018.
- Pilkųjų dulkių istorija (The Story of Grey Dust), printed in the Vakarai on 3 July 1936.
- PRONSKUS, Juozas. Lietuvos Sahara. Kuršių Užmaris (Lithuanian Sahara. Curonian Land behind the Lagoon). Klaipėda, 1923.
- PRONSKUS, Juozas. Lietuvos Sahara. Neringos gamta ir žmonės (Lithuanian Sahara, Curonian Nature and People). Klaipėda, 1937.
- STRAKAUSKAITĖ, Nijolė. Juodkrantės kurorto “aukso amžius” (The Golden Age of the Juodkrantė Resort). Klaipėda, 2018.
- STRAKAUSKAITĖ, Nijolė. Kultūros kraštovaizdis prie Kuršių marių (Cultural Landscape at the Curonian Lagoon). Klaipėda, 2010.
- ZEMBRICKIS, Johanas. Klaipėdos apskrities istorija (History of the Klaipėda Region), Volume III. Klaipėda, 2011.