Love and understanding after 50 years of distrust
June 03, 2021 13:55
In the fall of 1990, I was part of a group of German YFU students who spent four weeks in southern Poland to try and establish contacts there in the hope of starting long-term exchange programs between Poland and the world. I was placed with a wonderful host family in Będzin. One Wednesday, our group had spent the day visiting the former concentration camp in Auschwitz an hour to the South. Thus, when I sat down to dinner with my host family that night, I was in a rather somber mood. I noticed that the television was running during dinner, something which was unusual and which unnerved me a bit. My Polish was not good enough to follow what was being said, so I paid it no further attention.
Now, I must add that aside from two warm-hearted parents and two brothers, the family’s grandmother also lived at their house. Like many teenagers too absorbed in their own little world, I must admit I had not paid much attention to her. I had tried to greet her in a friendly manner when I first arrived, but my five words of Polish had prevented me from entering into any further conversation. I was in for a surprise!
That night, somehow, the atmosphere at the dinner table seemed to be different from other evenings. At first, I blamed this on the visit to the concentration camp which had deeply impressed me, and most likely my host brother, as well. It wasn’t until a while later that I realized the television was tuned to a live broadcast from Brandenburg Gate in Berlin – the celebration of German unification: Today was October 3rd!
Seemingly out of the blue, the grandmother said in perfect German: “This must be a proud moment for you!” These were the first words of German I had heard from her mouth, and I was so surprised that I did not know how to react. How had she learned German? Why had she been quiet before, not once talking to me? Thus, my first response was very cautious, trying to assess her mood. What followed was a very intense conversation about her life in Poland, neighbour to Germany before, during and after World War II. Over time, she opened up about her fears of the neighbour to the West becoming a ruthless, powerful giant which might squish Poland once again. All of a sudden, many things fell into place for me: The mumbled remarks of elderly passengers on the tram who had overheard us speaking German, the fact that somehow it seemed to be easier to get into contact with people when speaking French instead of German, even though France was far away and this region had been a neighbour to Germany for so long. Thus, I could assure her that her fears were the very reason why we were here in the first place: To establish contacts with people, to create a bond across cultural and political boundaries, to show that there were Germans who wanted to learn about the world, not conquer it.
Thinking back to what I said that night I cannot help but chuckle to myself: What a load of hogwash! We were young, we wanted to meet other teenagers, spend time together, dance to different types of music, go places our classmates at home had never been to. But by doing so we did exactly what I had talked about that night: We created bonds between individuals which have become elements of a large web of friendship and understanding linking two neighbouring countries – at last.
Author: Christoph Timm
An Exchange student from Germany to the USA in 1988/89 and to Poland in the fall of 1990
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