Well yes. I concede we have had a string of memorable days on this trip. Today stands alone though. Out there by itself. To be held in memory; picked over; reflected upon; wondered at; and no doubt, in time, air-brushed as it moves into legend.
(An old Prussian farm building – presumably – photographed in passing from our car window))
Today I touched my ancestors. Gently, blindfold, tentatively and without closure; but touched them nonetheless. Sue and I drove into the backblocks of rural Poland and trod the ground of my great great grandparents. I'm not yet sure exactly how I feel about the experience. I guess it will take time to munch over things. What I do feel is a kind of elation, even though there was not the closure I expected after months and years of looking forward to the visit.
I now realise there are things I will never know; mysteries that will remain mysteries; but somehow it seems enough to have walked around the places where they were born, grew up, worked, married and where their parents died. Not that there is much left now of all of that. Following the Second World War virtually all ethnic Germans were expelled from these areas and their houses, land, villages and churches taken over by Polish settlers. The land is now part of Poland. Virtually all traces of its Prussian heritage have disappeared, apart from a few old dilapidated farm buildings here and there, and village churches, which, if they were not decommissioned during the years of communist rule, are now all used as Catholic parish churches.
(One that didn't make the cut: This former Evangelical Church in the village of Jasna (formerly called Lichtfelde, where Carl Julius Krause, my Great Great Grandfather, was born) is now a private residence. Time has not been kind. The old cemetery behind it was out of bounds, mainly because of the angry mean large dogs who looked the kind not to ask questions).
Lichtfelde (Jasna) is now a shadow of what it looks in old photos. There is a cloak of downcastness (is that a word?) lying over it. Depression, isolation and hopelessness obscured any other possible impression for two casual day visitors who drove in, parked their car, and mainly because the village dogs seemed none too pleased to see or hear us, got back in their car and drove on.
But I am getting ahead of the script. Our experience of Polish rural roads needs a mention.
An eclectic mixture of old cobble stones, paving bricks and bitumen resting on thick black soil, too narrow for two vehicles to pass, buckled, pitted and deformed by swelling sodden soil underneath, and bordered by thick, sticky black mud, just about sums it up. The picture above shows a good stretch: one on which I was game enough to stop and use a camera. Most of the time I was wrestling with the steering wheel which pitched about randomly with dips and hillocks on the road surface. That is when I didn't have two wheels off the road and into the mud in an effort to avoid 10 tonne trucks barreling towards us at suicidal speed, or being overtaken on an impossibly dangerous stretch by impatient local car drivers who thought 80 km/hr was for girls. In no way do I intend any disrespect for Polish roads or drivers. The areas we drove through were poor farming districts. I understand the roads are being improved as funds allow. As for driver behaviour? Well, there are idiots on good roads too.
The dream-like beauty of the landscape, enhanced by an ethereal mist, made up for the roads of course.
(Top: Preussische Mark (Pzrezmark))
(Second: Lichtfelde (Jasna))
The lands of my ancestors: their history erased; their old culture and language replaced. The villages have long since been renamed. Even the gravestones are neglected and forgotten.
I am trying to recall the translated and paraphrased words of Arno Surminski, a German speaking author who was born nearby. He was expressing a melancholic longing for the family and culture he had lost, having been orphaned as a 10 year old by the advancing Soviet troops in 1945, repatriated to West Germany, and raised by a foster family:
“My homeland Prussia no longer exists except in the fading memories of a dwindling number of old people, and in one or two brand names of beer and cheese. It is as if someone dug a great hole, tipped my culture and history into it, and covered it over”.
My connection to old Prussia is a good deal more tenuous than Arno Surminski's. Nevertheless some sadness mixes with the elation from today. I feel a small part of the loss Surminski speaks about. In my mind tonight I glide back through the years to 1884, when a husband and wife with their five children (the youngest 1 year old (my great grandmother, Emilie Charlotte Krause) ) packed up and left this land for a country on the other side of the world.
Through twists and turns, detours, setbacks and the passing of time, those lives metamorphosed into mine. It was indeed a strange thing to come back (it felt a little like I was returning), after 130 years. Mostly it is all gone now, the home of my ancestors. They are at peace. They were not able to leave a legacy of stones, buildings and monuments in their homeland. They left it instead in the DNA of their descendants.
(A couple of untended and almost forgotten nineteenth century Prussian graves in the village of Myślice (formerly Miswalde) )
Endings and beginnings; joy and sadness; the march of life; the inevitability of death; the transience of it all.
These are some of the things I am reflecting on after a day like no other.