Discovering our Ancestors' Travels and Travails

The highlight of my trip to Poland in 2004 was a visit to the State Archives in Sandomierz, the former synagogue.

Synagogue in Sandomierz, Poland, by Hubert Śmietanka – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,

In the Achives, I verified my grandmother’s birth in the little village of Gnieszowice, in the baptismal records from the parish of Koprzywnica. Sandomierz is a beautiful town, with an interesting history.

Panorama of Sandomierz, landmarks seen from the left: Royal Castle, Cathedral Basilica, Jan Długosz House, cathedral bell tower, Collegium Gostomianum, Old Town with the town hall in the middle and the Opatowska Gate on the right end CC BY-SA 3.0,

Before my trip, I had read James Michener‘s historical novel Poland about the country that disappeared from the map of Europe for 123 years. His book included descriptions of the Tatar invasions, victory over the Teutonic knights at Grunwald, the Swedish “Deluge,” the defense of Vienna against the Turks, the second Polish Republic after World War I when Poland regained its independence, the defeat of the Soviet Union in 1920, the Nazi occupation during World War II, the Soviet victory in 1945, and the communist era. Although Michener’s village of Bukowo is fictional, its setting is across the Vistula River in the forest south of Sandomierz.

On the personal part of my trip. I chose to visit some of the places from the novel. I stayed overnight in the lovely Italianate Renaissance town of Zamość and the lively hotel at Baranów Sandomierski. I visited the villages of my maternal grandparents near Sandomierz, and the ruins of the Krzyżtopór Castle near Opatów. I went to Majdanek, the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp in Lublin.

More people have become familiar with Sandomierz due to the popularity of the long running Polish television series “Ojciec Mateusz,” a detective show about an intelligent and perceptive Roman Catholic priest in a small parish in Sandomierz. Fans of the show have made Sandomierz a tourist destination.

Author Zygmunt Miłoszewski used Sandomierz as the 2009 setting for his second novel about prosecutor Teodor Szacki, A Grain of Truth. I read the English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. The novel opens in

the reading room at the State Archive in Sandomierz, surrounded by the dead. Around him towered stacks of nineteenth-century parish registers, and even though most of the entries concerned life’s happy moments, even though there were more baptisms and weddings than death certificates, even so, he could smell the odour of death, and couldn’t shake off the thought that all these newborns and all these newly-weds had been pushing up the daisies for several decades at least, and that the rarely dusted or consulted tomes surrounding him were the only testimony to their existence. Though actually, even so they were lucky, considering what the war had done to most of the Polish archives.

A Grain of Truth, Zygmunt Miłoszewski, translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, page 1

Sandomierz, a picturesque town full of churches and museums, also has a complicated history of bloody paintings and anti-Semitism, and the past is referenced in the present case.

Other historians have written about the Duchy of Sandomierz in the middle ages. Nobel Prize winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz is best known in Poland for his “Trilogy” of historical novels – With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Sir Michael – set in the 17th-century Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. While historical novels necessarily condense and do not fully explain historical events, they do provide an enjoyable way to get a flavor of the time and place.

Of course, an in-person visit can be even more enjoyable.


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