A.E. Wasserman, “There Are Three of Us”
There are three of us leaning on the white board fence, watching the horses play in the pasture.
We are quiet, enjoying the moment.
There are three of us.
We watch as a yearling Trakehner colt breaks from his trot, digging in with his hind legs to take off at full gallop. He is lovely. His young muscles work hard under his bright chestnut coat. His eyes are shining, full of both joy and mischief. Equivalent to a teenage boy, he has energy, spirit and naughty written all over him.
Close on his heels comes another colt, a few months older, dark brown-bay, bigger and in a show-off mood. He trots with huge strides, elevating each step high above the grass, tail up in the air and nose snorting. Between each step, he suspends himself midair before any hoof can touch down. He floats effortlessly past me. “Look at me,” he’s saying. “I’m incredibly cool.” Then he drops his head, kicks out with quick hind feet, and joins his half-brother in a full gallop.
“Those two are both by the stallion, Templeritter,” my host explains as he stands beside me at the fence line. We don’t look at each other. We are watching the horses. “What do you think?” Roy Fleischer is a little under six feet, wearing jeans and short paddock boots. He has a cowboy hat on along with a smile that shows how proud he is of his youngsters.
I laugh at the cavorting colts. “The bay is strong. A dressage prospect, but I’d have to see him again at three years old.”
Gerta, who has been standing silent on my right this whole time, speaks up. “I agree. A lot can happen in their growth the next two years.” Visiting from Germany, she speaks without any accent. She is much taller than either Roy or I, muscular and very self-assured. Dressed in her riding breeches and custom German boots, she appears even taller than she is. “But that big colt appears to have dressage in his future.”
The yearlings turn nearly in unison, then thunder back toward us. We watch as the larger one spins on his heels.
“Fernando,” Roy turns to call over to his stableman who is standing by the white pasture gate. Halters and lead ropes drape over his arms. “Ponga por favor los potros atrás y saque la nueva yegua.” He asks Fernando to return the teenagers to their paddocks, then bring out the new horse; a mare this time.
We watch as the yearlings are led away. “Nice youngsters.” Gerta absently brushes some hay
from her shirt sleeve.
Roy beams at her. Her opinion means a lot to most of us Americans. Her grandfather had been a main groom at the famous Trakehnen Stud in Germany before World War II. Her family had always been involved with Trakehners, in one way or another.
Her father, at the age of four, had fled with his parents and many others from Germany in the infamous “Trek,” fleeing from the Russians in the bitter winter of 1945. The story, a heartbreaking one, is about the horses, not the people.
We know the number of horses. We don’t know much about the people except they equally loved their horses and families. Over eight hundred Trakehners left the Prussian area of Trakehnen, which for over a century had always been part of a buffer zone between Germany, Poland and Russia. The people there, including Gerta’s family, were on the Nazi side of the last world war. They were Germans whose lives centered on the horses they bred, loved and cared for.
By the summer of 1944, it was clear that the Russians were close to the German lines. Many people in that area wanted to evacuate, but the German Army arrested anyone leaving with belongings and shot them for treason. Finally, in January of 1945, the Russians had broken through the Prussian border and were fast approaching. The people in and around Trakehnen quickly gathered up their beloved horses, hitched them to wagons laden with belongings, food, hay, and bundled-up children.
They turned loose the young stock in the hope the animals could survive on their own, as feed for the trip was in short supply. Once ready, people and horses alike rushed for the West, six hundred miles away, attempting to flee the invading Russian forces.
The most vivid scene described in a rare telling of “The Trek” is the one on the frozen Baltic Sea: the frantic effort of all to get to West Germany and safety. There was no cover out in the middle of the vast Baltic. Overhead, Russian planes strafed the group as horses and humans raced across the ice.
Russian troops fired from the shoreline. Trakehners and people alike dropped, bullets tearing through them. The dead and dying tumbled and slid over the ice, leaving a blood-slick behind. If a horse or wagon slowed, its heavy weight broke through the ice, dragging the wagon, horse and all, into the freezing black depths. Those who were fast enough, raced over the cracking surface, leaving a trail of frantic hoof prints in the ice.
People. Horses. All running for their lives. Nazi’s. Running. Galloping. Dying.
To this day, survivors cannot speak of it.
Of the eight hundred horses that began the six hundred mile Trek, fewer than one hundred made it to West Germany. We have no count of the people. While Gerta’s young father somehow survived along with his parents, her great grandparents and others in her family did not. None of their own beautiful Trakehners survived.
After the war, her family, what remained of it, stayed in Germany and began life anew. Gerta’s grandfather began searching for Trakehners scattered throughout the countryside. He helped rebuild the breed, originally numbering over 250,000 head, from the few sorry survivors. Growing up at his father’s side, Gerta’s father learned to work with the horses, and later, his daughter, Gerta.
Even today, those of us who know the story of the “Trek” don’t talk about it much. But we do know and respect the vast knowledge that Gerta has. So, when she makes a comment, it is highly valued.
Today, we lean on the white fence, marveling at these beautiful creatures, while basking in the California sunshine. I think of my own Trakehners, descendants from a long ago Prussian farm and the handful of those rescued. I am grateful that we have these horses at all.
The stableman brings out an imported broodmare that is Roy’s new pride and joy. Hadice trots beside the short Hispanic groom, a big round 17h bay mare, with a thick black mane. In foal to a stallion named Windfall, she floats as she trots politely beside the man, eager to go faster, but staying at a mannered prance. We turn to watch her as she’s turned loose in the pasture.
It is remarkable that all the Trakehners we have today come from the few survivor horses in West Germany. Like the Jews, their numbers severely dwindled, but they were strong enough to survive with the help of people like Gerta’s family.
Gerta hangs on the fence to my right, Roy to my left. As if he were reading my mind, he says what a miracle it was that any of the horses survived the war. Gerta agrees. I nod.
“You know,” he continues, “My grandfather, Herman Fleischer, was a Captain in the U.S. Army during the war. Afterward, he was assigned to help restructure the Deutsche Bank in Germany. It was fitting, because his grandfather had come from there.”
Gerta, quiet for a moment, replies. “My grandfather was a Nazi German who loved Trakehners.”
All of us keep watching the big bay mare canter around the pasture.
“My Jewish grandmother lived in a village about 60 km from Trakehnen.” I am almost whispering. “The entire village was destroyed early in the War.”
We watch the heavy bay mare as she circles, drops her head and bucks a little, her thick black mane tossing in the breeze. We are silent.
Gerta and I put our arms over each other’s shoulders. Simultaneously Roy extends his arm
around mine; I do the same with him.
We three stand there in that special embrace, along that white fence, watching a horse that represents to us a special healing. A moving forward from the long ago events of an ugly world. A hope for “never again,” ever. A hope for a continuing better future. People. Trakehners. All living things.
We need not say more. We watch silently as the pregnant mare slows to a walk and begins grazing the green pasture in the California sunshine.
The German granddaughter of a Nazi, the Jewish granddaughter of a Prussian Jew, an American grandson of a GI.
The three of us stand quietly at the white board fence.