By Jennifer M. Colatosti
Kowel is now Kovel.
My family didn’t live in Poland. They lived in the Russian Empire, in an area that was once Poland and became it again, just briefly, between the World Wars. Being stubborn, we have called it Poland this whole time.
Kovel is now in Ukraine. Wolyn region was also called Vholynia and is now Volyn’ska Oblast. Radoszyn, the village where my family lived, has kept the same name, the spelling and alphabet changing under each new regime.
It’s not until I’m ankle-deep into looking for traces of my family in Kovel that I realize my Great-Grandpa Joe and Ciotka, his sister, lived there like I lived in Atlanta – on the outskirts, claiming the city for the sake, perhaps, of simplicity.
It takes about a half hour by church van to get to Radoszyn from Kovel. The young-ish priest plays Ukrainian pop music. There is a song I will hear nearly anytime I am somewhere with a radio tuned to what I assume is Ukraine’s Top 40. The chorus begins in Ukrainian and switches to English. The beats are poppy but hard. Something something; I love you. The I is stressed, drawn out just a half beat longer than a native speaker might, the love quick and guttural. I picture dark clubs and laser lights, Eastern Bloc teenagers dancing in sweat-soaked tank tops. Father Tadeusz beats his palms against the steering wheel and sings along.
In migrations, my family stopped being farm people and became suburban people. Factory workers, civil engineers turned steel salesmen, nurses, nursing home activity managers, radiologists, HVAC technicians, electricians, librarians, elementary school teachers, realtors. And me, a student still at 33, insistent on being a storyteller first and everything else that puts money in my checking account second. I play like it’s a life of hardship and sacrifices when underneath I know it’s the ultimate privilege.
Father turns onto a side road at a sign marked Радошин. That sign said Radoszyn, right? I ask. It is the first word written in Cyrillic that I have recognized almost immediately on sight. He nods and says Of course. That is where we’re going.
Storytelling has brought me here, and I’ve arrived with a quiet wild hope that I’ll discover some living remnant of my family, some descendent of the daughter Ciotka left behind when she emigrated. I want it to go like this: I arrive at the train station in Kovel and someone recognizes something in my face, looking past my obvious Mediterranean coloring and Roman nose to see something resonant with their own sense of familiar. She asks a question I do not understand, and my interpreter translates something like She says aren’t you the cousin of so-and-so. Or, I am standing in the cemetery in Radoszyn and an older woman comes out of one of the houses that remain in the village, approaching the very grave by which I am kneeling. She says something I cannot decipher and I stand, worried that I have angered her by trespassing. But, as she draws closer something wordless passes between us. I imagine it something like the end of Joy Luck Club, when Jing Mei arrives at the airport in China to reclaim her long-lost older sisters, and the three of them hug and weep and repeat the word “Mama.”
For months, I’ve been searching databases and writing to archives throughout Eastern Europe. I want a name, a date of birth, anything that will pull Ciotka’s daughter’s story out from the darker corners of our family history. I’d met with professors, research librarians, historians. I wrote to archives and genealogical societies and the relevant Catholic parish and diocese and archdiocese. I learned that this region was so beat up during the world wars that many buildings and records were destroyed. I heard we don’t keep Polish records and we might have had that information, but it was lost or moved during the Soviet years. One letter told me that the Polish records were an absent archive, having been moved – carried away – in parts to Krakow and Przemy’sl, in Poland, and the rest held – protected – in the state archive of L’viv and central state historical archive of Ukraine. I’d imagined an empty cavern where an archive used to be, a procession of men in priest’s robes carrying file boxes out of a cathedral, through the streets, onto trains, and across the border into Poland. I’d imagined hard-faced men in police uniform standing guard before stacks of paper, wondered how I might communicate to them what I wanted.
Anatol Sulik, a local historian, found the grave of Maryanna Paprocka, my great-great-grandmother, and wrote about it in his book long before it occurred to me that I might want to look for it. He’d responded to the letter I’d sent the Catholic church in Kovel, and now we stand near the center of the cemetery on the border of what remains of my family’s village. He points toward an island of trees across the fields that used to be farmland. Through Lyudmila, the woman he has found to interpret, he says That is where Chobut was, by those trees. It was another Polish village. I think about people who could also have been my family; I use we and our now when talking or writing or thinking about Poles in this region, even though I’ve learned that Poles colonized the area, that we thought we’d be better stewards of the land than Ukrainian peasants. Anatol says about the Polish village of Chobut, It has disappeared. I know by now that disappeared in this case means destroyed, and the sense of loss is a mallet thumped against my chest.
Someone tells me that Chobut means trunk. I am picturing a steamer trunk stored in the underbelly of a ship and holding my great-great aunt’s belongings as she crosses the Atlantic, imagining baby clothes hidden at the bottom, thinking how I might work the coincidence of the word’s meaning into a meditation on travel and migration and how a person selects what to leave behind when she leaves home. But then Father says, Like this, miming an elephant’s trunk with his arm, and we all laugh.
The headstone is made of sandstone, Anatol explains. Your family must have been very rich. I don’t say out loud that my great-great-grandfather trained soldiers for the Russian Army, but I’m thinking of what my mother has told me: that he kept a pile of sticks for beating the trainees, and that my great-grandpa Joe, his son, would know the training period had ended once all the sticks had been used and the pile diminished, eventually, to nothing. I say noncommittal things like I know that they owned some of the land here and I think my great-great grandfather did something with horses. I scribble in my journal as Anatol talks, wanting to apologize for my family’s former wealth, for its inability to preserve the villages that have disappeared or maintain the handful of unimpressive houses that remain of Radoszyn. I want to apologize for my people having been intruders to begin with.
I take seven photos of the headstone; most are of the inscription on the front, but a few are of the detail on the side: a relief carving of what looks like a scepter with a bow tied near the top, a symbol I don’t recognize and that makes me wonder how much I still don’t know about being Polish.
When I pause in my photo and note taking, Father Tadeusz and Anatol begin speaking in unison over the grave of Maryanna Paprocka. I cannot tell whether they speak Polish or Ukrainian. I do recognize the ritual of prayer in their low tones and the rhythm of their speech. Silently, I pray along with them, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, suddenly more religious than I am in my everyday life, humbled by a mourning I hadn’t expected to feel. Afterward, someone offers to take my picture by the grave. I am crying behind my sunglasses, but I acquiesce, mostly because I want my grandfather to have a photo of his granddaughter standing by the grave of his grandmother here in this place of his father’s birth. I want us both to have evidence that migrations can be circular, that progress can mean a return.
I take photos of as much of the surrounding land as I can from the center of the cemetery. When I ask what is grown there, I am told that almost no one left in the area farms it anymore. Still, I can see the neat ordering of what would have been rows of wheat, can imagine the fields dotted with workers. I picture these fields and the trees just beyond where Chobut used to be as the backdrop for the stories I’ve already written about Ciotka and the man she loved but couldn’t marry, the father of her left-behind daughter. Later, when we are back in the van, I say what I have been thinking since we first turned off the main road at the Радошин sign. This looks a lot like Hamilton, Ohio. I clarify, Like the area of the US where my family from here ended up, to farm. Father says, not for the first time, But nowhere has air like we have here. I think, at the time, that this is quaint: a matter of place pride unfounded by real comparison. And yet, when I return to Kansas weeks later, I ask some friends, Is today an especially hazy day, or do I just not remember that this is normal?
In the church van leaving Radoszyn, though, I respond to the priest’s claim by asking again: So, all this farmland, no one uses it? I see no clear indications of human habitation in the handful of houses left in Radoszyn, no obvious signs of recent agriculture, but still I don’t want it to be true that there is no deliberate cultivation of life here, don’t want it to be true that the labors my people were part of aren’t still ongoing. Or maybe my resistance is just a function of my American-ness, how unaccustomed I am to seeing any significant acreage left to the devices of nature rather than plowed and fertilized and pesticided into maximum production. Father says something in Ukrainian, and everyone else in the van laughs. I turn to Lyudmila, who says, It is kind of a joke, Jennifer. Father says you should tell your grandpa to come back and work on his farm. Father says, in English, Yes, tell Grandpa it waits for him.