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?