LOST PLACE   MARCH 2007 – NO. 13

The Polish Estate in Germany

by Fred Bruemmer

1940 Poland:  it belonged to others ...

Poor Poland. When I reached it in the winter of 1940, it had just been divided for the fourth time by its rapacious neighbors.

Long ago, a powerful Poland extended from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. For about 40 years in the 15th century, Poland was the largest state in Europe.

By 1773, however, weakened by external conflicts and internal dissensions, Poland was so reduced that Russia, Austria, and Prussia each took a fat slice of it. That was the First Partition of Poland. In the Second Partition, in 1793, they took some more, and two years later, in the Third Partition, they took the rest. Austria now owned Galicia in the southeast, Prussia the northwestern portion, and Russia owned the center and the east.

Poland was reborn after the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles awarded Poland the eastern part of Prussia, Austria ceded Galicia, and the Soviet Union, defeated by the Polish army under Marshal Jozef Pilsudski in 1920, yielded the east. This state of affairs would not last long.

On September 1, 1939, German troops invaded Poland from the west. On September 17, 1939 (as agreed between Hitler and Stalin), Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east. It was over in less than a month. On October 19, 1939, Germany incorporated western Poland, the region that had once belonged to Prussia. It became one of the 20 Gaue, "administrative regions," of the Reich, the Warthegau, named after the river Warthe (Warta). The Soviet Union took back the eastern portion of Poland. The center became the "Generalgovernment Polen," a sort of rump Poland, ruled by a German governor general.

The Warthegau, now German, was "cleaned." The entire Polish upper class — estate owners, factory owners, administrators —and most of the middle class — lawyers, teachers, professors — were arrested and deported to central Poland. Only workers remained, foremen, some experts essential to run the industry, plus some doctors, dentists, and a few priests.

All cities, towns, villages, estates, streets, squares, rivers, lakes, and forests got German names, usually those they had had during Prussia's reign, or their names were Germanized:  the town of Kalisz became Kalisch, nearby Ostrow Wielkopolski became Ostrowo.

The vacuum created by the deportation of Poles from the Warthegau was filled by Germans from the Reich and by Germans from Eastern Europe. Since so many Baltic Germans had once owned estates, the administration of many of the now-vacant Polish estates was assigned to them. My father would receive one of these assignments.

When our "banana boat" from Riga docked in Gotenhafen (Gdynia) near Danzig (Gdansk) we were quartered with a family in Pomerania for a while. Heddy, since her civil marriage a citizen of neutral Holland, met up with Reinhold. Their church wedding was in Pomerania, and I drank too much champagne (so cool and clear and bubbly). They spent their honeymoon in Italy and then went on by ship to Sumatra. Heddy sent us a postcard from Egypt.

Although Arist was at the wedding, soon afterwards he left us. To avoid the draft, he volunteered for the Wehrmacht (army) and went off to a panzer training school near Berlin.

In late January 1940, my parents, Hella, and I were sent to Posen (Poznan). Soon after, my father returned from a trip, and said the estate assigned to us was no called Kleingraben (its Polish name had been Hankova), and we would leave in two days.

We traveled by train to Ostrowo. There two coaches awaited us:  a shiny, black brougham and an open landau, each pulled by two magnificent Arab horses. The coachmen held the door open for us and Hella and I climbed into the velvet-lined brougham.

The wheels rattled on the cobbled roads. We stared out of the windows. The land was flat, snowy, empty. Mop-headed osier willows lined the road. Flocks of rooks flew above the white land.

Finally we passed through the small village for the workers on the estate, its thatched roofs covered with snow, and drove through the great gate and up the broad gravel drive, flanked by manicured beech hedges that led to the manor.

Seven people stood on the manor steps, six women and one man. The man was Staszek, the foreman. He bowed and, in German, welcomed us to … he started with the Polish name and then said "Kleingraben." He introduced us to the others, the house servants. They bowed and curtsied awkwardly, then showed us to our rooms. Dinner, they said, would be served in half and hour.

The dining-room table was very long. We sat at one end:  my mother at the head of the table, my father on her right, Hella on her left, and I next to Hella. Large-globed lambs spread a soft light over the fine linen tablecloth, the china plates, the silver.

The food came by dumbwaiter from the large kitchen in the basement. Maugosza, the senior housemaid, served. I watched my parents closely. I had never been served before.

It was wonderful — and it was awful. This was not home, not our home. It belonged to others who had been brutally evicted. A little girl had lived in "my" room. She was about my age. Her schoolbooks were there; some of her clothes; her shoes; a large sketchbook with childish drawings of her life, her parents, her house — the house in which we now lived.

From Survival:  A Refugee Life by Fred Bruemmer, by permission of Key Porter Books. Copyright © 2005 by the author. Published in Canada by Key Porter and distributed in the United States by PGW.

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Fred Bruemmer is the internationally acclaimed author and photographer for more than 20 books, including Seasons of the Seal, Arctic Memories, and Glimpses of Paradise. He has spent his life traveling extensively throughout the circumpolar regions and to other remote parts of the globe. He speaks nine languages and has written more than 1000 articles for publications around the world, including Canadian Geographic, Natural History, National Geographic, and Smithsonian. Fred Brueummer and his wife live in Montreal.

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