Friday, October 24, 2008

Gathering History in Poland

Church in Trzesniow, Poland

We had to go back to the graveyard! We'd been kidnapped the day before, yet we still had to dig up information on some close acquaintances. It didn't matter that these folks have been dead for 150 years--Dee gets to know them so well they become his friends; it was important to find out anything we could.

Polish woodcarvings

Because the Przybyla family had shown such hospitality, we were certain we'd already passed the high point of our Polish research. Now we needed info on the Wojton names. Dates on the graves were too recent; we decided there must be an older cemetery in a nearby village, but we didn't have a clue of how to find directions. Stores were non-existent in the tiny town of Trzesniow.

One of many stork's nests, Poland

Three men were carrying a coffin into a small memorial chapel by the church. Not wanting to crash a funeral, we hovered around waiting to see if there would be someone we could talk to. We watched the men take the coffin in, and then carry it back out, set it down for a while, and then take it in again. Several minutes later they brought it out and put it on the ground. Smoking and chatting, they glanced over at us, so Dee approached to ask if any of them spoke English.

I stood by the car while they talked animatedly to each other, and then Dee went into the chapel with one of the men. I assumed they were looking at some documents or something because they were inside a long time. Dee came out with his new buddy, and stood by while the men gestured and spoke excitedly, and then they loaded the coffin into a minivan. Our main man called someone on his cell phone, and the other men drove off; then Dee followed his friend over to our car, and they both got in! (I know this sounds made-up, but it's true.)

I asked Dee what was going on and he wasn't sure. He thought they were construction workers since they were apparently showing him the craftsmanship of their new chapel. They were measuring the coffin to make sure it fit. Anyway, the guy was in the back seat, motioning for Dee to drive, tapping him on the shoulder and indicating where to turn. We thought maybe he was taking us to another cemetery, so we were surprised when we arrived at a large farmhouse.

Farmhouse in Trzesniow, Poland

Two women, one holding a baby and the other obviously her mother, were in the courtyard waiting for us. Their husbands pulled up on a tractor at the same time. Chickens, ducks, turkeys and a dog wandered around our car as the young mom greeted us. She was an English teacher visiting her parents, and she was going to be our translator.

English teacher, Mayor and Dee

Introductions were made and we found that our graveyard chum was actually the mayor of the town! His name was Tadesz Wojton (pronounced Vochick, I think.) Unbelievably, he had the same surname we were researching! Dee told Agate (the teacher) that we were searching for a library or an archive that might have a written history of the village, land records or other documents.

Government offices Trzesniow, Poland

Handing the baby to her husband, she ran inside for her jacket and she and the mayor got into our car. They directed us to a non-descript building on an unpaved road off the main street. Inside, up a flight of stairs, was a tiny library where the very helpful librarian searched for references to the Polish names. No luck.

Library stacks in Trzesniow, Poland.

The mayor suddenly remembered a book he had, "a segment which is in English." We drove to his home, where his wife pulled curlers out of her hair while he rifled through the bookcases. He reappeared with a spiral bound book about the history of the town, which his brother had written. It was all in Polish, unfortunately, with a section in the middle which the teacher dismissed as "unimportant and foreign." Dee looked at those pages and realized they were copies of documents from the mid 1800's, written in old German script, (which he can read.) They just happened to be references to the very people we were searching for, with dates, taxes paid, and property descriptions!

Page from Mayor's Book

Dee asked if we could take the book somewhere to copy the pages. Our translator friend explained the copy machine was in the next village, but after telling the mayor the significance of the pages, he tore them out of his book and gave them to us.

The mayor then showed us pictures of himself with some important Polish people and pointed to one on the wall of him at the Vatican meeting Pope John Paul II. His wife brought in photos of their 50th anniversary party, their niece who is an opera singer in Rome, a cousin who lives in Canada, and one of their son who died last year at age 27. It felt like we were friends.

Unbelievable things happen to us. Although we knew the approximate location of this Polish town, we couldn't find it on a map. We stumbled on it almost by accident, met the exact right people at the exact right time, and left with information we'd have never discovered on our own. I don't think our experiences are coincidences. I am convinced that people who lived long ago want their descendants to know their stories.

Graveyard in Galacia

We've made lots of friends in cemeteries!


Keri(th) said...

This is absolutely incredible. You guys are like two super sleuths roaming the earth and miraculously getting to the bottom of things, while stopping for small talk, borsht, and bread. This post was better than the Monk episode I just saw, and your story is actually non-fiction, which makes it all the more spectacular.

anna jo said...

that is pretty cool

Sheri said...

You have incredible, amazing experiences! You are so lucky (blessed). I don't believe in coincidence, either. I've had too many "miracles" happen to me in family history research.

I hope we get to meet the people we research someday, don't you?

kenju said...

What wonderful synchronicity!!

diane said...

What a great adventure. I bet the wife was thrilled to be caught in her curlers. The English teacher looks like a model.

I agree this is better than anything I watched on TV tonight.

gramakas said...

What a cool experience! I'm sure you had many others along with you on this trip besides just the Mayor and the English speaking daughter! What wonderful stories. Thanks for sharing.

James DeSpain said...

I absolutely love Poland !!! I was able to spend two weeks there when I was working in Europe. Krakow was my favorite big city, and spent some time in Auschwitz and Berkanau. Amazing history and such great people. Have fun . . . nephew James

George said...

Regards from Poland

TravelinOma said...

Are you one of Zophie Przybyla's grandsons? Click on the side of my blog where it says "View my complete profile" and email me, or comment here. Thank you for reading!