East, or, the veins of this land

1 March 2016
Only in en
In this excerpt from Andrzej Stasiuk's latest book, one of Poland's leading writers and critics explores what drove him to realize a lifelong dream, and strike out ever further eastwards, away from his childhood home. As Stasiuk remarks, he always was attracted to places "that lie at the end of the line, spaces from which you can only ever return".

Events in Poland

Tens of thousands of nationalist demonstrators marched though Warsaw on Saturday, 11 November 2017, in what observers say was one of the biggest gathering of far-right activists in Europe in recent years.

Why Poland? And why now?

Eurozine presents the following texts from recent years that explore the political and social context in Poland.

The legacy of communism is not an adequate explanation to the rise of the right there, says Pawel Marczewski.

Across Europe, and especially in Hungary and Poland, parliamentary politics has become increasingly intertwined with the politics of street protest, writes Mateusz Falkowski.

Meanwhile, one of Poland’s leading writers and critics, Andrzej Stasiuk, explores what drove him to realize a lifelong dream, and strike out ever further eastwards, away from his childhood home.

The barn is gone and the orchard has been felled. It used to shield the house. Now the winds hurtle in from three corners of the earth and batter at the wooden walls. Especially from the east, from over the river. They blow in from the plains on the far bank, glide across the waters and stream onto the plateau on the other side. The eastern gable wall is no longer strong enough to stop them. They surge inside, into the two rooms we used only when guests came. The orchard is gone, along with the apple trees and their voluminous branches which bore the blast of the winds and protected us against heat and cold.

The floors have collapsed. Cold air lingers indoors. Damp seeps into the timber and transforms it into reddish-brown powder. The barn is gone and a new view to the south now reveals the fields, the poplar woods and the depth of the landscape. A wooden building roofed with hay once closed off the yard. Poplars shaded it and the remaining buildings formed a quadrilateral. It was like being on an island, or a Ukrainian farmstead in the steppe. The enclosures were half a kilometre apart. In the evening we would sit around a single lamp. So it was like being on a ship lost and adrift in the night – but safe and warm. Whiffs of kerosene and wood smoke rose up from under the stove. And the smell of food. We sat close enough to recognize one another’s sweat. Beyond the narrow folding doors, the rest of the house was cold and dark. This was the sole room to be lit by a golden kerosene flame. It had a single window looking out onto the courtyard and beyond, into measureless darkness.

The River Bug, Drohiczyn, Poland. Photo: Peter. Source:Flickr

But the orchard has been felled and no longer offers any defence against the cold murky gloom. I can see that clearly. I rotate the mouse wheel to enlarge the map until it loses focus. I look down from a kilometre away and see those times, and the effects of their passing. It’s all the same, yet so much has vanished. The network of roads still remains – it’s just that some have faded and grown over while others seem clearer because they’ve been re-surfaced with asphalt. I move back a little and see that some of the houses have gone. Along the road leading south from the “highway” (that was what we called it, the “highway”…) maybe half have survived. On the right, where a farm used to be, there is a scattering of tiny geometrically arranged spots, some dark, others pale. Someone must have brought in an apiary and put it where the house once stood. I used to walk down this road when I was fourteen, from my grandfather’s house to my uncle’s. I can see now that they were just over a kilometre apart. My aunt was my father’s sister, and her house had a panoramic view spanning all four corners of the earth. More often than not I looked east. The ground seemed to subside slightly in the direction of the river and then rise again, green and desolate, on the other side. Like the steppe. So that was where I looked. The walk down to the river took about half an hour. Along the unploughed boundary strips towards the main road to Drohiczyn, and then along the sandy track that sloped visibly down to the riverbank. The River Bug was always green, even when the sky was blue. On hot days you could smell the warm reeds. They barred access to the water and there was a beach – just one, tiny and sandy – here, where the road ended. When a drought came, we would go down there in a cart, with buckets, to collect water into a three-hundred litre tank. We’d give it to the cattle to drink when they returned from pasture. The other bank was like a sandy cliff. Occasionally cows and horses would appear there, but they seemed to come from nowhere.

Right now I am above all this, looking down. It must be early spring or late autumn, because the trees are leafless. Or else it’s a snowless winter. I can see the bare plum orchard that once belonged to my uncle’s side of the family, and the four poplars enclosing the farmyard from the north-east. When I used to wander through the slightly undulating landscape, along balks and over fields, they were always there to help me find my way home. Every homestead in the area had its poplars, arranged in varying numbers and formations. It was impossible to get lost. I click and instantly recognize where I am in the geometric landscape. The shapes of the fields – rectangles, rhombuses and polygons – are accentuated by the straight ridges between the furrows. The green and grey belts of the plots impose their own order on this uniform space. I watch from on high, as if I were looking into the past, a returning time-traveller incarnated in a different form, looking through all those bygone days. It’s as though I was there again in early July perhaps, amid the dry smell of ripening corn, the hot dusty smell of the “highway” along which I am walking on some kind of errand. Perhaps I have been sent out again to collect bread, or perhaps I’ve simply got away and, with my hands in the pockets of my “Odra” jeans, I’m walking deep into a rural world in which houses were built of timber darkened by the weather, roofs were made of hay, and animals lived side by side with human beings. Cattle smells emerging through the half-open gates of the cowsheds merged with human smells drifting out of kitchens, where the afternoon meal was being prepared. The “highway” went as far as the road to Drohiczyn. To the left was a windmill, its sails in perpetual stasis. In the evenings its powerful, black silhouette stirred a sense of dread. During the day it looked like an impoverished scarecrow, frayed and studded with holes, and the wind blew right through it. The village centre was paved with cobblestones. Perhaps I’m wrong – but what’s the difference?

There could be another way of remembering it. At the end of a snowless December, I was gazing at all this from the other shore, the grey-brown, spongy plain over the water. I had taken the gravel roads from Drohiczyn, driving quickly and easily, as in a dream over this flat-seeming landscape. Yet one view revealed another and still another as though I were travelling over rolling countryside. I stopped to look at the ferry. It was lying there, beached. Then, intermittently, I came across the Soviet bunkers that marked the Molotov Line. They had been well preserved. You could go right in, take up your position and defend yourself. They seemed to be waiting. In one of the villages I saw one of the bunkers in a farmyard. It was huge and dark like damp earth, hammered into steep ground. There were cocks and hens bobbing in its shadow. A few years ago my father and I were looking for the place where the Germans had thrown a pontoon bridge across the river. My father couldn’t recollect where it was. Nor could he remember if it was in the summer of ’41 when they were marching east, or the summer of ’44 when they were, rather hastily, retreating. Finally an old man pointed out the approximate spot on this bank. But he couldn’t tell us the year either.

Some of the bunkers were grown over with bushes. I was travelling the boundary between two worlds. The border between East and West. “It seemed quite natural to me that Germans, in their concern for the welfare of humanity, had a duty to impose our model of living on lesser races and peoples who could not fully understand what we were aiming to achieve – due, no doubt, to their lower level of intelligence”, wrote an eighteen-year old tank mechanic from Hamburg named Henry Metelmann.

That summer, as we hunted for signs of the bridge, my father said that on the morning of 22 June, the village was deserted. Furtively, they had slipped away, taking everything with them. There were just a few traces and a little refuse. The camouflage, the tents, the field kitchens – all were gone. You could hear the artillery. “They weren’t evil people”, he said. The villagers were sorry they had gone. They had provided food. If they took anything they paid for it. There was a sense of order. They must have pulled down and camouflaged all those canons, vehicles, pontoons and boats. It wouldn’t have been a difficult job, not for them. They didn’t shoot unless they had to. And from the other bank of the river the Soviets lay watching and listening. So the village was sorry when they went on their civilizing mission to the East. First over the water, then over the flat meadows and into the firing line from the first bunkers. If the stunned Soviets shot at all that is because, in Moscow, Stalin was equally astonished and stupefied, and no one would have dared fire a shot without an order from him.

I looked over the river, at the land of my childhood and saw the white walls of the Orthodox Monastery of Christ the Saviour, built in the Russo-Byzantine style. A little further north, rose the pinnacle of the former Uniate church. It was Catholic now. I could remember the smell of wood, incense and wax inside. I was looking into things past. I imagined the soldiers at dawn, like armed ghosts in the early morning mist. They lowered the pontoons and boats onto the green waters. In some places you could swim up to two thirds of the way across the river, but then the whirlpools started and the short cliff face rose up on the other bank. I had often crossed over as they did. On 22 June we were still at school so it must have been later, at the beginning of July, when heat pervaded even the shadiest spots. We drove down the long straight road to the shore to fill up our three-hundred-litre barrel because there was a shortage of water in the wells. We drove down the same road as the Wehrmacht, but the river and the story about its lethal whirlpools stopped us. We stayed on the western side. Yet the dream to go further never left me, just as it never left the twenty-year-old parachutist Martin Poppel. “For me”, he remarked, “there is not a country in the world that holds an attraction as magnetic as Bolshevik Russia”.

In the mid-1970s, the Druzhba (“friendship”) Pipeline ruptured. Black gunk came floating down the river. It settled on the banks, and on the reeds and willows growing beside it. One day someone set fire to it all. The thickets burned. The river was in flames. It was like war – but without the soldiers. I knew that the oil had come from Russia, from the Soviet Union. I knew this was in the East, far but also very near. I imagined Moscow as something distant, grey, huge and dull. It was unreal, yet we lived in its shadow. Many years would pass before I could conceive what Martin Poppel had felt. The land that had led him into temptation was bound to fall. There was a need for some kind of vacuum that might be filled with imagination and experience.

I abandoned the gravel road and got back onto the asphalt. Beyond the village I caught up with two boys on their bikes. One was carrying a Christmas star on a stick. It was made of grey cardboard and hadn’t been gilded yet. It was the colour of earth and meadows. The wind was high and they were having trouble making their way into a landscape that seemed archaic and barely touched by human existence. It was a simple, beautiful image. Leaning against the wind, they were cycling across empty space, to a place where they would gild that star, extricate it from a grey material reality, free it from that boggy primeval landscape, and touch it with a hint of transcendence. Their bikes, old and black with grease, were bearing them somewhere to collect gold, frankincense and myrrh. It was a fortnight before the Feast of the Three Kings. They must have been as old as I was when I used to visit these parts, never to forget them. And now I had come back to try and understand something of my life. I overtook them and turned back to the spongy gravel road. It led to a village and ended there. How many houses did I find? Few. So very few. I could click, zoom in, and count them now – but I prefer to stay in that time, the day after Christmas when ordinary life had neither begun nor yet departed from the warm houses, and there were only those two boys with the star and then, beyond the village, three men cutting down willows on the riverbank. They broke off when they saw me and followed the car with their gaze. I drove as far as I could. The sandy ravine disappeared into a pinewood. I got out and went down to the river. It was grey-blue not green, and flowed slowly under a low sky, leaving the village behind. I have always been attracted to places that lie at the end of the line, spaces from which you can only ever return. Always. Instinctively, I have sought them out. There was a boat lying on the bank of the river. Rainwater was gathering inside. I looked over to the other shore and it seemed to me that I could see the pinnacle of the church smelling of old resin and wax. Beside it the Germans were on their way down to vanquish the waters and the whirlpools. To the left was a hillock, raised sometime in the dim and distant past. I would sit on it with the boys from the village and look over to the other side, where I was now standing. I’d imagine that one day I would cross the river and travel further, on and on. Perhaps I’m inventing, but it couldn’t have been any other way. Surreptitiously we drank cheap wine and looked over at the plain, which made us think of the steppe with its tiny cows, sheep and horses. I could see now that, in fact, this steppe was marshy, more along the lines of a bog.

Is it really so that as time passes, and we travel further from the place of our birth, our journey becomes an escape, a betrayal, a kind of emigration? And that everything we do is an attempt to return? That life is exile, as it is for the Bosnian Bogmils? Like in that song by Breakout where the lyrics repeat the phrase “river of childhood”. Like the Bug, to which I must return from time to time in order to escape my exile if only for a moment, and cheat my loneliness? Is so it that the further we circle, the clearer the centre of that circling seems to us, and the more powerful its force?

They must have brought me here in ’61 or ’62, I suppose. Most likely by bus and wrapped in sackcloth, a huge, long bundle. That was how children travelled then. My grandfather probably harnessed the horses and drove two kilometres to the bus stop in the village. So I imagine that, as we settled ourselves comfortably into the cart, the sharp whiff of horse sweat would have been the first smell of that time and place to reach me. There would have been the smell of the horse-drawn cart in general: the leather of the harness, the boarding that made up the cart which carried hay, sheaves, threshed corn and, in spring, dung (though that was transported on a special floor named the “dung floor”). Then there’d have been the grease from the hubs and the heated rubber of the wheels, the dust, the thick shaggy blanket that was thrown over the horse’s back when it overheated… I must have smelt every one of these things during that first journey to the house in the orchard.

Later, when I’d learned to stand on my own, there would have been more smells because the house was dark, and slightly damp. The orchard blocked out the sun, the windows were small. Dusk fell earlier than in the outside world, and we had to wait years for electricity to come our way. In autumn, winter and spring our lives revolved around the kitchen stove. It was only in summer that grandma took her cooking to the stone outhouse on the eastern side of the farmyard. So all those human, kitchen and animal smells must have merged and intensified, for the cattle were just ten paces away in the cowshed and the harness hung behind the wall in the granary, along with additional or used yokes, and from the windowsill you could smell the electrical cells that powered the radio. They were angular and made of cardboard, but the top where the wires came out had been covered with black bituminous paste, like tar. In the sun it smelt like an overheated road surface. This electrochemical interaction mingled strangely with the geraniums, and the cherries releasing their juices into a five-litre jar, under a layer of sugar vitrified by the heat. But that must have been in summer. And then there was the kerosene, the constant smell of kerosene, that unvarying aura of paraffin spreading its rays beneath the ceiling from a lamp encircled by a shade that was flat and enamelled in white, like a plate.

I don’t suppose the smells changed much after the Germans went. Perhaps the electrochemical interactions increased, there was the savour of new kinds of food, more fat or lard, a little meat, because whatever one may say, the arrival of communism meant the departure, or retreat, of hunger. Perhaps there was soap; maybe some was even slightly perfumed. That is how I imagine it now: I was carried in, wrapped and bundled, to breathe air that was redolent of war.

The army left. The winds diffused the smell of gunpowder, the black fumes of diesel exhaust dissipated and the countryside smelt as before. It grew quiet. A dog would bark, a cow moo. At dusk you could hear the buckets knocking against the sides of the concrete well. It was silent. They had gone and now they were making that din of theirs in the East, further and further away, until they stopped altogether.

Treblinka was about 30 kilometres away, as the crow flies. Down the Bug River. A year after the army left the village, the first transport arrived at the camp. When tens of thousands of human bodies are being burnt 30 kilometres away, surely you should be able to smell it. It is 25 kilometres from Belzec to the small town of Rawa Ruska, where people said that the wind brought in remains of burnt hair. But I don’t remember anyone mentioning Treblinka here, in the evenings, over the kerosene lamp. Perhaps those 30 kilometres meant it was happening elsewhere. Maybe, in those days, 30 kilometres was different to what it is now, when I simply get behind the wheel and roam as and where I please – Granne, Arbasy, Tonkiele or Wolka Zamkowa – as if I were patrolling the banks of the river and watching out not for traces of my childhood but for a fascist onslaught. But I can’t remember anyone mentioning it during those nightly gatherings with aunts and great aunts. We talked about everything: life, death, ghosts, but not the ghosts of Jews carried over the village by the winds. I don’t even remember hearing the word “Jew”. Perhaps I didn’t know it. Thirty kilometres from where they burnt seven or eight hundred thousand Jewish bodies. Was it because the memory of it was soaked up by the sand or dispersed by currents in the air? Or because it simply never existed? Because we had ghosts of our own appearing in our midst, when people died a natural death? And they always came singly, never in their hundreds or thousands, wailing their grief into the night sky.

And what if it had been here, in the woods between Toncza, Teofilowka and Krzemieniec? But there’s no railway, you will say. But what if there had been? It was only 15 kilometres to the line linking Malkinia and Sokolow. What is a 15 kilometre siding for a German? And if the same black smoke had risen from there, and if the wind had carried it to settle on our thatched roofs, saturating them with body grease? What if, nightly, a red glow had risen from these very hollows? And one could smell death as it seeped into this thatch and these walls, and through the walls into houses and into our things and cupboards and clothes and fresh bedding ready for guests? And what if I’d had to smell it in my baby’s sleeping bag, on that first day, when grandad collected us in his cart, and if the cart had smelt of it too, and the horse, and everything? Like in Poniatowa and Wolka Okraglik. And what if they – all of them: grandad, gran, our various aunts and the whole village – had had to watch those slow-moving railway carriages, and hear sounds they had never heard before, and when the wind blew, to taste a stench that was neither human nor animal, that reek of filth and death, so even they – used as they were to pigsties, cowsheds, death and carrion – did not know what to do? Because it would have come from human beings, seemingly still in existence, who were no longer living. The river flows on and I am gazing at the village from Buzyska, on the far side. I see the pinnacle of the church between bare trees. I scarcely remember the lay out inside, but it was light and cosy, rural baroque. There was nothing left of the iconostasis. Nor do I remember being compelled to attend. Sometimes on a Sunday I would walk past the gate, down to the riverbank and up the hillock to look over at the other side. The parish was dedicated to the Transfiguration of Our Lord, so this riverside elevation might have been the local Mount Tabor. Gehenna lay 30 kilometres to the north-west. But what if it had been here? I would have strolled into fields of ash with other boys from the village, onto filled pits, over obliterated traces. To a stone monument. A naive pipsqueak from the city with a schoolboy’s knowledge of history. The other boys would have known more from their fathers and grandfathers, from conversations between adults over vodka. We would have talked about gold. Gold would have fired our imaginations like sex. Treasure. Gold is for ever and we would have felt it under our feet. Through the ash. I can imagine it. Treasure island. And the way we’d have talked over cheap wine. That one of us had found this, another that. That just after the war such and such could be found, that it was enough to dig around a bit no one was watching and it was almost on the surface, all you needed to do was rummage and sift the ash and there it would be, glittering. And the horror? What horror? There wasn’t a corpse to be seen, no bones, not a thing. It might be scary at the cemetery but not in the sort of place where you have to sift earth to find stuff. That is what we’d have said. That people had got things from here, this or that, a tinplate roof or a bricked pigsty and there’s more buried away for a rainy day. That is what we’d have said and, at night, the gold would have gleamed from under the earth. Maybe we would even have gone there at twilight, timidly, to poke around. Boys are always out looking for treasure, never mind in a place where you’re bound to find it… But that was 30 kilometres away so, instead of going down to Gehenna, we sat on Mount Tabor, and rather than yearn for gold, we yearned for Bialystok. Or at least I did. But now I look over at the other bank and imagine that, despite it all, they are walking through the woods, with apparent care, carrying spades and shovels. It’s as though they are going for a belated funeral, with sieves to sift the ashes and vodka to give themselves courage because even though everything there will be burnt up and Jewish, you may come across a bone or an empty eye socket staring up at you, so even though there are no corpses – there are. I imagine them stepping aside to discuss it, in twos and threes: to go or not to go. Some women saying: “Don’t even think of it,” while others say go on, everyone else is. And whispering in the night, so the children can’t hear, beside a faint flame or in bed, in a darkness lit only by the gleam of gold. Because the stuff lying there in the layers of ash belongs to no one, and the ashes are like an ancient mineral, geological – like calcium, silicon or potassium. Elements, not life. So it all belongs to nobody, and it was left there to be forfeited because the earth will absorb it deeper and deeper, for ever, and it won’t be any good to anyone. That’s the way it is. Because they aren’t there any more, and it’s like they never existed, smoke and mineral, and the gold has been alchemically distilled from existence itself. So we have to go. Let’s go then brothers, my wretched brothers from cottages roofed with thatch soaked in human grease. Let’s go brothers – because we deserve it, after the poverty we’ve known and for the sake of those humps on our backs. Let’s go, even in darkness, because the shine from under the earth will light our way. This is what I imagine as I stand in the cold silvery light of early winter. I see them on their knees, rummaging through the deposits with bare hands that the earth has eaten into forever. They know all about digging, damp earth and back-breaking work. I stand there, on the other shore, over the metallic waters and think of them going in search of what belongs to nobody, because it can’t be somebody’s, it can’t be owned, because that person isn’t there. And it’s not just that this someone has died, but that they simply are not there, because the body has been transmuted into smoke and dust, into nothing. And even if there ever was a soul, it’s a different kind of soul. Not like ours. That is what they must have thought to banish their fear. Or perhaps they just heard the voice of instinct. So I half-close my eyelids and see them digging up and burying, watchful, innocent and greedy. Those with more initiative buy TNT from the Russians in exchange for moonshine and explode the layers of ash before patiently sifting them until they see a glint, a glimmer of ore or rock. Maybe our house would have been built of stone, with a tinplate roof? It might have been a different kind of childhood. There would have been different noises, other smells, everything would have been different. Whispers in corners. Monosyllabic allusions. The dark shadows of memory. Envy. Fear that they might come in the night and take it away. Because the flash of gold sparks a fire that never dies. It glimmers through walls, through flooring, through timber and walls. It twinkles over the countryside and into the future, for gold can never be forgotten and it glitters until the day you die. I’d have come from a richer household then, I imagine, and I’d have been different myself, thanks to Jewish gold. And I’d have lived as though I’d swallowed poison, not knowing when it would take effect.

I imagine all these things, in the land of childhood, the land of innocence. In the East, on the right side of the Vistula. In Hell’s Mouth. On a mound of dumped human remains. In the darkness of the continent. You can’t disconnect from these lands: they are like a layer cake of muscle, blood and bone, infused with DNA. One could imagine a biotechnological resurrection. Watch them rise: the Poles, Ukrainians, Jews and Belarusians, the Russians, Kalmyks and Turkmen. Rising. Millions of them. Shot, buried, burnt, butchered, suffocated, drowned, frozen or starved to death. The coming future god clones them. Tens of millions of them. A state, a nation of the dead. They rise up and live again. They take over the land. They start over again. I imagine this as I drive to Hrebenne, on the border. Potato and apple sellers huddle by the roadside. I imagine the same as I go on to Koterka, at the end of road no. 640, to the Orthodox church dedicated to the Icon of the Mother of God, Joy of All the Afflicted, which stands in the forest. And even though the border guards stop me and tell me to go back, they agree in the end to let me visit the azure wooden shrine. Because I cannot stop myself from travelling as far as I can. It was the same by the Swislocz river where I wandered around all day among the sandy hillocks between Lapicze, Ozierany, Rudaki and Chomontowce. The villages had red cobblestones overgrowing slowly with grass. There were no vehicles, no cars. The farmyards were overgrown as well. Occasionally there would be someone sitting on a bench, watching. Just as they would have sat fifty or a hundred years ago. Or since time immemorial. But nothing much had happened for a long time now. No marauding outsiders, no conflagration or slaughter. They would all die in peace. Along with the collapsing houses and the village itself. Beyond the houses, over the river, border posts had been hammered into the marshland. From the hillock I could see a Belarusian collective farm. Everything was quiet but watchful. Because Bulak-Balakhovich’s men might be coming, or Kovpak, or Einsatzgruppe B, or tsarist troops, or insurgents from the 1863 January Uprising, or anyone at all. To die in peace, just that, on this bench, gazing into the past. And so I reach the shores of the East. Whether here, just beyond Krynki, or in Osh on the Silk Road. Because I cannot escape the thought that the exodus goes on, that incursions are still coming this way, that the earth continues to shake and the air to tremble. And that peace will never come because the veins of this land, its underground rivers, have been injected with a drug that foments madness. And one gets dizzy from the vastness of its spaces and from the illusion that they can be controlled and transformed. Ghenghis Khan, Tamerlane, Peter, Stalin, Hitler, capitalism and globalization still loom like impending meteorological change.

Published 1 March 2016

Original in Polish
Translation by Irena Maryniak
First published in Andrzej Stasiuk's Wschód (Czarne, 2014) Polish version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Res Publica Nowa
© Andrzej Stasiuk / Czarne / Eurozine

PDF / PRINT

recommended articles