As a contribution towards the 8th competition of the Bathory Foundation and the KARTA Centre under the title "Disputed Remembrance of the Past – Memorials, Cemeteries, Name Patrons", Przemysław Oszczypała, a young man from Osowiec, excavated tombstones and interviewed contemporary witnesses to reconstruct the history of a German Protestant cemetery that was destroyed in 1973. He managed to overcome the opposition of the villagers against his extraordinary project and to win their support.
The History of the Village
Osowo is a small village in the district of Złotów in northern Great Poland. Historical sources first mention it in 1591, under the name of Ostrogora, and then again in 1653 as Ossowka. The village belonged to the Złotów estates and comprised of five Hufe (ancient square measure, equals about 10 hectares) in the 17th century, which were divided among nine peasants. In 1764, eight more Hufe of the deserted estate of Wymyslowo were added, which does not exist any more today. When noble estates and peasant land were separated in 1827, a colony was founded on a separate piece of land where almost exclusively Germans settled. At Osowiec, as the colony was called, the population became more and more polonised as the years went by. When, starting from 1925, there were growing efforts to replace Polish place names by German ones, the village of Osowo was renamed Aspenau. Up to 1939, it was exclusively inhabited by Germans. When the entire area came under Polish administration after the Second World War, the long-time inhabitants left the village, their places were taken over by settlers form nearby Osowiec.
The history of Osowo is closely connected to the fate of the German evangelical-Lutheran cemetery. It is an example of the extent to which Protestant tombs have been destroyed. A drive through the village reveals no traces of any ancient graves. It is also difficult to find any written evidence of the existence of an ancient cemetery.
The only documents preserved are a map of the cemetery produced by the Department for Memorial Protection of the Vojevodstvo of Poznań /sub-department of Piła [Schneidemühl] and a topographical map dating from pre-war times. No mention could be found in German historical literature. But even the documents mentioned do not provide any precise information. The map (see Document 1: topographical map) only shows that the cemetery was situated in the southern part of the village, and the map of the cemetery (see Document 2) merely indicates the date of foundation (in the middle of the 19th century) and its division into alleys and quarters; all other columns indicate "information not available". When the document was prepared, the cemetery had already disappeared.
Therefore, other sources had to be tapped to gain information on the history of the cemetery. Here the memories of those who had known the cemetery in pre-war times and who also knew its later history proved to be invaluable. Although those persons were hesitant to speak about the cemetery's difficult history, it was possible to collect relevant information from them. The truth emerged out of a fog of secrets and taboos, and it became clearer how the traces of the Germans had been eradicated, who had been living in these areas together with the Polish population for many centuries. The relentless devastation of the graves the Germans had left behind was part of this.
The Golden Age
From the beginning, the history of the cemetery at Osowo was full of surprises. The cemetery map shows that it was founded in the middle of the 19th century. Older inhabitants remembered their grandparents telling them that most of the earlier graves were children's graves. One of the reports mentions the year 1852, when a "pestilence" is said to have haunted the village, claiming the deaths of many. This may have been the reason for founding the old cemetery. The history of the Złotów region includes reports of cholera epidemics raging in the first half of the 19th century; however it is not mentioned whether they reached Osowo.
In later years, Protestants were buried at the cemetery; their share in the population of the village and its surroundings amounted to about 80%. The next period with a raised mortality was the First World War. At that time, most of those who died were German soldiers. According to the reports of the oldest inhabitants, there graves had only simple borders made from concrete; in most cases there were no names.
In the beginning of the 20th century the entire cemetery was surrounded by a white wooden fence held by concrete posts. At the entrance three huge concrete pillars with chamfered crosses stood in front of an alley of ancient trees. Between them the entrance gate and the entrance door were situated. Most graves lay on the right hand side of the alley. On the left hand side there were only a few small graves with concrete borders which were still called umfasungi (from German Umfassung = border) by the older people. Those who can still remember the cemetery from the 1930ies describe that, when you entered the cemetery from the main gate, you could not help admiring the beautiful black marble tombstones with their engraved gilded letters.
All inscriptions – the epitaphs and the data of the deceased – were written in gothic letters, i.e. in Fraktur script or, as it was also called, in "German" letters. Besides the particulars of the deceased, each tombstone had a religious quotation or a verse from the New Testament. The marble tombstones were situated in the first two rows on the right hand side of the entrance. Three or four of them – here the accounts contradict each other – were surrounded by low wrought-iron fences. These were about one meter high and enclosed an area "the size of a small room" (as one of the oldest inhabitants of the village, who had come there as a forced labourer during the war, described it). Most decorations were gilded flowers of all kinds. Each of the low fences had one or two lockable doors with one or two wings; all doors opened to the inside towards a marble tombstone surrounded by flowers and a bench for visitors. Two thujae grew next to the largest and most beautiful tomb; they are still there and have now reached a height of about three meters.
The "poorer" graves were situated in the back rows. Their grave stones were made of sandstone, but they were also beautifully decorated. As the marble tombstones, they had quotations from the Holy Script engraved in "Germanic" letters. Each grave was crowned by a cross which was in most cases fixed to a marble plinth. Further into the interior of the cemetery, the graves became less well-tended and plainer (metal crosses with the particulars of the deceased engraved or decorated concrete borders). Most probably, the earliest dead were buried there while the later graves were situated closer to the entrance.
The oldest inhabitants still remember those buried here last. There was a man who died shortly before the end of the Second World War and a young girl "of good family" whose funeral procession was followed by a great number of people (unfortunately, both names are unknown). Some people claim that there had been burials at the Osowo cemetery even after the war; however, these seem to have taken place without the presence of a pastor, and there was only one bunch of flowers put on the grave mound.
The History of the Destruction
After the Second World War the cemetery, which was then one hundred years old, was left to dilapidation. The farmsteads of the Germans, who had left in great haste, were taken over by Poles from the surroundings. The Germans took a small bag of earth with them when they fled, and some of them asked Poles who they trusted to look after the graves of their families. The Poles knew their predecessors well and some kept in contact with them for a long time. But there were others who had moved in from faraway regions of Poland, and they hated the Germans and wanted to take revenge for the injustice they had endured. Conflicts arose. While the old-established inhabitants kept their promises and looked after the German graves, the newcomers called them names and even threatened to report them for collaboration with the Germans – an accusation that was very much dreaded.
Consequently, the graves were soon neglected, and the cemetery fell into oblivion. First of all, the fence was removed. The concrete pillars were pulled out and used for other fences (some of them are still there). In a similar way, the wooden poles were used for farm fences. The destruction of the tombstones started in the 1950ies and 1960ies. The marble tombstones were stolen first, most probably by stone masons. As the marble slabs were unusually thick, they could be ground off and cut into several memorial slabs to be sold. The reports indicate that some people made good business in this way.
Later on, the tumbled down graveyard became the playground of the new post-war generation. There they built their hide-outs, but there were also competitions for the most beautiful "flower garden" (that was what the tombs with the wrought-iron fences were called). The place was weeded, flowers were planted, and on All-Souls-Day candles were lit. However, this period of looking after the old graveyard did not last long. When this generation grew up, nobody looked after the graves any more.
All marble tombstones were stolen, only those made of sandstone were left. They found a new use at the end of the 1960ies. As they had the shape of large blocks, they came in handy for building purposes. One of them became the door step of a barn, others served to enhance the walls of a pigsty. There was no graveyard left. The geese were grazing in the "flower gardens", some metal fences were used for chicken pens on the farms. The worst happened in 1973. At that time, the communist authorities ordered to totally dissolve the object and provided funds of 10,000 zloty. The agricultural co-operative from nearby Buczek Wielki carried out the works.
After a few days, only two of the three huge pillars near the entrance were left. All tombstones were pulled out of the ground, broken into small pieces and brought to the wooden bridge across the river. Then tractors drove over them to utterly destroy them, and they were covered with soil. The area around the bridge looked horrible after the devastation of the graveyard. Some broken tombstones were still sticking out of the ground, but the inscriptions were unreadable, because the aim was to eradicate all German traces. Over the years, the soil covering the tombstones was washed away, and the debris of sandstone and cement came to light.
In 1989, the wooden bridge collapsed. It was decided to build a new one from concrete. The sandstone debris was used as building material, the concrete border stones were used to enhance the river bank. Larger pieces were used for the foundations of the bridge. A great deal of it became lost forever. When the works were finished, the last remainders of the tombstones were buried. The very last traces of the graveyard were removed in 1997. At the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Osowo fire brigade, the cemetery grounds were tidied up and the bushes cut back (the fire station is about 150m away), and the two remaining entrance pillars were pulled out with tractors.
More clearance work took place in the spring of 2003, when the Osowo fire brigade celebrated its 55th anniversary. The cemetery grounds were used as a parking lot during the festivities.
All contemporary witnesses agree that the destroyed tombstones had been taken to the bank of the nearby river. This made me sure that I would find at least some remainders, even if a great deal had been used to build the concrete bridge. In spite of the older inhabitants' scepticism, I decided to have a look myself. A few days of work with a spade and a crowbar led to unexpected results. (see photographs no. 1 and 2).
The place where the witnesses had indicated the remainders of the tombstones to be buried showed no evidence of what had happened there years earlier. But appearances were deceptive. Just a few centimetres below the turf, the first remainders of border stones appeared. There were small pieces of concrete and parts of a kind of terrazzo tombstones. The turf could easily be detached and rolled up like a rug. When I had removed the turf and some centimetres of sand, there were fragments of tombstones everywhere. It was difficult to pull them out of the ground due to their size.
As I dug deeper, I found more and more pieces. Most of them were fragments of memorial slabs made from a kind of light and dark terrazzo. I put them all to one side and cleaned them thoroughly. I wanted to find at least one piece of memorial slab with an inscription on it. Every day of my hard toil brought new pieces to light, the pile of excavated pieces grew day after day. The curiosity of the villagers was growing, too. They visited the "excavation site" more frequently, and on these occasions they told me a lot of interesting things about the cemetery and its history.
On the fourth day, things took a long-expected turn. One and a half metres under the surface, a piece of black glass with an inscription flashed at me. To my growing delight, I found more fragments nearby. Unfortunately, the slab was buried underneath a concrete pillar of considerable size. It took me at least a couple of hours to remove it. The glass pane had broken under the pressure of the pillar. I managed to salvage 27 pieces of glass which were lying around it and could be put together almost completely. I felt like doing a jig saw puzzle. It turned out that the slab had belonged to the grave of a 14-year-old girl. The joy about the discovery was mixed with sadness [see photograph no. 3].
I found another tombstone on the same day. It was not very big, but covered with inscriptions. This was also a child's tombstone, belonging to a five-year-old boy [see photograph no. 4]. It was buried under the path leading to the bridge. It met with the great interest of those visiting my "excavations". Many people asked "What did this five-year-old do to deserve such a despicable treatment of his tombstone?" There was a simple answer: he had been German. Some of my visitors said they were ashamed to be Poles and could not understand their compatriots who had committed such vandalism.
The news of the discovery of the tombstones quickly made its way around the village, and more and more people showed their interest openly. The next day, a large tombstone on the bank of the river was to be pulled out. It was very heavy. I could not manage to do it on my own, but an elderly gentleman, who lived near the river and had shown me the exact spot where the tombstone debris had been deposited, offered to help me. With the help of a kind of crane made from a beam of several metres length and a chain, I finally managed to pull out the stone. When I had rinsed off the mud, it showed a very withered inscription surrounded by a decoration shaped like a wreath. There were only two words: "Auf Wiedersehen", and that was all; there were no details about the deceased. It may have been part of a larger memorial. Oak leaves with acorns and a bunch of laurel formed a wreath of plants. Plants, and fruits in particular, are symbols of life; oak and laurel stand for immortality. The wreath itself is often found on the tombs of outstanding personalities, especially poets. Thus, the inscription and the symbolism of the plants provided much food for thought [see photograph no. 5].
Those who had known the cemetery remembered that other tombstones had also been decorated with symbols. Among them was a cross with an anchor and a heart. They symbolise three divine virtues: the cross stands for faith, the anchor for hope and the heart for love (or compassion). Protestants attach much significance to symbols; the wreath of oak leaves and laurel mentioned earlier is another example.
When I pulled out the tombstone, the soil slid down a bit and revealed metal bars. It was a section of a wrought-iron fence and another proof of the accuracy of the reports. After cleaning away the soil, beautiful metal flowers and a door handle with a lock appeared. It was a one-winged door and a small piece of a truss. Even though the metal was much rusted and damaged, its artful construction could still be seen. No wonder that the people who had told me about the cemetery had remembered the metal fence in particular and been so delighted about it. Through the information provided by the visitors of my "excavations" it could be established that this was a section of the fence once surrounding the largest and most beautiful monument [see photograph no. 6].
When the works on the river bank came to an end, a colleague told me he remembered having seen a fragment of a decorated stone covering one of the irrigation pipes that lead across a nearby path. Indeed there was a large, beautifully decorated tombstone completely covering the opening of the pipe which led across the path. It was covered by a thick layer of soil on top, but at the sides there were two huge slabs. It was very difficult to unearth it. It was the most beautiful and also the oldest tombstone I had found so far. The death year of a 55-year-old woman, on whose grave it had formerly rested, was 1901 [see photograph no.7].
Remembrance and Hope
My works on the river bank had to come to an end now, as winter was drawing nearer. My activities had provoked a variety of comments. I often heard that it did not make any sense because all traces of the cemetery had been so thoroughly erased that it had become impossible to reconstruct its history.
An astonishing change in the attitudes of the villagers had taken place. When I had first started collecting reports about the cemetery, the contemporary witnesses had kept their distance. Sometimes they kept important information to themselves, e.g. about how objects had been destroyed and who had been doing it. The change came when I started my works on the river bank. When the villagers saw the excavated tombstones, a landslide of information set in. Dates and names were mentioned, and gradually the true picture of the cemetery and its history was revealed. People from the surroundings came to Osowo to look at the results of my work. Sometimes this was a nuisance. There were questions like, "Who felt disturbed by the cemetery so it had to be destroyed so thoroughly?" I think everybody should find their own answers to this question.
The volunteer fire brigade of Osowo decided in a board meeting that the former cemetery grounds should be cleared and kept clean on a regular basis. The topic was also to be discussed at a village assembly. More and more people said that the tombstones should be returned to their former place. This would be a huge undertaking as the tombstones excavated so far were just a fraction of what was still buried in the soil. At the beginning of the year, the snowmelt uncovered a fragment of a tombstone on the other side of the river. More stones are probably buried there. The village mayor offered his help for the transport of the fragments and even for digging up the remainder. Some said a memorial plaque for the cemetery would be a good thing. It is not clear which of these plans are going to be put into practice; in the worst case scenario, the excavated tombstones will be buried once more at the bridge. It all depends on the inhabitants of the village, as the reconstruction of the former state cannot be done by a single person.
The history of the evangelical-Lutheran cemetery at Osowo teaches us that documentary proof of the existence of objects is not all there is to it. It is easy to forget the precious memories of older people that often prove to be a major source of information. It is well worth while to listen to their tales.
The works, intended to reveal the eventful history of the cemetery, also brought an astonishing reaction on the side of the people whose initial reluctance turned into huge interest. All it needed was a stimulus. I think the plans that were made when the cemetery became a focus of attention are a great success as more and more people get interested in the history of the object. The fact that the villagers plan to commemorate the cemetery is a reason for joy; it means that they have started to think about the issue, so it stays in their memory and is not lost.
In spite of the efforts to erase all traces – efforts undertaken in the name of a higher rationality and its ideology that led to the consent to the barbarous devastation of a burial place – a chapter from history has been re-established and a new chapter has been added to the disputed remembrance of the past.
The Cemetery at Osowo – One Year Later
When I had finished writing my contribution about the cemetery at Osowo, I did not reckon I would win a prize. I thought in such a competition there would be hundreds of entries better than mine. Well … things took a different turn. Honestly speaking, it was not my main concern at that time. The tombstones which I had unearthed were becoming a problem. Mrs Małgorzata Chołodowska, then director of the Muzeum Ziemi Złotowskiej [Museum of the Złotów Region] and her husband Marek Chołodowski, my history teacher, who had both supported me a lot in the reconstruction of the history of the cemetery, thought that the tombstones should be returned to their original place. The inhabitants of Osowo had thought the same. Therefore I decided to become active in this matter. I went to see the mayor of Lipka, Mr Wojciech Kurdzieko, and he supported the idea under the condition that the inhabitants of the village agreed, too. Then I addressed the mayor of Osowo, Mr Marian Tomke, who also supported the idea. We agreed to discuss the matter at a village assembly in the middle of June. Finally, the day of the assembly arrived. I was very nervous when I had to make a speech in front of the whole village. But I need not have worried. Everything went well and the villagers agreed without objections to transport the tombstone fragments to the grounds of the former cemetery.
The work was carried out in the beginning of July 2004. I was much surprised by the number of volunteers coming to help. Virtually everybody who was physically able to help had turned up [see photographs no. 10, 11 12]. When we transported the tombstones we found others, which were also returned to the old cemetery. Later, in a smaller circle, we managed to put them together and complete them, some could even be restored to a certain degree, e.g. by repainting the engraved letters with gold paint.
I am very happy that so many people are not indifferent any more towards the fate of the cemetery. The memorial candles lighted on the tombstones on All Saints' Day bear testimony to this.
translated by Margrit Mueller