We’ve had some interesting discussions […] lately but I feel that for most of us Elbing and it’s history is far, far away. The people who actually lived there before 1945 are fast becoming a dying breed. In addition, while there is much Information available in German sources, little information can be found in English.
Let me store some of my thoughts and a brief historical background on these pages.
I was born in Elbing in Dec 1937. My earliest memories are rather vague.
Point is we left under duress with the full expectation to be back in at most 2 weeks. That was the propaganda line. How my mother could have been so naive and accepted that which was handed her, has taken me to the study of history and the power of government (or other) propaganda. I have read many books and majored in European history just to try to get a handle on this manipulation of the minds of human beings. How was the holocaust possible among a civilized people? The question still haunts me but I’ve discovered that human beings are easily lead astray no matter where they live or who they are. We are essentially tribal beings whether we belong to a family, an infantry squad or a religious group and will defend the behavior of our members against all ‘others’.
I knew my mother was always prejudiced towards Poles. She referred to them as Pollacks in a derogatory way. Why? Where did this come from? I know that we had a Polish maid during the war who helped my mom raising my sister and me. She was probably assigned to us against her will by the state. I don’t know if I’m right or whether she wanted to work for us. Anyway, one fine day she was gone along with some our valuables. That helped my mom with her prejudice against all Poles. They’re all thieves etc. Another action was the aftermath of WW1 when the allies gave much of Eastern Germany to the Poles and created Czechoslovakia from scratch. Just as we just read about Loesser & Wolf, one of their 4 factories was simply Polonized and taken over because it lay in this new Polish territory. This happened all over West Prussia and the animosity of Pole vs German was a breeding ground for hate and prejudice. The rights to live in their homes and keep their livelihood was basically cut short by the actions of the new Polish owners of this land. A perfect cauldron for revenge as soon as the opportunity presented itself. The Nazi propaganda machine only added to this hate campaign. It became easy to see a Pole simply as an opportunistic thief who didn’t want to work for their own benefit like good honest Germans did. When the National Socialist party ran on an extreme rightist ticket for redress of all these wrongs, the people voted them into power. Once they had it, they took complete charge but always under a highly patriotic banner. If you’re not with us, you’re with the enemy. The people could fill in their own blanks.
How did all this get started? Nationalism or tribal warfare – the us and them. To add a little history: way back when the area was Christianized at the request of the authorities who did this all over the world. The idea was to run the newly converted land under new rules of civilization. Normally a country would be formed but this was the time of the crusades and the Teutonic Knights happened to have been given charge of this process by the emperor and the pope. Many wars later a peace treaty was signed which gave roughly half of the knight’s land to a new sovereign, the Polish king. Nothing changed except that more and more settlement came in from the East to enjoy the fruits of trade and commerce. The land became more Slavic while the cities stayed German and managed themselves. They were examples of a new Democratic type of government run by the tradesmen of these towns. They too resented having to pay taxes to some nominal overlord whether he was Polish or the Grandmaster of the knights. They joined together in the Hanseatic League to present a power of their own. Remnants of this free and self governing lifestyle are still seen in the City State of Hamburg and others to this day. They belong to no state. The old HRE (Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation) had many such imperial cities who managed themselves and paid a nominal tax only to the emperor.
In any case, these cities were part of the tribe of German speakers. Countries as such hadn’t been invented yet. The King of England was also the King of Hannover. This did not make Hannoverians into Brits or part of the British Empire. They simply offered homage to the king. Such was the deal in Royal and Ducal Prussia. A lord would sit somewhere far away and the people lived their lives in harmony. Back, before the US had fought it’s 38 Indian wars to conquer native lands, the King of Prussia and others divided Polish lands among themselves to enhance their spheres of influence and, in the Prussian case, get back when they lost in previous wars against the knights. So, in 1772, Royal Prussia which had been under a Polish sovereign for a while became part of the Kingdom of Prussia under a German sovereign. This is our West Prussia. It was all turned back in 1920 when the land was given to this newly created country of Poland which hadn’t existed since 1795. After Napoleon defeated Prussia the Treaty of Tilsit established the Duchy of Warsaw from Prussian lands and a new Poland was born again but under another personal union deal where the King of Saxony was also the Duke of Warsaw. Not to go into the entire history but Poland essentially did not exist until after Versailles. The Poles then also attacked Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania to enlarge their territory. In 1921 after a plebiscite was won by the Germans in Upper Silesia the allies also awarded that territory to Poland. In general it was a time of extreme nationalism which favored the Poles in all respects. German resentment was quietly cooking during the 1920s and 30s. Various atrocities and so called ‘bloodbaths’ in the newly created Polish lands upon the German population only added to the seethe.
In 1939 Russia and Germany attacked Poland. Germany took back all the land taken from it after WW1 and there was great rejoicing among the people. They had gotten their homes and pride back. The Nazi party took the glory and credit. Everyone else was a defeatist and enemy of the state. The concept of traitorous behavior which caused Versailles as a sell out was being blamed on Socialists, the Jewish population and its bankers and industrialists. Enemies of the state where among us. Once all power was in the state, concentration camps were not far behind. The people closed their eyes and did not want to know why and what.
Russia, of course retained the land it took from Poland and arranged for the Polish population to be shifted into German lands after WW2. In order to make room somewhere between 14 and 16 million people were ethnically cleansed and moved out or killed. Our country agreed to this process even though our history books don’t tell us about it. Well over a million people died in the forced exodus. Many simply disappeared in Siberia as they were shipped there as slave labor. Further, a million German POWs died after the war was over in Soviet prisons. It was the worst of times for German women who happened to be caught by Russian soldiers or the so called Polish Militz. Every German refugee can tell those stories from hell. They say such is war.
So much for a short recap of what happened. In 1995 I spent 8 weeks on a camping trip in the former German lands to see what was left to see of the past. I have to admit that the transformation and erasure of the past was almost 100% complete. Except for a few faded signs on old discontinued railroad buildings out in the country and the word ‘Elbing’ in the 1912 cast iron sewer inlets there was really nothing there to showed hundreds of years of having been. Even an old 17th century map painted on a museum wall had the word Elblag replacing Elbing. I’ve seen that same German map in books in its original version. It’s as if Boston were converted over night to be a French city with every English word chiseled out of the granite buildings. All that is left are the old blue and white porcelain house number signs on the buildings. Our house still had its old number but the street name was translated into Polish. So nothing changed and everything changed. The street itself had risen as the city’s rubble was simply paved over. Where once I had to climb steps up into our house, they now led down. Strange.
The people were friendly though. Their world view and history is formed from a system that teaches only a Polish version but we do the same here. History is what people are taught by the establishment. In Germany they try to not even to teach history. I had many long discussions as people wanted to know what I think even though everything I thought was obviously wrong. Their teachers told them so. When I added myself to a group of architectural students from Britain on a group tour of the Marienburg castle, one of the students started arguing with the guide as her story was completely wrong. The student was Polish but was studying in England. He chastised the tour guide for making up stories and then they got into it in Polish. Point is, the tour guides are employees of the state and they have to present the official Polish version of the world or they wouldn’t have a job. There are historians and writers in Poland today who work on the truth but they are still on the outs with the official version of Polish history. Maybe someday history will be written as it really was. “Wie es eigentlich gewesen ist.” (Ranke) But we need to do away with nationalism first.
One incident I should bring up here: I had made this U-turn on a major street in Elbing and was pulled over by the police. ‘Papers (or a something) please’ in Polish. All I really had was a passport. The cops did not look happy about my transgression. Maybe its a big thing to make a U-Turn in Poland? Then they pointed out to something on my passport to each other and their demeanor changed instantly. They showed the passport to me pointing out that it said ‘born in Elbing, Germany’. Maybe that was the first time they had seen the word Elbing but they knew it and smiled and wished me welcome with a shake of the hands. I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying but I got the message and saw this act as a moment of hope for all of us. We had the same home town but came from different worlds and we were able to smile.