Silesia – Land of Dying Country Houses

On Polish TV News a couple of days ago, there was a report about the fate of hundreds of historic houses in Lower Silesia, in South west Poland. The reporter spoke to Polish architectural historian Wojciech Wagner who was the co-author with two English colleague of a book on these decaying houses, many of which are of great architectural and historical significance.  The position was critical when the book was published in 2009 and is now worse. Wagner is now deeply pessimistic about the prospect of saving much at all that is of value. We bought the book during a stay at the restored palace of Lomnitz/Lomnica in 2011. Reading it gave me a full appreciation of the scale of the tragedy of which I was previously only dimly aware. I wrote about the issue in 2011 and post the piece below. In hindsight I was over optimistic,


This was a wet summer in Poland and it was no surprise to arrive at Schloss Lomnitz in pouring rain. It was a scene somewhat removed from the sun drenched vistas offered in the hotel brochure. This was not the only dislocation we felt on arriving here. The Schloss and its attractive grounds seem almost to inhabit a different world from the rather scruffy village of Lomnica in which it stands. Most of the guests are elderly Germans and, on arrival with my Polish wife, we were greeted in German.  The Schloss is actually two Schlosser, a large and attractive building with two towers and the widow’s house “Witwenschloss” alongside which has been converted into a most appealing (and for western pockets inexpensive) hotel and restaurant. For the guests the place is an oasis of “Deutschtum”  some 50 miles beyond the Oder-Neisse border.

It is a place that could not even be imagined only twenty years ago. The owner Ulrich von Kuster, a judge in Gorlitz and descendent of the pre-war owners, grew up in West Germany after the war and knew of Lomnitz only from the stories ad reminiscences of elderly relatives. The fall of Communism  gave him the opportunity to realise a dream he had nurtured from a young age, of reacquiring the ancestral home. What he found on his first visit was decaying and partially roofless ruin. Having been used as a school and as the offices of a collective farm for some years the buildings had eventually been abandoned. The Schloss was to consume every minute of his free time and most of his money for the next decade.

While Lomnitz is possibly unique in being reacquired by the family who previously owned it, and unusual in being so beautifully restored, its fate during the years between 1945 and 1990 was sadly typical. Throughout Silesia there are hundreds of ruined and decaying country houses, many of them documented in a report published in 2006 by Save Europe’s Heritage. Their fate was sealed in 1945 with the Yalta decision to shift the Polish_German border some 200 miles west to the rivers Oder and Neisse.  In socialist Poland they were doubly disadvantaged as relics of an oppressor landowner class and also of a German past that in the new Poland became taboo. While a number of them found a use the majority were simply left to rot.

The “Recovered Territories” “Ziemie Odzyskane” were to be the founding myth of the Polish Peoples Republic and essential to its self-definition. The Communists needed ideological ballast for the westward shift of the country and also for the official fraternal friendship with the Soviet Union which all adult Poles in 1945 knew principally as an implacable enemy of Polish aspirations to statehood. By coincidence the post-1945 frontiers of Poland were similar to those of the Polish kingdom of the 11th century and the notion of the ancient Piast lands returning to the Polish motherland after centuries of German occupation served the party’s purpose. It was for this reason, too, that the Polish eagle lost his crown, which it did not recover until 1990. The expulsion of German populations was followed by the resettlement of Poles repatriated from beyond the Bug and the wholesale rewriting of history. Every town village and hamlet was renamed and the old German names subjected to censorship. Libraries were stripped of pre-War maps, German inscriptions on buildings removed, ethnographic museums established to promote the new history. Historic buildings were demolished or left to rot as the authorities treated the area’s rich cultural and architectural heritage with contempt. Particularly scandalous was the wholesale destruction of German cemeteries.

On our second day in Silesia we drove to Lubomierz (formerly Liebenthal) a small town some 10 miles from Jelenia Gora. This is famous in Poland as the setting for three hugely popular comedy films about post-war repatriants and specifically about two warring peasant families who find themselves neighbours again in their new home. Pawlak and Kargul the quarrelsome heads of the two families are commemorated in a small museum, with a piece of the celebrated picket fence where the neighbours met to argue. These films, directed by Sylwester Checinski and made between 1967 and 1975, and which are still entertaining, also served an ideological purpose comparing the good life in Lower Silesia with the immiseration and backwardness of the old home in pre-war Eastern Poland. The first of the trilogy “Sami Swoi” shows the arrival into a Lubomierz that still has German shop signs and street names. The fertile land and solid buildings are compared to the thatched huts in which they allegedly lived before the War. The Polish claim to the land is put into the mouth of  Pawlak who says “To nasza ziemia” “This is our land”.  Theirs was to be a good life in these newly polonised territories.

The reality was less happy. The settlers found themselves in an alien landscape, their communities often broken up by the forced resettlement and their earlier life as much of a taboo as the real history of their new home. Everyone, of course, knew that, notwithstanding East German recognition of the “Peace Frontier” West Germany had not abandoned its claim to the 1937 borders. All this added a sense of impermanence to the disorientation. Little was invested for many years and this, at least in part, explains the ramshackle appearance of many Silesian villages. Lomnica is typical in this regard.  It is only in recent times that communities with a sense of permanence have been able to establish themselves.  And acquiring a sense of permanence has required an engagement with the past.

Certainly in Germany the past never went away and Heimatverbande kept alive the memory among children and grandchildren as well as among those actually expelled.   The year 1990 marked a new  opening of Poland to Germany and the Germans.  This partly took the form of nostalgia inspired  tourism to the old Eastern territories which was regarded with sullen suspicion by many. But there were also official initiatives to promote neighbourly contact and reconciliation. A good example of this is the splendidly restored residence of the Moltke family in Kreisau/Krzyzowa , centre of the aristocratic resistance to Hitler and scene of Helmut Kohl’s meeting with Tadeusz Mazowieicki  in the autumn of 1989. It is now a conference centre concentrating on meetings of young Poles and Germans to foster mutual understanding and reconciliation.  Positive engagement with the local community is certainly part of the von Kuster’s vision for Lomnitz.  The von Kuster children attended the village primary school  and are growing up bilingual.

Many Poles are taking a more nuanced and relaxed attitude to the past.  Some, of course, are exploiting it as business opportunity. There is a thriving market in old maps and town plans, coffee table books and of course there is money to be made from catering for the tourists.  This is particularly true of the Hirschberger Tal, a land of palaces and castles under the brooding presence of the Scheekoppe and the mountains that so inspired Caspar David Friedrich. For the southern part of Silesia is not only rich in history, it is also beautiful. Historical circumstance has made it a backwater but serious efforts are now being made to market the region inside and outside Poland. Nostalgia or “Heimweh” tourism must inevitably die out and it will be necessary for Silesia to become more widely known so that Lomnitz and other beautifully restored castles may continue to flourish.

We left Lomnitz on a sunny Sunday morning. As we turned onto the Jelenia Gora road we could see the proud summit of the Schneekoppe, previously, shrouded in mist. We knew that this was a place to which we would return.





Will Villa ruin my life again?

Once upon a time the position was simple. Albion’s neighbours from down Island Road were a bigger wealthier club than us and usually won on the infrequent occasions we got to play them. Then came the Wonder of Mulumbu, the Miracle of Scharner, a home draw we dominated and we could all feel the crowing claret and blue monkey being lifted off our backs. We are ending 2012 as West Midlands top dogs. Four weeks tomorrow they come to The Hawthorns and we should be favourites to win but…………

They have made poor managerial appointments in Houllier and McLeish, sold their best players, narrowly avoided relegation, struggled near the foot if the table this season as Albion headed for temporary Big Four status. How we laughed. But now they are a two leg tie against Bradford City away from a major final at Wembley. Whilst a one-off tie at valley Parade might have been considered a banana skin, over two legs it would be a big surprise if they didn’t win. They’ve started picking up points in the league too and I’m starting to lose sleep about the 19th January.

It is the Cup that bugs me most. Albion, after all, have not reached a major Wembley Final since 1970 (when we won at Villa Park en route) Even in the golden age of the late 1970s and early 80s we were the “nearly men”. We won nothing and saw Villa win the League and European Cup with a team that was no better than ours. Even the Wolves won the League Cup in 1980. All those things hurt. Still do.

There is a sense in which Villa deserve to go to Wembley which is that they have taken the competition seriously. Sadly Albion in recent years, and under successive managers, have regarded the Cups as a distraction. We have had chances. In December 2010 we went to Ipswich in the League Cup Quarter Final with a realistic chance of getting to Wembley. Roberto di Matteo made wholesale changes and a makeshift Albion team lost 1-0 to a side the full strength team would surely have beaten comfortably. The league form  slumped after this and di Matteo was out of a job just two months later.

It is, of course, important to stay up but supporters live for the days out, the glory. And we are long overdue a Cup final. There remains the FA Cup and I hope Steve Clarke will show us that the FA Cup is important to him. Our Third Round tie at Queen’s Park Rangers is important. If we lose that, lose on the 19th January and then see the men from Witton get to Wembley a few days later January will be a horrible horrible month, and Aston Villa will once again blight my life.

So come on Steve let’s go for it. Let’s make it our aim to get to Wembley in the Cup that matters!