(Polish Wild West. Forced migrations and the cultural taming of Nadodrze territory 1945–1948)
Translated by Aleksandra Łuczak
The increased interest in the turbulent history of the breakthrough that followed the end of the Second World War, visible in recent years, certainly proves the burning need to amend its legacy, at the same time showing that there are still plenty of blanks in Polish history. Written originally for German readers, Beata Halicka’s book fills one of these gaps, telling anew the history of (forced) migrations experienced by Germans and Poles alike after 1945 – perhaps one of the most dire and measurable consequences of the decisions made during the Yalta Conference. The author focuses her reflections on Nadodrze: a space construed not only geographically but primarily culturally and linguistically as a zone of contact where the population was exchanged almost entirely. The territory is exceptional and causes problems even at the starting point, as it is a significant place of remembrance in two grand post-war identity discourses, seemingly mutually exclusive as they are based on opposing categories – that of gain and loss. In other words, the region of Nadodrze, which is in fact the prewar German Ostgebiete as well as the Polish Recovered Territories (Ziemie Odzyskane), has direct connotations to other, strongly subjective notions including “dispossession” and “expatriation”, as this has so far been decoded within mostly binary national narratives and official memories subjected on the one side of the Odra to the resentment-mongering martyrdom memory of homeland associations, and on the other to the rhetoric of historical justice artificially generated in communist Poland.
Faced with such a status quo, the proposal made in the book to shift the focus towards the de-ideologisation of the “grassroots histories” together with a more complex investigation of the experiences of direct participants in the events proves fully justified. Moreover, it is successfully carried out primarily through the juxtaposition of official data and historical sources with personal documents: competition diaries and memories of Polish pioneers from the 1950s gathered in the Western Institute in Poznań, accounts of German fugitives written down for the sake of future claims at more or less the same time, tales of the forced labour who arrived in the region before 1945, and stories of Soviets who liberated the Nadodrze and organised the rudiments of the new administration immediately after the war. The author uses all these materials to first describe the process of deconstruction of the German culturescape not as much at the level of discursive phenomena and symbolic violence as by enumerating successive acts of literally construed destruction, wartime ruin, mass plunder, and direct physical violence. She goes on to account for the process of the painstaking (re)construction of identity of the regions as part of the Polish presence in that territory, the difficult beginnings of taming the surrounding landscape, and the struggle for the satisfaction of basic needs at the level of everyday experience and local institutions.
What emerges from this multitude of simultaneous voices documenting the successive stages of taking over the space is primarily a multi-dimensional portrait of its residents and social relations that they entered with one another: full of ambiguity, magma-like in their structure, based on a peculiar blurring of notions and values where the simple division into victims and oppressors loses its raison d’être, and each specific human experience calls for an individual investigation. The author succeeds in proving that the mutual relations of actually former yet still present old inhabitants and their successors encompasses a broad range of emotions ranging from hatred to empathy, at the same time being branded with a sense of apathy, and atmosphere of fear and uncertainty shared by both sides. Although settler reality diverged significantly from the idealised slogans of the State Repatriation Office (Państwowy Urząd Repatriacyjny, PUR), Halicka does not attempt to generalise that atmosphere of fear and constraint, building a detailed typology of settlers and emphasising that among the newcomers there were plenty of volunteers full of enthusiasm and hope, as often as not tempted by the opportunity to prosper and earn easy money. The turn towards the everyday experience finally allows one to emphasise the wealth of problems related to migrations, so far marginalised and tabooed and yet deserving separate studies, including, for example, the intimate and emotional relations between the German population and Polish forced labour and pioneers, which in fact were the reverse of the painful frontline tales.
A major cognitive value of the book lies in the fact that, making a reference to the rule of the law of the strongest, the titular metaphor of the Wild West – when confronted with the testimonies of the witnesses – makes it possible to point to the one who actually holds power at the time of the aforementioned deconstruction of the old and formation of the new order: the Soviet army and administration present in the territory (on the power of martial law) until 1948. The scale of the military mayhem and the pillaging – conducted within the official rhetoric of the wartime spoils – of entire post-German towns as well as factories, which could not be reconstructed for nearly five decades, is convincingly expressed and emphasised in Halicka’s book.
In a somewhat broader context exceeding the textbook systematisation of facts and reconstruction of historic reality (certainly favoured by the original addressee of the text), the book unintentionally also points to a certain weakness in the Polish migration discourse, aggrandised in the act of translation. This is the problem related to the need for an alternative name for the ideologically tainted Recovered Territories. The shift towards a geographical category is an attempt by all means justified, yet with a limiting power at the same time, which the author by the way admits, writing that both of the studies conducted and the conclusions drawn also refer to other (northern) territories incorporated after 1945. The bare source material in the book expands that framework, just to mention the investigated diaries of residents of Darłowo by the sea and Najtrudniejszy język świata/The Most Difficult Language of the World tales by Henryk Worcell, whose plot takes place in a village in the Sudety Mountains. Thus, Nadodrze proves an artificial, if not downright empty name, and a Polish reader finds it hard to build up any specific or strong cultural associations around it. Another question that eventually gives rise to frustration is the detachment and mistrust of biographical sources subjugated to particular political goals and for that reason censored: a fact repeatedly emphasised by the author. Obviously, the principle of limited trust is justified in this context, and caution is not mutually exclusive with careful and productive investigations of biographic narratives. Nonetheless, what arises in this context is a question about not the very content of biographies but rather the manner of their construction, mechanisms of operation, and goals. In this area, however, the readers are consigned to fending for themselves in search of answers.
Translated from the Polish by Piotr Krasnowolski