The time my mother recalls as the happiest part of her childhood was from ages six through twelve, when she lived on an estate outside of Warsaw called Dębinki. Originally built in the 18th century, it was named after the many oak trees in the park surrounding it (dębi means “oaks” in Polish). It was a big house with several annex buildings including the kitchen and stables. There were three lakes on the property, and agricultural fields her father (actually, her stepfather) rented out to farmers from the nearby village.
My mother had a lot of freedom to explore the neighboring countryside; sometimes she would hide from her German governess, who would call for her, “Marysien, Marysien,” but she would stay quiet in the tall grass. Other times, she would kick off her shoes and stockings and climb a tree, also refusing to heed her caretaker’s pleas to come down. She didn’t like this governess, who would try and get her to eat by demanding in imperfect Polish that she “swallow” (połknij). She and her brothers didn’t go to school. Rather a tutor gave them their lessons at home.
One time, Mom was picking strawberries in one of her father’s fields when a farmer came out and told her he had leased the land and the strawberries were his. My mom hadn’t known, but was so embarrassed she picked a whole basket of beans from their garden and gave them to the farmer. Another time, while still very young, she was caught in the storeroom eating fresh butter directly out of the pot.
As a child, mom loved to ride horses, and had a pony called “Daisy.” There were three ponies—Drips, Drops, and Daisy; Drips and Drops belonged to each of her brothers. I asked her why the ponies had English names. She just shrugged and answered that’s what they named them. After coming to the US, my mom rarely had the opportunity to ride horses, though one day I came home from school (or maybe from a friend’s house) and our neighbor Mrs. Scimeme (or was it Mrs. Quinlavin?) told me with astonishment that she had seen my mom riding down our suburban street on a horse. If I remember correctly (and my memory of this is very fuzzy, almost as if I dreamed it), she was riding bareback, too. I don’t remember whose horse it was, why its owner came to our house, or why my mother decided to ride it. I do remember that Mrs. Scimeme (or Mrs Quinlavin, though I’m pretty sure it was Mrs. Scimeme) was amazed by how well my mother could ride, even after so many years.
These memories existed out of time, so I did not know until much later when or why my mother and her family left Dębinki. My uncle, for his own reasons, kept alive the idea that somewhere in Poland the family estate still exists, that it was nationalized by the postwar communist government, and that we might someday reclaim ownership.
I learned the truth only after visiting Dębinki in 1992, while I was more than a year into my dissertation fieldwork. Mom had never wanted to return to Poland; she said her country no longer existed. But after the fall of state socialism, and because I was living there, she, my father, and my younger brother came for a visit. It was Mom’s first time back in over 45 years. I’ll say more about our time in Warsaw and Krakow later, but for now, let me describe our trip to Tłuszcz.
Tłuszcz is an inauspicious name for a town—it means “Fat,” and in 1992 it lived up to its name. It was about an hour out of Warsaw by commuter train. The train itself was old and grimy with uncomfortable vinyl seats. We got out in the town center; the place seemed deserted, with grey buildings and abandoned factories. We found a cab to take us to Dębinki, which was several kilometers out of town, past more abandoned factories and then through agricultural fields. The mansion was in the midst of renovation; the plaster exterior was chipped and faded. The building had been a home for wayward boys, and then it became an orphanage, and the large upstairs rooms had been divided with cheap partitions. Nevertheless, the grand fireplace in the entranceway remained, along with a black marble plaque inscribed in Latin with a tribute to the original owner who lived there in the 18th century.
This trip was very sad for my Mom, perhaps the worst part of her whole trip to Poland. Here she felt most strongly that (just as she had always told me) the country she grew up in and loved no longer existed. She had trouble reconciling this broken down building with her romantic memories of childhood. She pointed to the depressions in the ground where the lakes used to be, and said the trees lining the long drive to the house seemed smaller.
When I explained that my mother grew up in the house, the caretaker who showed us around looked confused and said that, according to the historical records he has seen, the house belonged to a different family. Later, my mother explained what had happened. As she described it, her father (actually, stepfather) had a gentleman’s agreement to buy the estate from the owner, a nobleman who had come on hard times. Papa, as my mother called him, had lost his own estate in his divorce settlement, and dreamed of replacing it. However, after several years, he had a falling out with the nobleman and because nothing had been written down, he lost possession of Dębinki.
My brother Chris remembers this better than I do, but during our visit the workers at the orphanage, long term residents of the adjoining village, treated mom with deference. Mom found their regard annoying. She was humble and didn’t like being treated as special. But what we were witnessing was the continuation of the class system that wasn’t even stamped out by Communism. Mom had the manners and refined speech of a lady, and the kitchen workers and custodial staff fell into their roles as servants of the great house.
I still noticed a little of this deference when I went back a few months ago with my brothers. The orphanage staff, and later the people hanging around the village store, were very happy to talk to descendants of former residents of the estate. The older men at the store said they recalled their parents talking about the Beredas. The orphanage staff told me how the former estate workers tried to guard the house against looting during the war. For a while it was used by the Polish Underground Army, and then briefly by the Nazis. The roof sustained some damage from bombs. After the war, the property was nationalized and it was fixed up and converted into a state institution. It became an orphanage in 1991 (the year before I first visited).
I remarked how the building was being renovated when we visited twenty years ago. We were invited to look around. The front facade and the ground floor rooms were all restored to a hint of their earlier grandeur, though they ran out of funds before they could get to the back facade. The floors were restored, though the intricate parquet my mom remembered was at some point before our visit in 1992 replaced by simpler wooden floorboards. Rooms are painted in a range of colors, with ornate crown molding along the high ceilings. One is the dining hall, another a game room. Outside, marshy depressions indicate where the lakes used to be. By one, down a treelined lane from the house, is a madonna statue (or was it a saint? I lost my field notes and my photos when my hard drive died…) There are many large trees on the property, including those along the drives and lanes.
According to the history of the place in a pamphlet given to me by one of the orphanage workers, King August II gave the land to Jan Renard near the end of the 17th century for faithful service. Renard sold it to the Dybowskis who remained in possession until 1841. During this time, the Polish poet Cyprian Norwid spent time there with his mother and her stepfather. The property passed through several owners before being sold to Helena Osowska in the 1920s, who lived there during World War II.
If that is the case, who was the nobleman my step-grandfather got the property from? Why is there no record of the Beredas living there? For everything I uncover, it seems more mysteries are also revealed.