Where was West Prussia?

6 Oct


Two things struck us as peculiar as we drove from Berlin through the Polish countryside on our way to the outskirts of Gdansk/Danzig:  McDonalds and hookers. The minute we crossed the border into Poland (with utterly no border control at all, by the way), we saw the Golden Arches hovering above the skyline in every town we came to! Then we started noticing all these women standing on the side of the road in small clearings near the truck stops. At first we thought they must be waiting for the bus, but then we realized that they were all on the truck routes, and near a place in the forest where trucks could turn off.  The oldest profession is alive and well in Poland, even as American fast food has taken over.

As those of you who have been following this blog know, I wanted to come to this part of Poland because my grandfather Esau was born here, in 1884 (!), when it was West Prussia. He left in 1910, ending up in Los Angeles in about 1918. (See my blog entry “Pop of Broeske” from May 18). I tracked down the Polish name of the tiny village that he came from, and decided that we could take a little side trip at the end of our Berlin stay to seek out my roots. I booked us into a hotel about 13 km from Gdansk, about 15 km from this little village, in what was then Pomerania. (I made the booking through Bookings.com, just more evidence of how thoroughly modern Poland is now).

The hotel turned out to be a charming set up, Cedrowy Dworek, which means Cedar Inn, in a one-street village Cedry Wielkie, which also means something like Great Cedars.P1010397  Aside from the great cedar beams in the hotel’s excellent restaurant, I saw no cedar trees. From what I could gather from the all-Polish historical signs–it’s always fascinating to me to be in a country where none of the words make any sense to me!–the buildings were originally a 19th-century barn and surrounding farm structures.P1010396

And here’s the scene that greeted us from our hotel balcony:
cedrywielkie_hotel_horsesLittle Polish ponies in a field against a beautiful sunset!  That night we had fantastic regional food from the hotel’s chef, (the cuisine is from the area called Zulawy in Polish)  which made us feel happily at home. cedrywielkie_hotel_restaurant_gb&duck cedrywielkie_hotel_restaurant_eemeal

We were ready for the next day, and our trip to my grandfather’s birthplace.

Having had such a search to track down the Polish names of the once-German settlements in this region, I knew it was going to be difficult to find any sign of the region’s Prussian days, but I expected that there would be some evidence, at least in graveyards, of the thriving Mennonite communities that had been here since the 16th century. I was wrong; although all of the villages remain, and many of the buildings are still there, no signs exist in German, and the graveyards are filled entirely with garish Polish tombstones. This complete erasure of German presence is, of course, understandable when one considers how much Poland has suffered at the hands of not only the Germans, but also the Russians and the Austrians, who will-nilly carved up this proud country in the 18th century, and treated the Polish people abominably. Read Simon Winder’s excellent book Danubia for insights into this whole tragic mess.

But there were wonders to discover! Aside from the fascinating Mennonite houses, which were certainly there when my grandfather lived nearby, lubieszewo_ee&mennonitehouse we also made a tremendously interesting find in the village of Lubieszewo, about 5 km from my grandfather’s village, in what was then called Ladekopp and was the center of Mennonite culture in the region. We had stopped to look at the graveyard, hoping it would have some evidence of a German population ostaszewo_onlygermangrave (the only German one left was of the minister of the German flock in the 1880s), but decided to look inside the church, too, since the Polish signs seemed to indicate that it was historically significant and being renovated by EU organizations. What a delightful surprise!

lubieszewo_stelizabethchurch_plaque I was first struck by the unusual combination of brick and wooden steeple–we hadn’t seen this in other villages–and it was obvious this was a substantial church. lubieszewo_stelizabethchurch_tower_ext

At first we couldn’t figure out what exactly was happening on the ceiling, but when we finally got inside and looked more closely, we saw that the entire ceiling was covered in wooden planks that had been painted with dark clouds, filled with angels and saints and biblical scenes:

lubieszewo_stelizabethchurch_int_viewfromaltar lubieszewo_stelizabethchurch_int_ceilingwithorgan lubieszewo_stelizabethchurch_int_ceiling_harp lubieszewo_stelizabethchurch_int_ceiling&organ

As we were there, two people arrived to work on the organ–we assume part of the team doing the renovations. The church also had several indications of its German roots, in altars and small sculptures, and other paintings along the pews.


Sculpture of the Madonna, 1375, St. Elizabeth Church, Lubieszewo, Poland.


18th-century altar memorial to a German priest at St. Elizabeth Church, Lubieszewo, Poland.

I have never seen a church with a painted wooden ceiling like this, so I was pleased.  Whether Mennonites were buried here or not, I wasn’t able to find out, but at least I know it was something my grandfather would have seen. So on to the next village!

And there it was: the sign for Brzozski, brzozki_sign

which was Broeske in the German days. On the ship’s manifest where my grandfather’s name appears, it lists Broeske as his birthplace. Later on, in other papers, he listed it as Neukirch–now Nowa Cerkiew–so I assume he lived somewhere on a Hof in between the two villages. In any case, I took photos of all the buildings in this tiny, one-street place, which had very little to offer in the way of interesting sights.

brzozki_barn brzozki_fachwerkhouse

It’s no wonder that men like my grandfather would have left these farming communities, where there would have been few prospects, especially second and third sons who would not have inherited land. But I did feel emotional being in this place, even if not a sign of past inhabitants could be found.

We then travelled to the other village of Now Cerkiew, finding along the way, in the neighboring village of Gniazdowo,  excellent examples of Mennonite houses gniazdowo_mennonitehouse_frontview gnniazdowo_mennonitehouse_fachwerk

and even met one of the inhabitants, a sweet old Ukrainian woman who had worked in Germany at one time, and was happy to speak some German, although she couldn’t tell us anything about the house or its history. She gave us two pears from the garden, though.gniazdowo_bigmennonitehouse_ukrainiangrandma

In Nowa Cerkiew we saw again some great wooden houses that I would like to think my grandfather lived in, but that’s pure fantasy on my part. nowacerkiew_mennonitehouse_otherside nowacerkiew_mennonitehouse_frontview

So we left the sleeping cat on the sunny porch, and headed on to Danzig. P1010343

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