Sunday, 15 May 2011

An evening with Ursula Waage and Danuta Orłowska

As part of the 'Three Women' (Trzy kobiety) series at the Edith Stein house I attended a talk given by Ursula Waage, born in Germany and a resident of Breslau (now Wrocław) and Danuta Orłowska, born in Poland and someone who was a forced labourer in Breslau during WWII.

Picture the scene: Ursula Waage, born in 1928 was sitting in the salon.  She has written a book about her experiences of living in Nazi Germany in Breslau, 'Crossroads at the Odra river' (a book in German called 'Kreuzwege am Oderstrom') and managed to survive the 'Siege of Breslau' which almost lasted for three months, an event that was to result in the death of at least 29,000 civilians and military personal (estimates wildly vary as to just how many people died).  She, along with almost other Germans were forcibly expelled from what became Wrocław in Poland, and left in 1947.

Sat next to her was Danuta Orłowska, a woman who had herself been in Breslau during the Siege of Breslau.  They had never met during their years in Breslau but came into contact during an historical event four years ago and decided to keep in touch, as their life's paths had both been strongly marked by WWII.

Danuta Orłowska

I have been to many talks by historical witnesses* and generally one person has been interviewed, and they are themselves the centre of the talk.  With this talk things were different.  Ursula Waage put Danuta Orłowska at the centre of the talk.  She reported from her biographical story, something she had done in the aforementioned book.
Danuta Orłowska was born in Greater Poland and was together with her mother and siblings sent by order of the German occupation powers to work as forced labourers in Breslau shortly after Poland capitulated to Germany.  Her father was sent to the Dachau concentration camp as a member of the intelligencia (part of the 'Aktion AB') and was due to be executed, but the executioner decided to let him free, and he managed to survive in hiding during the rest of WWII and eventually came to Breslau to look for his family.

During this time Danuta Orłowska's mother had for a short time taken in a young child which was Jewish.  She reported that the child immediately ran into the cupboard upon being delivered to the house, a sign that it was used to being in hiding.  This child was a fearful child that would run to the cupboard whenever any noise outside was to occur.  The family were in danger by taking in this child.  The protection of Jews carried the death penalty in Poland (only in Poland.)  After a week the child's aunty came and took the child away, bringing it has to be said relief to the family.

As preparation for the Siege of Breslau an airfield was to be made on Kaiserstrasse (now the area where Plac Grundwaldski is) Danuta Orłowska, her mother and siblings were made to work there.  (Interestingly enough she got breaks from work (which lasted a few hours) and used the time to go into the city centre and she very much liked the town hall, wanting to work there afterwards; something she eventually did).  Her father managed to find them and eventually they went into hiding in a cellar during the bombardment of the city.

One day the noise has subsumed and, thinking the war was over, went outside, only to be confronted by Gestapo personal.  This was during the days of martial law where people were being executed for all manner of crime, and they were all sentenced to death.  They were separated from their father and were taken to be shot.  The Gestapo man however shot to the side of them and let them go, telling them they could get help from his sister in Munich if need be.  The father was also let go.

Danuta Orłowska was to eventually settle in Wrocław.

Ursula Waage

It is notable that Ursula Waage decided to put the attention on Danuta Orłowska.  She also faced the danger of being killed during the Siege of Breslau due to the perilous nature of being there.  After the war ended she faced hostility from Poles who moved to Wrocław (in fact, Poles who were by and largely forcefully expelled from their homes in the east).  She said that she realised that Germans were hated by Poles and she also felt in danger of being attacked and raped during the nights, so much so that she took to hiding in the cellar (in his book 'Microcosm: Portrait of a Central European City' the Welshman Norman Davies included many reports of German and indeed also Soviet and Polish woman of being raped by both Soviet soldiers as well as Polish marauders).  

Once she was at what is now the Nadodze train station (not that far away from where I am writing this article now) seeing Germans who were being deported to Germany.  She reported how she saw children lying on the bank and wondering why no-one was looking after the children.  Then she saw how a mother passed a two-month old baby out of the train window, a baby that had died.  Then she realised that the children lying on the bank were also those who had died on the train.

In 1947 she and her family were themselves forced to leave the now named Wrocław and she was sent to Leipzig.


Danuta Orłowska's story is representative of stories that could be told throughout Poland: That of being a forced labourer (being effectively a slave) and seeing her family split up with no knowledge of where the others were, or if they were even alive; additionally death through execution or through mistreatment was a danger.  As I said here there are many individual histories in Poland that are traumatic and my experience of talks by historical witnesses is that they serve as a way of dealing with the pain of the past.  Danuta Orłowska was visibly moved by the talk and became more animated as the evening went on.  There were plenty more stories to be told and, despite her mature years, she had more energy to talk than most people there.

The narrative of the forceful expulsion of Germans from the former German territory which is now in Poland is a sensitive theme in both Germany but especially in Poland.  The head of the 'Federation of Expellees' (Bund der Vertrieben) is someone who has relativised Nazi war crimes and due the Bund's lack of attention given to the crimes are not liked in Poland.  (Indeed, some Poles can get quite emotional about her.)

Due to the nature of the crimes done by Germans during WWII and the fact that it took Germans a few decades before they were able to deal with crimes done by their compatriots, together with the fact that the statistics of Germans who were expelled from Poland were exaggerated leads many to have little sympathy for the plight of Germans such as Ulrike Waage.  In this sensitive political climate talks by people like Ulrike Waage, talks which also focus on the suffering of Poles during WWII are an important step forward, especially when, as the Karta organisation, enabled both Poles and Germans to tell each other of their personal histories.

The situation faced by Germans in Breslau after WWII are not, so I believe, part of the narrative of the stories spoken by Poles about those times.  Even Dorota Orłowska spoke of the years directly after 1945 as being a very good time, with people being 'very friendly and looking out for each other'.  In fact, the different experiences of Ursula Waage and Danuta Orłowska led to a small conflict between them as to life in Wrocław directly after the war's end.  As ever, the different personal (and national) narratives regarding the past leads to conflict.  A sense of victimhood by and large permeated both Polish and German people who were young during the WWII and immediate aftermath.  Of course, from the Polish perspective this is natural and appropriate.  Talks such as this one however shows that the narratives of German/bad Polish/good are not totally appropriate (i.e. Germans helping Poles; Poles attacking Germans).  While stories on both sides face the danger of being misrepresented (such as with anti-Polish feelings in the west) the more nuanced view that people on both sides suffered is one that emerges from such talks (I say that while stating that suffering can mean many different things.)

Just one thing.....

It is good when people from different countries can talk about their experiences of WWII.  It helps them and others to see that, for example, some Germans did good things, that Poles were also forcefully expelled from the east, and so on.  The human face behind history becomes much clearer.

Organisations like the Edith Stein House, the Foundation for German-Polish reconciliation, and the aforementioned Karta do much needed work to facilitate this.  Considering prejudices in both countries this is vital.

The thing is, is that the nature of such a dialogue brings a third 'group' into play: The 'Russians', or better said, people from the Soviet Union.  It is the 'Russians' who bombarded the cities, who raped the women, who were behind the deportations.  Unlike with the narratives about Germans and also Poles, only one side of the 'Russians' are shown, that of the people who did bad things.

Let's be clear, soldiers of the Soviet Union did human rights abuses during and after WWII.  Is it possible that such talks can help prejudices about people from the Soviet Union (or Russian) to continue?

Let's talk about rape

Rape is a crime.  It is a human rights abuse.  Willful rape is without excuse.  Let's be clear about that.

The thing is......while not seeking to excuse the men (and in this regard it was only men, as far as we know anyway; unlike the Wehrmacht there were women in the Soviet Army) who raped women during and after WWII, there are a few facts that need to be drawn into account.  The Soviet Union suffered massively in the war (see herethough bear in mind that the figure given of deaths is wrong, and is more commonly estimated to be between 25-30m.  A key thing to focus upon is the treatment of Soviet POW's that led to the death of around 3.3m soldiers).  The men and women of the Soviet Army had lost family and friends during the war.  They also, again unlike the members of the Wehrmacht had no holiday from the war.  They could not return home for a break.  From the 22nd of June 1941 they were at war, and that was that.

War does not humane behaviour make.  As the film 'Anonymous, a woman in Berlin' shows quite well, the members of the Soviet Army were people with trauma behind them, and were brutalised by the war; a war their government had indeed helped to start in 1939 but a war which devastated millions of people in the Soviet Union.  Some of the men in the film were shown also to be young people, young people who actually fell in love with the women, who thought that they had started a relationship with them.

None of this excuses rape, or takes away or relativises the suffering of the women raped in Breslau after WWII.  I am just saying that the men who committed rape were human beings and it is possible that they were people traumatised by and unable to deal with war.  I am not advocating forgetting what happened, or saying that rape is OK, rather, I am trying to understand why it happened.

Hands open to the east

To be clear: I am not against such talks as the one last week.  I am not against the work of the aforementioned organisations that deal with Poles and Germans.  I am also not against the moderation of the talk last week.  I think I have been clear in saying that they are vital.  How, though to deal with the danger of strengthening the 'evil' figure of Soviets?

May I suggest the following: 

A greater education of not only the crimes suffered by Poles (and also some Germans) is needed, but also that of Soviets?  Seriously; did you know how many Soviet POW's died during WWII?  In my tours in Berlin I do not believe I have ever met anyone who knew that so many people died (more Soviet POW's died and non-Jewish Poles or than British and American casualties during both WWI and WWII together).

German-Polish work to be expanded into German-Russian and Polish-Russian.  Interestingly I shared my view regarding how Russians were spoken about with two Poles and both agreed with me, one saying that Polish is not yet ready to open the hand to Russians.  Bear in mind that Soviet citizens were also victims of Soviet crimes after 1945.  Many POW and forced labour camp survivors were executed.  Perhaps Poles could learn that Soviets also suffered and died due to Soviet policies (through the NKWD).

Perhaps events such as that in Krzyż can also take place in L'viv, Lut'sk, Brest and Vilnius, enabling expellees who now live in each of these countries could share their experiences?  Perhaps then young people in those areas would hear a wider narrative than that given to them by their families and schools?

The Edith Stein House

In this talk it has showed itself to be focussed on the 'other', not on the people in the 'we' group, but rather on people who have different and occasionally contradictory and even opposing views.  Long may the focus on the 'other' and its relationship with the 'we-group' continue.

To return to Ursula Waage, here you can hear her speak (in German).  Her book shall be translated into Polish so look out for it.  Otherwise you can read it in German.  Otherwise the final segment of the Edith Stein House's 'Three Women' series is with Sonia Winterburg on Wednesday the 31st of May at 6pm, where she shall talk of themes known to regular readers of this blog: war and trauma.

* The German word 'Zeitzeugen' is one of the most falsely translated words into English, often being translated as 'eye witnesses'.  This is false.  'Eye-witness' in German is Augenzeuge and in both English and German means someone who witnessed but was not the main character influenced by a historical event (say, of a crime on the street).  'Zeitzeugen' rather means someone who was directly influenced by the event and are reporting their own story.  They serve as living evidence of something historical (unlike, say, documentation of records of statistics) and therefore are 'historical witnesses' of their own experiences.  See Harold Marcuse for more information on this term.  Depending on what they have experienced, they may also be titled as Shoah or genocide survivors, dependent on whether it could be considered that their death would have been likely, such as with the Shoah or genocide in Srebrenica.


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