This is the second part of the article which was originally published in “Rodziny” – The Journal of the Polish Genealogical Society of America, issued in winter 2021.
My interlocutor is Maria Grabowska, who has been working as a guide in the open-air museum in Sanok for many years. She is an ethnographer, regonalist, a fantastic personality who very often guides our guests in the Sanok museum.
1. Do you remember your first visit to the open-air museum? Was it in Sanok? How did it happen that you started working as a guide?
Yes, I remember, it was in Sanok, but an open-air museum was just being organized at that time. It
was a school walking trip; a charming walk along the banks of the San River and the nearby hills. There were probably no buildings there yet. The museum was founded in 1958 and the first section opened to the public in 1966, and then constantly expanded.
In 1963 I left my home and started university studies in Warsaw, where I later lived and worked. I used to come very often to my village and family near Sanok – Christmas, holidays, summer vacation etc. Soon I heard everybody talking about a Skansen, a new museum in Sanok. Officially, it was called Museum of Rural Architecture; but in short it is called Skansen. It’s a Swedish word for the very first museum of this type opened in Stockholm in 1885. I had been to the Skansen several times, mainly when some guests came to visit my parents.
The most memorable visit was of my second cousin, Ann Roberts, from California, in 1985, whom I met for the first time. Ann was fascinated by the Sanok Skansen. She herself was working in the San Pablo museum. At the same time, she knew a lot about the family who were Polish emigrants to the States. She also gave us the Family Tree that she made. The permanent contact with her and other cousins – letters, photos, visits – had a huge impact on my later interests. Family and village history, genealogy, the past and culture of the Sanok region have been my main topics.
I became a guide when I was well prepared for it and, some 20 years ago, when I came back to live here, my great life adventure started.
As a guide, you have often had the opportunity to meet our guests, descendants of emigrants whose ancestors came from this area. What emotions accompany them while visiting?
Yes, I really appreciate the opportunity to meet the descendants of Polish emigrants in our museum. When they come here, they know very well what they want to see; what they want to learn about the
country of their ancestors; the region; the place of their origins. They are usually grandchildren of Polish emigrants from over 100 years ago. From their childhood they remember grandparents’ stories about the
old country. In our museum they look for confirmation of these stories, memories, details. And they usually find them.
American visitors want to know what their grandfather’s house looked like. They carefully inspect the equipment, the places in this modest house where people had meals, where they slept, and what they
did. It is here that they find out why the grandfather had to leave his native village where poverty, hunger, and overpopulation were common. There were not enough fields to feed everyone. American guests of Polish origins are touched, but also happy with such a visit.
In the family villages, where they go next, old houses are all gone, but for many it is important if someone shows where the house used to stand. Once, a young man from Pennsylvania visited our Skansen. His great-grandfather was Łemko (Rusyn), and the village no longer exists, it being overgrown with a forest after all the people were expelled. Rob still goes there, with a map and GPS, by which he locates the place where the house stood by the stream where his great-grandfather was born and
from where he left for America in search of a better life. This small piece of land is an
important part of family history.
Does anything particularly amaze them? What makes the biggest impression on them?
The open-air museum in Sanok is a very attractive place for visitors. It amazes visitors with its size and the number and variety of rural buildings. All of them are original wooden log houses made by skillful
village carpenters. They are brought in parts and re-erected here.
The museum shows the main feature of our region as well. This includes the multiethnicity that disappeared from our villages and towns after World War II. Visitors often find out that they may have come from mixed Polish-Ruthenian families, which were once very common because people
respected each other. In the museum, they visit the Roman-Catholic church and beautiful Greek-Catholic (Eastern) church with equal admiration.
Apart from the peasant houses, which are the leading theme of our museum, we recently opened a noble manor house. I must admit that it is particularly astonishing and saddening to see the enormous contrast between the poor hut of a peasant family and the 11-room mansion of the rich landlord who was owner of the village and his inhabitants. It was they who worked very hard so the lord could live in luxury. This makes a great impression on visitors as it can be seen very clearly in our museum.
When do you most recommend visiting the open-air museum in Sanok? Is there any special moment of the year?
Every season is good, but the most important thing is the weather because it is a walking tour. It can be quite crowded in summer. In spring, with big spots of wild flowers and blooming trees, and in fall with
golden leaves on trees and on the ground, the tour can be absolutely wonderful and enjoyable. During the summer, attractive cultural events such as festivals, fairs, and flea markets are sometimes held in the
reconstructed Galician Market Square.
Does the museum document the history of families who lived in the houses brought to the Skansen? Are the descendants of these families in contact with the museum?
Yes. At the time of acquisition each building had its documentation prepared – the history of the house, family and village. At the beginning, family contacts were more frequent; but now very rare. It’s a pity
that houses are becoming more and more anonymous.
If so, how are these stories documented? Is there an archive/research studio in the museum?
Yes. The museum has an extensive archive used for doing research by historians and ethnographers. Supposedly, there are still a lot of facts, stories and information to be uncovered.
Has it ever happened in your career that someone discovered their family history in
I don’t remember a really significant discovery. However, once, when I was guiding a former owner of Nowosielce village around the newly-opened manor house, he unexpectedly saw important family
portraits hanging in the living room which were lost during the war. Somebody found them and donated to the museum. It was a very important discovery for this family.
Do you have any words to encourage people traveling around Poland to visit open-air museums?
The Polish countryside has changed a lot. Now the houses, gardens and fields are much more modern; different from the past ones. The landscape is completely different; as are people and their activities. Open-air museums are the only place where the old image of Polish villages is well preserved.
Most of the people originated from villages, including our ancestors. It is important to know what their life was like; to be able to compare times and evaluate changes; and also to remember them and pass it to future generations.
Maria Grabowska and Agnieszka Pawlus
For a description of one couple’s trip to the Sanok Skansen, with photos of Maria Grabowska, see our blog post from 2018: Dawn and Walter’s trip to Poland and Slovakia.