Frau Moritz

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My time here in Olsztyn is dedicated to research about my grandmother and the country itself, past and present. Therefore I was quite happy when, with the help of the AGDM (the association representing the German minority in Warmia-Masuria), I was able to arrange a meeting with a contemporary witness of the mass capture of German civilians after the invasion of the Red Army in January 1945. Gertrud Moritz was 20 at the time and worked as the local post woman when she was taken, together with other girls from the area. When she was released from the camps in 1947, she opted to return home to the small village of Stabiguda/Stabigotten – something that not many women did, especially those with relations in the West, like my grandmother.

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In Olsztyn (II)

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In Olsztyn, I’m sweating. It’s like the south of France minus the ocean, and every little lake I drove by the last days looked very very enticing. But I had things to do: I met cultural association Borussia, founded by Polish historian Robert Traba, which organises cultural events and promotes cross-border relations between Germany and Poland (interview coming soon). Then I spent a morning with the lovely elderly ladies of the AGDM, the German minority association here in Warmia-Masury, who organised an interview with one of the survivors of the Soviet labour camps still living here, Frau Moritz. As I found out, Frau Moritz actually spent time in the same camp as my grandmother – so I was quite eager to talk to her (interview extracts coming even sooner). Also did I meet the extremely helpful amateur historian Anna Krawzcynska, who works for the local tourist office and who gave me a personal tour of the old town and answered most of my questions regarding the recent history of Olsztyn.

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In Olsztyn

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In Olsztyn, four days into my trip, I had my first doubts. My non-existent Polish will make it hard to get in touch with people, I did not research properly and have not prepared enough interviews, and what good is my trip to my dead grandmother anyway?

Olsztyn is the capital of the Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship, or Warmia-Masuria Province in northeastern Poland. At the time of my grandmother the name of the town was Allenstein, and while she comes from a small village a few kilometres to the East, she would have come here quite often, on market days or on shopping trips (probably with a horse-drawn carriage). She would however recognise the city only marginally today: the old town beneath the castle has been rebuilt, like so many other Polish inner cities, and I’m sure she would recognise some of the buildings today;  but outside the former city walls and away from the tourists that congregate here, this is a working town and home to 200,000 people, four times more than when Cilly was walking around.

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Generation Flight

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After a few months of research, I’m still surprised and at the same time delighted to see how many young people are concerned and interested and getting involved with the not easy topic of European history in 1945. And especially getting involved outside an academic framework, because it is an incredibly interesting topic for us in the third or fourth generation.

Image: Verena Berg/Martin-Lagois-Fotopreis

One such person getting involved is Hamburg photographer Verena Berg. Unlike me, she has no family connections to the occurrences in 1945, but nevertheless decided to dedicate some of her work to this topic. She has just won the Martin-Lagois-prize for photography for her project “Generation Flucht” / “Generation Flight”, a work about the flight and expulsions of Germans during the fighting 1945 and the fate of the refugees after their arrival in West Germany. She portraits contemporary witnesses of these events in their new homes today, and also records their stories. Verena and I talked about her project and our research experiences last week.

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In Gdansk

In Gdansk, I’m a tourist. My grandmother had no ties to the city, and I had no interviews lined up in the capital of Pomerania. But I was eager to see the city of Schopenhauer, Grass and Solidarność, and with time on my hands I wandered through its streets aimlessly, which is the best way of learning a city.

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(Almost) On the road

These last days flew by. After a week spent recharging my batteries on French beaches, I was a bit surprised by all the small things I still needed to do and organise, and spent the first days after my return somewhere between bouts of procrastination and hasting from one task to the next. But when I picked up my Russian and Belorussian visa on Wednesday, it somehow finally sunk in that I’m really going to do this and will really be on the road, the track and the country lane from tomorrow on. To celebrate this, I treated myself to a portion of bigos in my favourite pierogi-place in Berlin.

Bigos, still in Berlin

Right now, I’m sorting out my playlist for the trip and sip Irish tea. I wonder what Polish and Russian tea will taste like. I heard they drink it without milk….

Here are my destinations for the next weeks, in case you want to get in touch when I’m on the ground.

21.07. – 23.07. Gdansk
23.07. – 01.08. Olsztyn
01.08. – 04.08. Warsaw
05.08. – 10.08. Moscow
10.08. – 13.08. Perm
13.08. – 17.08. Yekaterinburg

I can’t wait.

In the dark night?

In case you were wondering where the name of my project comes from: I took it from a ballad by German poet Agnes Miegel, who was (like my grandmother) born in East Prussia, lived there most of her life and, like many other people, fled to the West before the advance of the Red Army in 1944/45. She wrote this moving poem about the refugee treks entitled ‘Wagen an Wagen’, ‘Wagon by Wagon’. I attempted a clumsy English translation of the relevant excerpt below:

Wagon by Wagon

Around All Souls’ Day
In the dark night,
When stand before us,
Those who will always be missed in our hearts anew, —
Memory awakens
Of old churches, the hills in the field,
Where they sleep, fathers and neighbours joined
In lost homeland across the sea, —
And of all who died helpless and alone,
Of all who wasted away sinking into the ice,
Who nobody buried but water and snow,
On the way of our flight, the way without mercy!

Den Namen für diese Projekt habe ich übrigens einem Gedicht der deutschen Dichterin Agnes Miegel entnommen, die (wie meine Grossmutter) aus ihrer Heimat Ostpreussen nach Westdeutschland flüchten musste. Das Gedicht trägt den Titel “Wagen and Wagen” und befasst sich mit dem Schicksal der ostpreussischen Flüchtlingstrecks 1944/45. Hier der relevante Auszug:

Wagen an Wagen

Um Allerseelen
In der dunklen Nacht,
Wenn vor uns stehen,
Die immer neu unserem Herzen fehlen, —
Erinnrung erwacht
An die alten Kirchen, die Hügel im Feld,
Wo sie schlafen, Vätern und Nachbarn gesellt,
In verlorener Heimat über der See, —
Und an alle, die hilflos und einsam starben,
An alle, die sinkend im Eis verdarben,
die keiner begrub, nur Wasser und Schnee,
Auf dem Weg unsrer Flucht, — dem Weg ohne Gnade!

Prison Music

Perm 36 is the only and last of its kind: the last preserved Gulag in Russia and at the same time the only privately run Gulag-museum. I’m going to visit Perm 36 while in Russia, to get a feel for the situation in Soviet prison camps – and will of course write about it here.

The people running the museum also organise the Pilorama-festival every year, a political arts festival focusing on human rights – and the festival is now in its sixth year. Last year, German jazz singer Pascal von Wroblewsky was invited to play the festival, and her son, filmmaker Robert von Wroblewsky, accompanied her with his camera. The result of their trip is the documentary „Perm 36 – the last Gulag“, which has currently started making the rounds on film festivals worldwide. I met Robert in Berlin, and we talked about the film, the museum and Russia.

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