Once upon a time, there was a small village in the eastern part of Germany called “Stresow.” A church with a cemetery surrounding it and a pub was built in the center. Those two places were also the centre of any social life of the hard-working farmers. Since women were not allowed in the pub, they would meet after church in the cemetery during their task of taking care of the graves to visit with each other and chat. To this day, the graves are planted with flowers in German cemeteries and each family tries to have the best-looking one.
Many years went by. After WWII in 1945, the states of East Prussia, Silesia, and Pomerania, about one-third of Germany were ceded to Poland. The German inhabitants had ten minutes to get out of their homes where they had lived for generations. My own family was amongst the millions evicted, and so was the family of my cousin Joachim. With only the clothing on our back and with what we could carry, we were three weeks on the road to nowhere, slept in barns when lucky or under the stars. (the full story in my memoir “We Don’t Talk About That”)
I have never been back to my birthplace but my cousin Joachim has. Poland belongs to the EU, and visits are possible. Joachim has been back several times. He only lives about seventy kilometers away while I live on another continent. Joachim made friends with the Polish family who now lives in his father’s house. He had the most incredible experience in 2006. A friend of his Polish friend is a teacher in the neighboring town of Bad Schoenfliess. He is in charge of a museum and was happy to show Joachim two rooms dedicated to the “German Time.” There are photographs of Joachim’s family and his ancestors as well as of my parents and other families we know. Joachim was amazed.
The most significant surprise was a folder he was given with old handwritten documents, letters, and newspapers of the years from 1871 to 1896. They had been contained in a ‘Time Capsule” buried when a new church tower was built in 1896 after the old church tower had collapsed. Nobody could read any of these documents since they were written using the German Süterlin letters. Joachim was able to read them. There was a list of twenty-four farmers living in Stresow in 1871, including Joachim’s great-grandparents. Two pastors serving the small community between 1871 and 1896 had written an account of life during those years. Joachim was able to re-write the most critical documents. Photographs of the old and the new church tower were included in the time capsule.
What an exciting experience for my cousin Joachim!
The same year he had another surprise coming. In 1945, when the family was evicted and had to leave within ten minutes, his grandmother had stuffed one hundred-forty-five photos into his school satchel with a change of underwear. These photos had been picked up out of the mud after the Russian invasion. I had picked ours up from the pile of manure in the middle of our yeard. They represent the only memorabilia of our life from before 1945. During the long walk, Joachim, his grandparents, and his mother had a chance to stay in a house for two nights. Joachim and his two small sisters played with the six-year-old son Robert living there. They looked at the pictures. Joachim’s satchel was forgotten when they left, and his grandma always lamented as long as she lived about the loss of those treasured photos from home. She died and never got over the loss.
Almost sixty-one years later, the ITS, a search service connected to the Red Cross as well as churches, found Joachim’s sister Marianne. She had looked for and listed their dad’s name many years ago. Now, with the Internet, it had been possible for the previous six-year-old Robert, at sixty-seven years old, to find the family who had stayed with them in 1945. Robert had kept the photos in a box in his attic all those years. During a project to add on to his house, he came across it and started searching for the kids he had played with in 1945.
Joachim phoned Robert and made a reservation to visit the next day. The newspaper in Joachim’s hometown got hold of the story, and I have in my hands a copy of the one-third page with a photo of my cousin holding a photograph of himself and his two sisters. A large one at the bottom is of ten men, the artistic biking club with Joachim’s father and uncle in their sports uniform. Needless to say, Joachim in his eighties and the former little Robert in his late sixties, are now close friends.
Joachim exclaimed when he first related this story to me:
“You cannot pay for something like this. To get your lost treasure back after sixty years is absolutely miraculous.”