Dance and Identity in Lower Silesia

The rainbow-striped skirts billowed like balloons around the women as they spun across the stage, a kaleidoscope of blurred colors. Between the swirling patterns, the dancers stopped to sing. My friend leaned over, translating into my ear. “These people probably moved to Poland after WWII, from the east, an area that’s now the Ukraine. The songs are about a new homeland, about acceptance, about keeping their traditions.”

Some History

Lower Silesia is a region in southwest Poland. Driving less than two hours south leads to the mountains straddling the border between Poland and the Czech Republic. Driving less than two hours west leads into Germany. The region’s history is as complex and intertwined as the patterns of color that I saw on stage, at the Third Annual Festival of the Tradition of Lower Silesia.

Like many expatriates living in Wrocław, the biggest city in Lower Silesia, I’ve found myself spurting out the key, bare-bone historical facts that I’ve learned about the region. Sometimes friends or family back home are interested. Sometimes I’m trying to explain a photo I’ve posted on my blog. But it always seems as if I’m simply reciting through bulleted points on an outline.

-Up until WWII, Lower Silesia was German territory.

-After the war, the Soviets re-drew national borders, and the region became part of Poland.

-The Germans living in the area were re-located further west.

-Poles who had been living in present-day Ukraine, Belorussia and other parts of Poland were re-located into the gaps.

Living in Wrocław, a youthful, university town with EU-facing aspirations and heavy investment in technology and foreign business, I’ve found it easy to disconnect the region’s present from its past. But it was only a mere sixty years ago that the war-torn region was transformed from “Germany” to “Poland” through one of the largest forced migrations in European history. Lives were completely uprooted, forever transformed. Sixty years ago is close enough to exist in living memory. And though my litany of historical fact recitation is important, attending the dance festival reminded me of the underlying human factor.

Bringing History to the Present

Many of the dancers on stage were older adults. And many of them, I suppose, had probably experienced forced movement after the war, either directly or vicariously, as told through the experiences of their parents. As my friend explained to me, there has been a trend in the region to create a sense of identity, an attempt to present the varied backgrounds and experiences of those who have moved here into a cohesive whole. What follows is the kaleidoscope of intertwined colors, patterns and textures that I saw on stage. In a region where people of many different backgrounds have converged in one place, the most effective way of showing tradition seems to be presenting aspects of what everyone has brought with them. Music and dance are often good for that, tools to reinforce, to shape and sometimes even to create identity.

As I watched the dancers, I began to wonder about their stories. Where were they born? What do they remember of the war and their move? How has it shaped their perspective of the world? And what about the people whose homes and stores they replaced? What happened to them?

Keeping History for the Future

But I haven’t been the first to wonder. A quick internet search led me to a project called Mountain Voices, a collection of oral histories and interviews compiled in 1999. Through these oral histories, various people from the region give voice to the myriad of perspectives and memories that shaped Lower Silesia after World War II. Their voices transform the historical ‘facts’ that I’ve learned into nuanced and shaded perspectives, snippets that reveal the complex and multi-faceted nature of history.

Here are a few of their voices. I encourage you to visit the website for more.

Aniela was born in 1923 in Chodaczków Wielki, a city in present-day Ukraine that used to be a majority Polish city.

[When we left]…it happened that the Russians, the Ukrainians chased us away…They assaulted us at night, told us to go out, because the land was theirs. And we should leave. And so we had to leave everything and go away…We went to the station. We spent two weeks there waiting for the carriages. Then we were travelling. We had a horse and a cow, others had feather quilts. We had prepared dry biscuits for the journey, some bread….There was a war on, we had very little. A lot had got burnt, we hid some stuff in the cellar, like our feather quilts. The Russian took all that away later. We arrived almost naked. What were we supposed to take along? A horse, a cow that we had, we brought them along with us. We had one quilt. We were poor people. [In Lower Silesia]…we were together for a year [with the Germans]. We washed, they baked for us, we talked. Slowly, we tried to communicate with one another. There was one woman who spoke some of the language, so we could communicate. We cried, all of us [when the Germans left]… And how their cattle cried after them…They went, kissed cows on the way, they left everything. I cried for them. I had got used to them – it was a whole year together. But they visited us later. During martial law in Poland, they sent us packages. Well, they never had any harm from us.”

Read more about Aniela.

Elżbieta, born in 1925, was a German who married a Pole and decided to stay in Lower Silesia while the rest of her family and friends moved further west.

German was totally forbidden here, so I had to learn Polish by myself. It was easier for me when my children went to school, I sat with them learning to read and write from their books. Counting is the same. I couldn’t teach my children my mother tongue although I wanted to very much. It was forbidden and that could bring punishment on both them and myself. Besides, if they’d happened to say something in German, the Polish children might have treated them badly…They didn’t receive me at all, they treated me in the worst possible way. The same with Franciszek, although he was a Pole, he had to defend himself. People couldn’t understand how he could marry a German. However, in time, people got quiet about it, and my son Zbyszek, when he grew up, he took my side. It was quite dangerous, I couldn’t even go to church. Zbyszek couldn’t go to school for some time, either.”

Read more about Elżbieta.

Adolfina was born in 1936, in Tarnowica Polna, a town in present day Ukraine.

[During the war] my father was taken to the army. We remained on our own: two little girls with mother and grandmother. We made ourselves a shelter to hide from missiles. Unfortunately, the shelter very quickly turned out to be of miserable quality: every little bullet would shoot it through, so we decided to move into the neighbours’ one. During the front fights, the whole village was burning… In 1943 when the German were withdrawing their arms, they damaged everything…We were very happy [to learn of the new borders]. We were all very tired with the horrors of war: poverty, fear, death, etc. Poland seemed to be our promised land. We got ready at once and went to Otynia, where we were to wait for two weeks for the train to the west of Poland. We were afraid to stay in our village because of the gangs that were present there all the time…It was July. We arrived [in Poland] when plums were ripe. I remember a German woman shouting at me when I picked a plum from a tree. We lived with the German[s] for a year. .. The German hosts were very kind to us. They gave us a room at our disposal upstairs. They served us all the meals: breakfasts, lunches, dinners. The German, on the other hand, liked our pies. Our German host frequently asked my granny to cook pies to them… [When the Germans had to leave]… they were very sad, they were crying. They could take whatever they needed. The German woman’s luggage was heavy so she couldn’t pack more. When she was ready, my father took her in our cart and brought her to the station.”

Read more about Adolfina.

Read more:
What’s your dream, Bursa? Voices from Turkey
What does your name say about you?
“Ja lubię pierogi!” – Polish Chicago

About the author

Jenna Makowski
Jenna travels to teach, and travels to write. She is currently living in Wroclaw, Poland.
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8 Comments

  • Very interesting post Jenna. There has been a lot of migration also between Turkey, Greece and the other Balkan countries during the last century, and the last wave (from Bulgaria) was as recently as the 1980s. One of the women we interviewed in the Bursa video post had come from Bulgaria during that period. Another one had parents who moved here from Macedonia. I wonder if there are any similar projects here to document their various cultures.

    Do you often meet people in Wroclaw who talk about coming from elsewhere? Here people talk very freely of their origins and it’s common to meet people who say they, or their parents or grandparents came from somewhere in the Balkans.

  • It’s interesting, in my network of friends and students, many people were born in smaller towns and villages around Poland, but came to Wroclaw to attend university. So people will talk about where their families live, where they go when they “go home” for the holidays, etc. But most of these people are in their mid-late 20s. I’m sure I would get very different stories, talking to people of older generations. But because of the university, Wroclaw today has become more of a hub for students from around Poland; people now move here for very different reasons, six decades after the war.

  • Great post! So interesting! Thanks for sharing the history of these women with us. I’m sure I will visit the site. It would be interesting a book with these stories. I would like to buy it.

  • Hey Jenna,

    As always I enjoy reading your posts and snippets of ethnographic observations. I was going to point out what Liz has already mentioned. I don’t know if you knew this, but my MA thesis was based on life story interviews I conducted with the migrants from the Balkans (Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia) in a small village in my hometown – actually, the village I was born. Some of these migrants came as early as 1924 with the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, but some (those who came from Bulgaria) came as late as 1951, which is almost the same period of the migration in Silesia that you are talking about. I was amazed to see almost the exact language that is used in the narratives of the migrants that you quoted. I am pretty sure I heard almost the same story you quoted from Aniela, from a Bulgarian migrant I have interviewed – just replace the Russians with Bulgarians. Or similar stories of overlap and cohabiting the same place with other ethnicities temporarily during the migration. However, I am not totally surprised with the similarity, because, after all, it is the same “demographic engineering” policies all over Europe. Erik. J. Zurcher, professor of Turkish Studies at the University of Leiden, calls “the period between 1850 and 1950 Europe’s age of demographic engineering.” (if you want to read a brief article by him on this issue: http://www.sissco.it/fileadmin/user_upload/Attivita/Convegni/regioni_multilingue/zurcher.pdf )

    However, here are couple things that I would like to hear more from you:
    - In some narratives they were mentioning continued contact with Germans, for instance, Are there still such contacts between different ethnicities who came across during migration?
    - In Turkey, Greece, and Bulgaria there is an increased interest in second and third generation migrants to go “back” and visit the “homeland.” This most often takes the form of “tourism” (or some even call it “pilgrimage”). Are you aware of a similar process?
    - As a former professional dancer, i was also interested in the representation of the dances and their link to identity. Can you tell more about it?

  • Thanks a lot for your comment Ozan. I was interested to read the paper you shared as well. Had you thought about publishing some of the stories from your thesis?

  • I really like Zurcher’s take on the population exchange and migrations in relation to nation building processes.

    Liz, I actually got an offer to publish my MA thesis from a new publisher in Turkey. However, the problem is my thesis is in English and I need to translate it BACK to Turkish! Sigh! I started and finished about 1/3 of it, but then the Ph.D. exams and dissertation intervened! I hope to finish that in the first opportunity. However, before that I also want to publish a longish article (not a book) in English sometime soon. If nothing else, I owe it to the people I interviewed.

  • Hey Ozan,

    Thanks so much for the response and the article link. It’s really interesting, that you see such a connection between the language used in the Mountain Voices Project, and the interviews that you conducted. The part I was most interested in, which you mentioned too, was the period of temporary co-habitation overlap. In response to your questions, unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to talk directly with anyone of the WWII generation, to garner insight into either continued contact between different ethnicities, or reverse migration. As you can see from many of the interviews from the Mountain Voices website, these are extremely touchy subjects for people, especially given that most of these people are over the age of 70 (many of them in their 80s and 90s). How did you handle that aspect in your own research?

    Referring back to the Mountain Voices project – it wasn’t just centered on Poland. They conducted oral history interviews in locations all over the world, centered on similar issues. Have you considered submitting your interviews to an organization like this one?

  • Oh, and about the dances, the songs and identity. There is most definitely a connection. Like I mentioned in the article, many of the lyrics were about settling in a new place and keeping traditions. As my friend was explaining to me, because many people in Lower Silesia are from various different areas, there isn’t really a “cohesive” sense of identity here, and probably many of the dance groups were representing traditions that they brought with them from other parts of Poland or pre-war Polish regions. I couldn’t help but compare these dance groups with the Polish dance groups I worked with in Chicago for my thesis. Age was a huge difference, as most groups in Chicago were outlets for teenagers and young adults, while the groups here were all over the age of 60 (one woman was celebrating her 90-something birthday on the day of the performance). I think this ties into the second major difference, which is the reason for dancing. In Chicago, there is more a focus on dancing in order to maintain/create/continue a connection to Poland more generally, while this festival was very region specific. That being said though, even the dance groups in Chicago organize their repertoire around dances and costumes for different regions, and they all have specific repertoire for Lower Silesia. I’m not sure what kind of tendencies or conclusions can be drawn from this, other than the importance of regional identity in Polish dance. i wonder if it’s linked to Polish history – there has been regional separation for a long time (boundaries drawn between russia/prussia/austria, for example), as well as distinctions between smaller ethnic enclaves (for example, Kashubians). Definitely questions for further thought.