Old Poland’s Eastern regions: A plea to remember history

It’s as important to dwell on history as it is to live immersed in the present day.

I’m not sure whether this statement is true.

But if we don’t consciously decide to drown in the study of history, we may still may argue that it’s good (or merely interesting) to consider facts of history that add a layer of richness to the way we think.

Antoni Urbański (1873-1950) published a series of four books in 1928 and 1929 that memorialized a way of life essential to many Poles’ identity up to that time – that of the Polish history of the Kresy (The Eastern borderlands). Hundreds of place names in Belarus and Ukraine echo this history in cyrillic script, but these locations now reside squarely in the distant past of Poland.

Janów (modern-day Ivaniv, Ukraine: 20 miles north of Vinnytsia)
Birthplace of Stefan Witwicki(1801-1847), poet, friend of Chopin

This series gives the history of large Polish-built dwory (estates or manors) that – as a result of the Treaty of Riga in 1921 (which ended the Polish-Soviet War and set the borders of the Second Polish Republic) – fell into Soviet territory seven years previous. He gives a total of 246 histories in the four volumes: it’s noteworthy that these were written as a result of only the first of Poland’s westward displacements, before Stalin and associates found an outlet for their creativity in border-redrawing sixteen years later.

Below is my translation of Urbański’s introduction to the second volume in his four-part series: Podzwonne na zgliszczach Litwy i Rusi (Death Knell on the Ashes of Lithuania and Ruthenia).

In the third paragraph, he mentions some grim effects of the Soviet takeover of the often 400-year-old Polish-controlled estates – the oldest strata of which were built exclusively for defending Poland as a whole from outside invasions. The wealthy landowners were sometimes murdered with their families – but if they were allowed to move elsewhere or managed to escape, the grand estates were very often burned and pillaged in witness to the class struggle. In sensible cases, the Soviet authorities found good uses for what was left.

All of this speaks to yet another layer of the cycle of Poland’s history of loss and renewal: a layer that the author hoped would not be forgotten. He certainly couldn’t have fathomed the extent of the losses to come.

* * *

I’ll begin my grim journey again – so that the thread of oblivion doesn’t cloud those areas with its dense web. I’ll give the inscriptions on the gravestones again. Maybe an obituary for someone who has gone on.
By nić zapomnienia nie zasnuła gęstą siecią tamtych stron, rozpoczynam znowu mą posępną wędrówkę. Daję znowu napisy na płytach grobowych. Może nekrolog po kimś, kto odszedł.

If a hecatomb was to be written of these localities, volumes could be written.

Four women were killed in Niemirowski manor, four women were killed in Popowiecki manor, four men were killed in Wołoczyski manor, there were murders in Nowosielicki and Leszczyniecki manors, the owners of Sahinek, Berszady, Strzyżawka and Kuna were murdered.

Enough! This terrible litany would give us thousands murdered.

That is not what this is about for me.

I only want the manors of Lithuania and Ruthenia to remain in people’s memories, to be known to them – so as to constitute a thread with our past.

I want to give a place where our historical paths were laid; it was a lush and vivid past, and these were capable people.

Where Michał Ogiński, Stanisław Moniuszko and Walenty Wańkowicz found their creativity.

Where Karol Prozor, Adam Rzewuski, Konstanty Tyszkiewicz, Michał Grabowski, Michał Czajkowski, Aleksander Weryha Darowski, Emeryk Czapski, Edward Rulikowski, Tytus Szczeniowski, Dr. A. [Antoni Józef] Rolle, Aleksander Jabłonowski and Kazimierz Dunin Markiewicz lived and wrote.

Where Janina Czetwertyńska, Xawera Grocholska, Zofja Kossak Szczucka and Elżieta Zaleska Dorożyńska lived and wrote.

Where so many others worked, where they came to serve with mind and heart, where they persisted despite storms and struggles.

In these villages and manors were busts by Antonio Canova, Pampelloni, and Chapu, paintings by Sassoferatta and Reni, bronzes by Barbedienne and Thomire, books from the last five centuries, but there was something else – hearts open with welcome, but loving Poland.

Today, the light has dimmed in those manors, and only the wounds remain.

The hosts have left the manors – into the unknown distance – but the villages dream of them.

They would like, however, to return to their lands for a while, explore them, drink in their scents.

After all, they have that right; these are the lands of their fathers.

Despite the treaties, they want to come back again and remove the debris from their homesteads.

May the cobwebs of oblivion not envelop these lands: powerful lands, but feeling loss.