It's always the same: What? You want to visit Poland? Do you want to get your car stolen? Many people are surprised when we tell them we're traveling to Poland. Reactions run the full range from astonishment at one extreme, to prejudice and a complete lack of understanding at the other. This will be my fourth and Hannes' third trip, and we have only had good experiences.
Well, what do we want to do there anyway? What is it that fascinates us about this country?
It's not only my interest in my family's roots. First and foremost I'd like to see the landscape surrounding the Vistula (a large river in central Poland), where my ancestors lived. I want to learn about the lifestyle they experienced as they cultivated their land. I want to understand what they meant with the expression "fruit orchards in full bloom" in their stories. Tending the fruit orchards wasn't only a way of life but also a metaphor for an attitude towards life.
I also wanted to know what it was like to live next to such a large untamed river like the Vistula. To adapt oneself to the necessities of the ecology, the open areas and the cultivating of the fertile alluvial soil all the while living with the danger of floods.
Poland is also a "flashpoint" of European history. Nowhere but here can you experience its fractures and contradictions so close at hand. The peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups and cultures on the one hand and the fierce enmity that flared up intermittently on the other. Poland appears again and again in the pages of the history books. Over and over again it was occupied, divided, displaced or even erased from the political maps of Europe.
And yet it has preserved its culture through the centuries, one of the great European cultures with important contributions in literature, music and art. Poland boasts four Nobel Prize winners in literature, the composer Chopin came from Poland and world-famous film directors like Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski, began their careers in the Motion Picture Academy in Łódź. The literary leaders of Poland also had a political function: during the 123 years of partition between Russia, Prussia and Austria, together with the church, their literature worked to preserve their national identity.
The most impressive evidence of Polish culture lies in their magnificent restorations. Some years ago we were struck by the restorations in Danzig and Masuria. This time it was the complete reconstruction of the old town, the mediaeval center of Warsaw.
My final reason is my interest in and enjoyment of the Polish language. Sometimes I think other people consider me a little bit eccentric. At the very least they consider it to be an exotic hobby. Why do they think this? It's really something quite normal to have a desire to understand and speak the language of a neighboring country. But after WWII we have been so strongly oriented towards the West that very few people considered checking out what lies to the East.
Tuesday, 1 October 2002
After we confirmed for our lodging reservations with the "European Center for Ecological Agriculture and Tourism Poland" by telephone, we started our journey at 10 a.m. We planned to take two days for the drive. According to the trip planner it's only 845 kilometers, but it also estimated the total driving time to be 13 to 14 hours! There are very few divided highways in Poland and the route Berlin Warsaw is heavily traveled.
The drive was correspondingly exhausting. Many trucks, large ruts in the roads and a few crazy drivers who obviously thought the object of driving on these roads was to risk one's life. Some people's driving was simply horrifyingly reckless.
At the border we encountered the usual wait while we endured the sluggishness and indifference of the customs officers. From time to time they would beckon someone out of the line and exercise their authority. How lovely it will be after Poland is admitted to the European Union and one can drive straight through!
We drove on to Konin and stopped there, with about 200 km remaining for the second day. I remembered reading about Konin in a book of the same name some years ago. The Jewish author, through years of meticulous research, reconstructed the Jewish inhabitants of the city. Unfortunately I've forgotten the author's name, and I lent the book out some time ago and haven't gotten it back. Doubtless a jigsaw puzzle similar in difficulty to the problems I have encountered in my family research.
So we expected an old town, full of nooks and crannies. But the reality was very different: the old town center could only be found with great difficulty, it was almost completely hidden in the middle of the blocks of apartment buildings, most of them built in the manner of the socialistic row houses, breathtakingly ugly!
We found our hotel after quite a bit of asking. Goodness! I can certainly ask for the way in Polish, but the answers!!! Up to the next intersection I understood fairly well, but then I always got lost with only a vague impression of which direction to go next. Our hotel had the same socialistic "charme" as the rest of the town. Ironically it was called the "Sonata" and it stood in the "ulica Chopinska" (Chopin Street). But it was in good shape. Like all the upscale hotels in Poland, it had a parking lot with a 24-hour guard (this to the topic of stolen cars) and it only cost 50 € for a double room. That's quite cheap by our standards.
I read in our tour guide that the population in this town had increased seven fold over the last few decades. In Konin, the major industry is strip mining for lignite (brown coal). And we could smell it! It smelled like Salzwedel right after the wall came down. (Salzwedel is a town near us and was located in the former East Germany. They used to heat their houses with lignite.)
Wednesday, 2 October 2002
After a hearty breakfast we set off. In Kutno we left the main road and headed towards Płock. Crossing the bridge over the Vistula we got our first impressions of this magnificent river. The town is situated high on the northeast bank; the old town is very picturesque, and the historical buildings are in good shape as in most other cities. In the pedestrian mall we looked for a bookstore, searching for some good topographic maps that we wanted. In Germany it would have taken 6 weeks to special order one of these maps. But we weren't successful and so we had to postpone the purchase until we got to Warsaw. For the time being the printouts of the detailed maps I downloaded from the Internet will have to do.
We moved on towards Warsaw following the right (northeastern) bank of the Vistula. Along the side of the road we saw long columns of parked cars, and all around we saw people with big buckets full of mushrooms they'd collected in the woods.
At Wyszogród we crossed the Vistula again, turned left and took the road through the countryside to Secymin. The first village we passed was Sladów. Here August B. had owned a windmill before he and my great-aunt Olga departed for the West in 1919, when they bought the mill in our village. But we couldn't find any evidence of the local mill. Later we learned that it was located at the border between Sladów and the neighboring village of Kromnów.
And now things started to get really exciting. Our destination, Nowy Secymin (formerly Secymin Niemiecki, Deutsch Secymin), isn't shown on some maps. It's located right next to the Vistula levee, 45 km west of Warsaw, and it extends over several kilometers. These old settlements in the Vistula flood plain are nothing like our idea of a village. Each farmhouse is located in the middle of the land belonging to it, so the distance between the houses is quite large.
First we came to the old wooden church. It stands right next to the levee and is fairly well known as a historic monument in Poland, according to information from the Internet.
We followed the road that paralleled the levee. It is little more than a gravel track about halfway down the side of the levee, and we got a first impression of the way of life that my grandparents and my father's older siblings led here. The farmhouses were built high atop earthen mounds (to protect them from flooding) in the middle of the pastures or farmer's fields. Some old buildings were still there, but most of them were in poor condition. The traditional houses and barns were made of wood and the roofs were previously covered with thatch or reeds, which had been later replaced by tin. Residential buildings and stables often shared the same roof. We also noticed how small the living space was and we wondered how families with up to ten children (which was the norm) could have managed. Nothing resembles the imposing farms that we were familiar with in Lower Saxony.
The countryside is very flat and wide, with ditches dividing the land into sections. The only interruptions are old willow trees, obviously pruned fairly recently, tall poplars, some oak trees and small islands of bushes.
Pastures near Secymin - Photo by Annegret Krause, 2002
About three kilometers further on we stopped a passing car and asked for directions to our accommodations. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at a small farm. The stables and barns on the premises looked a bit unfinished, as if still under construction, but the old residential building was lovingly styled.
I stood in front of the door and began to mentally prepare some Polish sentences, but K., our landlady (I should really refer to her as our host) beat me to it. She welcomed us in fluent English. Her husband S. spoke English fluently, too. That was nice, because that meant that we would have the opportunity to learn and understand much more than we could have hoped for.
K. showed us to our room. It was very simple and best described by the word "chamber". A tiny room right up against the roof, it had wood paneling, one bed, one table, and two chairs. The door didn't close properly, it is an old house after all, but on the door it said "Proszę pukać Please knock". That will have to do and so it did.
The central point of life in this house was the large table in the cozy kitchen. One could see K.'s handiwork in the beautiful decorations here.
In this kitchen M., "the soul of the house" worked. She was an immigrant worker from the Ukraine. She provided us with delicious food whenever we were hungry, kept the house sparkling clean and was always friendly.
Her presence and that of two other Ukrainian workers on the farm gave rise to a new language barrier. They didn't speak Polish very well, but they could understand it, and the Polish people could generally understand Ukrainian because they were both Slavic languages. But we weren't Polish, so we had to make ourselves understood with only few words and short sentences, and that worked somehow.
In the afternoon we got our bicycles out that we brought with us and rode down to the Vistula on a journey of discovery. The landscape around the levee looks remarkably different from what I had expected; it's very different from the land around the Elbe River in Germany. Here the land is predominantly covered with trees and undergrowth, occasionally interrupted by small meadows. We found a narrow path hidden in the bushes that led us to a gigantic sandbar. A real beach! The dimensions here are different from those that we are familiar with on the Elbe: The Vistula is broader at this point and there are large islands in the middle of the river, which had also been cultivated in earlier times.
On the opposite bank we saw the silhouette of the Romanesque-Gothic basilica in Czerwińsk nad Wisła (Czerwinsk above the Vistula), standing high atop the steep bank.
Two fishermen in a boat tried their luck. As a big swarm of black birds soared up, they called out to us that those were cormorants. Competitors? I think the Vistula has more than enough fish for all of them.
When I asked, K. explained to me that the situation with the Vistula had improved considerably over the last few years. Air pollution is not a problem in this area because the large Kampinoski National Park, which lies immediately to the south, filters out many of the pollutants. In the evening we went on a little trip to the edge of the park and decided to explore this area more thoroughly on a more ambitious biking expedition at a later date.
When we arrived "back home" later that evening, another guest had arrived: William from Holland, 34 years old. He was hiking through Eastern Europe, accompanied by his dog. He set aside half a year for his journey and walked without a map, staying wherever he liked, sleeping occasionally under the open skies, guarded by his dog, or, as now, on a farm. His next destination? He didn't know. Maybe Belarus, maybe Lithuania, he'd see. In any case he wanted to make it to Scandinavia eventually, primarily Finland. He seemed a very likeable fellow, an open, thoughtful and interesting man. He didn't have any of the traits of an eccentric "screwball". He said he liked to hike because that way he saw the most. He was probably right about that.
After dinner S. offered to show us a hidden path to a huge sandbar the next day. We had to laugh. We'd already found it! On our journeys it was often like this: Hannes and I tend to have a good nose for these hidden beautiful spots.
We explain our interest in family history to S.. He immediately picked up the telephone and asked an old inhabitant of Secymin for the farm of my grandparents. But she wasn't familiar with it. My grandparents had left the village prior to the end of WW I to settle farther down the river, first in Zochowo near Sierpc, then in Rosenau near Kulm (today: Różnowo near Chełmno), further on to Schoenau near Schwetz (Przechowo near Swiecie) and finally first in Neuhof and then in Sausgoerken (Suchawa) in East Prussia. From there my grandmother came to Lower Saxony in 1945 a true odyssey.
At first I was very hesitant, talking about these things with a Pole. But my fears proved to be totally unfounded. Today they deal with their history and the intertwining with Germans very naturally. S. said that most Poles "are feeling friendly" towards Germans. And this was confirmed to us during the following days.
S. explained to us how the agriculture had developed in this area after the war. At first the people believed that everything was only temporary: The Germans would come back to their farms and they, many of whom had come from the eastern regions of Poland (annexed by Russia), would return to their homes in the East. That's why they didn't develop things, taking only what they needed.
During the Communist reign private farming was also treated fairly harshly. The young people didn't stay on the farms but moved to the cities.
As before, the small farmers still have a hard life. Previously the typical practice was dairy farming, but that doesn't pay much nowadays. There is a lack of capital and support from the government despite declarations to the contrary.
Meanwhile, people from Warsaw would come out and buy farms to live on, but they don't cultivate the land. And it showed. It may be good for nature, but it hurts to see so much fertile land lying fallow.