The horrors of Second World War concerned all people equally, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, and religious convictions. Until today, despite the changing times and tables being turned in politics, a veil of silence covers the fate of many German prisoners being held captive in concentration camps established by their fellow countrymen; so does it cover the fate of Silesian people – a culturally unique ethnical group which currently inhabits the region of Upper Silesia mostly (both on the Polish and on the Czech side of the border), and which I am proud to represent. Their fortunes, however, will be discussed separately in the further part of the lecture.
First, I would like to briefly outline the reasons for which Germans were transported to Auschwitz as prisoners. Actually, the very first transport to Auschwitz partially consisted of German prisoners transferred from Sachsenhausen concentration camp, imprisoned due to repetitive criminal activity. Basically, for them, Auschwitz was supposed to serve as top security prison and labour camp. In the following years, German petty criminals from the neighbouring areas would be incarcerated in Auschwitz like in a typical prison and assigned various everyday tasks, such as cleaning or cooking. For instance, a member of my family from Rybnik (currently the same name of the city is used) was sent to Auschwitz for tax offenses. He spent six months there and worked as a cook. Despite the obvious dangers, he smuggled butter from the kitchen and distributed it among the fellow inmates who worked in other facilities. After serving the penalty, he was released home. Until his death, he claimed that he had not been aware of the existence of gas chambers and that the events taking place at Block 11 were known to him and his fellow petty crime prisoners only from rumours. Of course, Germans would end up in Auschwitz for other reasons, too. These included: political treason, race treason, any forms of opposing the Reich and the Fuehrer, religious convictions, and homosexuality. Staff members would be punished in case of being suspected of collaboration with prisoners. Needless to say, despite the incomplete knowledge about the camp which numerous German inmates showed, letters which they sent to their families were censored as it happened in the case of all prisoners.
Now I would like to discuss the Silesian question in the light of the events of the Second World War. The Second World War resulted to be especially cruel for Silesians. Since the Gleiwitz incident, a false flag operation performed as part of Operation Himmler and serving as a pretext to invade Poland, the warfare in Silesia could be observed in two forms: a regular fight against the Polish army and resistance groups in Silesian cities (the Nazis dominated in about three days) and murdering the participants of Silesian uprisings, pro-Polish politicians, journalists, priests, etc. Thus, until 1945, Silesia became a part of the Third Reich and its citizens were enrolled in the Volkslist and divided into four categories: I, II - "well-earned Germans", III - "possible to Germanize" (actually, the concept of "the Silesian nation" was mentioned in this category), IV - "Polonized Germans".
Unfortunately, the fate of Silesia after being "released" by the Red Army in 1945 resulted to be dramatic. Soviet Polish authorities, in cooperation with the Soviet Armed Forces, performed ethnic cleansing in Silesia. Silesians regarded as Germans were deported west of the Oder and the Lusatian Neisse. Many, considered "politically unclear", were murdered or placed in specially constructed concentration camps (e.g. Świętochłowice-Zgoda, Jaworzno in the area of former KL Auschwitz-Birkenau). The purpose was to weaken and eliminate especially aristocracy and intelligentsia. Later, the Soviet times were decades of ridiculing the Silesian identity and ethnolect.
Despite being forced for years to view the so-called “liberation” by the Red Army as a positive series of events, for Silesians it was just a prelude to years of more blood being spilled. The Soviets eliminated physically just anything that was related to pre-War Silesian or German culture in any sense. Of course, for historical reasons, the ties between Silesia and widely understood Germania have always been indissoluble. Not only did the Soviet soldiers kill, rape and steal, but they also burnt historical monuments to the ground. The most famous example of Soviet destruction is plundering and burning Schloss Neudeck (current name of the location: Świerklaniec) in 1945. The exceptional palace, often called “Little Versailles”, was erected by Prince Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck as a gift for his wife and designed by Hector Lefuel, the royal court architect of Napoleon III. The remains of the palace were demolished in 1962, despite the lack of permission by the art conservator. In the meantime between burning in 1945 and complete demolition in 1962, fragments of the palace complex were gradually removed and served as fragments of new constructions, endorsed by the Soviet government. For example, pieces of marble and stone were used to construct the Palace of Zagłębie Culture in Dąbrowa Górnicza; two lion sculptures were moved from the palace park to Zabrze (former Hindenburg), where they were situated at the entrance to the city park; finally, the palace entrance gate was transferred to Chorzów (former Königshütte) and became the entrance gate to Silesian Park. The remaining parts of the palace complex include: the church with the family tomb, Emanuel Fremiet’s bas-reliefs, fountains and pools, and terraces, as well the so-called Kavaliershaus, a smaller palace built for the emperor William II, who would visit Neudeck for hunting.
Civilians were subjected to the Red Army’s terror as well. Until today, most Silesian families tell stories about how their family houses were turned into temporary “bases” for Soviet soldiers. My family house, located in Ridultau (currently: Rydułtowy), was used by them in winter 1945, for a few weeks. At that time, my great-grandmother was alone with her two daughters. My great-grandfather was a German soldier, forced to enter the army under the threat of death due to treason (my whole family, including both my mother’s and my father’s ancestors, were classified as “well-earned Germans”, so any forms of rebellion against the Third Reich would be severely punished). He escaped the Rybnik frontline, being worried about his family’s fate. It took him days to reach home. In the meantime, the Soviet soldiers took over our house and forced my great-grandmother, my grandmother (aged 7 then) and her sister (aged 15) to live in a barn. Fortunately, our barn and the neighbor’s one were connected, so he could pass food and fresh water to my family. However, food was not the greatest worries of all; the soldiers repeatedly tried to rape my aunt. Our neighbor drilled a small passage between the barns, so that she could hide in safety. When my great-grandfather came back home, still wearing his German uniform, the soldiers put a bag on his head in front of his wife and children, intending to execute him. Incredibly, he was spared. The soldiers ultimately left, having exploited the house and the food supplies. One of the most famous stories among Silesians is that Soviet soldiers had no idea what a toilet was and used it to wash their hands and potatoes.
However, this was not the end of my grandmother’s horror. Having no idea about Poland and Polish language, she had to attend a Polish school, where she and other Silesian or German children were beaten and insulted as “German pigs”. Usually, Polish was taught by people repatriated from the east whose main idea was “spreading culture in Silesia”. The so-called “culture” was nothing but terror and ethnic cleansing.
To wipe out as much Silesian history as possible, the Soviet government carried out secret executions of Silesian Uprisings soldiers, even the ones who fought for Poland. After abolishing communism in 1989, a memorial plaque in their memory was placed in Katowice. Sadly, the current Law and Justice local government made a decision to remove it, which was noticed by my grandmother’s friend, an insurgent’s daughter.
To conclude, I wish to tell one of the stories which my great-grandmother, born in Laurahütte (currently: Siemianowice), who lived in Kattowitz (currently: Katowice) told me. Before the war, she had a Jewish friend who traded fabric. As the war was approaching and the anti-Jewish current was growing stronger, she, being a tolerant and caring person, became one of his few customers. One day, after the outbreak, he knocked on her door, begging her to store his goods until he was able to return. He did not want to reveal why and where he wanted to escape. My great-grandmother, fearing for her life, refused to keep the goods. The merchant disappeared, never to be seen again, although rumor said that he had been executed in Auschwitz. My great-grandmother regretted her refusal until her final breath. A few days before her death, when her condition worsened so much that she was only able to utter simple sentences in her first language – German – she told me:
“richtig wollte ich diesem Kaufmann helfen”, which translates to
“I really wanted to help this merchant”.
These are the stories which are not to be found in most history textbooks, simply because they are too inconvenient for many. Misery knows no limits and can concern anyone, regardless of age, nationality, gender, and other factors. I hope that you will carry the knowledge you have just earned with you.