Identity on the Line
Identity on the Line

“We Met in Słupsk” – Settlers’ Stories

By Dorota (Ciecholewska) Hanowska
Translated from the Polish by Caryl Swift

Post-War Settlement in Słupsk is the contribution of the Museum of Central Pomerania in Słupsk to the international project Identity on the Line project, which was carried out under the Creative Europe programme. 

Informants of different generations at the exhibition “We Met in Słupsk”. 2022, Poland.

Memory blurs the contours of events and the generation who came to Słupsk after the war to begin a new phase of their lives is fading away. There are fewer and fewer people who are able to talk about the personal experiences they underwent during the war and after they arrived in the new location. Before long, the eye witnesses will have fallen silent. With this project, we set out to show not only that the settling processes were highly complex and challenging, but also how the coexistence of the people who migrated here took shape. We hope that for young people today, Post-War Settlement in Słupsk will offer fascinating information about the post-war pasts of their grandparents. It conveys the ability of the newly arrived Poles and the resident Germans who had so recently been their enemies to live together. The interviews demonstrate how tolerance and humanitarianism were not shattered by the war and that the interviewees and others like them were possessed by neither a spirit of revenge nor a desire to destroy everything German.

The territory assigned to Poland in recompense for the eastern lands lost as a result of the Second World War has often been referred to as Ziemie Odzyskane, most frequently translated as ‘the Recovered Territories’ or ‘the Regained Lands’. Numerous controversies regarding the settlement of that territory still exist. The Ziemie Odzyskane spoken of by the propaganda of the communist People’s Republic of Poland was one thing. Some German organisations view the matter differently, while the historical documents held in state archives take yet another stance. Showing a true picture of the past of these lands is necessary not only to their first post-war inhabitants, but also to those who were born here soon after the conflict was over and who feel the need to define their local homeland clearly. 

The purpose of the Polish sub-project was thus threefold: to record interviews with people who lived in Słupsk after 1945, as well as with their families and descendants, to evaluate the knowledge we have of them and to disseminate that knowledge. Thanks to their participation in the project, the Museum of the Central Pomerania in Słupsk is now able to explore the stories both of people who arrived and stayed here as a result of the Second World War, and of those who lived here before that. What brought the newcomers here? What were their reasons for staying? What were the consequences of that decision? What did they bring with them and what did they find in their new home?

During the Potsdam Conference of 17th July to 2nd August 1945, the Soviet Union, the United States of America and the United Kingdom instituted a number of territorial changes. One measure was the redrawing of Poland’s borders. Part of this involved transferring a fairly large swathe of former German territory to Poland, offering high value in economic, military and social terms. This was also, in part, a counterbalance to the fact that the Polish state had lost forty-six per cent of its pre-war territory to the Soviet Union, which claimed its eastern lands. In return, Poland was recompensed with a total of 101,000 square kilometres of territory to the west and the north. That territory included a great deal of the historical region of Pomerania.

The years from 1945 to 1948 were a time of mass migration on Polish soil. Most of it was forced; the post-war redrawing of the borders resulted in the forcible displacement of Poles from the country’s pre-war eastern lands, which were annexed by the Soviet Union, and in the forcible displacement of Germans from the Silesian, Pomeranian and East Prussian territories transferred to Poland. A great many Poles also migrated voluntarily, returning from forced labour, flight abroad, seeking a better place to live, leaving cities, towns and villages destroyed by war, roaming in search of a crust and the chance of making an easier living or simply seeking adventure.

After the end of the Second World War, settlers from various parts of pre-war Poland thus migrated to Pomerania, including the pre-war German city of Stolp, which became the post-war Polish city of Słupsk. As the authorities at the time viewed it, this influx of Polish people would ensure the economic, cultural and social development of these lands. The migratory flow continued until 1950 and the census taken that year tells us that, at the time, Słupsk had a population of 33,115, of whom 32,026 were migrants and 1,086 had lived in Stolp. The largest group of inhabitants were those who had migrated from Poland’s pre-war eastern lands. Those ‘Eastern Borderlanders’ had been forced to leave the lands which had been their home, but had now been seized by the Soviet Union. The second-largest group of new residents were primarily settlers from other regions in central and southern Poland. A great many of those in search of a new home and work were people who had previously lived in Warsaw and its environs. Their migration was triggered by the lack of prospects in the capital, which had been deliberately laid to waste by the Germans after the Warsaw Uprising of August to October 1944. There were also settlers of Ukrainian origin who had been forcibly displaced by the ethnic conflicts being fought out in south-east Poland. Some of them wound up here as a result of ‘Operation Vistula’, a programme instigated by the authorities for the removal of ethnic minorities from that region and their resettlement in the north and west. A small group came from forced labour camps, prisoner-of-war camps and concentration camps in other countries. Some were searching for families who had already settled here. Some, who had lost everyone and everything, came because they had decided to start a new life.

The mass expulsion of the German population lasted from 1945 to 1947 and it would be repeated later, in the 1950s as part of a ‘family reunification’ campaign. In Słupsk, the remaining German families, for whom the city had long been home, were a definite minority. They hung on, enduring a sense of wrong and the collapse of the previous order which had ensued following the defeat of the Third Reich. Nonetheless, in the immediate post-war years of 1945 to 1950, some of the Germans succeeded in assimilating to a greater or lesser extent. Wider contact with the Polish inhabitants began to emerge, including mixed marriages.

One crucial aspect of the project was the development of methods and procedures which would be suitable not only for dealing with sensitive topics and talking to people who had witnessed historical events and were often elderly and vulnerable, but also to give prominence to certain social matters that their stories touched upon. The first stage demanded extraordinary tact in establishing contact with future interviewees. Something that proved very helpful in this respect was the experience the museum’s research team gained from 2012 to 2018, when they carried out a long series of interviews. The people who took part also provided their assistance, as did the members of the First Residents of Słupsk Club, the Słupsk Social and Cultural Society, the Former Exiles to Siberia Association, and the Friends of Vilnius and Grodno. Wherever possible, family connections were brought into play, making it possible to create a friendly atmosphere for the conversations. In other cases, this was slightly trickier. 

From the moment the museum began carrying out interviews, the members of the research team did their very best to win the interviewees’ trust and adapt to their requirements, a necessary measure since, as noted earlier, they are usually elderly. The interviewers met them as often as four or five times in order to record an interview or persuade them to be recorded and encourage their recollections. The Covid-19 pandemic made it all much more challenging. It created enormous difficulties when it came to finding people who were willing to meet and made it necessary to arrange repeat visits. As well as face-to-face meetings, interviews were held on the phone, although the pandemic made even that problematic. In general, the researchers often established a close relationship with the people they interview and kept in touch with them afterwards. 

During the earlier conversations and meetings held from 2012 to 2018, the museum set out to explore interviewing methods, with the trial and error method making a frequent appearance. The researchers also looked into methods of formulating questions and obtaining information about the interviewee from other sources, such as family and close friends. In the case of Post-War Settlement in Słupsk, a set of questions prepared jointly by all seven partners of the Identity on the Line project was used. Naturally, not all the questions were applicable to this part of the project and its purpose.

First screening of the film summing up the interviews. 2022, Poland.

Altogether, twenty interviews were carried out. Five of the interviewees were men and the other fifteen were women. In terms of age, two of the men and nine of the women were over eighty, two men and one woman were over seventy, three women and one man were over sixty, one woman was over fifty and one woman was over thirty. All their accounts were recollections which mainly told the stories of their lot shortly before, during and after the war; of how they wound up in Słupsk, or of why they stayed here; of where they came from and who they came with; of how their parents made a life here; and of themselves. 

At this point, we present six representative examples in the form of extracts from some of the interviews. They stand out from the others in terms of the detail the speakers go into and their lively narration. At the same time, the people telling their stories came from various regions of pre-war Poland and the former German city of Stolp.

Aleksander A. tells of the death of his father, killed by the Soviets in a prisoner-of-war camp for officers in Starobilsk, Ukraine, in 1940. His mother, his brother and he only found out about his father’s death after the war. He and his family were sent into exile in Kazakhstan, where they remained until 1945. His grandfather died a tragic death by suicide there, having been very ill and hating to be a burden to his family. Aleksander’s childhood passed there and, being too small and frail to work, he just attended school with children of other nationalities. He helped his family to get food, particularly in the summer, exploring the natural world in that part of Kazakhstan and becoming very familiar with it. After the war, when the lands where he and his family had lived were annexed by the Soviet Union, he and his family came to Pomerania and then to Słupsk.

I lived in the Volhynia[1] A region that was part-Polish, part-Ukrainian before the war region, in the little town of Kostopol. Kostopol, that was its name. It’s in Ukraine now. When I was about seven… maybe I should also say that my family was my parents and my brother. When I was seven, in May, in 1940, when the war was already advanced and the Russians were marauding around, ravaging our country, several Red Army soldiers turned up at our home. And told us to pack. They gave us three or four hours to pack. I remember that my mum had this big basket. And she packed what was most necessary and everything she possibly could into that basket. My father, he’d been called up during… in 1939, he wasn’t with us and when Russia… the Russians… the Red Army arrived, he was evacuated as a prisoner of war. And he wound up in a camp in Starobilsk. When we’d packed, we were taken to the railway station and packed into these cattle wagons. It was a kind of troop train. A train made up of loads of these cattle wagons. And it was quite an action, with all these people being packed in, several dozen … quite a number of families to a wagon. Then that journey… it took almost two weeks. Along the way, they added wagons, removed them, there were halts along the way. There were moments when everyone got out of the wagons onto the platform and prepared something for themselves, cooked something. And that’s how we arrived in Kazakhstan.

Barbara D. talks about how, as an eleven-year-old, she, her mother and aunt, along with ten other family members, were forcibly sent to Kazakhstan. Her mother’s serious illness and her grandfather’s burial were profoundly terrible experiences which engraved themselves on her memory. From exile, they made their way to Grodno and, from there, with one bundle of possessions to their name, they came to Słupsk and here, for the very first time, she saw and tasted strawberries and, for her, that was something incredible.

In fact, my grandparents travelled from Grodno to Gdynia. But when they got off [the train] in Gdynia and went to have a look at the city, they stated that there was nowhere at all to cast anchor. (…) As a result, they decided to go to Szczecin. But along the way, they stopped in Słupsk, cast anchor at the railway station for a few days and, naturally, they wanted to stretch their legs. The people here were mainly from Grodno, that’s in Belarus now. They went into the city with several other people. Słupsk was gorgeous. Apart from the fact that the entire old town was in ruins, razed to the ground, apart from that, Słupsk really was beautiful. They used to call it ‘little Paris’. (…) And they decided to stay in Słupsk. (…) To start with, they lived on ulica Gdańska, in an apartment building on the right-hand side. It’s still there today, it dates back to German times. By all accounts, they walked into a fully furnished flat. (…) It looked as if [the householder] had gone out just an hour before. But afterwards, they had their eye on the little houses on the street. It was actually people from Grodno who settled down on the whole of ulica Gdańska from ulica Racławicka [onwards].

Ingeborg N., née Gilaschke, recalls streams of German refugees arriving in Słupsk from the regions of Warmia and Mazur in north-east Poland. She remembers the Red Army entering the city and setting fire to houses and apartment buildings; she remembers how the Soviets set everything that was closed against them ablaze. She also speaks of being separated from her father, who was at the front, and of why she stayed in Słupsk after the war. 

I still remember that day so clearly. I went to the German school with my [clay] tablet. Because in those days, you wrote on the tablet with a [slate] stylus. I didn’t like going, because Miss Schwedt used to beat me on the hands with a stick for just about any little thing. And I came back home full of myself… “there’s no school [today]”. Because of these masses of horse-drawn wagons [that had arrived] from Mazur. To us, they were ‘Gypsies’, they were poor people, because those from the east were already fleeing from their ‘liberator’ and ‘friend’. Anyway, they were directed to that school (…). I came in and declared that “The Gypsies have taken over the school. Good! I don’t have to go to school.” That was the only… but it was in March, I think (…) or in February, because they were so huddled among the straw. Thickly clothed. We weren’t that warmly dressed here, by then. To me though, it was more a ‘gypsy’ phenomenon or something of that kind. “Gypsies, Gypsies” that’s what people used to say. That’s what’s popped into my mind.

Romana W. talks about the pogroms in Volhynia and about how she and her family only survived because her father had built a root cellar under a vegetable patch and everyone, parents and children alike, swore an oath of silence so that no one would find out about it. They went there to sleep at night, approaching along different paths in order to avoid beating a trail, because if that happened, they would be found and slaughtered like so many of their neighbours. After their smallholding went up in flames and they fled to the city of Volodymyr-Volynskyi, they wound up in a labour camp, where they remained until the end of the war. Her family’s lot in Słupsk turned out to be an interesting one, too. 

We lived there until 1943. Sadly… Ukrainian nationalists burned down our home. We were hidden in the shelter my father had built in the orchard. It was really camouflaged, there were pumpkins and other climbers planted there. And on that night, when the house was burned down, we were tucked away in that shelter. So, when we woke up in the morning, our house was ablaze and we’d survived. From there, because [father] had brothers in Volodymyr [-Volynskyi], we set off for Volodymyr. Because the Ukrainian nationalists had already started attacking Volodymyr, my parents took a really difficult decision. We simply left for… you could go to a labour camp and we wound up in Koszalin. At a labour camp in Koszalin.

Irena K. also remembers the pogroms in Volhynia and how a Ukrainian neighbour warned her family and emphatically ordered them to flee at once; in doing so, he saved their lives. She continues by recalling how things played out and how she wound up in Słupsk, setting out on a new stage of her life.

Because we had to flee from that area, because we were in an area where things were happening that were extremely… horrifying, relating to the massacre of Poles by Ukrainians. Thanks to a Ukrainian neighbour, we managed to get away and leave for Lwów[2]Now Lviv in Ukraine during the night. Then, when we were in Lwów, German air raids began again and we had to flee onwards. We travelled to some relatives. Then to Tarnobrzeg[3]A city in south-east Poland. (…) [In] our home village, Radziechów, all our neighbours were Ukrainian, in fact, and we got on very well with them. And, quite simply… nothing happened to us physically, which was only because a neighbour, a Ukrainian, came to see us and said, “Listen, they’ll be coming for you in two nights’ time. Leave, but do it now. Not in two or three hours”. And I know… we hired a cart and it was one that wouldn’t make anyone think we were leaving.

Teresa Z., recollects Warsaw in flames during the uprising, a journey on a train under fire and the sorrowful eyes of a German woman leaving the flat in Słupsk where she had lived with her entire family.

Now I’ll tell you about when we arrived in Słupsk and moved into a third-floor flat. There was a German family living there, two older people and a younger person. I don’t remember their surname. They lived in one room, I think, or in two. I don’t remember now. But we all lived together briefly. When I analyse everything in retrospect, [I can see that] there was no friendship. I mean, if there’d been some children, peers, there would’ve been different grounds for conversation and living [together]. But there were three adults. And somehow, there was a chilly feeling. There was no cordiality, but then, why would there be? Someone had come and taken over their home. And I remember the moment when they moved out, when they’d packed and were leaving the flat, and the younger person looked around again. I remember that gaze to this day. It was so sad… and I really do understand that… so sad, or reproachful, I don’t know how to describe it. And then, well, they left the flat.

The work on editing the material recorded during the interviews was a lengthy task. As the research team listened to them, they was profoundly moved and often found themselves living through the interviewees’ experiences together with them and reflecting on the people they are now. During the war or shortly after it, they had been five, six, ten or twelve years old and all their stories are of events seen from the perspective of the children they were then. Many of their recollections are of truly awful things, such as a grandfather’s suicide, a mother’s serious illness, a railway station during an air raid, the houses in Słupsk set ablaze by the Soviets, the sorrowful eyes of a German woman leaving her flat in Słupsk and so forth. Some are very happy memories, like eating strawberries for the first time ever in Słupsk, the glories of nature explored during the summers in exile in Kazakhstan, tranquillity, playing freely outside and so on. They also talk about what their parents, neighbours and grandparents told them. They recollect exile to Kazakhstan and Siberia in the nineteen forties, the deaths of parents in the prisoner-of-war camps in Starobilsk and Katyn, the deaths of loved ones and a host of other topics; the emotions here, of course, are enormous, but there is no hatred. They are reconciled to their lives and quite a few of them return to the past readily and feelingly. They are very humble and unassuming, with a number of them remarking something along the lines of ‘What could I have to say of interest? It’s just the way life was back then’. They often express their happiness that someone is hearing about it, even their families, because the stories are the histories of their lives and contribute to the history of us all.

Post-War Settlement in Słupsk provides older and younger people an opportunity to explore the post-war history of this region from the perspective of accounts given by its first settlers, people whose life stories bear the imprint of the sweeping history of the entire nation. Oral history in the form of meeting witnesses to historical events and talking to them is a superb method of encouraging people to explore the stories of their families, the places they live in and their regions. Crucially, a number of the interviews introduced subsequent generations to family stories they had never heard before because, in many cases, their older relatives deemed their experiences and memories to be ‘uninteresting’ and ‘unimportant’. For listeners, however, they have often served to trigger a fascination with the fates of their families. It has also become clear to many people that handing down this kind of information and talking about past events and what life was like is vital to future generations.

It is these recollections that have enabled the museum to show not only how the migration to the western and northern lands and their subsequent settlement gave rise to the emergence of a new local community rooted in the place where it lives, but also how, set against the backdrop of Polish society, the local identities of Pomerania’s inhabitants contain specific elements. Pomeranian society is extremely open to change and very ready to make contact with other inhabitants whose identities feature elements of the regions they originated from. The Polish people who came to these lands were highly diverse. They came from regions with different levels of economic and cultural development; their cultures were varied and they represented a range of traditions, customs and social norms. Indeed, it is this diversity that distinguishes the inhabitants of Słupsk and Pomerania as a whole from Poland’s historical lands. The local and regional consciousness here was typical of a post-migratory society. However, it is most often the subsequent generations born here who identify with this land as their local homeland. The project also enabled the research team to explore how the experience of migration affected the lives of entire families and whether or not the vestiges of that experience are important to young residents of the city today.

In addition to both the historical and personal context and to information on living conditions, the political situation and so forth, the researchers gathered the interviewees’ individual reflections on their feelings, their sense of belonging and, finally, their identity and relationships with other people. The team also studied the impact that these factors had on subsequent generations. In addition, the museum collected personal keepsakes connected with the interviewees, using them to create an exhibition. 

Objects donated by the informants exhibited at the Museum of Central Pomerania. 2022, Poland.

The opening of the exhibition, the premiere of a film entitled We Met in Słupsk. Settlers’ Stories and shortened versions of the eighteen interviews took place on 15th July 2021, bringing together all the aspects of that part of the project. More events have since been held, some of them presenting the recorded interviews to a wider public, and some designed as educational activities for children and young people. They have evoked extraordinarily emotional reactions from the participants, who have frequently declared a wish to explore their own family history and talk to their parents and grandparents.

The museum team’s findings are universal values which hold true not only for the present-day inhabitants of Pomerania, but also for any society experiencing migration and, at the same time, the hopes and goals of contemporary migrants and the local communities taking them in. Importantly, some of those findings are reflected in the work carried out by the researchers in the partner countries. The Museum of Central Pomerania was also responsible for making the film for the entire project, in line with the scenario compiled by the project partners and using the materials they provided. This included quotations selected from the interviews held in all seven countries. One thing that struck the Słupsk team was how the words of migrants from a range of places, speaking of different moments in history, fit in so well with the historical contexts and experiences of migrants from other countries. 

The project has shown how the Second World War convulsed society, disrupted the political order and shook the foundations of European culture. It has helped the public to understand the difficult post-war social situation and provided a key to explaining disquieting migration processes in the contemporary world.

Several of the interviews became the basis for separate articles which appeared in the Museum of Central Pomerania’s bulletin and in the local monthly Tramway. The museum team also succeeded in persuading some of the interviewees to put the recollections recorded on video into writing. This also included the written memoirs of a married couple who expressed their desire to take part after an event where the recordings of the interviews were presented, along with the film summing up the We Met in Słupsk project. One of the articles set out the successive stages of migration, using excerpts from the interviews to support its thesis. The concept of Identity on the Line was also presented on the local television station on a number of occasions. The keepsakes received from local people were shown and so was the opening of a temporary exhibition, during which, the interviewees talked about what had happened to them. The team and others involved in the work talked about Identity on the Line on programmes broadcast by local radio stations, as well as in interviews with the local press. 

In addition, two online meetings were held for teachers, with the museum staff giving practical demonstrations of how to talk to young people in schools about challenging themes connected with the post-1945 settlement of Słupsk. Furthermore, a space in the museum which is open to the general public houses an exhibition which covers the research carried out not only by the Słupsk team, but also by the other six partners. All of these activities will continue for the duration of the project.

The project is thus ongoing. The Słupsk study has several aims: to collect the largest possible number of recordings with the first settlers, in other words, with n

The informants at the Museum of Central Pomerania. 2022, Poland.

ew participants; to polish the interviews which have been recorded; and to disseminate knowledge about the interviewees, their stories, the histories of successive generations, the motives underlying their life choices after the end of the war, the consequences of those choices and their assessments as to whether or their decisions had turned out well. Another aspect of importance to the museum is the material side of things. Was the fact that the migrants had to leave so much behind a problem for them? Do they miss their lost possessions? What did they manage to bring with them and keep safe throughout the journey? Were they family mementos? Or random objects grabbed more or less without thinking in the rush caused by the stressful situation. Following that thread further, the research team is also looking at what the settlers received once they arrived in Słupsk. What could they count on as far as the authorities were concerned? What were the homes they were allocated like? What did the displaced German inhabitants leave behind? And what emotions and feelings did the new, unusual situation arouse in them?

The staff of the Museum of Central Pomerania in Słupsk have already discovered a great deal about how the experience of migration affected the lives of entire families. Now they have moved on to studying whether or not those experiences remain significant to the city’s youth, the descendants of those first settlers. 

References and footnotes

References and footnotes
1 A region that was part-Polish, part-Ukrainian before the war
2 Now Lviv in Ukraine
3 A city in south-east Poland