A Map of Its German Past Unnerves a Polish Town : Europe: Police have confiscated thousands of the guide. Critics charge it was designed for onetime Nazi occupiers.


If Europe were a series of tectonic plates shifting with the forces of history, this medieval trading town would straddle one of the most active faults.

Residents this year are celebrating the 75th anniversary of Torun’s return to Poland from Germany after World War I.

It is a proud milestone for Poles in the turbulent contest for the town, a tug of war that has spilled the blood of both nations for the better part of seven centuries.


But the painful memories of more recent events in Torun--stemming from its forced incorporation into the Third Reich during World War II--have unexpectedly eclipsed the commemoration and raised perplexing questions about the appropriate role of history in a place so tormented by its past.

A local German cultural club and a travel agency have published a map for German-speaking visitors wanting to explore the town’s rich Germanic tradition, which dates to the Teutonic Knights of the 13th Century.

The map was meant to help visitors by identifying former German street and place names. Instead, thousands of copies have been seized by the police, and the publishers have been placed under investigation for allegedly glorifying fascism--a rare crime that carries a stiff sentence of up to 10 years in prison.

Their offense: denoting street names that were used during six anguished years of Nazi occupation, despised designations that the town has spent half a century trying to forget.

Users of the map can find the route across the Vistula River on Adolf Hitler Bridge, the main tie between north and south Torun that now bears the name of a famous Polish patriot. They can ride a trolley down what was Hermann Goering Street, a verdant boulevard where the five-story SS headquarters, now a police station, was located.

Not far away, they can explore the former Albert Forster Street, a prominent thoroughfare--with such notable addresses as City Hall--that honored the regional Nazi administrator.


If they need directions, they can stop at a tourist office on onetime Horst Wessel Square, a gathering place in historic Old Town named after a young martyr of the early Nazi movement.

“This map is absolutely shocking,” said Marian Filar, 52, a Torun law professor and head of the Friends of Torun Society, a civic group founded when the town reverted to Poland in 1920. “There is no reason to bring back the sentiments of that time. Who could this map possibly serve?”

According to a statement by the publishers printed on the back, the map was meant to “help those Germans who previously lived here and still feel close to Torun.” It “should make it easier to locate previously known houses, streets and squares.”

To many residents, that means only one thing: a blueprint for former Nazis and their families--the people who ruled the town by absolute terror from 1939 to 1945--to retrace the steps of their lost conquest.

“I wonder if someone would be brave enough to try something like this in Germany,” said Torun Mayor Jerzy Wieczorek, 55, who referred the map to the prosecutor’s office after it was denounced by the City Council. “You have to remember that all of the intelligentsia in Torun were arrested at the start of the war, and many of them executed. If you used the Polish language during that time, you were struck in the face.”

City tour guides acknowledge that the map has been of immense help in directing groups of elderly Germans, some of whom make little effort to conceal their wartime connection to the city. Germans make up the majority of foreign visitors to the city, which lies on a crook in the lower Vistula about midway between Warsaw and the Baltic Sea.


One guide, who asked not to be identified because of the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the map, said he regrets that he can no longer recommend it to tourists. About half of the 5,000 maps printed last summer were sold or given away before police pulled them from shops last month.

“Many of my customers are Gestapo,” said the guide, referring to the brutal Nazi secret police. “They talk about their old jobs in front of me.”

Publishers of the map said it was never intended to slight residents of Torun, but they said Poles cannot ignore the tremendous contribution Germans have made to the town, which is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved Gothic settlements in the country.

They describe the map as a historical document that records hundreds of former German street and place names, most of which came from Prussian times when the majority of Torun’s population was German. Ethnic Germans now account for only a fraction of the 200,000 residents of the town, most of them having moved after World War II.

To have left out the Nazi-era names would have been historically dishonest and would have undermined the credibility of their work, the publishers said. They were so concerned about the map’s accuracy that names from the Nazi period were listed in brackets to differentiate them from earlier German designations.

“We assume our customers, both Polish and German, can reasonably and soberly judge the existing European reality,” Andreas Swobodzinski, the map’s co-publisher and head of HPN Tours, said in a written statement to police.


Karol Strohschein, one of several researchers who spent six months compiling the names, said it is small-minded of people to assume that any German interested in the publication was a Nazi.

During the last five years, he said, ethnic Germans across Poland have spoken more openly about their heritage and have begun exploring their roots--something that was discouraged under communism.

“It has only been a few years since I started speaking German again,” said Strohschein, 42, whose ethnic German parents stopped speaking their mother tongue because of fierce anti-German sentiment in Poland. “Until five years ago, I was afraid of everything German. I even thought about changing my name so it sounded Polish.”

Poles should recognize that many Germans during the Third Reich--including those in Torun--were neither Nazis nor Nazi sympathizers, said Strohschein, a high school German teacher and a founding member of the Foundation for the Advancement of German Education and Culture.

The 2-year-old group runs a German school in Torun and was co-publisher of the map.

“Just because someone lived in a certain country does not give people the right to call him a Nazi,” he said. “If that were the case, we could call everyone living in Poland a Communist, and we know that is untrue.”

But for historian Tadeusz Zakrzewski, a retired employee of the Torun Scientific Society, the map opens too many painful wounds to be excused as an innocent historical exercise.


Zakrzewski, 73, is a lifelong Torun resident, as were his parents and grandparents. His father fought in the German army in World War I, when the city was part of Imperial Germany, and was awarded an Iron Cross.

The period of Nazi occupation, he said, was the darkest moment in the city’s history. He remembers watching worshipers with Polish-language prayer books being arrested and hauled away to prison camps after Sunday Mass for praying in their native tongue.

When Zakrzewski passed a German in uniform on the sidewalk, he was required to step into the street, bow and tip his hat in deference.

At school, he was advised to declare himself German to qualify for cigarette and food coupons. He refused, insisting that he had been a Pole all of his life. He was able to survive thanks only to a friendly German family that found him work.

“I have a lot of friends in Germany,” said Zakrzewski, a pensive and frail-looking man who spoke with sadness about the map. “But none of them wants to remember the Nazis. Those were horrible times. This map is not about history. It is an offense to the people who live here.”

For now, the matter is in the hands of Ewa Trapszyc-Gomula, the town’s 38-year-old deputy prosecutor, who has made a career putting murderers, rapists and thieves behind bars.


Sitting in a dimly lit room behind a desk crowded with files, Trapszyc-Gomula said that sorting out the details of the case has been complicated by the deep emotions on both sides.

She has not yet decided whether to submit the case to court.

To do so, she must prove that the publishers willfully set out to create a map that glorifies fascism. She must also have some faith that a panel of judges can referee a dispute whose origins, it can be said, run as deep as those of the town’s war-torn medieval walls.

“It touches on the very delicate sphere of Polish honor and pride,” she said.

“The history of Poles and Germans in Torun is very tempestuous. In a different town, the map might have gone unnoticed, but here history is very real.”

And not easily reconciled, as previous historical disputes have demonstrated.

It has been more than 500 years since the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus, Torun’s most celebrated native, but historians here are still arguing about whether the renowned astronomer was Polish or German.