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Culture

Explaining the Expellee Experience

After World War II, Germans were expelled from eastern Europe and sent to a divided Germany. A new exhibition in Bonn recounts their stories and lets expellees share their memories.

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Expellees arriving from Poland in Germany in 1950

Emma Schukies clearly remembers her flight from Lithuania.

"I came down the entire Baltic Sea coastline," she recounted in a video documentary that forms part of the new exhibition in Bonn. "For 14 days, I traveled by train or car -- sometimes soldiers gave me a ride."

Schukies is one of about 12 million people, who had to leave their homeland after World War II. Their fate is now the focus of an exhibition called "Flight, Expulsion, Integration" at Bonn's House of History.

The timing couldn't be better. Just last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Poland to stress the positive working relationship with Germany's neighbor following heated discussions over establishing a center for German expellees. The exhibit is part of a nation-wide effort to raise awareness -- both at home and abroad -- of the fate of millions of refugees in the aftermath of World War II.

Ausstellung Flucht Vertreibung Integration in Bonn

A chest used by expellees to transport personal goods

The show, which is designed to travel to Berlin and Leipzig after Bonn, opens by presenting the sheer dimension of the post-war expulsions -- the largest forced movement of Europeans in the 20th century. Pictures and slides show people traveling on foot while carrying their luggage on their backs or being transported in crowded trains.

While the first part of the exhibition looks at their journey across Europe from the furthest corners of Eastern Europe -- Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Ukraine and Russia to various relocation centers in East and West Germany -- the main area of the exhibition tells the story of arrival in their new home. To help "experience" the situation, museum visitors enter a former barrack where expellees were housed. Its primative outfittings consisting of a wooden bed, closet and a simple stove make vivid the hardship the refugees faced upon arriving in Germany.

Pictures also help to document life in the expellee camps; and items such as a communion dress made out of gauze bandages give an idea of how people desperately clung to tradition during times of need.

East vs. West

Ausstellung Flucht Vertreibung Integration in Bonn

Expellees were called "Umsiedler," or re-settlers, in East Germany

The exhibit also draws attention to the contrasting plight of expellees in the East and West. In communist East Germany, expellees, who were called "re-settlers" in an effort to de-politize the nature of their plight, found it impossible to keep memories of their fate alive, said Petra Wohlfahrt, who works at the museum. The government avoided addressing the contentious issue and liturature and other art that looked critically at the subject was shunned.

Only after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 were researchers able to retrace these stories. "People breathed a sigh of relief in the former East Germany, because they were finally able to talk about it again," she explained.

Ausstellung Flucht Vertreibung Integration in Bonn

"Divided into three? Never!" reads the poster

In West Germany, expellee associations, such as those representing Sudeten Germans and Volga Germans, formed much earlier and continue to voice their political demands to this day.

The exhibition tries to look at this complicated situation from different angles. While conflicts between various groups usually make headlines, the exhibition's organizers were trying to focus on cooperations instead, said Hans-Joachim Westholt, who curated the show.

Questio n s about the prese nt

But the exhibition does not only recount the past. It also includes present-day documents, such as posters advertising literary competitions around expellee topics or plays that deal with the issue.

Videos like the one with Schukies also help to give visitors a more concrete idea of the expulsion experience.

"You can 'ask' witnesses about various things such as their origin, their past, their departure, flight and expulsion," Westholt said. "These people accompany you during your visit and you can enter the present with them, asking them things like how they discuss their history with their grandchildren and how they feel about it today."

Flüchtlinge im Sudan warten auf Essensausgabe

Sudanese refugees waiting for food

The exhibition also makes clear that expulsions didn't end in 1945 and are not exclusive to post-war Europe. Juxtaposed to the pictures of German expellees are images taken in refugee camps in Afghanistan and Africa and Central America.

The exhibitio n ru n s u n til April 17, 2006.

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