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Germany

New Generation Diffuses Tension Around Wartime Expulsions

Impatient with politicians' ongoing beef over this dark chapter in German-Polish history, a group of students is offering tours of western Poland designed to help war-time expellees come to terms with their past.

A boy buries his head in his hands outside the ruins of a house

Confronting memories

The debate on whether or not to open an center for expellees in Berlin has been raging for over three years. With Warsaw convinced that Germany wants to brush its wartime atrocities under the carpet by portraying itself as a victim, the issue has long been a strain on German-Polish relations.

Now a group of students at Viadrina University on the German-Polish border are doing their bit to cool down those simmering hostilities.

By organizing individual trips for German expellees to western Poland, they hope to shift the focus from the political to the personal.

Shocking stories

Albert Beil from Wiesbaden was one of their early clients. After hearing about the project, he and his three brothers and sisters went with a personal tour guide to the former forestry office in Lemritz -- which used to be German Neumark before it was transferred to Poland in 1945 -- where his grandfather worked until he was deported at the end of the war.

"The family of foresters who live there now gave us a very warm welcome," he said. "We looked at old photographs and talked about the past. I was shocked to hear about what happened to this Polish family. They were forced to flee from Lemberg in what's now the Ukraine. The Germans were expelled from what is today western Poland, but then the same fate awaited the next people who came."

Improved understanding

Lvov's town square

Today, Lemberg is called Lvov

Albert Beil's visit was planned by Mateusz Hartwig, a 27-year-old Polish PhD student at Viadrina University. It was he who contacted the Polish family and asked if they would be willing to receive a visit from Albert Beil.

Hartwig teamed up with another eleven students one year ago to set up the German-Polish service in order to help people find out more about their personal histories. They hope the initiative might bring about improved understanding of the thorny issue of expellees.

"We at Viadrina University wanted to illustrate the personal aspect to history," said Hartwig. "What we do is set up meetings with eyewitnesses which allow people to talk on a very individual, human level about the expulsions and how people picked up the threads of their lives."

Cultural sensitivities

EU flag and Polish border crossing

German-Polish relations are fraught

So far, fourteen individually tailored trips have been organized, all customized to the personal interests of the travelers. Respective sensitivities are such that setting up appointments can be a cultural minefield. Tour guides are expected to be fluent in both German and Polish and to specialize in particular regions.

Juliane Tomann from Dresden is an expert on Silesia, from where her grandfather was expelled after the war. "I talked to him a lot when we were developing the project, and he told me a lot about his experiences," she said. "He drove to his former home a couple of times and met and chatted with people there. It helps expellees explore their past and reach a sense of inner peace."

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