Tuesday in Leszno (or old Lissa)

Trip Start Aug 31, 2008
Trip End Oct 05, 2008

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Well it's been a mixed bag emotionally for me today. Everything from excitement, to tears of emotion (at feeling close to ancestors), frustration (when something was wasting our time), angst (was I using our time & time with Chris well - was my genealogy too much of a pain for David)... It's been a mixed bag.

Overall a good day & I have learned a lot - about what life was like here at different times, what industry / politics / war affected the residents & why people migrated. Samuel & Isaac remain an unsolved mystery, but there are possibilities...

It was raining for most of the day, so we were pleased to have taken photos late yesterday in sunlight. We started the day in the archives, looking quickly at the files we'd ordered at Dariusz' advice because they contained the wills of various CHARIG family members. Because they were in German & the writing took time to decipher, we skimmed those files quickly & ordered copies of the actual wills, including some long lists of beneficiaries & their spouses.

We stumbled into other records including some (huge books as it turned out) called Volkbuch - people books. These are like censuses - listing all the family members, ages, religion (we were skimming looking for Jud. - Jewish), where born, & dates for moving in & out of Lissa (the Prussian name for Leszno).

I started looking through one of these books - and it was wonderful! Like an ongoing census of all residents in the town in the first half of the 19th century. We ordered some more & David & Chris also were going through books, making notes for me when they found a family of interest. Fortunately there was a Jewish quarter in town, so if a book seemed to be about Catholic residents, we could abandon that book for the next.

Time was a dilemma though. If we stayed there looking at records, there would not be time to see anything else in town. In the end we set a 1.30 deadline. Of course then there were delays, so it was a bit later than that when we got away.

Next stop was the Regional Museum in Leszno. Tuesday is a free day for Museums in town - so we were lucky - and also they are open from 9 till 5, instead of different museums of only 4 or 5 hours opening (& not the same hours).

However they are obviously not exactly flooded with visitors. We were warmly welcomed when we arrived, and different ladies went ahead of our progress turning on the lights in each room just as we got there (and turning off the lights on the room behind as we left). It was quite funny at times.

I asked Chris a question about the symbol for Leszno & could he perhaps translate the question to the lady on dury in that room. I don't know whose was the initiative, but next thing somebody had fetched the historian on duty at the museum & the question was being addressed to her.

This lady was delightful. Hugely enthusiastic - as Chris described it later, she spoke not only with her voice, but with her hands, her hair, her eyes ... She loved our questions & threw herself into replies, pausing to let Chris translate for us - and I suspect she had some English because occasionally she would interrupt him to correct.

She told us about the early history of Leszno & the legends behind the city's emblem (half a bull's head & an axe - the bull has a ring through his nose). One version of the story says that this bull was harrassing a village when some nobles came by. One man offered to kill the bull - he overpowered it, put a ring through its nose, pulled it back to the rest of the nobles & then killed it with an axe. In return, he was given the 2 symbols for his family emblem. Later he was owner of the (private) town of Lissa - which became Leszno, and so the town bears his arms. Later still, with Swedish support, he became king of Poland. However 30 years later when Sweden lost a war, he had to flee.

Anyway I could go on & on about the tales this historian told. She was thrilled with our questions. We asked her about why so many people left Lissa mid-19th century (amongst them Samuel & Isaac). She said that the main local industries were flour milling & also weaving a thick woollen cloth called tuch. When Poland was partitioned & the west became part of Prussia, Russia (which held the eastern part of the country) imposed large taxes on tuch & effectively the Lissa merchants lost their market. Many people left for different areas of Prussia or even overseas. She said that as Lissa declined as a town, so Wroclaw increased with people having moved their from Lissa.

She also agreed with Dariusz' story about relaxed restrictions on the Jews after 1848, allowing more freedom of movement.

I asked her about Leszno & the start of WW2. Apparently on the night of 31 Aug/1 Sep 1939, when it was apparent that Germans were moving into Poland, the Polish cavalry then settled in Leszno actually invaded Germany to fight the Germans on their own soil! For around 4 days they held their position, until withdrawn by the Polish government. In those 4 days it was an easy exit from Poland into Germany, for anyone who wanted to move that way.

Chris mentioned to her how he had told us about the story about the Polish cavalry men on horses fighting against the Germans in their tanks - and how they were brave but ultimately doomed. She laughed & even we could pick up in her rapid Polish reply words like "fantasy".

According to her, this story (a tale rather like the "Charge of the Light Brigade") is essentially fantasy. When the Germans invaded, they made propaganda films mocking the backwardness of the Poles. They staged events to show that the Poles were fighting with horses & swords against the might of the 3rd Reich.

She said that the Polish cavalry used horses to quickly move around, but then they left their horses in safety & fought as infantry men.

There was a lot more, but it was delightful hearing these tales told so enthusiastically. It added to & complemented Dariusz' stories.

The museum was interesting & I wish I could have taken photos there, but I did buy a small guidebook to the museum that they had in English.

Next stop was the Lapidarium around the corner. Now we'd come across that term a number of times before learning that it referred to broken stones put together to somehow make a memorial monument. In this case it was broken tombstones used to make a wall around a nearby church, and with various memorial statuary around.

Then we walked to the Jewish branch of the Regional Museum, held in the old synagogue. After the previous success, Chris asked to speak to the local historian again. That lady was not there but we were given somebody else instead. This lady obviously enjoyed the sound of her own voice. I was interested in her tales of general things about Judaism, and the history of that building in particular, but she did like to go on & on & it was difficult to keep trying to appear interested.

David walked off after a while, and at an appropriate spell of all Polish without any apparent translation, I wandered off too. The next bit translated was something about "I'm sorry if I talk too much & it is not of interest to you". OK, I was guilt tripped into returning & hearing her out with Chris. I wasn't sure if the words were his but I suspect they were hers.

Eventually David took an opportunity to ask could he leave & I said to him to just come back & meet us in 20 minutes.

One of the first things the lady had said as we entered the room was that she wouldn't try to tell us the history of the Jews of Leszno because that was all on a board at the back of the room (in Polish) & we could read that. After rather suffering through lots & lots of explanation about so many of the exhibits in the room I eventually interrupted & said to Chris that I was actually interested in the history of the Jews of Leszno, and would be disappointed if there wasn't time for him to translate that back board for us. OK, that happened next. Probably if we'd had that & then a wander looking at the various Judaica it would have been enough.

We were also taken into the next room, now an auditorium, which was most of the original synagogue - however it had been divided into 2 storeys so some of the lofty height had been lost (we were in the upper storey).

When we went downstairs, David was sitting reading & waiting for us. He asked could he be excused from the next trip (at that stage it was planned to be to the Jewish cemetery & burial hall). I was torn - concerned for him, wanting to see the cemetery, wanting to see the town, and just plain running out of time to do it all. In the end we went with Chris to the post office to make a deposit to pay for the photocopying ordered at the archives (we go back tomorrow morning to collect it).

I said that I would walk with David & meet Chris back at the hotel, and we would take our chances with seeing the outside of the burial hall & cemetery tomorrow. I said that I needed the opportunity to get a bit more of a feel for Leszno.

I was hoping both to see the town but also to find a souvenir shop. This place isn't set up for tourists so there doesn't seem to be any souvenirs, other than a very few at the tourist office. As I said to David, it doesn't seem the place that you write to people & rave about. There are some pretty places - like the old market place & Town Hall - but they don't set it up for tourists.

Eventually we stopped for an early dinner at a Turkish restaurant on the main square, and had sort of a variation of a donner kebab. Mine had chicken marinated & then cooked on a hot plate, then put into pita bread with sauce, rolled & toasted. It was very good. After the really awful kebab we'd had in Finland, I'd thought that it would be a long time before I'd be willing to have another kebab, but this was good.

Then we walked back to our hotel, via a different route, and actually had to wait at a level crossing while a long freight train went by, before we could cross.

We spent some time in the hotel room here, some work & some talking to Chris, and then he seemed keen to take us for a drink together downstairs in the hotel. We didn't want to be late but it seemed a good opportunity and a nice way to be social with him.

Tomorrow we move on to Wroclaw (pronounced Vrotswav). Chris will stay with us until around lunch time & then he will drive back to Warsaw. We have to start here by picking up the photocopies of wills ordered today, and then hopefully seeing the remains of the old Jewish cemetery & funeral house (now a public library).

As I said at the beginning, I have very mixed feelings about our experience here. I am hugely grateful to have had the opportunity. I am fascinated by the history. However while there are pretty & historic bits of old town remaining, there's an awful lot of pretty rundown Soviet style building. And the town is bigger than I imagined.

I have to keep reminding myself that we are here & that this is THE Lissa I've read & thought about. There is not much charm & I guess I don't feel close to ancestors here as much as I have elsewhere.

But I've learnt a lot by coming here & now have some contacts with whom I can perhaps continue the search in the future.

Goodnight to you now, from Kerry & David in Leszno
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