As far back as the 19th century, the Puschke family worked as teachers in Steinort and in the neighboring church village of Rosengarten. They played an important role in village life and had close ties to the noble Lehndorff family. The last teacher of the dynasty was Eva Puschke, a "lay teacher" in Rosengarten from 1940 to 1944. After the Germans were expelled, she lived in Hamburg. She left behind a suitcase full of family documents.
Uncovering the legacy of "Aunt Eia" from Rosengarten
After the death of Aunt Eva – nicknamed "Eia" – in 2011, the suitcase made of sturdy cowhide stood in Christiane Puschke's bedroom. She and her sister Eva-Maria had never opened it before. They only knew that their aunt had had it with her when she fled
East Prussia
deu. Ostpreußen, pol. Prusy Wschodnie, lit. Rytų Prūsija, rus. Восто́чная Пру́ссия, rus. Vostóchnaia Prússiia

East Prussia is the name of the former most eastern Prussian province, which existed until 1945 and whose extent (regardless of historically slightly changing border courses) roughly corresponds to the historical landscape of Prussia. The name was first used in the second half of the 18th century, when, in addition to the Duchy of Prussia with its capital Königsberg, which had been promoted to a kingdom in 1701, other previously Polish territories in the west (for example, the so-called Prussia Royal Share with Warmia and Pomerania) were added to Brandenburg-Prussia and formed the new province of West Prussia.
Nowadays, the territory of the former Prussian province belongs mainly to Russia (Kaliningrad Oblast) and Poland (Warmia-Masuria Voivodeship). The former so-called Memelland (also Memelgebiet, lit. Klaipėdos kraštas) first became part of Lithuania in 1920 and again from 1945.

On a November day, the small suitcase lies on the living room table in Hanover.1  Tense silence, the locks snap open. The rayon lining is a vivid violet. The first thing that catches the eye is a songbook, and a pair of white knickers with something wrapped in them.
There are items from
deu. Rosengarten

Radzieje, founded in 1417 as "Rosengarten" (“Rose Garden”), is a parish village in the Polish voivodeship Warmia-Masuria. Radzieje had 510 inhabitants in 2006.

: religious books, family photos, probably also the crocheted bag. Then other things from after 1945: letters and obituaries, documents, a few pressed flowers between them. "Eia was already a herbalist in East Prussia." Some things seem familiar to the nieces, because the Puschkes’ former home had always been present, woven through many richly embellished family stories. Christiane was born there in 1942, Eva-Maria in 1945 in Schleswig-Holstein.  
They take turns telling the stories. "Look, the schoolhouse!" – "That was below the church." Effortlessly, they identify places and people in the photos. "Our grandpa!" Eva's father Heinrich Richard Puschke, the school's longtime principal. "Our grandma Gertrud." Eva's older brother Hans. "Our father, as a theology student." Sitting at the family coffee table, they also discover unfamiliar faces: "They must be the junior teachers."  
And again and again "Aunt Eia" as a young woman. Pretty, often tomboyish.
Eva Puschke, born in 1911, was a nurse by profession. That's how her nieces saw her after the war: in her white uniform, as someone who was completely absorbed in her work. Now they read with amazement: "In the years 1940 to 44, I worked as a lay teacher," it says in an application to the Osnabrück nursing school in 1949.
Teacher? Did she follow in her father's footsteps voluntarily? Or under duress due to the difficult times? The young male teachers were conscripted to the front, so women were called on to replace them. Who would be more suitable for this than a teacher's daughter?
A dynasty of Masurian teachers
Their teaching predecessors are all on record. The dynasty begins with Friedrich August Puschke, born in 1811, who rose from a milieu of propertyless farm laborers in the service of the Lehndorffs. And yet he remained a poor wretch: he could barely feed his family from his teaching salary and the meagre income from farming, he wrote in a long letter to the "highborn count" Carl Meinhard Graf von Lehndorff in 1854.
 His youngest son Richard Franz Puschke succeeded him at the village school in
deu. Steinort, deu. Groß Steinort

The village of Sztynort is located in the north of the Masurian Lake District on the Jez Peninsula between Jezioro Mamry, Jezioro Dargin and Jezioro Dobskie. Until 1928 the village was called Groß Steinort, then Steinort.

. A man with a passion for history, who had access to the Count's archives and, for 45 years, inspired the village youth in matters of local history – including the noble castle
From 1920 his son Richard Alexander continued his work. He in turn was a cousin of Heinrich Richard Puschke, teacher and principal in Rosengarten – Eva Puschke's father, the grandfather of Christiane and Eva-Maria.
Everyone had thought that the teacher dynasty ended with his retirement in 1938. So the discovery of the suitcase causes a small sensation in the family: he was not the last – his daughter Eva was. A woman!
She was actually a trained nurse's aide. But Eva-Maria suspects that she coped well with the role of lay teacher that became hers in 1940. "Our aunt played the accordion and violin." Musical, athletic, and knowledgeable about local history as she was, she must have quickly won the hearts of the village children. "And she had her father to advise her" – the retired rector.   
In the nieces' stories, the Rosengarten teacher's home comes to life. "Our grandpa, like all the Puschkes, was a great hunter." He was a true Masurian who hunted and fished, from a family that loved lakes and forests above all else. Music was also important, as was humor and the "typical East Prussian sentimentality." The men would drink hot grog together, play rounds of skat, and tell crude jokes known as "Wippchen" – these rituals all survived the expulsion.
Throughout the nieces’ childhood in Hamburg, the family’s old life in Rosengarten was kept alive through stories, as was the memory of the noble Lehndorff family. From an early age, Eva-Maria and Christiane heard the name "Gottliebe”, the the last Countess of Steinort, especially in Aunt Eia's wonderful stories.
The Puschkes became aware earlier than others that Hitler's war was lost. "Our father was a member of the Confessing Church." Hans Puschke, Eva's older brother, had been pastor in Nemmersdorf since 1936, after being transferred several times as a punishment. In the last winter of the war, his wife Käthe was pregnant with their sixth child, Eva-Maria.
In the fall of 1944, Rosengarten was prepared for what was to come. Eva Puschke and her mother Gertrud had built a sturdy handcart for the escape to transport the weak, sick Heinrich Richard. But death was quicker – in December they found him in the forest. He had fallen into a coma during a hunting trip and died shortly afterwards at home.
In mid-January 1945, in freezing conditions, Eva and her mother set out. "They went by train, later by ship." The nieces have forgotten the rest, except for one sentence they remember their grandmother Gertrud saying: "Eva made her face black." To protect herself from being raped by Russian soldiers.
Christiane Puschke only remembers a few blurred images of her family’s escape. A trailer pulled by a tractor full of children – she, then two and a half, her older siblings, her mother Käthe, and her Aunt Grete with her children.  
Both families survived and were reunited in northern Germany. The trunk she’d escaped with accompanied Eva throughout her life, later becoming an archive. Her experiences of denazification, staying in makeshift emergency quarters, and searching for work are all documented; it will take months to piece everything together.
After the end of the war, Eva Puschke managed to eke out a living by doing hard physical labor in a village near Brandenburg, then made her way to Osnabrück, where she fought for a place at the nursing school, while her brother Hans soon regained his footing as a pastor. In Hamburg, they were all finally reunited: The rectory of St. Stephan in Wandsbek became the center of life for the family of eight, the widowed Gertrud Puschke, and for Eva, who lived nearby and visited frequently. It went without saying that she was welcomed as a close member of the family.
As the nieces grew older, they looked up to their single, working aunt as a kind of role model. "Eia was very different from our mother". Unconventional and funny, she had her own mind, smoked cigarillos, and drove a car, which was quite unusual for a woman back then.
The two women tell of how, as the years went by, their relationship to their “Tante Eia” grew closer still.
After the treaties with the East were signed, the gates to the old homeland were open again and the three of them set off together. It was 1978. Eva showed her nieces her old home of Rosengarten and natural beauty of Masuria. The women also stopped in Steinort. "Eia managed to get by with very basic Polish," and traveled through the country with ease. Communism, economic hardship, uncomfortable accommodation didn’t seem to frighten her. She was sixty-seven at the time, already a pensioner.
Eva spent more and more time on a little patch of land she also called "Rosengarten". Many years before, she had leased the overgrown property near Haffkrug, in the Lübeck Bay. There was a one-room cabin with a bed and a stove with two hotplates, and an outhouse in front of the door. As early as March, she would drive there in her VW Golf, plant and tend her potatoes, pumpkins and cucumbers, strawberries, and roses, of course.
"Pracherig", Christiane Puschke calls the summer domicile. In High German, that would translate to "armselig" (wretched or squalid), but that sounds too derogatory – the dialect word implies "simply in the Masurian way". That's the way her aunt liked it: soil under her feet (and fingernails), above her the sky. The fact that the bird concerts were disturbed by the sound of the regional train only increased her feeling of home – the Mazurian Rosengarten was also located on a railroad line. From the garden she could wave a final goodbye to her nieces.
Financially, however, Eva Puschke’s life was not exactly a bed of roses. The contents of her suitcase included printed bank statements from the Sparkasse in Angerberg. There were records of her monthly spending, a rice cookbook, and a guide on how to cook on a tight budget.
“Only once in her life did she have real money.” The nieces remember it like it was yesterday. “She won 77,000 marks playing Lotto.” That was in the mid-80s. She gifted a portion of her windfall to her nieces and nephews.
There are so many questions Eva-Maria and Christiane would ask their aunt today if they could: Did you ever go inside Lehndorff Palace? And did you ever talk to Gottliebe? Did you and your brother Hans ever fight? And was your father strict or lenient as rector?
Her suitcase is full of surprises. The biggest one is a letter from Gottliebe Gräfin Lehndorff, sent from Bremen-Vegesack. “Dear Fräulein Puschke”, she writes on the 4th of January 1947, “Unfortunately I am only now finding a moment to reply to your letter from October 17th.” The tone of the letter implies that the two women had known each other in back in their old hometown. “First and foremost, I wish you and your mother and her siblings the best of health for the new year.”
As the letter reveals, Eva Puschke had applied for the position of governess for the four Lehndorff daughters. “The children are not learning anything at all at school, because it is too full and there are no teaching materials available. I am silently counting on you and making plans accordingly.”
After the purchase of a 500-hectare estate had fallen through, she was looking for a new opportunity. The letter provides an insight into the private life of the countess’s family and has now been included in the digital source collection “Lebenswelten Lehndorff” (the life and times of the Lehndorff family).
The Lehndorffs and the Puschkes had once again crossed paths. But why nothing ever came of their plan to meet we don’t know. If Eva had taken up the position of governess, would she perhaps have also been happy as a teacher?
English translation: William Connor