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.
Tags: Ancestors, Hotels,Hostels & Guesthouses, Poland, Szczepankowo, Trains, Video, Videos