The Wenglikowskis Were Here

Pelplin, Poland – September 2007

The tree-lined road leads me away from Pelplin, out into the Pomeranian countryside of Northern Poland. A long time ago, when this area was part of Prussia, my great-great grandfather escaped to America via the Baltic Sea, taking only his wife and one trunk of possessions with him. During World War II, his remaining relatives were given the choice of going to the work camps or moving to Germany. No one knows what became of them.

I spent this morning searching the graveyard for some sign of their existence. I looked for familiar names – Wenglikowski, Flicek, Lukowska. Finding nothing, I walked back through the small town, looking for a place to have a coffee and wait for my train. Grimy shop windows displayed clothes and other odds and ends. Two women stopped talking as I walked by. Their eyes lit up.

“Dzien dobry,” I said with a smile. They could be my distant cousins. Maybe they will ask why I’m here and point me in some direction.

The contempt in their eyes chilled my heart. I looked down at my feet and kept walking. I had mistaken suspicion for curiosity.

An old man staggered down the sidewalk in front of me. Only after I passed him did I realize that he was relieving himself on the sidewalk. Two teenaged girls, sporting solarium tans and defiant glares, walked around him. They pretended not to see the withered appendage, or the yellow arc that splattered on the pavement.

As I approached the squalid little cement box that passed for the train station, a BMW with darkened windows drove by. It stopped by the station, the motor running. I ducked around the other side, my heart pounding. A young man lay passed out by the side of a bench. Next to him, an empty Tyskie can rolled back and forth in the slight breeze. I turned around and looked back at Pelplin. A green hill loomed in the distance, on the other side of town. It was the only place to go.

And so I walk, cutting across the fields towards the regal hill. This must be the place where the Polish pope once said a Mass. A giant metallic cross glints in the morning sunlight. Two black birds circle around it, casting shadows. I climb up the hill, sit on a large rock, and look out over the beige, undulating moraines. Tidy haystacks are lined up on the sleeping fields, hunched over like slumbering beasts. The first traces of autumn grace the trees, a barely perceptible change in hue.

I pick up a handful of dirt and squeeze. I close my eyes and try to conjure a feeling of atavistic nostalgia. The Wenglikowskis were here. I think of my deceased grandfather, of his untarnished love for a country he knew only from stories. He would be so proud of me.

I hear faint music, like a lonely child playing a wooden flute. The feeling I’m longing for does not arrive. Instead, I’m filled with a wistful peace. The breeze picks up, sending a chill through me. They are long gone. I open my eyes and my palm.

The dirt, along with the distant, mournful melody, is swept away in the wind.