Coming Home: A Family Heritage Tour of Poland
by SUSAN KOSTRZEWA
For the first time in my life, my name wasn't met with a bewildered stare. At that moment, I considered planting a kiss on the Polish hotel clerk. I was truly home.
Joining my father on a recent, six-day genealogical tour of southeastern Poland, I experienced many similar moments of cultural clarity and recognition. As a second-generation Polish-American whose great-grandparents emigrated to America in 1900, I yearned to know more about my family's origins. For my father, whose own Polish-born father had never fulfilled a lifelong desire to return, the journey was a chance to reconnect with the culture in which he had been raised.
As we researched our family heritage in preparation for the trip (arranged by MIR Corporation), it was clear that the experience would not only rejoin Polish and American branches of the family, but would also bring our immediate clan closer together. Soon, word spread throughout the family of our quest, and e-mails poured in from long-lost relatives eager to help.
All in the Family
While I had researched some of our family's origin via the Internet, family elders provided the most information. This included my great-aunt Sister Ann, a Dominican nun in her 80's who was e-mail savvy and had visited Polish relations in the 1980s. Also, some research had been completed by my great-uncle Ernest, whose recent book detailed the life of Stanislas and Marysia Kostrzewa (my great-grandparents) in early 20th-century America.
Reading like an adventure novel, the story described a young immigrant family struggling to survive in the New World. While Stanislas toiled in the coal mines day and night, Marysia single-handedly raised six children. When Stanislas died in a mining accident in 1918, my 16-year-old grandfather quit school to support the family. Knowing more about the family, I felt even more inspired to return to Poland on their behalf.
The book also contained some valuable facts about the couple's home towns in Poland: Marysia Grzesiak (maiden name) was raised on a farm in the small village of Stroze (Polna), located about 60 miles southeast of Krakow. Stanislas Kostrzewa hailed from the slightly larger city of Rzeszow, near the Carpathian foothills. We immediately made plans to visit both places.
Even during the restrictions of the Iron Curtain, Sister Ann had managed to stay in touch with the Grzesiak relatives, making it possible for me to arrange a family reunion via e-mail with a younger, wired member of the family named Kasia. In an amazing sign of continuity, several of our Grzesiak relatives were still living on the ancestral family farm. While Kasia and I planned a dinner at the farm, we also discovered how similar we were, and hit it off immediately.
Scenes of Krakow
Our first days in Poland were spent in Krakow, lodged in a 17th-century manor house overlooking Europe's largest medieval market square. Designed in 1257, the expansive plaza was still amazingly intact despite myriad wars and sieges.
Here, we were immediately immersed in the elegance and old-world aura of Poland. Brilliantly clad folk musicians played mazurkas in the crisp autumn air, while antique carriages drawn by plumed horses rolled along cobblestone streets.
As we walked the winding alleys of the old town and ate kapusniak (sour soup) in dimly lit cellar restaurants, I reveled in the exotic yet strangely familiar rhythm of the place. While my father relived childhood memories when tasting food and hearing phrases he knew as a boy, I absorbed the bohemian grandeur of Krakow's opulent architecture and eclectic shops, selling everything from prized dried mushrooms to the latest Paris fashions. The array perfectly exemplified the people: earthy, yet dignified.
Poland's rich history further came alive when we lodged on the grounds of Lancut (pronounced wine-shoot), a 17th-century palace east of Krakow. The house was last occupied by the wealthy Potocki family, who fled (with their extensive art collection in hand) when the Red Army invaded the house in 1944.
A Romantic Reverie
As I walked grounds glistening with moonlight, the imposing castle evoked scenes in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. I found myself visualizing the thundering arrival of carriages--spiriting Polish nobles home from war, from visits to family in the city, from moonlit balls. In the dark windows of the main house, I scanned for the face of the reputed Black Lady, thought by many to be the harmless spirit of a 19th-century noble.
In the misty, cold mornings, I imagined myself a landlord taking a stroll in my own park. The delineation between centuries blurred as I sat between neo-classical columns and gazed quietly at the baroque fašade of the home. Knowing that this place represented pivotal scenes in Polish history, I felt pride in the elegance and resilience of the Polish people.
Although my great-grandfather's birthplace, Rzeszow (pronounced sheh-shoof), is now a booming industrial city, its old town has survived. Here, we were afforded our only chance to reconnect with our Kostrzewa roots. A powerful family dating back several centuries, the clan included some politically active Communists until the 1980s. This made it impossible for Sister Ann to make contact during her visit in the early 1980's.
Leaving our Kostrzewa family information with the local, old town archivist, we hoped to learn more about the origins of Stanislas' family. While the archivist was eager to help, her files were not computerized, which meant it could be months before we received any information. We left our address in hopes that we would eventually receive some news.
Off to America
Strolling the cobblestone streets of the old town crammed with small shops, restaurants and cafes, we imagined Stanislas - young, energetic, attractive with his dark hair and imposing stature - walking these very lanes as he planned his voyage to America at age 20. His stint in the Austrian army over, he was now free to join his many countrymen in an exodus from Poland. My father was moved by the idea of his grandfather on these streets, and shook his head in wonder as he scanned the square.
While additional visits to Polish landmarks such as Nowy Wisnicz castle and the Austrian-influenced Nozdrzec Palace amplified our sense of culture, history and people (an energetic, vodka-drinking night at a pub near Nozdrzec resulted in a friendship with half the town), it was in Polna that we fulfilled our yearning for family.
When the day finally arrived for us to meet our relatives, we felt not only excitement, but almost as if we were propelled by Fate. On the way to our meeting in the midway town of Jaslo, our guide assured us that we'd be welcomed with open arms, characteristic of a culture known for its hospitality and warmth. Once we met our cousin Adam, who bent and kissed my hand in the old custom, it was clear that we were considered family and would be treated with intimate respect.
Though our journey had already brought my father and I closer together, I felt completely connected when we pulled onto the winding dirt road that led to the Grzesiak family farm. Situated amid green hills, bucolic farmland, and glistening rivers, the area itself could not have been any more beautiful than it was on that sunny, autumn day. I understood why my great-grandmother's first impression of America's Midwest was its flat topography, and why it took years for her to get over the idyllic, rolling landscape of Polna.
The farmhouse, a tidy three-story structure recently rebuilt and standing high on a hill overlooking the countryside was now home to six of our relatives, all second and third cousins of ours. We met them in front of the house, taking pictures and chatting through the guide.
Inside, we settled at a long table and began the first of many courses. A flavorful chicken broth loaded with homemade noodles was followed by kotlety cielece panierowane (breaded veal), potatoes with dill and butter, and several freshly made salads. The inevitable vodka toast, a tradition at family gatherings, reached a spirited three rounds before the untrained American branch of the family bowed out gracefully. Dessert was a three-tiered tray of homemade pastries and cakes.
At the table, our conversations ranged from discussing children to what we all did for a living (as a writer, I realized I was a novelty in a room full of engineers and mathematicians). I joked that their particular branch of the family must have hoarded the math skills, since I seemed to inherit none of it.
While we talked, a three-year-old boy raced around in the other room with a toy airplane, soon to be scolded by his mother for his raucous behavior. She shrugged her shoulders as he cried in protest - a symbol of harried mothers around the globe.
We also met with Sophia, Marysia's niece and my great-aunt. Now in her eighties, she had lived on the farm her entire life. She remembered the family receiving missives from Marysia in America, recalling a time the postman had delivered a small, battered letter to her in the local church.
The prolific nature of the family proved inconceivable to her when my father explained that the latest American family reunion drew over 150 members.
In Polna, we also explored our family church. A rustic, wooden structure nestled near a babbling stream, the church was exactly as I had envisioned it - simple, charming, and unchanged over the centuries. Inside, the walls and wooden ceilings were painted with scenes from the Bible, the altar draped in brightly-colored cloth.
Memories of Marysia
Imagining the church filled with local well-wishers, its pews decorated with colored ribbons and fresh flowers, I visualized Marysia, petite and bright-eyed, dressed in a beautiful lace veil and simple Victorian wedding gown, with Stanislas waiting eagerly at the altar. My grandfather was also baptized here, and the wooden font, painted in bright green and yellow, still stood near the altar.
While my father met with the parish priest, I wandered through the churchyard, spread out on a steep slope overlooking the valley. As I walked, my surname sprang out at every turn. It was eerie to see it, a name considered so obscure in America, figuring prominently on the graves.
After many kisses, hugs and invitations for visits, it was time to leave Polna. The family urged us to come back to Poland, this time to stay with them on the farm. The idea of spending a vacation on our ancestral farm amid such peaceful surroundings was extremely alluring. After a few more family photos, we drove away, our relatives waving energetically behind us.
We knew this visit was just the first connection with our family's history and heritage. Two weeks after the visit, a mass in our family's name was held at the parish church in Polna. Back home, the American branch of the Kostrzewa clan eagerly awaited news of the trip. In an attempt to more closely connect with the culture, I immediately undertook the daunting task of learning Polish, and suffered through a few failed but earnest attempts at making pierogies (dumplings).
Our genealogical adventure had not only reconnected people separated by 100 years of war, distance and time, but had also afforded my American family a chance to become a part of the Polish culture again. Not just a haven for long-lost countrymen like myself, Poland is an ideal destination for travelers to witness the perfect harmony of the practical, and the poetic.
For more information on genealogical tours in Eastern Europe, contact: MIR Corporation; 800-424-7289; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.mircorp.com.
For information on additional operators and programs, see our Geographical Index under "Poland."