Saturday, 5 February 2011

My Grandfather's Childhood Home

I went to Poland in April 2005. The Polish Pope, Jan Pawel 2 (John Paul 2) had just died and the whole country was in mourning and almost every house had a photo of him in the window. I had travelled by train from London, via Brussels and Berlin, and almost as soon as I arrived in Poland and got off the train at Poznan I felt a sense of heightened emotion. Was it me? Was I exhausted from the long journey and worried at being alone in a country where I knew barely a word? Surely I wasn’t responding to the fact that I was in the country of my grandfather’s birth. Or was I? Or was it the fact that my father in law back in France was gravely ill, terminally ill as it turned out? Or was I tapping into the grief of the Polish people for their dead Pope? Whatever it was, I couldn’t deny that I felt in a tremulous state that first night in the hotel.  

The next morning I hired a car and drove straight to the village where my grandfather had been born: Wilhelmsdorf (now called Polichno).

It is a tiny, unremarkable hamlet of a few houses along a strip of road with a high, wooded bank on one side and flat, sandy fields on the other.

The road through Wilhelmsdorf (Polichno)

The wooded bank above the road

The fields run down to the River Notec (The River Nezte, when my Grandfather lived there) about half a mile away. It looked poor agricultural land and, on that cold, damp April day the whole place seemed rather bleak.

The fields run down to the River Notec beyond the line of trees 

I had no idea if my Grandfather’s house was still standing and didn’t really know how to begin looking for it. I walked up and down the length of the hamlet and saw some people gazing curiously, even suspiciously, at me. But with the few words of halting Polish that I had learned – “Hello…Goodbye…Can I have a room?...How much?...I am English…etc” I was sure that I would not get very far. I felt reluctant to try and I actually got back into my hire car and started to drive away. Then shame at my cowardice made me turn around. I had to give it a go.

I had a photo of my Grandfather’s house with some of his family outside it, taken in about 1905 –over thirty years after he had left. The family doesn’t look poverty-stricken and obviously the money which my grandfather and a couple of his brothers had sent home (he from London, they from the USA) had made a difference. Perhaps if I showed it to people they would recognize it.

My Grandfather (standing on something at the very back ) and
some of his family in front of their home in Wilhelmsdorf. The
little lad sitting at the front looks unnervingly like all of
my nephews when they were young.

I tried at a house at the very end of the hamlet where an old man was working in the garden. I pointed to the photo. I looked up ‘grandfather’ (dziadek), ‘house’(dom), ‘I am searching’(szukam) in my Polish phrase book and stumbled through the words. The man shook his head then signalled me to wait while he went into his house. He came back with his wife and I repeated the pointing and the stumbling words. I also added the name ‘Hinz’ – the name of my grandfather’s family and the name he kept all his life even when my father and his twin brother changed theirs to Hinton during the First World War to assert their Englishness when they volunteered for the army.

As I said the name I suddenly realised that it might provoke a negative reaction in this Polish couple, being so obviously of Prussian rather than Polish origin – my ancestors must have been part of that wave of immigrants who had been encouraged to move into the territory after 1795. But, no, they simply repeated the name a couple of times, then shook their heads sorrowfully. They couldn’t help.

A couple of houses further down I tried again, asking an old woman hanging up her washing in the garden. But once more, it was a shake of the head and “Przykro mi - ‘Sorry’.

I was about to give up when I had a bit of luck. A woman was just coming out of the tiny church/chapel on the other side of the road. She was carrying some faded flowers which she put into a dustbin. She lifted her hand and waved to me, giving me the courage to have one last try……….

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