Small Town Magic-My First Winter in Poland

December is here and the first snow of the season has fallen. Not a huge amount, but it brings the magical holiday feeling with it nevertheless. As a little kid growing up in Ukraine we had four seasons and back 30+ years ago snow used to fall a lot heavier and thicker. I remember walking through waist-deep of snow, bundled in my little Soviet coat (shuba) and galoshes, snow crunching like popcorn under your feet, scratching a primal itch that just feels so satisfying. Beginning of every winter season I become a kid again, nostalgic with memories of childhood, warm cocoa, cookies, and the anticipation of presents from Santa. Just makes you want to curl up in this memory like a warm blanket, covering all the cold unknowns and unexposed realities of tomorrow. Bury yourself in its warmth, the glowing days of pure joy and limited worries.

This season is undeniably magical and even though I am an adult now I am still lucky enough to be able to experience the enchantment through my kids. This past weekend we even got a chance to put our new snow sled to the test. Once I deliver the baby I may even give it a go for old times’ sake. We have an adorable park nearby our house with all the perfect accommodations- plenty of space, hills, magical enchantment and history.

As you may already know my family and I currently reside in a Polish town called Czestochowa. Czestochowa lies among the Jurassic rocks of Krakow-Czestochowa Upland, topped with the ruins of Medieval castles with a population of about 240,000. For the majority of Poles, Czestochowa is associated with the Jasna Gora Monastery (where the park is located) and the icon of the Black Madonna (a shrine to the Virgin Mary), credited with many miracles. The sanctuary is famous as one of the world’s greatest places of pilgrimage, the most important pilgrimage destination of the Christian world. However, its beautiful 15th century architecture also lures many tourists, amounting to 5 million a year. This city plays a crucial role for the Roman Catholic Poles, being a kind of spiritual capital to them. And I can’t deny that this place is truly spiritual. Not even from a religious standpoint, but from a metaphysical aspect. The beauty about this town and its people is that a divine, holy presence is in the air, but it is very light and pleasant as opposed to the heaviness and melancholy accompanying other religious institutions I have visited. During the Communist Era authorities made quite an effort to turn Czestochowa into an industrial center in order to outweigh the religious importance of the city, and they succeeded to a large extent. Apart from the most representative street, Avenue of St Virgin Mary, that starts at the foot of the Jasna Gora, Czestochowa seems to be rather provincial. Lucky for us, we live in the center and are a stone’s throw of the main street, monastery, and park.

The history of this cute little town is also very interesting. Apparently, Czestochowa is almost 1,000 years old, having been founded in the 11th century by Czestoch (or Czestobor, Czestomir). Intense development began with the arrival of the Pauline Order from Hungary in the late 14th century, which established the monastery on the top of Jasna Gora Hill. Soon after, the monks received the icon of the Black Madonna, which began to draw in a large number of pilgrims. Jasna Gora was besieged by Swedes (1655), Russians (1800s) and Germans (early to mid 1900s).  Within that time (1819) construction began on Avenue of St Virgin Mary. Today the promenade is lined with adorable shops, cafes, and restaurants. The opening of the Warsaw-Vienna railway in 1846 linked the city with the rest of Europe and many new factories and manufactures emerged. During World War II, practically the entire Jewish community of about 40,000 people were killed by German Nazis. The war finally ended with The Red Army entering Czestochowa in January 1945 who saved the Pauline monastery, which had been mined with bombs by Germans. After the war, the industrialization of the city continued and today it remains an important industrial and academic center.

Few people know (myself included as of recently), but somewhere around 1930s my great-grandfather (paternal grandmother’s father) escaped Poland and migrated to Ukraine at the brink of the Second World War. During Poland’s Interwar (internal among Poles) years 1919-1939 roughly about 3 million Jews experienced terrible treatment by its own society led by the anti-Semitic political parties. From 1935 to 1939, anti-Semitic feeling in Poland gained in intensity. Most Jews migrated to America and other neutral countries to escape enlistment in armed forces, to seek better opportunities, and to avoid religious persecution. My great-grandfather’s name was Jan Wojtkiewicz and he was a Jewish man residing in Łódź, Poland around this time. This blows my mind! I had no clue that I had Jewish roots, let alone Polish Jewish relatives. Jan was a popular conductor/flutist/musician and an intellectual who ran in elite circles in Łódź, as I am told by relatives who are still with us. They too have very limited information. Reportedly, he fled to Ukraine because he had no desire to fight in the war and rightly so. Had he not done so I may not have been here today. My father named me Yana (Jana) in honor of his grandfather whom he never met, but was fortunate enough to obtain Jan’s conductor baton as a single keepsake. He keeps this antique treasure on display, locked in a glass case in his work office.

The universe has recently led me back to Ukraine (2013), after a 22 year absence, seeking answers to many questions I have since resolved. Now, I am here in Poland with loose ends to tie, undoubtedly. My great-grandfather’s hometown (Łódź), and a lot of history that goes along with it, is only 130 kilometers away. Who knows, maybe Jan Wojtkiewicz once walked these same streets I now frequent? Maybe I have Polish cousins whom I never met and are residing within a couple hours’ drive from me? It’s not an accident that I am here. But for now the saga remains a mystery enveloped by the foggy winter chill in the air…

To be continued…

 

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