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Thursday, 28 February 2013

A Michalski by any other name…

Written by Suzanne Waldowski Roche
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My mind has plenty of time to wander as I enter the Wieliczka salt mines in Poland.  With 380 winding, wooden steps leading down to the first level 64 meters underground, it’s a great place to stop and let your senses absorb everything around you. The smell becomes musty and pungent.  The warm summer air above-ground is replaced by a constant 14C.  Dim light bulbs take over for the bright sunlight.  The railings and walls around me are damp and cool.  


But there was only one thought going through my mind as I shuffled with the other ten visitors on the afternoon English-speaking tour—what have I gotten myself into?


This is because I am at the head of the line carrying young daughter, Meg, who has a bad case of new-sneaker blisters.  My aerobic undertaking looks easier in print than it is in practice.  Carrying 46 pounds of pierogi-stuffed child is hard enough. Now imagine doing it in weak light, on unending, narrow stairs, with the only words of encouragement in your ears being “hurry up, Mommy. Everyone is stuck behind you.”

Wieliczka Carving 2Wieliczka Carving 3 

How noble it seemed months ago: I was going to take Meg and my younger sister to Krakow to “discover our roots.”  Since having a child and approaching 40, I have become more attracted to my past.  I wanted Meg to feel connected to our family history. I wanted her to see children growing up in someplace other than California.  


For me, the hopes were more mundane.  How much of my childhood was the result of Polish custom (a.k.a. was it really only my parents who kept a lit Christmas tree up most of the year?). Exactly why did we pass an unconsecrated wafer around the table every Christmas growing up? Is this where my father got his predilection for pickled hard-boiled eggs and fried cow’s brain?  Do other Poles have pale skin and hold grudges like I do? Or was my older sister telling the truth when she said I was the only one in the entire world?


I wrote down what I hoped to accomplish by taking a young child on a 14-hour flight. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Goals can be easily forgotten in the din of jet lag, a new language, and the search for food to give a child used to snacking on edamame and smoothies.  The problem is lists are a little like holidays to me.  Each time one comes around, I vow to keep it simple. Yeah, right.  So, of course, my list grew.  By the time we were on the plane, my wish list even had us entering a small shop-- Czy s? edamame?-- only to find the owners are our lost relatives!


I have an immediate fondness for Krakow. Flower stalls fill the square, like I had always been told.  The tea comes in glasses, not cups.  Bold, older women really do stop to fix Meg’s hair and give her a piece of candy.  My feelings are a mixture of it being an un-westernized, Old-European city, coupled with the knowledge that my family once wandered these streets and parks.  When you grow up in America, Poland sounds about as close and familiar as Canis Major Dwarf.  I see where their memories come from now-- all the smells, sounds and sights that make for childhood joys.


But this is also the country that made for formidable adult decisions.  What was it about Krakow that compelled a very young couple, Jan and Anna Michalski, my great-grandparents, to pack up nine children and move to Buffalo, New York in the middle of winter?  Jan Michalski was a toymaker, not a profession that can support travel abroad. 


The Michalski and Waldowski families left Poland before World War II, so our family stories are much less heart-wrenching than many.  Growing up, I heard all the Waldowski relatives speak proudly about how they had come to America “early,” in the 1910s.  It’s clear when they said “they all came,” they meant it.  There was a reason my exploratory letters had been returned to me months before our trip, all undeliverable. There wasn’t a Waldowski to be found in Poland. 


Once in Krakow, my sister and I spend our early mornings searching through phone books.  We are determined to track down a Michalski.  I am sure we would have found them, had it not been for the little problem of there being six accepted spellings of Michalski.  Well that, coupled with the realization that Michalski in southern Poland is a little like Smith in the U.S.  


I decide to turn to Malek, our driver and guide, for help.  He is our one constant on our trip-- polite, reserved, and waiting for us in front of the hotel on-time.


“Everyone comes to Poland to search for family,” he tells me.  We are on our way out of town, to Wieliczka.  He waves his hand at the scenery we pass. “But very few find someone. It is because all that has happened…”


His words tail off, his final thought unfinished.  So much has happened to Poland and its people; it would be hard to know where to start.  It is a country that exists in a nebulous state of optimistic beauty after being hardened by history. 


We drive in silence out of the city.  It doesn’t take long before farmland and fields take over.  The villages we pass begin to take on a pattern.  A church is never far.  Houses cluster along the street, with immaculate yards and flower-filled window boxes.  Old women work out in the gardens with scarves covering their heads.  In their windows hang lace curtains.  For me, it is the first “a-ha” moment of discovery. So this is where all my relatives got their decorating ideas!


These houses, Malek tells us, stay in families forever. It is where a person is born, marries, and dies. And, if the family is truly blessed, they will also sport a big car beside the house.


From the looks of the parking lot at Wieliczka, there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of cars around here.  The ticket line for the mines reminds me of those at Disneyland.  Every time you think you’re near the front of the line, you go around the curve and find you’ve only just begun.  Resourceful people plan for this and visit the mines early in the morning. Me, I panic.


“Don’t worry. Go eat lunch,” Malek tells us. “I will get the tickets. It is my job to stand in line.”  He points to a restaurant and tells us to go. We should plan to be back in an hour to make the afternoon English-speaking tour.


Like all places where winter likes to settle in for a good, long stay, the people of Poland embrace every moment of summertime.  This means all the activities of daily living and relaxation are done outside.  It also means people like to linger at the outdoor table they snagged at the one restaurant around.


Because we have a “baby” with us, a couple offers us their table.  We sit down and order our usual: pierogis.  Lesson learned: when you take a vegetarian sister to Poland, you eat a lot of pierogis.  We return to find the ticket line hasn’t moved in an hour.  And worse, Malek is nowhere to be seen.  We divide up to look for him. The tour is scheduled to begin in ten minutes. We search everywhere for Malek, except for the one spot I did not consider. 


Meg finds him.  He is at the restaurant, enjoying a coke and cigarette.  One of his “cousins” just happened to be at the front of the ticket line (imagine that!) and bought our tickets.  No wonder the line never moved; his “cousin” had a nice little business going, monopolizing the ticket counter.  Having lived in Brooklyn for many years and befriending many Russians, I knew about such systems. What I learned was this: don’t question them.


We run to join the tour, our coveted tickets in hand.  Our guide is Biata, a young woman on her summer break from college.  Her English is pretty good and, if I don’t concentrate, I can actually understand most of what she says. 


Over 2000 chambers and 200 km of tunnels wind 300 meters through the ground in Wieliczka.  Excavated since the 13th century, the mines have become their own world underground.  There are chapels, lakes, a sanitarium, an old hospital and kitchen.  In all the rooms are elaborate alters and sculptures of saints.  The profound religious nature of the sights stems from the dangers miners faced.  Polish law forbade them from taking any flammable objects into the mines after a chapel caught on fire and spread throughout the mine uncontrollably for eight months.  The miners took it upon themselves to carve statues and alters out of the one unlimited, inflammable material they could find: salt.

Wieliczka Carving 1 

I get most of these details from the guidebook. I can only understand a handful of words Biata says by now.  We are her last English tour of the day and she is tired.  Her words begin to include extra consonants and her vowels are back to their Polish pronunciations.  It doesn’t matter much because I can just imagine what went on down here.  These mines were dug by hand.  Generations of men went to work everyday not knowing if they would face a flood or fire, a cave-in or methane poisoning.  With all risks, it’s no wonder they carved religious statues.  I’d be carving like crazy too, stopping only to shout a few Hail Mary’s.


Biata leads us through another dark tunnel where old timber supports the walls.  The tunnel isn’t uniform in width or height and begins to feel a little eerie.  We come to the most spectacular room, the Chapel of the Blessed Kinga.  It is a 920 square-meter shrine with more details and ornamentation than many above-ground churches.  The chandeliers, mosaic-like floors, statues, and engravings are all carved from salt.  The room is a glowing, dreamlike ballroom.

Wieliczka Salt Chandelier 

“It took over 30 years to build,” Biata says, “by the Markowski brothers in the early part of this century--”  


Before she can finish, Meg whirls around in delight.  She does her own version of a Rocky-victory run up the stairs, stops at the landing, and turns to face the many tour groups.


“The Michalski’s built this! That’s my family!” Meg shouts.  Her words echo through the chapel.  It’s a miracle the chandelier isn’t shaking.

Wieliczka Carving 1

Like any parent nursing quivering quadriceps, I just stand there and say nothing. My first reaction is, “that sneaky little twerp. Her blisters weren’t bothering her at all.”

Wieliczka Carving 3Wielizka Carving 2 

Meg begins to speak to random strangers, to tell them about the Michalski legacy.   My sister and I exchange “you-tell-her-no-you-tell-her” looks.  But before we can decide, the excitement began to take over.  Even I start to think Michalski sounds an awful lot like Markowski.  I’m embarrassed to say it started to feel pretty good to think that my great-grandfather somehow managed to carve this cathedral until 1920 and still manage to immigrate to America in 1906.  So I do what any parent would do when a misunderstanding has gone on too long. I high-five Meg and talk about how cool it is to find the Michalski’s in Poland.


Maybe Meg is going to hate me someday for feeding this fallacy.  Or maybe love me for encouraging her faith.  I figure details like that will keep her future therapist busy and well-fed for years. Besides, who am I to crush her spirit?  Isn’t that what high school boyfriends are for?  I want her to be excited about other languages and places, to see the joys of traveling and exploring.  I want her to know what a gift it is to know other people.  And who’s to say there aren’t actually seven ways to spell Michalski?



© Suzanne Waldowski Roche


Last modified on Friday, 01 March 2013