On the Beach

The river Swina ran to the Prussian Baltic coast between two small fishing villages, East and West Swina, and when the river was dredged and widened for larger ships at the beginning of the 17th century, Swinemünde was founded on the site of old West Swina. Friedrich the Great granted the town its privileges in 1765, and it served as the outer port of Stettin. The quaint town, with its Hansa style houses, grew up with fishing and the shipping industry, and its fortified entrance to the harbor was protected by two long breakwaters with the lighthouse on tiny Wolin Island protecting sailors of old. In 1897, the Kaiserfahrt canal was opened, with the waterway deepened between the Stettin harbor and the Baltic, and Swinemünde no longer had much strategic importance.

Toward the end of World War Two, thousands of frantic refugees flocked into Swinemünde and were among the local population when the town was mercilessly bombed by the Allies at the request of the Soviets. Several refugee ships loaded with refugees were sunk in the harbor in the attack as well. It was at the time estimated that around 21,000 people were killed, although there are attempts to revise than number down.

On May 5, 1945, the Soviet army occupied the old German seaside town. In the autumn of 1945, a Polish administration was in place. 30,000 Germans still lived in Swinemünde and on the island of Wollin. Bombing and drowning were not enough hell for the weary residents, however. Before the region was given to Poland, the county which included the town of Swinemünde (now Świnoujście) had 51,000 German citizens. In the autumn of 1945, there were still 22,000 Germans who didn’t or couldn’t escape in time and several hundred Poles, the largest group among them being members of the fledgling Polish communist administration and security forces. By winter of that year, the only road to Poland was blocked due to the accumulation of ice on the river Świna.

This brought the settlement campaign designed to bring in new Poles to seize the former German homes and properties to a standstill. Swinemünde was cut off from the world and members of the UB (secret police) and the MO (Citizens’ Militia) on the islands found themselves free to do whatever they wanted with the captive German population. Soon, German civilians were being raped and murdered or having their fingers sadistically cut off for easy removal of rings.

Poland was allowed to “adjust” the border in 1945 here too, this time to first snatch the potable water reservoir of Swinemünde, then the town itself. They also grabbed the islands of the Oder river, and the border within the Pomeranian Bay was extended 6 miles. The modern German government was later forced to accept this as a condition of reunification.

Germans were arrested on the slightest pretext and they usually died of hunger and disease or were murdered while in custody. On January 5, 1946 five detainees at the police headquarters were killed, including a 16-year-old girl who had been in custody for two months and repeatedly raped after she was arrested by the UB officer who then killed her. Another German woman, arrested for arguing with a Polish woman, was beaten to death. A 22-year-old German civilian was hanged on a window bar, his body dangled on a rope outside the building. In the late 1980s, during ditch digging near the former MO building, workers dug up human bones in a mass grave containing at least 40 Germans.

Swinemünde is on Usedom, which is the second largest German Baltic Sea island, the largest being Rügen. Like Cyprus, Usedom is separated. Its eastern tip, including the town of Swinemünde, is now Polish. The number of Usedom islanders is about 75,000: 30,000 Germans inhabit their western and central part, which comprises 83 per cent of the complete island’s area, and 45,000 relocated Poles now live in the small eastern area, mostly in Swinemünde, which is now one of the main harbor towns of Poland. The strange border situation means that “Swinoujscie” can only be reached from the rest of Poland by two ferry connections since land entry from the German side is no longer dominated by the Communist government which formerly occupied East Germany.