I started off with a little bit of a nervous feeling in my stomach, I am pretty good at recognizing these butterflies and identifying what causes them, this time it was pulling Walter, my husband, into my hobby on a big scale. I had really pushed the idea of doing this type of tour on Walter and what if it was a bust? We had been having so much fun and seeing so many things up until this point.
Stop…take a deep breath…it is going to be fine.
We got moving early at 6:45, very early for anyone who knows me. This was the way it was every day, and Sue, my friend that we had been travelling with us up until this point, would be driving us from Kraków, to Kombornia Poland.
Our route took us through the stoplights and the heavy traffic of the town of Tarnow, Poland and I started to get nervous. We were supposed to meet Lucjan Cichocki, our genealogical guide that was spending the next five days with us traveling and researching in south-eastern Poland and Slovakia, by 11:30. If things didn’t change I was concerned we wouldn’t make it.
Finally, back on the open road and then, construction!
As we sat there in the line of traffic we noticed a middle-aged man walking from car to car handing something to whoever was sitting in the passenger front seat. It was my turn and I put down my window wondering about what in the world he could be handing me. Since I spoke not a word of Polish, well besides being able to correctly pronounce Łódź, (from an earlier stop that week) I didn’t know what was going to be expected of me. What he handed me was slightly bigger than a business card and had an image on it of the Virgin Mary dressed in blue and white and Polish text. He continued to the remaining cars behind us. After examining the card, we were left wondering what would come next. When he reached the last car, he started back working in reverse. I noticed that the folks that were giving him money got to keep the card. If they didn’t give him money he took the card back. So much for someone hoping to bless us with special words of God. He came to our window and I returned the card to him, as I felt uncomfortable donating to something that I couldn’t understand. He returned to sit with the construction flaggers and kind of glared at those of us who hadn’t donated to his cause.
I was relieved when it was our turn to head off in the direction Kombornia and escape the glare of the religious card man. The first thing that we noticed was how beautiful the country side was. There were rolling hills, farms, and small village each with their own Roman Catholic church. Walter being Walter of course noticed the wind turbines, wind mills, on the hillsides.
As we were getting close to our hotel the Dwor Kombornia Hotel & Spa our GPS, Betty-ski (Sue calls her GPS Betty, a tribute to Sue’s husband Jeff, a former Navy pilot and current Fedex pilot. The voice that the Navy pilots hear when they are flying is a woman, I guess it helps to keep a male pilot’s mind on everything they have to concentrate on and at some point the pilots began to call her Betty. I never thought to ask if Betty spoke in a sexy voice or a nagging one. It only seemed to make sense that as we were travelling in Poland GPS in the rental car should be named Betty-ski) led us off the main road onto a side road, then to a smaller side road, then to a farm road and finally to a narrow road that had a large sign, of course in Polish, on it. We proceed up this road and came upon a road crew busily working and blocking the road. Though we couldn’t understand what was being said it was obvious that we were going to have turn around as the road was closed. We got back to the farm road and tried to figure out how to have Betty-ski take us on a detour, but to no avail, we never could find a detour alternative. Instead, we decided to try and navigate by the map that was shown on the screen and in doing that discovered a road that ran parallel to the road that Betty-ski wanted us to be on.
Down the farm road and then make a right on another farm road; it couldn’t be that bad. The second road became more and more narrower, eventually we met a car headed toward us. The road was so narrow that we had to pull half way off to let it by. Just short of making our connection with the road we were supposed to be on (according to the map on the screen) we realized that we were no longer on a road but in someone’s driveway.
Looking at the house we could see someone peeking through the curtains so we quickly turned the car around and back down the driveway we went. This time, instead of meeting a car we met large tractor. Off the side of the road again, hoping the whole time that we wouldn’t get stuck. Walter was laughing as hard as he could, and yes, I was crying from laughing so hard. The situation was made all the more funny as Sue is telling us stories about times when she has been forced to drive through fields to get to where she wanted to go and other crazy GPS driving related escapades.
Time to see if we could get Betty-ski to reevaluate our position and hopefully get us to a different route. We rebooted her and reinput the address of the hotel. After a few minutes we were back on a road that didn’t look like it was going to end up in someone’s front yard. Of course, we thought that we were saved too soon, and at the next turn Betty-ski wanted us to make turn on to a road that had quite a steep downward incline and disappeared into the woods. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, down the hill we went. Fortunately, we had only gone just a short distance when it started to look like we were headed back to civilization, and lo and behold after just 2-3 minutes on this road we ended up at the hotel.
We later learned that for whatever reason Betty-ski had taken us on a cross country excursion. If we had just stayed on the main road we would have been less than a mile from the hotel. Though it had added a little more time to our travels it sure gave us a good laugh.
We pulled up in front of this beautiful stately looking hotel the grounds were covered with flowers, wood thickets and a pond with a fountain. We walked into a marble floored lobby that was decorated with expensive looking traditional styled furniture and complimenting window treatments, to check in. The desk clerk spoke very little English but with pointing and gesturing we were able to let her know who we were and that we were checking in. She gave us a room pass card and showed us how to get to our room. Like the lobby our room was decorated traditionally as well. There was this unusual length of fabric that had been draped over curtain rods that were mounted at different heights on the slanted wall. I was never sure exactly what its purpose was but it certainly made a visual statement. The room was quite stuffy, but to our surprise and pleasure we discovered that there was air con-ditioning the miracle we Americans are very spoiled by. We adjusted the thermostat as low as it would go and then headed back to the lobby to see if Lucjan had checked in.
More pointing and gesturing ensued but with smiles we got our question across and found out that Lucjan hadn’t arrived. Sue was anxious to get on her way, as she had 3-4 more hours of travelling before she would reach her destination Zakopane, Poland, to do some hiking. As we were saying good bye a young man came hurriedly walking up the driveway, immediately I knew that it was Lucjan from the pictures I had seen. Lucjan had a beaming smile and looked so friendly, I knew right away that we were going to get along well. I introduced Sue and Lucjan, explained that she was in a hurry to get going and off she went.
Lucjan checked into the hotel, got his things settled in his room and then we met in the lobby to discuss where we should go and what we should see first. We decided that as we were so close to Jabłonica Polska, the town that Walter’s grandfather, Władysław Stapiński, had emigrated from we should go there first.
We headed over to the town and immediately located the Roman Catholic church. Walter and I started wandering around the church yard and looking at the simple metal cross, the statues of the Virgin Mary, Pope John Paul and a plaque that was dedicated to Władysław Gurgacz a priest that was born there April 2, 1914. Father Gurgacz after serving as a hospital chaplain joined the armed forces of the ant-communist Polish Underground Independence Army. He was arrested by the Ministry of Public Security, tried by the Military District Court in Krakow and was sentenced to death for participating in the Polish Underground. The execution was carried out on September 14, 1949.
While we had been looking at the church a middle-aged man came through the parking lot on a bicycle. Lucjan went to talk to him and we learned that Józefczyks, who we knew were related to Walter because of Lucjan’s research before we began the trip, lived next door! We walked to the first house and they said that they weren’t the Józefczyks but that they lived in the next house.
At the next house we were greeted by a gigantic, barking dog Lucjan thought that it was an Alsatian, I thought that it seemed more like a Rottweiler, lion mix. It was going crazy with us walking around the area.
We moved toward the real Józefczyk house and hoped that we could get someone’s attention without having to be eaten alive. There was a young man who was working in the yard and as we approached a woman came from the house. Lucjan, the man and woman talked for a minute and then I knew we had made a step in the right direction when the man took the snarling dog and put him in a fenced in area where he couldn’t get to us.
Lucjan explained to us that although Józefczyks did live there they weren’t related to Walter, but were related to the Józefczyk family we were looking for. They felt that the father, who was in the house, would be able to get us information that would help in our search. They led us into the house and we were warmly greeted by an smiling older man. His eyes sparkled, and his face was very animated as he shook Walter’s and Lucjan’s hand and then bent and kissed mine; I think that this was the first time I ever had my hand kissed!
He told us that the family that we were looking for still lived in the town and that all we had to do to find them was to follow the road in front of his house, make a left and then follow it until we saw a yellow combine parked on the left side. We thanked them, I gave the older many a big hug and off we went down the road. We were unsure as to where we were to make the left, so we rode for a mile or so until we left the village. When we hadn’t seen the combine we turned around, retracing our route and ultimately deciding to try a road that had been on the left. We went a little way and came upon a convenience store, Lucjan said that he thought that maybe he might be able to get information as to where the “right” Józefczyk family lived from someone who was working in the store.
After just a few moments Lucjan was back at the car saying that a customer knew exactly where they lived, that we should follow him and when he turned on his turn signal we would know where the house was. We followed him up the road a short way, and when the turn signal went on, we pulled into a driveway. We knew we had arrived at “our desitination” when we saw the yellow combine.
Around the driveway was a well-kept home, a vegetable garden, several pieces of farm equipment (yellow combine), and a large garage that had doors big enough to accommodate large machinery. A young man came out of the garage and after talking with Lucjan for a few minutes we found out that we were at the correct house and that they family that lived there WERE related to Walter. After a few more minutes of talking a woman came from the house and then there was more talking. I really wish during these conversations that I knew even a little Polish, though Walter said that from listening to the talking that it did bring back the memory of his grandparents saying “tak tak” for yes.
It ended up that we were at the home of Jerzy Józefczyk, Walter’s second cousin, and Jerzy’s wife Elżbieta. Although we were family, we were still total and complete strangers. And yet, they were so sweet and kind to us. We were treated to homemade sausages, homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers and the most delicious homemade fruit drink. They brought out two types of pickles that they had canned. One type of pickles reminded me of my childhood when my mom would buy pickles with a picture of a Polish White Eagle on the jar. They were always my favorite. One of the pickles Elżbieta had made tasted like my childhood.
At the time that our visit had started Jerzy was working on his farm away from their home. Elżbieta called him and in a few minutes, he returned home. Lots more talking between our hosts and Lucjan went on and then before we knew it I was given a jar of pickled mushrooms and some just picked cucumbers. Jerzy shared with us that unfortunately we were going to miss a visit at the end of July of Zdzisław Józefczyk. Zdzisław also a 2nd cousin of Walter, was older and knew a lot about the family. We are hopeful that after Zdzisław’s visit we might hear more stories/information from the family.
After a lovely visit ending with hugs, kisses and me promising not to show Elżbieta’s bare feet in the picture Lucjan took, Jerzy took us across the road and up a little way to visit Józef Józefczyk, another 2nd cousin.
In 1960 Walter Stapinski (Władysław Stapiński), “my” Walter’s grandfather and namesake, and Władysław’s first cousin Joseph Jozefczyk (Józef Józefczyk), took a trip to Poland together. Both men had emigrated to the US in 1910, Józef in January, Władysław in May. This visit was a very big deal for the family, we learned for several reasons. The visit was from family that had been gone for 50 years, and for their family in Poland who had only gotten electricity in 1959 the movie camera that Władysław used was an exciting addition to the visit.
Before our trip I spent quite a bit of time working on a piece of video that I could play on my tablet for the family we were hopeful we were going to meet. I had discovered the night before heading to Kombornia that the memory stick that held the movie was missing. I was so disappointed as I had hoped to share it with folks who might recognize themselves and others in the movie.
The cousin we were visiting now Józef, though only a boy of 8, remembered the visit very well including the movie camera. He told us that when the adults would run out of beer he would go and get more. He then told us that he had a picture with Władysław that was taken during his visit.
He went into his home and came out with a plastic bag of photos. We all started looking through them together searching for Władysław. After going through most of the pictures we found it! It is a picture of Władysław and a large crowd of people in front of a historic building, perhaps in Kraków.
Józef told us that when Władysław and his first cousin Józef arrived in Poland, probably in Kraków, that many family members travelled to greet them. They then all probably travelled as far as they could back by train. That is when Walter mentioned that he remembered hearing that at least part of the trip to Jabłonica Polska had been in the back of wagons or carts. Józef then took us for a walk around his barn. He showed us where Russian bullets had strafed the door to the barn and he also told us of a story about a German plane being shot down near the field behind the barn. He said the villagers went out and scavenged the parts of the plane to use on their farms. One last story involved German soldiers being discovered sleeping under an overhang on the back of the barn by Russian soldiers and that the German soldiers were captured, taken away, and probably shot.
After our visit with Józef, Jerzy volunteered to take us to visit Helena Józefczyk Przybyłowska’s home, another 2nd cousin in Budzyń, a section of Jabłonica Polska. After a quickly introducing us to Helena Jerzy said good-bye and headed home.
Helena also remembered the visit of Władysław and Józef and she clarified the year that it happened
as being 1960. She remembered very clearly that her son was a new born and that she left him with a sitter so that she could attend the family get-together.
I knew then that it had to be 1960 as I also remember when things happened by the age of my children at the time. No mother would ever forget leaving her new born son to visit a relative from another country!
Helena’s son came in and visited with us as well. Regretfully, I never learned his name, but he told us how his dream had been to be able to come to America to live and work. Unfortunately, he was never able to get a visa and that was the biggest regret of his life. I felt so sad for him and so grateful that Władysław had been able to come and prosper.
Lucjan then told us that Helena and her son had revealed that the family farmstead was still owned by the Stapiński family and that the son would be glad to take us there. After a little more discussion, we learned that we were going to follow the son to the property in our car while we he went on bicycle. I immediately thought that this was going to be something to be seen; us following a wiry, sunbaked 58-year-old man on a bicycle down the road in our car and I wondered how long this would take us. We said our good-byes and shared hugs and piled into our car.
Immediately the son took off on the bicycle and we quickly had to pull out to follow him down the country road. He zoomed up a hill and made a sharp turn onto a dirt road. We however could not make the turn at that angle, so we were forced to go up the road just a few yards and make a 3 point turn to head up the slope in the right direction, all this taking less than a minute. When we got on to the dirt road he was gone… we were literally left in the dust!
There was Y in the road just a few yards up the hill and after looking at each other we chose the road that looked like it led to a house. Lucky guess-when we got about 100 feet up the road we could see him standing there waving to us.
We travelled past fields of wheat and then a large vegetable garden and pulled up to two homes and a barn.
Everything was well kept and neat as could be. Here we met Tadeusz Stapiński another 2nd cousin, and his family. We learned that Tadeusz’s home was built on the original footprint of the home that Władysław had grown up in. The second home was built by Władysław’s older brother Stanisław in 1923 after returning from working in American, where he earned the money to build it.
Living in the home that Stanisław had built was Stanisław’s daughter-in-law and Tadeusz’s mother, 95-year-old Kazimierz Błaż Stapiński. She welcomed us in to her home and was so excited to see us. Kazimierz clearly remembered Władysław’s visit and told us that he had given her $20 to wash his clothes while he was there, and that he had given her, as a keepsake, what we think based upon the description was his razor. Though we did not see it she told us that she still had it even after 58 years. Władysław’s visit and gift must have meant a lot to her.
After visiting with Kazimierz we returned to the yard of the homes. There we met Tadeusz’s wife, son and daughter-in-law, and darling granddaughter. The granddaughter had recently been given an adorable spotted puppy. I love animals, especially dogs, but for some reason that puppy just barked and barked at my shoes. I tried everything to charm it, no luck, it just didn’t like my shoes. After thinking about it I wondered if my shoes smelled of all the places that I had walked, and all the new smells were just too much for it. Maybe that was the reason that the man-eating dog earlier today went crazy over us.
Tadeusz disappeared into his home and came out with a treasure, a self-published book, in English! It was written by Helen(a) Stapiński Materniak Obercs, a 1st cousin once removed, and it tells about her family and her life. He insisted that I take it to read and when I said that I would photograph each page and then return it to him the next day he was very happy. He kept apologizing for not giving the book to me but that it was his only copy. I told him several times how grateful I was that he was willing to share it with me.
We were invited into their home where they gave us tea and cookies and we talked, through Lucjan of course, about family, flowers, pets, all the things that families talk about. We also told them how nice their home was. They then told us that they had been married for 40 years, getting married right after high school. They felt that life had been a struggle for them to keep a nice home and to raise four children. Their schooling under the Communists was poor and though Tadeusz had wanted to learn English his only foreign language choice was Russian, which he had studied. Of course, with the end of communism in Poland knowing some Russian did not help in any way. He also had been trained in working on Russian machinery but seemed to feel that skill was not a particularly valuable one.
You could tell though as he went on that he was very proud of being able to put all four of his children through college, and that they had received their degrees in teaching, nursing, engineering and social work. We told them that we thought that they had a lot to be very proud of.
After our visit Tadeusz offered to take us to the cemetery where his father and grandparents were buried. We had been impressed by the cemeteries in Poland so far, that there were so many flowers and lights on the tombstones and this cemetery was no different.
Walter and I wandered around taking pictures of the headstones of family and of names that I recognized from my research. While we were taking pictures, Lucjan and Tadeusz visited with each other. Tadeusz mentioned that like his great-uncle (and Władysław’s oldest half-brother) Jan Stapiński, he had political leanings. (More on Jan in the adendum).
Tadeusz is a local elected official that helped the community get sewers and he had also helped design and build a chapel at the cemetery. Because the group that built the chapel had not asked the local priest his blessing for its design and construction there were bad feelings. He went on to say that because of that he was not in good graces with the Father.
Tadeusz showed us the Greek Catholic section of the cemetery. We were told about the Greek Catholics being forced to leave the area after World War II. He also told us that the Roman Catholic church in Jabłonica Polska had originally been Greek Catholic and that the area’s Roman Catholic population had attended services in neighboring Kombornia. After the Greek Catholics were forced to leave the area the church was converted to Roman Catholic.
It had been a long and very exciting day and we realized that even though everyone had been so generous with feeding us, we were hungry. We thanked Tadeusz for all he had done and told him that we would return his book the next day.
Lucjan suggested a restaurant in Rymanów, Jas Wedrowniczek, and we headed there for dinner. It was a neat place with a hotel and a large play area for children. Although there were several dining rooms each decorated with paintings and interesting items to look at, the rooms were warm, and we decided that we would sit on the deck and enjoy the evening breeze. Once we sat down we were really surprised to see American car license plates hanging everywhere outside including many from Pennsylvania, our home. Our waiter had once lived in Palm Beach, Florida and was friendly and helpful with the large menu.
I wish I could remember what I had for dinner, but it was a traditional Polish chicken meal. Walter and Lucjan had more traditional American fare, a steak and a hamburger.
After dinner we returned to our hotel and decided that in the morning we would get together a little early, have breakfast, and then plan on strategy for the next day. Walter and I were glad that the air conditioning was working.
After doing the days homework; uploading pictures to Facebook and photographing the book that Tadeusz had lent us, we collapsed in bed.