A Somber Homecoming: Polish WW2 Expellees Revisit Former Homes in Ukraine

By Jan Puhl

Many Poles were displaced from their homes in what is now Ukraine in the turmoil after the end of World War II. Now the elderly expellees are traveling east to revisit their old homes -- and are often saddened by what they find.

In this July 2003 file photo, Poles and Ukrainians hold up their national flags at a ceremony commemorating World War II massacres in the village of Pavlivka, about 30 km east of the Polish border in western Ukraine. Many Poles were expelled from western Ukraine after World War II, just as Germans were forced out of Poland.
AP

In this July 2003 file photo, Poles and Ukrainians hold up their national flags at a ceremony commemorating World War II massacres in the village of Pavlivka, about 30 km east of the Polish border in western Ukraine. Many Poles were expelled from western Ukraine after World War II, just as Germans were forced out of Poland.

A summer downpour explodes over the Ukrainian town of Nadvirna, but Zbigniev Deptula doesn't even notice the rain. He is so excited that he has removed his rain poncho, his hands pulling at the plastic as he runs through the muddy puddles along the roadside.

"There's the church," he says excitedly. "It's still there. We're very close now." He strains his eyes to find the landmarks of his childhood, but everything looks very different today compared with 60 years ago. The once-meandering brook has been straightened and lined with concrete, there are now houses where there were once fields, and the street names have changed.

Deptula was born here in 1935, when Nadvirna was still called Nadvórna, and Galicia, the area surrounding the city of Lviv (formerly known as Lemberg), was part of Poland. In 1945, he and his mother were forced to abandon their house within a few hours. This is Deptula's first visit to his childhood home.

"That's it, that's the house of my parents," he says, pointing to a red, two-story wooden building with small lattice windows and simple ornamental carving along the edges of the flat roof. "Typical Polish architecture," he explains. "There used to be a veranda in the back."

The old man hurries through the garden of his childhood, now paved over in concrete. "This is where the well was. They blocked it up." He looks around nervously and continues his story. "We were standing on the veranda when we saw a German run by. They shot him in the back." Deptula, now 72, clutches his stomach and back, mimicking the soldier's fall.

Deptula was 10 years old when he witnessed the Red Army chasing the Germans out of what is now Ukraine, and then forcing the Poles westward. He wants to know who lives here today. Does anyone remember the Poles, his mother, perhaps even him?

He rings the doorbell, but no one is home. A hunched-over elderly woman calls out to him from the garden next door. Deptula addresses her in Polish. No, she says, she doesn't remember the family. She hasn't been living here long enough.

She accompanies Deptula as he walks down the street to another house. Another old woman opens the door. "Deptula?" No, the name means nothing to her. But she does remember the Czerkavskis who lived two doors down -- well, "maybe," she says.

Deptula's gaunt face freezes for a moment. It has taken him more than 60 years to return home. "I remember everything very clearly," he insists, and yet the Poland of his childhood has vanished, even from the minds of the elderly. "I will go to the church tomorrow to pray," says Deptula.

Back from Exile

Deptula is an exile. After World War II, Russian dictator Josef Stalin had his troops drive more than two million Poles out of Poland's former eastern regions. Most of them were resettled in formerly German territory that went to Poland, because Stalin had appropriated close to half of Polish territory. Deptula himself spent most of his life in Silesia. Today he lives in Biala, once known as Zülz when it was part of Germany.

It was in Biala that Deptula watched the first visitors from West Germany return to the houses of their childhood in the 1980s. Now Deptula himself is a nostalgia tourist seeking to rediscover his own childhood home.

While the German exiles quickly organized into clubs and began lobbying work in West Germany after the war, their Polish counterparts have only gradually felt their way back into the past.

The borders of Poland and Ukraine shifted dramatically after the end of World War II.
SPIEGEL ONLINE

The borders of Poland and Ukraine shifted dramatically after the end of World War II.

Deptula has traveled to Ukraine with a group of Polish exiles. Their bus has now reached Ivano-Frankivsk, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Nadvirna. It's pouring outside, and so the group's tour through the town, once known as Stanislawów when it was Polish, ends in a local pub after half an hour. The vodka flows freely, with the Ukrainians selling it in 100-gram (3.5-ounce) glasses, a holdover from the country's socialist past. One of the tourists picks up a guitar and starts playing Polish tunes, loud and sad at the same time. Deptula doesn't like it. Since his wife died three years ago, he has stopped drinking and keeps to himself.

But Jan Dolny feels completely at home in the crowd. It's the 63-year-old's first time in Ukraine. Born in Prudnik in what is now Poland, a Silesian town formerly called Neustadt, he has been living in Hamburg for close to 50 years now. Anyone who is involved in German-Polish reconciliation is likely to know who Dolny is. A retired dockworker, he has spent decades promoting understanding between the two peoples. He has often accompanied German exiles to Prudnik and arranged meetings with its Polish residents. He has witnessed mistrust gradually give way to cautious friendship.

Now Dolny himself is surprised. "The Poles here are experiencing the same thing that the Germans who were displaced from their homes in Silesia went through a few years ago -- and they're behaving exactly the same way."

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