The city tour was over. Bright and early Zenon appeared to begin the drive through rural Poland. Driving the back roads is an adventure in itself. Narrow village streets and twisted bands of paved highway are framed by close set houses and thick trees, planted too close to the road! Cars, trucks of all dimensions, bikers with no reflectors and even pedestrians fill the roadways. Steep ditches fall away on either side of the roads in the country and spacious fields stretch out in all directions. A few hours outside of Warsaw we reached the first ancestral family villages in the Kujawy district. The topsoil in the fields was deep and black, freshly plowed fertile soil. Crops of sugar beets were being harvested and piled high along the roads throughout central Poland. Sugar refineries were seen in many communities.
My husband’s earliest known ancestors lived in hamlets that were part of the parish of Lubraniec. In the cemetery we saw the first evidence of our family’s surname (relationship unknown at this time). Our hearts beat a little faster as we searched for familiar names. Deaths before early 1900 were not shown on markers. However, we know that Conrad’s great-grandfather was buried in this parish cemetery.
On we drove to the next village, Brzesc Kujawski. It is a fascinating town with a long history dating back to the 11th century. It was once a frontier town, a defense city on the border of the old Polish Kingdom.
King Ladislaus the Short was born in the ancient walled city. Wars with the Teutonic Knights were fought in the area. Portions of the ancient walls still stand. A wide agricultural valley opens up behind the church and cemetery grounds.
In this city, Conrad’s great-grandfather built a cottage home of brick in 1900. It still exists; non- relatives now live in the structure.
Zenon fearlessly approached strangers at the cemetery asking about old family graves and any families that still lived in the village. In the photo above, you see the band of elderly women who followed us in the cemetery, helping to look for family graves. The women chattered in.
Polish and Zenon translated. At one point, Conrad (who studied Polish language for four years in grade school) replied, “I don’t speak Polish…” but he said it in Polish! The woman asking him a question paused and smiled, then continued to talk to him in Polish. Memories of his boyhood language were coming back. The woman urged us to contact a woman in the village, Halina, whose deceased father had been the chief of police. Her father shared the same surname with my husband. We knew nothing of him from our family records and did not think there was family connection.
One elderly woman said, “I will just call Halina tomorrow and see how it all turned out”. In a small village, everyone seems to know everyone else’s business! We left a note in Halina’s door with Zenon’s mobile phone number. When the woman called him that night, she readily agreed to meet with us the next morning for coffee at her home. Zenon translated details and took photos when we visited the next morning. We understood that the remaining family in Poland dispersed after the war and that no family members would be found living in the area. But yes, Halina is definitely a cousin! We never expected to find a relative living here. What a bonus!
On this day we traveled along forested highways and saw many cars parked along the roads. These were groups of local villagers picking mushrooms. As we drove north of Bydgoszcz, through the Tuchola Forest toward Drzycim and Sliwice parishes, we noted changes in the soil, climate, plants and fields. We saw our first stork’s nest. We visited my maternal ancestors’ family villages and saw more churches and cemeteries that afternoon.
Trees in groves along the roadway were huge and some were marked as natural monuments. In the cemeteries there were few late 1800s or early1900s marked graves. These villages had been depopulated with emigration in the 1860s-1870s. Familiar family names were not seen on recent grave markers. The few graves that held matching surnames were deaths dating back ten and twenty years. It was obvious that related families were no longer living in these northern parish villages. Emotions still ran high. We were walking in the footsteps of our old families and we treasured whatever glimpses of the past that we could find. Conrad took almost 2,000 photos on this trip! Each day was full. We needed at least two more days to make visits to all known family villages. We didn’t did not have time to see the Saronow burial mound or the old Yew Forest nearby. Those sites will have to wait for return trips. Zenon drove, talked, translated and searched with us. His energy level was amazing.