Deportation

Lucy was living in Warsaw, and from all accounts was engaged to a wealthy young chap when rumours of war broke. Lucy headed to the farm that her sister Zofia lived in with her husband and three children. Lucy’s mother had come to live with Zofia some time around 1932 and had remained there. Now with the outbreak of war imminent, it was time for the family to be together. The farm was located in a small hamlet called Ostrów, in which lived about ten families. Zofia had married Ignacy Ferenc, an officer with the Legion who was given the land after Poland’s success against the Bolshevik’s in 1920. These soldiers were named ‘osadniks’, meaning settlers or colonists and they were given land along the kresy (eastern borderlands of Poland). At that time Ostrów was contained within Polish borders and these landholdings were generally lands that were unfarmed and untamed.

It was from here, in the early hours of a freezing cold morning on February 10, 1940, that the family were awoken with banging on the door. My cousin Ala, who was eight years old at the time, recalls the events that changed their lives forever.

It was about six o’clock in the morning, we were woken by very loud knocking on the front door.  When my father went to open it he was confronted by 2 Russian soldiers with guns and 2 men from the village. They put my father in one corner of the room, my l5 year old brother Richard in the other corner of the room. It was very cold. My mother was sitting in bed with Bogdan in her arms shaking with fright. In another room was Granny (Babcia) and me, also shaking with fright and cold. The soldiers told us to dress and pack because we were going to another county. The 2 village men helped us to pack, they told my father in a whisper to take everything we could and they helped to pack. They took us by sleigh to our nearest neighbours house where there were our other neighbours. Every woman was crying, children were shaking with fright and cold. We did not have anything to eat. It was Saturday. No one was allowed to go outside. On the floors they put some straw for us to sleep. My granny (Babcia) was sad because our aunty, Lucyna, was not with us because she was on the farm of our cousins near the next village, Rogoznica and we did not know what was happening to her. By the time it was one o’clock, my father asked the soldiers if he could go to our farm and milk the cows. After they talked (each family had two soldiers) they let my father go with the soldiers and milk the cows. So we had warm milk, all the children. The night came but no one could sleep, it was very cold.

In the morning they told us to get ready. In that moment my aunty Lucyna found us. Soldiers came to our cousins and took them like us, but told my aunt to go find us. She walked 7 kilometers in the snow. When she did not find us in our farm she came to our nearest neighbours.  We could hear her shouting because the soldiers would not let her in. My father had to explain that she was part of our family.

Then came people from the village with sleighs. We were given 2 sleighs. My father and mother were in the bottom of the sleigh, they put us two [Bogdan and me] on it and covered us with another eiderdown. They were sitting on the back, in the other sleigh was granny [babcia] and aunty Lucyna were with Richard.  Other families followed in the same way. It was very cold (minus 4O degrees) and the snow was very deep.  Our dog [Burek] started to follow us so Richard threw him some bread. On each farm we could hear the animals. No one was looking after them. It must have been very sad for everyone like my father and mother, leaving everything they had worked so hard for. After travelling for a while we started to cry because we were getting very cold. Mother told the soldier to stop in the nearest village to give the children something hot to drink. So we stopped at the village school and good people from the village brought us some hot soup and milk. After an hour we were put on the sleigh and started again.  I do not remember how long we travelled and I do not remember to which town they brought us or the name of the station. I do however, remember being put on the freight wagons. The wagons had been made to accommodate people. They were set out as follows…In the middle was a round stove with a long pipe to the roof. On two sides there were flat shelves that were used for the sleeping areas and living areas see diagram. There were 8 families in a wagon and as a result there were 2 families on each of the levels – there were no partitions between the families. At one side there was a hole in the floor that served as the toilet.

It was a very long train with 2 locomotives. It was a train of sadness, hunger and hopelessness.  We did not know where we were going.  I cannot remember how long we were travelling, but we were hungry and thirsty. Some people were praying, some were cursing the Russians. The people in our wagon made my father responsible for our wagon.  At one time someone said we are crossing the Polish border into Russia everyone was crying.  Goodbye to our dear Poland!

We asked Ala to come with us to Belarus, but she declined. I think she was perhaps too sad and a little afraid to return. So it started, on 4 August 2018, our journey back to where it all began.

But first, we have somewhere special to visit – the Memorial Museum of Siberia. I wonder if Ala and her family knew that the ‘new country’ they were headed for was Siberia? I mean, what do most people think of when they hear the word Siberia. Frozen? Exile? Death? From what I have read, I don’t think the interpretation has changed much over the decades, but the family was certainly abou to find out first hand.

The museum opened especially for us, something I was grateful for. We spoke with Bogusław Kosel from the Research Department to find out more about the journey of the Sybiraks.

It’s a story that is still relatively unknown – that of the Poles forcibly removed to Siberia from their homes in the eastern borderlands at the beginning of the war. They became known as Sybiraks. Many didn’t survive, and of those who did, many never saw Poland again. Most never told their stories, out of fear or embarrassment. And now time is running out to put the pieces of the puzzles together as each year, more Sybiraks are lost to time. The Museum aims to show that story from its temporary location. A new building is under construction and scheduled for completion in 2021.

With visas, passports and more than a little hint of trepidation, we piled into Zbigniew’s hire car and headed for the border.

At the border, we watched as car after car was unloaded of all its goods and thoroughly checked before being let through or turned around. We had nothing to declare, but we were nervous all the same. Safely through to the other side, we re-route the GPS to follow a back-road to Ostrów. The countryside was fairly flat. Very quiet and very lonely looking.

Finally though, buildings started to appear on the horizon, one being a miraculous looking church with spires that I can only describe as looking like the Christmas ornaments my grandmother used to hang on the tree.

On the outskirts of Wolkowysk there was a tank commemorating the period. I believe Wolkowysk may have been the station the train to Siberia left from.

Passing the tank, the roads became rural once more. We passed old farm vehicles and one street towns with pretty little homes lining them, an almost strange sight to see out here.

Finally what was once the hamlet of Ostrów, came into sight. I was surprised that anything was there at all and from a distance it still looked very much like a clump of trees in the middle of nowhere. Closer still, there seemed to be nothing left. Except for one little house at the end of the road. And would you believe, someone was there. Wladimir didn’t live there permanently but he just happened to be there tending to his bee hives at the moment we had chosen to arrive.

The road to Ostrow

This house, the last standing in the hamlet, belonged to his family. His mother was born here, although the house was not here at the time of the deportations. Although built in the 1970’s, the house fitted the descriptions Ala had given us, which served to bring the story to life.

Little house on the hamlet

Zbigniew explained our purpose and Wladimir kindly offered to call some people in his village who might remember that time. He called numerous relatives and ended up talking to someone who remembered the hamlet and its inhabitants, even down to the location of Ala’s family farm, which was exactly where Ala’s notes described, save for an additional crossroad which had since been removed.

Our house stood on the-corner of three roads.  We had a big apple orchard and a garden with plums, cherry trees and soja fruit. The house was surrounded by lots of flowers because my mother loved flowers. There were three other buildings making a sort of square, there was a barn, a byre and a big shed for farming tools and our carriage. We had 5 cows, 2 horses (sometimes three).  We had some pigs, lots of poultry and of course our dog “Burek”.  We were looking forward to the Spring, when everything started to get green and grow. There was a little wood on our land and some Walnut trees. My Mother and I went to look for the first flowers of the spring, violets, primroses and cowslips.

We walked up and down the dirt road, tramped in and out of bushes and stood surmising scenarios for some time. I photograph as much as I can and pick up a small stone to take away with me, a token connecting myself back to my Babcia’s journey decades before. An acknowledgment. I understand.

Thank you Wladimir

Before leaving Belarus, we stop in Rohognica, which seems to have been the next largest town from Ostrów.

In “Rogoznica”, where the school was, we had many friends, like us on small-holdings. One of the couples did not have any children, and the husband was Bogdan’s godfather. They said that I could stay with them and go to school. It seemed a very good solution and they were very good to me. But I missed my family. Near to their farm was the wood that was used by the villagers who passed by my home in Ostrow on their way to gather hay by the river. I was sitting by the wood and I was homesick, so I asked one of the men to tell my father to come and take me home. In the evening my dad and mum came and took me home. But what could we do to solve the problem of going to school? One answer was that my father rented a room in the village of “Rogoznica” and granny stayed their with me and Richard. I was staring school and he was finishing primary school.  Dad and mum came every Sunday, coming to church, and brought provisions for the whole week. Granny cooked our meals and looked after us, but at holiday time we went back home. It was wonderful to go home, and be home again.  My father had to work very hard, but because my mother had a ‘bad’ heart she could not do any hard work to help.  We had a manservant to help my father, and granny helped a lot. She would milk the cows. For main cleaning and for washdays, women came from the nearest estate. There were many people there and they were glad to have some work.

Our purpose for visiting Rogoznica was the church. After some time knocking at the rectory, the priest answers the door. We are grateful, cause its stinking hot outside and there’s hardly any shade in this part of town. He brings us water and…of all things…icecreams. It’s one of those things I never imagined doing – eating icecream witha priest. Unfortunately there were no church records for the period we were researching, but the priest was happy enough to show us inside the Church of Our Lady Queen, lamenting at the ‘disco’ ceiling the parish had recently replaced. He was horrified by it.

Disco ceiling

We looked through the church graveyard but the graves were all post WW2. It was getting towards the end of the day, time to head back to Białystok. We just had to endure the border once more.

From Tradition to Tanks

Given that there’s not much left of the original township of
Makòw Mazowiecki and because we didn’t turn up much information on my relatives, Zbigniew suggests we travel to the Museum of the Mazovian Countryside in Sierpc, to get a glimpse of what life would have been like for my ancestors. This open air museum was created in 1975 and it now contains numerous buildings which have either been reconstructed or translocated to create a representation of traditional Mazovian life from the 17th to 20th centuries.

The museum is set up like a small town or village, dirt tracks, farm animals and all. The small family homes were simple but incredibly inviting with their colourful bedding, cushions and rugs. I could see so many traces of my Babcia’s life here.

It was also extremely interesting for me to come across the black-smithing shed and the little room the shoe-maker used to create his shoes. The tools of these trades were a highlight as we had both blacksmiths and shoemakers in the family.

I was incredibly grateful we back-tracked to see this place. Although I found nothing much in my Babcia’s home town, I found great insight into the way they would have lived life for real.

We retrace our mileage back through Makòw and get on our way to
Białystok, where we will stop for the night. Białystok sits near the border of Belarus, which we’ll visit tomorrow. We stop at a rail crossing and I’m not sure how to feel when the train passes…

We’ll wait for the train, tanks!

…I suppose tanks are just not something you really see on the back of a train in Perth!

It’s also the home to the Esperanto language, created by Polish eye doctor Ludovic Zamenhof. With the goal of being an international language, there are actually over 2 million Esperanto speakers in the world today, though Esperanto itself is not a language which is officially recognised by any country. Coincidentally we are booked into Hotel Esperanto for the next couple of nights.

After a short rest, we head into the town square to meet up with Chris, Sharon and Katherine, who will be joining me on this leg of the trip.

Not surprisingly Chris had his phone out trying to locate geocaching opportunities. Turns out Zbigniew was also down with that and both bonded over the app while we ordered a round of beers.

When two Geocache fans meet…

The fun and games wasn’t to last long though, as there was a load more research to do back at the hotel tonight. Any exploration of Bialystok would have to wait until another time. We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow.

Making my way to Makow

This morning I’m leaving Warsaw on a week long journey around Poland (and even a lit bit of Belarus).  I have hired geneologists Polish Origins to assist me in finding any information on my Polish ancestors.  I’ve been researching my roots for a while now and have a fairly good idea of their stories, but I would love to stand in their shoes, visit their hometowns and try to find out what made them who they were.

I’m starting in Makòw Mazowiecki, which is about 80km north of Warsaw and the birthplace of my Babcia (grandmother).  My guide for the first part of my trip is Zbigniew.

Babcia was born Lucyna Kaczyńska in December 1909 to Franciszka and Stanisław Kaczyński.  Stanisław was a sculptor, though not much more about him is known.  Lucy was one of seven children – 2 brothers and 4 sisters –  and one of four siblings to survive childhood.

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Pułtusk

Enroute we stop in Pułtusk to visit the state archives and search any records that have not been indexed on-line.  The archive in Pułtusk possesses collections and archival records from the 18th century to the present.  We don’t manage to find out much in the way of new information, except that Petronela Grzybowska (Franciszka’s mother and Lucy’s grandmother) was from Pomaski in the Szwelice parish.  We make a note to visit the village later.  And of course, I get a glimpse of Stanisław’s signature.

Makòw Mazowiecki

Arriving at our destination a short distance away, Zbigniew and I check into our rooms at Gospoda Pazibroda, which is situated on the outskirts of Makòw Mazowiecki.  The grounds are just stunning, a haven of relaxation and gorgeous green fields and sun-yellow daisies surrounding the folk-style inn.

The town of Makòw Mazowiecki is actually one of the oldest in the Mazovia region of Poland.  First mentioned in a document dating back to 1065, it was noted that people began to settle in the area close to a river crossing, near the road leading to the village of Grzanka.  A fortified town, and later a duke’s and a royal castle, were located on the left bank of the Orzyc River, not far from the settlement.  The town received it’s charter in around 1421 and was originally named Maków nad Orzycem – which translates to Poppies on the Orzycem River.  I wonder for a brief moment if that is why Babcia loved the colour red, reminiscent of the red poppy fields of her childhood.  I remember the bottle of red Cutex nail polish sitting in her bathroom every time I visited.

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The town had a tumultuous history, thriving in the early 16th century (it was a trade partner of Lithuania), and completely collapsing in the 17th century after a large fire destroyed the town.  The town was slowly being rebuilt when another fire broke out in 1787 and destroyed half of the town’s buildings.  Makòw Mazowiecki was annexed by Prussia after the partitions and then came under Russian rule, before coming back into the fold of newly independent Poland in 1918.

At the time, Makòw Mazowiecki’s population dealt with small trade, agriculture and crafts; the latter soon started to gain more and more importance.  At the end of the 19th century, the several industrial plants were built in the town, including a brewery, a mead production plant and a number of tanneries (I am beginning to see where my love of liquor and leather shoes comes from).

More of the town was destroyed during World War 1, thanks to numerous battles in the area.

Prior to World War 2, it had a large Jewish population – almost half of its 7,000 population.  The Jewish population, as we know to be true in all regions of war-time Poland, was completely executed in 1942.

The Kaczyńskis were members of the 4,000 Poles inhabiting the town.  In the course of Maków Mazowiecki being seized from the Germans by a counter-attacking Red Army in January 1945, heavy fighting and artillery barrages destroyed 90% of the town’s buildings.  The town was rebuilt eventually, but it never regained it’s earlier significance.  It is however, county capital of the Mazowieckie Province.

As far as I can tell, the family left Makòw Mazowiecki upon the death of Stanisław in 1924.  It seems Lucyna moved to Warsaw proper, along with Ana who at some point married, and Franciszka went to live with daughter Zofia and her family in Ostrów.  Which is where their war-time story began.

Settled into our rooms, we meet up in the restaurant of the inn to do some research, ordering a beer and some snacks.  I’d heard about smalec, but I can’t say that I ever thought I’d be trying it.  In fact, it was one of a couple of dishes I’m pretty sure I told myself I definitely wouldn’t be trying.  What is it?  Polish pork lard spread.  But when Zbigniew asked ‘have you tried smalec?’ I found myself answering, ‘no, but why not’.  Hey, you only live once.

Strangely, I had no intrepidation whatsoever when it arrived at the table and lathered it onto my bread, before taking that all important first bite.  It was….yummy actually.  Really yummy.  That was my limit though, I was DEFINITELY not going to be trying Flaki (tripe).

This salty spread is made from rendered white pork fat and flavored with onion, garlic and spices and like most Polish dishes, can vary from region to region.

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We spent a couple of hours trawling the Geneteka website, looking for traces of the Kaczyński’s before deciding to jump in the car and do some on-ground exploring of the local surroundings.

Our first stop is to the Kościół Rzymskokatolicki pw. Bożego Ciała – the Corpus Christi Catholic Church, which is likely where my Babcia was baptised.  Closed when we arrive, we head over to the rectory to find the opening hours, and upon phoning the number pasted on the window, we discover there is a service this afternoon.  We’ll come back later to see if we can chat to the Priest and have a look around.

Szwelice

In Szwelice we visited a church and local cemetery where we discover a number of graves with the Grzybowski surname, but from more recent times than we were wanting.  We theorise about how Franciszka and Stanisław may have met – courtships usually occurred through the church or through common acquaintainces.  Did they meet in this church?

Szelków

We drove to Szelków, where Lucyna’s sister Zofia was born in 1903.  We determine that the family likely stayed here not longer than 2 years, because of later events that took place in Makow.  Although the church has obviously been remodelled over the years, it is interesting to walk into these places through the same doorways that my ancestors would have trod.

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Back at the Corpus Christi Catholic Church, the afternoon service is just finishing up. 

We wait until the parishiners have mostly departed before going inside.  A baptisimal font stands to one side of the Church – was my Babcia baptised here, water dripping down her temple as the Priest signed the cross across her forehead?  It was the first of what I hope will be many surreal moments over the week ahead.

A church worker advised that the rectory held records only commencing in the 1940s, so no luck there.  A quick visit to the cemetery revealed a few entries with the Kaczyński surname but we were not able to connect any of them.  After coming back to the hotel we searched some more records and came up with a few names to add to the family tree.

Today, the population of Maków Mazowiecki stands at just under 11,000.  The town itself is nothing remarkable – a mix of rather plain looking and mis-matched buildings with no obvious architechtural appeal – but the surrounding landscape is quite beautiful.

Beautiful as the landscape is though, I can’t see how the Babcia I knew fitted into these surroundings and can now understand why she moved to Warsaw proper when the opportunity arose. I wonder if she knew then of all the moves that would follow this one in her lifetime?

Witnessing ‘W’ Hour

Across the road from my apartment is the grounds of Krasinski Park and Palace.  Built in 1683 for the provincial governor of Plock, who was heir to a large fortune.  He set about building this residence in Poland’s capital to fulfil his political ambitions and show pride in his family.  It was purchased by the Polish state in 1765 and partly rebuilt after a fire in 1783 only to be completed burned down and demolished by the Germans in WW2.  It was of course rebuilt and you’d probably never know, as with most of the restoration work undertaken in Warsaw.

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The gardens have been accessible to the public since 1768 and the space is enjoyed by young and old today.  Covering 9.2 hectares, there are different gardens, water fountains, ponds, deck chairs and places to lay.  Heck, there’s even free wifi!

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So it’s a really enjoyable stroll through the gardens on my way to meet my cousins at POLIN this morning.  POLIN is the Museum of the History of Jews in Poland – all 1,000 years of it.  And to be honest, that will feel exactly how long you will feel like you are in there for!

POLIN Museum
The award winning POLIN Museum, designed by Rainer Mahlamäki

It’s an extremely comprehensive museum covering aspects of Jewish life and the struggles of the Jewish people, including Poland in WW2.  There are lots of interactive displays and lots and lots of information.  I did feel a little overwhelmed upon leaving to be honest.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a great museum and if you have the time and the inclination to visit, you will enjoy it.  I just found it a little much.

After a brief morning tea stop in the cafe of POLIN, we make our way alongside Krasinski to the Supreme Court of Poland, where we are visiting our cousin Dorotka.  She’s an Under-Officer there and she’s agreed to give us the grand tour.  Here in this building they try both civil and criminal cases.  We start with a trip to the roof-top which has a lovely view over Dluga Street and across the city…

…before Dorotka locks us in a cell!

Lunch is served in the milk-bar style cafeteria, with a choice of 4 dishes.  I choose the cutlet with potatoes and soup with a glass of kompot.  It’s super tasty, as the simplest dishes are, and we chat a little about the family during the war, until the airport calls to say Katherine’s luggage has finally arrived.

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The building itself is rather modern, having been built in the mid 1990’s; green metal stairways throw their hue across large panelled glass walls and an outer corner of the building is held upon the heads of three large copper women.  It’s worth a look, even just from the outside.

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Wieslaw comes to collect us and briefly shows us the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army across the road before offering to drive the Pruski’s out to the airport to collect their missing luggage.  This is where Paula’s son was recently baptised.

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Walking inside, along the side walls are memorial plaques to all those in notable military units who have lost their lives, including those in the Smolensk air disaster.  Inside the cathedral you can see all sorts of decorative icons, including the headress associated with the legendary winged hussars.

Going our separate ways, I head back to my apartment to map out a plan of attack for this afternoon’s Warsaw Uprising Commemoration.  I planned this trip to make sure I was in Warsaw for this event but one thing I hadn’t quite nutted out was exactly which vantage point I would watch it from.  Paula had originally planned to come with me and we were going to head to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but she couldn’t make it.  I knew I wanted to be where the action was, I just didn’t know where that would be until I caught a glimpse of a Facebook post that mentioned the Rotunda near the Palace of Science and Culture.  So that’s where I headed, stopping to buy an arm band along the way and pinning on a small brooch that some cadet girls passed me.

For those that don’t know about this day, the citizens of Warsaw spare a minute’s silence in which the whole city stops to remember those who made sacrifices during the Warsaw Uprising.  Before coming to Poland, I had seen a video titled There is a City, which not only made me cry, but sums it up perfectly.

Anyway, standing on the corner of the Rotunda, trying to find the perfect spot (when I’m not actually sure what’s going to happen or where), I hear the road of motorcycles.  Heaps of motorcycles.  Which scares me at first.  They roar up onto the middle of the Rotunda and wait.  Everyone’s waiting.  I have no idea what the time is, but then the chanting starts, so I guess it’s close to 5pm now.  I have no idea what the chanting is either, but it tapers off, Polish flags go up and one by one, flares are let go.  Smoke and red light fills the atmosphere.  It’s hot and red.  After the one minute of silence, the motorbike’s rev their engines.  It’s hot and red and loud.  And oh so patriotic and stirring.  I feel tears start to well.

W Hour

Then it’s over and the crowds disburse.

Bright Lights on the Wild Side

Praga has always been known as Warsaw’s ‘wild side’.  Think criminal underclass, dilapidated tenement buildings and black market trade.  At one time it was even known as the Bermuda Triangle.   And although the artists and musicians have now moved in and given the place an edgier feel, there’s no denying you can feel the shift when you cross the Vistula and arrive in Praga.

Today, this is where the Pruski’s and I will be exploring but I arrive about half an hour before our meeting point time to do some exploring of my own.  My Dziadzia’s (grandfather) war-time military documents note my Babcia’s (grandmother) last address in Poland as ulica Il Listopowde.  There’s no further indication of whether that was in Warsaw proper or in Praga, but seeing as the Praga version comes up on all my Google searches, I can’t miss the opportunity to see if I can find the building.

I walk up and down Il Listopowde, knowing where the building should be in the scheme of those around it according to the street numbers, but I can only find empty spaces. (Google-searching again later it seems I walked about 500m short of the destination, but unfortunately didn’t make it back there before I left Poland).

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Disappointed, I head to the Galeria Wilenska mall to wait for my cousins.  A few moments later, we are crossing the road to ulica Targowa 59 to see where my great aunt, Ciocia Ana, lived most of her life.  Ana spent the duration of WW2 living in Praga, after unsuccessfully trying to reach the rest of the family in Ostrow; though at a different address not far from here.  Praga was relatively untouched during the war – if you compare it to Warsaw.  For some reason it didn’t interest the Russians or the Germans, though I have no doubt life was seriously tough.  Dad was fortunate to meet her on his first trip to Poland, but she died a few years after.  I unfortunately never met her, which is a shame because I believe she would have had a book-load of stories to tell.

I have often wondered what it would have been like for her, sitting out the war here, not knowing what had happened to her family or whether she would ever see them again.

There are some other interesting things to see in Praga, but we need a fueling stop before we move on, so finding a Polish bakery we load up on pastries and lattes.  The cakes are really good.  On the whole, Polish cakes and pastries are not as sickly sweet as I’m used to, which is refreshing.  My niece Lola is in love with Sernik, Polish cheesecake.

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A short walk away lies the newly opened Vodka Museum and it’s been at the top of all our ‘to do’ lists prior to arriving in Warsaw.

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Housed in the old Koneser Vodka Factory which has been beautifully restored to bring you the incredible story of Polish vodka, this museum is definitely worth the trip to the gritty side.  Especially if you are a vodka fan.

First a short video is screened in the beautiful old cinema, outlining the history of Polish Vodka, and in particular the Wyborowa brand.  Wyborowa is one of the most popular Polish Vodka’s (it’s a rye vodka) and was the first to become an international trademark.

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Then you learn the even longer history of vodka itself, how it is distilled, how many types and brands there are and even partake in some little quizzes – including putting on some ‘alco goggles’.

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Now that was an interesting experience and I’m proud to say I have never in my life been that drunk that my world looks like what I saw through those glasses!

The tour concludes with three tastings of different types and brands of vodka.  The tastings included Wyborowa, Luksusova and Ostoya.  Wyborowa,as I explained earlier, is a rye vodka.  Luksusova is a potato bodka and Ostoya is a wheat vodka; the wheat is grown in the Bieszczady mountains (which I’ll visit later).  I simply had no idea that different vodka’s tasted so completely different.  I thought vodka, was vodka.  It was at this point that my new appreciation for vodka began and I vowed never to drink rubbish vodka again.

By the way, my pick is go with the Ostoya.  Can you guess which one was my least favourite.

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An Uber-ride away, lies the Soho Factory – an ‘avant-guarde space for culture and business’.  Soho seems to be a continually evolving space, but the one thing that has remained constant since the concept was created, is the Neon Museum.

This highly recommended museum is dedicated to the preservation of Cold War era signs.  It’s a small space with a lot crammed in.  Little placards explain the history of some of the signs here, advising which building the sign came from, which includes cities from all across Poland.  There’s a small gift shop on site for those who like to take home souvenir mugs and the like.

Also on the grounds of Soho is restaurant Warsawa Wschodnia, sooo posh the waiter’s place the food on your plate for you, portion by portion, throwing unamused looks at those who attempt to do so themselves.  In fact, it is one of Mateusz Gessler’s restaurants.  The food, I ordered the Risotto with Boletus (mushroom risotto) was fantastic, but I’ve never fitted into a place less.

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Warsawa Wschodnia is open 24/7.  Unsual for such a dining experience, but as Mateusz explains; “there is always a good time for good food”.  The restaurant is beautiful, with an industrial edge to it and I’d definitely go back – perhaps dressed a little better.

We bid our farewells at the tram stop, as the tracks differ for our journeys home.  I’m looking forward to a quiet one tonight because tomorrow will be busy.

Nearing my apartment, a crowd is gathering for a concert in memory of the Warsaw Uprising, tomorrow being the actual day of commemoration.  The concert is love songs from the Uprising.

 

 

Warsaw Through My Own Eyes

I was last in Warsaw about four years ago.  I was making my way through several European countries and agreed to meet Mum and Dad there on my way home.  They had also been travelling, though through different countries.  It was my first trip to Poland.  Mum and Dad hadn’t been particularly impressed by Poland on their first visit and I had wanted to change their opinion.  We did loads of fun things and had an awesome time in Krakow, but I still ended up feeling like Warsaw wasn’t open to the world.  Yet.

What would I think this time?

From what I’d seen on social media in the long lead-up to this trip, Warsaw had made great strides.  In fact, it now had way cooler looking stuff going on than Perth (though, you know my conflicted feelings about Perth by now).  Throwing away any notions from the last trip and being here completely on my own agenda, I couldn’t wait to explore every inch of the city and find out.

My cousins from Wales also arrived in Warsaw yesterday, though missing luggage has put them behind the 8-ball and I haven’t yet had the opportunity to catch up with them.  Today I’ll hopefully get that chance.

The sun rises early for my first morning in Warsaw.  My apartment is a small studio, basically one room with a bathroom and a loft. Two beautiful large windows open out to a courtyard housing nothing much except noisy people in the early hours of the morning.

Wanting Warsaw to myself for a little while, I walk to the Old Town.  The cafes and shops are yet to open, apart from the couple of Carrefourre Express stores hiding in the quiet.  The heat has already rolled in for the day and the sky is right blue.  There are only a few people out and about.  It’s hard to believe this is a city that was rebuilt almost from scratch over 70 years ago.

The weather in Warsaw is humid – just like a Perth summer in fact.  And it doesn’t take me long to realise I have not packed appropriately.  I mean, I knew it would be summer and I was hoping it would be nice and warm, but a conversation with someone prior to leaving got me second guessing and I packed thinking ‘oh it won’t be THAT hot’.  So, with little budget available for an extra travel wardrobe, I leave the Old Town and head to Marszalkowska Street to carefully select some clothes which are a bit more suitable to this heatwave.  I find a cool pair of cotton pants and am flicking through a rack of t-shirts when I hear ‘do you think this dress suits me?’.  I turn to see my cousin Chris, holding up a colourful summer dress to himself.  His daughter Katherine, who I’ve not met before (but recognise from Facebook photos) comes up not far behind him, then Chris’ wife Sharon wanders over too.  The four of us catch up quickly – I haven’t seen Chris and Sharon since my trip to Wales just before my trip to Poland, and head back to our shopping, agreeing to catch up later for a glass of wine at Cafe Sloik not far away.

Cafe Sloik is filled with colourful jars.  It’s an interesting choice of name.  Officially, it means jar.  But it’s also slang for a person from a small town that works or studies in Warsaw and leads most of their social life in their hometown.  The name is derived from the jars of cooked food which the stereotypical słoik brings back to Warsaw from their hometown to save money.   Scanning the menu for the cheapest items, I wish I had bought a meal from home!  Not that Poland is expensive, because it’s not, but my budget was based on eating at my apartment as much as possible.  I settle on carpaccio and a negroni and enjoy both.

A couple drinks under our belt, it’s time to head to Wieslaw and Dorotka’s for dinner – our first official family dinner.  I haven’t seen them since my last (and first) visit to Warsaw four years ago.  Dorotka is Dad’s cousin and mother to Paula, Zuzanna and Maja.  Paula and Maja are already there, along with Paula’s baby son Marcel, and Stan who is related by marriage to Chris’s mother.  Broken Polish-English conversations abound but between us we have a great old time.

Family Dinner with Pruskis

We enjoy an array of delicious dishes thanks to Wieslaw’s cooking prowess and there are plenty of drinks, hallmarks of Polish hospitality.  Plans are made to meet again in the next day or so.  It feels great to be here surrounded by the other side of my family, which I have not yet had the luxury of getting to know in depth.  I hope this trip will be filled with chances to do just that.

Welcomed in Warsaw

After flying forever, I can’t explain what it felt like to arrive in Warsaw for five whole glorious weeks of exploration.  Exploration of the city, exploration of my roots and exploration of what it meant to me to be Polish and proud of my heritage.  Five weeks of spending time with family, honing my language skills, travelling around and eating as many pierogi as possible.

I walked out of Gate 2 at Chopin International, only to find that my gorgeous cousins Paula and Maja were awaiting me outside Gate 1 with flowers, sparkling wine and welcoming signs.  I have never felt this kind of reception myself, though I’ve seen it at other airports and always thought that must be really nice!  And it was.  I felt welcomed the minute I saw them and knew that spending five weeks here in Warsaw getting to know my family was going to be just awesome.

We drove a short distance through Warsaw’s streetsto what would be my home for the next five weeks – an Air BNB apartment located in Dluga Street, very close to Warsaw’s Old Town and about 20 minutes away from my cousins.  It was the perfect location, and the perfect apartment (thank you Anna and Bartosz).

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The girls left, which gave me some time to shower, rest, unpack and check out the local area for groceries.

It’s been almost four years to the date since I was last in Warsaw (give or take a month) and I didn’t spend more than a few hours in the Old Town at that time, so I’m keen to start having a look around to explore just what it is that makes it every tourist’s No. 1 stop in Warsaw.  Firstly though I need groceries, so I hit the streets and find a little Zabka grocery store where I buy a packet of frozen pierogi (sacriligous I know), and head home to cook them up for dinner.

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Feeling guilty that I’m spending my first night in Poland with fake pierogi (OK, truth be told they actually weren’t that bad, fried up with a bit of butter I grabbed off the plane, but you know what I mean), I pull my tired self together and head out into the night air to soak up the atmosphere of the Old Town on a Saturday night.

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It was a great move because the evening is beautifully warm, the light is just gorgeous and the town’s restaurants are full of people enjoying Polish cuisine and hospitality.  Perhaps tomorrow, after a good night’s rest, I will be one of those people.

Who Saw Warsaw Coming?

Apart from that little long weekend in Singapore all the way back in February, I have only one trip planned for this year. But it’s a big one. Five weeks, yes five weeks, in Poland.  Well, mostly Warsaw.

IN THE SAME COUNTRY! I know right!

You know me, I usually like to tick off 5 or 6 countries when I visit Europe.  That way, it makes the super long flight worth it.  But this travel thing is about evolving.  And although I love getting to as many places as possible, on recent trips I’ve found myself really wishing I’d had more time in each place.

Well, this trip I’m giving myself plenty of time.  And with good reason because I am heading back to Warsaw, home of my paternal lineage.  It’s gonna be a kind of root finding exercise.  I will be searching for family birthplaces, possible new relatives and my lost pierogi-consuming, mushroom-picking, vodka-drinking heritage.

Dad’s family were part of a relatively unknown page of WWII history.  I say unknown, because many of the survivors were told never to discuss it.  They were ashamed to do so, just wanted to forget it or, even sadder, just didn’t think anyone would be interested.  I’ve done a lot of research into this period of history over the last few years and never realised the struggles my family faced.  Those who are interested are welcome to read about my geneology search at my website Looking for the Lukasiks.  For those who are not so interested, here’s a brief wrap up; because it forms the basis of so much of what this trip will be about for me.

World War II broke out in Gdansk on 1 September 1939 when the Germans swept into Poland from the West. The Russians swept in from the East on 17 September and deported the Poles living there to Siberia.  This area was named ‘Kresy‘, or borderlands.  Many thousands died and those who survived, spent the next decade, displaced and wandering the world, looking for shelter and safety.  New lives were created in new countries after the war; a new Polish diaspora.

I am lucky that the majority of my family survived, unlike others.  But I never really knew their story until recently.

My wishes for this trip?  That I can piece together a clearer picture of who my family was, gain a deeper understanding of my heritage and what it means to be Polish.

From what I’ve seen on social media, things have changed in Warsaw since my last visit.  I’ve been watching this city come alive with keen interest and looking back on the words I wrote after my last trip to Warsaw:

Warsaw – what can I say – I read recently that you have a face that only a mother can love. And it’s true. I know you want to open up, but I don’t think you can just yet. I’ll give you time and see how you go, but you are brave and you are a fighter and you have a fantabulous history that the world is waiting to hear about.

I’d say the buzz that was just starting when I visited in 2014 is now blooming and I can’t wait to check it out!  Let the count down begin.

The Sound of Music

I LOVE music.  Love, love, love.  Everything that goes through my head is accompanied by a song of some kind.  It’s like the soundtrack to life and a song can COMPLETELY change my mood.  Like last night.  I had a really shit week at work this week.  I mean really shit.  I even left work in tears one evening.  So I was going to come home and spend my Friday night getting in an early one to start the weekend right.  But I felt like crap.  I was tired, too tired to cook and definitely too tired to resist picking up a bottle of wine (ok, maybe it was two bottles….)

Bottle shopping done, I flicked on my iPad to listen to some new tunes I had downloaded onto my iPod over the weekend and hit play.  What the actual hell?  This shit was awesome!!!  Really awesome.  I mean, it had to be to actually pull me out of the mood I was in.

I got home, threw myself on the couch and flicked the bluetooth button on my Bose speakers to stream the incredible sounds from my iPod through to the rest of the house.  Instantly my bad mood did a backflip and I felt much, much better.  What was so good about them?  I mean, it’s not like I could understand any of the lyrics.

So what were these mystical tunes that turned my week around?  These lyrics I couldn’t understand?  The awesomeness that is Polish hip-hop.

Yep, Polish.  You might think that’s taking my destination research a little far, but I am Polish and my upcoming visit to Poland spurred me on to learn a bit more about the music scene.  So who have I been listening to?  Heavy bass, sophisticated, sexy beats –  little moody (but I love that) and some good looking Polish guys.  What’s not to like?  It’s based on the Toronto sound (think Drake).  Ok, there’s still the hot chicks, lavish lifestyle shots and fancy cars (though it’s Poland remember, so it’s old school beemers and sports cars direct from the 1980’s) but there’s a sensitivity to these tunes that I haven’t heard before.  Warsaw’s history feels like its written all over its face.

Let me introduce you to Taco Hemingway, Quebonafide, PlanBe and a few of the guys….

Taco – great hair, which carries on from his head down to his eyebrows and moustache.  Suave.  Excellent rapper, and you’ll always remember his voice.  Love 6zer where he grooves away with whisky in hand, without seemingly losing a drop.  This was the first song of his I heard and I loved it straight away simply because it featured my favourite Polish words “bardzo prosze”.

Quebonafide – ok’s, he’s diff.  Coloured hair, gold grillz, tatts galore (neck, fingers, eyelids, inside mouth), pokes his tongue out every five minutes, maniacal glint in his eye, but if you look through all that…. Que’s songs are madness, especially his travel rap stuff.  Beautiful clips from his world travels mixed with social comment.  He does loads of collabs, so check out his stuff with Planbe and Taco (at least).

Planbe – my favourite (such a lovely face, with quite possibly the nicest nose I’ve ever seen on a man).  I’m obsessed with the way his hands move when he raps.  His music is tinged with a touch of sadness and longing and he has probably the best voice of all the Polish rappers I’ve heard so far.  Plus he comes from a part of Poland not too far away from where my step-grandfather lived.  If I can’t catch a Planbe gig while I’m in Poland, I’ll die….

Bedoes – ok, he doesn’t have the smooth, cool raptones of the others, but there’s something quirky about him.  Boy can he roll his tongue.

Otsochodzi – he’s like a rich schoolboy, chillin in his dad’s mansion, with never a care in life.  You know the type, looks like Sam Prince from Made in Chelsea, best friends with everyone (before the whole Tiff Watson episode obvs).  I don’t actually know any of this about him, it’s the vibe I get.  He has an interesting rap style, full of sounds and cheek rather than vocal substance, but that makes his stuff catchy and playful.  Whimsical even  #Facepalm.

Thank god for Youtube, cause I’d currently be racking up one hell of a bill on downloading all this music (not that I won’t be doing that before I get to Poland, but I am TRYING to save right now….)

It got me thinking how amazing it is, that no matter the language, music is one of those things that really has no barriers.  It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand the lyrics, it’s the emotion it stirs up inside you, the way it makes you feel and groove.  The way it can change your mood in an instant.  These artists have reeled me right in and I’m loving exploring all their tunes.  Needless to say, it ended up being a long night last night, but in a really awesome way.

As I mentioned, these guys do loads of collabs, so it makes it really easy to get caught in Polish hiphop Youtube spirals all night long, checking out new artists.

Move over Kpop, there’s some new kids in town….