After the liberation of Kraków and Auschwitz, the 1st Ukrainian Front continued its march westward through Lower Silesia, which today is part of Poland, but in 1945 was predominantly German.
The 1st Ukrainian Front’s progress was swift, though they were still faced with sporadic opposition from Army Group “A” (formerly Army Group North Ukraine), now under a new commander, the fanatical General Ferdinand Schoerner. Hitler was being encouraged by his generals to withdraw and redeploy his troops, but he continued to advocate a “stand or die” policy, designating certain cities as Festung – fortresses to be defended at all costs.
Kraków and southeastern Poland
The Sandomierz–Silesian Offensive was the final push westwards by Marshal Konev’s troops towards Breslau (modern Wrocław) and the Oder river, part of the co-ordinated Vistula–Oder Offensive that was operating along the whole of the Eastern Front. As the 1st Ukrainian Front began besieging Breslau on 13 February 1945, General Chuikov’s Eighth Guards Army was engaged in the month-long Battle of Poznań 170km to the north. Poznań was captured on 23 February, opening up a direct route to Berlin. Breslau would take rather longer to overcome.
On the orders of Silesia’s Gauleiter, Karl Franke, Breslau was declared a Festung (“fortress”) to be defended to the utmost by its garrison of 50,000 troops. The street-to-street fighting that ensued was extremely fierce and lasted almost three months, during which most of the city was destroyed. Civilian casualties were huge, possibly as many as 40,000, largely because Franke had been slow to evacuate non-combatants. When he started to do so, after heavy aerial bombardment in January, thousands had to flee on foot in freezing conditions because of a shortage of trains, and many were left behind. Those refugees that headed for Dresden were killed when the city was bombed. Breslau finally capitulated on 6 May 1945, the last major German city to do so. As in Pomerania, Red Army troops then went on a brutal rampage of rape and murder against the remaining German inhabitants. This unofficial policy of “retribution” devastated the surrounding lands, making them virtually uninhabitable.
As early as 1943, Stalin was insisting to his western allies that the Soviet Union be allowed to retain the Polish territory it had invaded in 1939, an area that the Poles called Kresy, and which now makes up of parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania. After prolonged discussions (which largely excluded the Poles), the partition was agreed and ratified by the Allies at the Potsdam Conference in August 1945. To compensate for this huge loss of territory, Poland was to be given Danzig (now called Gdańsk), part of East Prussia and all the land east of the River Oder and its tributary the River Neisse. It still amounted to an overall loss of nearly 74,000 square kilometres.
What then followed was the removal, often forcibly, of huge numbers of people from their homes – Poles from Kresy, Germans from Silesia and Western Pomerania. The expulsion of German refugees into an already devastated Germany was carried out precipitously and often brutally by the Polish authorities and caused major problems for Allied administrators. In the east it was no less painful and confusing: Ukrainians, Belorusians and Lithuanians living in Poland were transferred east; Poles in Kresy – about 1.5 million – were “repatriated” west. Breslau (now Wrocław) was largely repopulated with families from Lwów (Ukrainian Lviv), nearly 600km away. For many people this displacement, on top of everything else they had suffered, was profoundly traumatic.
Occupying an old bus depot (zajezdnia is the Polish for “depot”), this enthralling museum charts the story of the reborn city’s inhabitants in a permanent exhibition, “Wrocław 1945–2016”. The mass movement of entire populations that took place after the war’s end is communicated clearly and sympathetically, albeit from a largely Polish point of view. The multimedia displays focus on the lives of ordinary people, using evocative everyday objects and personal testimonies.
Lomnica (formerly Lomnitz) Palace, near the town of Jelenia Góra 95km southwest of Wrocław, is part of a historic estate dating back to the 14th century. From 1835 it was owned by the German von Küster family, but after their enforced departure in 1945 their home was nationalized and used for various different purposes. Abandoned and slowly falling into ruin, it was bought back by the von Küsters in 1991. The Great Palace and its English-style gardens have now been beautifully restored as a museum and cultural centre, a symbol of reconciliation after the horrors of the postwar deportations. The smaller manor house is now run as a luxury hotel.
In 1943 Hitler ordered a top-secret project, codenamed Riese, meaning “giant”. A system of bomb-proof tunnels and halls were dug out from within the mountains by prisoners from a Gross-Rosen satellite camp. It remains unclear what this underground complex was used for, as the retreating Germans and then the Soviets removed all machinery, few documents seem to have survived, and most of the workers involved perished from the terrible working conditions or were killed by the guards. Armaments were almost certainly produced here, and it may have been used to store some of the art works and cultural treasures looted by the Nazis. There is also a popular rumour of a hidden train containing Nazi gold. Organization Todt, the Nazi engineering group who worked on the tunnels, had its headquarters at nearby Książ Castle, and it’s possible that the castle was intended as the final redoubt of Hitler and his staff.
The site, in woodland close to the villages of Sierpnica and Kolce, is the largest of the three Riese tunnel complexes open to the public.
Four tours are offered at different prices: the longest is three hours, the shortest one hour. Always book in advance and check when tours in English are available; alternatively, there is an English audioguide. It can get quite cold and slippery, so it’s advisable to wear warm clothing and sturdy shoes. It’s also worth working out how to get here in advance, as it’s rather off the beaten track, with Głuszyca the nearest town.
In the summer of 1940, the Germans built a concentration camp about 65km southwest of Wrocław, near the village of Gross-Rosen (now Rogoźnica). Its location was close to an SS-owned granite quarry where the prisoners were made to work twelve hours a day while on minimal rations. The camp eventually became the largest in Lower Silesia, with around one hundred sub-camps. The one at Brünnlitz (Brněnec in the Czech Republic) belonged to Nazi Party member Oskar Schindler, who had his Kraków factory relocated here in 1944. “Schindler’s List” contained the names of the 1200 workers that he insisted would be needed – Jews who otherwise would have met their deaths at Auschwitz or Gross-Rosen.
The 70th Motorized Infantry Brigade of the Red Army liberated the Gross-Rosen camps in mid-February 1945, but not before the SS had evacuated about 40,000 remaining prisoners to camps in Germany.
Smaller and not so well resourced as other camp museums, Gross-Rosen is still a fascinating but chilling place to visit, rarely as crowded as the better-known camps. Not many of the buildings remain, but their positions are clearly indicated. One building still standing is the SS Canteen, which now houses the camp’s main exhibition, “KL Gross-Rosen 1941–45”, outlining the history of the camp. Labelling is in Polish but there is a booklet in English and the helpful staff will answer any questions. Along the road to the right of the main entrance is the quarry where many prisoners were worked to death.
A pine forest 4km to the southwest of Żagań (German Sagan) is the site of two prisoner of war camps. Stalag VIIIC, built in 1939, held over 40,000 prisoners, including many Polish soldiers captured at the start of the war. Conditions were excessively squalid, and the regime was brutal. Stalag Luft III, a separate camp built in 1942 for Allied airmen, was far less primitive. This camp became famous for its many escape attempts. The best known involved digging three tunnels, nicknamed “Tom, Dick and Harry”, with the last used for a breakout of 76 men in March 1944. All but three escapees were eventually recaptured, and of these fifty were shot. Paul Brickhill, a former prisoner, later wrote up the story as The Great Escape, which was filmed by Hollywood in 1963. The museum site contains a reconstructed hut, a scale model of Stalag Luft III and several memorials to those who died at the camps. Bear in mind that the actual site of the camp is back towards Żagań. For clear directions, ask at the museum.
Top image: Ksiaz Castle © Haidamac/Shutterstock