Photo: Dark skies over green fields, Opole Voivodship, Upper Silesia, Poland. May 2014
I stopped along the side of the road in the village of Ligota Bialska (Formerly Ellguth), deep into the southern reaches of the former region of Upper Silesia, to take a quick photo of the WW1 memorial and record the names of the fallen in search of my families distant connections. From a farm building across the street I hear a shout and then two men begin approaching our rental car. Though we rented the car in Katowice, the obvious ‘W’ (Warsaw) license plate of the rental agency denoted us as distant foreigners in this quiet, rural part of Poland.
We explained my interest in the memorial. That I was looking for traces of my family.
‘Hindera? Yes, I think I knew of some Hinderas. Over in Smicz.’ The old man muttered through his few remaining teeth.
‘Ahh, yes, the name seems familiar.’ His friend interjected.
‘Do you know of still any around?’ We asked.
‘Hmm, no. It has been a long time. You’ll probably find them in the cemetery by now…’ The old man replied.
And so we continued on through the Silesian countryside. The Spring sky dark and heavy with rain. I was in search of the dead; names now long forgotten. Upper Silesia is a lonely part of Europe. Formerly the eastern most expansion of the German Empire and now an empty part of Poland. Just to the south lies the Czech border, whose mountains rise along the horizon, above fields of barley, wheat, rapeseed, and corn. The green and yellow fields contrasted with the blue and black sky overhead. A storm was approaching.
We passed the villages that I have only seen by name in birth, marriage, and death records of my ancestors: Grabina/Grabine, Otoki/Ottok, Ligota Bialska/Ellguth, Biala Prudnicka/Zülz, Wasilowice/Waschelwitz, Smicz/Schmitsch, Wilowice/ Mühlsdorf, Kolnowice/Kohlsdorf. Tiny, one road towns of crumbling brick buildings and potholed streets. You’re more likely to see tractors than cars driving along the roads. The locals watch you out of the corner of their eye, as the rental car was far too nice to be owned by any resident. What were we doing there?
The addition of the historic German names in 2005 to many of the villages seems to have come at the distain of some locals, and more than once, I noticed the German version of the town name covered in black spay paint. It appears history still holds bitter memories for some.
We drove further south to Prudnik, now just 5 kilometers north of the Czech border. After driving in a few circles we next headed west towards Nysa. Just outside of town the sky erupted. Lightning cracked and thunder rumbled all around us. I made a quick turn off onto a farmer’s dirt road and into a field where I attempted to photograph the action. I was just on the edge of the storm but soon that cold breeze picked up and a bolt of lightning hit a little to close for comfort. Heavy drops of rain began to fall. I thought of my ancestors, leaving these fields for a new home in Nebraska in the 1880’s and 90’s. They may have moved a content away, but still they remained in a familiar land.
The storm passed and as we reached Nysa a bit of sun was beginning to shine. The cities cathedral, beautiful and imposing, rose high above the city center. But the place overall was a bit too busy for my liking. And so we took the narrow country roads back north to Opole. The rain caught up to use once again. This time without any drama, just grey, liquid skies which lasted into the night.
If it weren’t for an historic family connection, then there is little doubt that I never would have heard of, much less visited, Polish Silesia. And while you wont ever see any of these town names appearing in guide books or magazine articles, there is still a wealth of history and a lifetime of stories to be discovered in this lonely corner of Europe. I have little doubt that I’ll be back again.
Photo: Abandoned house in the village of Grabina/Grabine, Opole Voivodship, Upper Silesia, Poland. May 2014
Photo: Wind and Curtain, Grabina/Grabine, Opole Voivodship, Upper Silesia, Poland. May 2014
Photo: Bales of hay, Grabina/Grabine, Opole Voivodship, Upper Silesia, Poland. May 2014
Photo: Spring thunderstorm over field, near Laskowiec, Opole Voivodship, Upper Silesia, Poland. May 2014
Photo: Approaching storm over field, near Prudnik, Opole Voivodship, Upper Silesia, Poland. May 2014
Photo: Nysa Cathedral, Nysa, Opole Voivodship, Upper Silesia, Poland. May 2014
Photo: Lone barn in field, Opole Voivodship, Upper Silesia, Poland. May 2014