Germans in Poland: A Part of Common Polish and German History
At the end of World War II about 13 millions of Germans left the Eastern European countries on the run from the Red Army, after living there for many generations. They built up a new life in West- and East-Germany. The family of my father was part of it.
Since the Middle Ages Germans had gradually settled the regions east of the river Elbe, which originally was slavic territory, as many names of cities of Slavic origin show, mostly with endings like -in (Berlin), -itz (Görlitz), and -ow (Ratheow), and lived side by side with the Slavic population. The Germans gradually reached the territory of today’s Poland after a while, at first not in a very big number. This changed dramatically at the end of the 18th century, when Poland was divided by Prussia, Russia, and Austria. In 1795 the Third Polish Division took place, when Prussia annexed large parts of Poland. From now on, in only circa ten years, umpteen thousands of German peasants penetrated into Poland looking for land to till the soil. They founded many, many hundreds of new villages.
The Germans followed the Mennonites from the Netherlands, a protestant sect, which was driven out of the Netherlands, and therefore moved to Northern Germany and along the Baltic Sea eastwards. Large parts of the Mennonites settled in the region of Gdansk. The Dutch had great knowledge and experience about drain swamps, clearing wood and forestry, and founded lots of a special kind of Dutch farms, called „Holländerei“ in German, which remained in Poland as „Olendry“. When Prussia conquered this area, the Mennonites should do military service, but because they were strict pazifists, they refused, and prefered to follow an invitation of the Russian Zar Katharina the Great, a born German. Then, German peasants, who in the meantime also had great experience in clearing wood, filled this gap in Poland. They took over the Dutch farms, which became now German farms, but the name „Holländerei“ / „Olendry“ remained. These peasants were free and were allowed to stay or to move on, whenever they wanted, even to the Russian side of Poland. On the Russian side the Polish peasants, as well as the peasants in Russia, were still enslaved. The Poles were completely without rights and were not able to fight off against the high number of privileged German newcomers. For the German peasants, favourable conditions existed. As a rule, they did not have to pay taxes for their leasehold for the first seven years. They were only obliged to clear and cultivate the wood. In consequence, these conditions resulted in the situation that, after a couple of years, the peasants moved on, always looking for a better soil, and starting again with seven tax-free years…
The German newcomers came from all parts of Germany and tried, according to their ethnic group, to stay together. In many cases they settled in the same region. Because of that, the regional German identity and their dialect from their home region survived for a long time. Catholic Germans and Poles married quite quickly, and these Germans had assimilated in Poland after a short while. In part, even the German names were adjusted to the Polish spelling. For example, the German name „Schulz“ became the Polish name „Szulc“. But most of the Germans, about 90 per cent, were Protestants and remained staying by themselves. The result was that until the end of World War II almost all Germans in Poland spoke Polish, for they went to the Polish schools, but at home German was still spoken, and most of the Germans married among themselves. Because of that their German identity remained. Obviously the religious barrier is bigger than the language barrier – we see this in Germany for more than 50 years with the immigrants from Muslim countries, but not with the migrants from Eastern or Southern Europe.
Towards the year 1780, the ancestors of my father‘s branch, who came from Pomerania, moved at first to the region close to the town of Gostynin. This German group can be called as „Vistula lowlanders“, who had developed a separate German dialect, and had, in the course of a long time, always followed the Vistula river upstream from West to East.
In the middle of the 19th century, after the Polish November revolte against the Russian rule, many German villages in the area of Gostynin were abandoned. About 11.000 German peasants moved to the region of Volhynia, today in Western Ukraine, where they were promised to have better soil and better conditions. My grand-grandfather Martin was obviously also on his way eastwards, when he met his later wife Luise, who lived in the area of Minsk Mazowiecki. They married and stayed in this region, had eight children and lived at first probably in Wólka Piecząca, but moved later to the village Stare Grabie, close to Radzymin. The youngest son was Daniel. He and his wife Emma from the village Leśniakowizna are my grandparents. They lived in Stare Grabie until 1915. My grand-grandfather Martin had died in 1904 and was buried on the Reczaje cemetery close by, in Nowe Reczaje.
The village was in the Russian part of Poland, but close to the German border. Because of World War I all Germans were deported by the Russians. My ancenstors had to leave their home in 1915, and my grand-grandmother Luise died in Russia. My grandparents and their children were deported to Siberia and lived – and survived under hard conditions – in a little village close to the city of Omsk, were my father was born in 1917. It was not before 1924 that the Russians allowed them to return to Stare Grabie – in the meantime into a free Polish republic ! Stare Grabie was a Polish village with only very few German farmers. Here my father and his siblings went to school. On Sunday, the Germans met for a Protestant service in a little church in Nadbiel nearby, which seems to have been a German village at that time. After work and on Sundays, the Germans met each other in small groups, and many of them made music with each other in small orchestras.
The 1920ies and 1930ies were peaceful years for the Germans in this region with a quiet pastoral life. This changed in September 1939 with the terrible attack of the Germans in Poland. It might be widely unknown, but the German nazis did not only deport Polish people, but also many Germans were forced to leave their home. My family was forced to leave Stare Grabie with the argument „it is too dangerous here under the Polish population“. This was part of the hate strategy of the nazis: They wanted to separate the Poles from the Germans – this was the true reason. My family had no choice and had to move with all their cattle to Male Pulkowo in the Wąbrzeźno county, where they were allocated to another farm, which obviously was taken away from a Polish family. My father became a soldier and later ended as prisoner of war in the Soviet Union. When he was discharged, his family had left Poland in early 1945 and is now scattered all over the world: in Germany, Canada, the United States, and Brazil. Only one sister stayed in Poland and had a Polish husband. Her children and grandchildren are Polish citizens and still live here.
At the end please allow me to address some personal words to you: Today many Germans visit Poland, because their ancestors come from there. We come as tourists and want to learn something about the history of our families. The interest in our common history and in modern Poland is big. In today’s Germany, 75 years after the war, in which Germans caused inconceivable pain to Poles, it is consensus in the German society, that we just want to be good neighbors and good friends with you, the Poles.
Dr. Friedhelm Pedde was born in 1953 in the Ruhr Valley in Germany. He is an archaeologist for the Ancient Near East and lives in Berlin. One of his scientific main emphasis is the investigation of the old German excavations in Assur and Uruk, both sites in Iraq, based in the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin. Moreover he was curator in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Until now he has written nine archaeological books and one book about his father’s family, which lived in Poland for 150 years.