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Uncertainty, pain and loss for Olga & Max Brunow: From West Prussia to the new home in the Rhineland

My great-grandparents Olga and Max come from simple farming families from West Prussia in what is now Poland. Their childhood and life in West Prussia were characterized by uncertainty. Their homeland changed several times between the German Empire and Poland. When the area finally passed to Poland at the end of the Second World War, they had to leave their homeland. After a painful escape, a long time in refugee shelters and French captivity, they later settled in the Rhineland.

Olga Gerusel Max Brunow Westpreussen
​Details ansehen 76 / 5.000 Übersetzungsergebnisse Übersetzung My great-grandparents Olga and Max Brunow later in life (photo privately owned)

My great-grandfather Max Eduard Brunow was born on December 2, 1908 at 8 p.m. in Klammer, a village near the town of Kulm in West Prussia (Archiwum Państwowe w Toruniu, 1908). His parents were the small farmers Gustav Reinhard Brunow and Rosalie Emma Hahn (Archiwum Państwowe w Toruniu, 1908). Rosalie was already 43 years old when Max was born (Kemmner, 2023). He had at least nine siblings. At the end of the month, Max was baptized between Christmas and New Year (State Archives Administration of the German Democratic Republic, 1933).

Although Max was born on December 2nd according to his birth certificate and other official documents, he later always celebrated his birthday one day later, on December 3rd (Kemmner, 2023).

At that time, the village of Klammer had more than 600 residents (Klingenberg's Verlag und Druck, 1905; Wolf, 2023) who lived in around 100 houses (Jacobson, 1868). Most of the residents lived in farming conditions (Klingenberg's Verlag und Druck, 1905). The village was predominantly Protestant (Jacobson, 1868) and is located about seven kilometers east of the town of Kulm (today Chelmno). Today the village is called Klamry and belongs to Poland.

The former place of residence of Max and his family in Klamry in what is now Poland (Gerusel, 2021).

A great uncle and his wife visited the place a few years ago and were able to find the former farm of the Brunow family in what is now Klamry. At this point, many thanks to Aunt Moni and Uncle Paul for the great photos and lots of information. Unfortunately the address is no longer known. (Gerusel, 2021)

My great-grandmother Olga Gerusel was born about a year later, on November 29, 1909, in Podwitz (State Archives Administration of the German Democratic Republic, 1909). Podwitz also belonged to the rural community of Kulm and was only a few kilometers from Klammer (Wolf, 2023b). At that time the place had around 440 inhabitants (Wolf, 2023b). The village of Podwitz is now called Podwiesk (Wolf, 2023b). Her parents were the small farmers Ferdinand Eduard Gerusel and Jeanette Amande Cziczlitzke (State Archives Administration of the German Democratic Republic, 1909). Olga was the fifth of the couple's eight children. However, two older siblings had already died before Olga was born. (Gerusel, 2021; Kemmner, 2023)

Olga was baptized on December 16, 1909 in the Protestant church in Groß Lunau (State Archives Administration of the German Democratic Republic, 1909).

The former Protestant church in Groß Lunau (Musassi320, 2021).

Her godparents were Friedrich Barknow and Martha Cziczlitzke, née Hoffmann. Martha was the wife of her uncle Albert (State Archives Administration of the German Democratic Republic, 1909). Friedrich was her aunt Olga's husband.

Olga Gerusel Max Brunow Martha Cziczlitzke
Family tree on which my relationship to Olga and Max as well as the connection to Olga's godparents Martha Cziczlitzke and Friedrich Barknow can be seen (own representation).

The village communities usually had their own small schools. In Klammer there was a local two-class school (Klingenberg's Verlag und Druck, 1905) and Podwitz probably also had a small school.

Olga Gerusel Ferdinand, Willi und Ernst Gerusel Westpreussen Kulm Podwitz Schulklasse
Olga goes to a class with her three brothers Ferdinand, Willi and Ernst (photo privately owned)

In the school photo, Olga can be found in the back row, second girl from the left. She went to a comprehensive class with her three brothers Ferdinand, Willi and Ernst (the three boys at the front). (Gerusel, 2021; Kemmner, 2023)

I don't know anything about her childhood and youth. What did they both like to do as children?

Gerusel Familie Westpreussen Podwitz Kulm
Olga (center) with her parents Jeanette and Ferdinand and her siblings Auguste, Friedrich, Ferdinand, Ernst and Willi (photo privately owned).

The West Prussia region, in which the urban and rural community of Kulm is located, has had an eventful and important history. The West Prussian State Museum describes this as follows: "With some interruptions, West Prussia formed a Prussian province from 1772 to 1920. Its prehistory includes, on the one hand, the rule of the Teutonic Order, which took possession of the country since 1231, Christianized it and developed it culturally , and on the other hand, a more than 300-year phase that began in 1454, in which the region on the lower Vistula was connected to the Polish crown as “Prusy Królewskie” (Royal Prussia). Germans and Poles were mostly on harmony in this region for a long time lived together.” (West Prussian State Museum, n. d.)

The Kulm area was ceded to Poland in 1920 by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and renamed Chelmno. (West Prussian Society e.V., n. d.)

More detailed information and clear map sections can be found here on the West Prussian State Museum website.

The cession of the territory to Poland also brought with it a change in the official language. Schools were now also taught in Polish. (Prause, 1997)

Many Germans emigrated to the German Empire in the following years. While around half of the population spoke German before the First World War, at the end of 1931 it was only 15%. (Prause, 1997)

It is difficult to assess how the mood between the German and Polish populations developed. While some historians argue that private and neighborly relations did not suffer as a result of the tension, others believe that there was a tense relationship between the Germans and Poles. The German population living there at the time felt discriminated against by the Polish government and therefore founded groups and organizations that were intended to maintain German culture. They more or less quickly adopted the ideology of the National Socialists. (Prause, 1997)

Olga Gerusel Familie Westpreussen Kulm Podwitz
Olga (back left) with her parents and siblings (photo privately owned).

Unfortunately, I don't know how and where Olga and Max met and fell in love during this turbulent time. However, their two places of residence were not too far apart.

On December 31, 1933, Max and Olga married in Groß Lunau (State Archives Administration of the German Democratic Republic, 1933), in the church where Olga had already been baptized. Both are in their mid-twenties and Olga is already pregnant.

Olga Gerusel Max Brunow Heirat Groß Lunau
Olga and Max are getting married (Foto in Privatbesitz).

The couple initially lived with Olga's parents in Podwitz for about a year, where their first daughter Erika was born on April 14, 1934. Just two months after Erika's birth, Max's father Gustav Reinhard died in June 1934. Shortly afterwards, the small family moved in with Max's mother Rosalie in Klammer. About six months later they lease their own property, where they stay for a little longer than two years. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Shortly before the birth of their second daughter Waltraud, they move back to Olga's parents in Podwitz. Around this time, the two applied to leave the country. Many Germans had already emigrated to the German Empire, and now Olga and Max also saw the advantages of this. The application was approved in 1938, so they packed up their belongings and moved away on May 1, 1938 with Uncle Willi, Olga's younger brother. The family reached Märkisch Friedland (today: Mirosławiec), about 180km away, via Schneidermühl (today Pila). (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Märkisch Friedland belonged to the part of West Prussia that, even after the First World War, belonged to the German Empire, initially Posen-West Prussia, and from 1938 to the province of Pomerania (Haack, 1979). They stayed there for two years. Olga later reported that she milked 13 cows there every day and was physically burned out after two years of this strenuous work. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Only a short time later, at the beginning of September 1939, units of the German Wehrmacht took the city of Kulm as part of the National Socialist occupation (Prause, 1997). Olga and Max decided to go back to their hometown of Kulm (Brunow, 1985), which was declared a German imperial territory again at the end of November (Westpreußische Gesellschaft e.V. , n. d.).

The German occupation lasted more than five years. During this time, the National Socialist rulers tried to make the area an exclusively German area and to resettle and exterminate the Polish population. (Prause, 1997)

In 1939, the largest mass execution site in the Kulm district was built in Max’s birthplace, Klammer (Klamry). More than 2,000 Polish people were murdered here. These included many farmers and workers from the surrounding villages as well as Catholic clergy from Graudenz. They were cruelly shot in a forest and buried in mass graves. Polish residents of the town of Klamry were also among the victims. Max certainly knew one or two neighbors from his small hometown. Among the victims from Klamry were farmer Laser, Michael Palaszewski, Marciszewski, Tarkowski and Wierzbowski. Today there is a memorial at the execution site. (Prause, 1997)

Max, Olga and their children seem to be among the first 400 Germans who move (back) to Kulm on August 1, 1940 (Prause, 1997). Max starts a new job at the post office (Brunow, 1985). However, he only earned 280 marks there and the small family was happy to receive support from Olga's parents (Brunow, 1985).

At first they lived on Ritterstrasse in Kulm (today: ul. Rycerska). In September 1940 they moved to Mühlenstrasse 7 (today ul. Młyńska), where they would stay until 1945. Just a few months after the move, in March 1941, the third daughter, my grandmother Anita, was born in Kulm. (Brunow, n.d.)

Marktplatz Kulm Westpreussen
The family lived near the market square in Kulm (Malinowski, 1918)

In September 1939, the German school administration introduced compulsory school attendance for all children between the ages of 6 and 14. From then on, lessons were taught in German again in the primary schools in Kulm. Erika, who turned six in April 1940, probably attended primary school No. 2 at Schulstrasse 12/14 from Easter onwards. In October 1941, the German primary school was attended by 248 children in seven classes. Waltraud turns six in the fall of 1943. She starts school at Easter 1944. (Prause, 1997)

At the end of 1941, when his youngest daughter Anita was just ten months old, Max was drafted as a soldier. Nothing is known about his experiences yet. He fought on the French front at the end of the war. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Max Brunow Soldat
Max as a soldier in the Second World War (photo privately owned).

Olga and the children spent the next three summers (1942-1944) from April to October with Olga's mother Jeanette in Podwitz. However, they spent the winter in Kulm, otherwise the children's journey to school would have been too long in the cold. (Brunow, 1985)

The winter of 1944/45 was icy. There were temperatures down to -4 degrees Fahrenheit (Dietrich & Lingnau, 2010). The Red Army approached the city of Kulm and a large part of the German population had to flee their homeland (Westpreußische Gesellschaft e.V., n. d.).

Olga left with her three children Erika, Waltraud and Anita, her sister-in-law Rosalie Gerusel (née Brunow) (Max's sister) and her four children Kurt, Adelheid, Anita and Paul, as well as her mother-in-law Rosalie (Max's mother). They set out on Saturday, January 20, 1945. They were lucky and boarded the last train in Kulm, which went first to Mischke (today: Mniszek), just a few kilometers from Kulm. The locomotive was attached there. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Since Olga noticed cows in the area, she wanted to use the waiting time to milk them to provide for her family. However, she quickly noticed that her train was already starting again. She ran after the train and with her last effort was able to hold on to the back of the train and run along. After a while, two men helped her back onto the train. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

In her letter about her escape from Kulm, Olga describes how happy she was to be with her children again. My grandmother Anita also remembered this situation well when she was alive; she was very afraid of losing her mother. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Flucht Westpreussen Kulm Olga Brunow
Part of my great-grandmother Olga Brunow's letter about her life and escape from West Prussia (privately owned).

Only a few days after their escape, on January 27, 1945, the Soviet army reached the city of Kulm. (Prause, 1997)

The group wants to go via Frankfurt an der Oder to Stettin, where Olga's sister-in-law Luise Brunow, known as Aunt Lieschen, lived. (Brunow, 1985)

From January 21st, many refugees from East and West Prussia arrived in Frankfurt an der Oder. Contemporary witnesses in Frankfurt (Oder) reported that refugees were constantly coming and going, some of whom told terrible things. Many had walked through ice and snow for days. Quite a few children froze to death while fleeing due to the freezing temperatures. (Schröder, 2020)

Ten days after their hasty escape from Kulm, they arrived in Stettin. Aunt Lieschen picked up the fleeing family at the train station. They stayed with their sister-in-law in Stettin for about a month. On February 28th they had to leave Stettin and came to Świnoujście on a steamer. From there they boarded a slow train to Ribnitz-Damgarten. They were sheltered there, in the Pütnitz district, until mid-June, when the Russians pushed them back towards Stettin. (Brunow, 1985)

Their stay in Stettin from June 1945 lasted about a year. (Brunow, 1985)

On October 11, 1945, Olga's mother-in-law Rosalie died. The winter was harsh and the family had no money for food, so Rosalie simply stopped eating. She starved herself to death to provide for her family. Ten days later, Olga's niece, five-year-old Anita, died of a severe middle ear infection. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

As mothers Olga and Rosalie looked after the youngest children and babies, Olga's eldest daughter Erika and her eldest cousin were looking for food. Every now and then they were given potato peelings or found something in the trash. On her last search for something to eat, Erika was attacked and raped by Russian soldiers. On January 11, 1946, she died from her internal injuries. She was only 11 years old. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Erika Brunow
Erika Brunow died at the age of just 11 (photo privately owned).

The time was very painful for the whole family. The rest of the family also knew nothing about the father of the family, Max, who was drafted into the army. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

On June 10, 1946, Whit Monday, the family, consisting of Olga and her two children Waltraud and Anita as well as her sister-in-law Rosalie and her three children, came to a refugee home in Rantum on Sylt, where they would stay for some time. My grandma Anita started school on Sylt. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Through official searches, Olga knew that Max was in France. He survived the war physically unscathed and was taken prisoner by the French at the end of the war. He was released early if he agreed to work in the local mine for ten years. However, at Christmas 1946 or 1947 he was allowed to visit his family on Sylt. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

At the beginning of June 1948 he was able to bring his family to L’Hopital in France. Olga's sister-in-law Rosalie and her family stayed on Sylt for seven more years until 1955. In Hamburg, Olga and the two children received the necessary papers. When they arrived in France, the family first lived in the camp for two weeks and were then given the bare necessities, such as a table, four chairs, a cupboard and four iron bed frames, as well as a barrack. The address on Olga's French ID card is II, rue de Bastia. However, this address and the old shanty town no longer exist today. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Olga Gerusel Brunow Carte de Sejour de resident ordinaire
Olga's French ID card (privately owned).

In February 1953 another daughter, Jeannette Gerda, was born in France.

The family was allowed to leave France at Christmas 1954. Max was recruited by recruiters from the Rhineland to work in the Emil Mayrisch mine in Siersdorf near Aldeshoven. He traveled there by train or bus to look at the possible workplace and decided to go for it. So the family set off towards the Rhineland. First they traveled to Aachen. They spent about 14 days near Herzogenrath near Aachen, then about another two weeks in Aldenhoven, before settling in Setterich on Ostlandstrasse on January 18, 1955, near the Emil Mayrisch colliery. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

For my grandma Anita, moving to Germany was very sad. She had spent almost all of her primary school years in France, was now fluent in French and had made friends. She stayed in touch with her friends Ruth and Lisbeth throughout her life. (Kemmner, 2023)

In the 1960s, the Emil Mayrisch mine in Siersdorf was considered one of the most modern and efficient facilities in Europe. Construction began in 1937 and the first coal was mined in 1952. (Gessen, n.d.)

The Emil Mayrisch mine in Siersdorf (Grube Anna Mining Information Center Alsdorf e.V., n.d.)

Olga and Max set up their new life in Setterich for themselves and their family. They had chickens, ducks, geese and pigs and Max made the ham himself. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Olga liked to read dime novels on a wooden stool in the kitchen. It was always comfortably warm there because of the stove. She could also read there undisturbed. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

The two of them only had a small pension and therefore little money. In their retirement, the two delivered newspapers every day from three in the morning. Max also had a job as a park ranger, where he took his German Shepherd Anka with him. Anka was a guard dog and was taken from a bad husbandry. She lived outside in the kennel and ate everything that was edible. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

My mom remembers that Olga cooked pretty poor food, like buttermilk soup with plums or prunes. Every Saturday she baked particularly delicious cakes and cookies using ingredients from her garden. In addition to their own garden, the family had rented another garden from the butcher Kleutner on Ostlandstrasse. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Although Max and Olga moved twice in Setterich, they always stayed in the immediate vicinity: They initially lived at Ostlandstrasse 3 for about ten years. My grandma Anita also celebrated her wedding there in the early 1960s. From there, Max and Olga moved with their youngest daughter Jeannette to neighboring Glückaufstrasse. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

There, Max particularly cared for his roses in the garden of the house. Berry bushes, vegetables and espaliered fruit were also grown. There was also a weeping willow tree with a bench underneath it. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

They later moved one street further to Emil-Mayrisch Street in Setterich. There was a white poplar tree in front of the house, the house was surrounded by a hedge and the path to the house was much narrower back then than it is today. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Emil Mayrisch Straße Setterich Olga Max Brunow
My great-grandparents Olga and Max lived on Emil-Mayrisch Street in Setterich (own photo).

Olga and Max liked to give my mother and aunt air chocolate. At Christmas, Max stuck sticks into the bare areas of the Christmas tree to beautify it. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Max died on June 3, 1982. He was buried in Setterich (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023). However, I still met my great-grandma Olga.

Olga Anita Sylvia Isa Taufe
My great-grandma Olga, my grandma Anita and I on my mom Sylvia's arms at my baptism in 1993 (photo privately owned).

Olga never lost her West Prussian accent with a rolling R. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023). In the video below you can listen to the accent from minute 1:45.

On March 4, 1995, Olga also died. She was buried next to her husband in Setterich. (Brunow, 1985; Kemmner, 2023)

Max Olga Brunow Setterich
The grave of my great-grandparents Olga and Max Brunow in Setterich (own photo).


The sources used are listed in the following list of sources:

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