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Poland - September 1994

Warsaw's Historic Town Square

 

In 1994, I undertook a personal sojourn: a romantic trek to meet the relatives I’ve never seen, still residing on my great-grandfather’s farm in southeastern Poland. Here’s a tale of personal revelations amidst a culture continually on the brink of collapse. Perhaps it will inspire more Americans to remain in contact with the distant relatives they can find overseas.


Warsaw
Starting with a couple of strange-looking addresses provided by my mother from her late mother’s frail address book, I wrote to relatives I’d never seen. I relied upon a Polish student at a nearby university to translate my English-language letters into the native tongue my American family never learned. Recalling the packages of used clothing my grandmother occasionally sent to the Old Country, I too assembled a package of clothes I no longer found fashionable, the Ralph Lauren sheets that clashed with the new color of my bedroom, and a few photographs, which I shipped off with the letter introducing me as the grandson of Katryzyna Sroka.

Two months later, handwritten replies arrived in wafer-thin envelopes from two relatives: my mother’s first cousin Zofia, and her (more educated) nephew Edward, who each occupied parts of the land my grandmother left behind as a teenage girl. I wrote to them both over the following year, getting to know them despite the very slow mail delivery. As the correspondences continued, my college friend deciphered the letters I received, translated my outgoing messages, and kindly explained some of the references in my cousins’ simple letters. When Zofia encouraged me to visit, I knew where my next vacation would take me.

Wawel Castle
overlooking historic Krakow

My adventures began when I flew to Krakow, Poland, a medieval jewel that seemed like the setting for a fairy tale, with a castle on the hill and a wall around the city with remnants of the Jewish ghetto on the other side. (Parts of Schindler’s List were filmed there.) When I booked my flight, I arranged to rent a car as well. Now at the Hertz counter in Krakow, I presented my American Express card. The rental agent held my card and beamed. He announced that American Express cardholders received "automatic upgrade," bestowing me with the keys to a beautiful new blue American Ford, possibly the biggest car in Southern Poland!

How would I communicate with my mother’s relatives? Conveniently, my father’s American-born cousins speak English and Polish. Stanley lives in suburban New York, where he raised a family, while his brother Walter maintains the family farm near Krakow, Poland. I drove to the village of Tarnów to stay on Walter’s farm, and to meet his wife and three terrific kids. Stanley arrived from New York for a visit as well. Then, in my fabulous blue Ford, with Stanley and Walter as translators and local historians, we headed for the Russian border.

Walter's house in Tarnów

The lessons from cousin Walter came quickly. Those years following Lech Walesa's Solidarity brought a sobering new economy into Eastern Europe's countryside. Poland's proclamation of freedom from Communism in 1991 burdened each citizen with economic hardships so that a nation could begin its painfully democratic rëawakening. Poles can now assess the never-achieved Socialism that Soviet rulers attempted in the region. While Westerners think of Stalin as the demon who slaughtered his own people,the peasants here think of him as the genius who he paved the roads of these little towns, getting the milk from Polish farms into the mouths of hungry Russians, with modest pay to my relatives. Today, Russians have no money to transport Polish produce; the socialist network is broken. My desperate relatives use their tiny farms just to feed themselves. They dump the milk they can’t consume; they have no cash crop. They voted the Communists back into office, because the market economy just can’t "trickle down" fast enough for them. Besides, Walter pointed out, three entire generations learned to expect provisions from the Soviets. Self-rule is a frightening prospect. Since locals haven't governed this region for most of this century, management skills are scarce. Potential leaders with good ideas died in prisons generations ago.

 

Walter, Me, and Stanley

So here we are, driving East toward the Russian city of Lvov, near the corner of Poland where Slovakia meets the Ukraine, passing horse-drawn wooden milk wagons, driven by so many Tevyes along the way. The land is as flat as Texas, I’m driving the biggest car on the road, but there’s no traffic because no one around here can afford a car. And, those that can, comrade, made certain to buy a red car, to confirm that their sentiments were in sync with the Soviets. My car couldn't be more conspicuous. After about 20 minutes of driving, a cop steps into the middle of the road, holds up a wooden stop sign, then arrests me for speeding! I saw Walter and Stanley pale at the sight of that uniform. Surely we were headed to Siberia!

Walter did all the talking. After much discussion, I was chastised and allowed to proceed without a penalty. In a country of high unemployment, putting a uniform on a responsible young citizen is a way to keep families fed, at least as far as those bureaucratic zlotys can stretch. I knew I was in safe hands as Walter negotiated with the handsome young cop, yet in all candor, as I listened to the two of them, I was really thinking that if this officer arrested someone in Los Angeles, he’d have a role on BayWatch by now!

We arrived in the village of Brzóza Królewska about 90 minutes later, the home of my maternal family for longer than anyone could decisively recall. Here's the village so tiny that houses have numbers, but there are no street names. Everyone knows each other. Seeking Zofia's home, we drove around reading house numbers. When we passed three carpenters shingling the roof of a new house, Walter got out of the car to ask the direction of 330. Like a scene from a Marx Brothers movie, all three of them stood up on cue, nodded, then pointed in three separate directions! I laughed out loud and turned to Stanley in the back seat and exclaimed "Do you think we’re in Poland?!"

We got accurate directions to the house from the clerk in the local grocery store, about the size of an L.A. bodega. As I drove down the road of tiny farms, I was struck by something my grandmother told me long ago: when her father died, the farm was divided between her five siblings. When they died, the farms were divided again among my mother's generation. Now some of those relatives subdivided the properties even further as they passed the land to my generation. As I drove past these tiny farms from my rented Ford, I recognized a bizarre concept: all my relatives live in one row! House by house, here were all the same blue eyes as mine, the descendants of Jakob Sroka.

Zofia

At 330 Brzóza Królewska, we met Zofia, who had received my letters, welcomed us, rounded up a few more relatives, then asked if we’d like a cup of coffee. As we accepted her hospitality, she went outdoors and dropped a bucket down her very old well. In fairy tales, this action may have fulfilled wishes, but watching an elderly lady crank and crank that bucket made me realize why Grandma got out when she could! This is a very hard life, where there is no bathtub, where the outhouse is behind the barn. All the water comes from this well, for consumption or for sponging off after a day in the fields. After Zofia lugged a basin of water into the kitchen, she poured it into a coffeepot, reached behind her cast-iron stove, pulled out some firewood, then built a fire to boil the water to make the coffee! It takes a hour to get a cup of coffee in the Old Country.

Edward and his mother Victoria

 

 

I met twelve relatives that afternoon, all descended from my grandmother's older brother Jan Sroka. Zofia's older sister Victoria, who lives down the road from where my grandmother’s childhood home stood until it was destroyed by fire, introducted me to her daughter Victoria and grand-daughter Stasia, and her son Edward, my other mail correspondent He chose not to become a farmer, but works instead as the manager of the local chemical plant where he earns enough salary to support a wife and four kids, a house (on his mother's land) with real indoor plumbing, a car, a color TV, and a VCR!

Zofia served us coffee in glasses with beautiful filigree holders, and poppyseed cakes. She and her husband pulled out old photos of me, my cousins, aunts, uncles, sent by my grandmother primarily during the 1960s, clearly a fascination to these people who never saw us. Wanting me to explain about each descendant while Stanley translated, I pulled out a new stack of photos assembled by my ten cousins, and diplomatically disclosed that four of my cousins were now divorced. It didn’t faze these Catholics one bit, but they were flabbergasted that my grandparents could name a son and daughter Joseph and Josephine, so that their nicknames were both pronounced Jo(e)! It was dismissed with: "They’re the ones that don’t write." Also, since "J" is pronounced like a "Y" in Eastern Europe, they anticipated my name to be "Yahmus;" just hearing me say "James" seemed insightful. I explained that one cousin died of cancer at a young age, then showed pictures of weddings, my cousin's kids, my college graduation, and various gatherings over the years. The relatives seemed to expect this photo exercise, and were mesmerized by it. We went through it twice.

My cousin Lukasz

They were even more fascinated as I explained our freedom in America to shift careers or seek higher education. In Poland, no student may attend University beyond age 25. They’re expected to select a career and stick with it, to keep Poland working. Change is a very western concept. This seemed a profound discussion, as the Srokas contemplated the mobility of their American counterparts. They were also surprised, and honored I think, when I explained that this visit marked my first excursion outside of America in ten years. They got the message: we’re not made of money, but continually seek the opportunity to improve our status, a freedom of mobility that Eastern Europeans residents lack.

Here I was, introducing my father’s family to my mother’s family in Europe. Edward was pleased to explain that he had the day off from work as a reward for assisting in the local election. Soon he and Walter were engaged in an animated discussion that I couldn’t understand. When I asked Stanley what the talk was about, he rolled his eyes and moaned, "When you put two Poles in the same room, they’ll be arguing politics within 15 minutes!" It seems that my father’s cousins, who embrace an urban mentality, wanted Poland to adopt the market economy, while the residents of Brzóza Królewska think a little more "pink." They voted the Communists back into office, hoping that it will rekindle the demand the for their produce again. It didn't. Instead, they survive on what they grow, living without a cash crop, bartering in lieu of currency.

Bareback

I decided to move the party outdoors. Zofia led her new horse from the barn, her husband gave me his hands for a stirrup, and I rode bareback for the first time. I noted aloud to Stanley that there were several ducks wandering aimlessly around the property. He laughed and reminded me that we were 500 miles from the ocean; those webbed feet have never paddled in water! Instead, when the Srokas get hungry, they catch a duck, swing her by the neck, and call it Supper!

Without a market economy, the produce from the recent harvest simply sits in the barn, awaiting my family's consumption. Zofia grew rye, which had just been milled. She showed me bags and bags of rye flour in her barn, enough to last for years, I think. Elsewhere on the farm, she had grown turnips and corn. Lacking refrigeration, she showed me a root-cellar below the barn where she buried the crop to preserve it in the cold earth, then planned to feed it to the animals during the winter. She opened a different barn door and with apparent pride, she showed me her three pigs, and boy did they stink! Hoping that this might be her source of income, I asked if she planned to sell them. This time, she laughed and said (via Stanley) "If it’s a good year, I’ll sell them. If it’s not such a good year, I may eat them myself!"

My Great Grandfather's farm,
now divided into many small ones

Soon, a group of us walked out into the field, the key reason for my visit. I stood alone for a little while, looking across several small farms, envisioning generations past, the particularly bloody history of this place, and the toil required to maintain a farm that still relies on one horse and some hand tools. This soil has probably been someone’s farmland since before the Tatars invaded from the East in 1241. Now it’s depleted and sandy. Edward said every crop requires some kind of fertilizer. Yet, this was a moment of awe, as I contemplated what drove our Grandmother to make a home for us in Connecticut. Few European-Americans, especially in the West, can point specifically to the place from which their family emigrated, but here was that place, seemingly frozen in time; the same old well, the sandy soil, the root cellar, possibly no different than what my grandmother left behind in 1910. I gained a new perspective on myself: as I contemplated previous generations here, I recognized that a family's history is far greater than what’s on view in America. As I stood in this dirt, appreciating the connections I share with forebears who devoted their hopes to this hopelessly hard place, I understood a new sense of completion. Embracing this foreign culture adds depth to the American experience and to each of our personal histories.

An organ with 2000 pipes!

Meanwhile, photo ops abounded. After reloading the camera with a fresh roll of film, I looked everywhere for a garbage can into which I could toss the plastic container and wrapper. Stanley explained that Stalin may have paved the roads, but even he saw no reason for garbage collection. To this day, everything biodegradable is mulch to go back into the soil. Everything else goes into the kitchen fire which presently warmed our coffee. Rather than introduce everyone to the fragrance of melting plastic by tossing that cylinder into the stove, my trash went into my luggage; I finally disposed it in Austria a few days later. Recognizing how Americans take the comforts of a disposable society for granted also pointed up the growing disparity between East and West.

Everyone was fascinated by the trendy blue Ford. The kids took turns sitting in the driver’s seat while I wandered about the farm. Soon it was decided that I should visit the church in which Grandma was christened. Edward’s oldest children, Jacek and Joanna volunteered to join the ride and provide directions.
Walter explained that Brzóza Królewska meant Forest of Beech Trees. Sure enough, we soon headed down a shady road lined with thick, mature Beech trees. We parked next to a huge stone fortress with tiny windows, used for shooting arrows at invaders during the 1400s. Behind it was a big white church from about 1650, the same era as Rembrandt.
Inside was a splendor I never expected. Instead of a peasant's simple wooden church, here was an edifice with a gold altar that rivaled the loftiest European cathedrals: crystal chandeliers, red and black Venetian marble floors, frescoed ceilings, and an organ that must have held 2000 pipes! How it survived the Hapsburgs and the Communists must be a great story, but as I photographed these riches, I just kept thinking about Zofia cranking that bucket out of the well. The priest may have taken a vow of poverty, but I have the feeling that he eats better than the descendants of Jakob Sroka, who have supported this place for a very long time.

Walter's sons got baseball caps too

So, what do you give the family that has practically nothing? I decided in advance not to play the bigshot who greases everyone's palms with American cash. Instead, I brought little gifts that demonstrated some quirky aspects of American life. Like what? As we sat in Edward’s dining room sharing salami sandwiches, I pulled out five different flavors of Binaca breathspray, then demonstrated their use. They sprayed it and squealed! To a culture that finds perfume exotic, the western concern with bad breath was beyond fathom. I think they thought it was some kind of kinky candy, yet everyone sampled every flavor. For the women, I brought some simple bags from The Body Shop containing hand lotion and some bath oil beads. As I passed them around, I heard Stanley loudly qualify them as "kosmetiky." An embarassing flop, since only two of the five recipients had a bathtub! (Those bath oil beads look too much like candy.) I gave the kids solar-powered calculators and refrigerator magnets (hot dogs, hamburgers, BLTs), but I scored the biggest hit when I gave all the boys New York Yankees baseball caps. How their smiles beamed! Edward said I outdid Santa Claus. Then I looked down and realized that my old Ralph Lauren sheets upholstered every chair in that dining room. The substantive gifts had arrived with my very first letter; I was already very much a part of these lives.

With my mother's two first cousins: Victoria and Zofia

Since I planned to spend the night at Walter’s house, and didn’t know the roads, I wanted to drive there in daylight (especially with my two passengers eyeing the speedometer and wondering where the next cop lurked!). About an hour before sunset, we agreed that we must part.

Since I had never met these people, I kept my farewells a little formal. I gave everyone a polite American handshake. I spoke to each one in English, they spoke to me in Polish, nobody understood what was being said, but we all knew it meant Good-bye. The women seemed flattered by the formality of this decorous farewell. Edward watched as I thanked his wife for her sandwiches and shook her hand. In a cavalier gesture that required no translation, he said "You can kiss my wife." Then she hauled off and smacked him!

I laughed and he gave me a bearhug. The family walked me to the car, thanking my father’s cousins for the day of translations that made our exchange memorable. In a fashion quite different from my grandmother's departure, we waved Good-bye from my rented American car, and on roads paved by Stalin’s work-project, we headed West toward Walter's farm near Krakow for the night.


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