I never wanted to leave home when I was growing up. Going to some foreign country where the people were different and the food was strange and the culture was a million miles away from mine quite frankly scared the crap out of me. But for some reason when a last minute opportunity came up for me to travel to China, I jumped on board, and though I didn't enjoy it at the time (quite possibly because I had made my first trip out of Australia to a country that was culturally as different as you could get), the extent of what I had seen nd heard and learnt really hit me once I'd had time to reflect. I haven't stopped travelling since. Only now, I have a new challenge - to learn to travel alone...
I was looking forward to spending time with my cousin Paula today, but as an early riser, I headed to the Old Town to wander around and see what there was to do in the meantime. In the main square, housed in one of the old townhouses, I found the Museum of Warsaw.
Stepping down into the first floor of the exhibition, which was below street level, scale models, coreflute boards and an interactive wooden townhouse board, told the story of Warsaw – her fluctuating population, the types of employment, pre and post war modelling and remnants of war rubble – everyday items like glasses and ceramics.
The remaining four floors continued Warsaw’s story via photos, postcards, fashion and art. The photos of Warsaw pre and post World War 2 were particularly interesting.
It was all quite interesting, but for me, the highlight of this museum was what you find when you finish climbing the stairs to the 5th floor – sweeping views of the Rynek.
For the rest of the day, Paula and I had decided to take her son Marcel to the local pools. I jumped on the tram and navigated the streets towards the pool, as directed by my phone’s GPS. I was finding Warsaw’s tram system great and had used it a few times already. Sadly, Perth didn’t enjoy a service like this.
The pool was nothing special – a large expanse of grass with lots of shade, several pools for paddling or swimming and a small waterslide – but what I liked about it most, was that I was actually experiencing a slice of Warsaw life that most travellers wouldn’t. And it was the perfect way to cool down from the relentless heat. We tanned, chatted and paddled the afternoon away.
Afterwards, Paula and I headed back to her apartment, stopping along the way to enjoy dinner at her localy Thai restaurant, followed by snacks and some extremely large glasses of wine. It was awesome, with great company and MTV playing Sammantha Fox’s ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now’. This was the side of Warsaw I wanted to see most.
It was a fairly early start to get back to Warsaw from the little train station in Przemysl. I grabbed a sandwich and a drink from the shop inside the station and headed to the platform to await my ride. Catching a train in Poland can be a little daunting, simply for the lack of English explanations. I had taken a train journey from Krakow to Warsaw on my last visit and it hadn’t gone down well. But I wanted to use the train network a bit while I was here, so I began to make note of the recurrent words I saw around the station and commit them to memory.
When the train arrived, I took my seat in a 8 seat cabin for the six hour journey back to Warsaw, which was fine until the train filled up at the next couple of stations. The seats are small and the cabins are cramped, no airconditioning in sight. It was one, long, hot journey home.
It was simply too hot to sit in the cabins, so I pushed stumbled my way to the corridor and stood against the window, relieved for the wind in my face.
The weather hadn’t chilled back in Warsaw, by any means. I was so hot and sweaty by the time I arrived back at Ratusz Arsenal subway near my apartment with my heavy duffle bag (no doubt thanks to all those books I bought), that I just wanted to sit down anywhere just to cool down a little. Lucky for me, a pop up beer tent came to the rescue. One ice cold pint of Tyskie later, and I was ready to make the last few hundred metres home.
But there was no rest for the wicked. I had a birthday party to attend! Paula’s grandmother Grazyna (was my Babcia’s sister Ana’s daughter) is 79 today. Ana remained in the relatively unscathed Praga side of Warsaw for the duration of the war, after an unsuccesful attempt to join the family at the farm in the Kresy. It is a shame that the language barrier separates us, because I would love to talk to Grazyna about her memories of the war as a young girl. I need to work on my language skills, but for a birthday party, I’ll get by fine. Because I made sure to learn all the words to the Polish birthday tune ‘Sto Lat’.
The last day of my geneology tour of Poland. Zenon drove me to Przemyśl so we could visit one last cemetery. I had found graves for Michał’s parents, Wojciech and Anna and I thought I could leave with the graves, a little woodman’s tool that Michał had made himself. Part of a set, I thought I would like to return a piece of him, to them and to Poland.
But when we find the graves, the dates don’t align. Of course they don’t. I can’t believe that there is another couple with the same names on the area, while my Keller’s are ghosts. So, not only have I found nothing about Michał, but things I thought had a great chance of substantiating turned up nothing.
I can’t complain though, because simply being in this part of Poland, which I probably wouldn’t have visited, is magical. It really is gorgeous and spurs me onto want to see more of and spend more time in Poland.
In fact all of the places I have visited this week have been worth the visit in some small way and although I found little in the way of paperwork and confirmations, I did actually achieve what I set out to do – to walk where they walked.
Waving goodbye to Zenon outside my hotel for the night, I had the rest of the afternoon to explore Przemyśl’s old town centre.
Taking a seat outside a local pub, I ordered the regional Bigos, which meant cabbage without the usual tomato based sauces, and thought about the past week. It had felt longer than a week, and tiring. I needed to leave Michał in the past and accept I may never find out any more. I was not prepared to give up on Lucy yet. And then there was my actual grandfather, Krzysztof. Another story again.
Ashort walk around town and suddenly I felt tired. I spent the afternoon napping, not leaving the room until early evening in search of food.
Tomorrow I would be on the train ride back to Warsaw.
Climbing around graves isn’t usually the first item on my morning agenda, but that’s exactly how I started the day.
Surely there’s got to be a Keller here somewhere.
I was carefully extricating myself from between a row of graves when the impending doom of a funeral organ blasted out from a service nearby. I jumped a mile, stubbing my sandaled toe in the process, before composing myself and continuing with the search.
There were Killars and Keilors, but not a single Keller. And there was nowhere else left in Sanok or Zahutyń to check for facts on Michał or his family.
So, what happened to Michał and his family? Well, my theory is this. When war broke out, the Germans deported many Poles living in this area to Germany where they were used as forced labour in the war effort. Michał’s ’employment’ records indicate this to be the case. Why there are no records for him in Poland, I don’t know.
Why don’t we take a drive through the Bieszczady, suggests Zenon. This is the upside of travelling with a geneologist who knows the area – they always know somewhere to go when all else fails! An hour or so later, we arrive at Solina Dam, on the San River. From the busy carpark we head down a pedestrian path past stall after stall of mostly tacky souvenirs. Busy despite being a weekday, we pick our way through the crowd to arrive at what is Poland’s largest dam.
It was a glorious day which beautifully showcased the scenery before us.
The dam provides a myriad of activities for visitors from watersports to a fairground and food and drink between.
We lingered to walk the length of the promenade and then headed back to the car, a little at loss of what to do next. Zenon suggests lunch. In Slovakia.
It’s not far, no visa is required for entry and, well why not. Yes, lets have lunch in Slovakia. The idea excited me more than it probably should.
Before long we had reached the border and were on our way to the town of Medzilaborce enjoying the beautiful scenery along the way.
The town was rather a quiet little place and it wasn’t easy to find somewhere to eat along the main street but we eventually come across a club of sorts that was open. A simple meal with a Slowak beer to accompany it.
So what is there to know about Medzilaborce? Well, it is where Andy Warhol’s parents were born of all things. I find out later there is a Warhol Museum of Contemporary Art here.
There wasn’t much else to hang around for though, so we began our drive back through this region, continuing the loop, which was covered with roadside hikers and campers, all making the most of the gorgeous weather and scenery.
We also pulled into a lookout named Nadleśnictwo Cisna to catch the expansive views…
Back in Sanok, I walked through the streets from our pensione to the town square in search of food and wind down for the day. The town is quaint but nothing super special to write home about. However the scenery surrounding the town is pretty magnificent.
There’s a newly renovated castle just behind the square, which overlooks the sun setting over the river San.
It’s the perfect atmosphere to relax.
A waitress at a restaurant on the corner of the square bought me an English menu. I asked her if I could please exchange it for a Polish one, explaining that I am trying to practice the language. I could make out a lot of words on the menu, which was good, but I wanted to try the regional Bigos and I already knew what that involved, so there was not much risk associated with the choice. I made my order, in Polish, and the waitress praised my ‘skills’.
So, no Michał today either and tomorrow we leave with only one last lead to follow up. Please, please, please let me find something in Przemyśl.
In my research I had obtained a copy of Michał’s Immigration records, which indicated that he was born in Zahutyn in 1911. He went to school Tlumacz, Stanislawow (which was a little weird geography wise) and when war broke out in 1939, was working at SFA in Sanok (the largest town nearby to Zahutyn) as a founder. Google searching for SFA Sanok directs you to probably the biggest company in Sanok at that time (and perhaps even still) – Sanockiej Fabryce Autobusów or Sanok Bus Factory. The company, now known as Autosan, is one of the oldest in Poland having been founded in 1832. You’ll see their busses around Poland if you travel there.
His records indicate that once war broke out, he arrived in Germany. how what when, so I thought it safe to assume that he had spent most of his life in Zahutyn/Sanok.
So imagine my surprise when we dropped into the local archives in Sanok and found no birth records for Michał. No school records for Michał. And no record of him working for SFA (Autosan).
In fact, no record of Michał at all. He was like a ghost. What the heck is with my ancesters, going around leaving no records for me.
So we head for Zahutyn itself.
Zahutyn is off the main road, down what looks like a country lane. It looks like the kind of place I imagined that sweet Michał would have grown up. It doesn’t look like much has changed over the decades.
But there is no trace of Michał here, just my imaginations of his life here. The local priest, an interesting character who reminded me of Mork & Mindy’s child, is of no help. Instead he recommends contacting the rectory in Sanok. Neither are they able to help, citing Europe’s new privacy laws as their reason not to do so.
I think Zenon could sense my disappointment, so he suggested a visit to the Museum of Folk Architecture. Despite my earlier visit to the open air museum in Siedlce, the life and architecture of these two parts of Poland were quite different so I was keen to see just how it was that the ethnic Lemkos and Boykos lived.
A softly spoken dreadlocked guy guided us around the museum, his special key unlocking rooms that were not visible to all. These homes, nestled in the foothills of the Bieszscady Mountains, were built like row houses with all associated buildings, including those of animals, under the one roof. Worth the visit, of course.
Today I say goodbye to the Pruskis, who will be heading home to the UK. It’s been so wonderful to have the opportunity to spend time together and to be side-by-side on our journey to Belarus, Chris and I standing where it all started for our families, the reason for our living continents apart.
My road trip continues now, down to the south of Poland, to hunt for clues about my step-grandfather Michał Keller, who was also born in Poland. You may think, why would you do that if he was only your step-grandfather? Well, he was the only father my Dad knew and we have his surname. He was a wonderful, softly-spoken gent and his story deserves to be discovered. Especially because its quite a different one to my Babcia’s.
But first, Zbigniew has to attend a conference tomorrow so I’m part of a gas station handover just outside of Warsaw to my new guide Zenon. Zenon is the creator of Polish Origins and I feel lucky to have him on this part of the journey. He is also from this part of Poland.
We spend the hours on the road chatting and discover we share a love of music. Thanks to his teenage son, he has just begun listening to a bit of hip-hop. So we compare notes, I don’t know about Kękę and he hasn’t heard of Planbe, but we both know Quebonafide. ‘I never thought I’d be on a tour, chatting to an Australian girl about Polish hip-hop’, Zenon laughs.
Our first stop is an overnighter in the town of Rzeszów, four plus hours south of Warsaw. It’s the largest city in south eastern Poland. A pretty town square awaited exploration, but the rain had other ideas forcing me into a wine bar for shelter (what a shame!!!).
Here, I had a chat to myself about starting to use some of the Polish I had been learning for the past year, and emboldened, I ordered my first glass of wine in that oh so difficult language. There was no jeering, no confused look or ‘huh?’ muttered and the wine arrived exactly as I’d intended, so I toasted myself to success.
The rain also cleared a little so I wandered around the streets, buying icecream and Polish language children’s books. For myself. I know a lot of Polish words now, but I’m not so good with sentences so I’m hoping that learning from scratch, just like I did as a child, will help.
It really was a pretty town and I enjoyed exploring the streets a little. As always, more time would have been great.
If I thought the town was pretty, my room was even sweeter. A real girlie kind of room which almost made me feel too grotty to be there. Settling into bed with a glass of wine, I half-watch a Polish dubbed version of some American block-buster which doesn’t hold my interest. I’m thinking more about Michał and his life and what we might find over the next few days.
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 verycold.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
…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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.