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Homogenizing Migrations

Summer 1945. Sagan in Lower Silesia, the Silesian-Lusatian Borderland. The town will soon gain a new name, Żagań, but before that (up until 1946) it will be known as Sagan. An encounter lasting just a few moments. Bahnhof. An unfurling story, materializing before the eyes of those involved. Railway stations are said to be where most things happen.

Freya von Moltke, wife of Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, by then already a widow, returns to her estate from Berlin. Her husband was the leader of the anti-Nazi resistance group known as the Kreisau Circle. An absurd journey against the current of human flow—the German population is fleeing or is being driven West. In their place, a diverse mosaic of settlers arrives from the East. They are forced to populate a desolate and unfamiliar cultural landscape. Trains arrive at the station in Żary (Sorau in der Niederlausitz). Freya and her travelling companion, Ms. Raschke, arrive in Żagań in a carriage driven by a Polish coachman. At the railway station, an encounter lasting probably just a few moments takes place far beyond the scope of time and history, or perhaps directly within history itself. A Russian or perhaps Polish girl shoves a piece of bread into the gloved hand of the German aristocrat.1

Żagań (Sagan), railway station, 1934. G. Blaszczyk's archive

Migrations, exile, and expatriations are frequently entwined with exchange and diversity, that is the formation of a multicultural society. The homogenizing nature of these processes is less often remembered. As a result of the war, the actions of two totalitarian regimes, and the decisions of the Big Three at The Potsdam Conference, Poland’s Western and Northern Territories, officially referred to as Recovered Territories or Regained Lands, became the arena of unprecedented resettlement and displacement, a migration of peoples. These forced displacements that separated two different worlds are even sometimes referred to as ethnic cleansing.2 They delineate the boundary between ‘Us and Them’, the Others.

Professor Beata Halicka3 writes:

As they fled the approaching Red Army, more than 50% of Germans living in these areas left their homeland in the winter of 1944/1945. Those who remained were forced out by the Polish army in June and July 1945 or forcibly displaced in the following months. Only those who were able to prove Polish ancestry and were prepared to acquire Polish citizenship were allowed to remain. Parallel to the flight and forced displacement of the Germans, the process of settlement of the Polish population took place. As early as the beginning of 1945, that is, long before the new border on the Oder and Neisse rivers was drawn, the Polish government began a propaganda campaign intended to encourage settlement in the areas claimed by Poland.

On the morning of 11 February 1945 Sagan was ordered to evacuate. Trains departed throughout the day from the same station where that unusual encounter would take place a few months later. Several thousand residents arrived for the departure of the last evening train. These displacements could be classified as follows: evacuation—expulsion—forced removal. What were the numbers? It is impossible to say exactly, but that is not the most important thing.4 To give an idea of the scale of this displacement, one can quote the figures cited by Professor Czesław Osękowski: out of the 8.5 million inhabitants of the Regained Territories, 4.5-4.6 million of people with Polish ancestry remained. More than 3 million Germans were displaced: ‘In May 1945, the Ministry of Public Administration estimated that about 6 million people could be settled in the formerly-German lands at once, and a further 2 million after the Germans had been displaced.’5

These demographic processes were accompanied by the active manufacturing of difference with the aid of state propaganda (pamphlets, films, political publications). Nationalism, expressed in the tribalist rhetoric of ‘a return to the motherland’ or the ‘land of fathers,’ was the leitmotif of the ‘Regained Lands’ narrative. But, as is the case with all myths, the signifier and the signified were not exactly adjacent. Institutional efforts, theory, and practice were necessary. Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Roma, Lemkos, Boykos, and Ruthenians, mixed families—now, they all were to simply take on either a Polish, or a German identity. There was no room left for regional identities, for being Kashubian, Warmian, Mazurian, or Silesian. A harsh, exclusive disjunction.

Żagań, 1st May/John Kepler's St., 1970. Photo by J. Mazur

Żagań, Second Polish Army/City Hall St, 1975-1976. Photo by J. Mazur

German spirits were exorcised in a process of de-Germanization. In their place, the spirits of the Piast Dynasty summoned. ‘We have been here before, and we are now returning home.’ The Western Institute in Poznań came up with the idea of promoting Lubusz Land (from now on including Żagań, located in Silesia) as a variation on the pioneer myth. However, during the first, spontaneous phase of disordered resettlement, hardly anyone was enthusiastic, except for the looters, perhaps. Teacher Wilhelmina Trylowska, a repatriate who came from the village of Stryi in today’s Lviv Oblast, Ukraine, recalled one of the first nights she stayed in Sagan/Żagań. She wrote about ‘assailants and bandits’ who ‘broke down the doors,’ ‘cruelly’ beat people and ‘took everything they wanted.’6 The pioneers faced a fear of the unknown. After all, they were not immigrants by choice. As Zygmunt Koryzma recalls:

As long as we were on the road, our journey seemed like some kind of get-away. Few people truly realized that the moment would come to leave the train and settle in this foreign land, perhaps stay there for the rest of our lives. … For several days, there had been never-ending chatter to not settle the other side of the Oder. As soon as we passed that river, an electric current seemed to run through the train. The lethargy was gone. Tensions grew and finally exploded at Żagań. We were horrified by this desert-land and the city, which was burned to the ground. … Peopled called it ‘the wild west.’7

In the context of these macro-processes marked by individual suffering, the random, anonymous encounter in the summer of 1945 points to a minor isthmus in the separation leading to homogenization. Could we imagine a better symbol of the moment of transition, initiation, and—despite everything—continuity in a radical cultural rupture? The simple gesture of an anonymous person in a ‘no man’s land’ at a (non)time brimming with anxiety, distrust, and hunger acquires a universal, human dimension. It connects two worlds at the most unexpected moment. It leads to questions about identity, imagined communities, the cultural taming of space, uprooting and laying roots, the need to ‘come from somewhere’. The search for answers is an experiential traversing of the landscape of (non)memory.

Żagań, Warszawska St, 1966. Photo by J. Mazur

The monocultural social structure established post–1945 conceals a diversity that can be discovered not only in individual genealogies, but also in historical layers. As far as Żagań is concerned, it is not only post–German, but also post–Polish, post–Italian, and post–French. The town’s continuity is embodied in urban planning and architecture often marked by transformations (the demolition of entire quarters of the old town in the second half of the 1960s, empty squares and blocks of flats constructed under the Magdeburg rule, objects left behind during the forced evacuation), as well as in nature (the monumental trees in the castle’s garden). But the bars and restaurants established during the Polish People’s Republic (Stylowa, Piastowska), Włókniarz cinema with its jazz dixieland, and kiosks and beer stands have all disappeared from the landscape, while factories failed to withstand the ‘pressures of the free market’.

There are hardly any locals left in Żagań, but encounters at train stations continue to occur. Karl-Heinz Kringel was born in Sagan in 1940. When he was four years old, he had his picture taken on the station platform. Last September, he returned with his dispatch baton to look for somewhere to recreate the shot. He came to Żagań with his son Ulf, a doctor from Rostock, and grandson Leopold. They met with regionalists Stanisław Byczkowski and Grzegorz Błaszczyk and me. For a moment, we all felt like true Sagan-Żagań citizens, united by the space of memory.

Mariusz Wieczerzyński is a philosopher, editor, and cultural animator, regionalist, and resident of Żagań. Originator and facilitator of sightseeing walks, including ‘Discovering Żagań’. He is passionate about borderlands, landscapes of (non)memory, and mountain expeditions. He published in, among others, Kurier Szczeciński, Märkische Oderzeitung, and Przystanek Dolny Śląsk.


1 F. von Moltke, Wspomnienia z Krzyżowej 1930-1945 [Memories of Krzyżowa], Warszawa 2000, p. 106.

2 Mój dom nad Odrą. Pamiętniki osadników Ziem Zachodnich po 1945 roku [My Home by the Oder River: Memoirs of Settlers to the Regained Territories post-1945], ed. B. Halicka, Kraków 2016, pp. 7-8.

3 Ibid., p. 8.

4 For more on this, see B. Nitschke, Wysiedlenie ludności niemieckiej z Polski w latach 1945–1949 [Displacement of the German Population from Poland 1945-1949], Zielona Góra 1999.

5 Osękowski, ‘Proces zasiedlania Ziemi Lubuskiej po II wojnie światowej’ [Settlers in the Lubusz Land following World War II], Studia Zachodnie [Western Studies], no. 5 (2000), p. 5.

6 Pamiętniki osadników Ziem Odzyskanych [Memories of Settlers in Regained Territories], eds. Z. Dulczewski and A. Kwilecki, Poznań 1963, p. 287.

7 Quoted in: B. Halicka, Polski Dziki Zachód. Przymusowe migracje i kulturowe oswajanie Nadodrza 1945–1948 [Polish Wild West. Forced Migration and the Cultural Taming of the Lubusz Land 1945-1948], Kraków 2015, p. 200.



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