SPIEGEL ONLINE - September 6, 2007, 06:02 PM


Polish WW2 Expellees Revisit Former Homes in Ukraine

By Jan Puhl

Many Poles were displaced from their homes in what is now Ukraine in the turmoil after the end of World War II. Now the elderly expellees are traveling east to revisit their old homes -- and are often saddened by what they find.

In this July 2003 file photo, Poles and Ukrainians hold up their national flags at a ceremony commemorating World War II massacres in the village of Pavlivka, about 30 km east of the Polish border in western Ukraine. Many Poles were expelled from western Ukraine after World War II, just as Germans were forced out of Poland.

In this July 2003 file photo, Poles and Ukrainians hold up their national flags at a ceremony commemorating World War II massacres in the village of Pavlivka, about 30 km east of the Polish border in western Ukraine. Many Poles were expelled from western Ukraine after World War II, just as Germans were forced out of Poland.

A summer downpour explodes over the Ukrainian town of Nadvirna, but Zbigniev Deptula doesn't even notice the rain. He is so excited that he has removed his rain poncho, his hands pulling at the plastic as he runs through the muddy puddles along the roadside.

"There's the church," he says excitedly. "It's still there. We're very close now." He strains his eyes to find the landmarks of his childhood, but everything looks very different today compared with 60 years ago. The once-meandering brook has been straightened and lined with concrete, there are now houses where there were once fields, and the street names have changed.

Deptula was born here in 1935, when Nadvirna was still called Nadvórna, and Galicia, the area surrounding the city of Lviv (formerly known as Lemberg), was part of Poland. In 1945, he and his mother were forced to abandon their house within a few hours. This is Deptula's first visit to his childhood home.

"That's it, that's the house of my parents," he says, pointing to a red, two-story wooden building with small lattice windows and simple ornamental carving along the edges of the flat roof. "Typical Polish architecture," he explains. "There used to be a veranda in the back."

The old man hurries through the garden of his childhood, now paved over in concrete. "This is where the well was. They blocked it up." He looks around nervously and continues his story. "We were standing on the veranda when we saw a German run by. They shot him in the back." Deptula, now 72, clutches his stomach and back, mimicking the soldier's fall.

He rings the doorbell, but no one is home. A hunched-over elderly woman calls out to him from the garden next door. Deptula addresses her in Polish. No, she says, she doesn't remember the family. She hasn't been living here long enough.

She accompanies Deptula as he walks down the street to another house. Another old woman opens the door. "Deptula?" No, the name means nothing to her. But she does remember the Czerkavskis who lived two doors down -- well, "maybe," she says.

Deptula's gaunt face freezes for a moment. It has taken him more than 60 years to return home. "I remember everything very clearly," he insists, and yet the Poland of his childhood has vanished, even from the minds of the elderly. "I will go to the church tomorrow to pray," says Deptula.

Back from Exile

Deptula is an exile. After World War II, Russian dictator Josef Stalin had his troops drive more than two million Poles out of Poland's former eastern regions. Most of them were resettled in formerly German territory that went to Poland, because Stalin had appropriated close to half of Polish territory. Deptula himself spent most of his life in Silesia. Today he lives in Biala, once known as Zülz when it was part of Germany.

It was in Biala that Deptula watched the first visitors from West Germany return to the houses of their childhood in the 1980s. Now Deptula himself is a nostalgia tourist seeking to rediscover his own childhood home.

While the German exiles quickly organized into clubs and began lobbying work in West Germany after the war, their Polish counterparts have only gradually felt their way back into the past.

The borders of Poland and Ukraine shifted dramatically after the end of World War II.

The borders of Poland and Ukraine shifted dramatically after the end of World War II.

Deptula has traveled to Ukraine with a group of Polish exiles. Their bus has now reached Ivano-Frankivsk, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Nadvirna. It's pouring outside, and so the group's tour through the town, once known as Stanislawów when it was Polish, ends in a local pub after half an hour. The vodka flows freely, with the Ukrainians selling it in 100-gram (3.5-ounce) glasses, a holdover from the country's socialist past. One of the tourists picks up a guitar and starts playing Polish tunes, loud and sad at the same time. Deptula doesn't like it. Since his wife died three years ago, he has stopped drinking and keeps to himself.

But Jan Dolny feels completely at home in the crowd. It's the 63-year-old's first time in Ukraine. Born in Prudnik in what is now Poland, a Silesian town formerly called Neustadt, he has been living in Hamburg for close to 50 years now. Anyone who is involved in German-Polish reconciliation is likely to know who Dolny is. A retired dockworker, he has spent decades promoting understanding between the two peoples. He has often accompanied German exiles to Prudnik and arranged meetings with its Polish residents. He has witnessed mistrust gradually give way to cautious friendship.

Now Dolny himself is surprised. "The Poles here are experiencing the same thing that the Germans who were displaced from their homes in Silesia went through a few years ago -- and they're behaving exactly the same way."

The Poles are now about 15 years ahead of the Ukrainians. During that time, they rebuilt their economy and established a solid foundation for democracy. The crumbling facades of hulking office buildings in Poland's cities have given way to glass-and-steel towers developed with Western venture capital. The Poles have even become accustomed to drinking espresso and wine instead of inexpensive tea and vodka. Their country is a member of NATO and of the European Union. Average incomes in Poland, adjusted for inflation, have grown by about 70 percent in the last 15 years.

For many Poles, it takes a walk through the pedestrian zone of a town like Ivano-Frankivsk to realize how far their country has come. Poles are the Westerners here, while socialism seems to be less of a distant memory for their eastern neighbors. Very few houses are renovated, cows and flocks of geese roam along the sides of potholed streets, factories are crumbling and illuminated billboards advertising Western department store chains are few and far between. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians work in Poland today -- as carers for the elderly, cleaning women and construction workers. Many Ukrainians hope to achieve the same economic successes as their neighbors and even -- some day in the future -- EU membership.

East of Poland, the Polish currency, the zloty, is seen as hard Western currency and is as welcome as the German mark once was in Silesia. This helps to explain why the visitors from Poland view the Ukrainians from the same perspective as German nostalgia tourists once saw their eastern neighbors -- from a slightly patronizing standpoint.

"Everything that is beautiful and old here is Polish," says an elderly woman in the group. "The Ukrainians only built gray Soviet architecture."

A man sitting at the next table downs his 100-gram shot of vodka, shakes his head and complains: "Everything is so run down."

'You Have Two Hours to Leave'

The hardships of Galicia's Polish population began long before 1945. The Red Army marched into eastern Poland in 1939. The two dictators to the west and east, Hitler and Stalin, had already divided up the country between them. The communist secret service persecuted Polish priests, teachers, aristocrats and intellectuals.

The Germans came later, deporting the Jews but giving Ukrainian nationalists free rein. The troops of Ukrainian militia leader Stepan Bandera ran roughshod over their Polish neighbors while the German military looked the other way.

Whenever the Ukrainians went on their rampages, armed with scythes and pitchforks, young Deptula would hide in the hay. He was once forced to watch as Bandera partisans tortured his aunt with sharpened wooden skewers in an effort to force her to speak Ukrainian instead of Polish.

Despite the Ukrainian atrocities, the arrival of the Red Army was no liberation. Poland's borders were pushed westward. Millions of its inhabitants, most of them women, the elderly and children like Deptula, were forced to move to accommodate the new boundaries. "It was June 15, 1945," he recalls. "An officer walked into our house, his pregnant wife by his side. 'You have two hours to get out, and then we move in,' he said."

To add emphasis to his demand, the soldier pulled his Makarov pistol from its holster and fired at the dishes and porcelain figures in the Deptulas' glass cabinet. Deptula and his mother managed to pack two suitcases with clothing and a small amount of food. The pair encountered hundreds of refugees at the train station. It took them three days to get a spot in a livestock car. But they counted themselves lucky. At least the railroad offered them a roof over their heads and, together with five other families, a few chickens and goats, they made their way into the unknown.

Deptula has forgotten exactly how long the odyssey lasted through the war-torn landscape to Silesia. All he knows is that it took several weeks. The journey ended in Kedzierzyn-Kozle. The town, previously known as Heydebreck-Cosel, had just been given its Polish name, which it still has today. The Deptulas stepped off the train, and the car they had been riding in was soon loaded with machinery from a dismantled German factory bound for the Soviet Union.

Deptula and his mother were initially taken in by Germans. The newcomers spent the next few weeks living with the established residents under one roof. The Germans' chaotic attempts at fleeing the Red Army were over by then, and even the wildly exaggerated stories of Germans being chased out of their homes at gunpoint were diminishing. It was the late summer of 1945, and the Germans who had remained in the region were given the choice of becoming Polish citizens or making the journey to the West.

Very few remained, and soon the Deptulas had the apartment they had been sharing with Germans to themselves. To this day, the old man is convinced that the Germans' lot was much less severe than theirs. "They were allowed to choose, but we were just driven out," he says.

It took the Poles from the former east a long time to become established in the country's new west. "We believed that it was a great injustice, and that we would certainly be allowed to return. The English would help us, or the Americans, we thought." It wasn't until the 1960s that the first of the exiles began renovating the houses of former German residents, houses that now belonged to them. Deptula also adapted to his new environment, eventually obtaining a degree in agriculture and becoming the head of an agricultural cooperative.

How does he feel about the Germans who, like him, feel drawn to their old homes decades after being driven out? Deptula hesitates. "We aren't demanding that they give us back our houses and our property in Ukraine," he says. Like many Poles, Deptula is concerned about the Prussian Trust (Preussische Treuhand), a Düsseldorf-based company that plans to file lawsuits against Poles to force them to return the property of German expellees.

The claims stand little chance of holding up in court, but Deptula can understand the motives behind them. "I know exactly how it feels when you've had to give up your home," he says.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan