Zena’s Visit to Raczki August 2014

All text and pictures © Zena Cook 2014

By way of background, I had met Birute (a Lithuanian psychotherapist) on the Camino in Spain and had traveled to Lithuania to research my ancestral family on my father’s side. She had been a great help. (I have written about that trip but not yet finalized it). I had reciprocated by inviting her to Israel the following winter for which she had brought with her new friend Stephan. Stephan is German, a physician by background, but currently working as a psychoanalyst. They had invited me to join them on part of their summer vacation. Birute had indicated that she wanted to help me with exploring more family history in an area of Poland that was quite beautiful with primordial forests and fresh lakes and would be interesting as a vacation spot.

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It was a scorching hot day when we drove from our lakeside accommodation in the Wigry National Park, to Raczki, the home of my mother's ancestral family in the late 19th century.  We chose to take a more ancient route, rather than a more modern one. Going south along the Suwalki, Augustov road, we discovered a turn off to Raczki. After that there were no signs. We took a right fork that became a dirt track road that wandered through fields and forests with occasional signs of habitation.  Eventually, we forded a small stream (a tributary of the Rospuda river) and came out to an ancient track. This tract had religious relics and historic land marks alongside it. 

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Finally we came out to the main road at the village of Dowspuda. We stopped to look at the ruins of a 19th century palace, called Pac’s palace (Pac was an Aristocrat who distinguished himself during the Napoleonic wars). Lines of lime trees framed the road to the castle and there were Soviet built small housing blocks on one side and a government building on the other.

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Raczki was another mile and though it was hot, I wanted to walk into the town and get the feel of it. 

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There was eventually a pedestrian path alongside the tree-lined road that led me to imagine a more a beautiful entrance to the town in older times.  I imagined the town in former days when the town was more prosperous or when public spaces were taken more care of. Today the paths are no longer well kept and development seemed modern and uncoordinated, houses facing different directions. I noticed that there was not much landscaping.

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Housing became older and more traditionally faced the street as I walked further into town. 

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Several side roads ran perpendicular. Side roads to the right went towards the river. Side roads to the left went to another nearby village. 

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Finally I reached the center of town, the town square, where my friends had parked the car. 

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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. No one knew where it was. We also asked about the cemetery, but no-one seemed to know about that either. Everyone we saw and asked were fairly 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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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We drove south then turned west towards outside the Raczki city boundary.

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Looking north was a small wood, with some remaining stumps of what might have been a fence, on one side. 

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We examined the wood first, but became quickly entangled in stinging nettles and bushes. Stephan was convinced that a bear had recently been there because of tracks. 

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We couldn’t go any further. After much discussion we agreed we were not the right place and decided to try further down the road. As we walked back to the car however, I tried to focus my thoughts on where it might be. It occurred to me that a cemetery would more likely be on the side of the wood, rather than in the center of it. It also occurred to me that the stumps I saw could be the remains of the fence "with two wires" written about in Linda's description. 

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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.

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I waived to Stephan and Birute and they made their way to where I was. 

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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. I considered the likelihood of ancestors in the cemetery with all its implications. We observed what appeared to be its perimeter and then left walking back through the wheat field.

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We left Raczki along a different route, east along the main road towards Suwalki and then south to Wigri. 

Later that week we went to Sejne, where we were told, there was an old 19th century Jewish Synagogue (the White Synagogue). Adjacent was the old Yeshiva, now turned into a film institute, focusing on multicultural issues. Sejne had had a relatively large Jewish population. 

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That night a local band played Klezmer music in the synagogue. Notice the talented female drummer on the right! 

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Zena Cook

© Robert Rose 2014