The following is a letter to Heather Knight from her father concerning his journey to Sammenthin to look for his Witt family and any traces of history. All text remains unaltered, except where necessary for spelling, grammar, or reading clarification. When possible, these instances are noted in brackets or italics.
[It was] In May of 1983 while aboard a Polish freighter that I decided to pay a visit to Zamecin (former Sammenthin) in Poland. Prior to World War II, it was part of Germany in the Kreis Arnswalde, Province of Brandenburg. I mentioned my tentative plan to the Captain and First Mate who said, “You will learn nothing about your ancestors, and having gotten to know you over the past three months, I believe you may get yourself into trouble. You will be sorry, disappointed, and quite likely much inconvenienced. You will not like what you see and experience in Poland”.
In late afternoon I departed Berlin headed for Szczecin (former Stettin), just over the Oder River inside Poland. What an experience! The last hundred miles before the East German/Polish border, I met or passed about five cars. It seemed to be the loneliest piece of road I had ever traveled. As I approached each overpass, there was a lone figure silhouetted in the setting sun: that of a black uniformed motorcycle policeman. Each in turn, watched me with binoculars, as I, the only car on the highway, approached. After I disappeared under his bridge, he would turn and watch me disappear out of sight.
I arrived at the border about 7PM. There was just one car ahead of me, so I foolishly presumed that I would be through the border in time to get into Stettin before dark and find my way to a hotel. Two hours later after having passed through both German and Polish Customs and Immigration, I was directed to the office of the Polish Police. You could have pulled the following sequence right out of a cheap 1947 midnight spy movie on TV. I entered a building which appeared to have only one main room with what may have been a cell and a washroom off it. There was a man in uniform sitting behind a nondescript old wooden desk. He had a small pile of papers before him on the desktop, beside which were a stamp pad and a rubber stamp. I crossed the room to the front of the desk. The officer continued to stamp and turn over each piece of paper quite deliberately, apparently oblivious of my presence before the desk. After about three minutes, I retired to one of two wooden chairs which were placed along the opposite wall. The officer then stopped his monotonous stamping and without a word beckoned me to the desk. He took my passport, examined it leisurely and then said, “Why are you visiting Poland?” I told him of my interest in genealogy and my desire to visit the birthplace of my ancestors. Very sarcastically he replied, ‘”Suddenly after one hundred and fifty years you are anxious to find where your ancestors were born, come now, do you think there is some money or property here for you? Tell me now what is the real reason for your visit?” So I raced back out to the car and grabbed the brochures I had picked up at the Polish Consulate. I came back into the office and said, “I believed what it says in the brochures. Poland welcomes visitors etc. etc. etc., but now I realize it is all propaganda. I’ve just been two hours trying to get through your Customs and Immigration. Right now I think my best bet is to turn around and head back, if this is the kind of welcome I can expect in Poland.” It surprised me that I wasn’t taken up on my offer! But I was even more surprised when the guy burst out laughing and said, “Oh you are so angry, please be calm and enjoy your visit to Poland.” He handed my passport back with a great flourish.
It was about 10 PM as I made my way into Szczecin (former) Stettin, to try to find a place to stay. There was a 15 watt streetlight about every quarter mile, in Stettin. I had not a clue as to where to go or how you said “hotel” in Polish. The streets were empty of pedestrians, but eventually I came across some people getting into a car. I could not seem to get through to them that I needed a hotel room, until finally I resorted to pantomime. They jumped into their car and indicated that I should follow them. They took me to the old Continental Hotel in the downtown area, just a stones throw from the Oder River. I was tired and hungry. The room was spartan and threadbare, but it was clean. After checking in I inquired about food. The girl on the desk repeated the word “food” after me, several times. Finally she started to nod her head and pointed to a door that led to a restaurant. Now here was something to clear your head and diminish your appetite. I guessed that one of the bellhops had slipped into the dining room and said, “A live one just checked in.” The room was very poorly lit. They brought me a Polish menu. After demonstrating a chickens cackle, I was able to order an egg sandwich. Only then did I discover that about 20 pairs of gleaming eyes were fixed on me; they watched my every bite. At this point the Bell Captain entered. He was justifiably proud of his ability to speak English, so I asked him why I was getting so much attention. He said, “These girls are all waiting to see who you will select to sleep with tonight.” There were broken hearts at the Continental that night!
The following morning I began to appreciate the point that the First Mate had been trying to make when ordering my breakfast. “Ah yes, we have cereal, but alas, no fresh milk. Yes, we have eggs, but sorry, we have no bacon. Yes, we have coffee, but no cream yet, maybe a little later. Would you like some tea with toast and jam?” At that time all hotels in Poland were government owned and operated under the name “ORBIS.” In the brochures lauding the comforts and services of the Orbis Hotels, they clearly stated that translators were readily available at all hotels. The desk clerk, who spoke English fairly well seemed stunned at my request, and said, “Oh we have no one here who could do that.” So again, I resorted to the brochure, I asked her to please read to me that portion of the text. She quickly did so and then implied, “So what?” I said, “I am going to go over there and sit down and wait until you come up with a translator.” She disappeared into the back office. Deliberately I took up my position on an old settee (that looked as if it had been there since the First World War) in front of a potted palm beside the stairway to the street. Moments later I heard a whisper, “You want to buy zlotys?” I looked around and saw a little hatchet face man peering through the palm fronds. Convinced that this guy must be a setup by the police, I replied, “Get lost”. After an hour or so the desk clerk came over to my chair and said, “This is going to be very difficult, as all of our translators are in Warsaw.” Quite by chance, the English-speaking Bell Captain overheard our conversation. He approached and informed me that he knew a seaman on leave who spoke English. It seemed like a good alternative, so I retired to my spartan room to await results.
After this little exchange the Bell Captain returned to the door, opened and peered furtively up and down the corridor before closing the door again, gently. He quickly turned to me and said, “You want to buy zlotys?” I was very suspicious, and asked, “How do I know that you are not working for the police?” He reacted as if I had called him a murderer and assured me that he indeed was not the police but just a poor bellhop trying to make a living. I have long since forgotten what the official exchange rate was at that time; however, in order to make my point, let’s say it was 100 zlotys to a dollar. Hoping for a possible 150 to a dollar, I queried, “What is your rate?” He was quite small and slight and seemed ready to crawl under the bed in a split second. I moved toward him and towered over him. He hesitated, and said pleadingly, “Two hundred zlotys to the dollar.” I was amazed and caught off balance and in astonishment, blurted out, “Two hundred?” Reflexively, the little guy stage-whispered, “Two hundred and fifty.” In an effort to regain composure, I conceded, “That’s better.” So I exchanged $100 U.S for 25000 zlotys. I almost needed another suitcase for my zlotys.
The translator arrived. We quickly established an excellent rapport, and I outlined my project to him. I had already located Zamecin on the roadmap. We were to proceed immediately to Zamecin to check the local cemetery and then go to the church to search the church records. It all seemed so simple and yet my man shook his head and implied that there could be problems.
Zamecin was a very pleasant drive of about 50 kilometers, through Stargard and Choszno (Arnswalde) to Zamecin. Of course it was spring and the month of May, and the crops were well along, and everything on the land looked so good. Regretfully the towns and villages appeared to be in an advanced state of decay. The people were lethargic and even the children seemed unnaturally quiet and subdued, not really children, but rather little adults. My overall impression was one of despair and despondency, the sort of attitude one finds in an elderly person who has come to terms and now placidly and patiently awaits the inevitable.
As we approached the little crossroads farming community of Zamecin, the first thing visible, a mile distant, was the church steeple. I [was] thrilled as I realized that I was the first Witt to return to the place. I noticed the cemetery. Strangely, one half of the place was in immaculate condition, whereas the other half was a desolate jungle of broken and defaced markers and tombstones. In the face of my consternation, my translator was uncharacteristically quiet. Very slowly and carefully he chose his words (as one might do when commiserating with a child who has just discovered the truth about Santa Claus). He said, “Mr. Witt, when the war was over and this part of Germany was ceded to the Polish, there was a very deep-seated revulsion toward German people and everything associated with them. All German nationals (many of whom had been generations on this land) were expelled, without exception. The Lutheran church was at once converted to a Catholic Church to serve the new Polish populace. For a time it was the main preoccupation of the Poles to remove all traces of things German. There is always the question of just who desecrated the cemetery: the Russian troops, as they moved through in early 1945, or the Poles who subsequently arrive in late 1945 to replace the German farmers. You must accept, Mr. Witt, that here it is Zamecin, not Sammenthin, and to the locals their world began in 1945, they have no interest in anything prior to that date, and worse still no knowledge or history of Sammenthin to share with you.”
So, finally, it was beginning to sink in. This is what the First Mate was trying to tell me, but wisely concluded that it might be a good thing for me to experience first-hand the situation and conditions prevalent in Pomerania today. Much had changed since the Witt and family had departed Sammenthin in 1857.
The cemetery was a total loss to me. The beautifully well-kept part held all of the Poles who had died since 1945. The desecrated portion was what remained of the German graves of those buried before 1945. The next stop was the church. It was ancient. Unfortunately, I did not discover the date of erection of the original part of the building. There were two elderly gentlemen who were deeply immersed in conversation. I suggested to my translator that he ask them if they had any knowledge of the name Witt or the prewar history of the church. He told me that it would be ridiculous to present it to them in this fashion. As I was very discouraged and frustrated at this juncture, I said, “Look, if I could speak Polish, I’d do it myself, but that’s what I’m paying you for. So maybe the better way to go about it would be for you to tell these two old gentlemen that this guy (me) has come all the way from Canada to try to learn something about his ancestors, who left here in 1857. Just tell them I had nothing to do with the last two World Wars, and am not a Pole or a German, not interested in politics. Just a poor Canadian trying to establish his roots. Now, am I asking too much of you? If it causes you embarrassment, just tell them, this guy is some kind of a nut and I am getting paid to ask you these stupid questions.”
Both men at the end of the presentation, stared at me in a manner that would indicate that they weren’t certain what I would try to do. One engaged in an animated conversation. He was excited and said someone had visited this place several years ago. They were the wife and son of the last Lutheran minister of this church prior to the war. The old man said these visitors had stayed in his home during their brief visit, and had discussed their life in pre-war Sammenthin with his wife and her sister who lived in the same building. He capped it all by inviting us to his home to meet his wife and her sister. I was elated. We had found a loose thread and were starting to unravel it a bit. The old gentleman introduced us to his family. It is impossible to detail the three hour conversation, particularly when everything which was said passes through the translator.
I summarize as follows:
There was no one in the hamlet that had lived there prior to 1945. However in 1974, an elderly lady and her son arrived in Zamecin and made contact with the local R C [Roman Catholic] priest. They were the widow and son of the last Lutheran pastor. The purpose of their visit was to dig up the church books which they had buried in the church stables, as the Russian troops arrived in Feb 1945. As their story goes, Sammenthin was guarded by juvenile conscripts 15 and 16 years old. The pastor had been conscripted. His wife convinced a couple of theses young soldiers to dig a hole in the church stable earthen floor, into which the church books were placed. The seven year old son observed the operation, and remembered it in full detail many years later. Shortly after this was done, the local populace were permitted to flee before the Russian arrival. They pushed the family car out onto the road, as it was without fuel, and awaited the arrival of the next German Army truck, retreating before the Russians. She must have been a very determined woman as she prevailed upon the officer in charge of the next truck convoy to attach the back of their old car loaded with the fleeing family, to the back of a truck. And so they told the priest they had returned to dig up the church books, which they would present to the church as historical records. A disagreement occurred as to where the record were buried. Understandably the mother prevailed, and her son dug. He produced nothing. The police arrived, having been tipped off that some Germans had returned to dig up buried treasure. Fortunately the priest came to their rescue and assured the police that no crime was committed. The police informed them that any further digging would require a permit. As he said “Our holiday was nearly over anyway.” They never did return, and to this day the records lie buried in the former church stables.
What follows is the account of Heather Knight.
You must remember that in 1983, we were still in very much in the Cold War state with almost all Eastern European Communist Countries.
In October 1989 my father and I made the next visit. We hired an interpreter and an elderly gentleman from the former Stettin Archives [who] went with us on our visits. We were told that the stables were owned by a farmer who was away in a mental institution since his wife ran off to the west earlier that year. The archivist tried to get a permit to dig, but all these things take time with bureaucracy in those countries. We never heard from them. We were treated wonderfully but not allowed to look personally at any records at the Szczecin Archives. The Archives didn’t have a photocopier on the premises. This is an example how slow government worked in 1989. We were fortunate enough to be there when the Iron Curtain was actually coming down. We had no idea at the time why we were treated in such a lackadaisical way by police and border guards. Once again we came home no closer to the records.
Other local family names from the Parish of Sammenthin & Schonfelde are: Brasch, Biesenthal, Hamman, Kreuger, Oelke, Pilatzke, Schimming.
(This was from 20 years ago. I have more names and some may have gone on to Wisconsin and Minnesota.)