Henry Elden - International Traveler

Henry Elden European Sailing Trip

Published: Saturday, August 03, 1991
Page: P6A

Henry Elden visited the quaint town square, refined waterway and luxurious hotel featured in the postcard he purchased in Klaipeda, Lithuania.

The Charleston architect also watched natives sun themselves on sewage-covered beaches, saw crumbled and decayed historic buildings and parks and saw soldiers protect a statue of Lenin from being torn down by the activists in the breakaway Baltic state.

"I got to eye what the normal tourist doesn't get," said Elden, who recently returned from the three-week trip. "We don't realize how well we live." Through his years of work, Elden has made several friends in West Germany. He was invited to accompany a German friend on a root-tracing boat trip.

Through the unification of Germany, the loosening of visitation restrictions in Poland and an invitation to a yacht club garnered by a relative, Elden's German companion, Artur Bonacker, was able to take a four-man crew on a trip into the Soviet Union.

A crew of six sailors took Bonacker's boat from Breman, West Germany to Weick, East Germany. Elden and his three partners traveled the superhighways of the Autobahn before coming to the former borderline that separated the two Germanies.

"The roads of East Germany are like the most backwood roads of Mingo County," Elden recalled. "It was unbelievable the difference between the two Germanies." The crew mounted the 40-foot luxury boat and prepared for its two-week sail into what used to be East Prussia prior to Soviet occupation after World War II. Following the coastline of the Baltic Sea, the ship stopped for an extended stay in Gdansk, Poland. Elden said he was awestruck by the site of 50 or more cranes in the famous Gdansk shipyards, but was surprised to see none were working.

In Poland as in Lithuania, Elden viewed sunbathers heading for the beaches. He said sewage systems in the land funnel raw sewage from households directly into the rivers leading to Baltic. From what he saw, the beaches absorb the human waste.

"They don't know anything of waste management," he said.

"But the people don't mind it. They are just accustomed to it." Leaving Gdansk, the crew continued east toward Klaipeda where Bonacker had received an invitation to dock at the Klaipeda yacht club, which was arranged by his cousin.

Elden said Klaipeda, like most of the cities he viewed in the Eastern Bloc, was dominated by prefabricated highrise apartments.

The cost of living was extremely low as were the wages of its workers "The people there have lost their work ethic. There was no personal pride in anything," he said.

The crew then ventured by car to East Prussia to locate the farmhouse where Bonacker's wife had lived as a child. Gone was the farmhouse, the field and the road through the land.

A grove of trees stood where the house had been and tall grass covered the once-fertile fields.

"He was really disappointed. It was a shock to see there was nothing left," Elden said of Bonacker.

While the Germans planned to stay a few more days, Elden was scheduled to fly from Frankfurt, Germany, back to the United States.

He needed to catch a boat back to Germany, but a Soviet guard prevented him from boarding.

"He said I didn't have my papers in order," Elden recalled.

"I was pretty nervous. I had to get out of there and get to Frankfurt. My plane ticket back was non-refundable." After plowing through levels of bureaucracy, Elden said he was able to board the enormous ferry for the long trip back to East Germany. He was one of 12 passengers the ship, which ran every other day, took out of the country that day.

Back in his Charleston home, Elden said he was overwhelmed with the magnitude of environmental and structural problems of the Eastern Bloc nations.

"I just can't get over the filth I encountered," he said.

LENIN GUARDED:A Soviet soldier guards a statue of Lenin in Klaipeda, Lithuania. Charleston architect Henry Elden photographed the guards on duty protecting the statue from being taken down by Lithuanian nationalists when Elden accompanied some German friends on a trip to the breakaway Baltic state.