|Olsztyn castle, May 2013|
This past week, I’ve been in Olsztyn, a medium sized town in the north-east of Poland, doing archival work – shuttling between the contrasting worlds of a modern business hotel, and the archdiocesan archive across the road.
This is a town where a lot of people are looking for the past. Olsztyn – 4 hours north of Warsaw by train, 2 hours south of Gdańsk by car - was founded in the 14C as Allenstein, within the territory of the Teutonic Knights. In the mid 15C, the area revolted and came under the authority of the Polish Crown. Allenstein, with its pretty castle built over a winding stream, was within the prince-bishopric of Ermland, administered by cathedral canons including Nicholas Copernicus. From the 18C until 1945 Allenstein was part of the kingdom of Prussia, and subsequently of post-unification Germany. In those centuries it acquired grand, red-brick neo-gothic buildings, and witnessed difficult relations between the local German and Polish populations. By 1945, many of the local Polish population had been killed or displaced; the German inhabitants of Allenstein who had survived the arrival of the Red Army were deported en masse, and the area resettled with Poles from the eastern borderlands, from what are now Lithuania and Belarus.
In that sense, Olsztyn/Allenstein is a pretty typical East European town, with a past you can’t sum up in a single sentence, a history dense with the movement of peoples, armies and borders. That past remains very much in the air. The hotel and the attractive Old Town are, for example, full of coach parties from Germany, many of them here to see the place where they, or their parents, grew up. They come into the archive, people in their 70s, asking for the pre-war baptismal registers for the parishes where they were born; looking for grandparents, for connections. In Olsztyn Castle, meanwhile, regardless of the fact that Copernicus started his great work ‘De revolutionibus’ in that very building, the chief focus is an exhibition on the ‘Kresy’, the eastern areas which people left c.1945, as part of the great resettlement of Prussia with ethnic Poles. There were mock ups of Vilnius middle-class parlours c. 1939, school certificates from Vilnius schools, recorded interviews of people reminiscing about their ancestral lands in the east. What the people of Olsztyn want to remember, it seems, is not the history of this town, with which they have no genealogical connection, but lost places far away.
And I too came here in search of more than one kind of ghost – not just Copernicus’ bishop and fellow canons as they tried to fend off Lutheranism in the 1520s and 1530s, but my grandfather, a Polish writer born in Olsztyn in 1917, and my great-grandfather, a long-serving editor of the Gazeta Olsztyńska, a major Polish political newspaper of the early 20C. Their photos are prominent in the town museum; the 21C journalists from that same newspaper came to interview me, as the descendant of these local heroes; people came to reminisce about my grandfather’s anti-Communist broadcasts. So this research trip felt more personal than most. Sometimes the great volumes of 16C letters in the archive, with their crabbed brown handwriting, can be a welcome escape from the East European history which happened afterwards.