Loyal neighbours or enemies?


SCHOOL: 1st General Secondary School "Jan Kasprowicz“ at Inowrocław
Edmund Mikołajczak
Authors: Paulina Tomczykowska und Krystian Chołaszczyński
age group: 16 years and older
Country/ Countries: Poland
subject: Crosscurricular study group, History

learning activities
Contributing to a competition
Researching local history
Working with archives

German-polish relations

The project presented here is a contribution to the 6th history competition organised by the Stefan-Bathory-Foundation and the Karta Centre under the title "Strangers Among Us – Experiences of the 20th Century". Two students from Inowrocław investigated the relationships between Germans and Poles at the beginning of the Second World War, using documents and reports of contemporary witnesses. The examples they chose show how good neighbourliness turned into deadly enmity, claiming many innocent lives on both sides.

Carrying out the project:


It was pure chance that led Paulina Tomczykowska and Krystian Chołaszczyński, both 16 years old and students of a secondary school at Inowrocław, to occupy themselves with historic questions. One of their class mates had brought an ancient street sign for the school museum; it had been dug up at a building site and bore the German inscription Herbert-Lemke-Straße in gothic script. With the help of their history teacher, the students soon found out that the ulica Przypadek [Chance-Street], situated in the northern part of Inowrocław, had borne this name during the German occupation period from 1939 to 1945. But who was this name patron? Why had he been honoured? What had been his merits? These were the questions the students wanted to answer through their project.

First they studied the rather extensive literature on the history of the German minority that had been living in Kuyavia from the turn of the penultimate century until the end of the Second World War. They analysed their numbers, which fluctuated depending on history or, rather, politics. Through sources and descriptions, they gained a picture of the active national, cultural and political organisations and associations of the Germans, but also of their school system, their church and their press. They discussed the changes that came with the spreading and strengthening of National Socialist ideology and propaganda. They learned about important personalities of public life. They investigated things that were in line with official politics and actions that were aimed – in secret –against the existing political order.

This entire historical panorama, consisting of facts, figures and names, but also of book titles, articles, shelf-marks of documents and numerous annotations, was only a preparation to embarking on the stories of contemporary witnesses, in order to find out about the immediate history of people who had been living next to each other for years, who knew each other well and who suddenly found that there was a barrier between them.

Searching for the Past

Edmund Mikołajczak, the supervising teacher of the project, describes its preconditions in the following way:

"Since the Middle Ages, Western Kuyavia, formerly also called Inowrocław Kuyavia, had been under the influence of three cultures, namely Polish, German and Jewish culture. The co-existence of the three nationalities was something utterly natural, and even if there were contradictions, there was a basic agreement that everybody had to work together for the best of the town and the region.

The Second World War put an end to Inowrocław's multi-nationality. After 1945, the town became Polish, and its earlier history became unknown or unclear to the following generations, mainly under the influence of anti-German propaganda during the 1950ies and 1960ies, which used to stress only selected features of the town's history, preferably the episodes of suffering. The memorials reminding of other nationalities than the Polish were almost completely destroyed – the only existing Protestant cemetery was levelled in the 1970ies. As a result, young and slightly older inhabitants do not really know the historical factors that shaped today's citizens.

These were the facts that gave me the idea to get the young people interested in writing a contribution for a competition that provided an opportunity to shed some light on the nationality problems in Inowrocław, on the German-Polish aspect in this case. As it has never been clarified whether local Germans were guilty of treachery and sabotage prior to the moving-in of regular troops of the Wehrmacht, this was a good motivation to address the problem, and more so as there was still a possibility to call upon the memories of contemporary witnesses. The young people could see for themselves how much the accounts of those who can still recall the occupation time differ from each other, they could understand the complexity of the problem and get to know the reality of history, which is confused and not easy to understand. The results of their research work were made available to other students, thus broadening the circle of those who got an opportunity to become interested in the topic.

The Germans of Kuyavia – a Little History

During the Bismarck-era and its notorious Settlement Commission (Ansiedlungskommission), many German settlers had moved into Western Kuyavia. Sometimes they occupied entire villages, e.g. in Palczyn, Rojewo, Rojewice, Parchanie and Dąbrowa Biskupia in the north of the Inowrocław district. Before the First World War, the number of Germans in the Inowrocław district amounted to almost 30,000. The Germans dominated the local administration, they exercised control over most of the important functions; for example they provided the head of the district administration and the mayor of Inowrocław, which was then called Hohensalza like in the German occupation period.

When Poland had become an independent state again in 1918, not all Germans wanted to become loyal citizens of the new state; therefore more and more of them left the country. The sources provide the information that the number of Germans in the area decreased to 12,333 in 1921 and to 8,455 in 1926. During the 1930ies, it remained at this level. As the number of Polish inhabitants was more than 63,000 and other nationalities were only marginally represented, the share of the German population was about 11.5%. The situation was different in the town of Inowrocław itself. In 1939, 965 out of 40,520 inhabitants were Germans and 173 Jews. The situation in the local administration had totally changed. Between the two world wars, all the town councillors were Poles. Germans were village mayors at most. But they developed very lively activities in the social and cultural field and in education, which were not always in line with Polish reasons of state.

The Contemporary Witnesses

The authors of the project were particularly interested in the period just before the war broke out and during the first days of the war, i.e. until 8 September, when the German army conquered the town. Nobody had done any detailed research on this topic. One could even say that it had been carefully avoided. None of the historians explain how a street came to be named after Herbert Lemke. The only written document is a map of the town at the state archives of Inowrocław, dating from the period of German occupation. It also turned out that there were more streets with mysterious name patrons: there was an Otto-Fuchs-Street (today's ulica Karola Marcinkowskiego), a Julius-Kadolowski-Street (today's ulica Orłowska), an Otto-Berndt-Street (ulica Jacewska), an Otto-Schmidt-Street (Stare Miasto), and a Karl-Scheidler-Street (ulica Młyńska). Further research revealed that these were not generally renowned persons with outstanding merits but quite normal citizens of the town. The authors decided to address older citizens to ask them why those men had been honoured in this way. They asked their class mates to co-operate because many of them had grandparents and acquaintances who could still remember the second half of the 1930ies. Thus the project idea was born to investigate whether Poles and Germans living in Kuyavia at that time had been loyal neighbours or enemies.

The authors used 18 reports of citizens from Inowrocław and its surroundings, including also reports by two Germans, none of which had been published before. Most of the reports were put together at this occasion, only two of them had been documented earlier. These reports were then completed by three reports of Poles, which had already been published earlier. The two researchers thought that these 21 reports should be suitable to provide a comparatively objective impression; they knew, however, that accounts by contemporary witnesses are usually subjective and that time affects the memory of facts as well as of the emotions that were connected to them in the past.

Pole and Germans as Portrayed in the Reports

The Poles used to perceive the Germans as people who knew how to run a business, who were down-to-earth and well organised and who meticulously stuck to the law; after all, such were the Germans who had governed Kuyavia during the partition period (1772-1918). When in 1939 the German army marched in, the old inhabitants of Inowrocław consoled themselves and others by saying, "They are Germans, after all. They are not going to kill us" – as the well-known Polish historian Marian Biskup remembers.

Most contemporary witnesses interviewed by the authors claimed that the relationships between Poles and Germans had been utterly correct. Attributes repeatedly mentioned are: friendly, good, likeable. This is true for contacts at school (interview with Zygmunt Frąszczak), in the shops (Izabella Piaskowska), at work (Stefan Przybysz, Stanisława Filipczak, Genowefa Dudkiewicz, Ewald Reich) and in social life (Stanisława and Stefan Przybysz, Stanisław Mikołajczak, Kazimierz Strauchman, Kunegunda Szczupak) [see also Doc 1].

Friendships among children and playing together (also parties and dances for adults, which the Przybyszewski couple fondly remembers) appear in many reports of witnesses. It can be said that this kind of socialising was normal, and there were only few exceptions. Only Mr. Stanisław Głęboczyk mentions clearly hostile attitudes ("At school only German was spoken. The German teachers mistreated the Polish students, hit them on the fingers and called them Polish pigs".) However, this witness clearly mixes up the time between the wars and the situation during the Kulturkampf [i.e. the late 19th century conflict between the German government and the Catholic Church, especially regarding education], when the Polish children were to be "germanised".

"A Very Decent Person"

The situation at work is of great importance for social contacts. There is always a multitude of situations causing misunderstandings or conflicts, independent of differences between nationalities. Polish young people were often working for wealthy German families. Mrs Genowefa Dudkiewicz, who worked as a nanny, did not complain about her employers. However, her remark, "My situation was not bad compared to that of other Poles working for Germans," indicates that the relationship between employers and employees was not always good.

A very good atmosphere seems to have prevailed on the estate of the Heidebreck family in Markowice. This was confirmed by Mrs Stanisława Filipczak (Polish) and Mr Ewald Reich (German). The Poles employed at the nursery of Otto Fuchs did not complain, on the contrary, it was said he had been "a very decent person" (Stanisław Mikołajczak, Izabella Piaskowska).

It is most probably true that character marks like honesty, diligence or trustworthiness, are more important at the work place than national descent. The bad impression that Mr Władysław Hetmaniak gained of a German named Seidel, who was working in his father's business (e.g. "moody, defiant, mean and rather hostile towards Poles"), is most probably based on real character faults of that worker rather than on national stereotypes of his employer. Mr Hetmaniak remembers the German owner of the wine wholesale business Radetzki, who behaved in the most vicious manner towards everybody. It is difficult to verify whether it is true, as this witness assumes, that those Germans, who were without money or did not have their own businesses and therefore had to work for others, had especially hostile attitudes towards Poles.

It is worth while mentioning whether Poles might have boycotted German shops. Several witnesses mention the name of the German dairyman Jauch who had his shop in the ulica Św. Andrzeja [St Andrews' Street]. "Jauch treated his workers well and was friendly with his customers", said Izabella Piaskowska. Mr Kazimierz Strauchman's mother also used to buy at his shop. He remembers, "My mother did not despise the local Germans and did not see any reason to buy exclusively at Polish shops."

However Mrs Jadwiga Giełwanowska states very clearly, "Poles supported the Polish people, they bought at Polish shops and went to Polish doctors." What is true, then? Obviously, it was sometimes like this and sometimes like that. It is understandable that many Poles bought at Polish shops for practical reasons, maybe because they were close by or they knew the shopkeeper. Baker Wybrański, dairyman Płotka, butcher Benedykciński, pharmacist Moll, Rezka or Ośmiałowski, book dealer Knast – they were all well-known and popular Polish businesses. The slogan "Buy only at Poles" was therefore not just empty talk. The boycott, however, was more directed against Jewish that against German shops, as it is clearly expressed in the " Dziennik Kujawski" (Kuyavian daily newpaper).

The Calm Before the Storm

When Hitler cancelled the Polish-German Non-Aggression Pact on 28 April 1939, a part of the German minority took a decidedly hostile attitude towards the Polish state. There was a growing number of espionage cases. The problem of the "Fifth Column" grew worse. The secret organisation "Self-Protection" (Selbstschutz), founded by Himmler and set up before September 1939, recruited its members mainly from the local Germans. The northern section was headed by SS Oberführer Ludolf von Alvensleben.

Poland was also preparing for the war. The archives of the museum of the 1st General Secondary School "Jan Kasprowicz" provide some indications. A chronicle of the Bratnia Pomoc (brotherly assistance) shows photographs of representatives of the school handing over war equipment as a donation to the commander of the 59th Great Polish Infantry Regiment, which was stationed at Inowrocław. Photographs of voluntary work campaigns and national celebrations show the rising patriotism of those days very clearly.

The newspaper "Dziennik Kujawski" provides the best description of the situation in the Inowrocław district in the first half of 1939. In April and May, there was a great number of articles about the recruitment of people who volunteered to become so-called "live torpedoes". The newspaper stated that these persons could cause a damage of 300 to 500 million Zloty to the enemy. There was no shortage of volunteers in Inowrocław; even a 15-year-old girl-scout of the division "General Zamoyska" reported to volunteer.

The Germans were accused of withholding coins, as all of a sudden, two-, five- and ten- Zloty coins disappeared. There was also a fierce debate about the municipal ponds and the lakes in the surroundings; everybody knew that the Inowrocław Germans were leaseholders of the lakes with the greatest abundance of fish, like Lake Janikowskie, Trląg, Mielno and Wolickie. The dairies also became a problem as it turned out that 90 per cent of the management and technical personnel of the dairy cooperatives were Germans.

Some Polish citizens removed German inscriptions without authorisation, e.g. from the building of the Freemasons' Lodge in the ulica Solankowa, and the municipality seized the building of the German school in the same street.

The newspaper reports do not indicate, however, that everyday relationships had deteriorated all of a sudden. Some incidences were reported. Ulrich Kuss remembers that a German worker of the printing house of the "Kuyavian Messenger", near Inowrocław, was murdered by Poles. "He died only because he was a German", he added.

Polish witnesses do not confirm any extraordinary events. Tadeusz Dreliszak reports, "We did not feel oppressed by our neighbours", not even in the face of an inevitable war.

During the last days of August, the authorities had air raid shelters dug out. In spite of this, Zygmunt Frąszczak did not realise anything out of the ordinary. "The atmosphere was very good, so good that we did not even notice a war was approaching", he remembers. Kazimierz Strauchman makes a similar statement, "There was no panic in the town, everybody tried to keep calm." But everybody had the feeling – as Kunegunda Szczupak remarks – "that there was something in the air" [See Document 2: Preparations].

The First Days of September

The memorable 1 September 1939 was a Friday. The Polish radio had been broadcasting news about the beginning of the fighting since the early morning hours.
The first refugees from the direction of Bydgoszcz [Bromberg] arrived still on the same day. The Red Cross ladies, who were running a field kitchen, took care of them. The wounded were taken care of by Dr Czesław Bydałek und Dr Irena Konieczna. The whole town had to observe the blackout regulations; people glued sheets of paper onto their window panes to prevent them from breaking.

However, the authors of the project were less interested in the chronology of events than in the changes going on in the relationships between the local Germans and the Poles. What was happening within these few days? Of course, mistrust must have arisen even between neighbours who had hitherto been living together in peace.

The accounts of the contemporary witnesses show that people became tremendously more afraid of the German citizens when war broke out. Suspicions and accusations increased and led to arrests. Ulrich Kuss, who narrowly survived an accusation of anti-Polish activities, talks about this. Later on, his father, together with other German citizens of Inowrocław, was also arrested. He was not an eye witness of the murder of German inhabitants by Polish citizens, but he reports that he took part in the exhumation of executed Germans after the German army had moved in. [See Document 3: The story of a German from Inowrocław].

The Polish witnesses, on the other hand, talk about German treachery and sabotage. Edmund Łuczkowiak tells the same things and Ludomira Kordylas remembers that she had heard that Juliusz Kadalowski (German, owner of a knacker's yard) had sent signals to German reconnaissance planes from the chimney of his premises. Professor Marian Biskup, too confirms that the atmosphere was rife with suspicion. He also remembers some Germans who were killed; Stanisław Mikołajczak also reports that all the male members of the German Fuchs family were murdered [see Document 4: "The Fifth Column"].

There are indications that the real number of German victims was much higher. The authors found out that the deaths of Germans were registered at the Inowrocław Registrar's Office. Under the numbers 483, 484 and 499, the "Register of Deaths 1939" lists the names of Otto Fuchs, the well-known German gardener who all the Polish witnesses remembered so well, together with the names of his two sons, Hans and Emil, who were also gardeners. Thus, all the men of this family perished. But nobody knows the exact circumstances.

Kadalowski (correct name: Kadolowski) was also killed by Polish hands. Was he really guilty? We don't know. Later, the ulica Orłowska, close to which he had been living, was renamed after him. The other German name patrons, like Otto Fuchs, Otto Berndt, Karl Scheidler, Otto Schmidt or Herbert Lemke, may have been similar cases. Today, it cannot be established anymore whether they were really traitors and saboteurs or rather victims of slander and the general war psychosis.

Who was Name Patron Herbert Lemke?

The register of deaths of the year 1939 at the Registrar's Office provided the answer to the question that stood at the beginning of the project. Under file no. 532, the authors found an exceptionally comprehensive entry. When he died, Herbert Lemke was the owner of a private business at the ulica Orłowska 24. He lived from 1906 to 1939. His father, Heinrich, was an engine-driver.

The death of Herbert Lemke was reported by his wife, Gertrud. The file entry also mentions that Heinrich Lemke (his father), resident at the Jacobstreet (ulica Św. Jakuba) no. 60, and the gardener Georg Baer, resident at the Heilig-Geist-Street (ulica Św. Ducha) no. 41, witnessed the death.

This death, which was probably totally unnecessary, happened on 7 September 1939, one day before the German troops occupied the town. Shortly afterwards, the Germans renamed the ulica Przypadek, next to the ulica Orłowska, to Herbert-Lemke-Street. Thus, a street in Inowrocław was named after a totally ordinary man.

The Battle of Markowice

On 8 September 1939, the small village of Markowice became the arena of a sensational event. Markowice is situated about eleven kilometres south of Inowrocław. It was famous for its beautiful Sanctuary of St. Mary. There was also the large estate of the German [von] Heidebreck family. The family fortune had been founded by Arnold von Wilamowitz-Möllendorf, whose two sons were renowned personalities: Hugo, the older son (1840 – 1905), became a provincial governor in Posen, while Ulrich (1848-1931) was a world-famous classical scholar.

On the estate and in the palace, Germans as well as Poles were employed. The contemporary witnesses agree that the German proprietors treated their workers very well. This was confirmed by Mrs Stanisława Filipczak who recounted that the workers were given extra food or petroleum on public holidays and were allowed to use the library which the lady of the house had collected. This was also confirmed by Ewald Reich. He grew up together with the children of manservant Stanisław Kaleta, who lived at the mansion with his family. There were shared festivities, they also went to Polish weddings.

But on 8 September something happened that changed the lives of the inhabitants for many years. When a German patrol of several men entered the estate, which was temporarily abandoned, the Poles from the village attacked them. There was a real battle, in the course of which not only all the German soldiers fell, but also almost all the German inhabitants of the village died (obviously, the Poles tried to leave no witnesses). The only one who could save himself, was cashier Jaschik, who could hide in the cloister. As a retaliation measure, the Germans turned Markowice into a penal colony, and many people were deported to camps or shot dead – among them the monks, who were completely innocent and had saved Jaschik by hiding him in the cloister.

These events have already been described elsewhere, but the authors came upon the account of Ewald Reich, a German who was born in Markowice. He had visited Kuyavia a couple of years ago and had handed over his memoirs to Mr Edmund Mikołajczak, the teacher who was supervising this project.

Mr Reich survived because he was not at Markovice in September. At that time, his parents and all his brothers and sisters perished: his father Adolf (gardener at the Heidebreck estate). his mother Anna, his sister Gertrud and his brother Walther. He lost his entire family on that day. He could not understand why the Poles treated their German neighbours so cruelly after having lived together with them so well between the two world wars. He affirmed that his family had always been loyal to the Polish state. The title of Polish rowing champion had meant a lot to him (he had been rowing for a club at Bydgoszcz). Mr Ewald Reich came back to Markowice from Belm in Germany to lay down flowers and a memorial ribbon at the place where the Germans of Markowice had been buried many years ago.

The Occupation Period

Some of the local Germans began to celebrate the German victory even before the German troops had moved into the town. This is described by Jerzy Weber, a retired teacher who witnessed the following scene on 7 September: An open saloon car, decorated with a red swastika banner, drove down the ulica Solankow. There were three citizens of Inowrocław in the car, all of whom Mr Weber recognised at once. There was the tailor Emil Nickel ("my tailor, who lived across the street at ulica Wikaryjka…"), Willi Jaretzky , owner of a timber business at the ulica Staszica, and Georg Radetzki, owner of the well-known wine and vinegar store at the ulica Św. Mikołaja. They paraded through the town before the German army had even marched in! The Georg Radetzki in the car was the same man who Władysław Hetmaniak remembered well and characterised as "a German who used to be very friendly towards everybody".

During the occupation period, the new National Socialist rulers had an excellent excuse to take revenge, more exactly, to carry out a long-planned selection among the Polish population. The Poles had to suffer hell on earth. But even then there were cases where Polish people were treated in a friendly way and helped by their German neighbours. Anna Możdżeń says, "I remember one of the local Germans who became a Gestapo officer later on. He treated his people very well." (The context indicates that she thinks of the neighbours in general, not just the Germans). "When it was cold, one of my German acquaintances gave me a sweater," Kazimierz Strauchman remembers. [See Document 5: The occupation period in Inowrocław].

Loyal Neighbours or Enemies?

The material analysed here does not allow a clear answer to this question. There were more than 8,000 Germans living in the district of Inowrocław in 1939, and they were all different persons. That is fully understandable. The same is true for the Poles. It is impossible to establish how many Kuyavian Germans were dreaming of a renewed great Germany including Pomerellen, Greater Poland and Western Kuyavia. It has to be born in mind that many of them had always seen the Versailles Treaty as an unacceptable dictate. The activities of revisionist organisations – in particular of the infamous Selbstschutz ["Self-Defence Units"] are a proven historical fact. For sure there were fewer loyal Germans once Hitler had risen to power.

The witnesses talk about the actions of a "Fifth Column", but they also remember examples of totally different behaviour. They remember being helped by their German neighbours. There were incidents when Germans saved their lives. However, some Germans also showed their "other face" when the war had started.

The last days in August and the first week of September 1939 were exceptional times in every respect. Different, sometimes extreme behaviour came to light, at times even mutual hatred. The special atmosphere was a breeding ground for unjust suspicions and accusations. The war psychosis added to the problem. This is probably the explanation for what happened at Inowrocław or Markowice, where totally innocent people, sometimes whole families, came to death.

Kazimierz Strauchman, one of the contemporary witnesses, ended his report by saying, "I think you can't judge people according to their being Germans or Poles. There are simply good people and bad people."

translated by Margrit Mueller