As soon as I knew we were moving to Europe, I planned on visiting Poland. This was a personal goal for me because Poland is a part of my heritage. My great-great-grandparents (my father’s mother’s mother’s parents, if you follow) emigrated to the U.S. from Poland. That knowledge has always been a part of my family story and a piece of my identity.
Even for someone without personal ties to the country, Poland is a great place to visit given its rich (though often dark) history and its affordability. We spent a week in Poland in February 2018, starting in Warsaw and ending in Krakow, with day trips to Knyszyn and Zalipie in between.
We flew to and from Poland, but the travel within the country was all done by car. I love being able to do road trips in order to really get into a country and see it. Even though driving in new places can be stressful, it gives us a lot of flexibility.
My great-great-grandparents were Polish Jews from Knyszyn, a small town in the northeast corner of Poland. With their families’ blessings, they married in their late teens and left Poland to emigrate to the United States in 1887. They were leaving to avoid religious persecution and the harsh Russian rule of the time. A few of their family members did the same, but most remained in Poland. Those who were still alive during World War II are presumed to have been killed in the Holocaust.
My father and grandmother relayed this story to me many times in different ways. My grandmother gifted to me a pin that belonged to my great-great-grandmother that made the journey from Poland to the U.S. with her. My son is named after my great-great-grandfather. I wanted to see their hometown for myself. We visited Knyszyn as a day trip from Warsaw.
In doing my research for this trip, I learned a little bit about “heritage tourism,” this act of travelling in order to learn about a specific culture and history in a place. Apparently, it is increasing in popularity, particularly to trace one’s own family history, especially in places like Poland and Ireland, countries that have a history of emigrating populations. Apparently, at least in Poland, it can also be controversial to locals for reasons ranging from embarrassment to defensiveness to antisemitism. I tried to keep this in mind during our trip. My goal was to see, learn, and experience the place for myself, not to stir any pots.
Being such a small town away from big cities, it was hard for me to imagine anyone wanting to visit Knyszyn unless they had personal reasons like I did. I was surprised to find that there were sixteen historical markers around town and that it has a very long history to share.
In the 16th century, King Zygmunt August made Knyszyn a “royal town.” According to one of the historical markers, he kept a residence and farm there and frequented the area for holidays and hunting.
Apparently, it was a favorite place of his and after his death, he literally left his heart there while the rest of his body was laid to rest in Krakow.
Being so close to the border, Knyszyn has a long history of changing hands politically. Borders have changed over time – Poland, Lithuania, Prussia, Russia. During World War II, most of Knyszyn’s Jewish population was killed, and much of the town was destroyed, then rebuilt. At least, some was rebuilt. The site of the synagogue was now just a bare plot of land. We tried, but we were unable to locate the Jewish cemeteries, but we did find a Catholic cemetery.
I read that since the end of communism in the country, some areas of Poland have fared better economically than others. Towns along Poland’s borders, particularly to the east and south, have not prospered as much as the bigger cities and other regions. I’m sad to say this was evident in Knyszyn, in the facades of dilapidated houses and through the thin haze of the polluted air.
We took in as much as we could of the historical markers. Some were hard to find, and some were basically in people’s yards and we didn’t want to intrude. After our self-guided tour, we had a lunch of zapiekanki and hamburgers from a roadside stand and drove back to Warsaw through Bialystok.
One scene I regretfully didn’t get a picture of was a group of older men standing outside a house in the center of town. They were there for over an hour, just talking, laughing, carrying on, who knows about what. There wasn’t a whole lot of other activity in town that afternoon – one woman at the bus stop, one woman working the food stand, a few cars full of young, blue-collar guys stopping at the food stand, three loose dogs running through the streets and the center square, a cat outside the library, a man entering the city hall and a woman leaving, and a few kids enjoying a playground. It was chilly and quiet. While I felt like we stood out as obvious outsiders, I also felt like we went completely unnoticed.
It’s hard to put into words what it meant to me to visit this place. I’m not sure I’ve actually processed it all yet. It certainly made me think about what might have been for me if my great-great-grandparents or their families acted differently way back then. I could have been Polish. Or I could have never existed.
It’s hard to look around the town and countryside and imagine my relatives, just teenagers at the time, leaving family behind, at times literally walking through Germany, getting on a boat, crossing the ocean, entering the U.S. and starting a new life, alone. I admire their courage and resilience, and I’m grateful for it. Could they have ever imagined that their great-great-granddaughter would come back to see their home, holding her pin in one hand and the hand of their great-great-great-grandson (who goes by his name) in the other? I hope it would make them happy and feel that their sacrifices were worth making.
I am grateful that the U.S. welcomed my family members – these family members from Poland, as well as others from Lithuania and Ireland. So many of us have personal family stories like this. So many people over the course of history have fled their homes to avoid conflict or persecution, in search of a better and safer life. So many conflicts, so many countries, so many people. And it keeps happening. I think it does us all some good to recognize and share our family stories.