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German-Polish couple's love story is one for history books

October 04, 2009|Vanessa Gera | Gera writes for the Associated Press.

MIESZKOWICE, POLAND — For five decades, she kept his picture in her wallet -- a black-and-white snapshot of a handsome young Polish man with brooding eyes.

The unlikely love story of Elvira Profe and Fortunat Mackiewicz began in the chaotic aftermath of World War II, as Poland's borders were redrawn by the victorious Allies and millions of Germans were expelled.

It endured some of the last century's most tortured upheavals, and survived the Cold War that drove them apart. Now, in this 70th year since World War II broke out, and two decades since the Cold War ended, they are married.

In January 1946, Profe was one of the few Germans left in this town that became part of Poland after the Nazis' defeat. She was sickly and malnourished from nearly a year spent in a Soviet forced-labor camp in Siberia. Mackiewicz had resettled here after the swath of eastern Poland where he lived was handed to the Soviets.

When they met, it was hardly love at first sight.

The once-privileged daughter of a factory owner weighed just 75 pounds. Her back had been damaged by heavy labor and, at age 20, her hair was already turning gray.

She had returned home from Siberia to the town she knew as Baerwalde -- it now had a Polish name, Mieszkowice -- where her family had to beg for bread and milk. One day, she knocked on Mackiewicz's door. His family was kind to her; they had heard her parents never mistreated Poles.

When Mackiewicz, then 25, saw her, his first emotion was enormous pity.

"She was just a toothpick," he recalled recently.

The first time he kissed her, it was on the forehead, a gesture of compassion.

She would spend entire days with his family, helping to milk their cows and carry hay. He would walk her home. "We were friends first. Friendship, great friendship, trust. And then in the end -- love," Mackiewicz said.

If their romance developed slowly, it was about to come to an abrupt end. And it was their decision to marry that tore them apart.

When Mackiewicz went to the town hall seeking permission to wed, the authorities reacted with horror. Her father was not just a German, he was a German capitalist -- a double sin in the eyes of the Polish communist bureaucracy.

They ordered Profe's family to leave town.

As Elvira and Fortunat -- whom she affectionately calls Fortek -- said their goodbyes in front of her father's factory, they exchanged photographs.

He kept hers for several years until he married another woman in 1960 and gave the photo to his father for safekeeping.

She kept his in her wallet -- and never forgot him. And never married. She devoted her energies to helping run a new family factory in Germany and later working with handicapped children in Berlin.

On Nov. 10, 1989, the morning after the Berlin Wall started coming down, Profe heard the news on her car radio and the impulse to trace her lost love came to her right away.

"As soon as the wall fell, I thought, 'Now I can go home.' "

She visited Poland in the early 1990s, and eventually found a cousin of his who said he lived in Mlynary, a town in northern Poland where he had been running a repair shop for farm equipment.

She wrote to him. He wrote back. And they agreed to meet.

In 1995 they were reunited in the parking lot of a Polish train station -- and immediately reconnected across the decades.

"We were five meters apart and he said, 'Elvira?' I said, 'Fortek?' We flung our arms around each other's necks and it was as if those 50 years just melted away," said Profe.

By then he was 75, and she was 70.

Today they are married, sharing a tidy white home they built in the town where they first met. The inside walls are paneled with wood to look like her childhood home that no longer exists.

"Love will last until the end of your life, if that love is real," Mackiewicz said during an interview at their home.

Sitting at a table in a dining nook, Mackiewicz, now 89, broke into tears recalling his pity for the girl from an enemy country that had killed millions of his compatriots, who had knocked on his door asking for food.

Profe, 83, who had stepped away to get coffee, rushed over and caressed his cheek.

Their love speaks in other small gestures: They hold hands as they walk through their yard, she places her hand softly on his knee during a drive to her family's old factory. His black-and-white picture of her, framed and still well-preserved, sits on a shelf in their home.

Mackiewicz's first wife eventually left communist Poland to seek her fortune in the U.S. and remained abroad for 20 years. They never had children.

When Profe reentered his life, he asked his wife for a divorce but she at first refused, forcing the couple to delay their marriage. The wife eventually relented and Elvira and Fortek made their vows in 2005.

They took each other's names; today she is Elvira Profe-Mackiewicz and he is Fortunat Mackiewicz-Profe.

Profe's Polish is halting, and Mackiewicz's German, much better in youth, has grown rusty with disuse. The two use a bit of each language and understand each other.

The couple's life today is a peaceful marital routine. They say they never argue -- that it's not their nature anyway and that the short time they have been given together should not be spoiled. "What is there to fight about?" Mackiewicz said.

Like many husbands, he has trouble remembering their wedding anniversary. But he insists it's not important anyway. What matters to him is the day in 1947 when he sought permission at town hall to marry her.

And what he remembers is this: "Even though they said no, Elvira told me, 'It doesn't matter because I will never stop loving you.' "


Marta Kucharska contributed to this report.

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