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Ancestral Village In Poland

Tuesday, August 31st, 2004

Ancestral Poland.gif

We take local electric trains three hours north from Warsaw to Ostroda where we book into the Park Hotel on a lovely lake that caters to German-speaking tourists many of whom are coming to the former East Prussia to revisit lost homes and distant relatives. In fact while there we get a glimpse of a crackly BBC news report of an organization of older Germans who are demanding recompense from Russia for lost land and money during WWII…comparing themselves to the victims of the holocaust! President Shroeder, of course, refuses to intervene on their behalf, reminding them that the whole mess was due to their own country in the first place.

We luck out and find a pretty English speaking taxi driver in the line-up outside the Ostroda train station who agrees to take us the next day on a 20 minute drive (with liberal European speed limits amounting to no limits at all) to my ancestral village of Szczepankowo. And by village I mean village. Besides three or four homes with cobble stone lanes leading away from the main road, there is one tiny market. The village and the surrounding lush farmland looks like an 18th century pastoral painting.

While I walk around taking pictures of cobbles and pigs, the driver notices what appears to be the remains of a compound-like rock wall in the trees and overgrown grass across from the market. When she asks the old man in the market who lived there the response came: “Oh a rich man used to live there a long time ago.” Since my great grandparents sold their land in order to bring their 10 children to America and since anyone in 1890 who owned land would have been considered rich, and since my ancestors lived in this village as far back as the early 1700’s, I’d like to think I found their home…even if it wasn’t.

Five minutes away is Pratnica, a small town where we visited the church that my ancestors attended. Two priests, one 82 years old and a younger one originally from Gdansk, came to the door to the well-maintained quite large rectory and welcomed us in…offering candy and a viewing of copies of church records since the original were sent to Germany during the war )and since have been photographed by the LDS Library).

They let us into the church, which burned down twice in the last century…with one huge original rock cemented in near the foundation. But a rector’s chair was dated 1602 and we are told that a large hollowed out stone standing just inside the front doors is the original baptismal font. A Polish descendent like myself from Wisconsin donated nice new church pews in the 1970’s. The older priest remembers that one old Mroczynski lived nearby but has been dead several years. We drive to the home nearest his old one to visit an old woman who might remember him but there is a big lock on the door and no one is at home except the chickens and ducks.

Before leaving Pratnica, we stop for a bowl of soup at noon and our driver is happy to see Duck Blood Soup on the menu-a dish my grandparents always reserved for special occasions. We order our favorite made with rich dark smoky mushrooms from the forest.

On the way back to Ostroda our driver, in her early 30’s with two young daughters, tells us that there are few jobs in Poland and that her husband went to Ireland two years ago for work. She visited once, she says, but “things were not the same anymore so we must get a divorce.” (Skeptical Bob thinks there is more to the story.) But by this time we have made friends and she invites us to her parent’s home where she lives with her two girls on the top story. Her mother is in the hospital getting radiation and chemotherapy for breast cancer that she says is very common in Eastern Poland…due, everyone here thinks, to the Chernobl nuclear disaster in Russia about 25 years ago. We pick plums and apples from their backyard orchard. On the way out her father offers us Polish beer but we have already had coffee and cake in his daughter’s apartment and I feel bad turning him down.

My great grandmother was born in Radom…another visit to Poland some day.

Before leaving Poland we tank up one last time on pierogis..little savory pockets of noodle dough stuffed with mushrooms or other vegetables, meat or cottage cheese or sweet ones filled with blueberries or other fruit…just like my grandmother used to make at home. Oh, and I buy a CD that is popular in Poland right now…romantic songs sung by a thrilling Polish Zucchero. “I like very much,” says the young little blond in the music store. [read on]

Who Would Have Thought…?

Monday, August 30th, 2004

Who would have thought that Poland in 1995 would have chosen the former communist bureaucrat, Aleksander Kwasniewski, over the former hero Lech Walesa, who, along with the Solidarity movement, led Central and Eastern Europe out of Communism?

Poland still has a post Communist president, as do most post communist European countries today, and our taxi driver, who has two university educated children, frowns when I mention this…”I don’t like!” he spats. He and his wife have a two-room apartment with a monthly rent of $200. Fewer tourists come to Poland in winter, so what he makes in the summer has to stretch year round. He has his old white Mercedes with 500,000 miles on it to maintain. (He didn’t laugh when Bob pointed to a bright orange car and suggested he paint his car the same color! “I don’t think so!” Urban dwellers in apartments pay very high taxes which rural people in their own homes do not pay and food is more expensive than in the country where people grow most of their own. But he is fortunate, he says, that in school, children are rewarded for good grades by not having to pay as much tuition…those with the highest grades are rewarded with full scholarships.

So even though it is more expensive to live in the city, where the communist government sponsored “milk bars” (with simple but wonderful home-cooked food) are now few and far between. The effects of economic growth are more visible there than in the country where Walesa surprisingly lost most of his support.

And for the young, communism and Solidarity are already ancient history…something they learn about from boring textbooks. In contrast to the uneducated electrician, who often appeared undignified and used ungramatical Polish, the smooth-talking yuppielike former communist appeared more modern and forward looking. And for some young voters, there was an element of conscious revolt, just because the parents identify so strongly with the post-Solidarity tradition, the children vote against it…a pattern we saw also in the former East Germany and the Czech Republic where, for example, the young waitress who went to school with her Prime Minister, says that it is popular now to study Russian as well as English in school. So Walesa lost 48% to Kwasniewski’s 51% with an amazing 68% voter turnout.
[read on]


Sunday, August 29th, 2004
Ancestral Poland.gif In re-built Warsaw we view public art memorializing the Warsaw Uprising...Nazis destroyed the city while Russia watched on the other side of the Vistula River...then moved in and occupied the city for the ... [Continue reading this entry]

Auschwitz-Birkenau German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945)

Friday, August 27th, 2004
Ancestral Poland.gif Photos The Germans changed the name to Auschwitz but the Polish still call it Oswiecim. We hire an English speaking guide to drive us to Auschwitz and Birkenau for the day and ... [Continue reading this entry]

Polish Ancestors

Thursday, August 26th, 2004
Ancestral Poland.gif I am looking forward to visiting my grandfather's little village in the north. Seven generations of his ancestors were farmers and lived in the same little village of Szczepankowo. In ... [Continue reading this entry]

Krakow Poland

Tuesday, August 24th, 2004
EHcDvLBEX5UlHHY96lAFi0-2006185062720933.gif We are out of the unusually hot and humid Czech Republic. After an all night train we are in cool Krakow Poland. We accept an offer by a young English speaking man ... [Continue reading this entry]

I’m A Gypsy?

Monday, August 23rd, 2004
NikaFEAe66TwIiJDaeZZ7w-2006198180634090.gif Back in Prague, doors open...a gypsy girl sits down beside me at a bus stop...flirting...wanting me to listen to lively music in her cell phone. I smile and she is encouraged...she smiles widely...waving ... [Continue reading this entry]

Czech Jazz in Cesky Krumlov

Friday, August 20th, 2004
NikaFEAe66TwIiJDaeZZ7w-2006198180634090.gif In Prague, we phone the Chinese embassy and they suggest coming for an interview after which they would allow a visa in one week's time to allow for the processing and paperwork. Because ... [Continue reading this entry]

Young Czech Prime Minister

Wednesday, August 18th, 2004
NikaFEAe66TwIiJDaeZZ7w-2006198180634090.gif The Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Stanislav Gross, is 32 years old and looks 20! We are realizing how little information we have gotten in the US in the last ... [Continue reading this entry]

Ripped Off In Prague

Friday, August 13th, 2004
NikaFEAe66TwIiJDaeZZ7w-2006198180634090.gif My medications, that had gotten held up in Custums in Frankfurt, finally arrived in Berlin via fedex. We had planned on taking the train through Austria and Hungary but now we are ... [Continue reading this entry]

Former East Berlin

Friday, August 6th, 2004
I am off to Starbucks to spend an hour over coffee while checking my email but their Hotspot internet service is down. It's a good time to revisit the former eastern sector of the city. Berlin's architecture is stunning...old and ... [Continue reading this entry]

No Chinese Visa In Germany

Wednesday, August 4th, 2004
Today we try to get our China visa in Berlin, but were refused because we weren't Germans. It was suggested by the Chinese embassy that we could get a visa in Hong Kong, but since our trans siberian tickets ... [Continue reading this entry]

U-2 in Berlin

Monday, August 2nd, 2004
Coming up out of the U-2 line of the Zoo railway station and thinking of course of the Irish rock band we enter now-rich, Western, happening Berlin. We pore over maps trying to get our bearings ... [Continue reading this entry]