The following article in today's New York Times (ie Jan.4, 2004) reminds us
that in times of war innocent people suffer on all sides.
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
In Poland, 2 Families Find Some Wrongs Defy Fixing
January 4, 2004
By RICHARD BERNSTEIN
GOSTOMIA, Poland - The situation seemed ripe for
unpleasantness as Aloys Manthey and his two older brothers
drove their Mercedes S.U.V. onto the concrete slab
courtyard of Zbigniew and Maria Siejak's farm in this quiet
On one side were the Mantheys, led by Aloys, a 66-year-old
travel agent, who makes no secret of his belief that this
80-acre farm is theirs by right, expropriated from them 58
years ago and never forgotten. On the other side, the
Siejaks, now retired, have lived here for more than 20
years. How would they respond to a group of rich Germans
saying that they were victims of past injustice and that in
a just world they would have their old home back?
Somewhat improbably, there was no angry confrontation at
the farm in this poor but beautiful area of lakes and
forests and rolling fields of wheat. Sometimes, what begins
as a defiant statement of principle dissolves when
principle confronts real life, and when that happened here
on the Manthey brothers' sentimental trip to Gostomia,
something new seemed to emerge in an old story involving
Poles, Germans, history, land, money and looming European
But to begin at the beginning.
Aloys Manthey is as good a representative as there is these
days of a certain aggrieved sensibility in Germany - one
that troubles many people in Poland and that other former
Eastern bloc countries find extremely objectionable. He is
the leader in his locality in northwestern Germany of the
Association of Expellees, an organization claiming a
million members that represents the interests of the
estimated 12 million to 13 million Germans who were
expelled from Poland and other countries when World War II
Mr. Manthey contends that these expulsions amount to a sort
of victimization of Germans roughly equivalent to the
German victimization of the Poles themselves, or even the
Jews. The idea is unpopular in Poland and seems to have
only modest support among a majority of Germans, but it is
an article of faith among many of those who lost their
homes all those many decades ago.
"There were two crimes, the Holocaust and the forced
expulsions," Mr. Manthey said, sitting at a table in a
Polish inn the night before the visit to Gostomia. "As a
result of the forced expulsions, three million Germans
died, and for that reason I think we're entitled to a
memorial in Berlin, a center - maybe next to the memorial
to the Jews."
When asked to cite his source for claiming such numbers, he
produced only a brochure printed by his group. Still, there
is no doubt about his story. After the war, this part of
what had been Germany was handed over to a reconstituted
Poland, and the Germans who lived here, were forced to
migrate west. Many were killed, beaten and raped.
In recent years, Mr. Manthey, who specializes in taking
elderly Germans on visits to their former homes in other
countries to the east, has come here to Gostomia - which he
prefers to call by its former German name, Arnsfelde. On
this latest trip, with two of his three living brothers,
Paul, 72, and Hans Joachim, 73, in tow, he invited a
reporter along to hear the family story and to serve as a
kind of witness.
The Mantheys spent a few days here, retracing the route
they took in 1945 when they fled from the Soviet Army,
visiting the tombstone that they erected three years ago to
their father, Paul Manthey, who was mugged and killed by
Polish soldiers in late 1945. They spoke of the time a few
weeks after that when a Polish family (not the Siejaks)
turned up and told the Mantheys that their farm no longer
belonged to them. "They just came to the farm and said,
`This is ours; you have to get out,' " Mr. Manthey said.
"There's no compensation for us," Hans Manthey put in
gloomily, making an oblique reference to the groups,
especially Jews and slave laborers, who have received some
compensation for wartime losses.
In the morning, the Mantheys visited the City Hall in
Walcz, the county seat, about eight miles from Gostomia.
They met with local political officials and the main topic
of conversation was whether the Mantheys could, under
Polish law, buy back their old farm. That is where
everybody on this trip began to behave according to some
Fears are often expressed in Poland that, once the country
becomes part of the European Union, scheduled to happen in
May, there will be a host of claims for restitution by
Germans for properties seized from them after the war, or
that wealthy Germans will buy up the land, the lakes and
the forests and Poles will no longer own their country.
Such Polish nervousness, fanned by occasional bursts of
nationalist rhetoric from the German Association of
Expellees, has led the Polish government to enact
restrictions on ownership of land by foreigners here. The
restrictions were explained to the Manthey brothers in
"That's not fair," Aloys Manthey responded. "When will this
be put on an equal footing? Poles can buy land in Germany."
"No, a Pole can't buy land in Germany," retorted Zdzislaw
Tuderek, the mayor of Walcz.
Mr. Manthey said: "Yes he can. The Turks in Germany have
Turkish passports but they buy lots of property."
In fact, Mr. Manthey is correct; anybody can buy property
in Germany, though not everybody can live in Germany. The
meeting ended with assurances to Mr. Manthey that
exceptions were possible, and the brothers then drove to
There on their former land, they were received by the
Siejaks not with hostility or suspicion but with coffee,
cake, cordiality and the wish that Mr. Manthey would indeed
buy the old homestead back. The Siejaks, who bought the old
Manthey farm from the people who expropriated it after the
war, would like to move to a condominium on the Baltic
Coast. They cannot afford the winter heating bill on the
farm, but they cannot find anybody willing to buy it, and,
as it turned out, Mr. Manthey was not willing to buy it
"We thought it would make a wonderful hunting lodge for
you," Mrs. Siejak said.
The asking price, about $78,000 for the 80 acres, the house
and the farm buildings (these last admittedly not in good
shape) was probably about what Mr. Manthey paid for his
On other occasions, asked whether he would buy back the
farm, he had replied, "Why should I pay for something that
already belongs to me?" Now, politely, not wishing to spoil
the friendly mood, he said, "I don't think there's much to
So, the Mantheys really may or may not actually want their
farm back, except in principle, and there seems to be a
lesson about history and change in that. The Siejaks were
also expellees, coming from a formerly Polish part of what
is now Belarus when Stalin absorbed it into the Soviet
Union after World War II. For them, it seemed natural to
assume a sort of shared victimization with the Mantheys.
"I grew up among Germans in 1945 when they were expelled,"
Mr. Siejak said. "So even then I knew that someday these
people would want to come back and show their children
where they came from."
The Siejaks do not speak of compensation. Citizens of a
country that disappeared entirely from the map for
centuries and where borders have repeatedly shifted may not
expect that all the wrongs of the past, not even all those
of World War II, can be righted. In their own way, the
Mantheys, richer by far than the people who replaced them
here, now know that this is true.
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