Recently, I discovered my Vistula German (Olędrzy) roots through my paternal grandparents, Samuel Frank Kuhn (b. 1890) and Gertrude Klara Thiel (b. 1902). As we dug deeper, we discovered an incredibly rich, tragic and hidden history of similar families originally from Western Europe (Holland – Frisia). These families had originally settled in colonies during the 1500s along the Vistula River in what is today Poland around Danzig. These early settlers were often Mennonites and Lutherans who were seeking refuge from religious persecution in their homelands. They were also seeking economic opportunities and were highly sought after by the landlords in Poland for their unique talent of reclaiming low lying flood lands. Because of their unique talents they were granted special collective privileges which included religious freedoms and exemption from military service, amongst others.
Slowly, over time, these immigrants who had originally fled religious persecution faced new attacks on their freedoms. Western and Eastern Prussia partitioned Poland in the 1700s enacting punitive laws and taxes on the pacifist Olędrzy colonists, as a result, many of my ancestors moved upstream the Vistula River south towards Warsaw or even farther afield as far away as the Volga River region of Russia.
The region of Poland where my paternal grandfather, Samuel Frank Kuhn, grew up was north-east across the Vistula River about fifteen kilometers from Warsaw. As it happened, this area was ground zero on the front lines during the First World War, the Bolshevik invasion of 1920 and the Second World War. Families like my grandfather’s, who were culturally German and spoke a dialect known as “Plattdeutsch” obviously did not fare well as Polish nationalism and independence was finally achieved. As such, ethnic Western Europeans were forced to flee Soviet retribution as Stalin’s armies moved Westward into Germany.
Today, little remains of German Vistula culture except overgrown cemeteries, scattered buildings or place names relating to long ago abandoned colonies.
We hope to connect with other people uncovering their Vistula German roots and assist by sharing maps and records and other resources we painstakingly uncovered and found invaluable in our research.
Our research is far from done as we attempt to trace my lineage farther back.
Feel free to leave a comment or suggestion or ask a question below.