Spaces that Unsettle. Visuality of Haunted Lanscapes in the Ethnographic Research in Post-Displacement Regions of Poland, Czechia and Slovakia

poster for the 16th Congress of the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF), June 7-10, 2023

After 1945, German-speaking populations were expelled from Slavic Central Europe. In their place, the new settlers came, and they lived with and among the objects left behind by the Germans. In this project, we are interested in how the persistence of these things left behind influenced the new cultures of the post-displacement regions in Poland, Czechia and Slovakia post-1945.

What strategies did the newcomers use to manage the objects left behind? What meanings did they write into them, and what do they tell about them today? Below, you find some examples we have chosen from the fieldwork we did during the first year of our project in Czechia (Liberec / Reichenberg and Harrachov / Harrachsdorf), Slovakia (Handlová / Krickerhau) and Pomerania (Wałcz / Deutsch Krone, Goleniów / Gollnow and Maszewo / Massow).

I. Glass container, Czechia, description and photography by Karina Hoření

This object likely originated from the Harrachov / Harrachsdorf glass factory in northern Bohemia. The factory, among the oldest in Bohemia, advertises itself with slogans that disregard the fact that most of the glass workers were expelled from the factory and Czechoslovakia in general as Germans post-1945. Only a few remained in Harrachov, mainly to transfer the skills of glass-making to the new Czech inhabitants (see also: power pylon).

But the disruptions in the history of glass-making in the region are also physical. The glass factory burned down several times, the last time one night in 1946. During that night, one of the new Czech “settlers” (i.e. the newcomers who were looking for jobs and housing in the region) took the container that was stored in the sample room of the glass factory. Since then, the container has been in the possession of her family, now becoming a reminder of her as their grandmother (see also: picture).

As such, this container represents an idea of the “wild west”. This is how the early postwar period in the Borderlands (Czech pohraničí)–where most of the German-speaking communities were displaced–is referred to in the Czech popular memory as this was a time when people were just coming there and taking possession of the belongings of former German inhabitants. Also, similarly as many other stories about this period, this one is very fragmented: the motivation or feelings of their grandmother to take the container did not become a part of the family history.

Thus, this container represents one side of the resettlement process, i.e. the violence that was connected with redistribution of former German property. These stories, however, go hand in hand with stories about cooperation between former and new inhabitants, which are represented by other objects (see: skis).

II. Nativity scene, Slovakia, sketch by Katarzyna Gerula, description by Michal Korhel

After the evacuation of Germans at the end of the Second World War and their forced resettlement in its aftermath, the central Slovakian town of Handlová / Krickerhau became a town of new settlers. Due to the local mining industry, ethnic Slovaks from all around Europe came there within the post-war resettlement campaign of the Czechoslovak state. Arriving in Handlová, they took over formerly German houses. As many of them remember, those houses saw a high fluctuation of residents. While the settlers coming right after the war may have found them equipped with various objects, others arriving later report those houses were empty. 

In some cases, however, something could have been left there: object of no interest for the previous settlers. Coming to Handlová from northern Hungary after the Second World War, ​the interviewee found some German books and also a nativity scene, made of paper and wood, in the attic of her new home, previously inhabited by a German family and other settlers. First her older brothers, but later also the interviewee herself used that particular object in their own (pre)Christmas tradition: “Before Christmas me and my friends took the nativity scene and went from door to door. We had a short program prepared: one of us laid down on the ground and pretended to be asleep. Another one tried to wake him: Get up, Lord Jesus was born!, I don’t want to, let me sleep, and the people laughed. So it was fun. We sang a few Christmas songs as well and afterwards we usually got a little something as a thank you”. The interviewee and her family did not only incorporate the formerly German object into their pre-Christmas every-day life, but also the tradition that was linked with the object.

III. Picture, Slovakia, description and photography by Michal Korhel

The family of one of the interviewees found this picture in the attic of the formerly German house they moved into. As they were also religious, they decided to hang it in the kitchen. The interviewee as well as her daughter recalled sitting in the kitchen looking at that picture and talking about their life in Hungary before they moved after the Second World War as the so-called remigrants (a special category of “settlers”) to Handlová. After the interviewee’s mother died, her granddaughter (i.e. interviewee’s daughter) took the picture to her home as a memory of her grandmother (see: glass container). There were also other copies of this picture in post-1945 Handlová and one can still find them there. Sometimes people inherited the picture after their German relatives, in another case it was one of the few things left in a house after it was plundered during the postwar chaos. One other family found it just a few years ago when they bought an old house. In all of the mentioned examples the picture is still–or again–hanging on the wall. 

Originally this picture was printed in Dresden, Germany as a chromolithography at the end of the 19th century. Nowadays, its copies can be found in various parts of Europe that were formerly inhabited by Germans until the Second World War or in Germany itself. In the context of post-1945 Handlová, this picture represents an excellent example of how the formerly German objects survived there until today and were reinterpreted. Sometimes these objects could have been inherited from German ancestors. However, in other cases, the new post-war settlers through resemantization would strip those objects of their German character, give them a new meaning and incorporate them into their own culture.

IV. Bowl, Poland, description and photography by Karolina Ćwiek-Rogalska

This bowl was dug up during the gardening work in Wałcz / Deutsch Krone in Pomerania. As the interviewee has said: “Imagine that my dad was digging in the garden, I don’t know what year it was, but it must have been 1947, I don’t know exactly. I only know that it was spring and he was preparing the garden for growing vegetables, he dug up a box with such objects inside. There were platters like that, you know, oval ones, for some meat or fish. These were unusual dishes, just for certain occasions”. The bowl has served in her family to this day as a festive object and is used only for Christmas to serve nuts and sweets. 

The new settlers to Pomerania frequently encountered the objects hidden by German inhabitants who were sure they would come back at some point. Tableware and dishes were frequently dug up in the soil, as they were relatively easy to store unharmed. Devoid of their former owners, the things left behind started to be reinterpreted in new circumstances and they acquired new meanings (see: picture), as is visible in the story told by the interviewee where the bowl is a familiar object and reminds of a festive time of the year more than it does of the previous German owners. As this story proves, the stories of these things left behind start to be connected to the family members of the interviewees more than they are to expelees (see also: glass container).

V. Tiled stove, Poland, description and photography by Michal Korhel

This is the original tiled stove (as well as the pan and the measuring jug placed on the top of it) in a formerly German house in Goleniów / Gollnow, Poland, that was used by the family which moved there after the Second World War. They used it until they got a gas stove in the 1970s. The stove triggered their memories on the day when a member of the German family that used to live there came to visit. According to the Polish inhabitants, she was going through the house that she could not recognize anymore. Then she came to the kitchen and, as the interviewees recall, she started to cry. She was holding the measuring jug and she was crying. It was the same kitchen she remembered as a child. The only difference was that it was now used by a Polish family.

Interviewees in Poland, but also in Slovakia and Czechia, often mention visits of former German inhabitants decades after the war. These visits have almost exclusively a positive character. German visitors, who according to the interviewees had little courage to knock on the door and were afraid of negative reactions on the side of the new inhabitants of their former houses, were eventually thankful for the possibility to enter their former homes as well as the hospitality of their new owners. In some cases they allegedly even expressed their satisfaction with the changes made to the houses in the post-war period. However, such strongly positive narration can be very deceptive and does not completely reflect the reality. Many of the German visitors faced negative, and sometimes even violent, reactions from the post-war settlers, who were afraid of losing their newly acquired property.

VI. Power pylon, Poland, description and photography by Michal Korhel

The infrastructure left behind by Germans in the territories that were later incorporated into the newly established Polish state was damaged, but not completely destroyed. An excellent example in this matter is the electrical network. Formerly German power pylons are still in use e. g. in Western Pomerania. Despite the fact that some formerly German wooden pylons can still be found, the majority of the currently used ones are the so-called lattice pylons as presented in the photo.

Such pylons e.g. still power Maszewo / Massow, a town in West Pomeranian Voivodeship, with the local factory producing electricity meters. The factory started its production before the Second World War and in May 1945 Polish authorities took it over and continued making the same electricity meters as Germans until the early 1950s. Even though the local German speaking population was expelled and forcibly resettled, German technicians had to stay in the factory in order to ensure the necessary transfer of knowledge (see also: glass container).

VII. Skis, Czechia, description and photography by Karina Hoření

This young lady is one of the Czechs who came to the Czechoslovak Borderlands to seek a job and housing in the regions that used to be inhabited by Germans who had to leave at the end of the Second World War. She came to Harrachov / Harrachsdorf, a town located in northern Bohemia at the foot of the Krkonoše (Giant) Mountains / Riesengebirge. When the Germans had to leave, the town’s famous glass industry desperately needed a workforce and therefore even girls were hired to work as glass grinders.

People who came after the war, so called settlers, also had to explore a different landscape (see also: fruit trees). This young girl was taught how to ski or even where to go by her German friend. Some Germans could stay in Czechoslovakia mostly to pass down knowledge such as techniques of glass-making (other groups being the members of mixed marriages and antifascits, see also: glass container and power pylon), but besides that, they also passed on traditions such as local tourism or outdoor life that flourished in hilly Northern Bohemia since the 19th century. This photo, together with the story, represents one side of the new emerging cultures of resettlement, that of emancipation and cooperation, while her other story (see: glass container) represents the violence that was connected with the creation of the new society.

VIII. Fruit trees, Poland, description by Karolina Ćwiek-Rogalska and Michal Korhel, photography by Michal Korhel

Lonely fruit trees can often be found in the post-displacement regions. They are witnesses of places that used to be inhabited, but are no longer due to expulsion and resettlement. Especially the localities located near to the borders are today marked only by such trees, clearly distinguishing themselves in the landscape. As such, they often induce the feeling of uncannines, especially whenever they are found in the woods together with the conifers.

Moreover, one can find formerly German fruit trees also within the towns located in the territories incorporated into Poland after 1945. Those trees are often remains of public orchards that were destroyed in the course of the post-war urban development. Additionally, some fruit trees are still part of the backyards of formerly German houses. They are represented in the childhood memories of the second generation of settlers, who mostly recall eating fruits from those trees or climbing them. Hence, they offer a fascinating example of the transition of the German things left behind from private to public sphere.