"A Visit to the Unknown Eastern Neighbour"
ARSP Volunteers in Poland

While Poland was already mentioned in the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace appeal more than 50 years ago, ARSP volunteers were only able to work consistently in Poland some 40 years later, in 1996. Today, there are about sixteen volunteer positions in Poland.

The volunteers work in the field of historical and political education, e.g. at memorial sites such as Stutthof and Majdanek and at the International Youth Meeting Centre in Oświęcim/Auschwitz. Volunteers also accompany survivors of National Socialism, support handicapped people and work for institutions that care for children and adolescents; the volunteers also work for human rights organisations. Most ARSP volunteers live and work in the cities Wrocław, Gdańsk, Łódź, Lublin, Warsaw and Kraków; Kraków also houses the ARSP branch office.

Whoever travels to Poland as an ARSP volunteer should be willing to learn a language that Germans may not find so easy to pick up. ARSP supports volunteers in their efforts to learn Polish and arranges for language courses to be taken. Some knowledge of a Slavic language is helpful. Independence and reliability are two required traits for volunteers working in the field of social services. Those with an interest in history and paedagogy are always welcome to work at the memorial sites.

Since September 2009, ARSP volunteers from Germany and the Ukraine have  collaborated in Poland – some of them working in the same project, as German-Ukrainian “tandems”. German and Ukrainian ARSP volunteers visit ARSP seminars together – and they are sometimes accompanied by Polish participants.

Different Perspectives on History

The German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 marks the beginning of the Second World War. What is often forgotten is that the German occupation of Poland, which lasted for five years, involved the murder of six million Polish citizens; hundreds of thousands of women and men were deported to German concentration camps and/or made to perform forced labour. Poland suffered heavy material and cultural losses: the country’s borders were redrawn, a quarter of the national territory was lost and millions of people resettled as a consequence.

Poland was one of the countries – along with Russia and Israel – that Lothar Kreyssig explicitly mentioned in the ARSP appeal as having suffered particularly strongly under German occupation. However, the Cold War and East-West tension meant that only memorial trips to former concentration camps could be organised by East Germany’s Action Reconciliation and its West German counterpart. In the mid-1960s, this gave rise to the idea of creating an International Youth Meeting Centre in Oświęcim/Auschwitz. The Centre was in fact opened in 1986, thanks to material assistance from the government of the German Federal Republic. Yet until the first free elections were held in Poland in 1990, committed young adults from East Germany’s Action Reconciliation were the most active; they organised summer camps in Poland, established contact with Polish survivors of National Socialism and attempted to confront the official discourse on history with a dialogue from below.

Today, voluntary service in Poland provides an opportunity to engage intensely with the Polish perspective on the Second World War, including the Stalinist purges, the division of Poland and the Soviet brand of state communism. Stimulating trinational seminars allow volunteers to familiarise themselves with German, Ukrainian and Polish perspectives on identity, history and Europe.

Trilateral programme for volunteers from Germany and the Ukraine.