July 16, 2011
As the train moved west towards Berlin, the land became drier and more vast. The bogs visible yesterday from the train between Czestochowa and Warsaw were replaced by open fields bordered by pines. From this faster train, I saw less birch, more oaks and maples, surroundings familiar from central Pennsylvania. The Oder River between Poland and Germany was no wider than the Schuylkill, and it was strange to think that this river served as a major boundary between two nations for such a long time. Impossible to think of two mutually hostile peoples facing each other down across a distance no greater than the span of the Falls Bridge in East Falls.
But I think this is part of a misleading historical generalization, fine for propagating stereotypes or selling movies, but a poor substitute for reality. Today, the maps of eastern Germany and western Poland give each town and city two names, one in each language. There is Wroclaw/Breslau, Szczecin/Stettin, and more. And this is how it was for centuries. Nikolaus Kopernik (Copernicus) spoke German at home, but could get by in Polish, and accepted the local Polish ruler as the sovereign authority. My grandmother, Margarete Stresemann, spoke German and identified with that culture, but a quick glance at any photo will confirm that she looked far more Polish, or Russian, or something other than what I associate with ethnic German. My guess is that she understood more than a little Polish to get by in Stettin/Szczecin. I am sure that a porous frontier is more fun, more vibrant and more filled with ideas than one which is closed off by a wall. Between Poland and Germany, where citizens of each country do not need a passport or even photo id to cross, the present is returning to the past with excellent results.
Suddenly, a few minutes after the Oder crossing, the signs are in German and I can read them. The train is now moving much faster, maybe the tracks are in better shape. I see a highway overpass which looks like any at home, and a small German flag waving amid the cucumbers in a garden fast by the railroad tracks. After passing a small town with more signs which make sense to me, I see a half-circle of more than a dozen huge power windmills, with massive fan blades turning in the breeze. We don’t have these in Pennsylvania.