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Lost Villages in Masuria – A Polish-German Project on Cemeteries

Europe: Border and Encounter Regions Stiftung Gerhart-Hauptmann-Haus

Cemeteries are often the only remains of Masurian villages destroyed at the end of the Second World War. Hidden in the deep forests of the Puszcza Piska in the northeast of Poland, they are often hardly discernible from other elevations in the ground. Moss, bushes and trees have overgrown the old resting places during the last 70 years. They hide the last traces of the Masurian people that have lived there for centuries, on the borderland between Germany and Poland.

Protestant cemeteries were a significant element of the cultural landscape of Masuria. Every village had one. Often individual families had their own graveyard with special structural elements. After the Second World War, attempts to erase all traces of former German presence in the area also led to thoughtless vandalism. Nevertheless, what is left does still give an impression of former life in this European region.

Local initiatives of Sadyba Mazury and the foundation Borussia Olsztyn endeavour to secure what is still there. By documenting, clearing up and signposting them, the cultural heritage of the region is made visible. For two years now, a Polish-German cooperation of the foundation Gerhart-Hauptmann-Haus with students of history and landscape architecture at the universities at Düsseldorf and Olsztyn has participated in this project. During two-week workcamps the students have uncovered the old burial places and registered the layout of the graveyards. They have also researched the history of the lost villages, working in German and Polish archives. Thus they have been able to fruitfully combine this documentary evidence and that on the ground.

The results of this cooperation also serve the tourism and structural development of Masuria today. Supported by the local forest warden, the results of the research are displayed on bilingual display that inform about the history of the villages and the peculiarities of their graveyards. A fully developed system of bicycle routes leads to the lost villages of the Puszcza Piska and invites to contemplate the history of Masuria, its former communities and the remains of the cemeteries.