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The “Middle Matchstick”: on Poland’s “Recovered Lands”

For visitors to western Poland, the region may at first glance appear just as Polish as any other in the country. However, beyond this facade lies a strange story of alienation felt by those who call these lands their home.

March 13, 2023 - Samuel Tchorek-Bentall - Stories and ideas

Enterance to Ostrów Tumski, known as the 'Cathedral Island', the oldest part of Wrocław. Photo: Dziewul / Shutterstock

Is ethnic cleansing ever justifiable? Some people, in some places, at some times, believed that it was. In 1942, the Polish Government-in-Exile issued a memorandum titled “Poland’s War Aims”. The document stated that the Nazi policy of mass deportations had been accepted by the German population without the slightest resistance: “With no difference in outlook, German society is clearly cooperating with its government in appropriating the private property of deported people.”

What is more, it continued that it was not only members of foreign nationalities that were being deported, but German citizens as well. As a result, the mass deportations had been sanctioned in relation to the German population itself. The memorandum concluded that it would be neither proper nor prudent to throw into question the policy of German resettlement that peace in Europe required: “Irrespective of the voluntary emigration of Germans from lands which will come into Poland’s possession, it will be necessary to carry out transfers of German civilians to Germany.”

Winston Churchill, among others, agreed. At a dinner meeting in Tehran on November 28th 1943, he told his ally Joseph Stalin that he would like to see Poland move westward to the Oder river “in the same manner as soldiers at drill execute the drill ‘left close’”. He then went on to illustrate his point by placing three matchsticks next to each other – one for the Soviet Union’s western border, one for Poland’s western border, and one for Germany’s eastern border. He then moved the middle matchstick to the left. Approximately ten million Germans lived in the space between the middle matchstick’s original and new positions.

Aside from the Germans themselves, one of the people to offer a different view was George Orwell. As he noted in his column on February 2nd 1945, the Allied scheme of mass resettlement was “equivalent to uprooting and transplanting the entire population of Australia”. Such an “enormous crime”, he reckoned, could simply not be carried out. For how many locomotives and wagons would it take? How much livestock would have to be transported? How much farm machinery? How many household goods? And if only the people were moved, how many lives would be lost?

In the event, between 1945 and 1947, about 7.6 million Germans were forced to depart from Poland’s newly acquired territories. As a rule, none of these people were permitted to bring their livestock, household goods, or farming machinery with them. Around four hundred thousand German civilians died.

Strangers in a strange land

I was reminded of this history some time ago at a book event in Warsaw. Journalist and author Zbigniew Rokita was talking about the promise of Silesian autonomy (a subject dear to many inhabitants of Upper Silesia, but not so dear to the rest of Poland). The interviewer asked him if he wanted Silesia to break away from Poland. In response, Rokita asked the interviewer if he wanted to break away from Poland. The interviewer responded that the region he came from – Lower Silesia – was very different from Upper Silesia, the region Rokita came from. In Lower Silesia, he explained, there was “absolutely no history”. Its population was made up of people who had arrived there in 1945 from all over Poland, people who had to find a way to live with each other, work with each other, and together rebuild the towns and cities destroyed during the war. “Why is there no history?” Rokita asked. Without a moment’s hesitation, the interviewer replied: “Because there are no graves.”

In Post-German, a book about the material remains of Poland’s German past, Karolina Kuszyk recounts the fate of some of the three thousand German cemeteries which ended up within the borders of Poland after 1945. Born and raised in Legnica (formerly known as Liegnitz), Kuszyk admits that just like other children born in Poland’s “Recovered Lands”, she spent her childhood in a German graveyard.

As a wild expanse of greenery, full of oaks, chestnuts, and lindens, her local cemetery had some obvious advantages over the playground outside her block, where apart from some puny trees only dog poo seemed to survive. She would go to her graveyard in search of spring, and in the autumn, she would go there for the conkers and leaves. When she entered adolescence, it became her romantic refuge. Sometimes, she would sit on a bench with her male companion, usually in front of a grave, so that casual observers could be forgiven for thinking that duteous relatives had come to pay their respects.

In the 1970s, the city council embarked upon building a durable cemetery wall. The solid slabs of the tombs were repurposed as readymade building blocks. The finished wall was designed like a sandwich: two slices of tombstone with rubble in between. The builders made sure that the writing on the wall – the German inscriptions – faced inwards, just like butter in a sandwich.

Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, described as both a “pope maker” and “Primate of the Millennium”, declared in Wrocław Cathedral (formerly Breslauer Dom) in 1965: “We were here! We were here! And we are here again! We have returned to the Home of Our Fathers, we have read the surviving signs, we have understood them. We understand these words! They are our words! The stones call to us from the walls!”

Of course, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the stones did not call out to the people of western and northern Poland. Not only did the graves seem alien, but the buildings as well: the farmhouses, the facades, the factories; the hospitals, the operas, the museums; the breweries, the laboratories, the air-raid shelters; “the seas of ruins” (in Kuszyk’s words), “and untouched old towns”.

This sense of alienation, of distance and detachment, frequently manifested itself as a seeming sense of indifference. To this day, life in Poland’s “Recovered Lands” is often associated with Slavic slovenliness, with bands of “easterners” blithely ensconced in the relics of German scrupulousness.

Ontological insecurity

Emblematic of this attitude is a story recounted by Władysław Kordaczuk, of Małuszów, Lower Silesia, about a man who took up his abode in a “post-German” house: “He lived on the first floor, because it was safer there and he had a superior view. A couple of roof tiles fell off, the roof started leaking, he didn’t like the raindrops dripping down on his head. So he locked the door and moved to the adjacent room. After a while, it started dripping there as well. So he moved on to another room. After a couple of years, it was dripping everywhere. So he moved into the ground floor. Another couple of years went by, and the roof caved in, the ceiling began to collapse. And still, the Germans were nowhere to be seen.”

For many years, even decades, to live in a post-German world was to live in a state of impermanence. If the German population could have been forced from its home so easily, what was to prevent the Polish population from sharing a similar fate? The Germans had lived there for seven centuries. What was a couple of decades in comparison?

As Kuszyk recognises, such a sense of insecurity was bound to produce its own mythology. Since the official narrative of settlers returning to claim their ancestral lands would always be difficult to swallow, other tales would have to be told – tales of rummaging through foreign rubbish, of appropriating and misappropriating, of erasing German signs, of domesticating the present by repressing the past, of German treasure concealed in underground vaults.

“We like to tell each other these stories,” writes Kuszyk, “because we’re not completely sure what lies under our feet. The ground we walk on is foreign to us. For what is a tale of buried German treasure but a sign of how little we know of this land, our ancestors never having told us its secrets?”

Since the 1990s, the subterranean mythology of the “Recovered Lands” has proven fertile ground for Polish writers. Poets and novelists as varied as Joanna Bator, Stefan Chwin, Paweł Huelle, Edward Pasewicz, Tomasz Różycki and Olga Tokarczuk have all made liberal use of the unreal, uncanny world of post-German lore. Kuszyk sees in this phenomenon a desire to recover the traditions of a prewar bourgeoisie, but it seems more likely to me that these writers are attracted to the sheer strangeness – the “strangerness” – of their own environments.

Post-German objects, post-German buildings and post-German towns feature so heavily in contemporary Polish fiction not because they satisfy a common need for middle-class security, but because they remind us of just how insecure our worlds are – how easily they burn, how quickly they vanish. After all, some of us continue to believe that borders can be moved like matchsticks.

Samuel Tchorek-Bentall is a British-Polish classical scholar and literary critic. His interests include early modern political thought, contemporary Polish literature, and the culture of ancient Greece.

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