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Talking about war once more

At long last Germans are beginning to be more open about the war’s human consequences. Susanne Pleines, whose mother was born in Silesia, now in Poland, is one of those who is curious about her family’s forgotten history.

A little, battered milk jug – chipped, abraded and certainly no thing of beauty – is the only remainder of my family’s secret history. Such treasured items exist in virtually every household across a country that has long ignored the fact that more than 25 percent of all Germans are descendants of victims of forced migration.  I am one of them.

Shortly after World War Two an astonishing 12 million displaced people arrived in West Germany and the Soviet sector. They came from Upper and Lower Silesia, Pomerania, East Prussia, from the Black Sea, the Carpathians, Galicia and many other regions. Although ethnically German, many no longer even spoke the language, nevertheless their belongings, their heritage was packed up in a few handcarts, suitcases and photo albums and they were forced to return to a ‘motherland’ that many had never seen before. Scattered all over the country and forcibly accommodated in houses belonging to locals, they were not always welcome.  So they knuckled down and, in many cases, learnt to simply never mention their old life, their old homeland ever again.

When I was little, my grandmother looked after me while my mother was at work. Not once did she mention her long and arduous train journey in a cattle truck through icy landscapes with four small children. Nor the 12 years of accommodation in one room with no running water and just a little oven for heating and cooking. She never talked about Silesia, her house, her husband or her relatives. She had a funny accent, yes, but I knew not to ask. The subject was also never mentioned at school.

Now, however, I have children of my own. The Berlin wall came down in 1989, the Cold War is over and the new generation is looking for explanations, new ways of exploring history. A history that doesn’t hurt them because they didn’t witness it. And suddenly, the floodgates are opening. Günter Grass started the literary exploration of these vulnerable times with his novella Crabwalk about the sinking of a refugee ship, and passed the baton on to the younger generation, among them Julia Franck, whose novel The Dark Side of the Heart explores the fate of her grandmother, a refugee who abandons her eight-year-old son at the first station in West Germany.

At last uninhibited grandchildren are asking the dwindling number of contemporary witnesses to relate their stories, to write them down or to journey back to their old homes, before they die. Family holidays to Poland or to the Czech Republic are opening up new ties with the East. Personally, I have discovered an infinite number of second cousins in Poland, and now I want to know more.

Several specialist tour operators make German history the focus of their itineraries.

 

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