We get our first view of the Baltic Sea only once we have walked through the beech forest – much of which was planted over 180 years ago – and climbed the Streckelsberg hill. At fifty eight metres above the sea, the Steckelsberg is the third highest point on the island of Usedom in Germany’s north-eastern corner, and from the top we have a view not only along the beach but across the open water towards the island of Rügen, in one direction, and Poland, in the other.
Below us wave crash against the sea walls built to protect this stretch of coastline from further erosion, and indeed the cumulative effects of the wind and the waves have cost the hill 250 metres in the past 300 years. Even the forest we walked through exists to protect the Streckelsberg and the town of Koserow behind it, planted as it was in early decades of the nineteenth century. The man who planted those trees – a certain Forester Schrödter – is remembered by a memorial stone alongside the main Usedom bike path which rocks and rolls along the lower slopes of the hill, and his is only one such story for which the Streckelsberg is known.
Another is the tale of the Bernsteinhexe (the Amber Witch), who was a young pastor’s daughter called Maria Schweidler who combed the beaches beneath the Streckelsberg for amber in the period following the devastating Thirty Years War. The amber she found was sold to help support the family, but her misfortune was to become the object of desire for a immoral local sheriff. Simply spurning his advances, and her supposedly unexplainable “wealth”, were enough to have her charged and found guilty of being a witch. On her way to be executed she was rescued by a local nobleman, and in the way of all good fairy tales, married him and they lived happily ever after.
This story was first told in a literary hoax created by Wilhelm Meinhold in 1838, nearly two hundred years after the events had supposedly taken place. Meinhold claimed he had discovered the true tale in a 17th Century manuscript found amongst the rubbish of the local church in Coserow (as the town was then called). This was published as a genuine document, with a preface by Meinhold himself, and become extremely popular, not only in the German-speaking world but also in Victorian Britain where it was published in translation.
Meinhold would later admit that it was a complete work of fiction, but perhaps embarrassed by the fact that they had been taken in by the hoax, the literary world in the beginning refused to believe that Meinhold had written the whole thing himself. Eventually the work was accepted as being a novel, which you can still find in print to this day, with the English translation available on Project Gutenberg.
Pondering on the story of the Amber Witch, we follow the path from the top of the hill down through the beech trees. On the beach we walk along the sands towards the pier, past the rows of wicker beach chairs that for the most part remain locked up on this early spring weekday, waiting for the summer to truly begin. The Streckelsberg retreats behind us. But when we turn back, despite the chairs and the pier, the flags and the ice cream stands and the other signifiers of Koserow as a modern German seaside resort, the hill and its forest looks gently timeless, soft and almost out of focus, as if in a painting or as if young Maria might come out from between the trees at any moment, a precious piece of amber in her hand.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig