At the end of the Second World War and in the first months of peace, political negotiations are ongoing that would form the political map of Europe for a long time. The most important political voices belong to leaders of the Big Three: the U.S., the USSR and Great Britain. Stalin strives to retain eastern territories of the prewar Second Republic that he had occupied as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. At the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences, the shift to the west of the Polish nation is decided upon – a new border with the USSR is demarked along the so-called Curzon Line while Poland, at the expense of Germany, obtains new territories in the north and west (West Pomerania and Gdańsk, the Lubusz Land, Silesia, Warmia and Mazuria).
BETWEEN BUG AND NEISSE RIVERS
Poland must [...] demand the return to its borders of certain areas that over the centuries were historically linked with it, which were placed within the reign of its political influence and which by economy and population coalesced into one geographical concept, and which Germans [...] didn't manage to reclaim or unify with ancient German lands in the Elbe basin.
The decision by the Big Three was superimposed onto a long-lasting Polish-German argument about national and cultural possession of the Western and Northern Territories. The postulate of correcting the prewar border with Germany had been formulated during the Second Republic mainly by nationalist societies linked to so called western ideas.
During the war, territories in the west and north that would become acquisitions were viewed by the Polish government-in-exile as potential war reparations and as a means of fortifying the nation's economic potential, and an improvement of Poland's strategic location.
“Kołobrzeg will be Polish forever!”
DEPORTATIONS, RESETTLEMENTS, MIGRATIONS
The period 1945–1948 are a time of massive migrations of people on Polish lands. The largest part of this is forced – shifting borders resulted in replacing Poles from eastern voivodeships of the Second Republic now occupied by the USSR and in the displacement of Germans living in the regions of Silesia, Pomerania and East Prussia ceded to Poland. Forced replacements of millions of people were on one hand a realization of the Yalta provisions of the Big Three intending to debilitate Germany, to appease Stalin's territorial appetites and compensate Poland's related losses, while on the other it was an effect of the belief reigning after the war that the creation of ethnically homogenous nations would diminish the risk of the outbreak of further armed conflicts.
The remaining forced migrations were related to repressive policies of the communist regime, which utilized these as a means pointed at groups and individuals opposed to the new system (or deemed so by it) – many soldiers of the former Home Army, members of the anticommunist underground and “class enemies” deported deep into the USSR; Ukrainians and Lemkos living in southeast Poland were replaced to the northwest (Operation Vistula, 1947); in the final weeks of the war, the Red Army deported Upper Silesian miners for slave labor in Soviet mines (the so-called Upper Silesian Tragedy).
However many Poles migrated voluntarily. They came back from captivity and forced labor, escapes abroad, searching for a better place to live, leaving ruined cities and villages, migrating after sustenance and seeking easier livelihoods, looking for adventure.
The Soviet offensive in 1945 left enduring traces on the landscape of reclaimed Western and Northern Territories – ruins, abandoned military equipment, destroyed infrastructure, depopulated centers. In the first period after the front passed, complete chaos reigned. Poles were creating their administrations, Germans lived in hope of maintaining contested territory, and real power was held by the Red Army command. From its soldiers, “trophy battalions” are formed that systematically plundered factories and transport infrastructure.
“Wrocław of the 1940s, to someone from Kraków, made a dreadful impression. I would call it a stress of ruins, a stress of burned houses.”
GERMANS: ESCAPES AND REPLACEMENTS
In winter and spring 1945, huge numbers of Germans from Pomerania, Silesia and East Prussia fled to the west before the approaching Red Army. Those who didn't manage to escape were in the difficult situation of people deprived of civil rights. Soon after, Polish authorities began displacements of German populations – first (June–July 1945) in an uncoordinated way (“wild displacements”), next within great displacement operations (1946–1947) organized on the basis of decisions by the Big Three.
In the early months of 1946, the resettled German population ended up in the British occupation zone in Germany. From July 1946, transports to the Soviet zone also began.
The announcement in the illustration is directed to “repatriated” Germans, instructing them of the necessity of bringing blankets and kitchen utensils.
“With Germans, deal as they dealt with us. Many have forgotten what their behavior was with our children, wives and elderly. Czechs knew to deal in a way that germans [sic!] fled by themselves from their territories. The tasks should be performed in a tough, decided way, the way that Germanic scum didn't hide at home, but fled itself and returned to its land, thanking God that they made it out with their hides.”
FROM EASTERN BORDERLANDS TO WESTERN TERRITORIES
Establishing the eastern border of Poland along the Curzon Line meant one thing for Poles of the Eastern Borderlands – displacement to the west. The communist authorities proclaimed “the return of compatriots from across the Bug River to the motherland,” but most of those “repatriated” were reluctant to leave their native lands for the unknown. The culmination of the “repatriation operation” occurred in 1945–1946, and its legal basis was made by contracts for population exchanges between the Polish Committee of National Liberation and the Soviet republics of Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus.
“And it got so that [...] the marshall came: 'Go on!' 'But where do I go?' 'To Poland.' And I say: 'But I'm in Poland.' And he says: 'This isn't Poland anymore.'”
Those resettled were obliged to hold different documents – evacuation papers, passes, certifications – that facilitated hurdling the next steps in their journey.
Not all Poles from the borderlands left for the territories of post-Yalta Poland. Some were stopped by Soviet authorities, while others mindfully elected to remain in territories of the USSR. Among these was the art historian Prof. Mieczysław Gębarowicz (1893–1984), director of the Ossoliński National Institute since 1941, who didn't leave Lviv and maintained the city's remaining cultural materials.
PIONEERS, RE-EMIGRANTS, LOCALS
Contrary to popular opinion, the Western Territories were not populated mostly by people from Lviv and Vilnius. Most settlers came from the western Wielkopolska region and central Poland. Communist authorities encouraged departures, supported settlement operations, organized pioneer groups. Many thousands of compatriots who had been taken to Germany in the war and were now returning from exile migrated through the Western Territories.
“At the Warsaw East Station, I saw colorful posters encouraging settlement in the mythic Western Territories. I walked past them, indifferent so far. 'Varsovians, Settle in Elbląg!' – the fabulously colorful poster tempted with luxurious villas in gardens, comfort and splendor. Opportunity! I wasn’t a Varsovian at that time, but a repatriate thrown out to the margins, so did I have anything to lose? Everything to gain: work, apartment... I made the desperate decision: We'll head west!”
In the context of repatriation operations to Poland, miners who had left to work in France and Belgium in the interwar period returned, among others. This fact was presented in communist propaganda as evidence of the supremacy of the People's Republic over the prewar Second Republic.
For settlers and re-emigrants, the key institution was the National Repatriation Office, which organized not only transport of people but also provided material and medical aid.
Integration of the Western and Northern Territories with the rest of the nation occurred not only through settlers but also through Silesians, Warmians and Mazurians with a Polish national awareness. Activists in Polonia organizations functioning there before the war now engaged in establishing new political and social structures.
“When I came to the office, I was told – seek, and if you find – move in.” This sentence, a recollection by one of the new Gdańsk inhabitants, clearly illustrates the way in which post-German apartments and houses were occupied. Much depended on resourcefulness, the moment of arrival in the Western Territories, luck and sometimes physical force. Sometimes Poles and Germans lived together in one place – the first having selected a new home, the second not yet displaced. The atmosphere of this transition time was accurately summed up by Bronisław Kowacz: “For a long time, neither us, Poles, or them, Germans, knew who'd last.”
“More were interested in this space, and wanted to kick my husband out. However, he'd trained before the war with Mr. Sztama in boxing, so one tough guy who wanted to violently break into our apartment got shoved down the stairs. It was a real fight then for a roof over your head.”
The rules of dividing agricultural lands brought on many disputes – politicians from the Polish People's Party favored creating bigger farms (for high production) but allotment was undertaken according to the concept of the Polish Workers' Party (communists), which envisioned creation of a larger number of small farms. A separate decree about the agriculture system and settlement of the Recovered Territories became the basis for allotments.
EVERYDAY LIFE RECOVERED
Everyday life in the Western and Northern Territories, along with typical postwar problems with provisions, was characterized by the lack of social bonds and uncertainty regarding the future fate of these territories. Settlers came from different regions, had different habits, spoke in different versions of Polish – the tajoj from Lviv sounded comical to settlers from central Poland. Slowly, local societies stabilized and necessities of getting by under difficult conditions strengthened neighborly bonds.
In public spaces occupied by settlers, new Polish shops and craft shops were established.
Postwar resourcefulness often worked in improvised conditions.
The Western and Northern Territories were a precious acquisition for the postwar Polish economy despite the ruination as a result of wartime operations, and devastation and the industrial plundering by the Red Army. Especially important were Silesian mines and factories in the southwest, and well-developed communication infrastructure and ports in Szczecin and Gdańsk. The first goal of postwar rebuilding was the integration of the new territories with the rest of the nation.
“Whoever wants to live in Szczecin must work. The city needs to be cleared of wreckage and garbage, destroyed railway and river bridges must be rebuilt, and ruined factories need to be activated, all water pipes and electricity need to be repaired.”
THE POLISH WILD WEST
Western and Northern Territories were in the early months after the war an ideal place for criminals. Favored by depopulation, ready access to spoils, little control in the new voivodeships by the state, and lack of social bonds. Among the most frequent crimes were mugging, thievery, rape and looting. These were often committed by those who theoretically should protect settlers and undisplaced Germans – Red Army soldiers, militias, state officers. New territories were also used by functionaries from across Poland as a source of equipment for institutions (such as music schools) destroyed and devastated during the war.
“There was zero authority. There was zero law in effect except for moral law. There was no private property poisoning relations between people. You could take possession without disappropriating anybody. You could destroy without destroying anyone's possession.”
The marketplace, originally called the shadow market, was among the important institutions of social life. Much of the merchandise on offer came from looting. Germans often came there to sell their furniture, clothes and home goods out of need.
Taking over former German estates was legitimated by registering them and by paying a corresponding fee in the Regional Liquidations Office.
NATION AND PARTY – TAKING CONTROL
After the advance of the front through the Western and Northern Territories, new local cells of Polish administration began operations. Coordinated operations related to the state taking up the management of new territories are linked with the services of the Ministry of Recovered Territories (Sept. 1945), led by Władysław Gomułka. Stabilizing the situation meant greater control by the state and the Party and, linked with that, the end of free license in the “Polish Wild West.”
The authorities aimed at taking control of migration. Tightening easy transit over unchecked borders between Poland and Czechoslovakia served this aim.
To the Western Territories came many soldiers of the Polish anti-Communist underground – some sought asylum, some continued conspiratorial activities.
In the photo below, Maj. Ludwig Marszałek “Zbroja,” member of the WiN (Liberty and Independence) Command in Lower Silesia, on whom a death sentence was carried out in the Wrocław prison on Kleczkowska Street.
In early 1945, in Upper Silesia soon after it was taken by Red Army forces, many acts of terror took place that are known today as the Upper Silesian Tragedy.
Among these, most poignant was the deportation of several dozen Silesians into enslavement in the USSR (mainly in coal mining).
Communist authorities viewed with suspicion so-called autochthons (members of borderland societies including Silesians, Warmians and Mazurians living in prewar German territories) and citizens of the Second Republic from areas included into the Third Reich during the war who had joined the Volkslist in mass. They were often accused of betrayal and forced to leave.
Communist repressions by the secret services many times also hurt people, families and societies that had stood for Poland during the Silesian uprisings and plebiscites.
NEW TERRITORIES, NEW INSTITUTIONS
Among the most urgent needs was the creation of an effective working web of daily-life institutions – schools, higher education, health centers, local newspapers. This often required engagement by local societies and leaders who were learning to take matters in their own hands: “arranging” equipment, “organizing” locations. The Western Territories were a terrain of active state operations, as well as a self-organizing society.
The first Polish schools of higher education in Wrocław – universities and polytechnics – were convened in summer 1945.
Initially they had common directorship, their rector being Prof. Stanisław Kulczyński, who before the war worked at Jan Kazimierz University in Lviv.
“I managed to buy a light truck for the school. Then I was going like crazy across the county. I brought all the school's things, which I'd already located. Once, I brought a truckload of laboratory glass from a small factory the Germans left. The second time, I went to the Liquidation Office in Strzelce and wrangled a stored collection of beautiful, exotic butterflies and insects that had belonged to a burned school.”
Local press had a key meaning for the circulation of information – they included regulations from the authorities, comments on important daily-life problems, minor announcements and entrepreneurial advertisements.
“Presently the Polish language is introduced in Wrocław, not as a lousy beggar, but as a Lady and Ruler,” said Juliusz Petry, director of Wrocław broadcasting during its inauguration (Sept. 1946).
However, the radio didn't only serve for propaganda but also integrated local society.
THE MIGRATING CHURCH
The situation after the Second World War was challenging for followers of all religions. Shifting of state borders presented administrative problems for the Catholic Church, and for other faiths and confessions. In large part, on territories conceded to Poland, Protestant dioceses had functioned, while the Orthodox Church and the Jewish faith were also followed. In this difficult situation, quick action by Catholic Primate August Hlond, who established apostolic administration, had huge significance. As a consequence, the Catholic Church soon dominated the situation. An active Church was essential in constructing Polish social structures in the Western and Northern Territories. It played a distinct role in integrating local communities and in facilitating migrants' adaptation in their new lands.
From August 1945, Primate August Hlond could create apostolic administrations, temporary administrative units that functioned as dioceses. These operated until the 1970s, when Poland's western border was recognized by West Germany, and Pope Paul VI created a fixed church organization in the Western and Southern Territories.
“We are bound by the common Holy Catholic faith, we are united by a common language... We are united by the same tough borderland nature, which knows how to live under the most difficult conditions.” These words, from a sermon by Father Bolesław Kominek, apostolic administrator in Opole, pictured the church effort in integrating believers resettled from the eastern borderlands with Poles who'd long lived in western borderlands.
“Endure. Don't give up your fears, either, or be disheartened. Be trusting, calm. What you are creating will remain for centuries. The church will be by you and by your children, increasing year by year the number of your priests and widening the network of the priesthood.”
SETTLERS AFTER HOURS – CULTURE, ENTERTAINMENT, RECREATION
Local centers of culture and entertainment arose quickly on the resettled territories. Some of these were linked with communist organizations, but many were created thanks to the settlers' efforts. The Western and Northern Territories offered, thanks to the post-German infrastructure, excellent conditions for development of tourism and sports. Visits by vacationers in the Sudetes Mountains and at the coast integrated the resettled territories with the rest of the nation – tourists from other regions could know new places and acknowledge them as theirs.
In the Western Territories, especially in Lower Silesia, many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust settled. Although many emigrated in the wave of departures after the Kielce pogrom (1946), Jewish social and cultural institutions operated in those territories for many years. Among the most important was the Lower Silesian Jewish Theater, which in 1950 joined with the analogous theater in Łódź and transformed into the National Jewish Theater.
DOMESTICATING THE SPACE – POLONIZATION
Names of places and streets, monuments, signs, labels on taps for cold and hot water – the resettled lands were marked by traces of former German inhabitants. Communist authorities tended to Polonize the space and mark that it has new governance. Introduction of Polish names and removing German reminders was, however, not only a propaganda measure but suited the social need to domesticate the culturally foreign environment by settlers who happened to now live there. Along with this, the memory of war was fresh – for many Poles, everything German was associatied with their crimes during the occupation.
“Suddenly Wilhelm is tipping: ‘We have to rock him,' they scream, and in a second 'enough!' – he falls down, among whooping shouts. [...] I hauled the lead line for so long and so arduously, so the last mark of German arrogance was down – the ruler was dethroned.”
The Wilhelm I statue in Wrocław, and its pedestal after it was blown up on 21 October 1945.
Postcard from Międzyzdroje - noticeable are cross outs over German names and, in middle, a Polish name stamp.
COMMUNISTS AND PIASTS
“Authorities of People's Poland, in alliance with the USSR, regained former ancient Piast territories along the Oder and Neisse Rivers, once taken by German invaders. Thanks to this, the Polish nation occupies an economically and ethnically homogenous territory, and reclaims the Recovered Territories and reinstates there the original Slavic character, a major success in postwar reconstruction. However, due to the threat of German revanchism, the Oder-Neisse border must be vigorously protected.” – Thus, in brief, appeared the propagandistic narrative about the Recovered Territories, which for decades was among the set motifs in the ideology of the PRL. Such a narration superseded memory about the complicated past of the borderlands, and appropriated identity in these lands.
In April 1946, a propaganda event “We Keep Guard over the Oder” was organized in Szczecin.
“Poles! Inhabitants of the Piast Szczecin. Soldiers – conquerors of the Oder and Neisse [!], guarding our borders today. Polish youth who came here to celebrate the triumph of the Recovered Territories today. Compatriots – all of you who direct their hearts and thoughts today to those lands where the history of Poland is being born. I greet you warmly in the name of the Republic, on the first anniversary of liberating the proto-Piast lands.”
In 1948, a large Exhibition of the Recovered Territories was organized in Wrocław, which summed up achievements in developing the Western and Southern Territories.
The topic of resettling the Western and Northern Territories functioned in PRL culture as a myth, in which the dominant role was played by a depopulated land with new opportunities, a promised land, and its brave settlers. This doesn't mean that each tale about these territories was dominated by propagandistic narratives. Valuable works of art were also created from those atypical, intriguing scenarios, presenting people uprooted and lost in postwar reality. The action of popular comedies was also placed on these territories – “Gals' Republic” and “Our Folks.”
AFTER 1989 – BREAKING THE NARRATION
The fall of communism in Poland facilitated the breaking of the official narration about the Western and Northern Territories (more and more rarely termed “Recovered”). The pioneer-heroic motifs had become debilitated, and the ambiguous identity of the borderland territories and memory of former inhabitants including so-called autochthons, once placed at the far margins of interest, gained value. In the collective imagination, the Western and Northern Territories begin functioning as a place linking memories of inhabitants with different traditions, roots and historical experience.
“Who Was David Weiser?” (1987) – one of the most important novels taking up the topic of cultural identity in Pomerania
“My father had paddled an ordinary canoe more than six hundred kilometres along the River Dunajec, then the Vistula, to Gdansk. In literally the heart of the city, on the Motlawa, he had put down his oar, picked up his rucksack and set off through the burned-out, silent streets, where brick dust and the smell of people burning were falling like a mist on the remains of the thousand-year Reich. [...] Only now … did I think he might have been like Abraham, who had received a summons from God: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy father’s house’.”
The feature film “The Rose” by Wojciech Smarzowski introduced the topic of settlement in the Western and Northern Territories to the center of Polish public debate. In the film, several very painful motifs were taken up – brutal actions by the Red Army and NKVD (especially mass rapes of German women from East Prussia), the difficult fates of those Mazurians presumed to be German, and banditry ruling those transitional territories.
Interest in the prewar history of the Recovered Territories found its reflection in popular literature, for example the series of detective novels about Eberhard Mock by Marek Krajewski.
Scenario — Krzysztof Niewiadomski, Izabela Mrzygłód, Łukasz Kubacki
Collaboration — Jarosław Maliniak
Partners of the Exhibition — Ośrodek „Pamięć i Przyszłość”, Centrum Dialogu Przełomy Muzeum Narodowe w Szczecinie
English translation — Klementyna Suchanow, Alan Lockwood