We razed a city to ruins. I’m sorry. Would you like more tea?

18 01 2008

Author: Dorota Wodecka-Lasota
Source: Gazeta Wyborcza – January 16th 2008

* * *

Romek, 28-year-old from Poland, goes on a personal quest to Germany to talk to soldiers fighting against the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and hear their story.

28-year-old Romuald lives with his parents near Opole. He’s a children’s stories’ author and gets his works published by a small literary publishing house. On weekends he works part-time in a delivery firm, handling larger parcels.
In 2004 his girlfriend gave him the Chronicle of the Warsaw Uprising as a present. He had never been in Warsaw before. The book gripped him.
‘But what it was missing was the story as Germans see it. I searched in libraries and in internet – but I haven’t found anything. Then I thought – since historians didn’t find anything – I will‘ , says Romek. ‘Why? I don’t know why. I just wanted to know’.

1944In 1989 a small Munich publishing house issued ‘Warschauer Aufstand’, containing a list of German soldiers fighting the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, together with their military rank and, where applicable, date of death. The low circulation publication received much attention from historians, who alarmed that there were many inconsistencies and errors. Germans protested too. Some of those included in the book have never been to Warsaw. Some were declared dead by the book, while they still were alive and well. Under the threat of court action, publisher withdrew the 3000 copies from bookshops.

Romek managed to find the publication with help of a friend in Berlin. Another friend, IT specialist, searched the internet to find out who, from that list, is still alive. In Germany personal information is not protected. After ruling out those who passed away, 42 people were left.

2000sRomek contacted them last summer holiday: six agreed to meet with him. On weekends, as Romek was busy with work on weekdays.

However, he shouldn’t have bothered visiting three of the six.
Johann said he’s never been to Poland. Joseph’s been in Poland twice – to do shopping in a border-town. Heinrich, on the other hand, was talking about the fights on Warsaw’s Triple Crosses Square like he was reciting a story learned by heart. He received Romek in his entrance hall and wouldn’t even let him ask the firt question. ‘I regret I agreed for this meeting. In your country this rising is a national myth, and whatever I’d say your Polish propaganda will transform my words so that Germans seem like pigs. That’s how you do it’, he said, asking Romek to leave.

Erich in Thuringia, next on the list, told Romek he’d arrived in Warsaw after the end of the uprising – on October 4th 1944. We was eighteen. ‘We worked in a brigade, which for seven-eight hours a day walked around with flamethrowers and burned down the ruins’, he recalls.

Old Town Market Square - 1944He was surprised they were ordered to burn what was already burned. The petrol they were supposed to use wasn’t the right quality either. Townhouses woldn’t burn easily. After work they went back to Mokotów district, where they lived several soldiers in one room. They felt safe there: the gates to German-controlled part of the city were guarded by 50 German soldiers.

Yet everyday they drank spirit. One friend of his couldn’t cope with this work. He poured petrol over himself and set himself on fire.

Prudential BuldingWhen Erich watched Polanski’s Pianist on tv, things came back to him. ‘It wasn’t at all as showed in this movie. Many people lived in ruins – not only Szpilman. Several hundred at least’, he convinced. ‘They walked out at night. I saw them, when we went out to the ruins, driven by curiosity, once. We saw how they pull burned potatoes from cellars. There were no orders to shoot at these people’.

Today he is ashamed of what he then called a good fun, ‘We razed a city to ruins. I’m sorry’, he says, ‘would you like more tea’?


First day each month at 10 we received our soldier’s pay. August the 1st wasn’t therefore the best time for an attack, as by 5 pm we were at least a bit drunk‘ – says Romek’s next interlocutor – Dieter. Romek visited him on the outskirts of Berlin. He didn’t want to say much though. He was a marksman near Teatralny Square. He wouldn’t say how many times his shot was well-aimed, but there are diplomas for marksmanship, he received before the war, hanging on the wall. Dieter is not making an effort to be polite, he murmurs… maybe because partisans killed seven of his colleagues? – ‘Eight of us walked, and then these people approached us wearing German uniforms. They started shooting when we were very close. I ran away. I survived this war’.

When Romek wants to know whether Dieter has any souvenirs from Warsaw, Dieter browses through his drawers nervously. Some papers fall on the floor. ‘When you fight for your life you don’t think about souvenirs’, he says nervously, holding postcards in his hands. ‘Have them, take them for historical documentation, it has no worth to me. There were twelve in that series, but I’ve sent four to friends. Good bye’, he cuts the chat short.

Eight postcards feature ruins of Warsaw: Krasiński Square, Królewska St., Piłsudskiego St., Nowy Świat, Krakowskie Przedmieście and Wierzbowa St. Ruins and cinders. One postcard signed “famine” features people in the street, bending over a dead horse’s body trying cut out some meat. This is the only postcard series with ruins of Warsaw issued during the war.
‘I don’t think this German man wanted to pay some historical debt giving me these postcards. He just wanted to get rid of me quick‘, – Romek was unimpressed.

Romek had been meeting up with Germans fighting the Warsaw Uprising for six consecutive weekends. The last meeting was to take place in Munich. He drove there without faith, with the feeling of senseless of what he was doing. ‘No one really wanted to talk. I had met elderly men blundered between memories. Jürgen was the oldest, he was 102, therefore I didn’t expect him to tell me anything of historical value or emotional weight. That he’d help me understand those Germans. And my meeting with him was so surreal. I felt like I found myself within that poem about SS-soldier sipping tea from the last cup left in once piece in Dresden’.
Jürgen received him in his library with oak parquet flooring. Mahogany bar in one corner, samovar with orange-flavoured tea in other. Bookcase covering the whole wall hosting pre-war editions of Goethe, Schiller and atlases. Massive desk stands next to the window. Jürgen, wearing a shirt and a waistcoat, is not sitting behind it – but in an armchair next to the steaming samovar. Romek feels a bit out of place with his T-shirt in this bourgeois interior. He’s comforted when he notices Jürgen’s old fluffy slippers.

Jürgen says he’d been in Warsaw several times. He used to spend his days-off there. He was stationed in Poznan, his friends used to go to the seaside. But he travelled to Warsaw and walked around with a camera.

‘The city was in psychosis. People were terrified of the Germans. They didn’t want to pose to the pictures. When I started making photos, suddenly all people around me were gone. Just a building and nothing more. It was different in Kraków, there was no fear. People made me pictures when I asked them’, Jürgen recalls.

The photos from Kraków were gone. Out of twenty suitcases he packed, only four survived the chaos of war. He’s also lost the photographs he’d made in Warsaw’s ghetto, in Gdynia, Gdańsk and Łódź. Romek finds it hard to sympathise with this high Wehrmacht officer’s, loss. And when he’s asked to pass a beige photoalbum entitled “Reise nach Warschau”, Romek notices “Mein Kampf” from 1939 on a bookshelf.

‘I felt shivers going down my spine when I saw it’, says Romek, ‘then I froze in my armchair’.

Jürgen opened the diary documenting his first stay in Warsaw in August 1st/2nd 1941. Each photo is described, some with personal notes.

Leafing through page by page.. the bridges, Saski Palace, main train station, his portrait with Wierzbowa St. in the background, then some photos from the ghetto – at the sight of which Jürgen raises his voice:

‘Jews perceive themselves as victims of war – but they are not victims, they are perpetrators!’ – he says irritated, and goes on telling a story of how a Jew cheated his father before the war in a real-estate transaction.
Jürgen is so loud, his grandson shows up at the door to check what’s happening. And stays there leaning against door frame, to listen to the rest of the story.

Romek tries to change the subject. They return to uprising. Jürgen was in Warsaw in the moment of outbreak and worked in an administrative building on Krakowskie Przedmieście – and during the three weeks he spent in Warsaw only once he saw young people with white and red armbands.

‘I never walked out in uniform, although it was forbidden. And I never carried weapon. Therefore no one paid attention to me. Because I was afraid. But not when I heard gunshots somewhere – then I knew that since the fights are there, I am safe where I am’, he says.

‘But Poles were barbarians. My friend’s son died during the uprising. His body was found naked, completely naked! How could they deprive him of intimacy like that?’ – Jürgen raises his voice again, while Romek is thinking about the people in Auchwitz and Jews transported from his home-town Opole to Czech Terezin.
Romek explains: ‘I didn’t want to engage in discussion. I didn’t want to persuade him, to convert him. Because this man lived for 102 years and it was unlikely he’d change at the end of his way’, says Romek.

He asked for more tea. Jürgen’s hand was firm, and there was not a sign of shaking. He stood up, and came to the window smoking his pipe. Grandson stood at the door. Romek broke the silence asking if he could buy this photo-album. He was able to pay 250 euro – for which Jürgen agreed, although his grandson thought the photographs are worth 400.

Then he opened a desk drawer and took out a full pack of Warsaw’s gingerbread cookies from 1941, a German eagle with a sign in German “Souvenir from Warsaw”, and five menus from Warsaw’s restaurants. ‘I’d go back to Warsaw for the food – it was absolutely superb’. We talked for three hours, and then he said he was tired.

* * *

Please note that the pictures used in this blog to illustrate this topic are not the ones made by Jurgen.

Interested in Warsaw Uprising? Here are some links
CNN Presents Classroom Edition: Forgotten Soldiers
warsawuprising.com
The Warsaw Rising Museum
Norman Davies Rising ’44


If you enjoyed this post why not visit Polandian, a collaborative blog on Poland.





Poland will not return priceless art works to Germany

6 08 2007

Source: Gazeta Wyborcza 4-5 August 2007
Author: Bartosz T. Wieliński in Berlin
Translation from Polish for this blog: MoPoPressReview

* * *

For over a week the Polish and German media have been heating up the debate over German art works, that Poland acquired after the Second World War. It is for instance the so called ‘Berlinka’: the collection of old prints and manuscripts (by Goethe, Beethoven and Mozart, inter alia), and a collection of aircrafts from the beginnings of air travel. During the war the Germans relocated them to Silesia region, where after 1945 they were found by Polish authorities, gaining control over the Recovered Territories.

Since 1992 their return is being negotiated. Today Warsaw refuses to return them saying that these collections are a compensation for the Polish works of art destroyed during the war by the Germans. Polish experts estimate these losses at 20 billion dollars.

Last Friday the German Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily wrote, that Polish stubbornness is unlawful, and reminded that Poland had broken off the talks in 2005. FAZ called the German government to be more firm in demanding the return of their national treasures. Later the German press referred to these works of ar as “loot” or “hostages”. Yesterday Anna Fotyga, the Polish Foreign Affairs Minister, called these remarks a “Cold War relic”. While the Polish Government’s Plenipotentiary for the Polish-German relations said that these claims made by Germany are ‘a defeat of the peculiarly understood reconciliation, forced by the scriptwriters of the Polish foreign policy in the early nineties.’

INTERVIEW
with Prof. Tono Eitel, German diplomat and main negotiator of the return of the German art works

Bartosz T. Wieliński: Why do the Germans call Berlinka a “loot”? Poland did not steal it.
Toto Eitel: I don’t see anything wrong with that. When as a result of war some goods are taken oven and relocated, they are called loot. Berlinka is a “looted art”. There also exists another term “stolen art” – but this applies to the works of art that the Germans have stolen from Poland during the war.
No one had stolen Berlinka or the collection of air crafts. Poles have found them on the lands granted to Poland after the Seond World War. They did not destroy it, but have taken care of it. Why do you want them back?
Because that’s what the international law says. The Hague Convention of 1907 forbids confiscating art works. These belong to Germany, Poland couldn’t have taken it then. Nowadays only Warsaw and Moscow refuse to agree with that argumentation. The Berlinka collection has an exceptional value for the Germans. If these were paintings, sculptures, no one would have made so much fuss about it. But this is about the manuscripts of our most wonderful artists, including the manuscript of our national anthem. This is our national heritage, and it just belongs to Germany.
Beethoven’s scores and Goethe’s manuscripts are Europe’s heritage. Does is matter in which European country they are placed?
I disagree. Beethoven was a German, he was writing in German. His manuscripts should be placed here. How would you feel if the manuscripts of Sienkiewicz or Mickiewicz were in German storage? Poland would be demanding them back, as firmly as we do.
The Germans seem to forget that they had themselves been destroying Polish collections. The SS were burning the collections of the libraries of Warsaw for days.

We are not forgetting. We have always been saying that destroying the Polish culture the Germans have committed terrible crimes. However the attitude of Nazi Germany, the large-scale disregard to international law, cannot be an example for other countries. The Ukrainians have returned our works of art, and we had been plundering and exterminating them too. Kiev acknowledges that this is the law.
Poland thinks that Berlinka and other German collections are substitute restitution. You have destroyed our works of art worth of 20 billion dollars – we are taking yours then. That’s fair.
I don’t agree with this opinion. There isn’t such solution in the international law. Besides, Poland had renounced her claims of restitution from Germany in 1953, which was repeated in the treaty of 1970.
But it was the Soviet Union that forced Poland renounce these claims! And it was Moscow, who received compensation money from Germany after the war. Passing only some leftovers to Poland.
But you can say Poland received one fourth of the territories of the German Reich. I cannot accept the argument that what was signed during the communism doesn’t apply today. Thank God that system collapsed, but the Polish state continues to exist, and law is law.
Most of the 180.ooo German works of art taken over after the war are in Russia. Russia doesn’t want to give it back to you either, nevertheless German press only attacks Warsaw. Why?
Because people can’t understand why we are not able to come to an agreement with a country that we are in friendship with, with which we are in NATO and the EU. We can’t come to an agreement although we’ve been negotiating for 15 years now.
Did you come to any joint conclusions during the negotiations?
No, although we continued the talks. Once in Poland, once in Germany. Unfortunately in 2005 Poland broke off the talks. We were not given any reasons. The subject was just cut.
Maybe because Germans all those years have been demanding everything, that Poland refused in advance. Wouldn’t it be better to found an institution, for instance in Wrocław, a European city with a Polish-German history, and deposit Berlinka there?
Why not? Such solution was never excluded. But both parties need to seek the solution together. And for the last two years Poland doesn’t want to.

—————————————————————-

C O M M E N T
by Włodzimierz Kalicki
Gazeta Wyborcza daily

A burgler breaks into our house. Whatever he was capable of carrying – he had taken out and stolen. At the end he set fire to our house, and the rest of our treasures perished in the fire. When he was running away, he lost his coat.
Years gone by, he comes with a generous proposal: if you can still find in my apartment anything that I stole from you, I can give it back to you. But on one condition: you’ll give me back the coat I lost. And don’t mention the things I burned – that doesn’t exist any more.

A farce? Not only. This is the newest line of German argumentation: if Warsaw gives us back Berlinka and air crafts collections, we’ll give them back whatever we still have in our storages of the things we robbed from Poland.

What about the treasures of the Polish cultural heritage, that – in large part – were being destroyed in a planned, organised fashion? German negotiator thinks that it doesn’t have anything to do with the return of Berlinka.

Poland will not agree for that.

Any potential return of Berlinka is possible only as a response to Germany’s compensation for destroying Polish cultural treasures. The compensation could, for instance, have the form of a foundation. A foundation seeking, around the world, and buying off, the works of art that were stolen from Poland by the Germans; a foundation that would also promote Polish-German joint cultural initiatives.

Nudging one another will not bring us closer to solving this problem. Only a reasonable compromise, that the public opinion in Poland and Germany will accept, will let this outrageous row end. The outrage is evidently caused by Germany.

* * *


If you enjoyed this post why not visit Polandian, a collaborative blog on Poland.