In September 2004 I joined a “Grand Circle” tour of Poland to visit the land of my ancestors. To acclimate myself, I flew to Warsaw a few days early, then joined up with the tour group in Gdańsk. On a small bus with about twenty people, we visited
- Oświęcim (Auschwitz)
We were a convivial group, and would sometimes gather in the evenings to toast our adventures with Krupnik, the Polish honey liquor.
We visited Malbork and Toruń, but I did not know how close we were to Szembruczek and Nieżywięć, the places of origin for my father’s father and his Szczepański/Kalinowski and Maciejewski/Lewandowski grandparents.
The places where my mother’s Skrok and Kapuściński parents were born had not been on any tour, but I had read about the area in James Michener‘s novel Poland. When the guided tour ended in Warsaw, I rented a car for an adventure of my own.
My mother’s father had died when she was just a little girl, and my grandmother, who died in 1977, did not speak English well. I never asked her questions about her childhood home. There was even some confusion about where it was, because my grandparents had gone back to Poland and lived in a different place before returning to the United States. My second cousin Neil and I had tried to make sense of what I later learned was the interwar Kielce Voivodeship of Poland.
So I went to the documents. I ordered copies of my grandmother, her sister, and their cousin’s Social Security applications, and found they had been born in Gnieszowice, Koprzywnica, a small village near Sandomierz in what was in the 1990s the Tarnobrzeg province. As my grandmother had told my mother, it was small, like a rural Sloan, a village in the town of Cheektowaga, New York, only much more remote.
I continued to research. In 2002, after my mother had some health issues, I stayed with her in Buffalo and later gathered what I knew in a letter to her/our relatives. It summarized what we then knew about the family in America, and included a map of the places identified in our ancestors’ documents.
I also shared some information about our family names and where they were found in the old and new provinces of Poland.
So, in 2004, I knew where I wanted to go. I made reservations to stay in Zamość, Baranów Sandomierski, a small bed and breakfast near Sandomierz, and Opatów. Anyone who has ever driven with me knows there was a lot of backtracking and driving around to see the sights, but this is a rough outline of my itinerary.
Along the way I visited the picturesque Kazimierz Dolny. I stopped in Lublin, then stayed in the beautiful main square in the Renaissance town Zamość. I took a picture with the sign at Szczebrzeszyn, west of Zamość. Some of the native Polish speakers on my tour taught me to say the name (listen); and recited part of Jan Brzechwa’s poem entitled Chrząszcz.
At Baranów Sandomierski, there was a mushroom festival, and I fell asleep listening to Polish covers of Beatles songs by local musicians. To the amusement of the hotel staff, I tripped over my tongue in describing the large group of people as a group of large people. (Oops!)
I toured the ruins of the Krzyżtopór Castle located in the village of Ujazd, Iwaniska near Opatów. Although built 1627-1647, it was overrun by the Swedish invasion of 1655. I missed some of the views, but an older Polish woman yelled at me “Iść!” I was so startled that I temporarily did not remember it was the Polish imperative of the verb to go. I went.
The village of Gnieszowice was very rural. On a morning in 2004, I followed a horse drawn wagon collecting milk cans from the houses along the way.
I had seen many old churches throughout Poland, but I was astonished by the architectural layers of the church of St. Florian in Koprzywnica. It was not in guidebooks, so I had to research more later.
The highlight of my trip was visiting the Polish Archives in the old Jewish synagogue in Sandomierz, where, with halting Polish, I verified that my grandmother Agnieszka Kapuścińska had indeed been born in the village of Gnieszowice in 1895.