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SETTLERS’ TRAIL

 

Hi Sky
Dunilowicze 
Postawy/Kuropol

 Hi Sky

 

This young man is challenging me to go for the Sky! I know him well enough – he’s a priest - a Catholic priest at that! It should be easy for him; his path to the Sky is straight and well lit, he doesn’t need a trial run, or training. But me? How many times have I not been to mass, have not been to confession and the Holy Communion; how many times have I not loved my neighbour as I love myself; how many times have I not said sorry, asked forgiveness, or forgave… 71 years is a long time! That accumulated hump of barnacles begins to weigh heavily on my back; begins to be worrisome… And he challenges me… ME!?

 

He is already up and away. I take my first step on the way to the Sky. The first rung is only three feet from the ground but the steel ladder is not anchored, it wobbles and sways, and as I pull myself up a metal sheet suspended on a length of wire knocks me on the head and shoulder – not a good start; doesn’t promote confidence. But perhaps it’s meant to be just a pat on the back, a pat on the shoulder - its own way of giving encouragement.

 

To my own surprise, I am moving up the ladder: first stage, second…. But where is he? I tilt my head and look up. Wow! I stiffen and cringe; my head spins; my hump of barnacles pulls me away from the face of the ladder! I look down. Wow! The ground below wants me back - fast! I have got to control fear of heights; control my fluttering heart: look straight ahead, focus my gaze on that mysterious point way out there on the horizon, and follow it with each step.

 

I don’t believe it! I have climbed to the top of this telecoms tower! Have I reached the Sky then? I stretch my arm as far as I can; I stand on my toes and… oh! It’s still a long, long way to the Sky! But perhaps with practice? Perhaps the Crystal Palace Tower next, then the Eiffel? Jack-the-Beanstalk got higher…

 

The two huge “fish-eyes” at the top of the tower are not bothered by our intrusion. They continue to keep watch with great intensity: one huge disc facing the West, the other facing east - the Motherland. Which of them will be the first to spot the ICBM - that big flying fish with a devastating bite? From which direction will it come? Where will the conflagration erupt? The “eyes” have been well trained and well maintained, and if you know where to look, you will find their master’s signature - KGB. Let’s hope these “eyes” will not be needed forever…

 

It’s not really scary to look out onto the world from this height - lush green and flat all the way to the circular horizon. No, “flat” is the wrong word - level - is more appropriate, for even from this mediocre height the world presents a level platform - a level playing field for all those on it! Only the white Church in Dunilowicze with its twin spires rises above this canopy. So can you imagine what this place must look like from way, way up there - from the Sky? Would it not be “level” all the way from the Dead Sea to the Everest? Is it, perhaps, in the Sky where the idea of “all men are equal” originated? So I turn my face up for an answer but I am thrust back to where I come from; I am instantly dizzy; sick… I am not yet ready to look the Sky in the face. So I, gingerly, creep to the edge… Is it in the wind or in my own mind that I can hear: take just one step and all this will be yours; one step and you will be famous; one small step and you will be master of your own fate… Hell! Let’s get out of here; let’s get back!

 

My young challenger is already descending! But why is he so slow? Go! Go! At my pace on the way down I would be treading on his head. Confound this Russian steel! Confound their welding skills! The ladders are not quite rigid, the rungs and frame full of roughness and sharp metal blobs; and it’s all painted in Soviet-red! No one would notice my blood! Ah… I know! Going up, all the effort comes from the legs; going down, the strain is on the hands and arms! My challenger’s hands are white and delicate - such as required for the giving of Holy Communion. Oh yes! The NKVD would instantly know him by his hands: either a Polish officer in the armed forcs, or a priest… and for such they had a place - a death camp - Katyn!

 

Stepping onto the earth again, I get another pat on the head and shoulder from that floating metal sheet, but I don’t really mind now. In fact, I don’t really mind a little flattery for my feat; a little bit pleased with myself, actually. Back on earth where I belong, I look up where I have just been – 66 metres from the foot of the tower. Now, this height looks like - nothing; it’s zero on the way to the Sky. This isn’t quite the sort of trial run or practice that I need to reach the Sky. If practice makes perfect, it will take me forever…

 

But if for a moment we lower our eyes from the Sky and follow the footprints of our fathers, what history will we find under this green canopy?

 

Dunilowicze

 

Only the white church rises above the green canopy seen from the top of the tower… and if its two spires reaching out to the Sky mutely point the way, only few in Dunilowicze follow that direction now; and the church bells now toll only in the memories of fewer people still… But if you could understand their mute sound, what would you hear?

 

 A new parish priest – yet again! The previous one, Fr. Jerzy, didn’t last much longer than a year! He came – young, energetic, forceful in his faith… “if you are a Catholic – live  as one”. People started coming to mass – not many – but, then, Dunilowicze is a small place. Some volunteered to refurbish the church; village youth came off the street and into the church; they flocked around Fr. Jerzy. Cynics will say that’s because of the free suppers and dinners they could get sitting around the table with Fr Jerzy… and they had to wash their hands, and eat with a knife and fork… New life was visibly injected into this small community. But someone didn’t like all that at all! Someone didn’t like the idea that one shouldn’t hold an official village disco on church grounds on Good Friday!

 

People say… the Director of the local school was a hard line Communist; his brother was a highly decorated partisan leader in the 1940’s; how could he put up with all this religion stuff! A revitalized Catholic church on his doorstep, children attending Catechism class, mass every Sunday and more, a high-profile priest - all this on his doorstep… and NO to disco on Good Friday! A petition was circulated amongst the villagers; of course they all signed – who would dare! The petition was sent to the bishop: the village wants Fr. Jerzy removed on the grounds that he is getting involved in… politics! And the bishop needs-must pay heed to politics – and Fr. Jerzy was transferred…

 

Suddenly, you are sure you can here the bells; and you wonder why they sound so sombre; you look around… Ah, yes! You look across the road and, there, you can see the reason – a large wooden cross, a cemetery. You enter… several stone crosses without their graves are stacked by the entrance, other crosses still firmly in place on their proprietary graves; somebody had recently refurbished the cemetery, it’s well maintained. You look closer: year 1920… 1920… 1920… NIEZNANY ZOLNIERZ W.P.… - unknown soldier. What is it about the year 1920? No sense in asking the Director - he would kick you out; ask Ted or Jerzy or Marian if you find them. Back in June 1920 – nearly the end of the Polish-Bolshevik war - Polish troops were bivouacking here in presumed safety well way from the enemy, but - people say - a local woman found a way to betray them to the Soviets… in the middle of the night Boudienny’s cavalry came upon them, stealthily… and cut them all to pieces… nearly all! 53 dead and over 80 wounded; it must have been a terrible massacre... and only two months before the “miracle” on the battlefront of River Wisla where the forces of the same Boudienny were totally routed; the same year that Poland became an independent and sovereign State!

 

And you wonder: has this cemetery become a symbol of the sacrifice of Polish men in their fight for freedom, or testimony to the treachery of its own subject for there, in the centre of the cemetery, lies a monument – no lesser person than the President of free and independent Poland, and other dignitaries, came to the consecration of the cemetery by Fr. Stanislaw Mozejko – 20 June 1930. 10 years after the massacre! 10 years of independence!

 

I can’t stop dwelling on “Change” - entirely Man-made Change. Here, where I stand next to the White Church, as the Jews used to refer to it, was the centre of this small town occupied by the market place and surrounded by Jewish shops and dwellings. Weekly markets were held here every Tuesday, and the peasants from the neighbouring villages would come to trade-in their produce and livestock for provisions, goods and materials. Here you would be swamped by the hustle and bustle and the poverty and misery of Jewish tailors, shoemakers, the lowly people… for only few wealthy Jews lived in Dunilowicze; the Christians - the Poles - lived along the one main street. Imagine… one and the same Jewish town barber serving as the town doctor and surgeon! To-day, after the Wars, after Stalin and Khrushchev, after fifty years of Communism, Dunilowicze is no more than a large rural village; the centre is quiet, empty, clean, almost deserted… a truck pulls up in front of a green-painted building flying the national flag, a two-wheeled, horse-drawn wagon crosses the road on the way to somewhere; still quiet by the alcohol shop… And suddenly you realize how pervasive and perfidious Communism had been for, as you exit through the main doorway of the “White Church” there, at the far end of the church green, directly in your line of vision stands a monument with a big red star on top! Here’s the “true” Star - the Red Star - to guide the Three, and all Kings, and you too, to the Communist Bethlehem – Ulyanovsk!

 

The street - now asphalted road - where the Christians lived runs straight ahead, up a gentle hill. Village boys play in the street; girls in two’s and three’s walk happily along… all quietly say “zdrastvuytie” to me - good evening - their eyes and faces full of curiosity. Give them a chance and they jump at the opportunity to talk, to ask, to tell about school, about the church, about football… Three boys jauntily walk me through the village: no, no, that’s not the old school… it used to be children’s home, some people live there now. So I knock on the door of this interesting log house – no one answers. We continue… Ah! There it is! That’s our old school! A very impressive-looking building set in a large park, but all dark, abandoned and dilapidated… teachers said the building wasn’t safe, nearly collapsing… so we had to go… but now we have a lovely new school

 

In my own mind I know I am “lucky”! Of course there’s nothing “lucky” about it; it’s simply good to be alive at this moment: I am a stranger here, yet I have the town to myself, I am free to savour this very different world… Free? Remember Fr. Jerzy? But who wants to dwell on the 1920’s now, who wants to remember the War, and the 1940’s… the Germans, the Communists, the partisans; people live in today’s world, in the Republic of Belorus; they are too busy making ends meet, busy with drink…  But if you look, the name of the street will not let you forget – ul. Bulbianova – the partisan hero, the Director?

 

At the top of the gentle hill you are in the land of cemeteries; you can’t miss them. On the left, on the top of the hill you will be amongst Jewish graves, and as I tramp here in tall grass and look around I wonder how is it that the Jews have been able to find such perfect locations for their cemeteries: in Krzemieniec, in Stary Sambor, here - a vantage point from which I look upon a lovely, peaceful, almost serene village and a small meandering river in the distance. I feel strangely at peace here, free in its apparent spaciousness… Perhaps if I could read the writing on the tablets it would lose that “something” special, something of its own and become more like a Christian cemetery? Like the two Christian cemeteries next to it?

 

It’s late in the day; I will have to leave the Christian cemeteries for another day. The sun  is well down now; masses of birds darken the sky and settle for the night amongst the branches of trees, and dot the power lines… and out of this peaceful world, partly hidden behind an escarpment rises the White Church, two spires reaching out to the Hi Sky, their lines and whiteness melting into the background of a summer’s evening. But what of the church of St. Michael the Archangel, or that of the Birth of the Holy Mary? Gone… destroyed when still under the Tsarist rule.

 

And what of the Jews - after all, it was essentially a Jewish town? Where are their homes, the three Synagogues, their schools, their associations, that town barber cum surgeon..? Where are they? Seeking shelter in the White Church from the battlefront rolling over the town didn’t save them in 1914-18; welcoming the Communists with open arms and garlands in 1920 provided a taste of a false utopia and a brief opportunity to take from the Graf what was promised to be theirs. And under the Polish rule in the 1920’s life begun to blossom – that’s when Jewish schools were opened, trade opened up, political activity took roots – but all for much too short a time. And when the Red Army came in 1939 it was welcomed again by the Jewish populace with open arms, with garlands and speeches… that helped! Jews were at the heart of political power then but, again, not for very long. Stalin made sure; many Jews soon found themselves in the same cattle trucks with the Poles on their way to Siberia. And then the Germans came, and the end was neigh! Precisely on the 22 November 1942… the Ghetto was liquidated! 800 Jews… perhaps more, perhaps less, who kept count then! QED!

 

But not all Jews perished in the Ghettos. Those that were deported to perish in forced labour camps of the GULAG, or Siberia, or in the steppes of Kazakhstan, lived to see a reprieve. The Poles were to save them! Those that could, joined the Polish Army under General Anders and left that God-forsaken communist land to fight for freedom, to fight the Germans! So it was supposed to be, but when the Anders Army was in Palestine on its way to the battlefront, Jewish soldiers melted away into the Promised Land – not all, of course, for many were as much Polish as Jewish. Anders understood; no one sought to pursue Jewish deserters.

 

And the palace with its gardens where Graf Tyszkiewicz entertained the Russian Tsar and his entourage in 1905 – that too is gone. A vast area overgrown with trees and wild vegetation – a haven for beavers in the river that once fed the water mill- all now lies abandoned and forgotten. What remains is hidden in tall grass, crumbling amongst the roots of self-seeded trees, but some magnificent, imperious tree specimens have withstood the ages, the wrath of Communism and the rapacity of people - now too large both in height and diameter for anyone to fell them. And quite incongruously, what still remains of this place and its history is a long, long cattle shed, once the heart of a kolkhoz, now standing deep in mire; once solidly built - now without windows or doors and an uncertain roof… a vestige of self-destroyed Communist system.

 

You can’t leave Dunilowicze without stopping on the bridge, if only just for a moment, to look upon the little river meandering through densely overgrown banks; its name - Zarezhanka!!! In my translation - one that cuts your throat; slashes you to pieces! It has certainly lived up to its name in June 1920, but today, the view is arresting, contemplative, a balm for lost souls…




Postawy/Kuropol - All on the House

 
I left their house quiet and subdued. I had not taken any photographs - I had not even taken my camera out. They had no photographs - theirs were confiscated or lost in the war years. As I placed the hoop of rope over the gate I wondered what would I remember of them, for how long…?


But how could I even think of taking photographs! How could anyone encapsulate a Man’s life in a photograph? How could a photograph catch the calmness in those pale-blue eyes, those moments when they drift off your face and re-focus on something distant, something private: perhaps moments of happiness or of great loss, or fear, in the years gone by? How could a photograph catch that moment when the greyness of the skin around the eyes turns into barely noticeable delicate pink… no tears will flow; he has shed enough in the past eighty-two years. How could you catch that atmosphere at the table where Eugeniusz invites you: please eat… please eat… while himself not eating; an old faded-green shirt buttoned up to his chin – the same one he was wearing when I met him one evening in Postawy a year ago. And you sense, you know, that all that’s in the house is served on the house… for you, and only because of you. That empty fork just hovers in mid air; his wife invites you to eat… eat some more… while herself partaking of nothing; a feast for a stranger, a prince, for you; a feast of which they themselves are embarrassed, nay, fearful to partake, for once it’s gone, what will be left!?

 

A professional photographer might delight in the scene: play the shadows in the wrinkles of his face; in the beaming, toothless smile of his wife, the kerchief tied under her chin; in the total greyness of this place. But a photograph would show no more than the husk of the proverbial mustard seed; and this seed had fallen on stony ground, on hard times… Ah… if only Poland was still here… life would be so different… so much better…I hear that barely audible thought. And yet, this singular mustard seed germinated, survived, flowered… and it’s from such once-forlorn seeds that we now have our doctors, engineers, Presidents even! What is it in our nature that makes us uncomfortable when we look poverty in the face – fear, fear of sharing, of giving, of demands on us...? And there’s so much of it all around: in Postawy, in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Russia… There’s poverty in Chicago, New Orleans, in London and Paris too… but in these “rich” countries poverty is angry, demanding, threatening; here, on this stony-ground, its reconciled, composed - it is a way of Life.

 

It was one bleak November evening that I met an old man pushing a bike along the water-sodden sand of a road in Postawy. How fortuitous. Eugeniusz was born in the near-by village of Kuropol; a little over eighty now he still remembers those early years well. I promised to visit him next time I am here.

 

And so, I knock on the door – silence. I made sure I had replaced the loop of rope over the gate stile for it would have fallen off its rope-hinges. I am entering a different world: house seemingly sinking into the ground, old, musty timber - darkness in broad daylight. The front garden overgrown and unattended; the plot at the back dug up, empty and unkempt, disintegrating sheds, two cats waiting patiently at the door… I hesitate and withdraw. The contrast with the house in the adjacent plot couldn’t be greater – new, white brick, solid fencing, clean front garden; its owner encourages me – yes, yes, No. 1 is the house you want; try knocking louder.

 

There is no padlock on the door; his bicycle stands outside the door - as it might have stood there for the past fifty years - so someone must be in. But how much longer should I wait - even the cats got bored and left. But the door eventually opens; Eugeniusz runs his hand through his dishevelled hair but words of welcome are slow in coming so I try to make up for this with a torrent of my own. He must have been taking an afternoon nap – not surprising at his age – but eventually he motions me in. I enter into darkness. A few steps along a passage take us into a vestibule that appears to be the kitchen. There’s hardly any room to move here; I am surrounded by greyness and unidentifiable musty green objects; only the minimum of light penetrates a small opaque window; the sound of someone soundly asleep comes from just behind me… I find a perch at a small rickety table; Eugeniusz sits in a military posture with the khaki shirt buttoned up to his chin; a loaf of bread wrapped in cellophane lies between us.

 

His answers are also slow in coming, almost perfunctory; perhaps he needs time to bring his memories to the surface, to marshal their order, dates… Perhaps it has been a very long time since anyone had asked about his past; since he had to articulate his memories, thoughts, feelings… Perhaps it’s because our throats are dry – there’s no tea or water on the table; perhaps it’s because his wife is sick, asleep - we can hear her… I would like to thank him for this short visit and leave but I do have a souvenir for him from Poland – a bottle of good Polish vodka plus a few bars of chocolate which I place on the table, No… he’s not a drinker… but I can see a flicker of life come to his eyes and his features soften. What was passing through his mind at this moment - a kindred spirit from Poland bringing gifts; a stranger ready to share something with him… and he had nothing to offer in return? We shake hands in the doorway - come again? come tomorrow? any time? I replied in non-committal words, but I knew I had to come; I knew he would be waiting patiently, waiting for me…

 

And so I return the next day. This time the door opens almost immediately; no one was sleeping in the bed; we walk through and sit down at a small table squeezed in between the foot of the bed and the window. On the way, Eugeniusz points to a sack of potatoes – I bought them for winter - there’s a hint of pride in his voice. Of course I had to come… the table was already laid out with bread, sausage and tomatoes – for me. His wife, up and about, smiling broadly brings in a plateful of hot mushrooms and two vodka glasses; eat… eat… please eat… I am sure that all that’s in the house is on the table – all, just for me! I am happy to contribute rather better quality sausage, bacon and bananas. We will have one vodka… well, perhaps two, but not more – we both happily agree.

 

He must have spent all night searching his memory. I am surprised how good his Polish is; when was the last time he used Polish language I wonder – fifty years ago? So what bothers him today, what does he miss most, or need? What are his dreams...? Ah… if only Poland was still here… life would be so different… so much better. It was so much better under Polish rule… What do I need now? I have 600,000 Roubles ($200/month) pension, my wife gets 300,000 – we live. I have this one shirt, see, that’s enough, why would I need more...? True, my wife is not very well now; she has breathing problems, heart… but I am eighty two now, she is eighty so… please eat, eat…and he puts a dollop of mushrooms onto my plate. I had one year of Polish primary school…then it was war; then everything changed... His wife reappears, places some “slonina” and sausage that I had brought with me onto the table - please eat; have another vodka, well just a half; drink to my health… please eat... He speaks calmly, slowly, no trace of emotion on his face, only the colour of the skin under his eyes takes on a pinkish hue, a sure hint of what emotion must be buried in his mind - but no tears, no anger, no bitterness now, only acceptance of the history of those long forgotten years. While encouraging me to eat, he, himself, couldn’t have had more than three or four morsels of sausage and “slonina” and a little bread at best; his fork just hovered mid-way from table to mouth.

 

… There were so many Polish settlers “osadnicy” in Kuropole; they worked hard, had a good life before the war… Then one day in 1940 the Soviets took them all and sent them to Siberia – policemen, forestry wardens, administrators, everyone that counted… We are from Kuropole, my father, grandfather and his father were all born there…we had a smallholding: 20 hectares, six cows, two horses… we lived well… but they left us alone. So many Polish settlers – all gone… And suddenly, his memory erupts with names of Polish settlers – ten, perhaps more names - all deported to Siberia.

 

We never had any problems with Belarus people before the war; we lived as friends and neighbours, but when the Soviets came on 17th October, many of them, the poor ones in particular, came out onto the streets welcoming them – flowers, flags, great joy…

 

When the Germans came in 1941, they were good to us; they gave sweets to children… treated us well. But later in 1943-44 when the AK and the partisans became active, everything changed; they became brutal, vengeful, they burnt half of Kuropole in revenge. There’s nothing left of the old Kuropole now.

 

My father sent me to school in Postawy in 1942 – first it was German school, then Russian school when they took over in 1944. Then, in 1950, life became very difficult – Sovietization of everything, and collectivisation. Everything had to be given up to the kolkhoz – all our cows, horses, other husbandry, farm equipment… everything. My father worked in the kolkhoz at first but it was impossible to stay alive there and feed his family… He left the kolkhoz and moved to Postawy – here he got a job as a horse groom at the hospital…

 

Yes, I was drafted into the Russian army, but I was not in a fighting unit; they sent me to Inta to serve in an auxiliary regiment. When I returned, I worked in transport, as a driver… And now...? Please eat… and he places another spoonful of mushrooms on my plate. Will you come again? I will, next year – promise.

 

I leave Eugeniusz with that far-distant look in his eyes. What does he feel; what does he think? All his words were spoken in such calm and measured tone. Surely there must have been moments of happiness or pain, anger, disappointment, bitterness… in his life, but none of it came through in the conversation. His wife never joined us, never sat at the table; she didn’t seem to count or exist in his life now. Only that pink tinge appearing under his eyes gave a hint of emotion. Will I see him in the same shirt buttoned up to under his chin next year too? And ten years from now, when I am eighty two – what and how will I remember my days of happiness or pain, anger, bitterness…? How can I even think of comparing his life to mine!? The words of the woman I met in Sovietskaya Street on my first visit to Postawy in 2003 come to mind: and we thought they took you all to Siberia to perish… and here you come today – an inostarniec, a  burzhuy from England - and look at us, look at our life… I also walk away with sadness in my heart. Mankind…




 

 

 

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