It all started several years ago. I heard my mom and dad speak in hushed tones after a call in the middle of the night immediately followed by a litany of phone calls to my relatives. My father had received a phone call from a lawyer in Poland who said that there was a building in this tiny coal town in the middle of nowhere with our last name on the title.
Several additional rounds of confused phone calls in polish ensued over the next few months trying to discover what exactly it meant and what, if anything should be done about it.
I learned that before World War II the Holocaust, my grandfather’s family had owned a building in Poland and had rented it out to make more money. After the war my grandfather moved to the United States with his first wife, and my uncle, rather than remain in Poland and constantly be reminded of the parents, siblings, cousins and friends that he had lost. But, the Nazi’s and the communist government had kept the property records of who owned land and buildings, which the lawyer who had contacted us, eventually recovered which led to the late night phone call. We learned that the building was now being run by the local Polish government and there were some problems with the current tenants.
The coal mine that the town had prospered around had dried up and all of the workers had to be let go. The closing of the mine left most of the town’s citizens out of a job leading to a large exodus from the town in search of work. The town grew quiet and those who remained often sat around daydreaming of a better life. With no money coming in, many of the renter’s in my grandfather’s building had reduced the amount of money they paid for rent. By the time we found out about the existence of the building, many of the tenants had refused to pay rent completely.
Several months after the first phone call, my father organized a trip for the four of us and my uncle to go to Poland to see the building my grandfather owned before the war and visit his home town. Unfortunately, my grandfather was told by his doctor that because of his heart condition, he would not be able to make the journey back to where he grew up. Of course, my grandfather didn’t believe the doctor and insisted to us that he should still go along. The only way my dad and my uncle could convince him into staying in Florida was for my uncle to video tape the trip and create a website dedicated to our return Poland to trace our family roots. The website included the numerous pictures we took along the way as well as a variety of journals from everyone on the trip, which my grandfather could read each day of our trip.
It was a very strange feeling, knowing that I would be going to the birthplace of my grandfather. It almost felt like I was walking on forgotten and even painful memories. I was not quite at the age where I could fully understand the implications of this trip, but I was old enough to know that this was of great importance to my family.
After several hours in a cramped white van, we made it to the lawyer’s house. We had a lunch of Polish sausage and assorted meat, cabbage and Polish rolls. My dad and uncle tried to talk to the lawyer using what broken Polish they knew. Mostly though, they talked to the lawyer’s daughter, who translated for her father. After lunch, we all hopped back in the van and headed down the cobblestone road towards the town.
We started our trip with a tour of my grandfather’s old town. Sosnowiec is a coal dependant town surrounded by a pine forest that stretched to the horizon in all directions. The streets were empty, the buildings void of any signs of life. It was dead quiet. All that could be heard was the rustle of leaves and the low cries of some boys playing on the deserted street.
Out of place: five tourists, a camera, and a guide from a distant land who had no idea of what it was like to live in this town, wandering past the depressed citizens. Walking through town asking questions in order to uncover some connection with my grandfather was a futile mission. The only traces of life that could be found were the inhabitants who sat casually on their stoops and porches dressed in undershirts and boxers watching us walk by them, recording their poverty like they were animals in a zoo.
Suddenly, the peace was interrupted. I was forced to jump out of the street as two kids on a bike, a few years younger than I, barely missed running into me. They rode down the red brick street and made the next turn, their laughs echoing between the old decaying buildings. I was infuriated. What had I done to disserve being made into a target? I had never met these people and already I had made enemies in this foreign land.
We made it to the house where my grandfather used to live. The building is three stories high, covered in a dark brown concrete that was crumbling where the building met the street. It had been recently painted in multicolored bands in an attempt to make it more aesthetically pleasing to the eye. The only effect it really had was to further emphasize the crippling poverty of the town around it. It looks like all the others. It is dirt brown with small slits for windows. The sky above us is clogged with clothes lines that run across from building to building. I have to duck as we enter through the low doorway. It seems strange that this multi-colored shell-of-a-building was where my grandfather grew up.
In the time since the end of the war and before my grandfather reclaimed the house, the local government was the landlord of the tenants. Under the communist regime, until 1990, no one paid rent. When democracy came the town government collected minimal rent, but once the coal mine closed the tenants couldn’t or wouldn’t pay rent. Since then, an ongoing war has taken place between the tenants and the landlord. In an attempt to drive the tenants out, the government cut the tenants’ power. The tenants started using candles. The government stopped the water, so the tenants removed their toilets as a sign of protest. It is clear that this is a fight that we do not want to be a part of; and yet it felt as if it was our responsibility to have a hand in finding a resolution to this predicament.
The corridor is small, choked with families going about their business. As we passed, they looked up from what they are doing to observe the foreigners. We are the lucky few who can walk through this land, never to return. They have no idea who we are or where we’ve come from. Our guide tells us that several of the tenants pay their rent to the government while the rest have stopped paying entirely. It’s confusing to hear someone talk about the severity of someone’s condition in front of them even though it’s in a different language. It’s hard to believe that through this soil my family’s roots once grew.
I felt so strange. I didn’t have the knowledge or understanding to bridge the monumental gap between my sheltered life in Virginia and the lives of the people around me who had to choose between paying the rent and having a little more food for their families. I felt like I had intruded on these people’s lives. I took a deep breath crawled beneath my own skin as we walked through the building.
The hallways and ceilings are covered with black marks outlining small circles like tear drops. It’s explained to us that because the electricity was cut, the tenants would stick candles to the ceilings which burnt upwards leaving carbon marks on the ceiling. The second floor is almost a complete replica of the first. Despair duplicated in floors, in buildings, in cities. The stairs to the third floor are blocked by a large metal gate. This building, filled with its inhabitants, has degraded so much that the other floors are blocked off.
We ducked into the cramped white colored van and I breathed a sigh of relief sitting behind the fogged windows where the eyes of the inhabitants could not penetrate. We drove through the rest of the town. We pass a fire hydrant where kids are trying to escape from the heavy summer heat.
I remember my dad turned towards me after we had passed the town border, “So what did you think?” I sat there next to my dad watching the road pass beneath the car.
“I don’t know. It was really weird walking around in Grandpa’s building.” My dad looked down at me fondly,
“That’s a good way of putting it. No one really knows how they will react to seeing their past. But, it makes your grandfather really happy that you show interest enough to learn more about him. You know he’s very proud of you, right?”
“Yeah… I know.” I looked down at my feet. My sister, switched places with my father. She looked at me sympathetically and put her arm around me. I nestled into her and closed my eyes. No one said anything during that van ride back to the hotel.
We left, likely never to return to this building in a foreign land. At that time, I couldn’t understand the implications of what I had just seen. I was so used to my life in middle class America where everyone has a job, electricity, and running water. This experience changed how I viewed the world; shattering the microcosm of my beliefs. I realized how little I know of the world. So much of the world is not as well off as I am, until that moment; I hadn’t actually seen any of it.
Since then, I have tried to learn more about the world around me as well as influence it to make it a better place.
Traveling gives me a better understanding of the world around me and a better perspective of my place in it. My trip to Poland was my first experience with the real world where natural beauty and man-made devastation coexist. I’ve been hooked on travel ever since, and plan to continue broadening my horizons through exploring new places.
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