My wife and I regularly make the 900 km drive across Germany to visit her family in south west Poland. The Autobahns of western Germany with cars like swarms of blinkered insects eventually give way to a calmer and more enjoyable meditation to the Polish border. Here, the remnants of German speed meet the less robust lane discipline of the Polish.
From Görlitz on the German-Polish border it’s a four-hour drive to Brzezie. But this former village on a hill hasn’t always been four hours from the German border. Back in 1939, it was directly on the border.
It can be difficult for people born and brought up far from national land borders to absorb the far-ranging implications of a changing of the line that defines people in one of the most collectively meaningful ways. In this part of the world, these border amendments were sometimes democratic (such as the plebiscites that were carried out after the First World War in some of the German-Polish areas), and some were violent (such as the German invasion of Poland in 1939).
I can’t find any information about the photographer, but it’s clear they were standing in Ratibor, Germany and looking into what had been Brzezie, Poland. The building is still there today – unlit and and unremarkable. The railway track – whilst more prominent – is now disused and overgrown.
In a book we’d bought for my wife’s uncle was a photo (below) of a road I quickly recognised. On 30th August 1939, these nondescript buildings would have been about 150 meters inside Poland. The next day in Germany. Around the same time the Swastika would have been flown from the shop – perhaps by a fearful Pole or more likely an ethnic German happy with their change in circumstances.
I scanned the photo and blended it with a modern day photo I’d taken especially for this purpose. It’s not the most professional version, but it does what it needs to do.
What a brutal shock to the system that must have been for the Polish population. Not only invaded by a fierce and brutal attacker but betrayed in advance by some of the ethnic Germans amongst them who created lists of local Polish people in positions of authority in preparation for the German assault. The Polish inhabitants of what in wartime became Hohenbirken (high birch) never really had a chance in 1939, and it would be another 50 years before the Poles were again genuinely free.