When my cousin Andrzej e-mailed me and asked if I would like to accompany him to his goddaughter’s wedding in Poland, I accepted immediately. What could be better than traveling with a native son, who spoke the language and knew the relatives? I soon found out.
Andrzej received a job promotion and was unable to make the trip, but the spark had been ignited. I had read about PolishOrigins through the Polish Genealogical Society of America’s newsletter. I contacted them, but by then the annual September tour to southern Poland was full. They agreed, however, to put me on a waiting list for an October tour should another four people be found to join me. Fortunately, four others signed on.
Led by Pawel Claptacz, our merry band packed into a van and set off to see sights I would never have found on my own. We visited a private collection of dinosaur fossils in a private museum in Dubiecko, an extensive architectural park in Sanok, a manor house, splendid castles, cemeteries, museums, a synagogue, historic wooden churches. All of these were new to me although I had visited the salt mine at Wieliczka and the concentration camp at Auschwitz before. Nowa Huta of the Communist Era was a remarkable departure from the Socialist building projects I had known in the early 1970s when I lived in Jugoslavia and visited Hungary and Romania. Through it all, Pawel’s knowledgeable commentary and his patience in answering our questions made the visits meaningful.
The trip did not end when I said good-bye to Pawel and my four companions. I extended it to travel to the villages of my ancestors and of my living relatives with Lucjan Cichocki. It wasn’t always easy to find houses without numbers, but Lucek managed to stop passersby as necessary to take us to the home of an 85-year-old cousin and the rectories in Skrzydlna and Dobra, where my maternal ancestors had lived.
When the priest in Dobra told us that it would be best if we returned in November when he was less busy (and I would be long gone), Lucek’s grace and diplomacy caused him to relent and give us the telephone number of a trusted parishioner who would go through the church registries with us. Spending two hours with that parishioner yielded genealogical information it would have taken me months to research through microfilm. A visit to the local registry office confirmed the dates of my great-grandparents’ early deaths in 1901; the family story I had long heard that they died within three weeks of each other was indeed true.
From Dobra we moved on to Bystra, where my maternal grandfather had been born. Our first visit was to an 89-year-old cousin, the only one of the family members I had actually met in the United States. He reminisced about his time in Chicago and his favorite cousins, my Uncle Henry and my mother.
From there, we went to visit Elzbieta, another cousin. Although I felt Elzbieta was welcoming, Lucek sensed that she was initially tense; after all, our Polish relatives are taking “familiar strangers” into their homes and are never sure of whom or what they are getting. In minutes, Elzbieta and I were comfortable with each other and four of her five daughters came to visit with us. It was indeed heartwarming. The daughters wined and dined us in their nearby homes and, the following day, Elzbieta joined us as we toured churches at Kwiaton and Sekowa. She was delighted because, as the mother of a large family, she had never had the chance to sightsee in her own area. At the end of the visit, the family invited me to return to stay with them and extended an invitation to Lucek to drop in should he ever be in the area.
The itinerary PolishOrigins arranged for me was comprehensive and the accommodations, in smaller, charming castles, hotels and agro-tourist farms, was comfortable, convenient and restful. The food throughout the trip was abundant and excellent. One of our tour group, in fact, has probably made an album of her photographs of the dishes we enjoyed. In the end, I could only repeat what could be better? I had traveled with a native son, who spoke the language and charmed my relatives.