Why go to Poland?
In the summer of 2018 we decided to travel to Poland – or rather Nathalie’s parents gave us a lift. The main reason for this trip was to visit Nathalie’s grandmothers, both on her mother’s side, who just celebrated her 80th birthday, and on her father’s side. In addition, the trip was great for me to do my own research about my family’s past. Although my grandfather with the surname “Lang” had always lived in Germany (and had no small family here either with 17 siblings), my grandmother originally came from Poland – from the town of Hindenburg. At least that was the name of this place between 1916 and 1946, before and after that it is still called Zabrze (pronounced approximately “Sabsche”). Zabrze is a somewhat larger town near Katowice, in Upper Silesia in the southwest of Poland. Strangely enough, it is the same place where Nathalie’s maternal grandmother lives today. Unfortunately, my grandmother has passed away in the meantime, but I got more detailed information about the former home through my aunt and my grandmother’s sister, such as the name of the street as it was called when the region belonged to Germany and which buildings could be seen in the vicinity. So we wanted to take the opportunity to do our own research about the past of my family.
Before the journey really started, Nathalie and I went to her parents in Hagen a few days before. There we did some small hikes and took a pedal boat on the Hengsteysee. Afterwards we drove to Poland together with Nathalie’s parents in the car. There is not much to tell about the 10 hours drive. Here and there there was some traffic jam, sometimes a few inconsiderate drivers, but all in all a rather boring but quiet drive.
Arriving in Zabrze we had dinner at the grandmother’s house and talked a lot – well, at least if I could join in the conversation at all, because of course we only spoke in Polish and I just nodded off most of it.
The following days we looked around the city. It’s not surprising that the city doesn’t look much different than most German cities you know. We only noticed a few quite grey houses and abandoned playgrounds, which exerted a fascination of abandonment and decay on us ^^’
Apart from normal supermarkets like Lidl, which you also know from Germany, there were many (and I mean really very many) very small supermarkets, which are either Żabka (engl. “little frog”) or Biedronka (engl. “little ladybird”). They were practically at every corner of the house, often only 50 meters apart. Some of them were even open around the clock and every day. That amazed me very much, because of course in Germany there were always certain opening hours and days off. I quickly made friends with the “national drink” of Poland (no, not vodka) – the juice of the variety Jabłko Mięta from the Tymbark company. Jabłko Mięta is simply translated apple-mint and is sold in every shop besides alcohol and soft drinks. The freshness of mint in the apple juice must have been so appealing to me because it fits perfectly into the warm summertime. Furthermore we went for a walk in a nearby park, where there were big lion statues at the entrance. In the park itself we saw people walking their pets… including a girl who was in the park with her rabbits on a leash.
One day we set out to find the former home of my grandma’s family. For this we had a street name and some information about prominent buildings in the immediate vicinity. On foot we arrived in less than half an hour in this part of town. There was, as we were correctly described, the St. Joseph’s Church. This one has a somewhat strange construction, unlike other churches, as it is made of one big block and has many small archways at the front and a small cross at the upper part of the building. Right beside it there was also a building that probably did not exist at that time: a huge football stadium. The football club of Zabrze, Górnik Zabrze, had fought its way up to one of the biggest football clubs in Poland during the last years and decades. We walked all the streets in the area and asked some passers-by if they knew our address, but we did not find the house as such. This was partly because we only had one address with German street names, but here all streets were renamed into Polish after the Second World War, but also because of the change in the infrastructure. We could make out the actual street, but many buildings seemed to have been newly built, renovated or changed. So it was practically impossible to find the old house from that time, but one could probably not expect much either. After all, the city has changed a lot in the last 70 years or so. At least we could identify several houses from the pre-war period. In the end, one of them was probably the right one, even if we still don’t know which one. But it was interesting to discover real places from oral descriptions alone.
Still, not everything was peace, joy, pancakes. One noticed that as a German (or generally as a foreigner) one is not exactly welcomed with open arms here. Basically, if you have a car with German license plates, you should only use garages or supervised parking spaces, it is best not to speak German when passing passers-by and the prices in museums or other attractions have increased many times over if the tours were to be held in German or English. This also led to the fact that we did not take a tour in the Coal Mine Museum Guido in Zabrze, because it was offered either only at irregular times or too much at expensive prices. Nevertheless, in order to bring a souvenir also from here, I bought a piece of coal soap (really a piece of soap, but it looks black like a piece of coal).
While we still stayed overnight in Zabrze, we drove the rest of the days to three other places: to Auschwitz via Tychy, to the cultural city and former capital Krakow and to the salt mine in Wieliczka, which is also near Krakow.