I was born in Wroclaw, a city in the south west of Poland. But if you were to look at the pre-war map of Poland, you would not find Wrocław on it. In its place you would've found Breslau, part of the German Reich. In 1945, history tells us, Poland lost its Eastern provinces to the Soviet Union, and received the Western lands in their stead.
When I was growing up in Wrocław, the ruins of Breslau were still around me, the silent background to the hushed, bitter stories of the last world war. I have an old photograph of myself from 1957, a tiny figurine with a halo of curly hair. I am holding my mother's hand and behind me are the ruins I remember so well. Huge piles of rubble spilling into the street, clusters of red bricks still glued together with mortar, a sea of ruins, surrounding small islands of surviving buildings. I ran with other children through these ruins, wielding stick guns, yelling at the top of my voice. How many German words I knew then, already! Raus, Haende hoch (meaning: Get out, hands up) or Polnische Schweine (Polish pigs).
My childhood was steeped in forgetting. The survivors were trying to forget the trauma of the war years. Forget the fear of bombings, the humiliation of being branded an inferior race, the horror of street executions, of death ever present. Forget that in the middle of the twentieth century a murderous ideology could rule over most of Europe and carry out its racial policies. Forget that another murderous ideology -- Soviet Communism -- won the right to rule over their lives for what might be a very long time. Forget not in order to deny the past, but in order to be able to carry on living.
For the citizens of Wrocław, forgetting the trauma of the war also meant denying the history of the city they came to in 1945. The master race had fled in disgrace and defeat. What else was there to say? Yellowed newspapers of the first post-war years triumphantly announced the openings of the first Wrocław hospital, the first school, first concert hall, as if this city were carved from wilderness and had no other but the most immediate past. The land of opportunity, the same papers declared. The place where opulent villas waited for the brave, villas abandoned by fleeing Germans, houses fully furnished, business waiting to be taken. These were the just rewards for the hardships and bitter losses of the war. Go! The papers urged. Tomorrow might be too late.
When I was growing up, the word Breslau filled us, the children born in Wrocław, with uneasiness. There was something sinister about it, something forbidden, so we lowered our voices when we pronounced it. We lived in houses we called post-German, where water taps had words Kalt and Warm on them, where I could spell the word BRIEFE on my letterbox. Where we were told of mysterious tunnels under the city, perhaps still filled with Nazi loot. At school our teachers taught us that we were living in an ancient Polish city, freed from the Nazis and returned to Motherland at the tremendous cost of lives-we were discouraged from asking what happened in this city between this ancient Polish past and the raise of Hitler. We haven't come here, the slogans around us proclaimed in big red letters, We Have Returned.
I left Wrocław in 1981, on the eve of the Solidarity crisis. I left for Canada, and if you asked me about my birthplace then, I would have told you that Wroclaw was not particularly interesting. I would have told you that it was an easy place to leave, for it never felt entirely mine. I would have meant then that it was not like Krakow or Warsaw, filled with the cultural significance of centuries. Wroclaw seemed deprived of history all together. The Gothic buildings may have been carefully restored, but nothing we knew of ever happened there. They were mere decorations, empty of meaning.
In Canada, in one of these poignant ironies of a migrant's life, I found myself living across the street from a Breslauer. In 1945 Jutta, my Canadian neighbour was six years old, one of the German children escaping the burning city my parents would come to a few month later. Stunned by the incredible coincidence of our common birthplace we began sharing memories, cautious at first, intrigued by the past we uncovered, by the stories long denied on both sides. It was in Canadian libraries, that I began my symbolic return to the city I left.
In January 1945 Jutta's mother wrapped up Jutta's baby sister in a goose down pillow and a woollen blanket. It was a cold winter, bitterly cold, and many a time she was to lift the top of the blanket to check if the little girl was still alive. Breslau was no longer the city she loved so well. The Nazi ideology had made its impact on Silesians; many Breslauers had been seduced by the myth of racial superiority, many others relished the impression of order and the economic benefits of cheap labour. There were also those who opposed Nazism, and if they had the courage to pronounce their views they were treated like enemy. A suburb of Breslau-a kilometre away from the house I grew up in-I found out, was the site of the first Nazi concentration camp.
In September 1944, Breslau became Festung Breslau, a military fortress preparing for its final battle. Anyone caught mentioning defeat or suspected of wanting to leave was executed. It wasn't until the Red Army offensive began on January 12th, 1945, that the Gauleiter of Lower Silesia, Karl Hanke, ordered the civilians not required for the defence effort, women, children and the elderly, to leave the city, their growing panic fed by rumours of brutal massacres and rapes that awaited those who stayed behind. By February 8th, 700 thousand civilians left Breslau, by February 10th a forced evacuation of the remaining population began.
Jutta is lucky to be alive, we both know it. The refugees from Breslau did not fare well. When Karl Hanke finally permitted women and children to leave the city, crowds flooded the Breslau Central Station. Children were trampled to death, lost. Many died of the cold. There were not enough trains to take them all, and the refugees were told to walk on foot to Kantz, some thirty kilometres through snow, where they were promised they would be able to board the trains to the West. It was a cold, windy January, the temperature falling to minus twenty Celsius, and the march was since termed Kantz Death March for 18 000, mostly children and the elderly, perished in it. And then, in the final irony of war, tens of thousands of German refugees from Silesia and the East arrived in Dresden, only to be incinerated in the fire-storms which engulfed the city on the nights of the 13-14 of February 1945 during the massive allied bombings. Among them could have been the people in whose apartment I have lived in my childhood.
I am a Canadian writer, writing in English. My first novel, Necessary Lies, tells a story of Wrocław and Breslau, the story of national and personal betrayals, silences and lies. It was first published it in Toronto, in 2000, and awarded Amazon.com/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and has just been published in Poland as Konieczne Kłamstwa. My second novel, Garden of Venus (Harper Collins 2005) based on the life of Countess Sophie Potocka, a Greek courtesan who became the toast of Polish salons, brings back the multiethnic memories of 18th century Poland and Ukraine. Why do I persist in telling stories from the borderlines of Central or Eastern Europe? Why do I go back in memory to the places I came from? What is it in this particular past that I think so precious?
Growing up among ruins has its consequences. As a child I learned to accept that destruction and death, loss and exile are as natural as rebirth and hope. I learned to expect that any house can crumble and be turned into ruins, that happiness if it is to come at all has to be snatched from impermanence and fear. My childhood was spent among the evidence of absolute forces that could annihilate my world in an instant, where what was mine today could belong to someone else tomorrow. It takes one bomb, my mother used to say, to destroy your home. But as long as you live, you carry your head with you.
Having grown up among German ruins as a Polish child has further consequences. To tell the story of my city, I had to discover the stories behind these ruins, the stories of my national enemy, the perpetrator of the crimes that still haunt us. I had to venture into the territory beyond hatred and mistrust. The meaningful stories, I have learnt, always lay outside of the national scripts and the official memories. The meaningful stories, I have learnt, have to be unearthed, patiently sifted away from worthless rubble. This process of discovering the other pasts, of giving life to them, of passing them on to others who would never have cared otherwise I believe, is a worthy goal.
You can order the book written by Eva Stachniak from Amazon: Necessary Lies
Garden of Venus (Hardcover), by Eva Stachniak