Uprooted: How Breslau Became Wroclaw during the Century of Expulsions, Gregor Thum, Princeton University Press, Pp 400, £ 24.95
HERE is a study, which shows the difficulties new inhabitants face when accepting a new city which has been ethnically cleansed by the German population. It presents the ‘demographic revolution’ that occurred after 1945 when the German Breslau was converted into Polish Wroclaw and whose more than 600 thousand inhabitants were expelled and replaced by Polish settlers, who find themselves in a place not only unfamiliar to them but utterly repulsive given Wroclaw’s Prussian-German appearance and war-time destruction.
The book studies the consequences of forced migration through the lens of a single location – that of Wroclaw, the largest city in the German territory ceded to Poland after the war and the largest city ever to experience a total population exchange of this kind.
The study provides answers to certain pertinent questions like how could Wroclaw, which was devastated in the World War—II and lost its entire established population, become a thriving city? How did the Polish settlers and their descendants not only overcome their feeling of foreigners and establish roots in the former German city, but also develop a sense of civic pride unsurpassed anywhere in Poland? And how was it possible to make of Worclaw not merely a city in Poland but also a truly Polish city in the course of an extended process that is going on till today?
The book sheds light on an epoch of Wroclaw’s history that has long been neglected by focusing essentially on the forced population exchange and its aftermath, particularly the fundamental changes caused by the great political upheaval of 1989. The ‘demographic revolution’ leading to the rupture of 1945, the new inhabitants’ lack of roots in the city and the psychological problems of moving into new homes and taking over the workplaces of those expelled from the city has a sustained impact on Wroclaw’s post-war development.
Secondly, Polish settlers did not encounter the German legacies in Wroclaw with indifference, but rather within the context of conflict-laden German-Polish relations, which experienced its darkest phase during the Second World War. Many Poles moved into the apartments of their tormentors or had the opportunity to leaf through the private papers of political opponents from Germany. The German past of Wroclaw had a meaning for most Poles and the author demonstrates that with increasing distance from the Second World War and diminishing political tension between Germany and Poland, an initially interested and ultimately “respectful encounter” developed between the Polish city and the German Breslau.
The author finds Wroclaw as a particularly fascinating case for investigating the case of expulsion because it was the site of several forced resettlements – the expulsion of Germans, the settlement of Poles from Polish territories lost to the Soviet Union, the settlement of Ukrainians deported from southeast Poland in 1947 and the arrival of tens of thousands of Polish Jews, most of whom had survived the holocaust in the Soviet Union and subsequently who fled the rampant anti-Semetism in post-war Poland to the country’s western territories.
Resettlement for Poles was a psychologically different situation as, despite getting to live a more modern and luxurious new residences, the settlers missed their former homes in East Galicia or Volhynia to which they were tied through personal memories and a sense of tradition going back generations. This sense of uprootedness had psychological repercussions which can be overcome only after decades of cultural processes.
Normally in the process of rebuilding, new construction is so ruthlessly indulged in that anything regarded as old farmland is pulled down. In many war-ravaged towns, historic buildings were destroyed. In Wroclaw city, the residents attempted to historically to reconstruct “their devastated city, which they had never known in its intact state. They first had to search out the architectural traditions they wished to revive in the reconstruction process.”
In post-war Wroclaw, the gradual transformation of a heterogeneous migration society into a unified citizenry had much in common with the nation-building process. One of the tasks was the “invention of tradition”. This led to formation of a common cultural memory capable of creating one community and a sense of belonging, which would make a foreign place a home.
The immediate consequences of resettlement were an unstable society, a high crime rate, rapid depletion of building material and economic stagnation. What is however important is how the Poles reinvented their city of Wroclaw for the second time to make it their own since the Second World War.
Though voluminous, this is a highly moving and touching description displaying the fighting spirit of man against heavy odds.
(Princeton University Press, 41, William Street, Princeton, New Jersey – 08540).