Monday, October 26, 2009


If there was one thing that Kaśka was really excited to show me during my visit to Poland, it was her favorite city, Zakopane. Zakopane, a little mountain city in South Poland on the border to Slovakia is nestled right at the highest mountain ranges in Poland. Kaśka has many friends that live in the city, whom she calls her “second family.” In fact, Kaśka lived in Zakopane for many years, leaving home to pursue her training as a national champion in cross country skiing at the young age of 16.

We barely had any break between our trip to Tarnów back to Kraków before we were joining a carpool with some other friends of Kaśka for the trip to Zakopane. Arriving late in the evening, we got right to bed to be ready for some hiking and exploring in the morning.

Kaśka considers Zakopane to be her favorite place in Poland. She enjoys a quieter life and the bustling life in Kraków is something she says she won’t want to stay in for her entire life. I could see the appeal of Zakopane – it was absolutely beautiful. Small cabins, endless forest, now changing colors because of fall, mountains in the background, it really was picturesque.

Coming into the city the streets are lined with the very traditional polish architecture of the mountain regions, made completely of wood with very steep roofs to handle the deep snow of the winter months.

At night, once we got to the wooden house that we were going to stay at, I couldn’t see anything out the windows, so I really didn’t know what the surroundings were like in the city yet. It was when I woke up that I discovered just how incredible the views were as the morning sunrise hit the inclining mountains of green trees, to reds to ones with golden leaves.

Kaśka was a little bummed because the forecast was not very promising for the mountains – heavy clouds which she said would block a lot of the view. Even so, she really wanted to show me the cable cars and experience the highest part of Poland, so we got our hats and gloves, bundled up, and were out to do some exploring.

The cable cars were divided into two parts since we were going to ascend … meters up the mountains. I was particularly amazed with the changing scenery around me as we smoothly rode up the incline. Just like the image I had out the window in the morning, the colors of the trees outside changed the higher we went – the higher it was, the colder it became, and it was as if I saw all stages of early fall, all the way to winter on the trip up.

The forecasts were right – going up with the cable car you could see the heavy layer of clouds waiting for us to disappear into and essentially lose our views into its opaque mass. This was what the views from the mountains was going to be like, which upset Kaśka a lot – Krzysiu, really, on good day you can see EVERYTHING!

[ Kaśka said this was about the spot of the old photo from my Babcia with other relatives of mine... next time I might get that nice background too! ]

It didn’t bother me though, because for me everything still was amazing. At the top, not only was it Mgła, foggy, but also pada śnieg – snowing! More like a snow storm. We actually would do little trips in different directions about 10 minutes out and ten back and then warm up again before embarking for a new, albeit fog-cloaked, view.

5 minutes out: Should we go furtherrrrrrr?


10 minutes out – snow blasted wind smacking us in the face – Kaśka is now Rudolph: CHOLERRRRRRRRAAA [shit]

I was having a great time, scaring myself looking down into the foggy abyss from the cliffs of the mountain while catching my balance from the slick steps of the pathway. I was even in Slovakia for a moment crossing over the national border on the mountains!

[ One side Poland, the other Slovakia ]

I was impressed with the mountains just as they were, but I know I have a huge incentive to return to the summit once again to see the famed views that have been adored by European artists for centuries from the peaks of the … mountains. I was beginning to understand why Kaśka loved it so much here, but it was only the beginning of things that she wanted to show me in the town.


[ The comforts of chicken noodle soup ]

In addition to all the stops to visit family, there were still some landmarks that I needed to visit in Tarnów. There was a beautiful wooden church in the city – one of the oldest in Poland – that is completely made of wood. I later learned, and saw great pictures, from Ania’s wedding there that was held just a year earlier in the summer. It was small, but the decorations were pretty amazing. Some relatives from Wujek’s side are priests and we were able to get a great private tour looking at the beautiful interior. Even the artwork around the altar was very interesting with special attention to the detail on the hand of the Artist’s rendition of God – notice 6 fingers, it is not a mistake. It was intentional to represent the greatness of God over humans, and for the 6 days that it took to create the earth before the 7th day of rest.

Around the corner from the church was a very old cemetery, with very elaborate and beautiful headstones. Venturing through the detailed carved stones and the large candles and bouquets of flowers, I learned that this was the burial grounds for my great aunt, whom I called Ciocia Hanka, who was the last living sister of my Babcia. I paid my respects, and along with all the other realizations from the huge amount of history and family background I was learning, I was humbled and hopeful to be able to experience Poland side by side with my Babcia. I feel that would be an experience of a lifetime.

After seeing lots of family, lots of pictures, and overall having a very packed day, we were all pretty exhausted. My Ciocia and Wujek’s home in Tarnów is very cozy, and the basement feels more like a cabin than a home. It was getting very cold outside quickly, and everyone seemed to be worried of catching a cold. There was nothing better than to enjoy some soup at home and warm up inside.

That evening in the basement, we started a fire and for dinner cooked some kiełbasa and chicken right over the flames. We ate some great food, dimmed the lights, lit some candles and Wujek started to play some of his old vinyl records starting with the echoing pops and scratches that resulted in the first track of some great classic Polish jazz and rock. We took the chair cushions onto the floor and before we knew it were passed out. Michał took the opportunity to snap some shots of us content from dinner and sleeping on the floor.

Some good soup is always good when it is getting cold out, and it is just one of the small things here in Poland that represents the real sense of comfort I have here. It may be another country, but it really has many of the comforts of home, to the great food, to the warm welcomes of my relatives – even some I have never known before. Kaśka, Michał and I were all having a great time together, and from our adventures and excursions to simply hanging around the fire at night, it really felt perfect.

Putting the pieces together

The previous post highlighted just how happy and great it was to finally meet so many members of my family in Poland. What I did not cover was the overwhelming thoughts and realizations that I had running through my head the entire day that stemmed back from my conversation with Kaśka a few days prior overlooking the Vistula River. At every house I went to, literally, boxes were pulled out with photos and other priceless documents and keepsakes of my family.

It was extremely overwhelming, and that was why it was almost stressful to keep my thoughts straight, because there was just such a huge amount of history that was presented to me in one short weekend.

Some of the pictures were very festive, seeing photos from the 70’s aging with warm nostalgic colors on the fading prints with my aunts and uncles with smoother complexions and fuller heads of hair, Babcia with her siblings and my Dziadzia, even the young smiling face of my mom in a few of the ones from America, with everyone happily together as a large group around great spreads of holiday meals.

In some of the photo albums the photo paper consistently became more clear and of higher quality as new photos of babtisms and communions, even weddings, became part of the next chapter with a new generation growing up.

The pictures with crowds of a large smiling family huddled around each other celebrating were great to see, but digging a little deeper into the boxes shared that these happy times came only after years of trying times, and tragic stories.

This is where I realized how much I thought I knew about myself and my background, and how much I still had to really comprehend and search to understand.

Photos of the ship that my Babcia and Dziadzia took to America, picking up everything and starting a brand new life. Haunting photos that I had never seen of my Babcia at the bedside of her ailing mother. Documents, including a Kenntkarte for my great uncle that was mandatory for possession in German occupied Poland. A letter, fragile, creased and worn sent to my great aunt Hanka, sister of my Babcia, with a scrawled final goodbye message from a close, dear friend that somehow made it out of Auschwitz.

There were framed certificates of Babtisms into the Roman Catholic faith reminding that some of my extended family was not raised Catholic, but Jewish, and books that actually cited some of my relatives with photos [even some of my family in America was in this book!] describing the lives of Jewish families in hiding in Dąbrowa Tarnowska during the holocaust.

This was only a small portion of the things I witnessed, and after afternoons of happy stories over coffee, there were some choked up stories and tears later over photos.

It was all really too fast – decades summed up into minutes, photos summing up complete years and stages of life. The questions were filling my head, from my Babcia’s jewish roots, to the decisions to completely pack up a Family with two children to a country that was unknown and foreign, and how the family continued on to its completion with my Wujek Michaś and my mother being born. Family members left behind, or unheard from for many years passed. How did everyone cope with the fear? In prayer, was there any resentment towards God?

It was impossible not to think too deep – this is the exact overwhelming feeling that Kaśka and I only lightly covered in comparison just nights before.

The bottom line was that there was no way that a little trip to Poland would satisfy my desire to learn about my background and the people, history and events that were part of my family’s and grandparent’s lives. There is a lot I had to learn, a lot of history – from all sides German, Polish, Russian, American – to even begin to piece together the story of my family.

It is safe to say that nothing about visitng Tarnów or Dąbrowa Tarnowska came slowly or lightly. I met family rapidly, heard many stories, lots of Polish, saw many photos – what could I expect – I had been eagerly wanting to visit Poland since I was very young, now it is just time to catch up – and did I learn fast that there was a lot of catching up to do.