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Trip to Poland

  • Submitted by: Susan M. Frontczak
  • Submission Date: 11th Feb 2005

At last I am sitting down to write the story of my month in Poland with my partner, Jim Borzym. What an experience!!!! I was last there 20 years ago, so there are many changes apparent. And I am told the majority of these changes have occurred just in the last three years since the collapse of the Communist government. For Jim, it was a first visit to the country of his ancestors. And, as you will read below, it included finding and reuniting with both branches of his father's family.

Poland is a land of contrasts. Alongside vegetable stands in the market are small stands selling denim jeans, Sony walkmans, digital watches, or rock'n'roll cassette tapes. Whereas last time I was in the country the shops were empty, and people had zloty's to spend, now the shops are full but because of >100% inflation per year for a few years the people have little money. Some things much as I remember from my last visit: Half of the farms are still plowed by horse and raked by hand. 80% of the population is still agrarian, and the majority of these farms are very small and privately owned. Driving along the main highways, cars shared the road with horse-drawn carts, trucks, bicycles, and buses.

We saw churches abundantly decorated with gold leaf, rococo ornamentation, and marble alters in every side niche. Contrasting with this are cement block high-rises. Housing is so scarce, however, that people have had to wait 9 to 15 years to get an apartment in one of these buildings. Consequently, many extended families live together. We saw much construction of 1- and 2-family homes as we crisscrossed the country.

We flew into Warsaw, arriving early on Sunday September 1st. We checked into the Warsaw Mariott, which felt like having only one foot in the country, what with the luxurious accommodations, a staff that spoke English, and access to a swimming pool and sauna. Following a recommended regimin to avoid jet lag, we dropped our bags and jumped right into the current time zone. We started by touring the Lazienka palace (Bath house palace) and grounds, and then walked the entire length of Nowe Swiat (New World street). Along the route we noted landmarks, such as the place the Bolsheviks threw Chopin's piano out of the window, and stopped in to see several richly ornamented churches. Upon arriving at the old square, we were surprised to see a large crowd gathered around a ring of Hare Krishna chanters and dancers. Around another corner were a group of South American street musicians. This was not the Poland I remembered. However the square still held it's share of street artists selling watercolor paintings. And we dined on traditional barszcz and bread in an old restaurant on the square.

Monday morning we picked up our rental car, delighted to find out that they had run out of the tiniest Fiats (the 'A' size car which we had reserved), and so gave us a 'B' sized car at the same price. We then drove out of the city, to the southernmost tip of Poland. The region is known as the Tatra Mountains, and the town we were heading for was Zakopane.

The countryside was beautiful. Everywhere families were harvesting their fields. Potatos, beets, cabbages, and apples filled the carts. The terrain gradually became more hilly. Many steep slopes were farmed that would have been left fallow in the U.S. Zakopane itself is at the edge of the mountain ridge that borders on Czechoslovakia.

Upon arriving in Zakopane we saw some of the prettiest architecture of the whole trip: Wooden homes with carefully crafted doors and railings, braided hemp detail between the large logs that made up the walls, wooden gutters supported by handselected young trees with the root ball still attached as a hook.

The disappointment upon arriving in this lovely spot was that the dance festival we had planned the trip around had been rescheduled. For the last 20 years it had been the first week in September. But this year it was held in August!

We did get in a couple of days of hiking. The trails are heavily used, and there was more litter than I can ever remember seeing on a trail. Everybody hiked - from little children to grandparents - and in slippers and high heels as well as hiking boots! From the top of the ridge we gazed into Czechosolvakia. Looking back into Zakopane, a heavy brown cloud was apparent. In fact, the air was markedly polluted throughout the country. 45 years of no regulations, accompanied by prevailing winds that bring in acid rain from industrialized western Europe have taken their toll.

While in Zakopane we also attended a Goralski folk-opera. The dancing was exciting and the costumes stunning, in spite of the fact that the language was totally beyond us! Jim and I each bought come costume pieces in this haven of Polish folk culture, as well as some wooly sweaters and examples of carved wooden plates.

Our next stop was Krakow. We tried camping one night, but the price was almost the same as the inn (U.S. $7.50 for the two of us). So for the rest of the trip we left the camping gear in the car. Krakow showed us its famous old town square and market, two street bands playing traditional music, the famous castle (complete with legendary dragon), and an impressive church housing the remains of many famous Polish kings, including Casimir the Great.

We used Krakow as a base camp for a couple of day excursions. One was to the concentration camps in Oswiecim (Auschwitz). I never would have grasped the magnitude of this place and its history without the guided visit - including a tour in English. Rows upon rows of stark barracks. Drawings by inmates, intact on the walls. Photos of prisoners. And mounds and mounds of shoes, suitcases, hair, and clothing left merely from the final round of arrivals, preserved in a museum to their memory.

The other excursion was to the Salt Mines in Welicka. We climbed down 39 flights of stairs to the first layer of the mines, and later down two more layers to witness this source of Poland's wealth for several centuries. Salt had many uses: to preserve food, manufacture glass, make ammunition. The miner held a revered position. No prisoners, thieves, or foreigners were allowed to work in the mines. It was, in fact, a hereditary position to be a salt miner. In the cavities left behind from the removed salt, the miners built chapels, monuments, and elves all carved from salt. In one immense chamber there is a cathedral, complete with salt crystal chandeliers, a salt tiled floor, and relief carvings of the life of Christ on all the walls. The mine is still in operation today.

After touring the mines Jim and I walked about the town and played hackysack in the park, which began one of our greatest adventures in Poland. [Hackysack is a game played with a small leather bean bag, juggled with any part of the body except the hands and arms. It was an easy game to bring along on the trip, although both Jim and I were just figuring out how to play it ourselves.] The hackysack broke the ice for meeting a group of four miners in the park who were sharing a bottle and relaxing after the day's work. We fell into a conversation of sorts - between my spotty Polish and their fragmented English and the ever-present Polish English/English Polish dictionary we managed to keep the talk going. One fellow knew no English, but spoke some French. So, since we were foreigners, he used French. Jim happened to mention that we were going to try to find his relatives.

Jim's grandmother had corresponded with her niece and nephew in Poland 15-20 years ago. Jim's uncle, a stamp collector, happened to save the envelopes which included a return address and postmark. One week before our trip Jim acquired copies of several of these envelopes. No one had corresponded with the relatives in the interim. We were on a hunt for the towns on the return address and postmark.

It turned out that one of the fellows shared a surname with Jim's great aunt. He also said he knew where the town Siedliska was.

So, the next day we set out for Siedliska. Only problem was, it was the wrong Siedliska. There are thousands of tiny villages and towns in Poland. Most of them are not on the map, and many of them are too small to have a Post Office. Also, there are many postal districts in Poland, called 'Wojawista' [Wojewodztwa - JSW], and it is possible for each wojawista to have a town named Siedliska. Then there can be 'big Siedliska' and 'little Siedliska' on opposite sides of a wojawista.

In the end, we visitied several post offices, gradually honing in on the Siedliska we were looking for. We gave a ride to a couple of fellows who knew where the town was. About 4:30 in the afternoon we pulled in to what turned out the be the right Siedliska. The town had about 100 homes, one big church, and a general store. We went into the general store and asked expectantly, pointing at the envelopes, 'We are looking for these relatives. Do these people still live here?'

'Oh, yes, go back down this road, just past the church on the opposite side of the road.'

We found a woman working in her yard, and asked her. 'Oh yes, come with me.' She walked down a few more houses, walked into her neighbors kitchen, and said 'Here are your relatives from America.'

Well, Sofie was shocked, amazed, delighted, and flustered. She accepted us immediately and set about making us welcome. She sent her son to the store for some sausage. She pulled out ALL family photographs. Lo and behold there was a photo there of Jim as an infant in his mother's arms! She sent word to the other relatives in town - Czeslaw and his wife and children and grandchildren, and Helen and her sons. Helen, Czeslaw, and Sofie's husband (who had passed away a year before) were the neice and nephews that Jim's grandmother had written to. Sofie contacted a local high school student who had studied English in school for 3 years. He served as our interpreter. The whole family gathered that evening at Czeslaw's home. There was LOTS of food, drink, talk, and laughter.

The next morning Sofie took us on a tour of her town, including the newly built and partially completed church (in operation), the community building (for weddings, parties, etc.), the school, and the general store. When Jim and I got out concertina and penny whistle, respectively, and played a little, Sofie fetched a lad of about 14 and his accordion. Such amazing and wonderful music! This young man played tune after tune, with variation after variation, and with gusto!

We bid good bye late morning to head for Czechosolvakia to visit my brother, Mike. But we promised to return for one more day on our way back from the neighboring country.

Upon crossing the border to Czechosolvakia the countryside transformed from a patchwork quilt of private family farms and fields to huge rolling fields and woods. Farms here are predominantly collective. We arrived at the edge of Kosice to see a panorama of concrete high rises. There was no trace of older architecture.

The phones worked better in Kosice than in Poland. [We had tried twice to phone from Poland to no avail. The advice was that it would take a wait of 12 hours in the post office to maybe get through to Czechosolvakia from Poland.] Since it was now late afternoon, we couldn't change any money. However, a generous gas station attendant lent us the coins we needed for the phones. We phoned the home where Mike is living, and got directions to the place he was attending a Baha'i meeting that evening. About 45 minutes after the informal English session began, Mike arrived. He was, as ever, very busy. He has two jobs teaching English - at a 'gymnasium' which is the college-bound high school, and at a Veterinary college. He is also working with a production agency that brings rock concerts to Czechosolvakia. At the time of our visit they were just a week away from a big concert with a group called Deep Purple. And in addition, of course, he is very active with the Baha'i community in Kosice.

Mike made contact on our behalf with a folk dance contact in Kosice. So one night we attended a rehearsal of the regional Slovak dance troupe. The group was young (estimated ages 14-25), big (one dance had 12 couples, and there were also 3 'trainee' couples going through the steps at the other end of the hall), and energetic. After admiring the group's dances for some time, Jim and I had an opportunity to demonstrate a couple of American ragtime dances. They showed us photos from their recent participation in a folk festival in France. I thoroughly enjoyed the cultural exchange.

In the center of Kosice is an Old Town area with ornate, elaborate facades that are crumbling to dust. The main theatre/opera house and the cathedral are both under repair and restoration. But most of the buildings have been ravaged by the neglect of 2 generations. We were told that the ownership of many of the buildings is now in question. Many were owned by the government. Those which can be returned to the family of former owners are in dilapidated condition.

Mike and his friends took us on a lovely hike through the hills outside of Kosice. From one hill we saw cottages in the distance. Thinking this was a farm community, we were corrected and told that these were weekend homes for workers in the city.

We were also treated to the native dish of Halushka (English phonetic spelling). It is a very rich 'macaroni and cheese' dish with dense dumpling/noodles.

While driving north, we drove past two 'Gypsy Ghettos' in the countryside. The wandering gypsy population was forced to settle in designated plots of land when the Communist regime took over. I wasreminded of the plight of the Native Americans, forced to live onreservations. The burnt-out, poverty-wrecked, highly populated acres stood out sharply against the green verdant countryside that surrounded them. The opinions we heard of the gypsies ranged from outright disdain to shoulder-shrugging headshaking apathy. There was no romantic view of musical, magical, mischievous gypsies wandering from town to town in their colorful wagons - such as I have imagined.

Jim and I took our last day in the country to hike the Czechosolvakian side of the Tatra mountains. It began to rain as we hiked, but the way was beautiful and included a spectacular waterfall. Hiking around the waterfall required steadying oneself with chains that had been embedded in the rock. Upon returning to the car, cold to the bone, we pooled our last 33 Kroner to purchase the cheapest thing on the menu of the resort restaurant. It was a most delicious meal!

It had gotten rather late, so we spent one more night in Czechosolvakia and arrived at the border about 10:30 am the next morning. After a 3 hour tedious wait at the border, we finally made it back into Poland. Very hungry, we stopped in at the first town to find something to eat. We happened into a restaurant in Dukla where there seemed to be many young men out of work, and drinking. I became very depressed at the sight of three of the restaurant's patrons falling into a comatose state at the table.

From Dukla we headed back to Siedliska. This time we visited Czeslow's other daughter and her husband and children. The husband was the local schoolmaster. The family actually lived in an apartment above the large school. He gave us a wonderful tour of their school including gym, history classroom, cafeteria, music room. Then we ate and drank, and got a recipe for pickled green tomatoes, and I gave the girls some silly putty and a copy of Dr. Seuss's 'One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish'. Then on to Helen's where we picked up people, and back to Sofie's whereupon followed another full family gathering with an abundance of food, talk, and gift exchange late into the night.

From Siedliska we headed west, through and past Krakow, and on to Wroclaw. On the way we drove past a castle ruin, so we pulled over and climbed all over it. Sitting at the top of the hill we pondered the fate of the thousands of stones that were, no doubt, taken from the ruins used over time to build the homes and shops of the town below.

Wroclaw was a treat, because my Polish teacher, Anna Wenzel, and her husband had introduced us, by letter, to their friends. Because they spoke some English, we were able to discuss the state of the country in greater depth than had yet been available. We spent one day on a bee farm (honey farm), with owners, Adam and Hania. I learned all about the life of bees and statistics of honey making (10,000 to 70,000 bees per family, when hibernation begins, how much they eat, how queens are born, how much honey a family of bees makes...). Jerzy gave us a guided tour of the city, and the computer science building of the University. We tried, unsuccessfully, to contact my computer back in the states. The bottleneck turned out to be right on campus. Jerzy is sure that, had we successfully logged in to the computer in the next building, we would have made it to the U.S.

In fact, telecommunications in Poland are very weak. At home I don'teven think about picking up the phone. But in Poland local calls have a very low probability of connecting, and when it does the reception is very poor; All long distance calls must be placed from the Post Office. A call to the US is about the easiest, requiring only about a 30 to 60 minute wait, because AT&T has made a satellite connection available.

Jerzy and Jim took a hike on our last day in Wroclaw, while I recuperated from mild problems with foreign digestion.

And then, we headed for Pabianice, home of my family's relatives. We found the home much as we found our way around the country: We pulled into the edge of town and asked. This time we asked at a gas station and the eager attendant pulled out his Pabianice map to show us the way. It turned out we were but a few blocks from Janek Frontczak's home. We found the apartment and were greeted so warmly by Janek and his wife Krystyna. Then son Marek came over, and we were all joined by friend Maria next door, who spoke some English. Finally son Pawel and his wife arrived.

Then Janek announced that there was some dancing we could see that night. It turned out to be another regional folk group, in rehearsal. We were shown a number of videotapes and served tea. And then we watched the troupe. This group sang to all of its dances, and were accompanied by piano. The group has been a traveling performing ensemble since 1975. Though most of the dancers were fairly new to the troupe, the ~75 year old taskmistress still held sway. We offered, again, to give a demonstration of American dances and were welcomed to do so. However since they rehearsed with no audio equipment, there was much ado in getting a tape player to work with the music we had brought along. Eventually we succeeded, and again I am glad we made the effort.

After the dancing, we retired to Janek's apartment for, once again, LOTS of delicious food. Krystyna is an excellent cook! The conversation was slow, but rewarding. We found out that the two sons and Janek ran two stores. I could make out the word 'ryba', which means 'fish', and assumed this was a fish market. Upon visiting the store the next day, however, we found out they were both a combination of tackle/sports shop, and pet store. That is they sold fishing gear (rods, line, bait, lures, boots...) and small pets (tropical fish, gerbils, and canaries). Jim asked, 'So, do you like to fish?'


'Oh, I guess maybe you don't have time to fish any more, because you are running the store.'

'No. We've never fished.'

'Oh. Do you like pets?'


'Then why do you have a fishing and pet store?'
'Three years ago we had to apply to the government to open a store. This is the kind of store they would allow us to open.'

The store is doing well. However, they are paying 70% interest rate on the loans to stock the store! The store in Pabianice is on the frontage of Narcissa's land. So when we visited that store and Narcissa I was flooded with memories of playing hopscotch in that yard 26 years ago. The water pump from which they then derived all their household water still stands near the street.

Narcissa is looking as beautiful and rosy-cheeked as I remembered her, although her jet black hair is now half silvery grey. She gathered grapes from her garden for us. I met her brood of kittens in the yard. Narcissa spoke no English, but she was still fluent in German. And because my German is years stronger than my Polish, we spoke mostly German between us, and I was able to learn much more about her youth and her ordeal during the war. It was a real treat to me to connect with Narcissa.

We also visited Wendy Frontczak and her daughter Maria. Both of them spoke and understood English very well, although Wendy was shy about speaking. I had not met them previously, although Maria told the story of when Dad and Emily came to visit. Emily was 12 and Maria was 7. Maria vividly remembers Emily playing with her, and being so spellbound, decided right then and there that she would learn to speak English very well. She certainly succeeded! Maria is currently studying for her PhD in Mathematics. Her mother, Wendy, edits a book that is analogous to 'Who's Who' in Poland.

While in Pabianice Janek gave us a tour of the churches - the old one built in the 1300's, the second constructed at the turn of this century, and a new highly contemporary white stucco church currently under construction. We also visited the local museum which had a charming collection of puppets, and a magnificent display of costumes from every region of Poland.

Each night we enjoyed a wonderful meal by Krystyina, and fun visitingwith the whole family. One morning, at our request, Kryslina madepotato pancakes for us. We had been sampling this dish throughout Poland, in search of a dish as Jim's mother used to make. These, too, were delicious. The last night, the neighbor Maria joined us again and for a time we went over to the apartment that she and her mother share in the same building. Maria played some tunes on her violin. Jim and I each played a couple tunes on the piano. And we all sang a couple of Polish songs.

From Pabianice, we took a line northeast to and past Warsaw to the area of the country we thought might hold more of Jim's relatives. We had found a 'Borzymy' on the map - the town on the return address of yet another envelope. It was a long day's drive. We got near and turned in for the night. The next day we found it, and were surprised to see that it was a huge collective farm. We inquired at the director's office if he could help us find the people on the envelope. He looked at it and our map and shook his head and said we were in the wrong place. The boundaries of the 'Wojawista' had been changed, and we needed to go to a Borzymy in a different district.

He then proceeded for about an hour to telephone post offices, and have post offices call other post offices and then call him back, in an attempt to find Ostrazamy, the town on the postmark, which had to be near the Borzymy we were looking for. At last he registered success on his face. He painstakingly showed us on the map what town to go to that would be near Ostrazamy (which wasn't on the map), and instructed us to go there and ask. We took his advice, and after another LONG drive, with just 2 days left before our plane left Poland, we found Ostrazamy. It was a tiny community. We asked an old man on a bicycle where Borzymy was. He scratched his head and pointed across a field, and said what I can only imagine is a Polish version of 'you can't get there from here.' He then stopped a fellow on a tractor who drew us a map of the roads to take and not to take. We thanked them both, and arrived in another Borzymy about 4:30 in the afternoon. This was a cluster of about 30 farm homes. We stopped at a house where an old man was standing in the doorway and two small children played on the doorstep. A tall graceful woman, about our age, walked across the barnyard toward us. About 30 chickens clustered around her like an entourage. The woman had long dark hair. Her sweater bereft of buttons, was fastened with a safety pin. I said, (in Polish) 'This is Jim Borzym, from America, and he is looking for his family here.' I pointed to the envelop. 'Do you know these people?'

She looked at the envelope and her face lit up in surprise, 'That's my uncle!', she said. And looking at the two long graceful faces looking at each other, I could surely see a family resemblance.

'Is he alive?', I asked.

'Oh, yes. He lives right down here! Follow me.'

So we drove down another 100 meters into a huge barnyard. She walked into the yard and announced calmly, 'these are relatives from America!' The letter-writing uncle, Jan Tonkyl, came out of the barn, and was clearly amazed. He did not know he would ever have contact with the American family again. We were ushered into the farmhouse. More and more children seemed to ooze out of the woodwork. Who were all these children? Sandwiches and vodka appeared on the table. Tea and coffee were served. We got out photos and they got out photos. One of the photos in their album was a picture Jim had never seen of himself at about age 5 and his father and sister! The room had nearly 20 people in it! We started to draw a family tree to figure out who everyone was. It turned out that Jan had 10 children, ranging in age from 3 months to about 25 years. Jan's mother and uncle, both in their eighty's, were also present, and gave the strongest hugs I received while in the country. Tears streamed down the grandmother's face. We shared some gifts and photos, food and drink, and then rolled along, wishing we could pull another week out of a hat to stay on the farm. Glad, nonetheless, that we had made contact.

All in all, the trip was a great adventure. We were treated as royalty by all relatives, and learned some of the protocols of cheek-kissing, hand-kissing, strong hugs, and abundant feasts.

The food everywhere was plentiful, cheap, and delicious. Perogi, golabki, szaszlk, sledz, kapusta salat, kielbasi; soups, breads, cheeses, meats, fruit. Jim and I have both committed to learning how to make the ruby-red crystal barszcz.

Twice we had an opportunity to watch dance rehearsals of traditional dance groups - once in Kosice, Czechosolvakia and once in Pabianice, Poland. Both times we shared a demonstration of American ragtime dancing.

By the end of the trip I became somewhat adept at saying a bit about myself in Polish. I could also ask basic questions, and usually understanding the gist of the answer. But the better my Polish grammar and pronunciation became, the more likely I was to receive an unintelligible (to me) river of Polish in response!

In Warsaw on our last night, we went to the Lazienka palace for a piano recital of Chopin's works. It was held in a drawing room. Chairs, walls, paintings, and fireplace were all of the early 19th century. A turn of the century white Steinway filled one corner of the room. A master from the Warsaw conservatory of music filled the room with magical sounds for an hour and a half. I was so close, I could reach out from my seat and touch the pianist's chair.

Susan Frontczak

UTD - User interface Technology Division
Hewlett-Packard Company
3404 E. Harmony Road, MS 74
Ft. Collins, CO 80525

Susan M. Frontczak susan@fc.hp.com (303)-229-2569 fax303- 229-2446


From: susan@hpfcso.FC.HP.COM (Susan Frontczak)
Newsgroups: soc.culture.polish
Subject: re: Trip to Poland
Date: 17 Dec 91 20:24:44 GMT
Organization: Hewlett-Packard, Fort Collins, CO, USA

Mirek (et.al.)

Thank you for your response to my travelogue.

I would like to speak to several points that you made.

I understand that the number I gave for % of the population that is agrarian was wrong. (I had said 80%.) I am interested in presenting accurate information when I can. However, like anyone, I am limited to the information that is available to me. Yesterday I was given the number 48% in conversation by a visitor from Poland. Do you have a documented source of this statistic for me?
I wrote the travelogue as a letter to my relatives in the United States. When I stated that the food was inexpensive, I was relating to their experience. I am quite aware that food costs represent a major portion of one's budget in Poland. I was not intending to suggest that the food was inexpensive for Poles. Average monthly income and proportions spent on food are often a topic of conversation when people ask my about my trip. I use figures that I have read in this notes group, corroborated by information given me by personal contacts in Poland.
I am troubled by alcoholism wherever I find it - New York, Chicago, Dukla, or my home town.
I have enjoyed dance for over 30 years. My parents met through folk dancing. I have performed in a Polish folk ensemble in Philadelphia (Janosik Dancers), and with the ethnic dance group Tapestry in Denver. Because I am interested in dance, I sought it out in Poland. Because I work with computers, I also sought out the computer center in Wroclaw and the Warsaw office of my company Hewlett Packard. Because I am interested in music, also I sought out a piano concert of Chopin.
I am very happy that I had a chance to visit your country, and found so much of interest to me there.


UTD - User interface Technology Division
Hewlett-Packard Company
3404 E. Harmony Road, MS 74
Ft. Collins, CO 80525

Susan M. Frontczak susan@fc.hp.com (303)-229-2569 fax303- 229-2446


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The World - Europe - Poland