October, 1996.

Musings on a trip to Poland

In the Wake of Action "Vistula": A Search for Lemko Heritage


In 1992, my wife Cathy and I joined a tour organized by the Genealogical Society of Connecticut to visit archives and record depositories in Poland. Unlike my fellow travelers on this genealogical expedition, I was not in search of Polish roots. For almost the entire trip I was only a tourist, suffering through frytki laden meals and listening to fellow genealogists describe their experiences. I was hoping to find records of my family ancestors, Lemkos who lived in what was the crownland of Galicia until the defeat and dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. Uncertain if the records existed and if so, where they were, I was finally ready to find some answers one morning near the end of the trip as we headed to the State Archives in Przemysl. I fervently hoped the records would be in Latin and not in Rusyn, as the Cyrillic alphabet was a puzzle to me and I had no time for decoding.

Only one other roots seeker was interested in going to Przemysl, so we climbed into a Lada taxi while the rest of the group set off in our Mercedes motorcoach for a day of sightseeing. Our driver spoke only Polish, but my poor comprehension of the language did not deter him from chatting constantly. Przemysl was a big military base under the Austrians, and he pointed out areas in the surrounding countryside where Czarist troops had dug siege trenches in the beginning of the First World War. My own grandfather had spent time in Franz Josef's army and had been stationed for a time in Przemyśl. I knew this from my only link to him, an old Imperial army paybook which also told me his place of birth, Wisłoczek. Its gothic German script was an enigma to me for many years and several high school German teachers tried unsuccessfully to decipher it. Its secrets were finally revealed when someone who was familiar with the style was able to break the code.

The communists may have fallen from power, but the apparatchiks are still very much in evidence. After finally reaching the archives, we were stopped at the front desk and told, in no uncertain terms, to leave our bags, cameras, and passports. We were then ushered into a reception room where a secretary indicated that we should cool our heels for a while. The bare furnishings and stark atmosphere of the hallways made me feel we were in for an interrogation.

After a few minutes, an assistant to the director ushered us into another room, where he quizzed us on what records we wanted to use. After another wait of some time, we were then ushered in to see the director. Here, a twenty minute lecture was given. I did not understand it but in the opinion of our translator it was condescending and the basic message was that family historians were not particularly welcome and we were certainly not qualified to be poking around looking at documents. We were finally allowed into a room to begin our searches. A security camera's unblinking eye added to the 1984 aura of the whole experience.

My first relief came as I discovered the records to be in Latin, despite the director's assertion that they were in "Ukrainian." After an hour of searching, I found a reference to an ancestor. Several more turned up, but then it was closing time. I would have to return tomorrow, but the director's attitude had me worried. I would be on my own, with little knowledge of Polish, and no help in getting around the director. The thought of being so close and not finishing the task was maddening.

Fortunately, the guard at the desk the next day was friendly, and I avoided any problems. In a marathon session. from 9am to 6pm, without breaks, I traced my family from the mid 19th century to the mid 1700's. They had lived in the village, in the same house, for probably hundreds of years. They had probably first come into the area in the 14th century, during the reign of Kazimierz the Great.

The next day, the group returned to Warsaw, but my wife and I set off for Sanok. We were going to spend another week in Poland, on our own. Those seven days turned into an incredible adventure, filled with unbelievable mishaps and fortunate discoveries, kind hearted people and rude louts, unbelievable treasures and worthless dross.

The best skansen (ethnographic park) of the trip was the one we visited in Sanok; the guide, Tadeusz Kowalski, gave us a private tour and demonstrated each item. Despite our lack of Polish he patiently made sure we understood everything. Our Mercedes motorcoach gone, we rode in a rattletrap Autosan bus which nevertheless delivered us to our destinations. We saw incredible Ruthenian icons in the Sanok museum. In the Bieszczady (Biehshchady) we hiked through torrential rains and nearly froze in a 1950's Stalinist motel with no heat and no hot water, but found the innkeepers to be gracious and warm hearted. We heard fabulous folk songs performed live that night and played chess with a local, who broke open a bottle of Russian Cognac in our honor. We rode a narrow gauge railroad, in antique cars, over the peaks of the Carpathians.

I was stopped by the border policja (poleetsya) not once, but on two separate occasions. Running out of money, we hiked over 20 miles one day through mountain pastures and forests and were rewarded with views of foxes, deer, hawks, and incredible vistas, as well as ruins of old Lemko villages. We hitched a ride with a truck driver ("It's no Mercedes," he joked as he threw our bags into the back and we piled into the tiny cab.) who took us into his house for lunch and proudly showed us around. A visit revealed my ancestral village of Wisloczek had been destroyed during Action Vistula and now consisted of new, three story houses built by the new Polish settlers. As I stood among the ruined gravestones and church and gazed out at the lush hills where my grandfather had no doubt played as a child, I marveled at how a people could have lived here over 500 years and now hardly a trace survived.

Bureaucratic frustrations continued; no one could tell me where the remaining records I sought for Wisloczek and Barwinek, my grandmother's village, were held. Our local interpreter, Jacek Pajak, ran an English school in Krosno and was a mover, shaker, and born entrepreneur, as well as an invaluable source of information, but even he could not untangle the Gordian knot I was enmeshed in.

In Kraków we savored the city's artistic treasures, rode the express train to Warsaw, and spent an evening discussing Polish politics and concerns with an engineer we had only met on the flight from New York three weeks earlier; he had insisted we join him for dinner in his modest apartment. I hope to return to Galicia one day to finish my search. Somewhere, scattered by the currents of the Vistula Action, are people who share my heritage and my name.[note: at the time of this trip, the exchange rate was approximately US$ 1 = zl 14,000.00, Greg Leck June 1992]

Friday, 29 May 1992

Rzeszów - The group returned to Warsaw this morning via the Mercedes motorcoach.I remarked we would be sure to miss it in the coming week and a half. After the usual delays and confusion everyone was aboard. We had to endure numerous "Polish farewells" (multiple kisses on both cheeks). We had tipped our guides the night before and a fellow traveler had lent us her Berlitz phrase book (which I had previously used to get a shave and a haircut at a local barber). I had searched high and low throughout Poland for a copy of the out of print Beskid Niski map without success, but I had a photocopy of one which was loaned to me by another group member. The copy was made on the photocopy machine in the Hotel Forum in Kraków. I had spent several hours one night coloring in the map by hand with colored pencils, the acquisition of which had been an epic task in itself.

After waving good-bye we returned to the dining room to a cluttered table which our group had occupied. Orange juice was there for us, but we waited awhile for breakfast, which, when it finally arrived, turned out to be cold eggs. I filled up on bread instead.

Gathering up our belongings, we settled up our phone bill (3 calls to Krosno to arrange for an interpreter) while our taxi driver, Leszek (Leshek), waited. He had driven Jon Shea, Joe Novak, and me to the Przemysl archives on Wednesday and me again on Thursday.

(The second day he got flagged down by the policja, for improper passing, I believe, and fined. He charged $50.00 each day for what amounted to about an 80 mile round trip and about ten hours waiting time. We agreed on a price of $40.00 for the trip to Sanok (about 40 miles) and he seemed quite happy with the arrangement. He drove a Lada, which he took pains to point out was Russian manufactured. "Ruskie!" he would declare after mentioning the car.

The trip to Sanok was uneventful (no tickets) but we saw many horse carts, haystacks, and very old hewn timber houses with thatched roofs. The road was lined with beautiful trees and many people were walking or bicycling along.

We arrived at the Turysta, the "best" hotel in Sanok after Leszek stopped a few times to ask various kamarad the way. At 280,000 zl, it was similar to the hotels in Rzeszów, Bialystok, and Lomza but the beds were better. We also had a beautiful view over the San valley, though it was obscured by fog. Nevertheless, I was grateful to have finished my research in Przemysl since it meant we had an extra day now.

After settling in, we went to the PTTK office to find out when the bus would leave for Ustrzyki Górne. Of course, no one spoke English but with a few words of Polish we were able to convey our message. We were told the bus left Sanok at 7:05 AM.

That settled, we decided to go to the bus station to obtain tickets. By now it had begun to drizzle but we had rain gear so it was only a minor inconvenience. Using the map in The Real Guide: Poland we walked about two miles before deciding we were lost. Again, with limited Polish, we worked out way back to town and the hotel. There, the lady at the desk, who spoke some English showed us on a map where to find the station. It was mismarked on our map.

At the station, we joined a long line at a window above which a number of destinations, including ours, were listed. When we were one person away from the head of the line, the lady at the window abruptly got up, closed the window, and drew a curtain across it. Cathy, my wife, and I looked at each other, perplexed. Others did not seem perturbed at all. We stood around for a few minutes before noticing "13:00-13:15" written on the window after a Polish word I didn't know the meaning of. We deduced this was a 15 minute staff break during which all business stopped, despite the hoards of ticket seekers.

Promptly at 1:15 PM, the window opened and difficulties ensued as soon as I asked for two tickets to Ustrzyki Górne. Apparently they understood very clearly what I wanted, even exclaiming "Dobzhe" [good] when I drew a chart with "Sanok" and "U. Górne" and an arrow and the word "Sobota" [Saturday] and "7:05" on it. But they continued to jabber away in Polish. I finally resorted to drawing a pictionary type illustration of tickets and a bus, which impressed them, but only resulted in one of the clerks drawing a line from the ticket to the bus. Finally, as the line behind us reached epic proportions, we were motioned to leave and join the tail of the snaking queue. Instead, I went to the information window, where we again met without success. At this point we could only surmise that tickets could only be purchased on the bus and decided to show up the next morning at 7am and trust to luck.

The rain was still a drizzle, but as it was still coming down and we had wasted a lot of time already (it was close to 2pm) we decided to take a taxi to the castle in Sanok, about a mile away. (20,000 zl). This was really a very large, old (circa 1650) stone manor house which housed a beautiful collection of Ruthenian icons. They were absolutely beautifully done and there were about 100 of them. There were also some very fine examples of 17th century oil paintings as well as some contemporary oils and sculptures.

After the museum, we walked through the Rynek and stopped again at the PKKT office, this to time to check when the narrow gauge train from Majdan, in the Bieszczady, ran to the Beskid Niski town of Rzepedz. Again, with limited Polish, I could easily convey what I wanted. This time we were shown a schedule indicating a departure of 6:30am Mon-Fr, and 9:15 Sat/Sun, as well as a fare chart. (Incidentally, a copy of the much sought after Beskid Niski map was on the wall. When I asked about it, the ever familiar refrain "nie ma" was given in reply.

Just when we thought we were all set, we noticed 1 VI 1992 do 15 IX 1992 on the chart. We didn't know if the train didn't run during that time or only during that time, or on a different schedule for that period. Finally, after several minutes of fruitless pantomime, diagrams, and words, the lady (who had the patience of Job) made a phone call to some one who spoke a limited amount of English. He told us the train's first day of operation was June 1, and the first weekend June 6. That settled, we walked 2 kilometers to the skansen. A skansen is an ethnographic park; the first one originated in Sweden. It consists of various buildings and artifacts all grouped together to form an outdoor museum. After getting two tickets (no problems this time) we were told to join a group which had entered ahead of us and were about 500 meters away. This turned out to be about 35 schoolchildren, aged 8 o 9 years, and 3 or 4 adult chaperones, with the Polish guide from the skansen. At this point I figured the trip was rapidly degenerating into an unmitigated disaster.

However, it proved to be quite the opposite. Although the kids ran wild, as children that age are wont to do, our guide was excellent. He asked if we understood Polish, and when we replied no, he spoke a few words of German, which Cathy knew a little of, from high school.

In short, that skansen was the best of all we visited in Poland. Aside from the houses, which included some fantastic agricultural implements, we saw two beautiful Greek Catholic cerkwie (tser-kvyeh), which contained icons and an altar more stunning than the one we had previously viewed at the Suwalki monastery. One would never have dreamed that the plain wooden exteriors held such wonderful artworks within. We learned our guide's name was Tadeusz, and he said his last name was Smith (this while showing us a smithy, so I presume he meant Kowalski) I believed he learned his rudimentary Deutsch while working in Hitler's Germany as a "guest worker" during the Second World War.

"Ted" was very patient and genuinely interested in showing us everything and how it worked. After about an hour he dispatched the kids but proceeded to take us on a private tour for another two hours. Again, with Polish, German, English, pantomime, drawing, and actual demonstrations, he showed us everything, all with great enthusiasm.

We saw a fantastic contraption used to scare groundhogs out of the potato fields. (A wooden box placed over the burrow, with two hand cranks which turned rows of hammers to produce a hellacious din.) A Uniate cerkiew (tserkyev) from 1750 with a wooden belltower (from Rosolin), typical Lemko dwellings, an 1890 one room schoolhouse with the schoolmaster's wooden briefcase, pointer, slate blackboard, and portrait of Franz Josef behind his desk, along with a map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A beehive, carved in the shape of St. Francis of Assisi. (The saint held a small honeypot in his hands, into which a small entryway for the bees was carved. The saint's back was removed to obtain the honey.) An outhouse located inside a giant, one piece hollowed out tree trunk. Implements for macerating flax, thrashing it, and weaving linen. A fabulous machine, made entirely of wood, with huge wooden hammers used to press linseed oil from seeds. A wheelwright's shop, showing how wooden wheels were made from logs - axles, hubs, spokes, and rims. A large house with barn and enclosed courtyard with well. A pottery shop with kiln. Horse powered machinery to chop hay. Wooden kitchen strainers and covers, and a cheese press. A portable hammock to take infants out to the fields when working, and a cradle which hung from the ceiling. Yokes for cattle, flails, and a hooked stick for carrying bundles. An inn and a restaurant.

It was a fascinating three hours. When we left, it was already a half hour past closing time. Ted walked his bicycle with us back toward town, and we stopped at a takeout stand, where we had a Coke. Ted told us he had worked in the Auto San bus factory in Sanok for 34 years before retiring. Now, at age 63, he was still working because inflation had wiped out his pension. He also told us a folk festival was going on that weekend and invited us to return, but we had to sadly decline. As we parted ways, he wished us good luck, hoping I would find relatives still in Wisloczek and Barwinek, and asking us to come back and see him again at the skansen should we return to Poland.

By 8pm, Sanok was rolling up the sidewalks. A gypsy woman and three kids lounged around the TV in the hotel lobby. As the hotel had no restaurant, we asked for a recommendation. We were directed to "Max," about 1 km away. The desk lady suggested we change for dinner, so we expected something ritzy. As it turned out, we were the only diners. The menu was all in Polish, but with the aid of the Berlitz guide, we successfully avoided ordering the herring in oil and settled for some delicious soup and roast beef which was done very well. It was a welcome change from the greasy, fried cutlet du jour which to this point had been the mainstay of our diet. The entire dinner, with beer and wine, was only 134,000 zl (about $10). The night passed uneventfully, with the exception of no hot water in the room.

Saturday, 30 May 1992

We rose early, checked out and plodded down to the bus terminal, stopping to grab some tarts and a bottle of lemon drink for breakfast. It was raining slightly, and we noticed the Russian market was already open.

At 7:05 precisely, the Sanok-Ustrzyki Górne bus pulled up. As we expected, you had to buy tickets from the driver, who pulled out several (different colors for different destinations) and punched them. A dozen soccer pendants hung from above the windshield. The bus smelled of stale sweat, Russian tobacco, diesel exhaust, and alcohol (an empty wodka bottle rolled up and down the aisle. Apart from this, it was just like the Mercedes we had traveled in earlier. In fact, the suspension was better - it bounced and jolted less on this trip. After 21/2 hours and innumerable stops, we arrived at Ustrzyki Górne. It wasn't the end of the world, but you could see it from where we got off the bus.

By now it was raining in sheets. The nearby mountain peak loomed, foreboding, out of the rain and fog. Torrents of water ran by. We changed into raingear under the porch roof of the campground office, where a German Shorthair Pointer waited patiently for his morning meal. My original plan was to hike through the mountain trails the first day to some mountain huts (A frame bunkhouses) and then continue on the next day to Cisna, where there was a motel. The following morning we would walk to Majdan, and take the narrow gauge railway along the Czech border to Rzepedz, where we would start our hike through the Beskid Niski, to Wisloczek and on to Krosno.

We were discouraged, in no uncertain terms, from making the hike by several men who shook their heads when I pointed our route out on the map. All the rain had made the trail impassable. We decided to set out for Brzegi Górne, four miles away, by walking along the road. From there, we would see what the weather did before deciding where to strike out for next.

We had good goretex raingear, but Cathy was wearing only sneakers and they were saturated within 100 meters. Even my boots, which had goretex linings, were getting damp inside. We stopped at a sklep [shop] where I got a piece of plastic off a beer case to cover the rucksack. The large backpack I was carrying was getting soaked through but there was nothing to be done about it so we trudged on. The rain had brought out many snails, dozens of which had crawled onto the road. Some were rather large. Cathy insisted on stopping to remove each one to the safety of the shoulder. The streams we passed over were rushing torrents.

After forty five minutes, a Mercedes van (the first I have ever seen) pulled up. Obviously the driver was stopping for the two idiots walking in the rain. The driver, Adam, was traveling with his wife, Maria, out on a Saturday pleasure drive from Tarnów to see the Bieszczady. Adam spoke English, having spent four years in the states (California and the West, Chicago, and New York City). He appeared to know a lot about the USA but was very evasive about what he did in the states or in Poland, but was obviously rather affluent. Perhaps he was involved in some black market or other questionable activity. He dropped us off at Cisna, after asking me in detail about my work, salary, and what my education cost! We were now 36 hours ahead of schedule.

There was only one motel in Cisna, a daunting, ugly block building. We were told to wait (I presume our room was hurriedly made up) and then shown our room: two beds, two shelves, and a sink. No toilet, closet, shower, and, it appeared, no heat. In fact, the entire building was cold. I paid for two nights (200,000 zl total).

In the room we unpacked everything; both backpacks were soaked. Miraculously, the roll of toilet paper from the states was almost dry. The map of the Beskid Niski I had painstakingly made was soaked and ripped, but still readable. Socks, equipment, shoes, and clothes were all damp. We strung a clothesline across the room (I had fortunately remembered to bring some number 3 ethilon suture for this purpose) and hung things out to dry. It was so cold we could see our breath in the room. Cathy had bought a curling iron in Warsaw which worked by blowing hot air. I had denounced the purchase as foolish at the time since it wasn't worth a tinker's damn but now it was worth every zloty (180,000) as we used it to dry out our shoes and socks. Gathering up all the blankets, we got into one of the beds. I had spoken to a lady at the front desk to explain we had no heat but she thought I was saying it was too cold and indicated she would turn up the furnace. I thought this might be the case since none of the radiators in the building were warm. After three hours had passed, Cathy got someone to come to the room. The radiator was stone cold. An electric heater was produced and this heated up the room fairly quickly. In the meantime, I sauntered up the hill to where a monument commemorated the Polish army's battle against the UPA, or Ukrainian Insurgent Army partisans in 1944 - 1947. The town was in a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains. It was still raining, though, and fog obscured the view.

We walked to a restaurant next door. Apart from five or six houses, a clutch of takeout stands, and the motel, that was Cisna. In the restaurant, I had gulasz, while Cathy had roast pork. The gulasz tasted different, and Cathy's meal turned out to be beef. The beer, Lezajsk (lezhaysk), turned out to be quite good. I lost my appetite after realizing the meat in my dish was probably kidney. We had almost ordered tripe by mistake. Since no milk or lemon was available, we returned to the motel bar/kawiarnia for tea. A group of a dozen or so people, including a guitar player, were there, singing folk songs. It was a very pleasant atmosphere and we enjoyed the singing. Meanwhile, the rain continued, but the electric heater was blasting away and our room was warm and dry.

Sunday, 31 May 1992

Arose about 8am and decided to walk around a bit on the roads. The rain had stopped but the forests were dripping wet. Cathy decided to stay and reorganize the luggage, which had mostly dried out.

I walked west to Majdan, then turned south toward the Czechoslovak border. I had gone about 2 km when a jeep carrying two border police appeared and screeched to a halt. After examining my passport (the Australian visa pasted in it was particularly impressive to them) they spent some time asking me what I was up to, where I was going, whether I had a map, (I had forgotten it back in the motel room), etc. When I mentioned Czechoslovakia, they became quite agitated, but after making it clear in no uncertain terms that I was not to cross the border, they went on their way. The remainder of the hike was uneventful, save for sighting two very large European deer with tremendous racks who crashed through the brush as I neared the border. The latter turned out to be an unmanned gate across the forest path. On the trek back home to the motel, I stopped for a piwo at a small place where it was supplied on tap from a barrel. After ascertaining exactly where the railroad station in Majdan was, I returned to the motel. Just as I was within 1 km, it began to rain again.

Cathy had met Pan Józef, a local, at the monument to the 1944-1947 uprising across from the motel, where she went with Arthur, the innkeepers' seven year old son. Pan Józef, about 60, was a retired policeman from Rzeszów. The innkeepers, Barbara and Alfonse, also had a daughter who worked behind the kawiarnia counter and two other sons, who also worked at the motel. Pan Józef played several tunes on his balalaika, and engaged me in a few games of chess (one win each and one stalemate). We also tried checkers, where I was surprised when he moved a king the entire length of the board. With his version of the rules, kings could move or jump the entire board length, and any piece could jump forward or backward. He was an accomplished player, winning every game but one, which was a draw. Arthur played connect the dots and tic tac toe with Cathy. She had given him an American dollar earlier which he carried around everywhere. Barbara, Alfonse, Józef all seemed genuinely interested in us. The entire day was passed with sign language and pantomime. We had had an excellent lunch earlier of tomato soup and roast beef earlier at the restaurant next door, so we didn't feel hungry enough to eat dinner. As the night drew to a close, Józef went home to produce a bottle of Russian cognac to share with Alfonse, Cathy, and I. After several toasts, we retired at a very late hour.

Monday, 1 June 1992

We arose at 5:20am to a warm, cloudy day. After gathering up the bags and saying good-bye to Alfonse, we started out for the station, about 3 km away. We had left a calculator for Arthur and had given one to Jozef the night before. When we arrived at the station, several passenger cars were on the siding, as well as several loads of felled timber which was loaded onto bogies. As this was the first day of the operation since the previous fall, there was much greeting and shaking of hands among the train crew. We waited while the train was made up. A steam locomotive (made in Romania), two passenger cars (each seating 27 passengers, but empty, save for us, today) and several loads of lumber behind. Just before our scheduled departure, Alfonse came aboard to present us with a carved wooden icon. He had hurriedly cycled after us and caught up just before we left. Promptly at 6:30am, the train pulled out, following the narrow gauge tracks over the Carpathian ridge line. One of the crew asked where we were headed- Rzepedz, end of the line. He gave us our tickets: 80,000zl for two.

For two and a half hours, we traveled through forests and very small villages, seeing some old timber houses and hayracks, cattle, and horses; shepherds in the fields and old women driving cattle out to pasture completed the idyllic agrarian scene.

As we neared Rzepedz, the locomotive was disconnected (while we were still moving) and continued on. The lumber portion behind us was also disconnected and stopped. The two passenger cars were allowed to coast on the rails before being shunted into the station and a siding before being stopped by a crew member using a handbrake in one of the cars. "Rzepedz!" he announced dramatically, and we set off for town.

I had hoped to walk from Rzepedz, to Wisloczek, to Rymanów Zdrój; where we would pick up a bus from Krosno. On reaching Rzepedz, we learned the next bus to Karlików, where we could start on the path through the Beskid Niski, was not due for another two hours. A fellow who spoke some German was helpful in showing us the bus stop and schedule. We decided to walk on rather than remain idle for two hours. Stopping to buy some provisions for lunch - farmer's cheese, kielbasa, soda (lemonade or citryny) rolls, and chips - we exhausted our supply of zloty. This would have consequences later on, but secure in the belief we could easily change money at the next town, we blissfully set off on our trek. We passed (as we did everywhere else in Poland) many houses under construction. After turning off the main road, the way became more of a path. Chickens were numerous and dogs barked at our passing. It was now a bright, sunny day, but large puddles and mud were everywhere. Frogs abounded in all of them, and in one we observed a small water snake capture a tadpole. We passed a wooden cerkiew nestled into a hillside, surrounded by trees. Finally, the way became only a footpath in a meadow, and the last house, number 1, was on the left. Stopping to ask directions (or at least ascertain our location) we met an old fellow who looked at our map and, when learning we were headed for Wisloczek, asked if I was "Ukrainian," by which he probably meant Lemko. I showed him my grandfather's army record book, which contained the regulations in Carpatho-Rusyn, and he studied that for a while. On the map, he pointed out the site of a World War II battle and indicated that he had been there. In broken German, he also told us that all the houses which had been present on the path ahead were now gone. I suspect they were victims of Akcja Wisla.

As we walked through the meadow, we did see several memorials, in Cyrillic lettering, dated from the 1890's to 1920's. All were in disrepair or had been knocked down. Once, they were on the side of the road, but now they were in the middle of a desolate field. We saw a red fox out hunting, heard cuckoos, and saw several hawks. The path crossed a stream and disappeared into a thicket of woods; near a cluster of beehives it ended abruptly in a giant clump of stinging nettles. We backtracked and now realized that the path was poorly marked and maintained, if marked at all. Using the compass as a guide, we climbed out of the woods into a mountain meadow and upward toward the summit, at 770 meters. Near the top, we stopped for lunch and admired the view. Reaching the top after a rather tiring effort (the packs seemed to gain weight with each passing minute) we spotted a red deer and a low flying raptor. A ski lift near by gave us our bearings, and we could see towns in the valley. We decided to leave the trail where it crossed the road, change money, and catch the bus in order to save some walking. We had been trekking for four hours by this point.

Unfortunately for us, the village consisted of just a few houses. A stork walked along the road in front of us. With no zlotys, we walked another 5 km to Bukowiec, which proved to be slightly larger, but had no kantor or bank. After reviewing our options, we asked a truck driver, in a lime green Zuk (Zhook) truck, if he was going to Rymanów, the next big town. After suggesting the autobus, we explained our dilemma: dollars but no zloty. (We all laughed when I showed him my last remaining 50zl note - worth about a third of a cent) He indicated that we should put our packs in the back and we all crowded into the cab. He joked that this was no Mercedes! Ironic, considering our previous transport mode for most of our journey through Poland.

After a ten minute ride he stopped to show us his house, and we all went inside. Augustin, we learned, lived with his sister, Maria, and was married with two children, Isabella and Camille. The kids ran around while we had tea, pastries, cake, soda, and eggs in jellied consumé, finished with Cinzano. Augustine's mother lived with them as well. The house was three stories, rather large, and obviously great pride was taken in it. A stuffed peacock, owl, and weasel, as well as a boar skin and deer antlers, were taken out to show us. After about an hour, we set off again for Rymanów, where we said good-bye. Shouldering our packs, we walked 1 km to the Rynek, where we inquired as to the nearest bank. The shopgirl informed us we were too late: it closed at 4pm. However, she agreed to change US$4.00 for us at one third less than the official rate. We were in no position to argue so we agreed. We now had enough to ride the bus 30 minutes later to Krosno, as well as buy a coke. After arriving and checking in, we walked downtown and bought two more cokes and had a dinner of tomato soup at a restaurant, the Fiesta. We were now left with 4500zl. (about 30˘) We retired soon after.

Tuesday, 2 June 1992

We walked back to the rynek, where we checked bookstores for the elusive Beskid Niski map (no luck), briefly looked at glass (Krosno is a big glass manufacturing center), reconfirmed our return airline tickets, and changed money. We bought rolls, cheese, soda and chips and caught the 11:10 bus to Rymanów Zdrój. (Zdrój means spring, and most places with that word in their name are spa towns. Rymanów Zdrój was no exception. A 1950's resort hotel dominated the village and many Polish tourists were in evidence.) After some wandering about in search of the "red" marked tourist trail, which led to Wisloczek, we set off. After 20 minutes, the trail forked, with no indication of which one was the tourist trail. We forged ahead, made numerous wrong turns which led us along trails that ended abruptly in dead ends, and returned two exasperating hours later to the first fork. After asking some girls who were painting in oils, we started out again, despite being sore, hot, and tired. Again, no markers were present, and after climbing to the summit of the mountain and unable to see Wisloczek, our goal, we turned back after 90 minutes. On the way back down, we ran into some forest workers, one who carried an ax and was missing a finger. They indicated that, yes, Wisloczek was in the direction we had gone, but we were now too tired to climb the mountain again and time was growing short. One hour later, we were back at Rymanów Zdrój for the bus to Krosno. We passed horse drawn plows, wagons, haystacks, and people laboring in the fields, mowing and raking hay by hand.

We returned to the Restaurant Fiesta for dinner, where we had chicken, soup, pierogies, galombki, and pork, with drinks, for under US$10.00. Since we were foreigners, had returned for a second meal, ordered many items, and consulted our guidebook, I think we made the impression we were scouting for the next edition, and the waitress took great pains to fall all over us with attention. We also witnessed the expulsion of a drunk from the premises. A cab ride back to the Hotel Krosno-Nafta ended the evening.

Or so we thought. At 2am, loud music began to emanate through the air conditioning ducts. Ten minutes later, we heard a phone ringing and very loud talking, which continued for ten minutes, at which point banging on the walls by other guests silenced it for good.

Wednesday, 3 June 1992

We drove first to Wisloczek, making a wrong turn before arriving at the village. It was much smaller than in my grandfather's time, consisting of only a dozen modern three story houses now common in Poland, and a large co-op farm at the western end.My family, Lech, had lived in the village, in the same house, at least since 1784, when records began for the area, and probably for hundreds of years earlier. Lemkowie, Carpatho-Rusyns, Rusnaks, or Ruthenians, they were known by many names. Several theories on their origins exist, but they were probably sheep herding nomads from the area of southeastern Europe who migrated and settled in the area in the fourteenth century. Legend states this occurred during the reign of Kazimierz the Great. For hundreds of years they lived there and in hundreds of similar villages in the Beskid Niski, an area of the Carpathian mountains. Armies came and went, and highwaymen, bandits, and robber barons called the region home. They were almost without exception Greek Catholic, or Uniates, meaning that after the treaty of Brest in 1596 they recognized the authority of the Pope in Rome yet celebrated mass in their own language instead of Latin and allowed their priests to marry. Exploited by the landowning Polish nobles, they also suffered greatly from the Austro-Hungarian government during the First World War, when many were interned in concentration camps because of suspected Russophile tendencies. Polish enmity and atrocities were alleged before and after the war, and the Nazis conquered the region in 1940. After the war, UPA partisans precipitated the infamous Action Vistula, and the entire population was deported. During all this time, they eked out a subsistent existence, living in timber homes with thatched roofs, and beginning in the 1880's, emigrating in tremendous numbers to Germany and beyond to the New World in search of economic betterment.

The village was now populated exclusively by settlers who were Pentecosts from the Cieszyn area of Silesia. They had lived there, as Poles, when it was part of Czechoslovakia in 1938, after Poland had claimed that area from Czechoslovakia. (This occurred at the time Hitler claimed the Sudetenland for Germany from the Czechs.) In 1945, Czechoslovakia regained the Cieszyn territory and persecuted these people for their religious beliefs. They emigrated to Wisloczek in 1968, as part of a repopulating scheme for the former Lemko lands which had been depopulated during the Vistula Action. They knew nothing of the village's history, previous inhabitants or buildings, or traditions. The account which follows was related to me by Mr. Jan Zalisz, who was the accountant for the co-op farm. He told me that a Mikolaj Demczuk from Warsaw had visited 15 years previously, and a woman lawyer and a man came on two separate occasions from Ukraine, all seeking information on Wisloczek, their ancestral village. A Mrs. Hocko from the USA also had visited. Unfortunately, only an address for the Ukrainian lawyer was available.

There were 128 houses built on the hill of the western edge of the village. The current road is new; originally only a path which crossed back and forth over the stream was present. Apart from the ruins of the old cemetery, (yes, that's Greg in the photo),destroyed grave markers, only foundations of the old houses, a 12 meter deep well, and one root cellar are all that remain of the old village. All current buildings are new.

Wislochok, ruins of the old cemetery and church. 1, 2, 3.

In 1947 the population who were Lemkos were told to gather their possessions into small hand carts and proceed to the rail station at Zarszyn. This was part of Action Vistula, and some inhabitants had been linked to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). At the station, the group waited for several days. A small group left to return to Wisloczek. There, they found all their remaining possessions had been stolen by Poles in the neighboring villages. In despair and anger, the Lemkos burned all their houses to the ground. The population was then deported to Ukraine. (Action Vistula consisted of several large scale population movements. Some Lemkos were sent to the northern Baltic provinces of Poland and many were resettled in the former east German provinces and former German city of Breslau, which became part of Poland after the Second World War Breslau is now known as Wroclaw.)

In the mid 1950's to 60's, PGR, a state owned farm, was started in the area. It failed in the 1960's. Buildings were empty, save for two sheep flocks kept by górale from Zakopane. Each flock had 300 sheep. In 1976, a farming co-op was established by the Silesian settlers. Before this time, settlers who wished to enlarge their holdings by purchase could not, so the co-op allowed those who wished to expand to do so. When they had first arrived, 70 to 80% of Wisloczek was forest and had to be cleared.

In 1983 or 84, the milicja brought a man to the village who claimed to have witnessed the burial of the village church's bell. (The church building is no longer existant.) This occurred during the Second World War. The man's wife worked in the bank which had financed the co-op. Metal detectors were brought in to help locate the bell but the high metallic levels of the soil thwarted the attempt. When the purported site was excavated, no bell was found. Experts stated this was due to the bell continuing to sink deeper into the earth. It was not the bell which was the object of all this intense searching, but the icons rumored to have been buried in it. The official version is that the bell was not found.

House foundations were built of stone and clay, without lime. These have all been pulled down, with a sole exception. A root cellar in town is still used and is considered the best cellar in town. Cherries and plum trees are still present from the days when they were the village orchard.

After leaving Mr. Zalisz's office, we stopped at the cemetery. The ruins of a chapel were present, along with part of the metal onion shaped cupola, a few toppled grave markers, and rusted metal plates and crosses. The majority of graves were now only unmarked, overgrown mounds. Nearby, the newer graves of the Pentecostal settlers were arranged in neat rows. We checked at several houses, looking for clues to previous inhabitants who may have returned in later years to visit, but our efforts were fruitless. It was also impossible to ascertain where house number 64, where my grandfather had been born, used to stand.

We proceeded south to Barwinek, stopping for gasoline first, and arrived at 2pm. We passed through the village of 15 or 20 houses and up to the border, where the road followed the Dukla pass to Slovakia. Exiting the car, I took a snapshot of the border crossing, then turned around and walked back toward Barwinek in order to take a few pictures of it from a distance. A minute later, a jeep with two border police stopped, the officers quickly jumping out and talking away in rapid fire Polish. I handed over my passport and motioned to Jacek, who was now approaching in the car. Jacek explained it was forbidden to take photographs of the border crossing and for a moment feared my film, which had 35 shots exposed, would be confiscated. However, after showing them my grandmother Paraska Sudia's 1886 birth certificate they seemed convinced I was only a family historian and not a terrorist or spy, and allowed us to go. The officers suggested we talk to Maria Fesz, who at age 83, was the oldest inhabitant of Barwinek, and to check the next village north, Tylawa, for Sudias still living there.

At house number 21, the door was opened by Maria's granddaughter, who told us Maria Fesz was sleeping and difficult to wake up. Nevertheless, she soon appeared to tell us that Barwinek, like Wisloczek, was all new houses and most of the old buildings, and the old house numbers, were gone. During the Second World War, she had been a forced laborer in Germany and when she returned to Barwinek after the war, all the Lemkos were gone, having been deported to Ukraine. She herself was then resettled in Szczecin (Shchetseen) (the former German Baltic port, known as Stettin.) before returning 15 years later. She is the last Lemko in Barwinek. When she learned that my grandmother was a Sudia, she cried tears of joy. Her own grandmother, Anna, was on my list of Sudia's gleaned from the Greek Catholic birth, marriage, and death entries in the archives at Przemysl. She told us she never would have dreamed someone would one day have made note of it. She became so emotional she was unable to speak any longer. We took some pictures, promising to send copies, and waved good-bye.

In Tylawa, we stopped in the parish church (west view, east view), which had been a Greek Catholic church in my grandparent's time but was now Roman Catholic. The priest showed us around explaining how much had been restored. The outside grounds and graveyard were overgrown and in a shambles, with gravestones missing or illegible. Inside, all had been restored or redone. Only the altar was original. The building had been used as a smithy during the Nazi occupation, and tremendous work was done to restore it. The priest had to deal with parishioners reluctant to bear the cost of restoring the elaborate and ornate altar, and with Communist authorities who did not want it restored at all. Happily, he triumphed, and the beautiful iconostasis is the highlight of the interior. Of the three original bells, only one remains.

Our last stop was to see 90 year old Wasil Sudia, who claimed to have remembered the First World War and emperor Franz Jozef, whom he said was good, and then went on to denounce Stalin, Lenin, and Hitler. Wasil rambled on about the old days, and told of mistakenly receiving $50 in the mail from the USA from the brother of a Wasil Sudia who lived in nearby Zyndranowa. He returned the money, but later, when his own brother in South America ("nothing but lemons and oranges there," he remarked) sent him $200, it was mistakenly given to a gypsy, who kept it. Obviously a lonely old man, he talked on and on, and we left with great difficulty.

We returned to Krosno at 4:00 PM. We checked at a bank for information on a cash advance against our credit card, but the bank was closed. We returned to our hotel where we paid our driver Wojciek $50 and Jacek $70.

We walked across the street to the railway station only to find out the train to Kraków left only from the main station. Back in the room, I tried without success to call the VISA 800 number. (Not possible, the front desk said the Post Office said.) My request to reach an AT&T operator only drew shrugs from the desk staff. I finally called the AT&T Universal card number (supposed to be collect but this term also unknown) and ended up paying dearly for a call which yielded no useful information. I was told to "just go to any bank and present your card for a cash advance." When asked about how to obtain an AT&T operator, instructions were given for direct dial. When I informed the representative that direct dial did not exist, she said the hotel desk would know how to get the operator. Big help. It aggravated me that they touted their "world wide service" yet were absolutely useless to me when I needed them. I began composing a nasty letter in my mind to send upon our return.

Thursday, 4 June 1992

We awoke and checked out, after a quiet night, thankfully. Waited for Jacek in the lobby, a bit nervous he wouldn't show up, but he finally did. We piled into his tiny Polski Fiat and headed to the bank. There, we learned that the only bank which would accept foreign credit cards was in Rzeszów. So much for that. We also decided to take the bus to Kraków. We went to the district museum offices, where, of course, Jacek was on a first name basis with the director. The latter was as befuddled as everyone else as to where the records I sought were. While he looked through various catalogs, Jacek helped himself to the phone and made a few inquiries as well. No success. Jacek had sent his secretary out in search of the Beskid Niski map but she returned without it. She did bring several ethnographic books back, though.

We toured the museum, also very interesting. Krosno had been a big manufacturing center, especially of clocks. It was also a center of gas production and the gas streetlamp had been invented there. We next went to the glass factory where we bought 6 glasses and an art object. Jacek then deposited us at the bus station and bought our tickets before saying good-bye. He told us how he often rode this bus when he was a student at Jagiellon University, sometimes having to stand the whole way. Now, prices were higher, and less travelers meant more seats.

I was happy to have met Jacek. He was very knowledgeable and helpful as well as an excellent translator.

The ride to Kraków was pleasant and scenic; it took about 4 to 5 hours. After lugging our packs from the terminal we took the only available room in the Hotel Polski (a suite) near the Florianska gate. No problems with credit cards here. We wandered through the art gallery above the Sukiennice, seeing epic paintings by Matejko, and two wonderful ones by Chelmonski. (One was the original from which a print in the Motel Cisna was copied.) Later we wandered about the square while several military bands from different European countries played. The United States Air Force Band played as well, and was clearly the crowd's favorite. Dinner was at a Lebanese restaurant by the Florianska gate. We talked quite a bit with the owner, a Lebanese who spoke English, having learned it while in Detroit. He promised to make us hummus if we would return the next day to pick up a letter to mail for him in the USA.

That evening, I ventured into the mass confusion of the railway station and somehow came away with two tickets to Warsaw. Gypsies were everywhere and I was genuinely nervous about having my pocket picked in the chaotic crowds. Returning to the hotel room, I bought some flowers from an old woman sitting in the pedestrian underpass to bring back to Cathy.

Friday, 5 June 1992

We had breakfast in the hotel dining room - the cost was included in the room rate. I ordered some black currant juice, a liter of which cost about 14,000zl (about one dollar) extra. Wasn't sure if the guide, Marta Bohenek, would show. Finally, after 9AM, I realized that I was supposed to call and confirm with her the previous Tuesday and if she didn't hear from me it would be assumed I was no longer interested. While we waited, a large group of loud, boisterous Germans milled about the front walkway, in front of the old walls of the city. I marveled at how any German could ever set foot in Poland, considering what had transpired 50 years previously.

Giving up on the guide, we proceeded to the square, where we climbed up the town hall tower for a view of Kraków. Half way up was a modern art display, a one man show. The artist pressed a brochure on us, which we politely read. At the top, a less than spectacular view of rooftops and antennae. Old pictures of the square were also arranged in the top room; these I found more interesting.

Next we went to the Czartoryski Museum, which was closed, so we took a taxi to Kosciuszko's Mound, where we climbed up the circular path to the top, where we found an impressive panorama of the city and surrounding countryside, all obscured to some extent by the haze of pollution from Nowa Huta. At the foot of the mound was an old Austrian Hill fort which had been converted to a hotel. Finding no taxi on our descent, we walked back to Kraków along a beautiful little pathway shaded by old trees. Workers were busy mowing a field with scythes. As we neared the city outskirts we found a taxi stand and entered the first taxi in line. The driver, however, thought us crazy when we learned we wanted to go to Wawel Hill and indicated we should walk to it. Obviously he hoped for a bigger fare. We got out and walked again, for another mile.

At the castle, which was mobbed with tourists, we tried several areas before finding out that the Orient exhibit ( containing souvenirs from the battle of Vienna, which I particularly wanted to see ) was closed. We walked to the Old Town again. There, we had tea in a fantastic old cafe, Jama Michael. Art Noveau lighting and furniture were incredible. I had a torte and tea while Cathy had a glass of wine.

The next stop was Jan Matejko's house. On display were his furniture, old photos, and the props he used. I didn't put on the clumsy slippers we were required to wear and spent the whole time furtively shuffling around the many guards. Afterwards, we went up the street for lunch to the Lebanese restaurant, where we had hummus especially made for us by the owner. In return, we carried a letter for him to the USA. By now, the Czartoryski Palace was open, so I finally saw some of the interesting Turkish booty from the Battle of Vienna in 1688, as well as many other objects. I wore the slippers here. In a bookstore, I bought an art book on the works of Wojciek Kossak, a military and equestrian painter.

Collecting our bags, we headed over to the railway station around 5pm, mingling with the rush hour of commuters. As we passed by one begging gypsy family, the clock tower began to strike 5 o'clock and they suddenly got up (including one little girl who only moments before had been lying on the ground as if suffering from some debilitating disease), gathered their belongings and joined the crowd. Like everyone else, their workday was over. At the station, we found our platform after much walking and more than a little uncertainty. I talked to two American girls on tour by themselves; they were in town for one day and were going to Warsaw, then Prague, next.

The train was very clean and uncrowded. Some old steam engines were on the sidings as we pulled out of the station. We had a whole compartment to ourselves. I got a beer from the dining car and spoke to a Brit traveling on business and to a Pole reading an art book. A very pleasant ride with nice scenery. Arriving in Warsaw about 8pm, it was still very light out. After some confusion about our bearings, we left the railroad station and decided to check into the Polonia Hotel, an old prewar building. People out front wanted us to take their private rooms, but we had no cash and were subsisting on credit cards by this point. We booked a room for two nights, then went across the street to get our bag from the luggage room of the Forum Hotel; John Shea had dropped it off earlier, when our tour group had returned to Warsaw ahead of us. I made a telephone call to the office - a very bad connection, necessitating much yelling to be heard above the static. I hung up and tried again, with only marginal improvement. I could barely hear anyone, though the connection cleared in time to say good bye. We had a good dinner in the cavernous dining room while a loud dance band (two electric guitars and a vocalist) wailed away.

I called Józef Piotrowski, whom we had met on the flight over from NYC. He had invited us to look him up should we have the time when in Warsaw. He was genuinely happy to hear from us and insisted we come for dinner the next evening. We arranged to meet him at 7pm in the lobby. That arranged, we retired to the standard lumpy, thinly mattressed beds.

Saturday, 6 June 1992

We had the usual Polish breakfast in the dining room of our hotel, then caught a bus for the 30 minute ride south to Wilanów, the summer palace. We took a tour on our own, though for the first 15 minutes I lagged just within earshot of an English speaking guide until Cathy chastised me for being so obvious. Beautiful floors, ceilings, and furnishings throughout, in marked contrast to the Warsaw palace. One parquet floor had an interesting design that resulted in a geometric optical illusion.

We rode the bus back to town, again looked in futility for the Beskid Niski map, and had a bottle of Gdansk brand beer. Very heavy, like Mackeson or Guiness stout. Saw cauliflower for the first time in the street markets. On a bus near Lazienki, going to the old town, my knapsack brushed against an old lady, who began yelling at me and angrily pummeled the pack. I didn't notice any of this, Cathy told me about it after we left the bus. I tried to buy a Soviet Army officer's cap (fur, with ear flaps) but couldn't find one my size. We toured the royal palace, reconstructed like everything else, and found it rather spartan, especially in contrast to Wilanów.

We walked back to the hotel, buying flowers and a California white zinfandel for dinner. Jozef picked us up in his Polish station wagon at 7. It took some time to find the way out of the city but we arrived in his apartment in good time. His younger son spoke some English; his wife only Polish. He had been employed as a scientist by the government but started his own silicon chip company, with two other partners. They sold in the USA but were still struggling for a market share and lived rather modestly. Enjoyed talking about Poland, the USA, history, and politics. Jozef dropped us off at the hotel about midnight.

Sunday, 6 June 1992

Jozef picked us up and drove us to the airport. He certainly went out of his way for us. After making sure we got through ticket control safely, he bade us farewell.

We had a coke in the airport restaurant. Two very small (six ounces at most) cokes cost us US$3.00. Compared to everything else we had done, it was an unbelievable rip off. I paid by leaving three old, worn, and torn dollar bills on the table. They would be next to impossible to change; every Polish money changer we had encountered would only accept bills in pristine condition. We rushed to the departure lounge on hearing our flight called. The lounge was a small, stuffy, seatless room where we were kept waiting for over an hour. Finally, we boarded and were off.

The flight home was uneventful. The movie was very old: "Oh God" with John Denver.

Greg Leck

Copyright © (1996) (c) Greg Leck, All rights reserved.


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