A popular Advent theme is “Peace.” In these times of hateful vitriol, I pondered that theme as I read the account of seagoing cowboy Gordon Shull of his time in Gdansk, Poland, in May 1946. And I wonder, how does one defuse hate to keep it from breeding war? And after a war, how does one pacify the hate that lingers?
The destruction World War II survivors had to cope with in Gdansk, Poland, May 1946. Photo credit: Marvin Snell, shipmate of Gordon Shull.
Shull experienced that hate in post-World War II Gdansk. Gdansk had been the German free city of Danzig before the war, repopulated by the Poles at war’s end when most surviving German citizens were expelled in accord with the Potsdam Agreement. Life was rough for the small number of Germans who stayed, as detailed in Shull’s letter from that time:
“[T]he immigrating Poles have brought with them a blind, deep-seated hatred of all Germans . . . [and they] are taking their sweet revenge.
“Put yourself in the shoes of Mary K–, with whom I talked for several hours. Imagine yourself standing helpless by as an invading Russian soldier loots your home, opening trunks, overturning tables, adding your wristwatch to the half-dozen others that already adorn his arm . . . disguising yourself as an old woman in order to evade the sex-hungry soldiers, but sometimes failing because some 80-year-old women were raped, while others who had the misfortune of being young and beautiful were raped as much as 30 times.
“Then, after the Russians have settled down, and after your friends and relatives have left Danzig for uncertain fates in Russia or Germany, imagine yourself at the mercy of people whose moral principles, already reduced by war and its familiar accompaniments, have reached a new low in a boom-town atmosphere. You are now the scapegoat of a people who have suffered at the hands of Germans and Russians. Imagine yourself chased out of your home at the point of a gun by a Pole who allows you to take only that which you can lay your hands on as you leave (no . . . you must leave your camera, your watch, your bicycle, your jewelry) . . . finding a greenhouse or a clubroom or a not-too-badly-ruined dwelling in which to live . . . dragged out of bed at 6:00 AM, every once in a while, by Polish police, and forced to work all day in their headquarters for absolutely nothing . . . getting up at 5:00 each morning so that you can hide from the Poles, and thus go to your job – which, incidentally, pays about half as much as a Pole would get . . . thrown off of streetcars as soon as your identity is discovered . . . having no law whatever to protect you . . . living in perpetual fear, so that when someone knocks on your door, you hold your breath . . . . All of this and more happened to middle-aged Mary K–. . . .
“Before the war, Mary was a Physics Instructor. A graduate of the University of Danzig, she had done work on the electronics microscope. Now she wields a sledge hammer. Her wage consists of one or two meals, and ten cents a day. That’s about enough to buy two or three loaves of bread on the market. . . .
With so many men killed in the war, women did most of the clean up work. Gdansk, summer 1946. Photo credit: Richard Musselman.
“Mary told us that she and many of her friends had opposed the Nazis so much that the Nazis had boycotted their businesses. ‘Because of our opposition,’ she said in pretty good English, ‘we didn’t dream that any harm would come to us after the war. But no . . . you can’t imagine!’ Several times in the course of our conversation she repeated that phrase, covering her head in her hands as if to suppress memories that were too bitter to describe, or even to hold in her mind. Then, with a determined [shake] of her head and a quick clenching of her fist, she would snap out of it.
“. . . Because we knew that she was not begging, and would share with other needy Germans anything we might give her, we made our contribution all the larger, when we left.”