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Forced Migrations in Europe, 1938-48

Jerzy Kochanowski
German Historical Institute, Warsaw

Forced Migrations in Eastern Poland at the End of World War II

The resettling of the approximately 2 million Poles from the eastern provinces of the Second Republic (the so-called Kresy) between 1944 and 1946 was not an isolated phenomenon, but only one of the many major migrations that occurred after the War. Therefore, the comparison with the resettlement of the Ukranians and Belarusians from Poland, and especially with the expulsion of the Germans, springs to mind in this case. Only then do the indivdual elements receive their proper backdrop, and only then will they make up a whole picture in which there no longer are winners or losers, people who are more or less affected than others, but only human beings.

After World War II, Poles and Germans alike were required to leave territories which they had inhabited for centuries. These were territories with which the people had fashioned strong emotional, traditional, and historic ties. Both in former eastern Germany and in former eastern Poland, the people were divided into those who had the immediate urge to flee and those whose desire to stay was stronger than their fear of what was to come. This attitude was caused by doubt in the permanence of the new borders, the possibility of political change (e.g. due to a new World War), the hope of national co-existence and, in the case of the numerous members of German and Polish intelligentsia in Lvov, Vilnius, Wroclaw, or Gdánsk the hope of maintaining the national character of the lost eastern territories.

Not only Germans were expelled or forced to flee. Thus, the "ethnic cleansing" of eastern Galicia and Volhynia carried out by Ukranian nationalists during the War claimed some 60,000 to 80,000 lives from the local Polish population and caused 300,000 Polish refugees to flee to the territory of the General Government.

Those who survived and remained in the Kresy found themselves outside their native land following the agreement of the Big Three summit meeting of late 1943. Even though the resettlement treaties between 'Lublin' Poland and the Soviet Republics of September 1944 spoke of 'voluntary evacuation', part of the Poles, e.g. from the Vilnius region, eastern Galicia, and Volhynia, were expelled under duress. This duress took many shapes and forms - from direct terror (e.g. in eastern Galicia), arrests or transportation to the interior of the Soviet Union to forced Ukrainization or Lithuanization. A certain percentage of Poles also 'repatriated' without the competent authorities' involvement or knowledge. These 'illegal' or 'wild' resettlements, however, differed somewhat from the 'wild expulsions' of Germans from eastern Brandenburg, Lower Silesia and Pomerania that occurred between April and August 1945. In the Kresy, such migrations came at the initiative of the population rather than of the authorities.

This way, mostly politically compromised persons came to 'Lublin' Poland (e.g. members of the Home Army), followed by Poles from the area around Vilnius who were not able to wait for the "official" resettlement by the Lithuanian authorities, who sabotaged the treaties. The next group were the Poles fleeing from Volhynia, trying to excape the ongoing terror wrought by the nationalist Ukranians there. This group may be estimated at approximately 200,000 people. When making the decision to leave, the people were helped by the feeling that it would be better to set out towards an uncertain destiny in the West than towards a certain one - in the East.

The fate of the Poles who theoretically resettled 'voluntarily' often was very similar to the fate of the Germans who were expelled by force. For instance, the journeys made by Poles and Germans alike were absolutely identical. The passage from Tarnopol or Vilnius, which often took many weeks, frequently took a heavy toll, especially so since the resettlement activities were not halted during the severe winter of 1945/46.

All resettled persons shared one experience - the fear of the new place, the new, entirely strange environment. Both Germans and Poles had to be prepared for being considered a foreign element which would constitute competition for the local population. Letters, both from occupied Germany to the 'regained territories' and from 'Lublin Poland' to the Kresy confirm this feeling of alienation and rejection. One might enumerate many more similarities between the two groups. However, one should be aware that all these characteristics do not just apply to Poles and Germans but to all people affected by forced migrations.

Both the resettlement of the Poles and the expulsion of the Germans belong to the field of history today. Nowadays, the largest part of Polish and German society regards all "lost territories" as things of the past, as a sentimental myth buried in the graveyard of history. A few years ago, a Polish journalist, born in 1960, wrote: "Ostrobramska Street in Vilnius is less familiar to me than Schweidnitz Street in Wroclaw. … Let me be even clearer. Vaclavske Namesti in Prague feels closer to me than that mystical street in Vilnius." The opposite also holds true. The book "Expulsion from the East", edited by Hans-Jürgen Bömelburg, Renate Stößinger, and Robert Traba, contains the following example: A former expellee remembers seeing the name of an acquaintance from Lower Silesia on a company car. "I called him. A businesslike voice said: 'yes, my father is from Silesia originally, near Kaliningrad.' When I objected that Kaliningrad was in East Prussia, all I heard was: 'Oh, I see.'" Today, we are therefore faced with the task not of once more dividing the territories into "regained" and "lost" ones, but to maintain our common - even though often painful - memories.