Monday, July 22, 2013

These Things Take Time

I could have visited the Pellowski farm at Szwedzki Ostrów on my very first trip to Kashubia in 2011. I had been thinking about it; I know that if I had made it a priority, my dear friend Małgorzata Mazur would certainly have made it happen. Visiting Leśno was a far wiser choice for my first trip. Leśno is an actual town still served by the gorgeous 17th century wooden church where generations of Bambeneks and Stoltmanns were baptized, married, and sent on to their eternal rest. Even without this family connection, just seeing the Church of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross was worth the drive out from Gdansk. Speaking with the priest and his chatty neighbor was a treat, as was the walk through the cemetery afterward. The Stoltmanns and Bambeneks resting there may or may not have been my relatives, but I felt very much at home nevertheless.

Szwedzki Ostrów, on the other hand, is literally in the middle of nowhere. A very beautiful nowhere, surrounded (as the map shows) by lakes and hills and ponds and forests. The surrounding area is known, with good reason, as the "Switzerland of Kashubia." Even when one makes the correct turn (Wyrówno) off the beaten path (Route 295), Szwedzki Ostrow is not easily found. Our guide today -  my 52nd birthday - is Reverend Władysław Szulist, the celebrated priest and historian from Lipusz. Father Szulist has been here before: several years ago, he guided the Kashubian-American novelist and activist Anne Pellowski (my late mother's first cousin and high school classmate) to the site of the cottage where our ancestor Franciszek Pellowski was born on January 26, 1829. Still, Father Szulist himself feels called upon to stop at a farmhouse for directions, just to make sure we reach Szwedzki Ostrów. Of course, the locals confirm that we are headed in the right direction.

Father Szulist is not the type who leaves things to chance. At least half of his flat in Lipusz is taken up with his office and library. Before guiding us to the Pellowski farm, Father Szulist has insisted on treating the birthday boy to a simple but abundant lunch of sausages and breads, with sweets and even Napoleon brandy. He also had a present for me: a copy of his very latest book, Lipusz: dawniej i dziś. On page 59 of this book, he has included pictures of our last visit to Lipusz in September 2012. Małgorzata whipped up a birthday cake from a huge, delicious chocolate sweet. And sporting my new Kashubian hat (a gift from Małgorzata  and her husband Eddie), I was treated to the Polish birthday classic, "Sto Lat." With that part of the birthday celebration complete, we left with Eddie's cousin, Edmund Zielke at the wheel of his VW Jetta wagon. Once Father Szulist has confirmed we are going the right way, we arrive in just minutes.

Down a little hill is a two story farmhouse; modern, but simple. Across the road are a couple of outbuildings. Three men and a woman are sitting at a table in front of the house. The men are brown as trees: they work outside. A lot. The Stempnikowskis are very friendly, and they are familiar with the old Pellowski cottage which once stood on the hill up from the pond. They are pleased that people have come from the city to visit. Edmund decides to sit and visit with the Stempnikowskis while Malgorzata, Fr. Szulist, Eddie, and I walk up to the site of the old cottage. Absolutely nothing remains to indicate human habitation. But if Fr. Szulist says my great-great grandfather Franciszek Pellowski was born on this spot, that is more than sufficient for me.

The view from the cottage site is literally breathtaking. To the south is the lake Wyrówno, with thickly wooded hills on the western horizon, and a wheat field in the foreground where the Pellowski family once literally grew its daily bread. To the north is a stand of trees and a pond, large enough to cross in a boat. It suddenly strikes me how painful it must have been to leave this little corner of heaven. I can't help but ask the question out loud - how could anybody have left such a beautiful home, to find their fortune across the Atlantic Ocean in the United States? I don't recall who responded to me, or in what language. Malgorzata and Eddie both speak excellent English, and Fr. Szulist understands it well, even though he does not speak it. But I will remember the answer forever: Poverty.

I doubt this revelation would have produced anywhere near the same effect on me two years ago. I have since read and even written a good deal more about the Kashubian American experience since then. And while I have been so far been spared poverty, I have certainly acquired more experience in dealing with the long term emotional trauma which results from a permanent parting. To live the rest of one's life with a landscape such as this in one's heart, knowing that one would never return there, or return to the family members and other loved ones who remained there... it must have been a terrible cross to bear. Imagining how strange the new life in Winona or Pine Creek must have seemed to the Kashubian immigrants has become much easier for me now. My admiration for their courage in making their way to America and their determination to succeed in the new country has only increased. I am all the prouder and more grateful to be Kashubian American myself, and I am all the more determined to help preserve the legacy left by these brave, pioneering families. Yet Szwedzki Ostrów has also taught me a lesson about patience. One cannot have experiences like this every day, or even every year.

These things take time.

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