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EDITIONS
Saturday, 7 December, 2002, 12:58 GMT
Bitter legacy of war
Polish farmers
Poland is set to join Germany in the EU

In a clearing in a forest in southern Poland, I saw a ring of large stones, a few yards apart, like a stone circle from prehistoric times.

But these stones had been put there recently.

I counted more than 80, each with two names engraved on it - the names of towns and villages here in Silesia, in two languages, Polish and German.

They were all the places from which - as the German armies pulled back in disarray at the end of World War - the local population of Germans was rounded up and brought here.

They were people whose families had lived in these parts for many generations.

Most would now be deported westwards, to the ruins of Germany. But first, they would all be made to suffer for the Nazi reign of terror over Poland in the war.

The nearest stone bore the name of this spot, Lambinowice - and its German name, Lambsdorff.

I was with a local villager, an ethnic German woman in her 60s called Ursula. She is an honest, simple soul, but her voice was tense with anger.

German victims

The stones, and a small monument, had only been put here in September this year, she told me, after more than 50 years of silence about the treatment suffered by her people, the Germans.

We, too, she said, were victims of the war.

Ursula was only five in August 1945, when she was thrown into this former Nazi concentration camp with her mother and three brothers and sisters.

She remembered the filthy, overcrowded huts, the starvation, the typhus and other diseases, and how the Polish soldiers came round each morning to drag off the bodies of those who had died of cold and hunger overnight, and threw them into a pit.

She remembered being sick with fear after she saw a guard shoot dead a woman who had hung her clothes on the fence. And the death from hunger of her baby sister, who was just 10 weeks old.

Polish nationalists say that Germany is on the way to winning through its economic strength what it failed to get by military conquest

Ursula's story reflects the visceral hatred between Germans and Poles which lasted for many years after the war.

After two months in the camp, her family managed to buy their way out, by getting papers that gave them Polish nationality.

Silesia, which had been German in the time before Hitler, became part of Poland.

Ursula's father, who had fought on the German side on the eastern front, lived in fear of retribution from their Polish neighbours.

Speaking German was banned, and the Poles would sneak up to their window to make sure they were speaking Polish, not German, in their own home.

German minority

Ursula has lived to see much better times today. Over the past 10 years, as Poland and Germany officially became friends and allies, the German minority in Poland has been given special rights.

Jews in a Nazi concentration camp
About three million Polish Jews died in the Holocaust
The German language is flourishing, and the German community has even been allowed to put up monuments to their war dead from World War II.

I saw several at churches near Ursula's village, which read: "To the victims of war" and "To the heroes who died for the Fatherland".

All this is pretty hard to stomach for some Poles. Polish nationalists say that Germany is on the way to winning through its economic strength what it failed to get by military conquest. And they fear that dominance will be confirmed when Poland joins the European Union.

But it is also part of a process of both sides coming to terms with the legacy of war.

The appearance of that new memorial to the German dead in Silesia, where Ursula went to pray for her sister, reflects the pressure from Germany, after years of public remorse and apology for Nazi crimes, for its side of history to be recognised too.

This sense of German victimhood centres on the violent expulsion of the majority of the ethnic Germans - more than 10 million people - from a huge area of eastern Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, after the defeat of Hitler.

Public apology

Hundreds of thousands - some German accounts say up to three million - were killed along the way. Germany long ago gave up any claim to its old lands.

Auschwitz
One Auschwitz survivor received only $5,550 compensation
But it does want to hear a public apology from the governments of Poland, the Czech Republic and other countries in the region, for the wrongs done then to the Germans.

Such apologies are not on the formal agenda in the treaties which will bring Poland and the others into the EU with Germany.

And they would be hard to explain to someone like Jerzy Kowalewski, a 79-year-old survivor of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps whom I met in Warsaw.

He has had health problems which doctors say are the result of a medical experiment he suffered at the hands of the infamous Nazi "Angel of Death", Josef Mengele. Mengele injected him with typhus, but Jerzy survived.

Compensation

Like more than half a million other Poles, he waited more than 55 years before, last year, a German compensation fund at last sent him a cheque to say sorry for his four years of slavery, starvation and daily fear of death. The cheque was for $5,550.

Jerzy repeated what he has probably said 1,000 times while doing his work as a guide for visitors to Auschwitz: he does not blame the Germans of today for what he went through.

As for the money, he laughed and said he didn't know what to do with it: "It is too little to live on, but too much to let me die."

See also:

22 Aug 02 | Europe
21 Aug 02 | Europe
08 Apr 02 | Europe
29 Mar 02 | Europe
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