Looking for a village and finding a family
I recall being frozen in place. For a moment, which seemed like a very long time, everything around me moved in slow motion. There was no sound. I could not move. My voice was weak. My eyes were riveted on the face of an old women, worn with time, heartache and hardship. I saw the crystal blue eyes of my grandmother, yet this was not my beloved babcia. I saw my aunt's face and my mother's, but this woman was neither my aunt nor my mother.
by Carolyn Berminham
In that moment I knew I had made a connection. I was in the past, standing wobbily in the present, and soaring through the future. There was a buzzing sound in my head. My eyes were filling with tears. I was trying to contain an explosive gasp which was pushing upward in my chest. I stood transfixed by this tiny, slender, shy and startled old woman.
"Pani Sabat, do you know the woman Zofia Pasik?" said the voice next to me. The women moved away from the flowers she was tending. Slowly and with difficulty she came to the fence.
"I've heard this name" said Sabat. Her eyes focused an the wooden fence, not looking at anyone.
The person speaking was a neighbor. This may have been the only reason Pani Sabat came forward. The rest of us were strangers and all of us looked very strained and serious and disheveled.
"What is going on? Who are these people?" she was probably thinking in bewilderment.
Since our travels to Poland began each summer since 1993 no experience has made the impact as the three days in August of last year. It transcended every essence of my being. It dealt with a number of people who have become interconnected with my life, my future, and my life's journey.
In my heart, I know it isn't logical, but I believe my Babci led me on this journey. She died in 1979 at age 84. It was she who sustained me in times of difficulty, not because of what she said because her English was limited. Rather, she inspired me with her courage, determination, compassion, and her conviction to believe in her dreams and overcome hardship. I often thought of Sophie when confronted with life's challenges. But my problems were and are simple when compared to Sophie's life. I loved her without reservation. She had her ways, but they endeared her to me. But hers is another chapter.
A simple search
Our journey during early August was planned as a simple one. After our commitment to teach we decided to stay an extra ten days. We hoped to explore more of Poland and spend more time with our friends Anna and Przemek, young people whom we came to love.
Part of our plan was to seek out the village of Borków, the place of my grandmother's birth - If it still existed. We had been told the war and occupations had changed or wiped out many old villages. Our expectations were not very high.
Babcia had corresponded frequently with her family, but most written material she had received had been thrown out except for a handful of letters dated in the 1960's. The names were unknown to me, my mom and aunt, and any relationship was obscured. However, one letter from Wladyslawa Sabat asked for a wedding dress for the daughter of Marianne Wasilewski. It was dated 1966.
On a very old map the village had been located a short distance south of Kielce. Anna and Przemek agreed to escort us from Kutno to Borków. Their agreement to help us was the first of many experiences which illustrate a selflessness and generosity we have come to savor and attribute to Poland's people. Przemek arranged for six clays off from work, with no pay, while Anna put aside her preparations to defend her master's thesis in microbiology due in late August.
The night before we were to leave we had dinner with Anna's mother and father, Henryk and Kate. The table was filled with all kinds of food and plenty of vodka actually made by Henryk. Since Kate is the best cook in Poland, it was easy to rave about her cooking. We had not only been fed three times a day by this family, but lived in their very comfortable apartment with full use of all amenities, including a washing machine which we sorely needed by then. Henryk and Kate lived on their farm just a few miles away.
In the past year or so Henryk had the opportunity to lease a 100 acre farm from the government. During dinner Henryk spoke of his desire to buy this farm as a legacy for his two daughters, Anna and Karolina. It was the very first time in his 51 years Heniyk had the opportunity to buy land. In the next week he would be making final arrangements to make a first payment of, we think about $20,000. Over the next 10 years additional payments will be made and the land will finally be his. This, too, is another chapter.
In our simple minded American way, we inquired how banks arranged such loans. "No banks. This is our business, not the bank." said Henryk patiently as he explained the additional money he needed would be borrowed from friends.
Nothing is simple
Henryk then inquired how we would be spending our time. Anna, our interpreter for the term of our stay, detailed the itinerary. Monday we would leave by train to Ęódź, then by bus to Kielce. Przemek's cousin would have made arrangements for us to stay in a nearby hotel. From there we would head to Borków, maybe by bus, to see what was there.
Henryk listened intently and then scoffed at the plans. The trip is too long by bus and train. What will happen when in Kielce? What if the village can not be found? Perhaps there would be no bus. It is better to take my car - a 1986 Polish Fiat with a bad muffler, but Henryk's only car and essential to running his business. Overwhelmed by this generosity, we haggled and attempted to overule this gesture. We lost. By this time we were sheepish with gratitude and overcome with the magnanimousness of this family.
The next day we headed to Kielce in a car full of gas, food and beverages. Our trip went smoothly enough. Travel through Poland's countryside is restful and often lulls you to sleep. We were intrigued with the town of Zgierz, near Ęódź, where large Byzantine-type homes have been built by the Gypsies.
It was early afternoon when we arrived in Kielce. We could not connect with Jarek, Przemek's cousin, until later in the day. The village of Borków was just a short distance away, so off we went. In about an hour we saw signs directing us to the village. As we approached we could see it was really quite up-to-date; There were newer homes, several pensyonats, few bars and a beautiful lake with facilities for bathing and boating. But I didn't recall any mention of a lake in Babci's stories.
Not sure where we needed to go, we stopped at the most prosperous looking bar in town and asked for directions to the church. We explained our mission to the bartender, owner, cook, and chief bottle washer standing behind the bar. He actually was disappointed when he informed us we had the wrong Borków. The priest might know more. "Oh, by the way, there is another Borków near Opatów." said the bartender/owner.
We traveled to the church and found the parish priest. He was acting as foreman on a paving job at the foot of the hill on which the magnificent village church sat. it wouldn't be possible for him to leave the job site just yet. But Anna explained the magnitude of our visit. Americans, -the magic word,- looking for family who may be from this area. With some reluctance, he led us to an anteroom off the main room of his living quarters. From a large ornate wood cabinet he retrieved a heavy, leatherbound ledger. Quick scrutiny revealed the names and dates listed in the book were written in Russian. This factor did not deter the resolute Anne. She could read Russian and declared Zofia Barańska was not recorded as having been born in this village in April of 1895. It now appeared our journey may be for naught, except for one detail Anna!
"Of course!" she said looking at Władysława's address written on a sheet I had brought from home. "I should have seen this before." The address listed the village of Mydłów as the local post office, Maps were scrutinized. Another Borków in the wojewodztwo of Tarnobrzeg was found and was only about 50 kilometers away. "We will go tomorow, but first we have to find Jarek." declared Przemek.
A historic diversion
Jarek and Anetta were waiting for us when we arrived in Kielce. We loaded the car with more food and beverages and headed off to our overnight accommodations. We had been told we would be staying near a museum dedicated to Henry Sienkiewicz, Poland's great writer and political hero. But we didn't know that we would be staying in private accommodations reserved for visitors right in the museum called "Oblegoręk" and once Sienkiewicz's home.
As we approached the museum, staff and guards stood at attention, like we were visiting dignitaries. Although they expected us in mid-afternoon, they had waited for us to arrive. It was nearly 7:00 in the evening.
Our suite included a living room with two fold-out beds, a bedroom with two beds, a kitchen and private bath. All for 15 zloty per person, per night.
"Is that OK?", asked Anna. We nodded slowly, still in awe. "Sign the guest book." requested the guard. We were guests 193 and 194 and the first Americans to stay in the museum's private accommodations. Our rooms had likely been staff quarters some 90 years before. My bed, an antique sleigh-bed covered in a red blanket, "was once the bed of Sienkiewicz," said the guard. If so, I prayed I would be inspired to greater literary heights as I slept.
"How did this happen?" we asked Jarek, as we waited for our sausages to grill on the barbecue. We were sitting on the back porch of Sienkiewicz's home, covered with blankets to ward off the chill and sharing ideas with these young men and women who are the future of Poland. But this is yet another chapter.
"It was arranged through Anetta's mother." said Jarek. "She works at the National Museum In Kielce." It was she who approached the Museum Director to make arrangements for Przemek's friends, whom she did not know. And so it was.
The next day, before the palace, as it is called, was opened to the public we were treated to a private tour of the home, it's artifacts and the actual Nobel Prize letter Sienkiewicz had received in 1905 for his literary masterpiece QUO VADIS.
Back on the trail
Our journey to Borków started around 10 a.m. We traveled for a couple of hours along a decent thoroughfare to just outside of Opatów. From there we traveled south along some fairly bumpy roadways to Iwanisko. At one point, the road we traveled changed from pavement, to ruts, to timbers. We understood quickly this was not a road well-traveled by anyone. We reached Iwanisko and inquired: How far to Mydłów? Is this the church for Borków? Do you have records for Borków? "Straight ahead about 15 kilometers and NO!, to each of the last questions." said a fearful man hidden behind a large wooden door.
Mydłów could be seen in the distance. It's church spires towering above the trees. A wrong turn led us out of the village. We turned around and went back. We knew the church was there, but it seemed to have disappeared. We turned a corner and there it was, standing regally before us. We reached the rectory by walking through a lovely garden of late summer blooms with the hope that guard dogs on the porch were actually friendly.
It seemed ages before the door was answered. A short, stout man with dark hair and a harried look inquired as to the meaning of our visit. Once again the indomitable Anna took over. Our quest explained, the man identified himself as the parish priest.
Mydłów was destroyed during the war, along with much of the surrounding area. No records exist. They were burnt when the Russians needed fuel for their fires. The church had been destroyed by the German army during battles with the Russians. Only a painting of the old church existed to remind the parish of what once was.
The priest did not know the names of Sabat or Wasilewski. They could be dead. An old woman named Anna Rolka lived in Borków. "She still had a good memory. Maybe she could help," said the priest.
The seven kilometers of road was bumpy and mostly dirt. The paving which remained was crumbling. We stopped when the road ended. We inquired at the house near the roadway. Did anyone know Anna Rolka? "Yes, this is her home."
Amazed at our good fortune we were taken to a vestibule of the house, where an older, plumpish woman with pink cheeks and graying hair scooped into a bun at the nape of her neck met us.
Anna once again explained the purpose of our visit, but not before we all were invited to tea and cookies. This formality took a little time. Eating and drinking are important when Poles are interacting.
After some lengthy description of who we were, what we did and why we had traveled so many hours, Anna finally got to the point.
"Pani Rolka, do you know the name Władysława Sabat?" Indeed she did. And, it would be possible for her to personally escort us to Sabat's home. It was not very far but first she would have to change from her everyday clothes to a dress more suitable for visiting.
We followed Pani Rolka along a pathway rutted by carts. It was more likely a cow path, and we sometimes had to be mindful where we stopped. Trees and shrubbery were dense and obscured our view of a few houses tucked beyond them. Shortly, the path straightened out before us. Two or three houses sat very close to the road. They were something like a Cape Cod version of homes in the U.S. Before the road began to narrow, we saw the house of the old woman. She was stooped over tending to her garden.
Rolka took the lead in attracting Pani Sabat's attention. It was then when Sabat turned and looked up at our solemn faces that I felt a moment of recognition. "Babcia's eyes", I stammered to my husband, who was busily attempting to get photos.
"Thanks to the Mother of God"
Anna took over. Thank God for Anna. "This is the granddaughter of Zofia Barańska and Władysław Pasik. Zofia lived in Borków before she left for America. Do you know Zofia?", gently prodded Anna.
Still unsure, Path Sabat responded "I remember Władysław Pasik." Then she looked me. She saw my tears and tears welled up in her eyes. It was now that Path Sabat felt recognition. At the same time Przemek felt the moment. He guarded himself again demonstrating his compassion as tears welled in his eyes.
"Do you know of a letter sent to Zofia asking for a wedding dress?" I asked.
In quick recognition Pani Sabat said, "I wrote this letter. I am the daughter of Katarzyna, Zofia's sister. I wrote the letter for my niece."
My grandmother's niece. My mom's cousin. My cousin. We didn't know. We had no idea family was still alive. We came looking for a village and found a family. We were not prepared for this.
We were invited into the house. Apologies were extended because the steps leading into the house were under repair. We had to climb a mound of dirt to gain entry. Inside was a clean but plain kitchen. A long wooden table in front of the window overlooked the garden. Two large beds with fluffy feather comforters lined two walls. A large ceramic tiled wood stove sat against another. A woman, Zofia, her head covered with a scarf, was standing at the stove. Later we realized this women was married to one of Władysława's sons.
"Thanks to the Mother of God for bringing our daughter back to us." said Władysława over and over again, while softly caressing my shoulder or my cheek. I cried yet again. Anna seemed to anticipate what I might have asked had I been able to speak and think intelligibly. She asked questions and wrote feverishly in my notebook, listing the names of Babcia's sisters and deceased brother, the names of the children, living or dead and where they lived. Władysława struggled, as I did, to keep her composure.
Suddenly, another woman entered the house speaking rapidly and somewhat loudly. She held in her hand a photograph. She handed it to my husband and said, "This is proof we are the family of Zofia and Władysław Pasik."
There in front of us was a 40 year-old-photo, one I had not seen since I was a child. My grandfather, grandmother and their three daughters were sitting in the living room of their brand new home in 1955. The tears came again.
The lady was Wanda, daughter of Marianne Wasilewski, also Babeia's niece. It was she who needed the wedding dress in 1968. Yes, it had arrived, but had been used and soiled.
It was cleaned and worn at her wedding. "Zofia was a wonderful woman. She cared for us. She helped us with food and clothes. She sent medicine to my husband. She helped to keep this family alive after the war." exclaimed Wanda.
Then the children arrived. Young Karolina, Ewelina and Magdalena. They were the great granddaughters of Władysława and Anna Rolka. Zofia, who had left to gather the children and food, was the daughter of Rolka. Her daughter had married and was living just up the road, very near the home of Wanda and her daughter and grandchildren, Wanda lived on the property where my grandmother had lived the first 17 years of her life. The old house was gone, but a new one was built on the old foundation.
We stopped at the house before we left. It honestly felt like sacred ground. I turned and saw the diminutive Władysława, her tiny hand raised to wave goodbye. She was still overwhelmed.
I remain so even today. We know we would be coming back. We had promised. We know this would be forever.
But next summer, we'll let our family know we are coming.
The above autobiographical text was firts read by the author at a February 27th, 1997 meeting of the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo and later published in the Polish Arts Club Monthly Bulletin