The World Wide Web recently put me in touch with, of all things, my past.
I have long been interested in the "before time" of my family - that period predating my paternal grandfather's arrival in the United States from Poland. Like many, I have pursued genealogy in fits and starts, occasionally dusting off a manila folder full of scribbled notes and faded documents to see if I can flesh out my family's history a little more.
Inspiration came yet again when I stumbled upon a Web site for the Polish Genealogical Society. Here was everything I would need for researching my family's roots: books, names, dates, connections. All easily accessible from the comfort of my swivel chair. Was genealogy really supposed to be so easy? The computer seemed to make it more a hobby than a hunt.
It wasn't always so. In the heyday of my determination to learn everything I could about my family's story, I actually went to Poland - woefully underprepared - in 1985. Solidarity was then on the march, and the future of the Communist government was by no means assured. With just a name and the birth city of my Polish-born grandfather, I hopped a train in Berlin and headed east.
It is difficult to describe what I felt upon crossing the Oder into a land I had only imagined. There it was. Poland. Flat, green, and wooded, geographically open but politically closed. As I stared out the window of my compartment I watched, captivated, as serene nature was punctuated by one worn village after another: gray places saddened by decades of neglect.
I changed trains in Warsaw and headed southeast to Lublin, where my grandfather was born just before the turn of the century. There, I hoped, I would find some evidence of his early life, though I wasn't certain where I would begin to look.
As we pulled into the station, a distinguished-looking Polish man in my compartment ventured to ask me what I was about. When I mentioned my grandfather he looked out the window, considered for a moment, and then nodded. "There is no doubt," he assured me, "that your grandfather knew this station."
THE man's statement shook me to the core. He had given me a concrete connection to my past. As I stepped from the train I observed the station - a premodern stone affair, worn and, in places, crumbling; but still functional.
I closed my eyes for a moment and could envision swarms of poor Poles in heavy clothing, their possessions bundled in their arms, holding their children by the hand, waiting for trains to coastal cities from which they would board ships to America. My grandfather had been part of this crowd. Traveling alone, without family. At the tender age of 16.
Using English and German, I navigated my way to the heart of Lublin. Its old town had escaped Warsaw's fate of being bombed to rubble in the war. The city was a backwater far from the tourist path, near the Soviet border. No outsider came here unless he had a driving reason to.
Lublin had somehow been overlooked in the efforts then going on to repair the ancient cores of other Eastern European cities such as Prague and Krakow. Its narrow, cobblestone streets, heaps of coal by basement windows, and horse-drawn wagons spoke of an earlier age - the one in which my grandfather had lived. Had he been able to come here today, he would immediately have recognized it as home.
Where do I begin to describe my adventures in Lublin?
There was my pleasant hostess in the well-kept youth hostel who served me glass (yes, glass) after glass of piping-hot tea as she pumped me for stories about America. There was the young Polish policeman who advised me to put an ad in the local paper, announcing my search for Polish relatives (and then his partner who cautioned against it: "If you put that ad in the paper, every Pole in the country will claim to be your relative").
I visited the cemetery office, where a middle-aged woman as round as a nesting doll was overjoyed to assist me in my quest, poring over burial records with me, smiling all the while, until, in the end, she sadly shook her head, as if she had somehow let me down.
I went to a 600-year-old church, which opened its baptismal records to me. But in the dank, dark chamber of the church basement, hope faded as well.
ON my third evening in Lublin, I sought out a cafe. Above the front door was a buzzing, half-lit neon sign. As I stared up at the impossible juxtaposition of consonants, an elderly man touched my arm and addressed me in heavily-accented English. "Beloved," he intoned. "It means, 'The Beloved Restaurant.' "
Inside, the man took the liberty of sitting down with me in a dim corner. "I knew you were an American from your shoes," he said.
I looked down and noticed his torn loafers.
He wanted to hear my story. I told him all I knew: that during my grandfather's life in the States he wanted to forget Poland. He learned English quickly, worked as a cabinetmaker, and never even wrote a letter to his family in Poland. He died long before my birth. The only fragment he left behind was that he came from Lublin.
As I spoke, the man nodded. His expression was pained, as if to say, "This is a sad story."
"You have come a long way," he said, nodding. "When do you leave?"
His eyebrows took flight as he pushed himself back from the table. "So soon?"
"You must promise to come back," he said as he patted my hand.
I watched as the old man got up to leave. And then he paused. "Don't ever forget your fatherland," he admonished.
I haven't forgotten Poland. If the Web had existed 12 years ago, I might never have gone there in the first place. Although I didn't return with a single document, the trip was not a failure, for I had felt the city of my grandfather's boyhood.