Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dobrzyki at last

I finally made it to my Grandmother's hometown yesterday. I rented a car from Avis in Gdansk, a very expensive rental as it turns out (more on that later), and drove there yesterday morning. I have been looking at the general area with the help of Google Earth for a couple of years, visualizing the general layout of the towns and roads and looking at photos of the nearby lakes, posted by Google Earth users, which are a popular vacation destination for many Poles, so I knew what to expect in general.

My first stop was Zalewo, the bigger town my grandmother walked to for things like coffee and sugar. In 1907 she knew it as Saalfeld. Saalfeld and Weinsdorf were located in the German province of East Prussia before the two world wars. Zalewo has a nice brick and stone church and some quaint old homes and buildings, a store, a school, some type of industry, a town square and a few streets. It also serves as an entry point to Ewingi Lake (Ewing See) and the rest of the neighborhood lake system via the canal that my grandmother knew only as "the river". Zalewo has a small recreation area and docks, a boat launch ramp, etc. In one of the photos below some graffiti I saw uses the word Saalfeld which means the artist was aware of the town's history in East Prussia. I also include a scan of the little map I sketched from a ca.1880 Russian Atlas in the Boston Public Library in 1976 after Grandma first told me about her homeland. Using Google Earth I inspected the various lakes in the general region until something lined up with my sketch. And one day I found them — Ewing See, Geserich See and the two towns, Saalfeld and Weinsdorf, located right where they should be according to my drawing. I had found the place I had wondered about for years. By the way, the reason I mention only my Grandmother in these posts is because I never met my Grandfather. He died in Buffalo in the 1918 influenza pandemic in which millions died worldwide. Grandma raised their six children alone after that. She outlived all but two of them. I had questioned her closely about the name of the river but she simply didn't know it — it was merely "the river".

Note, January 2015: In my original post, I had included a portion of a map of Prussia I had found online. The waterway my grandmother told me about was just barely visible on that one. I just located a much better map on the wonderful David Rumsey Historical Map Collection site. The level of detail in this image is fantastic. The main map is quite large and is a composite of 674 sheets scanned at 800 dpi. (More details are at the end of this post.)

Map of Germany, published by Reichsamt fur Landesaufnahme, 1893
courtesy of David Rumsey
In this image the canal is clearly visible (click on it for the full size image) and even has a name, Weinsdorfer Canal.

A complete album of photos resides on the Picasaweb server at Dobrzyki Scenes. My Couchsurfing host, a lovely lady named Ewa, with much patience told me how to pronounce that name but I failed completely. The best I can come up with is DUB-zhuk-ee for a phonetic approximation. But the zhuk part is spoken with a slight roll of the tongue. Tricky, very tricky.

The shot above is from Google Earth. My GPS track and dates is shown in red. I added the historical town names when I edited the screenshot. The two photos below are aerial photos of the countryside that surrounds Dobrzyki. I "borrowed" these from the Google Earth community.

It's obvious why this area is such a draw for outdoor recreation. Below are two scenes from Zalewo.


After Zalewo I turned south on the only road that goes to Dobrzyki. The countryside around here reminded me of certain parts of NY state; gently rolling hills, dairy farms, and small towns close together. Coincidentally, the area grandma lived for most of her life after immigrating was very similar to this. The roads all around are lined with big oak trees, old trees, trees that I'm certain were here when my grandparents walked, drove a wagon(?), to Saalfeld on shopping days over this very road. The mental image I had of them walking alongside these same fields and wooded areas, seeing the same farmhouses I was now seeing, catching glimpses of the church steeple in Saalfeld through breaks in the forest, was very powerful.

Suddenly I came round a bend in the road and saw some houses up ahead and noted a little bridge with a road sign on it; DOBRZYKI. At the same time I spotted a cemetery on the right hand side of the road. I immediately pulled over to look at the names on the gravestones hoping to find a Schwede or a Gunther. Alas, it was a Polish cemetery, beautifully decorated with flowers and oil lanterns for almost every grave. At night you can easily see the Polish cemeteries on the surrounding hillsides because they're all lit up. Apparently, relatives of the deceased go there every night to light the oil lamps. (I later learned that November is a special month for honoring the dead.) I looked all around. I saw no German names nor did I see any older headstones of any sort. Before going back to the car I had the realization that this little bridge just ahead must cross grandmother's "river." Not wanting to rush into the town, wanting to savor my discovery, I began to look more closely at the little waterway below me.

Grandma's "river" looking north
I thought, this is it, one of the stronger images that had been playing in my mind for years; the river that is really a canal. Grandma had told me, "we lived near a river." But how near? I wondered. Was it one of those first houses in the town just across the bridge? Or did she consider the entire town to be close to the river, which of course it is? These are questions for which I'll never have an answer. But the waterway in the photo is most certainly the river she told me about.  (The map below shows the locations of the cemeteries relative to the canal.)

Note- May 20, 2012: Google Earth has new imagery of this area so I updated the blog with the image below. The center of this map is at approximately N53.811563 and E19.585230 if you want to explore the neighborhood in Google Earth.

The town of Dobrzyki was known as Weinsdorf in 1907
Despite the damp chill in the air I went back to the car and packed a small lunch for a picnic. As I reached into the car for my daypack I felt a muscle in my back tense up and a pain shoot through it. Damn! My back can't go out now! I thought. I gingerly crossed the road and spotted an overgrown path leading north alongside the canal. I began to follow it. Right away I noticed a grave marker, and on it was a German name! One Karl Herold (1874-1929), Schmiedemeister, lies here, a blacksmith (one possible translation of Schmiedemeister), who was presumably here at the same time as my grandmother. 

Further along the path I saw buried in vegetation and fallen leaves what must have been stone bases to put over graves and some low upright posts made of stone, delineators of this old cemetery. I surmise that headstones attached to the bases in some way. By dumb luck I had stumbled across an old German cemetery! I looked all over the area as best I could and at first could find no other headstones. In reviewing my photos weeks later I saw that there was actually a German headstone in those ruins that I had missed before. Below is a photo of that headstone. (Click on the photo for an enlarged version.)

Single German headstone in the abandoned German cemetery

Now I'm only guessing but I'd be willing to bet that when Germany lost WWII the German residents of this town left in droves. All of Europe was in chaos, thousands were stuck many miles from home, some had been in prison camps or been worked like slaves by the Nazi regime, the roads were filled with refugees for months; in some cases entire cities and towns were utterly destroyed and there was strong anti-German sentiment in lands that had been occupied during WWII or colonized earlier by Germany. At any rate there were no other German headstones in evidence. Yet we know Germans inhabited Weinsdorf for many years. Were the headstones removed for some legitimate reason? Were they stolen or destroyed? Were the bodies disinterred and moved? More questions without any easy answers.

I had my lunch on what might have been the old towpath alongside the canal. While I ate I listened to the sounds of dogs barking and roosters crowing in town just a few yards distant— probably the same sounds Grandma used to hear when she was fetching water from near where I was sitting. I reckon nothing much has changed in the hundred years since she left. After my lunch, I headed into town.
Dobrzyki is a tiny little town. One main street, the highway I drove coming from Zalewo, a couple of unpaved roads going to some smaller towns on nearby Lake Jeziorak (Geserich See in grandmother's day), no grocery store, no gas station, just a few old homes and farmhouses, a few restored homes sprinkled into the mix, a newer school building, and that's about it. I imagine the residents still drive to Zalewo to do their shopping. After all I had done to get here, I must admit it was a bit of a letdown. The gray skies and November chill didn't help any. But I walked back and forth on the street shooting photos of practically every house along the way. Again, those photos, which will be of interest mostly to family members, are in a Picasaweb album called Dobryzki Scenes. Here's my favorite house photo from that album. One wonders if my Grandmother knew this house, perhaps even lived in it.

Next I drove to the tiny town of Matyty (Motitten on my map) on Lake Jeziorak and almost got stuck in mud when I attempted to reach another little town, Kiemiany. So I turned the car around and headed to the next town on my list, Boreczno or Schnellwalde, which is where my family members were baptized. At the time it was an Evangelical Lutheran church but I would think it's Roman Catholic now. This town is even smaller than Dobrzyki. The church, a small school, and a few houses comprise the town proper. A plaque on the parsonage labeled it as a historical site and that the church was built in 1730. I peeked inside but I couldn't get in as there was a wrought iron gate barring entrance. At this point, there was a chill wind blowing and although I had wanted to do more exploring, my back was killing me so I headed back to Elblag. Unfortunately, when  I tweak my back and it "goes out" l
ike it did earlier it's extremely painful and can put me down for days or even weeks. The absolute last thing I want to be doing when that happens is driving a car. Reluctantly I turned around, took one last look at Weinsdorf, and then headed back to Elblag with my curiosity reasonably satisfied and my back screaming, lay down, lay down!

I'm writing this sitting in a too small chair and will probably pay for it later. Tomorrow I return to Berlin and am looking forward to a chamber music concert on Saturday. Luckily I have some powerful pain pills with me as well as a muscle relaxant from my last back problem this spring. I'm betting, perhaps hoping is a better term, that I can nip this in the bud. Sans back injury I would have liked to ask around, see if anyone spoke English, ask about the history of the town. But, I was in acute pain. It was with great reluctance that I took leave of Dobrzyki after only a few hours.

This morning I drove back to Gdansk to return the car. It took about 15 minutes before I could walk fully upright. I want to tell you about the Avis agent, a very nice guy by the name of Konrad, who was so very nice to me. He apologized after he calculated the total I was supposed to pay because it was so expensive. He tried different ways to figure my bill to lower the total. I had the car for less than two days and drove about 300 km. The bill came to 900 zlotys or about $360 USD, an astronomical amount, especially if you consider that the price I paid to fly from Anchorage to NYC was only $250! So Konrad typed and he tabbed and he made some sort of corrections that brought the bill down to 866 zlotys. He said, "That's not very much difference. Let's try this." So he typed and tabbed and typed again for a while. This time he came up with a figure of 700 zlotys. What a guy! Yet even after all he did, and if the 71 zlotys to fill the tank are included, this 2-day car rental came to approximately $312 USD. I'm damn glad I didn't ask up front how much money was involved because I wouldn't have done it, which is exactly why I didn't ask. It’s no mystery why most people in Poland don’t rent cars. Ouch!
 Anyway, it’s more or less Mission Accomplished as I head back to Berlin for a few more days. After that it’s on to Amsterdam.

Friday, November 20

I’m riding the Berlin Express from Poznan, Poland, to the Berlin HBH. (HauptBahnHof=main station) Thanks to my GPS I found that this train was running at 100 mph, slowing down only when it passes stations at which it isn’t stopping, and then it only slows to 80-85 mph. We’re racing along. Going to Elblag I had a 4-leg trip, one of which was on a cramped and crowded bus, the others on slow commuter trains that made frequent stops. My return trip involves 3 separate trains but they are moving faster and making fewer stops, especially this last one. I’ll be glad to get back to Berlin I guess. I have those tickets to the chamber music concert for tomorrow night and seeing as this is the last leg of my return it looks like I’ll make it just fine. 

A few more notes about Poland. Lots of homes burn coal. One sees piles of it in the towns and in people's yards. Although it’s warm today many chimneys are belching clouds of black smoke. Smells much like the coal we burn in Homer. (Observed as I write: a good looking young woman in the station at Tczew (pronounced t’chef ) who is wearing dark nylons with low-cut athletic sox like I wear for tennis.  But unlike me she's wearing high heel shoes to complete her outfit.) Today has been sunny and the areas we’re moving through are nice looking farmland. The winter wheat is greening many of the plowed fields and in some areas the last of the feed corn is being harvested. It’s not all that different from what you might see in my home state of New York; the gently rolling hills and plowed fields interspersed with pastures and fields of corn looked mighty familiar. In fact, in an email exchange with my cousin Roger we discussed how Grandma must have thought the area where she spent a lot of time, the gentle hills south of Buffalo, looked much like the neighborhood in East Prussia she'd left behind.

In closing I must again mention my wonderful Elblag Couchsurfing hosts, Ewa and Daniel. They made my stay in Poland very enjoyable despite the fact that Ewa commutes to Gdansk every day, 1.5 hours each way by train or bus, to work for Lufthansa. She loves traveling and can get great reductions in airfare with this job. But the trade off is this very long commute. Despite her long day Ewa is very curious about Alaska and spent precious hours of her time at home chatting with me. Both of them were gracious, warm, and very generous with their time and small apartment space. Thank you, thank you, Ewa.

The guest room
Ewa and Daniel's kitchen
Oh, and I’m happy to report that my back appears to be better today after a few minutes of stiffness and discomfort this morning. Thanks to Kevvie who advised me to take ibuprofen immediately upon tweaking my back. I did that and added a 10 mg tablet of cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril) and 10 mg of Percocet left over from my last back attack. Three rounds of those pills seem to have caught it. Thanks to Kevin's advice (and the strong drugs), I'm walking upright today.

Notes on the David Rumsey map:

Published by Reichsamt fur Landesaufnahme, 1893

Publisher's Note :

In an agreement dated March 4, 1878, the states of Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria, and Wurttemberg (the areas of modern day Germany, Luxembourg, Poland, and Kaliningrad, and part of Lithuania) agreed to map their areas on a 1:100,000 scale in a common topographic grid survey consisting of 674 sheets. Each sheet covers about 30 minutes in longitude and 15 minutes in latitude. One centimeter on a map is equivalent to1 kilometer on the ground. Average sheet size is about 35 cm x 28 cm. Each sheet covers about 1000 square kilometers and was engraved on copper.

The map is a composite of Sheets 1 to 674. Date estimated based on the apparent library acquisition date usually stamped on the back of the map sheet. This map series is remarkable for the level of fine detail. As a consequence, it was scanned at 800 PPI providing four times the resolution of the typical detailed map scan of 400 PPI. At least ten separate symbols for special buildings were utilized, a method enhanced by placing an abbreviation next to the symbol. Structures with special symbols include: churches, chapels, monuments, windmills, water mills, stamp mills, forester's lodges, watchtowers, ruins, forts, quarries, clay pits, lime kilns, and coke-ovens. Factories, brick works, powder magazines electric power plants, and many other important buildings are differentiated by means of abbreviation. Houses appear as black blocks, either rectangular or shaped like the ground plan of the building. Many other features are differentiated, for example there are four different qualities of roads plus bridle paths and footpaths. Vegetation is minutely classified including separate symbols for broadleaf trees, evergreens, underbrush, heather, dry meadows, wet meadows, swamps, orchards, gardens, vineyards, and parks. Relief is shown by hachures. Spot elevations are given in meters above sea level.