Eight years ago I made a series of recordings of Plymothian Zofia Kulka speaking about her childhood in Poland and experiences in Germany as a forced labourer during the Second World War. I made them into a short biography that was handed out at her funeral in 2015, but while writing up the transcripts I discovered that one the most striking episodes had been recorded in unedited film footage on YouTube.
Of course I immediately showed her, and seeing the broken bridge across the river Elbe and the thousands of soldiers and bedraggled refugees struggling to cross from the Soviet to the British zone, she confirmed that yes; that was where she had escaped the fighting and begun the journey that would lead her eventually to safety in Plymouth where she lived out the rest of her life.
I have been able to edit this footage of the crossing to fit her story and together with some contemporary photographs of where she went next, make everything into a short film for the 2020 Plymouth History Festival.
On the far side of the severely damaged bridge is Tangemünde, a medieval town in Saxony-Anhalt, once part of the Hanseatic trading league (a federation of merchant guilds and market towns that once existed in Northwestern and Central Europe). The footage used was taken by US soldiers between 4-7 May, 1945 when the river running south to north had just become the border between the Soviet and British zones of occupation.
Zofia and her friend Genia reached the bridge after walking for two days from the village of Großwudicke, about 100 kilometres west of Berlin. She had been seized aged 14 from Kalisz in Poland in 1942 and brought to work on an asparagus farm to support the Nazi war effort. Intense battles raged in the countryside during the preceding weeks and on some nights they slept in the barns and farmhouses bands of retreating German troops. Fortunately their village was spared worse destruction as the Swiss embassy had moved there from Berlin. When it was known that Germany had capitulated, their boss brought them a sandwich and let them go with only their bundles of essential items and the clothes they were wearing.
Ever since being seized from Poland they’d been cut off from their families. They knew nothing about what was happening in their home towns and although they still hoped to eventually get back they had no money for travel. They’d also heard numerous accounts of Russian seizures of property and shootings in Berlin and to the east where the Red Army was advancing.
The war was over, but despite being the first country Hitler invaded, Poland was still an occupied territory. Around them everything was confusion and ordinary life had fallen into total collapse. Their best option was to follow the flow of people escaping along roads through the forests to areas liberated by the US Army that were to go under British administration. For the second time in their lives nearly everything recognisable around them had been swept away. They hoped for protection from their old allies and new recognition from America, as the story Zofia tells in the film shows.