Unlike other academics, this particular English professor does not usually travel for her research. Oh yes, I have travelled to attend conferences or to give talks (let me name the countries: Jamaica, Cuba, Puerto Rico & Hawaii and other parts of the USA, the Czech Republic, Germany, Spain, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, all over Canada—and more). But my basic research has not required me to travel. Many of my colleagues work in British literature and travel to England to conduct research. Others are searching in archives here in Canada and abroad. But I do not need to go away to do research. My work is on the literature of my own country, and generally focused on the present or the recent past.
You will recall, gentle reader, that I have been researching my mother’s childhood and her experience as a refugee during WWII. She was one of the millions of people who either fled Pomerania and other German territories in the East in advance of the Russian occupation or were forcibly removed from their homes when the territories transitioned to Poland. I have known this story all my life, but only in my middle age and towards the end of my professional academic career (well, I’m not done yet, but I’m getting used to the thought of retirement) have I taken up this story as a research subject. And for the most part I have done what I have always done: I read. I read books, journal articles, and periodicals. I scoured the Internet. I watched movies and documentaries. I pored over maps. I read and read and read some more. But I did not move from my office, my computer, my reading chair, my desk.
While on sabbatical in Europe I went to Kępice, the Polish name of the village where my mother was born and where she spent the first eleven years of her life. To her it was Hammermühle, and it was home. I did not know I would be able to visit the place, but then an extraordinary circumstance made it feasible. My friend and colleague (let’s call her Sylvia) happened also to be on sabbatical and in Poland at the same time that I was in Zagreb. We determined that there were three days when our schedules overlapped and that a trip that we had talked about long ago could happen. So we booked it. I flew to Gdansk, met Sylvia at the airport the next morning, and then we travelled by train first to Słupsk (formerly Stolp) and then by a very rickety local train on to Kępice.
I cannot say strongly or often enough how grateful I am to my companion on this journey. Her fluent Polish and unwavering graciousness opened many doors for me/us. I don’t speak a word of Polish (well, I know a couple of words now) so without her I would have been wandering around not really knowing what I was looking at and gaining no significant information about the history of families, including my own, in that place when it was part of Germany.
So what did we find? Enough for another essay, which I will write this summer. But the most amazing and heartening discovery was the fact that the local Poles had gone quite a way towards not just acknowledging the history of Germans in Kępice but honouring that history. This monument speaks volumes.
It was in the “old German cemetery” behind the church, which our landlady had told us about as we ate her excellent food. There was only one restaurant in Kępice; luckily it was a good one. She listened to why we were there (Kępice is hardly a tourist destination) and felt moved to try and help us. The doors began to open with her. But she did not mention this monument. It was erected in 1999 to acknowledge the shared history of Poles and Germans in the village. It is placed at the back of the cemetery in the very centre. The graves themselves are overgrown, and only a few headstones still had discernable inscriptions on them. The most common headstones seemed to have the names and dates, etc. written on ceramic or porcelain plates attached to the stones. These were missing from all of the headstones we could see. But look closely. At the base of the monument are fragments of those plates, now set in another stone. Were they broken deliberately? Were the names and the general presence of Germans deliberately effaced? Perhaps. But the people today have collected whatever fragments remained and have ensured their survival. Traces of the past. Traces of people “aus Hammermühle.”