Memory in Poland: Notes from a recent visit - June 8 – 23, 2014
My wife and I served abroad, first as teachers in Uganda, and then with the now defunct United States Information Agency in Libya, Somalia, South Africa, Poland and the Russian Federation. We were in Poland 1974 – 1978. Our last Foreign Service assignment was in Russia 1996 – 1998. My wife’s maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from Podlaskie in Poland just before the outbreak of World War I. We first visited Podlaskie, more specifically the City of Lomza and the towns of Kolno and Zimno, in 1974, in search of the birth records of my wife’s maternal grandparents: Franciszek Krzynowek and Maria Nikiel. We found those records in 1974 in a small Catholic Church adjacent to the Cathedral of St/ Michael the Archangel in Lomza. The records were in Russian. Between 1792 and 1918 Poland was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria.
Lomza ended up being in the part of Poland taken over by Russia. During these 123 years of occupation it was difficult to be Polish in what had been Poland. It was difficult to practice the Catholic religion and nearly impossible to study the Polish language. Polish nationality, language, and culture was driven underground and only survived thanks to the steadfast efforts of efforts of the Catholic Church and Polish artists and writers as well as Polish nationalist activists who kept Polish culture and traditions alive.
When asked about why he had decided to immigrate to the United States, my wife’s grandfather, Franciszek, said that there were too many people trying to live off too little land and that the long, 20 kilometer, walk to church on Sunday, from Zimno to Lomza, was grueling – especially during Poland’s long hard winters. He and his wife Maria never really talked much about the occupation and partition of Poland. They were farmers trying to eke out an existence on the land of northwest Poland which is not especially rich – more suited to forests than to crops. So they were not focused on Poland’s status as a country other than to say that they lived close to the Russian and German borders, in fact they were then living in Russian-occupied Poland near the order with Prussia but they considered themselves Poles living on their own land. Franciszek said that he had heard good things about Poles who had immigrated to the U.S. So in 1910, Franciszek and Maria and their sons Bronislaw and Wladyslaw and daughter Nora, immigrated to central Massachusetts
in seek of a better future. Within four years Franciszek was able to purchase a 60 acre farm and within ten years of their arrival in the United States three more children had been born: Natalia, Edward, and Rudolph. All of their children completed secondary school and three of their sons served in the U.S. armed Forces during World War II. The fourth son was deferred from service because of he held a senior position in the defense industry.
Visits to Podlaskie:
Because of these family connections, we have visited this region several times over the past forty years. On our first visit in 1974, it was still very clear why Maria and Franciszek had immigrated. Lomza was then a typically run-down Polish provincial city whose people were trying to eke an existence out of small farming and mis-guided, communist, centrally planned industrial and commercial activity. And the long walk from Zimno to Lomza for church was still a weekly struggle over muddy roads especially in the winter.
Over the decades since the collapse of the communism in Poland, we watched Podlaskie come back to life. However, what has happened in most recent years is nothing short of miraculous. It is now hard to find an unpaved road between villages and it is also hard to find a farm without a new house. The living standard has risen dramatically. New private, upper middle class housing neighborhoods have sprung up during the past two years even in the suburbs of Lomza and Kolno. And virtually every square inch of land in Podlaskie is under cultivation. It has become difficult to recognize where one is now along the streets and roads of the region because of the new housing, and industrial, and commercial buildings that have sprung up. The road sides are strewn with new mini-marts, gas stations and restaurants. And the signs ofprosperity are everywhere in the form of good design, cleanliness, and the customer-friendly attitude of proprietors. Podlaskie is truly a region transformed from its drab past.
Corpus Christi in Lomza:
On our most recent visit we decided to spend the Corpus Christ Holiday, the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday, in Lomza, the capital of Podlaskie, where there is a strong tradition for Catholics to participate in an enormous procession around the city following Mass at the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel. This Holiday kicks-off the summer season in Poland. The Mass took place at St. Michael’s from 10:00 –11:00 AM. In attendance were over 2,000 people. The average age of the congregation appeared to have been over 60 years of age. There were a large number of obviously very elderly parishioners in attendance. People were dressed very prosperously if not elegantly. The congregation appeared to be evenly split between city-dwellers and farmers or people who work outside judging from the deep sun tans of half the congregation. It was at first depressing to see so few young people in the congregation but I quickly realized that this large gathering of elderly people was yet another sign of how life had improved in Poland over recent years. Most of the people in attendance at the Mass were beyond the life expectancy of people in contemporary Russia.
The Mass was celebrated by the Archbishop of Lomza, who appeared to be in his early 50’s with the aged Bishop emeritus also on the altar. While the age of the congregation seemed high, the opposite was the case for the clergy celebrating the Mass. Over 100 priests and monks streamed onto the altar to assist the Archbishop. The average age of the assembled clergy appeared to be not over 40. (It would be difficult to find 100 ordained Catholic clergymen assembled in any one location across the United States these days let alone over 60 young priests under the age of 40!) The Archbishop’s homily, unsurprisingly, focused on the necessity for steadfast observance of church traditions and beliefs in light of the current troubling situation along Poland’s borders. It is apparent that the church is alive and well at least in the Archdiocese of Lomza. The youth of the clergy was striking!
With the conclusion of the Mass, the assemblage of congregants and clergy, over 2000 people, proceeded on foot over the next three hours from the Cathedral to each significant historical and religious site in Lomza where they were welcomed by large numbers of people who had been unable to get into the packed cathedral.
Lomza was declared an archdiocese by Pope Pius XI in 1925 some seven years after Poland regained its independence following World War l. The rebirth of Poland as an independent country came about as a result of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson having listed this as his 14th point at the ill-fated Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I. President Wilson is remembered to this day in Poland as a hero for insisting on Polish independence.
Remembrance in Poland:
Because of the suppression the church was forced to endure under Russian occupation, even Catholic Church documents had to be issued in the Russian language. We discovered my wife’s grandparent’s birth and marriage records recorded in Russian during the partition in a small church adjacent to St. Michael’s Cathedral. Interestingly, the tourist brochure describing details of architecture in Lomza
calls this small church a serkief (Russian for church). The tourist brochure says that this small church was transformed into a Catholic church after World War I. But it has no name. There is no sign on the outside dedicating it to a catholic saint and the interior décor is very obviously Byzantine in style. It is very beautiful, very beautifully restored, and Mass is said there daily. I asked about the town for the name of the church. Everyone I spoke with referred to it only as the small church – maly kosciolek. I eventually found some Russian language tourist information that describes this small church as having been built in the late 17th Century as a Russian Orthodox Church with five onion domes and consecrated as the Church of the Holy Trinity. This same Russian tourist information says that the church was re-consecrated as a Roman Catholic Church after World War I when the five onion domes were removed and replaced by a single Catholic steeple.
Poles make a very concerted effort to remember their past. The years of partition were followed by 21 years of turbulent independence between 1918 and 1939. And then in September of 1939 Poland was invaded from the west by Nazi Germany and the east by the Soviet Union. It was revealed that Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany had concluded the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement calling for the two countries to absorb Poland. Following World War II Poland was betrayed by the U.S. and Western Europe powers at Yalta when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed that Poland would fall under Soviet domination. Polish troops who had fought beside Britain and the West against Hitler were not allowed to participate in the victory parade in London at the end of the war because the U.K. and the West had decided to recognize the Soviet Union and Soviet Dictator Stalin objected to any recognition being given to Poland for its role in defeating Nazi Germany.
Many Poles believe that the past 25 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, have perhaps been Poland’s best quarter century of the past 300 years. Poles are dedicated to processions on Corpus Christi when they very publically display their religion. They also are careful to celebrate significant events or atrocities that they have endured. The Maly Kosciolek in Lomza had a sign on its gate in mid-June announcing that a Mass would be celebrated the next week in memory of the people from Lomza who had been sent into exile in Siberia during the Soviet occupation. And all over Poland now new plaques have appeared since the April canonization of Pope John Paul II this past spring which prominently emphasize the heroic role he played during the period of Nazi and Soviet occupation of Poland. Much in the manner that we point out historic battlegrounds of importance in our history here in the U.S., all along the by-roads of northeastern Poland are to be found signs saying "Slady Front Wschodnie," Traces of the Eastern Front, which demarcate where significant battles took place during the Soviet invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland in the autumn of 1939. Poles make concerted efforts to assure that their young people are aware of their country’s history both through religion and also in what is taught in Polish schools but perhaps most important of all in what they are taught by their parents growing up.
over the past twenty-five years is remarkable. But what drives this phenomenon? The fact that Poland now exists independently and that individual human rights, including property rights, are now guaranteed in a democratic system of government is fundamental to understanding why Poles have leapt at the chance to develop their country. This is a sign of the same resilience that Franciszek Krzynowek, my wife’s grandfather, demonstrated when after only four years in the U.S. he became the owner of a farm in New England. Poles are industrious and willing to take advantage of opportunity when it comes their way. Also, fundamental to understanding why Poland has recovered so quickly is the security that Poles feel they have now as members of NATO. They believe that they will not be betrayed again by the West. They believe that their borders are now sacrosanct.
But this is not to say that they are not concerned about what is going on now along their eastern border - thus their calls for a greater NATO presence in their country. Poles are hopeful that the west, most especially the U.S., will remember their and our past now as they see turmoil once again on their borders.
****Posted here with the kind authorization of the Ambassador.
Gosende image from; Partition of Poland image from; Massachusetts image from; Podlaskie image from; Lomza image from; Renaissance image from (all images posted by the blogger, not the author, of the above piece).