I watch the country-side through the window, take videos on my camera and finish reading Sebald’s book on destruction and the German psyche. In my carriage are three young women, one who spends almost the whole trip in conversation on her blackberry. When she is not talking, she is sending messages and consulting a large diary. Next to me is a man who speaks a little English and is also going to Szczecin. He kindly lifts my suitcase onto the rack above the seats. ‘I think you must have gold in there’, he says, because it is so heavy. I am embarrassed about the weight of my suitcase – how could this be? especially after I sent eight large parcels back to Australia before I left Riga. I vow to reduce its contents once I get to Germany.
We are about half an hour from Szczecin when the train stops at a particular station for an extended period of time. I look out the window fairly casually – it’s a rather grotty, depressing station – and gaze blankly at a large white sign just outside my carriage window covered in Polish text. I notice it has the word Szczecin on it, but then I notice that Szczecin is preceded by the word Stargard. In a small flurry of panic, I realise that this is where I have to get off and ask the man next to me if he could help me with my suitcase. ‘But your ticket is for Szczecin’, he says. ‘I know’, I reply, ‘but this is where I am going, this is where my mother was in 1944’. ‘So it’s a special journey’, he says, ‘it’s about your family history’, and he takes my suitcase down from the rack, and like a true gentleman, carries it onto the platform for me. He also wishes me good luck.
The train vanishes into the distance and there I am, on the platform of Stargard Szczecin, in a place that looks completely different from the images on the internet sites I had been checking. I drag my suitcase up and down the stairs of a small underpass and into the main part of the station. It feels a bit daunting here because it's very run down. I look for information signs, find one, wait patiently in a queue, but when it’s my turn the woman just shakes her head – she speaks no English - and points me to the adjacent counter and another queue. I wait here and again I have no luck and am sent to yet another counter, where of course, as I now come to expect, no-one speaks a word of English. The woman at this final counter just looks at me with a stunned expression on her face. I feel a small wave of panic pass through me – what the hell am I doing here? What was I thinking? Why didn’t I go to Szczecin, as I had originally planned and then I could have done a day trip to Stargard? But then I pull myself together and go outside station to see what I can find. There is a big map on the side of the wall, and I search it for the location of the station, but I can’t see it marked anywhere and there is no ‘You Are Here’ arrow. I ask a big, rough-looking man standing next to me for help by pointing to the ground and then to the map, but he just shakes his head and points to the taxi rank.
There are two cabs. I get into one and ask for ‘touristiko informacija’ (a strange hybrid of Latvian and what I think might be Polish that I make up on the spot) and the driver takes me to a small square in the old part of town and points to an office with ‘i’ on the door. The square looks completely dead – not a soul in sight – and while the woman in the bureau is quite friendly, she speaks no English. She does, however, draw a small map for me that shows the location of a hotel. When I leave, I notice there is another bureau diagonally opposite that looks more like the official Tourist Information office and so I pay a visit there as well. The woman working here also has no English, but she asks if I speak German (why didn’t I think of this at the station?) and we manage to have a staccato conversation. I haven’t used German for years and my vocabulary is very limited, but somehow I manage to draw out and string together enough words to make myself understood. (This is a physical experience, almost painful, because I can actually feel the words squeezing out from a very dormant section of my brain.) The woman explains that there are two hotels that would be suitable for me, one in the centre of town and the other further out. I decide for the more central option, which is supposed to be the best accommodation in Stargard and was also suggested by the woman in the other bureau, collect a range of information brochures and head off with map in hand.
Stargard Szczecin is much more attractive than its railway station suggests. It’s a very old town – one of the oldest in Poland, in fact – and has many beautiful gothic buildings. I stop to take photos here and there as I make my way to the Hotel Spichlerz. I walk through a superb old gate, turn right on the main street and reach the hotel in about fifteen minutes. While the signage on the street is clear, the entrance to the hotel is not and I mysteriously find myself inside a shop that sells Stihl products. The woman behind the counter is busy talking on the phone but she points next door, so I go back outside to search for the entrance. I eventually find it and after negotiating a series of Escher-inspired stairwells, I arrive at the back of the Stihl shop. It seems that the shop and the hotel are all part of the same operation. The woman is still on the phone but she indicates she will be with me in a moment. I find the reception area down another mysterious flight of stairs and wait until she arrives and checks me in.
I settle into my room, which is in a corridor between two flights of stairs that you can’t take the lift to. I either have to drag my suitcase up a small flight of stairs, or catch the lift to the first floor and then drag it down a small flight of stairs. It’s all quite confusing and I am beginning to wonder whether I should have opted for the slightly cheaper hotel that is further out of the centre of town. But even though it’s a bit monastic, my room is quite comfortable and I feel a little more relaxed now that I have a base in Stargard, although I do have the odd feeling that I’m the only person staying in the hotel. I unpack my computer and toiletries and I look out the window. The view is across the front courtyard, a big sloping expanse of pale gravel. The curtain is quite thin and just covers the window. I feel a bit strange, being here, in Stargard. Perhaps Valters Nolledorfs is wrong and my mother never came here at all.
It’s starting to get dark and I’m quite hungry because I haven’t eaten since breakfast so I go in search of food. The receptionist, who only speaks Polish, recommends the restaurant Faroun, which is just a short stroll down the road. It’s actually a large fluoro lit café with about eight melamine dining tables lined up in two rows of four. With the exception of the lighting and the starkness of the décor, it’s a little reminiscent of dining rooms in Riga, where the food is home-cooked and priced by weight. I have a meat pancake, salad and coffee. The other guests observe me with interest – I’m clearly not local.
After dinner, my capitalist radar steers me around the corner into the main shopping street. I buy a few supplies in the supermarket and find myself feeling really settled – I’ve made transactions for accommodation, food and supplies so I know I can survive here. Of course, when my mother arrived here in 1944, the process of settling in, if you could call it that, was a completely different experience – delousing with giant hoses in public showers, being ill with dysentery, sleeping in vast barracks on wooden tiered bunks where thousands of others had slept…
I make my way back to the hotel through a park that follows the original walls of the old part of town – it’s very beautiful in the dusk - and I wonder how on earth I’m going to find the location of the transit camp in Stargard Szczecin.
Back at the hotel, I ask for the internet password but it fails to work – I try everything possible, but the system just won’t let me in. I have another moment of Western panic – no global communication possible from Stargard Szczecin. I’m now cursing and wish I had stayed at the other hotel. I’m in the wrong place, I say to myself in my little room, I’m in the wrong place. Why didn’t I go to the other hotel that’s a bit further out? It wouldn’t have taken that long to walk there.
I go up and down the series of stairs to get to reception to ask for hot water so I can make a cup of tea. There are some other people there – a man in his forties, a woman and a young child. They’re quite chatty with the receptionist who plugs in an electric kettle behind the counter for my hot water. The man, who I assume to be another guest, starts talking to me. I tell him I don’t speak Polish but we quickly establish that we can both speak a little German and, as we begin our rather stilted conversation, I realise he is actually the owner of the hotel. His name is Zdzislaw Kosikowski and he’s very friendly. Zdzislaw asks me what I’m doing in Stargard and I explain that I’m looking for the site of the refugee camp where my mother stayed in 1944. He immediately goes behind the counter, looks up something on the hotel computer and says that he knows where the camp was. I’m a little aghast – this was not meant to be so easy. He shows me a website and says, ‘Here, it must have been here, at Kluczewo’. He prints out the pages and points to a precise location on my map of Stargard. He tells me there was a huge German airbase there with military barracks and a labour camp for prisoners of war. We both use the word ‘lager’ as a way of describing the camp, but I also try to explain, in my very pathetic German, that my mother was a refugee and was here only for a week or so while in transit to Leszno. Zdzislaw says he is one hundred percent sure that Kluczewo is the place I am looking for. I ask if I can get there by taxi, and he says yes, sure, it’s about ten minutes drive away. He shows me books about Stargard published by the local government and finds one in which there is information about the airbase and the lager. He also presents me with a golden Stargard Szczecin commemorative coin in its own plastic case and asks me to sit down at the big table and write in the visitors’ book. ‘You must write why you are here – write everything you have told me – you can write in English.’ I sit at the table and do as I’m told, now drinking my cup of tea. Of course I know now that I am staying in the right hotel.
The next morning I have breakfast with five other guests in a huge dining room that reveals the hotel is surprisingly bigger than I had originally imagined. Large glass doors open onto a wide tiled deck that in turn overlooks a park-like garden at the back of the hotel. The décor of the room itself combines timber surfaces with ornate floral wallpaper. A big flat-screen television on the end wall broadcasts the news - in Polish, of course. After breakfast, I ask the receptionist to call me a cab to take me to Kluczewo, but Zdzislaw, the hotel owner arrives, and says if I wait for him he will take me there himself! I am completely overcome by the kindness of this man.
Zdzislaw drives a shiny blue Peugot. On the dashboard, there are three books on the history of Stargard and as he drives, he uses one hand to flip through the pages to find snippets of information that might be useful to me. While he doesn’t drive fast, the car wavers all over the road as he simultaneously steers, searches through the books and talks to me in German. I watch for oncoming traffic with a certain level of anxiety but I also repeat the word ‘ja’, nod my head and make other exclamations that suggest I am following the conversation. Of course, I can only grasp a fraction of what Zdzislaw is saying, but I have found that in such situations it is more productive to smile and say yes and hang on to every word that possibly makes sense, rather than to look puzzled and say that you don’t understand.
It takes about ten minutes to get to Kluczewo, a small village on the outskirts of Stargard proper. The tree-lined streets shade pre-war renovated apartment blocks that housed the German Luftwaffe as well as newer, Soviet built housing blocks. It’s the height of autumn, the leaves are golden and Kluczewo looks quite romantic. I comment that Kluczewo 'ist sehr shön', and Zdzislaw retorts that that’s only because of the trees. We drive through the town and down a desolate road dotted with a few old buildings and eventually arrive at an abandoned railway station. The whole place is overgrown with weeds and the windows on the lower floor of the red brick building are boarded over, but those on the upper storey still have glass. We get out of the car and Zdzislaw tells me this is the station my mother would have arrived at in 1944. So not at Stargard Szczecin where I got off, but here… Zdzislaw takes a photo of me and I photograph him. The place feels ghostly. I try to imagine the thousands of people who must have arrived here during the war - was my mother’s family amongst them?
We get back into the car and keep driving down a long curvy road. The land on either side is flat and mostly bare. It feels like lost land, land that no-one knows what to do with. In the distance, on my left, there is a long line of semi-circular grass-covered bunkers – lots and lots of them. These were for the airfield workers, explains Zdzislaw, and I can see that this must have been a huge airbase.
As we keep driving, the road turns to concrete and suddenly we’re right in the middle of a huge abandoned runway that stretches in all directions for miles and miles. We get out of the car and Zdzislaw stands near the blue Peugot while I take photos. It’s vast and windy and a little bit spooky and I’m rather overwhelmed about being here. It’s not really what I had expected to see and it all feels rather unreal.
We get back into the car and drive along another road and Zdzislaw points out where the camps were. 'Here', he says, 'was the lager'. There are some trees and shrubs lining the road and just beyond I see some rubble and the remnants of walls in amongst the grass and weeds. Further on, the land is flat and desolate. This is Anselm Kiefer territory. I see his open, muddy fields, thick with a dark history that is churned into the very soil. I take photos of the camp site. Zdzislaw also points to a field on the right and I think he says that this is where many people died, but I’m not sure if I understand properly and I’m too overwhelmed to be logical and ask him to repeat himself. It is enough just being here – and it doesn’t actually matter whether my mother was here or not.
Zdzislaw heads back to town. We drive past the huge new Bridgestone factory, one of the largest outside Japan. It covers 100 hectares, an area as vast as the airfield we just visited, and has created hundred of new jobs in the area. There is also a sugar refinery here and a Dutch factory of some sort. Stargard Szczecin has gone from one type of labour camp to another.
Back in Stargard, the traffic is getting thick. It’s All Souls Day, remembrance day for the dead, and everyone is heading for church or the cemetery. People on the street carry wreaths or red glass candles holders that they will place at the graves of family and friends. Zdzislaw drops me off at the hotel and I thank him, wishing I could also give him a Tasmanian souvenir or some other token of my appreciation. He says I can check out of the hotel any time I like.
Everything in Stargard is closed except for the churches, and I so decide sit in on a service in a big Cathedral near the town square. Even though I’m neither Christian nor Catholic, it seems the right thing to do, given that it’s All Saints Day. Of course, I come from a Christian background and the stillness of the church and the rituals of prayer and hymn singing have a calming effect on my sense of being. I once toyed with the idea of Catholicism – just as an idea, nothing more - because I liked the concept of confession and being absolved of sin on a regular basis, a sort of fresh start whenever you needed it. But it was only ever an idea, and a very naïve one at that.
After church, I’m not sure what to do. I need to get to Leszno next, but I don’t really want to spend more time here. Stargard is a beautiful old Pomeranian town, but I also feel a bit trapped within its historic walls. It was a transit place for my mother and I feel it is a transit place for me too.
I do a final circuit around the old town's historic buildings and make my way back to the hotel. There is a different receptionist on duty and she has my godmother’s name - Edite – and she speaks English! I ask her if she knows what time the trains depart for Szczecin and she checks on the internet. It's about an hour before the next train and so we both go into the big dining room and pass the time over a cup of tea. Edite looks very young and I am surprised when she tells me she is forty years old. We chat easily and she tells me a lot about her life and the various difficulties she has faced. She is determined, however, to remain positive and has a dream that one day things will get better for her. I suggest that she may be able to use her English skills as a means to a better job and we agree that one day I will return and we will have coffee together in a café in Szczecin, where she sees a possible future for herself. We say goodbye and I head for the railway station.