Photojournalist Anna Liminowicz has been a key contributor to The Globe and Mail’s coverage of the war in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24. Her award-winning photographs of the refugee crisis have put a human face on the conflict and have given Globe readers a unique perspective on it.
For Ms. Liminowicz, watching millions of Ukrainians seek safety in Poland has had a deeper personal meaning.
She is from a region in northeastern Poland called Masuria. After the Second World War, Masuria became home to thousands of people with Ukrainian roots, including her grandmother. They didn’t come there by choice, but by compulsion.
Before 1945, Masuria was part of East Prussia, in Germany. It was absorbed into Poland after the war and the German population fled or was expelled.
In 1947, the Polish communist government forcibly relocated more than 140,000 people from land along the border with Ukraine, simply because of their Ukrainian background. They were sent to Masuria and elsewhere ostensibly to suppress an armed insurrection among Ukrainians.
The expulsion was brutal. People were rounded up and packed into cattle cars. Once in Masuria, they were told where to live and work. They had to give up all traces of their Ukrainian heritage. And they could never return home.
On May 25, Ms. Liminowicz released a book titled Zamalowane Okna – or Painted-over Windows. It’s a portrait of Masuria told through the voices of those who experienced the region’s tortured history – Poles, Ukrainians, Germans. They speak of loss and pain, and what home means to them.
She finished the book in February, just as the war in Ukraine broke out and just as she landed on the Polish border as part of the Globe’s reporting team.
In this photo essay, Ms. Liminowicz touches on the themes of her book and recalls the emotions she felt as Ukrainian refugees streamed into the very place in Poland where her grandmother was born, and where her family lost everything.
– Paul Waldie
By Anna Liminowicz
Someone with a precise hand has created the illusion of frames and muntins, two rectangles of glass at the bottom and two squares at the top. The windowsills beneath them are real. From a distance the windows look as if someone has merely covered the panes with a dark curtain or painted over them, but it is an illusion. Time has added cracks to the painted panes – it is the wall that has cracked. It’s hard to believe that there never were any windows here.
I didn’t have time to talk to her about the forced resettlement, about the road she had travelled, about what it felt like when the Polish army entered her house in the morning and gave her only half an hour to pack up her life and move to the unknown. I never asked what she took with her. I never asked her about her past life, about her family home. But she never told me about it either. It was as if she had cancelled that life.
It was only two years after her death that I started asking my family questions. That’s also when I began working on my book and listening to the stories of Ukrainians who were deported to Masuria.
I also began exploring a house that once belonged to a German farmer, where my grandmother lived and where my mother was born. Seven families were sent to live in this house, and the workers’ quarters, during the resettlement.
Then I discovered something else. When the parish pulled my grandmother’s death certificate, her maiden name was written in Ukrainian. I’d always remembered my grandmother using Polish pronunciation and the fact that she was baptized in an Orthodox church came as a shock. I also came to learn that all seven families in the property had Ukrainian roots.
Suddenly I realized that the story I was pursuing wasn’t only about my neighbours, but about my family, too. It was about people like my grandmother, forced to give up their heritage and become patriotic Poles. And it was about the illusions that my generation is only beginning to dispell, because our parents and grandparents made sure the past was kept hidden.
I spent the next four years uncovering more truths including this: Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, you always revolve around the same thing – the place where you were born, where your parents and grandparents lived.
I needed to know more about the history of the house. I only knew it as the place where I visited my grandmother.
But it’s also where Bogdan was born, where his grandmother and father were forcibly displaced and where his father died 11 years ago.
Bogdan grew up here. He belongs to my generation of Masurians who are still trying to come to terms with their past. He inherited the house, but he doesn’t live here. He has kept everything the same since his father died. He hasn’t moved a thing – except the hands on the clock, which he sets every time he visits.
Horst and Anna
Every summer for the past 50 years, Horst has been returning to the house. He once lived here too, before the war. He was a teenager then, just another boy in East Prussia. Now he lives in Germany, but he comes to Masuria with his daughter and son-in-law to see the place he still calls home.
For years he wasn’t invited inside, kept away by those living here and their memories of fractured times. It was only Bogdan’s parents who finally made Horst feel welcome to set foot in the rooms where he grew up.
Horst was 91 when I met him. He liked to laugh about his birthday – May 9. “The day of liberation,” he used to say sarcastically. No liberation for him.
When the war ended, he was 17 years old. He had to leave the house at gunpoint and travel with his parents toward Germany. Like all refugees, they had no idea where they would stop.
Then I met Anna. She too was a child here during the war. But she didn’t grow up in East Prussia. She and her family were among those who were relocated from occupied Poland to East Prussia and forced to work on German farms. Anna had been assigned to Horst’s family farm.
In 2019, Horst and Anna met for the first time in 74 years, in Masuria. They had shared memories and shared places. They didn’t talk about politics when they met, or history, or who was right, or who was wrong.
Piotr lost his parents before he was old enough to ask them about their past. Now it’s too late. They’ve died. He seeks answers through the stories of other displaced Ukrainians.
Piotr remembers as a child hearing his grandparents and parents describe the resettlement as an injustice. But he was too young to understand the events of 1947. He didn’t know that what they were talking about had occurred in Zurawce, close to the Ukrainian border.
Piotr is Ukrainian, but he has to build his identity through contacts with others.
Olga and Ahafia
Olga and Ahafia were classmates in primary school in Masuria. As children of Ukrainians, they were forced to come here from southeastern Poland in 1947. They both grew up and married Poles. They left the Greek Orthodox church and adopted the Roman Catholic faith, joining so many others who forsook their heritage. Today they are widows. They often think about their parents and miss them dearly.
Ahafia was eight years old when she was resettled in Masuria with her father, stepmother and stepbrother. Her father and mother were Ukrainians.
When she was two years old, her mother died – likely murdered by Ukrainian partisans because her father wouldn’t join their ranks. The neighbours found her mother’s body behind the barn. Her chest had been crushed. Dogs had bitten off her hands and chewed her legs. Ahafia doesn’t know where her mother’s body was buried.
Katarzyna lives in her home still wrestling with the past. She can’t erase the memory of war and the forced resettlement. She’s never learned to speak Polish very well. She speaks Ukrainian with her children and grandchildren. She doesn’t know if they relate to her heritage, or if they care.
Until February, I’d never been to the border region of Poland and I’d never seen the village where my grandmother was born.
I arrived there just before the war in Ukraine started. I was part of the Globe’s reporting team and we spent the next month travelling through cities, towns and villages that my grandmother knew well: Przemysl, Ostrow, Medyka, Radymno.
But now, I wasn’t watching Ukrainians leaving. I was watching them coming by the millions, driven out of their homeland and seeking shelter in the same communities that once rejected my grandmother and thousands more, just because they had Ukrainian blood.
I’ll never forget standing in the train station in Radymno on a clear, cold day in early March. This was the very station where my grandmother was forced into a freight car with cattle and horses, without knowing where she was being taken. Now the waiting room and platform were full of women and children – refugees from Ukraine looking for a safe place to go.
I stopped and stared. In their faces, I saw the emotions that my grandmother must have felt 75 years ago when she stood on the same platform – fear, loss, pain.
Then, at a nearby shelter, I photographed a grandfather weeping as he said goodbye to his granddaughter. He’d just brought the child to safety from Ukraine and he was heading back over the border to be with his wife. His sadness and devotion touched me. It also made me wonder about so many other families that have been torn apart by war and hatred.
Across the street in another refugee hostel, I sat in a room filled with young Ukrainian women and listened to their struggles. Some of them were the same age as those who were thrown out of this region 75 years ago. All of them refugees, all of them homeless, all of them grieving missing husbands, brothers, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers – home.
The word “war” has changed meaning again. It’s not in the past any more. It is right here on the Polish border with Ukraine. Today it again follows the same patterns – escape, loss, longing. It’s as if I have come full circle. As if the world can’t break out of the merry-go-round of violence and suffering.
Will the next generation have to rediscover their roots? Will they have to break through the painted-over windows in their family?
For more information about Anna Liminowicz’s book, Zamalowane Okna, visit www.zamalowaneokna.pl