Skuraty – Nowosiolki,
Rozampol – Krasniany, Kuropole,
Siwce Lagodne, Sowczyn, Stary Dwor
At last! After one hundred and fifty years of subjugation by its three powerful neighbours, after three armed uprisings against the might of the Tsar of Russia, at the end of a war on a world-scale no one could have imagined… Poland rose again; Poland was back on the map of Europe - free and sovereign Nation!
The 1920’s… time to hang-up the sabre, put the rifle away; time to plough, to sow… to reap the harvest of the sacrifice borne by the entire Nation; time for fairness, for land reform, for even greater sacrifice and hard work; time to get the Nation on its feet; time to secure its boundaries.
It was also time to reward those who fought for the Nation, and particularly those who fought in the Bolshevik war. Those who had fought with distinction were given the right to acquire land for free to set up their homesteads in the Eastern Provinces; others, including civilians, could acquire land on easy terms. What else could be fairer? But it was not an easy process, neither politically, financially nor socially, and by 1925 it came to a halt. One side saw those that settled in the Eastern Provinces as osadnicy / settlers; the native inhabitants of those regions saw them as kolonisci / colonizers /. One side saw the process fully justified and fair, the other saw it as one-sided and grossly unfair; the seeds of discord were already sown at that time.
For many of the osadnicy-kolonisci the beginnings were exceptionally hard, only the vision of better future for themselves and their children kept them going, and after twenty years, results were visible and tangible. Who could have foreseen at the time that those twenty years of hard toil would suddenly, on the 17 September 1939, come to naught… that they will be vilified, their families deported to the depths of Stalin’s empire, that even their footprints will be erased from history, that they were on the way to become a bleep in the history of 20th century Poland…?
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SKURATY – NOVOSIOLKI (nr. Baranowicze)
N 53o16’ / E 26o00’ - just a set of GPS coordinates? Look them up on Google (53.266 / 26.000) what do you see? Nothing - just a grey, barren field fringed by a line of woods on the far side? The old man from Novosiolki near Baranowicze will take you to the spot; his wife knows and remembers this place even better: no, no that village there, by the woods, is Kruszewicze – it is almost dead; only three abodes are still occupied; they might be already dead. Skuraty is that one there. Go on man, take the visitor there; you are not too old yet.
And so we walk - across the land of a Belarus kolkhoz; no one in sight; nothing in sight except its distant borders bounded by a sharp line of woods already taking on a tinge of lighter browns. It’s very early spring; patches of snow are still visible in the distance but the sun has been out all the previous week and the crest of the furrows has already hardened; we are able to walk without sinking in quagmire.
We walk – slowly, south across a vast ploughed field; the stubble from last year’s corn crop is still protruding from the soil… it’s there… there… the old man points to an overgrown area still some distance ahead of us. It may be just “there” but we need to stop once, than again… my legs are week now; I am seventy-eight… to rest for a while. He wipes his forehead and assumes that stable triangular position: both hands on his sturdy walking stick, leaning slightly forward, feet spread out a little… We called them “Radomiaki” …don’t know why. They came from Poland, then one day, they all just disappeared… 1940, I think. Yes, they were Polish osadniki…
Over a slight hump just ahead, then a little further on, a depression in the land, and we were “there”. See… just there to the right, stood Shemiat’s house – he was the “felcher” (vet/doctor), and Wozniak’s house stood there… Oh, I don’t remember all the names now but we used to play with their kids sometimes… But you see there’s nothing left now… only this overgrown land and that pile of stones; nothing… Indeed, there’s little to suggest that this was once an inhabited place: perhaps the few residual fruit trees and brambles; perhaps the wet depression in an otherwise dry land? A little frog skips under my feet quite unperturbed by my presence; no natural enemies in this place now long-abandoned by people? History… now hidden in a motley crowd of self-sown feeble birch trees, the white of their bark contrasting with the fresh pinkish–brown of their fine “twiggery”. Of course, I would have liked to walk through this abandoned oasis in the midst of kolkhoz-land for, surely, not all traces of their life here could have been obliterated; surely, they must have left some footprints, but how could I ask the old man?
On the way back the village of Novosiolki nestled calmly in a depression of the surrounding land, and even the greyness of its timber abodes emerging through a screen of delicate birch looked attractive from distance - the only sign of some life in the vastness of this Belarus kolkhoz. You know…Radomiaki were well organized, they did very well, they were rich; they had even built a large pond… they had fish, ducks… yes they were good, clever people…The “felcher” Schemiat was highly respected; a road used to lead right up to their village…Our village will die-out soon too; all the young people want to live in towns now, not here… Look, these houses have been abandoned… soon we will be the only ones left… to die here… And there’s no trace of pain, fear, resentment or any emotion in his face or voice – perhaps only sadness; for this man and his wife it’s a fact of life… destiny?
Indeed, to a stranger this place may be nothing more than a set of coordinates on this earth, just numbers, but how can we forget that burning hope, that search for a better life by a group of families: Grzelczak, Kubik, Milczorski, Pudzianowski, Sobolewski, Stepien, Szemiat, Wozniak..? Forget those fifteen years of strenuous work to put down roots in a new place, for a better future for their children… and all this to be brutally crushed and erased from memory by the Soviets in February 1940? Forget this history, the history of Kresy, of Polish people?
We again had to stop for a rest, he took off his cap and mopped his head… even my “lob” is completely wet from sweat! I am not so good now… A graveyard lay a little way off the village. No, there are no Radomiaki buried there – none of them died here…
As I part and walk towards the car he remains by the gate and I can see a wistful look on his face; of course I returned and pressed a note into his hand – for your legs and good health, a little vodka if you like. His face lit up, his eyes lit up, and he flicked the underside of his cheek with his finger – a typical and sure sign that my suggestion will be well carried out; and by the time I took the few steps back to the car, he was gone!
But the Radomiaki did leave their mark in a nearby small town of Koldyczewo. Here there was a school in their time – now it’s gone - a shop with red roof now occupies its place. As before, there is no church here so the faithful still go to the Catholic church in Stolowicze; but there is a Catholic cemetery just on the outskirts. In fact it’s hard to miss it, for its central monument rises above the surrounding shrubbery and is crowned by an enormous stork’s nest in three distinct layers. It’s only the second week of April, still very early spring here, and the nest is empty at the moment - will the storks return?
The huge monument is a vote of thanks to one Uncle Jozef Filipowicz - an old monument quite obviously, but undated. The cemetery and all the graves are well maintained, the paths clear and easy to follow. One solitary place, still in the coolness of the winter snow, tucked away under over-arching shrubs on one side of the cemetery but still clearly marked by a sturdy wooden cross draws my attention - why here, who lies here? The answer, of course, has long weathered away, but could this be the resting place of Jozef Stepien, the eldest son of one of the Radomiaki? And as if in answer to my mute question, two storks suddenly land on the nest, spread their wings, tilt their heads, raise their beaks to the sky and I hear: klek, klek, klek… Yes, Yes, Yes..?
Somehow, the storks knew; they must have passed on the coordinates and the message from one stork generation to another – N 53.278 / E 26.055 remember!
ROZANPOL - KRASNIANY
How can I describe it – you have to be here to understand!
I was making my way back from Rozanpol hopping from one soggy clump of grass to another for I didn’t want to get my boots too “muddy” when, quite suddenly, I was overcome by a feeling that I am trespassing here, intruding on the sanctity of Nature; I stopped. This wasn’t mud! This was the soil – that rich black soil our fathers worked their lives for, gave their lives for. The furrows from autumnal ploughing glistened black against the remaining patches of winter snow and puddles of crystalline water; can you imagine silence where you can hear your brain cells ticking and, still, bird songs reach you from distant woods? It was all around me… now the land of a vast Belarus kolkhoz bordered by a line of distant woods cutting into the cool steely-blue sky.
Kresy… I was beginning to understand what the word must have meant to our fathers. I looked back to where Rozanpol once was, there… on somewhat elevated ground now covered with a medley of birch and pine. The grass under my feet was still green as it must have been before the winter set in; it was laid flat, compressed by the weight of snow on it; it crunched under my boots. I looked for signs of any habitation but there were none; no trace of Polish osadniki remained. But what a perfect, ideal setting they had found; if only I had a tent I would happily camp here for days… Only one thing made me angry: a platform on the summit - a steel structure - to overview the land unfolding below. It was obviously not a look-out for forest fires; was it not perhaps to look-out for our fathers who may want to return?
First, I tried to reach Rozanpol from Zherstvianka – a place “way out in the sticks” but closest to it. A woman looked at my boots and shook her head: you will never make it there; the track leading to it is a swamp at this time of the year; you need proper wellies!. Anyway, there’s nothing there now. Yes… Polish osadniki lived there before the war… talk to “Moishe” in Konstantynowo; he lived in Rozanpol, and it’s an easier access from there.
The village of Krasniany - or what’s left of it - is along the way. An imposing manor house stood here for many, many years; it was in the hands of the Janiszewski family and occupied by Octavius Janiszewski in 1939. The estate was rozebrany - dismantled - during WW2. Very little remains of the village now, but I am welcomed by a pair of storks just settling back into their “home” on top of the village aqua tower gushing overflowing water from its tank; cattle by the road stare at the visitor with myopic eyes…
Everybody knows “Moishe” in Konstantynowo; that’s his house. “Moishe” is his nick name and nobody seems to know how and why it was pinned on him. His proper name: Slawomir, Bernardowicz Taraziewicz, now 77 and celebrating his fiftieth wedding anniversary to-day. Indeed, he was born in Rozanpol and remembers post-war history quite well. Some names come immediately to mind: Baranowski – returned to Poland in 1946, Fregin – German, somehow managed not to be deported, There was also Portas; they were osadniki working their own farms (hutor/folwark); he doesn’t recall Sadowski.
In 1943, in reprisal for partisan activity, Germans removed all the people from Rozanpol to Woropajewo; there they segregated all able-bodied men and young women, packed them on to trains, and deported them to Germany. The old and the children were to be shot, but at the very last moment a senior German arrived on a motor bike with the reprieve. They were told to scatter and not to return to Rozanpol for at least three days – all the houses there were totally burned, only ashes remained. But people started returning; some livestock survived, and slowly they rebuilt their homesteads as individual farms - hutory. Those were very, very difficult times - starvation…
Starting in 1952, they were put under great pressure to transform into a local kolkhoz; of course there was strong opposition to it. Finally, in 1962, they were forced to knock down their homes and reassemble them in Konstantinovo as part of one huge kolkhoz. That was the end of Rozanpol – nothing remains there now…
But today was a good time to celebrate his 50th. Anniversary; his best clothes came out and on, and the obligatory bottle of vodka. Rozanpol was such a long time ago; life and work in the kolkhoz as an electrician ended some 10-12 years ago; children grew up and are now independent… indeed, good time to drink to vstretchia and znakomstwo… to friendship! Come again!
He was sitting straight as a ramrod in the chair, palms resting on his knees; obviously, the hard times of the 1940’s and life’s work in a kolkhoz didn’t hurt him, rather steeled him. But at the age of ninety in July 2011, his memory is the most amazing: intact! Ask him for a name of a Polish osadnik, and he recites them as if reading from script: Ankudowicz, Bluma, Kaminski, Labejno, Michna, Polnik – they were here, you know, Przepalkowski, Zylinski and others, too many and too fast to jot down. It’s almost too good to be true - has he perhaps memorized Polnik’s list of osadniki he had seen in 2008?
Polish osadniki? Vasiliy Petrowich remembers well - Yes, they were to the side of the village, in the space between river Miadziolka and Luczajka. It’s all wooded now, you can see it from the bridge… nothing remains of their farms now… They were deported in 1940 and their hutory “rozebrali” and nothing remains now. But Ankudowicz and Saledycki sold their hutory and moved out before 1939. When the Polish government distributed land, the osadnicy got 20 hectares or more, “chlopi” / peasants were given 5 ½ hectares. My father died, then mother died, and I was the oldest of eight children so I had to work as “parobek” / labourer for osadnicy…
The entire village was destroyed by fire in 1933 by an arsonist; all the huts were covered with straw roofs then, so flames spread from one hut to the other in no time at all… all went up in flames… When the village was rebuilt in 1934, it was as individual hutory. When the Soviets came in 1939, they took all the land and livestock and made it all into a kolkhoz.
…When Germans came in 1941 they would shoot anyone suspected of supporting or aiding the partisans; half the village was burned in reprisals. In 1943 they deported men and women to Germany; they sent me to a place close to the Czechoslovak border. I returned in 1945 and worked in the kolkhoz…
Indeed, there is no sign of any habitation in the area where the farms of the osadniki flourished in the 1920’s, but what must have been the centre of pre-war Kuropole still creates a pleasant and peaceful atmosphere: a small lake graced with trees, the old school building is still intact, now painted blue but in private hands, Vasiliy’s own house painted in contrasting green… the village chapel, though, has gone – “rozebrane”. But drive through to the far end of the village, and the impact of the kolkhoz is depressingly obvious, particularly the housing blocks like “chicken coops” for the workers along the road. On the other hand, Kuropole is one of the more successful and better-run kolkhozes.
SIVCY - SIWCE LAGODNE
An open country all around - open except for the woods of feeble birch and pine setting the boundaries, grass still flattened by the weight of winter snow now gone, Nature slowly waking with the first days of spring… and suddenly, unexpectedly, the road takes you into a different world!
A long lane, straight as an arrow, lined with trees on both sides, timber abodes lined up in a row shelter behind them… everything set in grey as in a black and white photograph copied over and over again. You hold your breath and race to the far end; instinctively you know that the lane leads to a palace or manor house set among age-old trees; horses saddled, dogs yapping, all ready for the morning hunt… For what else could Siwce Lagodne mean but “gentle greys” – an estate with a stud farm… just as in the old days? And then you are there, at the end of the lane… and unbelievably, shockingly there is – nothing… nothing! No trace of a palace, no manor house, no horses, no life… Nothing except the muddy intersection of tracks, and woods! And so you turn back.
No… this place is no different to the many others where Polish gentry once lived, where Polish osadniki settled in the 1920’s. Now you notice that only very few mature trees remain along the alley; now you notice the abode on your right leaning heavily, one corner sinking into the ground, another to your left abandoned and all windows shattered, others taken over by trees and shrubbery, still others well maintained and pad-locked. Where is life then; is there any here? A dog barks; two young-ish people stand by a car – ah… the dacha people are moving in. You can see the grey daylight at the end of this long lane; you have the means to get out and away; but the village, surely, is condemned.
And yet, you will want to come back here, to drive or walk this lane, to see it in its full summer or autumnal magnificence. Perhaps then you will chance upon someone old-enough to tell the life-history of this place, about osadniki, about Krzyczkowski, Macur, Ochacki, Platte brothers, others… The sadness of this place lingers in memory; impossible to capture the vision of this lane, or the melancholy of this place on camera…
COVKI - SOWCZYN
Just continue on this road, cross the railway tracks, then the small stream and there, on your right, stood Sowczyn. Polish osadniki had their hutory – farmsteads - on the left of the road. That’s how it was in 1920’s, before the war. When the Soviets came, they deported all the osadniki, and then the manor was “rozebrany”. There’s nothing there now. Yes I remember it all very well; I was a small girl then…
This diminutive old woman was explaining to me why I couldn’t find Sowczyn on any of the local or regional maps. History repeated itself wherever the Soviets appeared in the 1940’s; places were wiped from the face of history and people disappeared – rozebrane deported – these two words ring continuously in my ears… But today, this old crumpled woman was sitting on a stool by the window looking happy, contented; she had company: two young adults were visiting her, a young woman of twenty something and a young man still in his military fatigues, possibly just out of the army. It was both surprising and pleasure to see the two young people show quiet respect for the old, not only respect but tenderness also. The young man let me in…
Jablonski family owned the estate here; Sowczyn was the Manor. Oh yes, Pani Jablonska was very strict… One day our cow strayed onto her land, just a few nibbles of grass, and she requisitioned the cow… we had to pay an indemnity to get the cow back; hard on us. We respected other people’s property; I was a little girl of five then and I had to walk my cow an extra three kilometres around her land to take the cow to pasture… I have forgotten her name now but I do remember her daughter Jagusia; she was very nice to us, the peasants, and sometimes she would toss us some apples over the fence...
I remember some osadniki very well... There was a Lieutenant / Tyszewski / everybody called him “Panie Poruczniku” - Mr Lieutenant; he was bad… always drunk… and when he got drunk he would ride into the village flaying his horse and any peasant he came across. Nobody liked him, but what could we do… he was “Pan Porucznik”. Piotr Polaczanski had the flour mill here and I used to take wheat to him for milling – he was all right. Mr Kazulewicz was very good to us – before he was deported he told my father to look after his property and take any of his wheat that we may need…
Yes, I do have a souvenir from Sowczyn, it’s a big thing we used on the farm… it’s somewhere in the yard but I don’t know where…
When the Soviets took all the land and made it into a kolkhoz it was very difficult then… Can you imagine, I had to harvest wheat by hand with a sickle, bent over double, for solid SIX hours to earn one “trudo-dzien” - a day’s norm – and for that got a pittance at the end of the year… if the kolkhoz had anything left over after it had paid all its dues to the government…
And still this old woman, a peasant in the past and still at heart, sat quietly and contentedly by the window. All that is history, the past… having these two nice “children” around brought happiness and a smile to her face and heart now.
I am sure there was a school here, just before the village proper; strange I can’t see it now… my driver looks perplexed. So we drive back and forth along a track just off the road and decide to ask. An interesting building freshly painted pinkish-yellow and covered with a sharply contrasting brown roof, a short driveway and forecourt sheltering behind a screen of trees – this is the school we were looking for – who would have guessed!
No body seems to be aware of our presence; I walk about inside the school and finally have to shout to attract any attention. A visitor from abroad...? Interested in the history of Stary Dwor..? Come, come upstairs… Excitement, commotion and confusion as the head teacher tries to find files about the history of the school.
Surprising! I had almost given up hope… but I am looking at a well preserved footprint of a Polish wojskowy osadnik – an ex-military settler. I am actually inside a country house built by major Zielinski in 1934 – the date is still visible on the foundations. When Germans were here, they had machine gun mounted in the window and used it to dominate the road and the open countryside in front. The building was saved when in 1944 it was converted into village school; it was subsequently refurbished and modernised but essentially all its original features retained; the head teacher proudly points out the original doors, floors, staircase and, in particular, the roof covered with wooden tiles. The outdoor scullery is still as it was then: a few steps leading to a below-ground chamber under a mound of earth – the wooden structure on top is a more recent addition.
But try as they did, nothing about Polish osadniki could be found in any of the papers at the school, so we all went to the village library. There, the history of Stary Dwor was beautifully presented in a dossier. The teacher was quickly scanning through the pages - all about the Tsars, about Graf Kontakizina, about the revolt of peasants in 1905 and how it was brutally put down by Graf Klehis… about the contribution to life and well-being of the people under the Soviet rule… ah! Here’s one reference to osadniki, but her voice trailed away as she begun to read the one short statement encapsulating the fate of the Polish settlers: “osadniki wyjechali za granice…” Even she couldn’t quite believe what she was reading – the settlers left/ went / emigrated / beyond the borders of the country..!
We all knew we had to look for the truth somewhere else. The oldest people in the village live just there… So I knock on the door and am welcomed in… come in’ sit down… The old man doesn’t even budge, sits sprawled in his arm chair leaning heavily against the wall, thick convex glasses on his nose, a somewhat perplexed look on his face as if he was in a dream… you know the Communist Party did a lot of good… Wow! Whom have I found here? A rarity still alive, still dreaming, still full of Communist mysticism… a true, genuine believer in Communism, in Lenin, Stalin… I couldn’t divert him from this train of thought; his wife was more alert, she understood… You know, we moved here in 1957, we don’t really know what happened here before then… I had to get away; the old man waved to me from the chair disappointed: come again, let’s talk a little…
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How many more settlements do I need to visit to realize that the history of Polish osadniki, is couched in two unforgettable euphemisms: “rozebrali” and “osadniki wyjechali za granice” as if there were no appropriate words in the vocabulary of the Russian language!
“rozebrali” – as if “dismantled” log by log, brick by brick, each numbered, to be later reassembled… when, in fact, it means ransacked, ravaged, destroyed, each log and brick carted away, everything levelled to the ground, all footprints erased from history and soon to be erased from people’s memory.
And that beautiful statement: “osadniki wyjechali za granice” – settlers left the country - gone beyond the borders of the country - as if emigrated, left of their own free will. Indeed, they left the borders of their country, but not of their own free will - they were deported to the Gulags in Siberia, Kazakhstan, the interior of Russia, to work in the mines, in munitions factories…
And the story is identical in Czerniaty, in Dolza, Kalita, Marjampol. Smycze, Woroniec, Zielinskoye… Some even no longer show up on any maps: Danilowka, Gozdawa, Korzysc, Nowopol…
But perhaps these euphemisms are only the vocabulary of the times - the 1950-1970’s, for who would have dared to “call a spade a spade” in those days, and risk imprisonment, or to be themselves expedited to join the osadniki, if any were still alive, somewhere… in post-Stalin’s empire?