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German Travel Agency Helps People Unearth Roots in Poland

Germany and Poland have had a tumultuous relationship for many years. Now, a unique travel agency aims to improve ties between the neighbors.

Julia Gerstenberg and Jacqueline Nießer have their work cut out for them. Sitting in a little office in Frankfurt on the Oder River in eastern Germany, which should not to be confused with the financial hub Frankfurt on the Main River in the west, the pair is surround by maps of Poland, history books and dictionaries. The scent of freshly brewed coffee and Polish waffles wafts through the air. Gerstenberg is trying to decipher an old map, while Nießer answers questions on the telephone.

Researching roots

Each day, their small agency HeimatReise, roughly translated as "Trip Home," receives dozens of calls. Gerstenberg and Nießer have made it their job to research family histories and organize trips for ethnic Germans, and their descendents, who were expelled from Poland at the end of World War II and beyond.

Nießer said HeimatReise was established when relations between Germany and Poland were particularly tense. "We wondered what we in Frankfurt/Oder, on the German-Polish border, could do on a small scale to ease the tensions on a human level," she said.

A look back

At the time of HeimatReise's founding, the Prussian Trust organization, which represents the families of expropriated and resettled Germans, had been launching lawsuits in Poland for the return of lost property. At the end of World War II, some 12 million Germans were killed or expelled from central Europe as the German and Polish borders were being redrawn by the Allies.

Some expelled Germans and their descendents want Poland to admit to wrongdoings at the end of the war, while others want to reclaim their former homes. Many Poles, for their part, are resentful of the demands in light of the Nazi invasion in 1939 and the millions' of deaths that ensued.

Bridging the gap

That's where HeimatReise's work comes in: to bridge the gap in a very sensitive area. All of the agency's workers volunteer their time and have so far organized around 10 trips to Pomerania, the area surrounding Lebus and the Neumark. Some people book trips to celebrate a significant birthday. Sons and daughters often want to treat their parents to a trip "back home" and choose to accompany them. "That's important because we don't want to stir up history, but rather, use to as a point of departure to talk about modern Poland and its people," said Nießer.

Detective work

HeimatReise workers also said they see themselves as travel guides and detectives in one. Often they have only a few clues to get started with when trying to track down a family's history. Detlef Mielke showed up at the agency with just a few yellowed photographs and a vague notion of significant family dates and a few stories he remembered hearing from his father. "I wanted to go and see where my family's from," he said. "Everyone wants to know where they come from."

But the meager information turned out to be enough for the agency's workers and a trip was booked for the 69-year-old to visit his ancestors former home. Nießer, however, warns of having high expectations. Reality is not always as colorful as the pictures parents or grandparents may have painted of their origins.

Across borders and generations

Dialogue and exchange occur not just between two cultures but also between generations. Mielke said he now visits the HeimatReise office regularly because it's like a "shot of energy" for him. He's also started learning Polish and is planning more trips to the other side of the Oder.

Contact us in order to get more information about HeimatReise!

Author: Aygül Cizmecioglu, Source: dw-online.de, Photography: Instytut.net

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