A Visit to Raczki 2014

We have something really special for you!  This is a report from Zena Cook regarding her recent trip to Raczki, Poland:

It was a hot day when we drove from our accommodation in the Wigry National Park to Raczki, the home of my mother's family in the late 19th century.  Going south along the Augustov road, we found a turn off to Raczki. It soon became a dirt track road which wandered through fields and forests.  It crossed a small stream and led to an ancient track with religious and other relics alongside it. Finally we came out at the village of Dowspuda. We stopped to look at the ruins of the old Pac Palace. Lines of lime trees marked the road to the palace and there were Soviet built small housing blocks on one side. 

Raczki was another mile and though it was hot, I wanted to walk. There was a pedestrian path alongside the tree-lined road which made for a somewhat auspicious entrance to the town.  I imagined the town in former days when the town was more prosperous or when public spaces were taken more care of. The paths were no longer well kept and development seemed a bit uncoordinated, houses facing different directions. Seemingly new dwellings had replaced former ones in the outskirts. Housing became more dense and more faced the street as I walked further into town. Several side roads ran perpendicular. Side roads to the right went towards the river. Side roads to the left went to another nearby village. Finally I reached the center of town, the town square, where my friends had parked the car.  My friend, Birute, asked a passerby for a tourist information office which I had previously identified on our map, but it turned out to be outside the town. Anyway, no one knew of its existence. We also asked about the cemetery but no-one seemed to know about that either. Everyone we saw and asked were young. We found no one speaking English, German or Russian, only Polish.  They knew little about the past. They seemed quite shy and not used to visitors. We saw no old people as such. We went into a couple of shops and chatted to people as best we could.

We left the town square on foot and walked north towards the church whose bells were ringing indicating midday. (Birute’s partner, Stephan, thought there might be someone at the church we could talk to.) As we walked, a tune rang out from the Town Hall, also signifying midday. Buildings petered out a bit and a large church lay on the right inside a wrought iron fence. We entered into the courtyard. The church was only partially open and nobody was around. Outside, in the shade, I reread the description of the town my sister had put together. (The heat was difficult to deal with by this time.) There was a detailed description of the location of the cemetery. 

Opposite the church, and slightly on a diagonal from it, stood a row of neatly ordered old wooden houses. From the construction I suspected that at least one of them was there during my great grandfather's time. It demonstrated a very old kind of carpentry. The others were newer but still quite old.  One had wooden siding on it and could have been renovated at some point. They seemed inhabited.  The road opposite the church ran diagonal to the present main road and, I speculated, could have been a more important road in former times, since there was little evidence of development along the present main road. Indeed the modern village seemed to peter out as the main road turned left away from the river. 

We backtracked through the village asking for information as went. We noticed three men with bicycles hanging out in the shade in the town square. One of them appeared to speak a little English. He had spent some time in New York City, not unusual in Poland we found. He struggled to speak to us because he had forgotten much of it.  Another spoke some Russian but was inebriated. Birute was able to communicate with him and he was able to describe where the cemetery was with the help of the others. The three men were friendly and willing to help. 

We drove south then turned west towards another village where, outside the city boundary, was a small wood and some remaining stumps of what could have been a fence. We examined the wood, but became quickly entangled in stinging nettles and bushes. Stephan was convinced that a bear had recently been there because of tracks. This was clearly not the place and we decided to try elsewhere. As we walked back to the car however, it seemed to me that a cemetery would more likely be on the side of the wood rather than in it. It also occurred to me that the stumps could be the remains of the fence "with two wires" written about in Linda's description. I noticed a trampled down but uninviting path through a wheat field to the broken down fence. By this time Birute and Stephan had returned to the car. I persuaded myself to pursue the path in spite of the discomfort of heat, insects and uneven ground. I walked in a straight line past the stumps and through tangled grasses. The ground was even more uneven and difficult to walk on. Then to the left I saw what looked like an old stone almost disappearing under the tangled grasses. It had no writing on it but was definitely not there by chance. It was to be one of only two stones still visible. The other one had Hebrew writing on it and confirmed that I was in the right place! I could feel other stones under my feet, but they lay buried under earth and grass and could not be identified easily.

I waived to Stephan and Birute and they made their way to where I was. The cemetery was in some kind of protected status legally, but completely neglected. Clearly it was returning to its natural state and soon there would be nothing to observe. The pleasure of finding the cemetery was tinged with sadness at its neglect. We observed what appeared to be its perimeter and then left walking back through the wheat field.

We left Raczki along a different route, towards Sulwalki, and then south to Wigry National Park

Zena Cook

© Robert Rose 2014