In Silesia, Poles worry about their future once two Germanys become one country
`Man in Street' Propels German Reunification
A NEW tension has developed here in Silesia, the southwestern part of Poland, as old Polish fears of Germans and Germany have reawakened. The cause, of course, is the coming reunification of Germany, combined with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's vagueness about the German-Polish border and the Silesian-German minority's new demands for rights to their culture and language.
``The whole situation in Silesia has become destabilized,'' says Dorota Simonides, the Solidarity trade union's candidate, who last month won a hard-fought by-election to the senate against a candidate representing the German minority.
``This is our home, and we want to stay here. But everybody waits now, the bags are packed,'' says Johann Kroll, a leader among the German minority, whose son, Henryk, was the defeated senate candidate.
Upper Silesia with its capital Opole (or Oppeln, as it was called under the Germans) is a typical border area in Central Europe. During centuries of wars, it has constantly changed hands.
After World War I, Poland fought over it in three insurrections. The third struggle broke out after a referendum in which the Silesians of Opole voted to remain with Germany. Finally, the League of Nations decided the border, giving upper Silesia with its coal mines and iron and steel mills to Poland.
Nazi Germany took it back, but when Adolf Hitler was defeated in 1945, and Poland again became an independent nation, the Opole region and the great city of Breslau became Polish once more.
A total of 35,000 square miles of eastern Germany became Polish when the new German-Polish border was drawn along the Oder and Neisse rivers. At the same time, Poland had to give up 70,000 square miles of its territory in the east to the Soviet Union.
The creation of postwar Poland resulted in 3 million Germans leaving homes in what had become western Poland. In their place came millions of Poles from the areas in the east, which now belonged to the Soviet Union.
But here in the Opole region, many Silesians stayed. They felt neither German nor Polish, often speaking both languages, or a mixture of them, and their own dialect. They were loyal to their homes and the land.
With the Poles in 1945 came communism and Stalinism, and the existence of a German minority in Silesia was denied. All German traditions were banned, as was the German language.
``It was a very big mistake by the communist regimes,'' says Ms. Simonides, the victorious Solidarity senator, who is also an ethnology professor at Wroclaw University. ``Now, many claim to be German who don't even speak German, and the children don't speak the language.''
After 45 years of communist rule, Poland's Solidarity-led government has recognized the rights of the German minority. A new German association was allowed to form last month in the Opole region.
But Janusz Kroszel, the Polish director of the Silesian Institute in Opole, denies the existence of a German society here.
``We cannot even use the word minority,'' he says. ``It's a Polish society here, but with the help of revisionist and nationalist centers in West Germany, they are taking advantage of the new freedom in Poland and are trying to organize a German minority.''
As a Pole, Kroszel says he is ambivalent about German reunification. He understands the right of Germany to unite, but he's afraid it could create big problems in the future.
German minority seeks rights
Mr. Kroll was the man behind the new social and cultural association for the German minority and a petition that has been signed by 250,000 Silesians claiming to belong to the German minority. A retired farmer in the small town of Gogolin, he is tired of all the talk about borders.
``We are not interested in changing the borders,'' he states. ``We want to continue to live here peacefully, but we want our traditions and our language. We want the emigration to the West to stop and to make our young people feel that there is a future here.''
Kroll says that they were all made Polish under the communists, that all that was German was hated and had to disappear.
``And now, when we are fighting for our rights, we are attacked,'' says Kroll, whose son Henryk almost pulled off an upset in last month's by-election to the Polish senate.
``Things have worsened for us here,'' adds Frederik Petrach, chairman of the German cultural and social association in Wroclaw, formerly Breslau. ``People here are again afraid of Germany.''
Henryk Krol (unlike his father, he has not Germanized his name) won the first round, but did not receive absolute majority. In the second round, Solidarity mobilized behind candidate Simonides, who won 67 percent of the vote (258,000) against Krol's 32 percent (124,000 votes). The turnout was larger than even in last summer's regular senate elections.
``The German reunification issue came to the forefront between the two rounds, and I know it clearly helped me,'' says Simonides. ``Fear decided the vote. Suddenly, people were afraid of Germans. Suddenly, the bad memories came back of the war, the concentration camps, the SS [the Nazi special police].''
The new tensions, as a result of the expected reunification of Germany, have also had an economic impact on Silesia.
West Germans lose economic interest
Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, the Solidarity leader in Wroclaw, says he just met a German who wanted to build a hotel in the city, but who was afraid of the anti-German feelings in the region. And while last year two West German delegations visited each day, he says, now almost no one comes.
``Yes,'' says Jan Broniewicz at the technical institute in Opole, ``West German economic interest in this region has rapidly declined since East Germany opened up. And, of course, that's bad for us.''
For Wladyslaw Frasyniuk, Helmut Kohl's policy has had a lot to do with this new fear, which, he says, he and his generation do not share. He sees German reunification as something natural.
``But Kohl's policy will slow down the building of a united Europe,'' he says.
A round table of the various groups important to the region will soon meet in Opole to discuss the problems and to try to heal the new strains between the people in Silesia. For example, opportunities must be created for the German minority to learn its language, its songs, and literature, people here say. There must be a stop to the chauvinism and to the emigration to the West by creating jobs and educational opportunities to encourage the young to stay in Silesia.
``What's now happening is a tragedy for Silesia,'' says Dorota Simonides.