Most aspects of our tour were coordinated by Anna at PolishOrigins. They did a great job pulling it all together. This was a totally custom tour designed to see cities and locations where Greg’s father Eugene was born and lived before 1939. Secondarily, we wanted to find out as much as we could about Eugene’s military service in WW2 and also to identify any living relatives.We also wanted to see the Kamedulski monastery and see if we could understand the connection between our surname and the monastery.
We flew out of JFK on Thursday September 1, arriving in Warsaw on Friday afternoon due to a flight delay in New York. We checked into the Polonia Palace hotel – one of the few pre-WW2 buildings in Warsaw. We walked around central Warsaw for a bit and then met Greg’s cousin Julita. We walked around a bit more with her and then had a delicious dinner. Saturday we toured Warsaw with a guide, who took us to try various Polish foods, showed us Old Town, and explained a lot of the history of Warsaw and how it was destroyed during WW2 and then rebuilt. Later Saturday we visited the Jewish museum with Julita and went through the Holocaust exhibit. We also went to the Polish Military Museum in Warsaw but we were too late to go in. We did meet the curator as he was leaving for the night and he invited us to come back Sunday morning.
As I managed to leave both pairs of good jeans in the dryer, we visited some local shops to see if I could find a pair of adequate jeans. TKMaxx (yes, TK) had nothing. But next door to TKMaxx was the London-based Marks and Spencer. They did have jeans, in my size *and* in my length. Not being quite up on the currency, I had no idea what 179 zlotys was going to translate to, but they allowed us to pay with dollars and the answer is something on the order of $32. I should have bought more!
The next morning, Sunday, Greg went to Mass. Wearing shorts to Mass is frowned upon by Polish nuns. Please make a note of that! We met our guide/translator/driver, Mat, and returned to the Military Museum. The curator met with us for about an hour and we talked about the meaning of Eugene’s medals and the history of the Panzer Division that Eugene had been part of. We left with notes about books and another group to contact.
Then, we were on our way to Brzesc Kujawski. This is the village where Greg’s dad was born, we had both his birth certificate and his social security application stating this village was his birthplace. This is a small village of about 2000 people east of Warsaw and north of Lodz, essentially part of the Vistula River valley. Most of the Kamedulski families in Poland which number under 100 are located in villages in this area. We visited the parish church where Eugene would have been baptized, tall, gothic. brick church just off the village square. They don’t see many tourists and the young boys riding bikes in the square were a bit shy but practicing basic English greetings with us. We went to the local cemetery looking for gravestones. In Poland, they only leave the graves in the local cemetery as long as they are cared for so it’s the most recent graves, maybe the past 30 years, that are there. We split up to walk through and in an amazing bit of luck, I found a gravestone for Jan Kamedulski in my first row of stones.
There is a pizza restaurant on the square. Greg says his dad never ever ate pizza and would not have approved. We had a lunch of 2 large pizzas and 2 drinks for the 3 of us. The converted cost was about $10. We stayed overnight in Wloclawek – a town not far from Brzesc where there was a nice hotel. Clearly off the tourist trail, this appears to be an old city home converted to a hotel and event space.
On Monday some of the magic began to happen.
About 2 years ago, I was friended on Facebook by Aleksander Kamedulski, who was quite sure we were related, but did not know exactly how. When we were coming to Poland, I let him know and he said he’d meet us in Warsaw. After I sent him our itinerary, Aleksander suggested we meet in his home town of Nieszawa (Neeshava) which is about 30 km from Brzesc. We set a time for about 4 pm on Monday. In the meantime, we went to a cathedral and a second records repository in Wloclawek (Wloclarek) to search old church records for other Kamedulski relatives, and found them to be written in Polish, Latin, and Russian. My Russian courses come in handy as I was able to figure out how to spell Kamedulski in Russian cursive! My high school Latin was also very helpful, making up for the fact that the Polish might as well have been Greek. We found nothing confirming that the Kamedulski name is relatively rare. (In fact, there are 54 people with the Kamedulski surname in Poland, and maybe another 50-60 Kamedulska, the female version. In addition, there are two branches of the family in the US, perhaps totalling 35 living people.)
Then we went back to Brzesc. We went to town hall and looked through their records this is where we found the original entry of Eugene’s birth. The town clerk was quite interested in our search and got on the phone. She called the oldest person she knew in town and asked about the Kamedulski family. Yes, she remembered the Kamedulski’s they had lived in a group of houses a few kilometers outside of town. But she also knew a woman about 60 years old whose maiden name was Kamedulska. The clerk gave us her address and we drove out to see if we could contact her. It turns out that Henryka Kamedulska is a cousin of Greg’s descended from the brother of Greg’s grandfather.
Greg’s grandfather, Eugene’s father was Michel Kamedulski. Michel had two children, Eugene and Irena. His brother, Walenty, had ten children. Henryka is decended from Walenty. Her father was Jan, whose gravestone I’d found in the Brzesc cemetery. We met Henryka and she invited us in for coffee. On the spot. Strangers from the United States. We had a lovely chat, met her grandaughter Carolina, and took a picture of the group. And then it was on to Nieszawa.
We were greeted by an enthusiastic Aleksander, who introduced us to his mother, who is the Kamedulska descendant. He carries his mother’s surname. Aleksander is 22 and an aspiring opera singer. We drank coffee, ate some wonderful cakes, tried some homemade ‘sherry and discussed the family history including the origin of the Kamedulski surname. Then we toured the little village, crossed the Vistula river on a ferry, much like the Glastonbury-Rocky Hill Connecticut river ferry, and went back to their house for more sherry and then traditional Polish soup. Aleksander sang for us some opera pieces followed by Strangers In The Night. He has an amazing voice and is an up and coming talent. We finally left at 10 pm and headed back to our hotel in Wloclawek.
The next morning we visited Brzesc again, and pressed onward to a monastery in Bieniszew. The Camaldolce religious order is an Italian order of monks. Living a strict life of prayer, they established a hermitage/monastery in Bieniszew in in 1600s. Greg and Mat were able to enter through the gates into the complex but women are only allowed on 12 specific days each year so I sat outside and enjoyed the peaceful pine forest and sunshine. Greg and Mat toured the monastery with Brother John who was quite interested in Greg’s surname. The monastery is located in the middle of a large forest preserve we drove in from the main road a few miles on a dirt track. There are many monasteries in this tradition around the world including several in the states. In Poland, the Camadolce translates to Kamedulski. Apparently the connection, according to the family story, is that before surnames were in common usage, so late 1600s, early 1700s a young man entered the order, giving them his wealth which was customary when entering, but after a period of time, left the order. In the village, he was known as ‘the Kamedulski, the man that had been a Kamedulski monk. All the Kamedulskis are descended from this one person. We are all related!
From Bieniszew we went on to Lodz where Greg’s grandparents lived. What had been an old tired manufacturing town when Greg last visited in 1969 reeking of coal smoke, is now a vibrant business center. We stayed in a converted factory hotel next to a restaurant – shopping – entertainment complex that had also been part of the former textiles mill. Our hotel room was not just a room, but a small apartment with a bath plus powder room, storage closets, living room and kitchen as well as the expected bedroom. The hotel decor was industrial-modern and very attractive. The rooftop bar, spa and pool were just lovely, with the pool cantilevered out over the side of the building. Breathtaking! Wednesday we toured Lodz and visited a cathedral as well as the downtown, but it was much too large without centralized records to search for relatives. We didn’t have an address for where Michel and Jolanta had lived so we had to be satisfied with simply touring the city.
Then, on to Krakow, via train. This was the purely tourist part of the trip. Krakow was not destroyed during WW2 and is a lovely old medieval town. We toured the city with a guide, trying traditional food in different restaurants and getting a good overview of the history and culture of Krakow. Greg played golf that afternoon at a resort outside of Krakow. I spent the afternoon wandering through Old Town and the markets to find Brad a birthday gift.
Overall, there were a lot of people that spoke English, especially in the larger towns. Many signs in the larger towns are in English and Polish. Everyone was very friendly and interested in our ‘pilgrimage’. Overall, the food was amazing. I’d expected it to be all kielbasa and cabbage and that was not the case. The fruits and vegetables were excellent, but what really stood out was the extensive breakfast buffets. Generally ? cheeses, cured meats, tomatoes, eggs, sausage, bacon, breads, pastries, pickles, herring, salmon, fruit, juice, coffee, tea, espresso machine, vodka, prosecco, it just went on and on! This description applies to every hotel we stayed in – Polonia Palace in Warsaw, Hotel Alexander in Wloclowek, Andel’s by Vienna House in Lodz, and Queen Hotel in Krakow.
Friday we flew out of Krakow to Munich, and then on to NYC. We left the hotel at 7 am Poland time, and landed in NYC at 3 pm New York time and got home about 8:00 pm due to slow baggage and worse traffic! (About 19 hours of travel.)
Overall, I think the tour was more than we expected and a great success. Greg was very happy to see the village of his father’s birth and to meet two sets of previously unknown cousins. The trip to the Kamedulski monastery followed a family meeting where we heard the oral history of our surname and so was an important part of the tour.