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Germany

Many Descendents of Expellees Reject Traditional Point of View

A generation gap exists between Germans expelled from Eastern Europe after World War II and their grandchildren. Many young people reject their elders' political claims for compensation but embrace their cultural roots.

Two men take part in the traditional Sudeten Germans Day in Augsburg

Many young people see things differently

There is likely to be a generational divide when German expellees and their families commemorate Tag der Heimat or Day of the Homeland on Saturday.

Represented in large part by the League of German Expellees (BdV), a controversial group that lobbies and seeks compensation for ethnic Germans and their descendants, the aging expellees themselves reflect on the injustices that occurred as the Third Reich crumbled and millions of ethnic Germans were expelled from their homelands in Eastern Europe. Younger people, on the other hand, said they will be paying more attention to their cultural heritage.

Leaving controversy behind

Two young Sudeten girls with their mother

Can expellee groups keep young people interested?

For 17-year-old Veronika Moll, the day of remembrance is not about international relations but about dancing. Moll, a high school student in Munich, is part of a Silesian folk dancing group that performs at events like Tag der Heimat, as well as at her hometown's famous Oktoberfest. She also takes part in conferences about expellee issues and other cultural activities.

Both of Moll's grandmothers were expelled from Silesia, in southwestern Poland, at the end of World War II. While some people of the older generation feel Silesia belongs to them, Moll said she doesn't feel that way at all. Although she still feels special ties to Silesia, Munich is home.

"It's simply not the situation that you can go back to Silesia," she said. "It's too long ago. It's important to not forget the history and to make sure that everyone knows what happened and that an injustice occurred. But you can't displace all of the Polish or other people who have lived in these houses or on this land for 60 years."

Youth groups focus on future

Sudeten women in traditional costume

The average age for many groups is getting older

This type of attitude is typical among the descendants of expellees, said Thomas Hoffmann, who heads the organization German Youth in Europe. While the first generation of expellees dreamed of returning home, their grandchildren are uninterested in going back, Hoffmann said.

The first part of German Youth in Europe's harkens back to its foundation in 1951 as a group to fight for the rights of German expellee youths. Over the years it has evolved into a more progressive organization which promotes reconciliation and integration. The group has approximately 90,000 members.

Janna Keberlein, a member of the youth organization and 28-year-old student at the University of Düsseldorf, said that while her ethnic German grandparents still get angry about being deported from the Volga region to Kazakhstan during the war, she thinks the issue needs to be closed.

"Young people don't have to be drawn into this history of suffering," the 28-year-old Düsseldorf University student said, adding that she has no interest in being politically involved in the League of German Expellees (BdV).

A taboo subject

Yearly Easter celebrations in Silesia

The Silesian traditions remain important to some youth

For many young people, the BdV focuses too much on the past, a fact seen in the graying of the organization, said Alfred de Zayas, a leading scholar on Germen expellees. When he gives talks to expellee groups, the average age is usually 60, he said.

De Zayas served for years as a lawyer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. He is currently a professor of international law at the Geneva School of Diplomacy. He wrote the first scholarly work on German expellees to appear in English, breaking what had long been a taboo topic.

The post-war expulsions were the largest forced movement of Europeans in the 20th century. Historians estimate that between 12 and 15 million people were expelled during the forced migrations.

Finding an interest in cultural heritage

Displaced people after World War II head West

Expellees on the road to Germany

De Zayas' books have been controversial in Germany because he feels expellees have legal rights to reclaim lost property. But that's a claim he said he doubts younger generations will pursue as most are simply not interested in the debate's political dimensions.

Instead young people from expellee backgrounds are only just now becoming interested in their cultural heritage to find out more about themselves, de Zayas said, adding that he expects that interest to grow.

"It's important for your identity that you know where you come from," de Zayas said. "It's a peaceful activity. That's a good thing, and I'm persuaded that will happen."

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