Sunday, January 10, 2010

Szczecin to Leszno

Szczecin is a large sea port on the Baltic Sea, very close to the German border and about half an hour by express train from Stargard. I arrive in the late afternoon, buy a ticket to Leszno for the next day, and spend the evening in my hotel room under a wave of exhaustion. I feel overwhelmed by my time in Stargard, in particular the drive to Kluczewo, which seems almost unreal. I had not felt happy about the hotel when I first arrived and almost wanted to leave - but then I met Zdzislaw. I could have missed meeting him altogether, simply by not wanting a cup of tea at a particular moment in time. But I did want a cup of tea and I went to the reception room to ask for hot water right at the moment when he was there. Would he have been there had I gone ten minutes earlier, or later? What was it that brought us together?

I also feel moved by the conversation I had with Edite, the receptionist who shared so many personal details about her life with me. There was such longing in her voice, a deep desire for a new direction, a new life, but one that seems just beyond reach. I have been in that position myself and it was humbling to hear Edite’s version of being there. I wanted to do something for her but I had no idea what that could be. Perhaps listening was enough.

The next day I explore Szczecin. It’s Sunday and almost everything is closed except for the Galaxy Shopping Centre where it seems that the whole of the city’s population has congregated. I have a coffee and a moment of shopping and then try to see the key historic sites. It’s an incredibly grey day, the whole skyline disappearing into a haze of fog. I see a number of monuments, the museum, a fantastic gateway that has become a jazz café, the palace, the opera house and the waterfront, which is a tangle of cranes emerging eerily from a misty Baltic Sea. I take everything in from an objective distance and with a sense of obligation rather than genuine interest - I guess I’m just tired and there is not enough room in my head to take in and assimilate more information. My mother would have passed through Szczecin by train - perhaps the train even stopped here for some time - but she was heading further south, deeper into the Polish countryside, to a town south of Poznan called Leszno.

The train to Leszno leaves at 17.55 and when I get on, it’s half empty. I share a compartment with a smartly dressed elderly gentleman who takes a polite but also concerned interest in me. He helps me lift my suitcase onto the storage rack and, even though he speaks no English or German, we manage to work out that I’m from Australia, that I’m travelling to Leszno and that he is getting off a few stops before me. When the ticket inspector comes, the gentleman explains something to him in Polish that I suspect goes something like, ‘This lady is from Australia and is travelling on her own to Leszno. Please let her know when the train arrives at the station and please also make sure that someone helps her with her suitcase.’ Over the next few stops the carriage becomes packed with university students, many of them standing or sitting on small fold-down seats in the aisles outside the compartments. Our compartment has also filled with students. When the second ticket inspector does his rounds, somewhere after Poznan, the elderly gentleman repeats his instructions about my arrival at Leszno, but this time he also addresses the students in the carriage. They all look in my direction, smile knowingly, and then return to their ipods and lecture notes.

My gentleman friend gets off a few stops before Leszno and we shake hands as I thank him for his kindness. He gives a final word of instruction to the young man sitting opposite me before he leaves our compartment. I feel slightly embarrassed. Outside it’s dark and I’m a little nervous about arriving at my destination in the night. I prefer to book trains that depart in the late morning or early afternoon – it gives me the chance to see the countryside and, because I arrive in the daylight, it’s easier to find my hotel and generally get my bearings in a new place. When we get to Leszno there are only two students left in the compartment and, as no doubt instructed by my gentleman friend, the young man opposite me dutifully helps me take down my suitcase. Another passenger kindly lifts the case onto the station for me. As in Latvia, you have to climb up two or three awkwardly steep steps to get into train carriages here, but in Latvia it would have been rare indeed for someone to help a stranger with their suitcase.

I find a taxi easily and we drive to the Akwawit Hotel, a type of spa village that people come to from all over Poland for a range of water cures. The complex was probably built fairly recently but it has a distinctly 1980s aesthetic. A water feature in the reception area echoes throughout an atrium that extends into the upper floors of the building. The interior décor is based on a combination of cornflower blue and palish pink and there are bulky, tubular handrails everywhere. I’m allocated a single room with a rather odd, L-shaped layout on the top floor. The bed is positioned under a steeply angled, attic-like alcove where it’s not possible to stand upright and the desk is in a small niche at the end of the L. I go straight back down to reception and ask for another room. This time I’m given one with a double bed, a normal, rectangular layout and a high ceiling.

In the morning, as I’m leaving to explore the town centre, I decide to ask about the various treatments on offer at the Akwawit, tempted by the idea of a massage, and possibly even a mud bath. I’m given a huge list, divided into various categories, but it’s written only in Polish. I can roughly guess what some of the treatments might be, but despite the fact that the receptionists can speak English, they are unable to translate the document they have given me. They look at each other, say something in Polish, and then look at me and say it is very hard to translate. After some discussion, I am booked in for a dry water massage (yes, such a thing is possible!) which was about the only treatment available.

To get to the old town, the hotel staff direct me to a narrow, grassy track that is clearly a short cut used by locals. It takes me under a highway overpass and beside a stretch of railway track to eventually emerge about 200 metres from the main station. I cross the tracks and keep going straight ahead, along what is now the main street of Leszno. I visit the tourist bureau and then wander about, getting a feel for the place. It’s not a very big town, but it is very charming. It was established in the 16th century by a group of Moravian Brethren, early Protestants who came from Bohemia. In fact, in the 17th century, Leszno had the largest group of Moravian Brethren in all of Europe. The town also boasts a number of stunning baroque and classical buildings, one of which is the town hall in the main square. Amongst its famous citizens is Jan Jonston (1603-1675), a doctor, teacher and naturalist of Scottish descent who spoke twelve languages and was the author of the Historiae Naturalis, noted for its beautiful engravings. Today, Leszno is rather sporty and promotes itself as the place to go for cycling, horse-riding, tennis and various aviation and water sports.

My mother and her family arrive in Leszno, known as Lissa under German occupation, in late October 1944. They are taken in by Elina Bönke, my mother’s cousin from Sarkandaugava, who is now a married woman with two children. They live in the downstairs apartment of Elina’s house, which is white and two storey and very close to the town centre. When they arrive, they have no idea at all how long they will be here or where the war might take them next. I can’t imagine what this would be like because it is a state of being that has never been part of my life experience. And, even though I have never been to Poland and everything is new and unknown to me, I know that I will be travelling to Berlin soon, and then on to Switzerland and Italy, and that I have a plane ticket that will take me back to Australia in about six weeks time. Of course, the unexpected may happen, but I still have some sense of security about the future. My mother’s family had no such security. But at the same time, they were very lucky because they had somewhere to stay, a roof over their heads. So many refugees were on foot, carting their belongings behind them, living in the outdoors in the depths of winter.

The family don’t know it at the time, but they will end up staying in Lissa for about two and a half months. They also have to work for the Germans, my grandfather getting a job on the railways and my mother making uniforms in a factory called Firma Erle. There are many Polish girls working in the factory and my mother gets on well with them, quickly making new friends. They go out together and when they get the chance, particularly enjoy going to the cinema. I ask my mother what the movies were, but she can’t recall a single title.

As I walk around the town, I know I’m not going to find Elina’s house because I just don’t have enough information, not even a street name, but I see buildings every now and then that I imagine are similar to the house my mother described. I do, however, find the movie theatre and I feel confident that it is the same one my mother went to with her Polish girlfriends. It’s had a makeover, but I can see that it’s very old beneath its 1970s façade. I wonder what movies were showing in 1944 and 45 in German occupied Poland…

I have coffee and cake in the restaurant underneath the Town Hall in the centre of the square and ponder what to do next. I’ve been wandering about Leszno rather aimlessly, following my nose without any clear strategy. I study the map from the tourist bureau and mark the location of the archives – it’s too far out of town to walk there so I would have to catch a cab. Besides, I have so little information about my mother’s time here that I’m not convinced I would find anything there anyway. I decide to keep wandering and find myself drawn to the area east of the town square. There are some smaller streets here with old houses that open straight onto the footpath, and for a brief moment, I see an image of my mother, at the age of seventeen, dark haired, slender, wearing a coat because it’s winter and it’s cold, disappearing around the corner ahead of me with her Polish girlfriends. They huddle together, arm in arm, chatting to each other. What do they talk about? The war? Rationing? Work in the factory? What the future might hold? Or are they more interested in what’s showing at the movies?

A little further around the bend, I come across a church – it’s Baroque and it’s called St Nicholas’s - and while the exterior is not particularly remarkable, the interior is another thing altogether - incredibly, ornately Baroque but utterly and unpretentiously beautiful. I am stunned by the carvings, the gilding, the sculpture, the paintings. There are two women washing the floor near the altar and about three people praying in different sections of the church, but each is rapt in their own world of work or prayer and seems oblivious of their extraordinary surroundings. I let out little gasps of amazement as I pass from one chapel to another along the right hand side of the aisles, but when I reach the one on the left, near the entrance, I am stunned into silence. Gazing down at me is most beautiful sculpture of the Virgin Mary I have ever seen. She looks straight at me, but at the same time, beyond me - through me - and I fall in love with her there and then. I light a candle in front of her and stand there for some minutes, just gazing. I would love to take a photograph of her, but even though there are no signs that prohibit taking pictures, it just doesn’t feel right. This church is completely different from those in big cities where you have to pay an entrance fee and there is an additional charge for photography – this is simply a place of worship.

I am so taken by the Virgin in St Nicholas’- with the idea of her beauty - that I am compelled to buy a reminder of her in a nearby Catholic shop. (Although I’m also a bit disappointed in my need to do this.) I would be happy with a postcard, but there are no images of my particular Virgin. I do, however, find a statuette that is rather charming. She wears a soft grey-blue mantle trimmed with gold similar to the Virgin in St Nicholas’s and she has a very peaceful face. She is also a bit heavy and I feel rather stupid buying something that will only add to the ever-increasing weight of my suitcase, but I buy her all the same, and when I get to Berlin, post her back to Australia. On my return, I am pleased to see that my partner has given her a prominent spot on the sideboard in the living room. She is a bit kitsch, I have to admit, but very lovely all the same. Sadly, she shows the scars of travelling long distances - both her hands are broken off at the wrists.

My wanderings in Leszno also take me into the yard of St Johns’ church, where I am lured by a large tree and the promise of a peaceful garden. It is here that I find an extraordinary collection of headstones and memorials from the 17th and 18th centuries. Most of them have been embedded into the church wall, but some are also freestanding and yet others have been laid into the exterior of the church itself. They are crumbling and moss-covered with age and damp, but intricately carved and beautifully, darkly gothic. Many are decorated with skulls, and in the eye sockets of some, insects have spun their white cocoons, giving them a doubly ghostly air. I take lots of photos.

As I explore Leszno, I keep thinking about the archives and the possibility of what I might find there, so I decide to pay a visit. I catch a cab, which takes me right into the depths of a housing suburb. Like the Akwawit Hotel, the Archives building is characterised by a 1980s aesthetic. I go up the small ramp and find the receptionist, who speaks no English but does have a tiny bit of German. We have a laboured conversation in which I ask for pictures of Leszno taken in World War II and for any information about the factory my mother worked in. The receptionist is kind, but she indicates that the archives will not be able to help me because they don’t store photographs. I feel a bit despondent but just as I’m about to leave she gets up from her chair, takes me into the reading room and introduces me to an archivist. I ask again if there may be any information about the factory my mother worked in – photographs, letters, anything. The archivist takes out about three or four old handwritten ledger books that list all the businesses that operated in the town during the war. We search through them together for the name of the factory, but there is no record of its existence anywhere. The name Erle also strikes no chord with the archivist – she has never heard of it in all her time at the Archives. ‘But it was the war’, she explains, ‘and perhaps the factory was only set up temporarily and was destroyed afterwards.’ I thank her and the receptionist and wait in the oddly quiet suburban street for the bus back into town. I don’t recognise the route, because it passes behind the centre of the town, and I get off at the wrong stop, on a big highway out near the University of Agriculture. (The journey is marked by many such incidents that take me in a completely different direction to the one I had intended to follow.)

When I make it back to the centre of Leszno, I pay one more visit to St Nicholas’s church to see my beautiful Maddona, and then head back towards the hotel. The distance seems much further now than in the morning, and I also can’t remember how to get to the little track that’s a shortcut. I stand at the railway crossing for ages, trying to get my bearings and I’m surprised at just how confused I am. I know I came out here, near the large model of a glider, but from where? I wander down a path that seems to be going in the right direction, but after ten minutes, I find myself under a huge railway overpass, walking amongst weeds and big concrete bridge supports. There are some youths on bicycles way in the distance. It doesn’t feel safe here and I turn back. I’m back near the glider again. I check my map and although I can work out where I am, I can’t see the track – or any other clear road to the hotel. I ask a young woman for directions and while she doesn’t really know where the hotel is, she indicates the general direction I should take. I eventually find the track and the hotel and collapse on my bed for a while. In half an hour I’m booked in for a dry water massage.

The hotel is divided into two sections – the hotel part, and the water treatment swimming pool part – which are joined by a long passageway on the second floor with security doors in the middle and at either end to prevent the public from wandering into the hotel part. I emerge on the swimming pool level but there are two other floors of treatment rooms, and lots of people milling about – young, old, school aged, middle-aged, disabled - who are all coming or going from sessions in the pool or treatments that occur behind rows of doors down long passageways. I’m given a pass which I use to get through a turnstile where a young, sporty-looking woman greets me. She leads me through a huge tiled room where semi-naked men are washing in open showers or relaxing in tiled baths and shows me into a small, private room with a large bed-like structure in it. I lie down on the rubbery surface as instructed and my assistant tests a range of water pressure options on me. The massage consists of great jets of water that slowly move up and down the underside of my body. It’s an odd sensation - not unpleasant, but not particularly relaxing either. Oh well.

I decide to leave for Berlin the next day. My mother can’t remember the date she left Leszno, but it would have been some time in mid January 1945, because that’s when the Red Army began to advance with great speed into Poland. Perhaps it was around the 17th, the day that Warsaw fell to the Soviets – the news would have spread quite quickly. But the departure was a little more complex than that, because it resulted in the separation of my mother’s family, who had so far managed to stay together during the whole journey from Riga. In a way, there were actually two separations – one that was totally unexpected, the other that just had to be, but both the result of war. On that particular morning - let’s say it’s the 17th of January - my mother, her parents and her brother, woke up to find that Elina and her husband and children had vanished. Presumably they had heard news of the Soviet advance during the night and had decided to flee, but without telling my mother’s family in the downstairs apartment – indeed, so quietly that they didn’t even wake them from their sleep. As my mother’s parents pieced together what had happened – it probably didn’t take long - a walk into the street, a question to a neighbour, perhaps the sight of others ready to move on too – there must have been a great sense of disappointment and abandonment. For whatever reason, Elina’s family had gone and had decided not to involve my mother’s family.

The family pack together whatever they can – some food, some clothes - I understand this happens very quickly – and get on a train that is heading for Berlin. Presumably they are on the train because my grandfather is working for the railways, otherwise they would have been on foot, as thousands of others were. The train is in extremely poor condition, with most of the windows broken. It’s January and it’s the dead of winter, the countryside covered in snow. As the train departs, my grandfather says goodbye to his wife and children – he must stay in Leszno and work on the railways as the Soviets advance westward.

No comments: