The Polish Wild West
“Over the Oder River to the land of the fathers and prosperity” – this is how communist posters encouraged Poles to settle on lands obtained as a result of the agreements in Tehran and Yalta between the leaders of the US, USSR, and Great Britain. The settlers set off for the “land flowing with milk and honey”. However, they quickly encountered a harsh reality.
Misery, poverty, and frustration – this is how the post-WWII reality in the so-called Recovered Territories could be briefly summed up. According to historian Jerzy Chumiński, “everyday existence brought so many problems that people had to deal with finding a place to live, getting a job, securing provisions, sending children to school, and so on.” The first thing that had to be provided was housing. The next was food. Although there was work, it was poorly paid, and the state of security in the region caused constant fear and a sense of temporariness.
The dire situation among the population was best evidenced by the letters that were sent to various institutions. Chumiński wrote: “In conversations among themselves, the workers, to the irritation of the authorities, repeatedly pointed out the deterioration of their material status, as one of them bluntly put it: ‘You communists before the war, when things were good, you wanted to make a coup, and now when there is poverty, you have sh*t.., and yet you preach to praise these eastern relations that now prevail with us […] you savages […] make us work on Sunday, and you have nothing…, I sh*t…on your bonus and on working on Sundays, give me the salary I had before the war, I’ll sh*t…. on your clothes, shoes, the entire canteen and your food ration cards.’ Hostile propaganda, on the other hand, was considered by the security organs opinions, which were not at all uncommon, that the conditions were even worse than during the occupation. Those expressing such a view risked arrest, such was the case, for example, at one factory in Breslau, where in April 1947, ‘several workers expressed out loud that they were much better off under the occupation. These people were handed over to the UB.’”
Not surprisingly, many settlers who sought a new and better life in Lower Silesia, Western Pomerania, or Lubuskie were very quick to return to their previous place of residence. Not infrequently taking away what was suitable for sale or development. Such a choice was not available to those who had been expelled from the Eastern Borderlands. For them, the post-war ordeal began.
The struggle for housing
Recalling the years of his youth in his hometown, Breslau, writer Wolfgang Schwarz described his apartment on what is now Nowowiejska Street quite evocatively: “Here, at 89 St. Michael Street, on the first floor, on the left side, in a three-and-a-half-room apartment complete with a kitchen and pantry, two balconies, a small one on the street and a large one in the courtyard, was our Breslau world […] The large room above the basement with a balcony from the street was her [mother’s] kingdom: heavy black oak furniture with a round table, chairs, a chest of drawers, a sideboard, a standing clock; above the sideboard, a painting by Adolf von Menzel depicting Frederick the Great’s round table at Sanssouci; on the sideboard – covered with a crocheted tablecloth – a silver-colored samovar, a gift from Uncle Max, assistant personal physician to His Imperial Majesty Tsar Wschech of Russia. A Blüthner piano, covered with black polish, stood under one of the large windows.”
By comparison, one of the city’s first post-war residents, Joanna Konopińska, described the villa where she was to live as follows: “In the basement there is a white-tiled kitchen, a large fuel room, a laundry room, and a boiler room, but without a central heating stove. On the first floor there are three rooms, one of which, a very large, forty-square-meter room, is almost empty, standing there are only two derelict armchairs and a small, beautiful table made of pink wood. […] Shreds of curtains and drapes hang in the windows boarded up with plywood. The second room, the dining room, is a little smaller and completely furnished. It contains a large folding table with six chairs upholstered in red velvet, two oak sideboards, a standing clock and a carpet covering the entire floor. […] The last of the rooms located on the first floor is the library.”
The subsequent tenants were not so lucky. The activities of Polish, Soviet and, in part, German looters caused many thousands of apartments to be stripped of all furnishings, even vandalizing window displays, tiled stoves, or utilities with iron components.
The conditions to which the settlers arrived were often far from those described in the press. As one settler recalled, the room assigned to him “had mold and mildew on the wall, dirt that had to be scraped off with a shovel, and no windows. The stove and bathtub were out of order.” In other cases, people were given apartments where their rightful owners – the Germans – still resided, which led to conflicts and tensions, often resolved by force.
In order to get a complete picture of the internal situation in the Western and Northern Territories, it is also worth referring to the letters. One of the representatives of the Lvov intelligentsia settled in Breslau described the villa in which she was to live as follows: “In this villa there is already [in September 1946] water, gas, electricity, the rooms are clean so that they do not need to be renovated. There is no heater in the bathroom, but the bathtub is there. It is not known whether the radiators, or rather the stove in the basement is in order. Currently, there are apples and they are lovely and a whole lot of grapes. There is no furniture there.”
In a subsequent letter, she optimistically mentioned that there would be no problem acquiring a certain and appropriate amount of furniture. However, everyday life verified this hurrah optimism. Thus, in order to furnish the apartment, the “owner” had to try to get from the administration “two iron beds without mattresses, a couch insert, a bookcase, a stretching table, a small round table, five chairs without seats very ugly. I was very fortunate because Mrs. L.[…] gave me two light oak beds with mattresses from her villa as well as two castellas and a closet likewise; one bed with a net and an insert without mattresses, one white closet with a large mirror, one recliner (chaise longue). Four chairs, but quite ugly and each of them different. […] In any case, I will somehow manage to arrange two rooms with this junk,” Sophia Gansiniec concluded her description.
An interesting example of settlement was the Sowie Mountains, where several ethnic and national groups with different cultural traditions were found. Reports from the administrative authorities there usually mentioned their unfavorable response to all decisions (e.g., hostile, negative, sometimes euphemistically written about loyal or correct, indicating the passivity of a society awaiting change) and a low degree of integration. For example, it was noted that a group of highlanders who came from Podhale were distinguished by their customs and dress, while the arriving Poles from Romania had not yet managed to learn the customs of the local population.
Lawlessness prevailed in the areas occupied by the Soviet army during the war effort. As stated repeatedly in reports by state authorities, wherever the Soviet army appeared, the level of security immediately drastically decreased. Robberies, rapes, and murders were a daily occurrence.
Joanna Hytrek-Hryciuk, author of a monograph on the Soviets in Lower Silesia and their relations with the German population in 1945-1948, described cases of rape and murder by Soviet soldiers: “On February 13th, the Russians came and immediately the robberies and rapes began. I myself was raped six times. My resistance, pleas, and cries were answered with a gun.” Another German woman recounted: “I had to endure it seven or eight times a night. Those Mongolian faces will always stand before my eyes.” However, this did not apply only to German women, but equally to Polish women.
Complaints about the activities of Soviet soldiers bringing ruin to the city and its environs, as well as the safety and success of the settlement campaign, were a constant feature of the Polish authorities’ activities. However, this did not stop the huge wave of migration that caused cities in the so-called Recovered Territories to become the Wild West, a “Mexico” where it was easy to lose property and lives. One woman who came from the Eastern Borderlands to Szczecin recalled: “I cleaned one room to finally get some sleep and settle in. My father went to get my mother and we settled in the house, but only for one night, because in the morning we were awakened by banging on the door with flasks. I opened the door and heard a firm order to ‘get out of here’.” It was something of a nightmare, because we thought we had escaped from them thus far, and here in the new house the Soviets were telling us to get out. Was this supposed to be Poland? […] When we left that house, we felt terrible. After three weeks of wandering, having been robbed of those few bundles, we still didn’t know where to go. We returned to the train station.” Fear and uncertainty dominated. As Joanna Konopinska wrote, “Everyone tries to be home before nightfall, barricading the doors and not letting anyone in. With the onset of night, one often hears shooting and cries for help, to which no one responds and does not leave the house.”
Soviet authorities occupied factories with varying degrees of destruction and transported all equipment en masse to the east. In Breslau, for example, the Soviets occupied 212 workplaces, which they looted or deliberately destroyed day and night. As they were leaving Poland, the Soviets even took doorknobs with them.
There are several letters preserved in the archives, mainly from Warsaw, Łódź, but also Zakopane and Cracow, asking for supplies of appropriate materials, coming from that rich “land” that was Lower Silesia or Western Pomerania. For the most part, they concerned the stripping of the western lands of all kinds of goods, which triggered reactions from the local authorities. Such included the issuance of bans on the export of movable property from the western lands without prior permission from the relevant administrative authorities. In Breslau, such a ban was in effect from November 1945, and subsequently extended several times.
The mayor of Breslau pointed out to the government plenipotentiary that such a state of affairs would lead to a situation where incoming repatriates [by implication, settlers from the East], would receive apartments that were empty and ransacked, which was not in the interest of the state nor that of the general population. Such a situation, however, could not be avoided, and the following years were, on the one hand, a strenuous attempt at unification with the rest of Poland, and on the other, a brutal communization of society with the help of a developed security apparatus.
This article was published in October 2022 in Do Rzeczy magazine.