Frombork has been called Frombork only since 1945. Before that its name was Frauenburg and it was known as the "pearl of the North". It belonged to East Prussia and thus to Germany for many centuries. The cathedral was built in the 14th century and its most famous canon was the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus who is buried in the cathedral.
However, today I don't want to talk about Frauenburg Cathedral. Please look beyond the cathedral, where you can see the blue of the water. This is what we call Frisches Haff , or the Vistula Lagoon. It is a brackish water lagoon on the Baltic Sea roughly 56 miles long, 6 to 15 miles wide and up to 17 feet deep. The Poland-Russia border runs across the lagoon.
Every winter the lagoon used to completely freeze over. So it did in the winter of 1944/1945. When the Red Army marched into East Prussia in January and February of 1945, it was impossible for the tens of thousands of refugees to flee the Soviets across land. They had to take the route over the frozen lagoon. Thousands froze to death or were killed in air raids when the Russians bombed the ice as well as shot at the refugees with their machine guns.
It must have been horrific. No words can describe their panic and suffering.
My mother was a refugee. No, she didn't have to take this route. She was much closer to the West, living at that time in a small town on the river Oder which today is the border between Germany and Poland. However, fleeing in the cold of winter - and that winter was one of the coldest on record - with her mom and her not quite two year old daughter - my sister - wasn't exactly fun. They left their home on January 31st, my grandma's birthday. No one was thinking of birthdays, however. Everybody had just one wish - get out of this hell into safety, whatever it takes. They took their horses and some wagons and off they went in a long trek of mainly women, children and old people. They spent the nights in old barns, sometimes getting something to eat from farmers along the way, sometimes not. Everything was wildly confusing and no one knew what was really happening. My mother didn't tell very much about those weeks in the trek until she reached Lower Saxony which was safe. But the few things she did tell me unveiled the horror of being displaced in terrible times.
She never forgot those times. They haunted her in her dreams and sleepless nights. For many many years she kept a packed bag in her closet, ready to go again if she had to. I remember that as a child I wanted to laugh about it, but somehow the laugh got stuck in my throat.
Our parents never made us forget that they were refugees and we were children of refugees.
That's why my heart breaks for the refugees trying to get into Europe right now.