We drive through the empty forests and meadows on the east bank of the River Odra in Poland. The storks have not yet arrived, and — as always at this time of the year — the river is high. Melting snow on the mountains of south-west Poland drains down through the Odra watershed to reach the Baltic. Along the way the river flows through the Polish city of Wrocław and, further downstream, marks the border between Germany and Poland. The locals in riverside villages along this stretch — places like Piasek and Czelin — talk of beavers, elk and lynx living in this remote area, but sightings of these mammals are rare. The animals keep to themselves, as do the humans in this region of western Poland.
The farmsteads are irretrievably run down and the railway station at Siekierki has not seen a train in years. “Welcome to Ziemie Zachodnie — the Western Territories,” says an elderly man who sits on the railway line. He is carving a piece of green willow. He does not look up, but focuses intensely on the fragment of wood in his hand.
To Poles who lived in eastern Galicia in the months after the end of the Second World War, the lands on the eastern side of the Odra River (and the wider territory of Silesia away to the south-east) were portrayed as a kind of Promised Land. The word Eldorado was used in advertisements posted at railway stations across Poland encouraging migrants to move west to settle in what were euphemistically referred to as ‘the recovered lands’ — the area east of the Oder- Neisse line. Until 1945, most of the land in the area was owned by Germans, who alluded to the region as Neumark or Ostbrandenburg. In 1945, the Potsdam Peace Treaty required these German settlers to move to new homes further west. Some three million ethnic Germans moved and one-time German villages morphed into Polish ones.