I am writing this to document impressions of our recent short visit to part of the land formerly known as East Prussia, now part of Poland. The main emphasis is on the traces that remain of some of my ancestors who emigrated from this area in the late nineteenth century, but I couldn’t resist a little travel commentary along the way though. I hope it adds to the mix. Some of this material parallels another recent blog. I have tried not to duplicate photos,
The map is of northern Poland between Gdansk in the west and the Russian territory of the Kaliningrad Oblast in the east. It is overlayed with the approximate route we followed during a short visit in December 2014. The route is shown blue for the first day, green for the second and orange for the third. The towns and villages of family history interest were, in order visited:
Malbork (formerly Marienburg)
Jasna (formerly Lichtfelde, marked with a pink-purple L)
Mysłice (formerly Miswalde, marked with a green M)
Przezmark (formerly Preußisch Mark, marked with a red P)
Elblag (formerly Elbing)
Milomiłyn (formerly Liebemühl, marked with a brown Lieb)
Słonecznik (formerly Sonnenborn, marked with an orange Son)
Selecting a cheap fare with airline SAS out of Copenhagen saw us walk out of the arrivals hall at Gdansk airport sometime after midnight. Luckily the Hampton Hotel was within walking distance and we collapsed soon after, very tired, onto a wonderful bed with good pillows. After weeks in Germany and Denmark struggling with large down pillows that flatten out under your head, those of the type we are used to at home were a big deal.
Next morning (was it really only a few hours later?) we returned to the air terminal to the Europcar desk. Great service and very helpful. Just a pity the navigation system they gave us had missed some updates and wasn’t aware of the new roads and highways stretching out across Poland. It only took us 20 minutes and 15 km or so of wasted time and u-turns before we found our way out of the airport.
Soon after we learned that our English speaking nav. guide needed to be switched off whenever we entered a roadway less than a few years old. Highway signs were mostly good enough to get us to Malbork. At that point we struck a real hitch. Jasna (Lichtfelde) was not in the system memory. It wanted to take us several hundred km south to another Jasna, which would have been a bit inconvenient. However, as challenges arise, so individuals step up to overcome them. Sue was a navigator par excellence. She needed to be. The rural roads the other side of Malbork are a maze, and signposted seemingly only on the occasional whim of someone or other. Once or twice we stopped to ask directions and people were quite willing to help, but gestures and a stream of Polish wasn’t what was needed. Sue was able to get us to Jasna but I don’t think either of us could retrace the route.
A note about roads in this area: Proceed with great caution. Wide enough for one vehicle, undulating, broken edges and bordered by thick black mud (it had been raining). Not that these things seemed to bother locals. Suffice to say it was an experience.
Malbork castle was heavily war damaged in 1945 but has been mostly restored. There are hundreds of photos of it on google images and, as space is short, I didn’t put one here. Instead I have shown one of the few pre-war buildings still standing in the town. It still carries scars from what I presume is war damage.
This seemed to be a recurring theme in this area of Poland: Neglect and gradual decay; but more on that later.
Anyway, back to Jasna, and to the family history quest. First impressions were good. We first sighted the village across cultivated fields.
The good impressions lasted until we drove into the village. It was tired, dishevelled, messy, unkempt. Each time we stopped the car and got out, dogs, big mean ones, would start to bark and move threateningly towards fences. Not speaking any Polish, not feeling particularly welcome, and not trusting in the integrity of the wire fences, we chose to drive around rather than walk. A strange feeling: rather like something out of a B grade movie where curtains moved in windows as we passed by. Perhaps we imagined it.
The two photos above are of the same street scene (slightly different perspective). The first is dated around 1900. The second taken by me. The building in the foreground was a guesthouse according to the caption, but is now the village shop. The old Evangelical Church building in the left background is still there in the later photo, but is missing its spire and is now used as a private residence.
We stopped outside the former church but were not sure what we would be dealing with if we entered, so had to be content with this photo. I felt a sadness then and it continues now, that the place in which my ancestors probably worshipped had been treated like this
An old map shows a cemetery just to the rear of this building. There was no access path and in light of what we discovered elsewhere, there would have been little point in visiting, even if it were still there, as the grave stones would have been in a bad way. I doubt if any would still survive. We drove to the site of the new cemetery in the village but there were only recent Polish graves and the one person who was there could not speak English or German. Sign language was not equal to the task.
Once more around the village to snap a few buildings which looked as though they might be from the late nineteenth century. Here’s one:
Each one dilapidated. Each one unlikely to still be around after one more generation. A sad little village on hard times and seemingly going nowhere. We were to drive through many like this in the next three days. Sue’s verdict? Hovels; no pride. Poverty does that to people anywhere I guess.
We stayed in Elblag for the two nights. Dwor Bieland is a beautifully restored old manor house on the outskirts of Elblag. Surprisingly reasonably priced at 983 Zlotys (about 370 Australian dollars) including meals and drinks for our stay, the surroundings took us back through the decades.
The property has seen better times, but that is merely a detail in passing. It was a rare treat to stay at such a place, where you were encouraged to imagine a less complicated time, when people dressed and came down for dinner. The evening meal began with a vodka (on request) and continued through three courses of tasty traditional Polish food accompanied by wine, although our discovery that the wine was Chilean took a little of the shine away. After the meal it was a short amble up the stairs to our room. I could get used to such a life.
Two photos inside Dwor Bieland. One a close-up of Christmas tree decorations and the other of the dining room:
Jasna (Lichtfelde) was the birthplace of Carl Julius Krause (my great great Grandfather) in January 1838. Records have a number of his siblings born here too. There is evidence that one of his younger brothers was killed on 27 November 1870 in the Battle of Amiens during the Franco-Prussian War as a member of the 44th Regiment of Ostprueßen Infanterie. I have no information about any of the others. Perhaps some of them or their descendants could have remained in the area until the end of the Second World War, when virtually all ethnic Germans were expelled.
As we left Lichtfelde the vehicle’s navigation system decided it would cooperate again and gave us a fix on the next village: Mysłice (Miswalde), where Carl’s father (Friedrich Wilhelm Krause) lived. Whereas Carl was at different times a labourer, farmer and pastrycook, his father was a wheelwright.
At Mysłice (Miswalde) we encountered our first old German graves! A couple were in reasonable condition. The remainder were not.
The village of Przezmark (Preußisch Mark) lies only 5 km or so west of Mysłice (Miswalde). This view shows a tower which is part of castle ruins. The foundations and the moat can still be seen from behind the church pictured below. Of all the villages we visited, Przezmark stood out as being slightly prosperous, and perhaps because of that, having some civic pride.
The village church remains pretty much as it was in the old photo above. Like all churches in the area though, it was locked. Entry was not possible. I tried to visualise Friedrich Wilhelm Krause and his family attending church here in their Sunday best all those years ago. It wasn’t difficult. A strange, unfamiliar feeling to be surrounded by spirits from long ago.
At this stage we called it a day and headed to Elbing following the E77 freeway. No help from the navigation system as according to it, E77 did not exist. On the flip side, it showed that following Polish road signs was indeed possible. Once we turned off into Elbing the navigation system became helpful again and we followed it to Blor Bieland Manor House on the outskirts of the city.
In the late afternoon we drove into Elblag and found it to be a happy, thriving city with a centre completely rebuilt after being completely destroyed in 1945. Apparently the rebuilding was done with the help of old photographs so the new Elblag resembles the old Elbing closely. Of all the places we visited in this part of Poland, Elblag, with its quaint trams, cobbled streets and colourful buildings, had a good feel about it and seemed to offer hope and wellbeing to its inhabitants. I couldn’t help thinking that I would enjoy living there, which isn’t something I would say of many other places in the region.
According to records, Elbing was the birthplace of my great great Grandmother, Louise Auguste Krause (nee Wolff) in 1843.
Our run of optimism was not to last long. The next day we drove back down highway E77 from Elblag to find Milomłyn (Liebemühl). Highways such as the E77 are world class and have a 120 km/hr limit, but it would be nice if, while using them, our out-dated navigation system didn’t think we were driving off road through fields!
I have included below a plan of Liebemühl from 1939. The town today bears little resemblance, apart from the church which is obviously the same one from old photos. Even the central square has disappeared along with almost all of the original buildings, although the creek still runs through the centre of the town and the road pattern is pretty much the same. Two plausible reasons for this change are that there may have been heavy fighting for the town in 1945, or that there may have been a major fire some time after the war. I haven’t been able to find out which is correct. No one, it seems, wants to publish anything on the net about it. Like so much in this land, what has happened to Milomłyn epitomises a wall of silence; a cloud of unknowing, that seems to have hovered since 1945.
Milomłyn today is a vestige of what it was, and a none too clean one at that. We were excited to find public toilets (a rarity) until we opened the door. We have been trying to put the sight we encountered out of mind ever since. The plumbing of both toilets appeared to have been blocked for quite a while. This state of affairs had not deterred multiple users. In my humble opinion, people may be poor, but they can still choose not to live like pigs.
Two of my great great (not sure how many greats) Aunts were born here. I would like to think it was once a more pleasant place than it is today.
The road from Milomłyn to Słonecznik (Sonnenborn) was a welcome one. twisting through pine and beech forests and skirting a number of lakes, it was stirring and seductively beautiful. Some of the lakes had holiday cabins with canoes lying beside them.
Beginning with the composite photo of old images, the guesthouse at top left is still in good condition and now functions as the village shop. It appears to have changed very little since those times apart from a couple of high windows having been bricked up.
The church (bottom right in the composite is behind trees but the steeple can be seen. It too appears to have survived intact. A pity that it was locked. I have no idea what the interior is like. As we parked our car and walked over to the church a lady hurried across the road toward us. She spoke no English but amazingly spoke good German. She told us her ‘Oma’ had been German and had lived in Sonnenborn before 1945. She also related proudly that she was the one who kept the church grounds clean and tidy. After a quick outside tour and graciously allowing Sue to use her toilet (which after the traumatic experience in Milomłyn was greatly appreciated) she asked if we had any Zlotys for her. I happily gave her a ten Zloty note which quickly disappeared. ‘Rich’ tourists are a fair touch in an area as economically depressed as this one
I knew there had been a Bahnhof (railway station) in the village as there was a photo of it top right in the old composite. The lady admitted there had been one, but seemed reluctant to show us, saying it was in a bad state and not worth photographing. Asked about a cemetery she pointed in the direction of fields beside the church and seemed to think that was enough information. There were no obvious graves or even traces of where they had been, which was a pity as the Krause family lost a two year old daughter to Typhus here and I would have liked to pay my respects. We could find only one remnant of a grave stone (pictured above) in front of the church.
Although it was nice to meet this lady and talk with her, so often over the course if these two days, I felt the weight of unmet expectations as we drove away. It was interesting at least to see some lingering presence of the old Prussian times: the language bequeathed to a lady by her long gone grandmother. She told me her surname but it was not German. My language ability was not up to finding out the details of how and why the family had stayed when others had been expelled. It will have to join the long list of continuing mysteries.
Travelling north from Słonecznik on the way to Frombork on the coast, there were many more villages and towns amidst rolling farmland interrupted by occasional forests. There were also incredible sights here and there. A gutted, roofless four storeyed palace with many windows, all without glass appeared off to the left a half an hour or so north of Słonecznik. It may have been another casualty of the war, or maybe of the post war government’s dream of a socialist, classless utopia. Either way, I wish I had stopped to photograph it.
The drive to Frombork marked the end of family history research here and the start of a quick foray into another kind of history: A visit to the place where Nicholas Copernicus, the famous fifteenth century Polish astronomer lived. The museum in the cathedral grounds is worth visiting. Unfortunately, once again, we found the cathedral locked. Very frustrating! Did they think we would steal something? Believe me. There is no reason to travel out of your way to Frombork apart from visiting the cathedral and its museum, especially in winter.
On the final day we drove out across the Elblag Canal onto a misty E28 headed for Nowy Dwor, and eventually, via a maze of direction changes, to Sztutowo and the long narrow sand spit extending north east almost to Kaliningrad. (The navigation system had decided to behave itself on this morning).
Sztutowo is the site of a former Nazi concentration camp and there is a museum there for those interested in making the journey to this out of the way area on the fringe of the Baltic Sea. We were pressed for time and didn’t stop, prefering instead a short exploration of the wider area. It appears to be a popular summer holiday destination for Poles, but beach houses and marinas lay unattended on that cold, showery day in December. Sand dunes and pine forests kissed the reedy banks of the long lagoon, which for centuries has provided access to the sea for Elblag merchants. Prior to 1945 Elblag had a submarine shipyard. The submarines used to make their way out to the Baltic via this lagoon.
Following a broad arc back through low lying farmland and a few relatively prosperous looking villages we reached Gdansk around lunch time. The rain had stopped so we parked the car and walked through the centre of the city to get a feel of the place. It was the end of our short stay in Poland and we hadn’t expected much but we were pleasantly surprised, even delighted by this thriving city which has not forgotten its history in its march to prosperity.
The old city centre, destroyed in the second world war and neglected in the years following, has been revitalised and restored. Shops selling quality amber jewellery are plentiful, as are places to eat and drink. Prices are reasonable. We would have liked to spend more time in Gdansk, but the airport deadline was looming.
Three days spent driving around this area could only ever allow a glimpse of what it has to offer. Showing a fascinating mixture of rural beauty, history, neglect, depression, and urban vitality, the area from Gdansk to Frombork along the coast and 100 km inland was the highlight of our European visit, and not only from a family history perspective. This tiny corner of Poland has real and untapped tourism potential.
Oh, and one thing. They could start by signposting the way out of Gdansk airport. Our intuition was good but not good enough to work it out for ourselves.