The History of a Disappearance

Filip Springer

Illustration by Gianna Meola

O Lord, Make No Tarrying

Make haste, O God, to deliver me; make haste to help me, O LORD.
Let them be ashamed and confounded that seek after my soul: let them be turned backward and put to confusion, that desire my hurt.
Let them be turned back for a reward of their shame that say, Aha, aha.
Let all those that seek thee rejoice and be glad in thee: and let such as love thy salvation say continually, Let God be magnified.
But I am poor and needy: make haste unto me, O God: thou art my help and my deliverer; O LORD, make no tarrying.

Psalm 70, King James Version

[. . .]


The situation beyond the mountains is getting worse. By 1944, the Soviet counteroffensive has reached the Vistula River. It stops there, though not for long. On January 12, 1945, at 5 a.m., “Stalin’s organs” begin to play on the banks of the Vistula. A thousand Katyusha rockets give the Red Army the signal to attack. It won’t stop until it reaches Berlin. Over the next few days, panic breaks out in the furthest-flung eastern provinces of the Reich. Since mid-January, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Upper Silesia—mainly women and children—have already been heading west. On January 20, all across Breslau the civilian population is ordered to abandon the city immediately. The scene on the streets is like Dante’s Inferno. There’s not space on the trains for everyone, so thousands set off on foot in sub-zero temperatures.

Helena Szczepańska is also among the refugees. She’s eight years old and the youngest of five siblings. Until now, she and her mother have lived in Niklasfähre, on the border of Upper and Lower Silesia. Thanks to their German ancestry—and despite their de facto Polish ethnicity—they are evacuated along with the other Germans. They stop for a day when they reach Schurgast, and then walk westward for almost two weeks. On February 1, 1945, they reach a small town on top of a hill—Kupferberg. Helena will remember this place well, for during their almost three-week trek through Silesia, Kupferberg is the only place she and her family get to sleep in a heated building. Everywhere else they sleep in barns, sheds, cellars, and God knows where else.

Starting in early 1945, a post operates in the Black Eagle tavern giving out hot meals and tea for refugees from the East. Before long, Kupferberg’s population has grown to nearly a thousand. The authorities estimate there are almost twenty thousand refugees in the region around Hirschberg. Watching them, young Karl Heinz Friebe wonders if he, his mother, and little sister will share the same fate. The feeling of hunger hasn’t left him for some months, and the supplies they’d prepared that summer are slowly running out. Bread, milk, and sugar are getting harder to find. It’s true the authorities have issued ration cards, but they’re no use, because finding anything to buy with them borders on a miracle.

The townspeople and the refugees generally believe even a trek over the ringing frost is better than falling into the Communists’ clutches. People can remember the films and photos shot by German soldiers in the East Prussian village of Nemmersdorf in the fall of 1944, just after retaking it from the Soviets in a ferocious battle. This is how one of the soldiers who marched into Nemmersdorf described what he saw in the pages of the German press: “At the first farm, there was a hay wagon off the left side of the road. Four naked women were nailed to it by their hands, in a pose of crucifixion. Two naked women were nailed to the door of the barn, also in a pose of crucifixion. All in all, we found seventy women and children, and one old man, seventy-four years old. They were all dead. You could see they’d been tortured horrifically, except a few who had been shot in the back of the head. Even babies had been killed, their skulls smashed in. The bodies of all the women, including girls from eight to twelve years old, showed signs of rape. Even an old, blind woman wasn’t spared.”

No wonder news of the Russians’ approach makes people desperate to escape. The ones who can no longer flee resolve to commit suicide. There are hundreds of these cases in the towns and villages of the Reich. Entire villages and hamlets hang themselves. Entire families hang themselves; mothers kill their children and then take their own lives. They don’t know that although the Red Army has committed unimaginable crimes in Nemmersdorf and other places, the descriptions in German propaganda are strongly exaggerated. The authorities are trying to induce panic in the nation, terror of the savage hordes from Asia. You don’t negotiate with a horde; with a horde you fight to your last breath, because falling into the clutches of barbarians from the East is a fate worse than death.

When routine bombardment of Breslau begins in early February, in Kupferberg the decision to evacuate is made. Karl Heinz Friebe dresses warmly and makes sure his little sister is equally bundled up. A blizzard is raging outside. They take what food remains from the house, as well as their most essential possessions; they don’t know where they’re going. They clean the house, lock it behind them and pocket the key. They know the first section of the route perfectly. They have to leave the house, pass the brewery and then the two stone crosses, which at this time of year barely peek out over the snow banks. They take the road down toward Jannowitz. If it weren’t for the war, there they’d get on a train and go wherever their hearts desired—but at the station, they’re shocked to discover the trains aren’t stopping there, just slowing down a little only to speed up again a moment later and rush southward. The fountain has also vanished from the front of the station; a deep crater now lies in its place, and the walls of the surrounding houses are pockmarked with rounds from machine guns. Karl Heinz Friebe looks at all this and doesn’t understand what the little fountain in Jannowitz had to do with the war going on beyond the mountains.

The refugees don’t get onto a train but instead into military trucks waiting at the station. They spend the next few hours packed together, trying to withstand the deadly cold forcing its way through the canvas roof. Finally, just before dusk, they reach Gablonz and are quartered in the gymnasium of the local public school. For more than a week, every morning they will pack up their possessions and wait for their transport westward to depart. They know their destination; everyone here says there’s nowhere safe anymore, but the least dangerous place is Dresden. That’s exactly where most trains and refugee columns from Silesia are being directed.

So they wait patiently. Every now and then another family will disappear from the gymnasium where they’ve ended up living, and new ones will arrive in their place. A large share of the nearly six hundred thousand refugees passes through Gablonz. The ones who’ve stood eye-to-eye with Red Army soldiers have terrible stories to tell. One of the refugees will later write in his memoirs:
The terrifying news magnified our fear. We heard blood-curdling stories about young men and old people being murdered, women being raped regardless of age, nursing mothers having their breasts cut off, pregnant women having their wombs cut open and the still-unborn fetuses ripped out, deep wells being filled up with the bodies of living people, eyes getting poked out with bayonets, tongues being cut out, crowds of Germans being burned alive in barns or houses, militiamen being driven into captivity by powerful tanks and armored cars charging them from behind, and many other stories that would make your hair stand on end.
Yes—compared with all the horrors talked about in the school gymnasium in Gablonz, the thought of escaping to Dresden is a true comfort.

Finally it’s their turn. They head out the afternoon of February 13. They have almost a hundred miles to cross, but the train they get on stops constantly, because there are already Soviet planes about and there’s a danger they’ll bomb the tracks. But the refugees are moving. They leave Kupferberg, and their fear, behind them somewhere. Supposedly it’s safer in the West. They’re going farther from home, but farther from danger too. Dresden isn’t far now, almost within reach. But when night falls, the whole convoy stops completely; they turn out the lights and everything is enveloped in darkness. In the air they can hear a terrifying hum growing louder and louder, as though a giant swarm of bees were waking from their winter sleep. Karl Heinz Friebe presses his nose against the frost-covered window of the train. The other passengers do the same. They look up in the sky, but can’t make anything out. After a moment, they see the first flashes far to the west: one, a second, a third. Soon they won’t be able to count them anymore; the flashes transform into a golden glow taking up almost the entire horizon. There’s a rumble from afar, but it’s muffled enough inside the train that they can still hear the children crying. They would be able to hear whispered conversations too, but no one speaks. They all stand and watch. It’s the night of February 13, 1945, and right now several hundred Allied planes are carrying out the carpet bombing of Dresden. Over the next two days, they will turn the city into a heap of rubble and take the lives of twenty-five thousand people. Those who managed to get onto the earlier trains leaving Gablonz will also be among the dead. The train from which Karl Heinz Friebe is watching the glow in the west has stopped ten miles from the city, because it was one of the last to leave.

So they can’t go to Dresden. That city is gone, so where to now? Breslau is under siege, just like Posen, Thorn, Danzig, and Königsberg. They head south, slowly. They come to Gablonz again; there’s chaos at the station and weeping. They don’t get off there. The train will go somewhere, a train has to move, the train will take them away from there. They’re on the road the next few days; Karl Heinz Friebe loses count, he’s hungry and cold. It’s quiet on the train. They’re in Bohemia; they’re getting as far as the border of what used to be Austria. Suddenly an alarm sounds: there are Soviet planes in the air and people are fleeing the train. It’s winter, there’s snow and a town in the distance. They run; the planes are getting closer. Karl holds his sister with one hand and his mother with the other. His greatest fear is losing one of them. The planes fly low overhead and fire their machine guns. First they shoot at the train, and then they turn around and fly over the town. People scatter in all directions. They run up to the first houses they see—there are walls and cellars, they can hide there! But no. The whole town closes its doors to them. No one lets them in. They can pound their fists, they can shout and weep, but they can’t go in. They can only lie curled up against a wall and hope the planes shoot at the people lying in the street. Once they’ve flown off, the grown-ups lead the children away, and then pile up the corpses in one place. The train will be able to move on.

They travel this way for three weeks—Bohemia, the Sudetenland, Silesia. Finally, at the beginning of March, they reach Hirschberg, where they also meet those who survived the bombing of Dresden. They don’t want to hear their stories; they’re going up the mountain—returning home. Lomnitz, Schildau, Boberstein, Rohrlach, Jannowitz. On the way, Karl Heinz asks the farmers if maybe they have a little milk to sell. Finally, the two stone crosses, the brewery building, the key from the pocket. Home.


Columns of skeletons appear in the area. It’s the evacuation of a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen. They come from Hirschberg, Bad Warnbrunn, and Landeshut (where after a day’s march they end up back where they started and the SS-men fly into a rage). In Bolkenhain, they undergo selection first. A prisoner from that camp later testifies he saw living people thrown into ditches with lime, and the Lagerführer personally killed some prisoners with poison injections.

Kupferberg is out of the way; maybe if the women’s camp in Märzdorf were evacuated, the four hundred women would pass through the town on their grim march. But that camp operates right to the end, until the Russians liberate it.

Bolkenhain is thirteen miles from Kupferberg, Hirschberg is a little closer. It’s eleven miles to Landeshut and barely six to Märzdorf. That’s not beyond the mountains anymore. That’s here.

There are other camps here too, small factories, individual farms where French, Belgian, and Polish prisoners work. They’ve been brought in throughout the war. They were meant to work for the Reich and be glad they were alive. Now it’s said they can’t wait for the Russians to come, so they can point out who treated them the worst.

The Nazis disappear too. One night in a panic, they load up a van, gather up all their documents and head out of Kupferberg toward Bohemia. The mayor of the town is among them; they’re all Nazi Party members. After a few days, they return beaten-up, with no van, shabby and resigned. The ring of encirclement has long since closed. There’s no escape; the only thing to do is wait.

Explosions can already be heard in every direction; planes appear more and more frequently in the sky. Once they find out the Russians have captured the German airport, no one looks at the symbols on the planes’ wings anymore; they all just go straight into the cellar and wait. Yet not one bomb falls on Kupferberg. A plane is shot down and falls on the rail bridge just beyond Jannowitz, meaning the route to Hirschberg is cut off too. The townspeople are constantly being thrown into panic by word the Russians are coming: one more town will join the ghost of Nemmersdorf. As February turns to March, the Germans successfully retake Striegau from the Russians. The streets there are covered with the corpses of civilians who didn’t manage to evacuate.

Helena Plüschke, one of the inhabitants of Striegau, later recalls the Russians’ entry into the town:
A Russian patrol bursts into the house. They chase out the women and girls. They catch them all, street by street, and take them to the school. There, it’s hell on Earth! The nightmares still linger in my mind: drunken soldiers, a gun in one hand, a torch in the other—on the hunt. German women are their main prey. Women from Striegau and nearby are held in schoolrooms for entire days, imprisoned and tortured. In over-crowded rooms, their tormentors select their victims. If anyone resists, they drag her down the corridor by her hair to the “slaughterhouse.” Every two or three hours, a special team appears to pick out women for the officers’ quarters [. . .]. Those who return from there are mental, and sometimes physical, wrecks. I am a victim once again. Luckily, I manage to protect my 11-year-old daughter. I wrap her in old rags and hide her behind a pile of junk. The torture begins by asking whether I am a Nazi. My denial is answered with a powerful blow to the face and then a whipping. They hold a pistol to my head and force me to drink; as though ironically, it’s German rye vodka. It doesn’t take long before I’m engulfed by drunken intoxication. Whatever they’ve done to me I don’t feel until the next day. Now I’ve completely lost my will to live, and I’m finished. I throw up a few times, and then lie apathetically among the other women who’ve met the same fate.
Since the Nazis have fled, Richard Fürle becomes the mayor. (He doesn’t know he’ll be the last in the history of Kupferberg.) When the news of Hitler’s death reaches the townspeople on April 30, a meeting is held in the Black Eagle tavern. The mayor appeals for everyone to stay calm and reasonable until the war ends, and he abolishes the requirement for them to greet one another with the Nazi salute. When he returns to his office, an officer of the Waffen SS division currently stationed in Kupferberg is already waiting for him there. The officer accuses Fürle of treason and puts a pistol on his desk.

“Mr. Mayor, I think you ought to carry out the sentence yourself. Otherwise, I will be forced to do so.”

“If you do as you intend, be sure you will not leave here alive,” answers the mayor.

The officer looks out the window. By now a considerable crowd of townspeople has gathered in front of the mayor’s office. After a moment’s silence, the officer takes the pistol off the desk and leaves. Soon the SS-men abandon Kupferberg.

On May 9 at about 5 p.m., the first Russian motorcycle patrol rides into Hirschberg. They’re shot by the one SS post in the town, making up the sum total of shots fired in defense of Kupferberg. That same day, Karl Heinz Friebe, walking on the road to Rudelstadt, spots the first Russian soldier. The boy stands stock-still; the soldier would probably have done the same, if he weren’t completely drunk and barely able to stay on his feet. So here they are! Karl runs toward the town and prays the soldier won’t shoot him. A moment later, all the inhabitants of Kupferberg are sitting in their cellars, shaking with fear. They’ll spend almost twenty-four hours down there, because the Russians won’t enter the town until the next day. They drive up the road from Rudelstadt and Märzdorf in tanks. They evict the inhabitants of a house at the bend in the road right next to the brewery, and set up their headquarters there. That’s where the Germans are to come hand in any guns they have, and any radio receivers too. The ghost of Nemmersdorf claims its first victim: in the cellar of the Black Eagle tavern, the first young woman hangs herself.


If anyone has to leave the house, now young Karl Heinz Friebe does it. He’s relatively safe—he’s a little boy. Because of the rapes taking place in Kupferberg, several more women have already hanged themselves. In the hamlet of Kreuzweise, a few minutes down the road, the Russians burst into one farmwoman’s home and raped her for so long she died of exhaustion. The women don’t go outside; they cover their heads with head scarves and do their best to not look anyone in the eye.

In truth no one is safe. The Russians come into Kurt Haenisch’s pharmacy and demand rectified spirit from his laboratory. The pharmacist refuses and explains that without it he won’t be able to prepare any medicines or dress any wounds, of which there are plenty, after all. They drive him off in a car and beat him. He returns a week later. He dies a few days after that.

For similar reasons, a railroad worker from Jannowitz and the merchant Seidel are shot, and the Russians beat Mr. Gehde unconscious with truncheons. He dies a few days later as a result of an abscess in his brain.

The first Polish policemen and soldiers arrive in town. They don’t maintain order—their appearance causes even more chaos and fear. Their orders are clear:
Treat the Germans as they have treated us. Many have already forgotten how they have treated our children, wives and old people. The Czechs proved capable of forcing the Germans to flee their territory. We must be tough and decisive in performing our duty so that the Teutonic vermin don’t just hide in their houses, but run away from us on their own, and once they’re back in their own country thank God they made it out alive. Let us not forget that Germans will always be Germans. As you perform your duty, do not request, but command.
It’s enough for the Poles to show up in Kaszynski’s tavern for yet another tragedy to take place. They don’t think the German owner greets them with the proper respect. So they beat him unconscious, then tie him by his legs to a motorcycle and drag him through the whole town, and then farther, past the brewery and the two crosses all the way to Jannowitz.

Anyone who falls under suspicion of Nazism is also at risk of being killed. In May, Georg Franzky, the brewery owner, comes back to Kupferberg. The joy at his return doesn’t last long, though, for his sudden appearance catches the attention of the Polish police. Suspecting him of fighting for Nazi partisans, they order him to hand over the gun he’s allegedly hiding in his garden. Franzky explains he has no gun and digs up his entire garden before the Poles’ very eyes. When he doesn’t find anything, they beat him unconscious. Miraculously, he survives.

Count Christian Friedrich zu Stolberg-Wernigerode is also suspected of Nazism. It’s not enough that he’s a capitalist and a bourgeois, on top of that, during the war he had two forced laborers from France working on his farm. The Poles take the Count away and detain him for five weeks in Hirschberg. Two other townspeople die on his account—Mr. Beiwe and Mr. Maiborn. He himself is saved by a Polish doctor, who tends to his injuries, but the Count never fully recovers.

Karl Heinz Friebe already knows from official announcements posted around Kupferberg that he is no longer German, but merely a German, a member of an ethnic minority in a new country. He doesn’t know that, in the terminology of the new government, he, his mother, and all the old people in the town are “undesirable elements” with no “productive capacity.” Such elements must be gotten rid of as quickly as possible.

Soon Karl Heinz Friebe also finds out Kupferberg is no longer Kupferberg. Its new name is Miedziana Góra. Jannowitz becomes Janowice, Rudelstadt is Ciechanowice, Märzdorf is Marciszów, and Waltersdorf is Mniszków. In addition, Hirschberg is now Jelenia Góra and Bad Warnbrunn is Cieplica. Breslau is now called Wrocław, and Görlitz is Zgorzelec. Karl Heinz Friebe doesn’t know how to pronounce any of these names. Only Berlin has stayed Berlin, though some people say there is no Berlin anymore.

Other rumors crop up too. Apparently no one knows whether the whole area will even end up inside Poland’s borders. There’s a chance Kupferberg will be Kupferberg again and will be taken over by the British or American occupation zone, or it could become Czechoslovakia. In July 1945, German posters appear in the town:
Labor is the only cure for poverty,
Work is the only source of bread,
Don’t complain!
Don’t lose heart!
Approach the new task
With new strength,
Be ready to admit your mistakes bravely,
And to take a new path honestly.
The times demand it of you,
Be prepared!

Despite the rumors, it quickly becomes clear that the days of Karl Heinz Friebe and his countrymen in the town are numbered, as they are in all the towns in Lower Silesia. On July 11, Major Smirnov, the military commandant of Jelenia Góra, meets with the German population.
I’m holding this meeting to warn you all that you’re going to be deported from here. The area around Jelenia Góra is already being resettled; Jelenia Góra and Warnbrunn will be resettled on July 14 and 15. That’s why I’m warning you in advance, because the Poles don’t know about it yet. If they did, they would already be looting and plundering.

The deportation will happen in a normal and orderly fashion, not the way the Poles do it. They come at midnight, give you twenty minutes and only let you take forty-five pounds with you. I’m letting you take not just forty-five pounds, but more—as much as you can carry.

[. . .] As long as I’m here, I won’t let the Poles do any harm. Whenever I’ve heard the Poles are looting I’ve come out to stop them, even in the middle of the night. I don’t allow that sort of thing.

[. . .] I think you all understand, because I’ve said enough, even too much, because I’m sure there are no Poles here. If one of the Poles were here I wouldn’t have told you so much.

The expulsions do indeed go ahead, but not as quickly as Major Smirnov predicted. In fact, no one knows how to deport hundreds of thousands of people and their possessions from such a large area so rapidly, especially since the first thing the Russians did was to dismantle the electrification on the railroad from Jelenia Góra to Wałbrzych and export the equipment to the East. Now, once again, only steam trains can run there.

At the moment no one even knows how many Germans there are. The population records scrupulously maintained by German local officials aren’t much use, because thousands of people were stranded there during the evacuation of the East to Lower Silesia. So they’re all required to register in the towns and municipalities. There, their names are added to the repatriation lists. From July onward, all Germans without exception are also required to wear a white band on their right arm.

Karl Heinz Friebe’s mother tears up one of their sheets and cuts three armbands out of it, neatly hemming the edges. The boys ask how long they’ll have to wear them, but no one in the town knows.


More and more Poles are arriving and taking houses over. Once they’ve picked out a specific building, the police go in and order the Germans living there to move into the attic or the cellar. As per regulations, the former owners are assigned to the first round of repatriation. Only those Germans working in the paper mill in Janowice or in the linen factory in Marciszów are protected from this fate. There’s a shortage of specialists across Lower Silesia, so German experts who know how to keep production levels up are worth their weight in gold. Notices are nailed to the doors of their houses; they can stay here the longest.

Right from the beginning the Poles try to work the local soil and begin farming. The new authorities encourage them, for people are arriving all over the region, and the granaries are half-empty after the war. Yet the new farmers don’t know the particulars of the harsh climate here, or the history of the fields. They don’t know what’s been grown on them before, so they can’t tell what they should plant now. They don’t ask the Germans, though. When the Germans offer to help, they just get told not to interfere, because they’ll be gone soon anyway.

So now there’s winter and hunger. The supplies of nettles and pigweed mama gathered up ran out long ago, though there are still preserves made from fruit secretly gathered from their own orchards. Karl Heinz Friebe doesn’t even go out for milk. The more enterprising Poles have taken away the Germans’ cows, and now milk is even harder to get. They can’t buy anything in the stores either, because the new government has introduced an exchange rate that’s detrimental to the Germans. They can only pay in marks, because they can be punished for possession of Polish złotys.

The ongoing deportation of German families doesn’t proceed without problems. For example, so that Waltersdorf can truly merit the Polish name Mniszków, the population of the entire village is summoned to leave the town three separate times. Three times someone pounds on the door at midnight, three times they find out they’ll leave their homes at dawn. Three times they carefully pack and weigh each of their bundles so they’re not over forty-five pounds. Three times they set off on the long road to Jelenia Góra. There they find out it’s not their turn yet, and they’re to return home.

Those who leave in winter have it the worst. The transports heading out of Lower Silesia are rarely heated. There are no stoves in the railroad cars, not every train has an assigned doctor, and there are problems with food supplies. The deportees aren’t always able to bring food with them; often they lose it at the station during the baggage inspection. There are stories of death trains going around. One of those is a train that leaves Wrocław in the winter of 1946. There are 1,543 people on it, of whom one-third are children and young people. The Poles don’t allow the travelers to bring straw onto the train for bedding; they also don’t check the stoves. In the course of the six-day journey in sub-zero temperatures, the Germans are only given hot coffee four times, and bread just once. Meanwhile, several (four or five) pregnant women give birth; in these conditions the babies have no hope of survival. A Breslau resident, Dr. Loch, tries to provide medical assistance. During the journey he has a heart attack; despite this, he does his best to help everyone in need, but there’s little he can do. In total, 32 people freeze to death en route. Another 298 go straight from the train to the hospital when they arrive in the West. Altogether, over the next few weeks another 58 of the train’s passengers die as a result of the nightmarish journey. A dramatic appeal reaches the British military mission in Kaławsk: “Incidents of mistreatment of Germans are increasing, and the main perpetrators appear to be railroad policemen.”

Some are afraid to leave Miedziana Góra, others are afraid to stay. Some still hope everything will work out somehow. The owner of the water bottling plant, Max von Glaschynsky, doesn’t want to leave his factory; the gravedigger Neumann doesn’t want to leave his graveyard; the Blümke sisters don’t have anyone in the West.

Hugo Ueberschaer doesn’t want to go either. He says you can’t transplant old trees. Besides, he doesn’t have any reason to go west. He’s already prepared everything for his departure here. So he puts on his dress uniform and takes his own life. They put him in the crypt he built himself; they cover the coffin with a reinforced concrete plaque, on which he’d carved the following inscription with his own hand:
DIED ……………

Only the date of death is missing. Maybe he put off the decision day after day? The people who bury the old policeman put the date on the plaque. From here, he’ll have a beautiful view of the whole of the Sokole Mountains.

Summer again

Finally, it’s the Friebe family’s turn too. They pack their bundles, clean the house, lock the door, and leave the key on the doorframe. They won’t return. It’s June 1946. There’s a scent of lilacs, and the cherries will be ripe soon. They walk away from their house and past the brewery. Then the two stone crosses. Jannowitz, Rohrlach, Boberstein, Schildau, Lomnitz, Hirschberg station—Jelenia Góra station. They wait at the station. One day, two days, a week. Their bags are inspected: no valuables can leave Poland. But they have no valuables.

They wait again. It rains.

The train is fitted with cattle cars; there are fifty-five of them, and thirty-five people are loaded into each one. Hold Mama’s hand so you won’t get lost. Karl quickly works out an entire town, even two, can fit in one train. They could pack all of Kupferberg into train cars and send it all west. But the town will stay. Only they will disappear.

The train stops outside Marciszów. Karl Heinz Friebe goes up to the door of the car and looks at the two church towers, the one with a broken clock, for the last time. Water pours in through the leaky roof of the train car.

They ride through Jawor and Legnica to Kaławsk. Here they learn they’re going to the British occupation zone. They’re glad. Now for delousing; they’re ordered to undress and they wash. Then they get back on the train. Soon comes the border, the bridge over the Oder River, and the new Germany beyond it. The riverbank is all white: people are taking off their armbands and throwing them out of the train. Mrs. Friebe does the same with Karl’s. The boy watches for a long time as the scrap of white linen floats on the wind.

translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye