Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Bromberg/Bydgoszcz: The First Stop on the Road

It rained nearly the entire time I was in Bydgoszcz. The weather suited the mood of the nation – the Poles’ great hero, Pope John Paul 2, had died and his funeral was going to take place in a couple of days. Photos of him adorned almost every window and candles burned in the main square of the city.

Large crowds in the gathered in the
Old Market Square
to lay flowers, light more candles and to join in a communal sense of grief at their loss.

I had read a lot about Poland during the time of the partitions and during the German occupation when the country didn’t exist as such, so I knew that the Catholic Church had been very influential in keeping a Polish identity alive during those hard times. It was only natural, then that the Pope – the first international figure that the re-constituted Poland had produced – should be so important in the country’s consciousness.

Pope John Paul 2

The young future Pope after his first communion

While the nation mourned, I walked round the city trying to imagine it through the eyes of my young hero, Leo, in 1870 when it was known as Bromberg.

Bromberg inhabitants in 19th Century

I walked along the banks of the River Brda (the River Brahe in Leo’s time) and tried to picture Leo, the innocent from the country, dazzled and deafened by the sights and sounds of the city – the factories, the barges, the carriages, the wharfs and the timber mills. How noisy and overpowering it would have seemed to a young boy whose prior experience of crowds would have been the small market in Nakel.

The River Brahe

I walked up to the station and imagined the square in front of it crammed with soldiers waiting to take trains towards the border in readiness for the conflict with France which was beginning to seem inevitable during the first half of 1870. I saw the possibility of Leo making friends with one of the soldiers.

The station in Bromberg

I walked in the narrow streets in the oldest part of the town and I saw two young boys walking together, laughing and jostling each other. I suddenly realised that I wanted Leo to meet up with another boy. I saw how much it would add to the story if there was a kind of Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn quality to their relationship. So, I began to visualize a meeting with Tomasz in these streets.

The Old Market Square in Bromberg

Now I had another character to consider – what was he like? what was his back story? And why was he alone in the streets of Bromberg?

Monday, 7 February 2011

The Walk Along The Canal

I spent the morning looking round Naklo Nad Notecia and that’s where I got the idea that Leo (I preferred my grandfather’s second name for the purposes of the book) would meet one of his siblings here – a sister, I decided. It would be his last contact with anyone from his family before heading away from the area he had known all his short life. I imagined that it would be a desperate and heart-wrenching farewell.

I wandered to the outskirts of town and down onto the banks of the canal. This is the way I wanted my Leo to go – following the canal, so that he would not get lost, all the way to Bromberg (modern-day Bydgoszcz). There was the line of water, stretching away straight to the horizon.

My head was filled with questions about the plot and I decided to walk along the canal bank to think about them. As far as I knew, the real George Leo had left home to help his family by giving them one less mouth to feed. I wanted my fictional Leo to have grinding poverty as his background but I needed a more dramatic start to his journey.

I walked for about ten miles along the canal before heading back to town and during that twenty mile walk I came up with the outline of the start of the story. Leo and his sister, as the oldest in the family, had been hired out for work – she at an inn in Nakel, and he on a large estate some miles away. Unjustly accused of a crime – I didn’t know what yet – beaten and humiliated, I wanted Leo to fight back against his accuser – the bullying son of the aristocratic landlord perhaps – compounding the offence in everyone’s eyes. Facing the prospect of a flogging and jail, Leo flees and, in order not to implicate his family, he decides to take to the road. The only one of his family he can see in order to explain what’s happened is his sister.

I was pleased that the story was beginning to come together. Then on the walk back, I saw something I had missed on the journey out– at the edge of a field was a telegraph pole with a large round nest on top and, further away, another one – storks’ nests.

Storks, the symbol of fertility and abundance. No wonder poor communities set so much store on trying to attract these birds to their area, in the superstitious hope that they would bring good luck with them. By the time I got back to my car in Naklo nad Notecia, I had the skeleton of a plot and the opening sentence of the book:

Leo was the first to see the storks.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The Very House Itself

……… The woman from the church listened to my dziadek and dom and szukam and looked hard at the photograph of my Grandfather’s house. She shook her head but she signalled me to follow and we went into the church. An old man was inside, putting fresh flowers in a vase next to a portrait of the recently deceased Pope John Paul 2.

The woman explained the matter to him at some length and he peered closely at the photograph. He shook his head and was about to hand the photo back when he stopped and pointed to something – a small mark on the lintel above the door, a mark I’d never noticed and could barely see now. His face lit up and he said, “Tak! Tak!” “Yes! Yes!”

He led me and the woman out of the church. She pointed to her watch and indicated that she had to leave. I shook her hand and thanked her, “Dziękuję”. She got into her car and drove away, waving as she passed me hurrying along the road with the old man who was grinning with excitement at this little diversion – helping an Englishman to find his roots. We eventually stopped outside a house. It had a small yard and a barn or stable on the far side. I suppose I had been expecting to see something less prosaic than this squat building with its corrugated asbestos roof and uninspiring greyish walls. Could this really be the place?

The man led me round the back and through a doorway that certainly did resemble the one in the photograph although I couldn’t see the mark that had led us here. He called in through the open door and then stepped inside. An old couple was there, evidently just about to eat. The woman was at the stove stirring a steaming pot of soup and the man was sitting at the oilcloth-covered table. My guide pointed to me and rapidly told my story.

When he finished, we were invited to sit at the table and were offered a bowl of soup. We accepted and in that small, bare, steamy space, eating a simple vegetable soup I began to feel a tremor of emotion. Perhaps my grandfather, all that time ago, had eaten similar simple fare in this very room. While we ate, my guide asked question after question of the old couple, occasionally turning to me and smiling and nodding or giving me a thumbs-up to indicate that, as he had guessed, we were in the right place.

We stayed for over an hour after the meal and with the aid of the trusty phrase book, a map of Europe and a crudely drawn family tree, I managed to indicate my grandfather’s journey and my relation to George Leo Hinz. My guide pointed to my grandfather’s birthdate – 1858 - and then looked puzzled. How old was I? he asked, and I could see that he couldn’t square the grandson being there almost 150 years later. I quickly drew a rough timeline. My Grandfather born in 1858, marries in 1888, has my father and his twin in 1892; my father has me in 1941. And here I am, a 64 year old man in 2005. The guide and the couple indicate that I don’t look my age and we all laugh.
It’s my turn for the questions. The couple have been here since just after the 2nd World War – he shows me medals he has won during the war. The house had been in a dilapidated state when they took it on and they had done renovations, alterations and extensions but affirmed, when they looked at the photograph, that this was indeed the building I was looking for.

I looked round at the walls, thinking of my young grandfather. Here, in this space, he had lived. And then, one day in 1870, he had taken that momentous decision to leave. He would have had no clue where he might end up or if he would ever see his family again. He would have walked out of that door into the unknown. I had known the bare facts but, here, it all became so much more real and I was unexpectedly moved. The old lady must have guessed my thoughts and she smiled at me, waved her hand round to indicate the room, then patted my hand. The tears I was fighting, came closer to the surface. I felt I had to leave now before I was overwhelmed.

Outside,  I diverted myself with taking photos of my guide and the couple.

I gave profuse thanks for their hospitality and help, said goodbye, and made the way back to my car. I drove along the road, past the house and out towards the main road to Naklo nad Notecia.

My Grandfather must have taken this route, I thought. And that was it – the tears I had held back now poured out of me and I had to pull over and stop the car as I began to sob. For him. For my father. For my dying father-in-law. For me. For the brief nature of everyone’s passage through this world. “Lif is læne” says the Anglo-Saxon poet who wrote Beowulf.  “Life is fleeting”.  I don’t think I have ever felt this truth so intensely as I did on that small, deserted Polish backroad.         

Saturday, 5 February 2011

My Grandfather's Childhood Home

I went to Poland in April 2005. The Polish Pope, Jan Pawel 2 (John Paul 2) had just died and the whole country was in mourning and almost every house had a photo of him in the window. I had travelled by train from London, via Brussels and Berlin, and almost as soon as I arrived in Poland and got off the train at Poznan I felt a sense of heightened emotion. Was it me? Was I exhausted from the long journey and worried at being alone in a country where I knew barely a word? Surely I wasn’t responding to the fact that I was in the country of my grandfather’s birth. Or was I? Or was it the fact that my father in law back in France was gravely ill, terminally ill as it turned out? Or was I tapping into the grief of the Polish people for their dead Pope? Whatever it was, I couldn’t deny that I felt in a tremulous state that first night in the hotel.  

The next morning I hired a car and drove straight to the village where my grandfather had been born: Wilhelmsdorf (now called Polichno).

It is a tiny, unremarkable hamlet of a few houses along a strip of road with a high, wooded bank on one side and flat, sandy fields on the other.

The road through Wilhelmsdorf (Polichno)

The wooded bank above the road

The fields run down to the River Notec (The River Nezte, when my Grandfather lived there) about half a mile away. It looked poor agricultural land and, on that cold, damp April day the whole place seemed rather bleak.

The fields run down to the River Notec beyond the line of trees 

I had no idea if my Grandfather’s house was still standing and didn’t really know how to begin looking for it. I walked up and down the length of the hamlet and saw some people gazing curiously, even suspiciously, at me. But with the few words of halting Polish that I had learned – “Hello…Goodbye…Can I have a room?...How much?...I am English…etc” I was sure that I would not get very far. I felt reluctant to try and I actually got back into my hire car and started to drive away. Then shame at my cowardice made me turn around. I had to give it a go.

I had a photo of my Grandfather’s house with some of his family outside it, taken in about 1905 –over thirty years after he had left. The family doesn’t look poverty-stricken and obviously the money which my grandfather and a couple of his brothers had sent home (he from London, they from the USA) had made a difference. Perhaps if I showed it to people they would recognize it.

My Grandfather (standing on something at the very back ) and
some of his family in front of their home in Wilhelmsdorf. The
little lad sitting at the front looks unnervingly like all of
my nephews when they were young.

I tried at a house at the very end of the hamlet where an old man was working in the garden. I pointed to the photo. I looked up ‘grandfather’ (dziadek), ‘house’(dom), ‘I am searching’(szukam) in my Polish phrase book and stumbled through the words. The man shook his head then signalled me to wait while he went into his house. He came back with his wife and I repeated the pointing and the stumbling words. I also added the name ‘Hinz’ – the name of my grandfather’s family and the name he kept all his life even when my father and his twin brother changed theirs to Hinton during the First World War to assert their Englishness when they volunteered for the army.

As I said the name I suddenly realised that it might provoke a negative reaction in this Polish couple, being so obviously of Prussian rather than Polish origin – my ancestors must have been part of that wave of immigrants who had been encouraged to move into the territory after 1795. But, no, they simply repeated the name a couple of times, then shook their heads sorrowfully. They couldn’t help.

A couple of houses further down I tried again, asking an old woman hanging up her washing in the garden. But once more, it was a shake of the head and “Przykro mi - ‘Sorry’.

I was about to give up when I had a bit of luck. A woman was just coming out of the tiny church/chapel on the other side of the road. She was carrying some faded flowers which she put into a dustbin. She lifted her hand and waved to me, giving me the courage to have one last try……….

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

The Historical Background of The Road

Now that I had mapped out the probable journey my Grandfather had take in 1870 I began to research the time and the place. What a terrible period it was for Poland. The country had been increasingly taken over by its three more powerful neighbours - Russia, Austria and Prussia - in 1772, 1703 and 1795.

click to enlarge image

After the last date, Poland ceased to exist. Not content with that, during the 19th Century, the three occupying powers tried to eliminate the very memory of the country. In the case of the area where my Grandfather was brought up, Prussians were encouraged to move east and settle the new territory. They were given land taken from the Poles, and the Polish language was discouraged and only German was taught in schools. This kind of historical background I found out by reading books like, Norman Davis’ great work:  God's Playground. A History of Poland.

For more detailed descriptions of everyday life of ordinary poor people I read The Peasants, four novels by Wladyslaw Reymont – they trace the life in a small village during one year –  the books each span a season: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. It is set slightly later than my story but it gave me a great insight into a kind of peasant life that had hardly changed for centuries.

All of this information was useful. I knew I could work some of the historical setting into the book, especially the war between Prussia and France in 1870 but I began to realise there was one thing I had to do before I could write the book – I had to visit the country. I had trace my Grandfather’s footsteps