"What luck that we had this kindergarten!" All four say. That was in the early 1970s. Agata and Jolanta now live in Germany, Dorota and Iwona have stayed in Masuria. Lehndorff Castle, the "Pałac", was a place they all felt happy. In those stately rooms they had a feeling of security and comfort, they played among the old oaks, went swimming in the lake. It was a microcosm away from the adult world with its worries and traumas.
The children’s microcosm. Sztynort in the 1970s
Strange, the way these memories harmonize! "For me, the castle was and is a magical place," enthuses Agata Kern, who is now a cultural advisor at the East Prussian Museum in Lüneburg. For a long time, she had wanted to talk again with some of the children from back then.
Agata, Dorota, Iwona and Jolanta1  all remember the kindergarten as a fresh and lively place. Who was the best-looking boy? Jurek! Nap time? From 1 to 3 pm! Everyone still knows the way in their sleep – from the main entrance of the Pałac up the enormous staircase to the second floor. Giant rooms, "not meant for children," had been adapted to their needs: wooden bars on the windows so none would fall out, dwarf sinks and toilets, and a stately fireplace nailed shut for safety.
"We lived in a herd." Dorota, a banker in
deu. Lötzen

Giżycko is a town in the Polish voivodeship Warmia-Masuria. It was first mentioned in documents in 1340 as "Letzenburg" and "Lezcen". Giżycko is situated on an isthmus between the Jezioro Niegocin and the Jezioro Kisajno, a basin of the Jezioro Mamry.
In 2016 Giżycko had 29,642 inhabitants.

The picture shows a city view of Giżycko /Lötzen on a postcard from before 1945.

, doesn't mean a communist collective, but rather a natural state, as unquestionably part of life as “Goggelmoggel”, the candy (sugar whisked with egg) that their mothers and grandmothers often made. For this group of self-assured women who are now in their mid-fifties, that herd life has remained something entirely positive in their memories to this day.
Dorota Blat (born 1965) and her sister Iwona Kaminska (born 1966) have remained in Masuria, and live with their families in Giżycko. Dorota has worked for 35 years in a large Polish bank, Iwona is computer science teacher.
Agata Kern (born 1967) studied law, first in
deu. Warschau, eng. Warsaw

Warsaw is the capital of Poland and also the largest city in the country (population in 2022: 1,861,975). It is located in the Mazovian Voivodeship on Poland's longest river, the Vistula. Warsaw first became the capital of the Polish-Lithuanian noble republic at the end of the 16th century, replacing Krakow, which had previously been the Polish capital. During the partitions of Poland-Lithuania, Warsaw was occupied several times and finally became part of the Prussian province of South Prussia for eleven years. From 1807 to 1815 the city was the capital of the Duchy of Warsaw, a short-lived Napoleonic satellite state; in the annexation of the Kingdom of Poland under Russian suzerainty (the so-called Congress Poland). It was not until the establishment of the Second Polish Republic after the end of World War I that Warsaw was again the capital of an independent Polish state.

At the beginning of World War II, Warsaw was conquered and occupied by the Wehrmacht only after intense fighting and a siege lasting several weeks. Even then, a five-digit number of inhabitants were killed and parts of the city, known not least for its numerous baroque palaces and parks, were already severely damaged. In the course of the subsequent oppression, persecution and murder of the Polish and Jewish population, by far the largest Jewish ghetto under German occupation was established in the form of the Warsaw Ghetto, which served as a collection camp for several hundred thousand people from the city, the surrounding area and even occupied foreign countries, and was also the starting point for deportation to labor and extermination camps.

As a result of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from April 18, 1943 and its suppression in early May 1943, the ghetto area was systematically destroyed and its last inhabitants deported and murdered. This was followed in the summer of 1944 by the Warsaw Uprising against the German occupation, which lasted two months and resulted in the deaths of almost two hundred thousand Poles, and after its suppression the rest of Warsaw was also systematically destroyed by German units.

In the post-war period, many historic buildings and downtown areas, including the Warsaw Royal Castle and the Old Town, were rebuilt - a process that continues to this day.

, then in Cologne after moving to the Federal Republic in 1989. After her second law exam she started over again: Slavonic studies and Eastern European history became her world.
Jolanta Gernat (born 1967), a trained clothing technician, moved to Gütersloh with her husband, a German from Masuria, in 1994. Today she works in the housekeeping department of a retirement home.
The Pałac was the center of their life at that time. "It was simply there, a place to live from morning to night. It was not only a kindergarten, but also a workplace, where Agata’s, Iwona’s and Dorota’s mothers worked as accountants. And it provided accommodation for workers – Jolanta's family was temporarily housed in the east wing of the Pałac. Mostly, it served as the administrative headquarters of the recreation center OSWIR, Ośrodek sportów wodnych i rekreacji, which included offices, a canteen, and dormitories where groups of teenagers on sailing vacations lodged in summer. Music lessons and film screenings were also held here once a week, which was quite unusual for a village.
The Pałac as the center of life
Who lived there in the olden days? A prince and princess, perhaps? Sometimes the girls picked up something from the adults, rumors of hidden treasures, buried boxes of china. There was an old German lady living in the village who knew more, Dorota recalls, "she always had potato pancakes for us kids."
It was not until elementary school or even later that the girls learned about the Lehndorff family of counts and countesses (cross-reference to the chapter on Antje Vollmer) and their fate. Jolanta, for example, attended a local history class and the curriculum included a visit to the Wolf's Lair. Wolf's Lair. The "Wolf's Lair" was built during the Second World War and was one of the "Führer headquarters". The facility, including bunkers and numerous buildings, was above ground but camouflaged in a wooded area near the town of Rastenburg (now Kętrzyn). Hitler stayed there mainly from 1941 to 1944. Today, the ruins of the Wolf's Lair, which was demolished by the Wehrmacht during its retreat, are a tourist attraction. As a good student, she knew the place names before 1945.
However, no history lesson, no matter how gloomy, was able to cloud her childhood idyll. For many decades, her memories remained untouched: wooden toys and crayons, crafts with chestnuts, singing and dancing, songs like "Pieski małe dwa chciały przejść przez rzeczkę" ("Two little dogs want to cross a river"). One imagines a little doctor's office and a hairdresser's salon in miniature, and not to forget Marianna, the most loved of the kindergarten teachers. "When I think about it in retrospect, we were in the middle of nowhere," Agata marvels, "yet so much was happening!"
Between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., the children took their midday nap. Nightgowns on, washing hands and peeing, long queues in front of the washrooms. It had to be quiet as a mouse, and one of the kindergarten teachers prowled between the cribs. "Agata, why aren't you asleep?"
She never slept. She daydreamed, made up stories, and felt safe in the high-ceilinged hall, among the other children.
"We were all the same." Even a generation earlier, origin played an important role. Their parents, born during the war or shortly after, had been displaced. Their families had come from Poland's eastern territories and were resettled in Masuria after 1945, or "repatriated," as it was officially called. Some of Agata's family came from
deu. Wilna, rus. Вильнюс, rus. Wilnjus, yid. ווילנע, yid. Wilne, bel. Вільня, bel. Wilnja, pol. Wilno

Vilnius is the capital and most populous city of Lithuania. It is located in the southeastern part of the country at the mouth of the eponymous Vilnia (also Vilnelė) into the Neris. Probably settled as early as the Stone Age, the first written record dates back to 1323; Vilnius received Magdeburg city rights in 1387. From 1569 to 1795 Vilnius was the capital of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy in the Polish-Lithuanian noble republic. It lost this function in the Russian Tsarist Empire with the third partition of Poland-Lithuania. It was not until the establishment of the First Lithuanian Republic in 1918 that Vilnius briefly became the capital again. Between 1922 and 1940 Vilnius belonged to the Republic of Poland, so Kaunas became the capital of Lithuania. After the Second World War, Vilnius was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic until Lithuania regained its independence in 1990.

Already in the Middle Ages Vilnius was considered a center of tolerance. Jews in particular found refuge from persecution in Vilnius, so that Vilnius soon made a name for itself as the "Jerusalem of the North". Not least with the Goan of Vilnius, Elijah Ben Salomon Salman (1720-1797), Vilnius was one of the most important centers of Jewish education and culture. By the turn of the century, the largest population group was Jewish, while according to the first census in the Russian Tsarist Empire in 1897, only 2% belonged to the Lithuanian population group. From the 16th century onwards, numerous Baroque churches were built, which also earned the city the nickname "Rome of the East" and which still characterize the cityscape today, while the city's numerous synagogues were destroyed during the Second World War. Between 1941 and 1944 the city was under the so-called Reichskommissariat Ostland. During this period almost the entire Jewish population was murdered, only a few managed to escape.

Even today, the city bears witness to a "fantastic fusion of languages, religions and national traditions" (Tomas Venclova) and maintains its multicultural past and present.

, some from
deu. Wolhynien, pol. Wolyń, ukr. Воли́нь, ukr. Wolyn, deu. Wolynien, lit. Voluinė, rus. Волы́нь, rus. Wolyn

The historical landscape of Volhynia is located in northwestern Ukraine on the border with Poland and Belarus. Already in the late Middle Ages the region fell to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and from 1569 on belonged to the united Polish-Lithuanian noble republic for more than two centuries. After the partitions of Poland-Lithuania at the end of the 18th century, the region came under the Russian Empire and became the name of the Volhynia Governorate, which lasted until the early 20th century. The Russian period also saw the immigration of German-speaking population (the so-called Volhyniendeutsche), which peaked in the second half of the 19th century. After the First World War Volhynia was divided between Poland and the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, from 1939, as a result of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, completely Soviet and already in 1941 occupied by the Wehrmacht. Under German occupation there was systematic persecution and murder of the Jewish population as well as other parts of the population.
After World War II, Volhynia again belonged to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and since 1992 to Ukraine. The landscape gives its name to the present-day Ukrainian oblast with its capital Luzk (ukr. Луцьк), which is not exactly congruent.

. Dorota's and Iwona's mother also came from Volhynia, and their father was Ukrainian. The family was deported from the
Outer Subcarpathia
slk. Čelná karpatská priehlbina, ces. Vněkarpatské sníženiny, ukr. Прикарпаття, pol. Podkarpacie Zewnętrzne, pol. Podkarpacie, deu. Karpartenvorland

Outer Subcarpathia is the name given to the area on the outer side of the Carpathian Arc. The Polish voivodeship Podkarpackie takes its name from this.

in 1947 as part of "Operation Vistula." "Operation Vistula." "Operation Vistula" (Polish: Akcja Wisła) refers to the forced resettlement of about 150,000 ethnic Ukrainians, Lemkos and Boykos from the Polish eastern territories to the so-called "Recovered Territories" in the west of the country, mostly in the period from April to July 1947. Jolanta's mother's passport says "born in Magdeburg in 1944"; her parents had met – as forced laborers – on a farm near the city.
deu. Steinort, deu. Groß Steinort

The village of Sztynort is located in the north of the Masurian Lake District on the Jez Peninsula between Jezioro Mamry, Jezioro Dargin and Jezioro Dobskie. Until 1928 the village was called Groß Steinort, then Steinort.

was a village of displaced people of different ethnicities and cultures. The remaining Masurians were outnumbered – their Steinort no longer existed.
Shadows of the past
Those born in the 1960s hardly knew anything about the language and culture of the old homeland that their parents and grandparents brought with them. Only the Masurian families seemed a little different. When some left for Germany in 1976, the children wept for their playmates. Dorota mourned the loss of her friend Ewa, "That was hard for a ten-year-old child." She lost a little bit of her sense of security, and her world view was cracked for the first time.
"Who are you? - A little Pole! - What is your sign? - The eagle!" they had learned in kindergarten. They knew exactly who Poland's enemies were: The Teutonic Order in the Crusader movie based on Henryk Sienkiewicz, which they had seen at the Pałac Cinema. And the Nazis from the TV series "Four Tank Soldiers and a Dog", scenes from which they would reenact in the Pałac park.
"I had a cottage in an oak tree with my girlfriend," Dorota recounts. "There we would play Janek and Marusia, who were the main characters of the series." Her sister Iwona adds, "We arranged to meet at certain oak trees. Everyone had their own tree." The oak groves were the landmarks of her childhood. Their rustling was the music – familiar and, "during storms," Jolanta recalls, "terrifying."  
Her generation had an intimate relationship with nature, the landscape, water, sky. It was only a short walk to Steinort Lake. Fishing, bathing, boating, "that was wonderful." Masuria was home for her. Unlike for her grandparents, who were survivors, dumped somewhere in a foreign land. Unlike for her parents, who grew up in the poor, sorrowful post-war years, only slowly putting down roots.
A childhood "like in Bullerbü," says Agata. At the same time, she was "a very lonely child”. Perhaps because her parents separated soon after her birth. Her mother later married a Protestant German from the village.
"I was often afraid." Later she wondered where that came from. "Nothing terrible had happened directly to me." It had to do with the family history, and the silence around it. Only Agata's grandfather Waldemar spoke about it now and then. "We came from Vilnius…there was nothing more beautiful." He was a man who lived in his own world of roses and bees and books. "The most terrible word in the Polish language is repatriacja" – Agata still has this phrase in her ear. For her grandparents coming to Sztynort was no homecoming. Their “patria” was and would forever remain
deu. Litauen, lit. Lietuva

Lithuania is a Baltic state in northeastern Europe and is home to approximately 2.8 million people. Vilnius is the capital and most populous city of Lithuania. The country borders the Baltic Sea, Poland, Belarus, Russia and Latvia. Lithuania only gained independence in 1918, which the country reclaimed in 1990 after several decades of incorporation into the Soviet Union.

A last memory of Vilnius, just before the forced resettlement began, was their wedding in May 1945 in the chapel of the famous Ostra Brama, the Gate of Dawn.
Jolanta's grandparents also talked – about the years as forced laborers, for example – mostly in a positive tone. The passing on of memories and information within families like this helped to initiate change. In the 1970s, right after the Eastern treaties were signed, farmers' families from the Magdeburg area came to visit. Around this time, tourists homesick for their former lives, also began to arrive in Sztynort. Among them was Gottliebe von Lehndorff. In 1977 she walked through the castle again for the first time. Almost everything she saw seemed to her wretched and shabby, with the exception of the kindergarten. "Where the dining room and billiard room used to be," she wrote in a letter, "there is now a kindergarten, very clean and tidy."
Agata, Jolanta, Dorota and Iwona would have been pleased with the countess's praise. Looking back, they were a happy generation; these early years in the village were "crucial for the development of our personalities," Iwona believes. Then the families moved to other towns, to
deu. Angerburg

Węgorzewo is a city in northeastern Poland in Warmińsko-Mazurskie Voivodeship. It is inhabit by about 11,000 people and is located not far from the border of Poland with Russia.

, , Giżycko or

Zweiten Weltkrieges zunächst den Namen Dryfort erhalten hatte, wurde 1950 nach Stanisław Srokowski (1872-1950) umbenannt, dem Leiter des „Polnischen Komitees zur Festsetzung von Ortsnamen“ in den sog. „Wiedergewonnenen Gebieten“.

, where there was work and for the sake of the children's education. In the 1980s came the Solidarność movement. As young people they were for it, full of hope. And in the historic year of 1989, they were ready to seize the new opportunities, wherever they were.
In 1989 Agata left for Germany to reunite with her family. Her stepfather and mother were already there. It was a difficult step! For two years she had been studying law in Warsaw, moved in opposition circles, read books that opened her eyes – by Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. She had been listening to songs by Jacek Kaczmarski and Przemysław Gintrowski. "I became a different person in Warsaw," she says, "and I was happy there." A small town in Bergisches Land, that was a step down. In the early days, she cried a lot.
Jolanta married her childhood sweetheart Jacek Gernat in August 1989. The young couple already had their eyes set on Germany, relatives who lived there were trying to convince them to move, and the economic crisis in Poland did the rest – in 1994 the time had come. Jolanta left her large family behind in Masuria. For many years, Gütersloh was for her a valley of tears.
Iwona and Dorota struggled to find their way at home; information technology and finance were promising industries. The upswing in the province where structures were weak was a long time coming, but it finally came, along with family, house and garden. Plus the lakes and forests that had always been there.
Meanwhile, the Pałac, the world of their early childhood, was falling into disrepair. Those who remained watched with sadness and anger as one attempt after another to save it failed. When Iwona visited the castle with school classes, she saw the misery. Agata also often traveled there with students from Germany.
The connections from the kindergarten days have never been completely severed. Thanks to Facebook, they are now becoming livelier, with Dorota communicating most eagerly. She dreams of them all meeting up one day in Sztynort.
The four women recently shared their thoughts about the future of the castle. Should it be a museum for the history of Masuria or rather for art and culture? An educational center for young people? It would also be important to remember the socialist years, which are of little value today. For example, the biographies of the girls and boys from the kindergarten could be told.
English translation: William Connor

Siehe auch