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 travels to teach, and travels to write. She is currently living in Wroclaw, Poland.