I've been spending the weekend at the Krakow Film Festival in Poland. While I was in the hood I thought I'd have a go at finding my great-grandparents' house which is somewhere in a town about 50km East of Krakow. My grand-mother died a few years ago in London and with her went the address. So all I had to go on, beside the name of the town, was a description, based on memories of 75 years ago, of how my distant cousin (of my father's generation) used to get to the house from the train station with all the timings in horse and cart terms; a rough memory of a street name from the Communist era incorporating the glorious name of papa Stalin; and A&M - the letters of my great-grandparents' first names which (the one concrete fact) were on a shield or crest high on the house.
So I set off, with my older son, at 10 this morning in some wheels organised by Adam, one of the friendly admins of the Dragonforum documentary workshop. You're into rural Poland within minutes of leaving the city centre. I was nervous for some reason - I knew we had very little to go on and my phone research of the previous day had drawn blanks and stonewalling, I didn't want to disappoint or be disappointed or lose the link with the family home where eggs were kept in sinks in the basement and from which my grandmother struck out on rides on the first bicycle in the town. Scraps of stories, not quite accurate, Chinese whispered through the family filtered by old age and post-war reticence.
I started with my Hamburg cousin's three quarters of a century old description of the 15 minute cart ride from the nearest station (which bore another name than the town). We got out where my best guess was combining the description (sent via Facebook, fairplay to Anni for being so wired at her age) and Googlemap. I'd been told the crest was near a balcony and the building on a corner. The first corner looked promising but no initials. The diagonally opposite corner looked equally possible. More or less every balconied building felt warm - the right age of building, crying out for a crest. After 40 minutes of searching the confidence was ebbing. I rang my dad's cousin who had found and visited the house in the mid 80s but didn't know the address. Nor whether the house was in fact on a corner. And doubted there was a balcony as the owner had spotted him and called down from a window. So all I had left was the initialed crest. The owner in the 80s name - which was not in the phonebook. And the Stalin street scrap.
We trawled every main street (three) of the sleepy Sunday town whilst the inhabitants stood around the church listening to the amplified service playing I imagine to a packed house of God-fearing Catholics inside. I know my great-grandmother was killed in this town in the view of others and I pictured it in the under reconstruction main square with its piles of cobbles, mass drifting over and my strapping half Irish-Catholic son standing with unconscious strength on its new stones in his Leinster top, blue as the sky.
No joy. So we hit the back streets. No a crest, shield or initialled plaque in the place. It was getting hotter. 26 degrees the day we arrived, 12 the next day, back over 20 today, fluctuating like my confidence in finding this link. We passed a corner shop. Junior needed a Coke (why do they mainly sell Pepsi in this country being one of his preoccupations of the weekend). My other half had given one piece of advice at the outset of the day by text - talk to people. I talked to the middle-aged female shop keeper, she had a bit of English. Do you know where there used to be a video sklep? (I'd heard sometime in or after the 80s the ground floor had been turned into a video store). Or do you know where Stalinska was in the Commiedays? She asked a local fella hanging out by her doorway. A contrary barman from the opposite corner approached. The shopkeeper urged them to help. They went off into Andrej's bar to find an old map. We waited expectantly. A break? They failed to reappear, the shopkeeper chased, they reluctantly got their shit together, had a quick somewhat heated debate and eventually, again at the helpful shopkeeper's urging, the hanging-in-the-shop fella started to lead us off to where they'd concluded the Stalin street used to be. We followed in silence, he spoke little English, we spoke less Polish (like not a single word except Sklep, Alkohole and Computery - this last and first turned out to be on the money). Down one of the three bigger streets we'd already tried then off to the left, pulling up on a three way junction, indicating a not particularly old corner house. I asked him which of the three joining streets was the Stalin one, gave him a few zloty which he was reluctant to take, then walked the length of that street as well as exploring the junction. Nada. Back behind the now deserted church. Mission failed. I'd sent some vibes to my grandmother looking for help (I was favourite first-born after all) but to no avail. Cut along the side of the church back to the rendez-vous with Machek our taxiguy? Or one last look at that Stalin junction? Back to the junction, then retracing our steps earlier with the shop hanger guide... Then out the corner of my eye I spot the only crest in town. A. M. A swirly L for Laub conjoining them. What a moment of pure soaring joy. "That's the first time I've seen a prayer answered" says A and L's great-great-grandson.
We contemplate the letters. Look at the door (beside the Computery Sklep) but there's no bell and it looks pretty unihabited. I spot something in the red brick beside the door - some scratched graffti dated June 1922. My grandmother's childhood era. Any more? No, but high up not easily noticed a bell. I ring. Nothing. Then some movement. A boy the age of my son comes to the door. After a bit of explanation (and he had heard tell of strange Englishman Marcel's 1980s visit) he cautiously let us in, his parents weren't around, and allowed us to get a feel for the place with its high but shallow rooms. I didn't push to see the egg basement.
We headed back up the hill to the square. I now knew for sure Dora's feet had pounded this trail. And I felt she'd be pleased we'd made the effort to see the place she spoke of with affection til her last days despite what had happened there. I was glad to have brought their great-great-grandson to be seen by A & M and to have joined that link.