In search of Kunegunda: A journey to the past in a Polish country churchyard

This poignant tale about a trip to eastern Europe won Marie Kreft the 2010 IoS/Bradt Travel Writing competition


The winner of this year's Independent on Sunday travel writing competition, held in association with Bradt travel guides, is Marie Kreft for her piece entitled "Rumia: a love story". Here it is in full:

"I'm fine. But you being in a grump won't help us find it!"

We're skulking along the shadowy side of a street in Rumia, in northern Poland. The sun's burning a hole in the back of my neck and Steve is cross that we didn't print out a Google map to guide us to the cemetery. I stop inhaling the sweet warmth from the summer hedgerows in case it later becomes the scent of disappointment. There may be songbirds, but I'm not listening.

"Oh I'm the one who's grumpy?" says Steve. "No. I just think we should've researched this better before we set off."

Rumia is the birthplace of my late paternal grandfather; the resting place of three of his brothers and their mother, Kunegunda. My fiancé and I have taken a few days' detour on our overland journey through eastern Europe so that I can see where they are buried. But we have less than two hours before we must catch a train back to the seaside resort of Sopot and I'm chewing my knuckles with worry that we won't find the grave.

"Hold on, what's that?" I spy a church steeple among treetops in the distance and my heart leaps up to nestle in my throat. We hurry towards it, passing simple brick houses, a drip-dropping stream and a statue of Pope Jan Pawel II (John Paul) with his arms outstretched in imitation of the cross.

But the church and orderly cemetery look too modern and my heart falls to its normal place. "Shall we take a quick look anyway?" I suggest, in the absence of a better idea.

We split: Steve surveys the left-hand section of the cemetery and I take the right. I wander up and down, row by row, studying the names of the occupants of each grave. Some plots are recently dug, with shiny marble steps, coloured lanterns and lilies still in their cellophane, while others are older with weather-cracked headstones and an occasional weed making a break for daylight. Three women spend this sunny afternoon tending the resting places of loved ones, scrubbing dirt from memorial slabs, trimming grass from around the kerbs.

My hopes lift when I realise how many Kukowskis are buried here. Kukowski is not a common Polish surname, but here lie the remains of scores of us: Wiktor, Aniela and Jan, Marta and Feliks, Hubert, Brunon, Stanislaw and Elizbeta. Even Romauld Kukowski, who was born in the summer of 1955 and dead by winter. Maybe some of them are my relatives.

I'm lost in my thoughts, enjoying the sunshine and dreaming up hopelessly sad stories about poor baby Romauld, when I see Steve waving arcs in the air. I skitter up beside him and he whispers, as though not to wake anyone up: "Is this the one?"

It's her. There at my feet lie Kunegunda, 1884 to 1955, with 15-year-old Lucjan, my father's namesake Leon, and Kazimierz, who was arrested in 1952 and never seen alive again. Their mottled grey headstone has a carved cross at its centre, from which Jesus's face stares mournfully down.

The cross could be depressing to look at, but even the frown of Jesus can't stop me from smiling. Here at my feet is a little patch of the world which connects directly to my past. This is the grave of my great-grandmother and great-uncles, and their bones in the soil are my solid link to Poland. And an explanation – or perhaps an excuse – for my love of pieroghi, the smell of fresh dill and the crisp taste of zubruwka, bison-grass vodka. Maybe they're why I load my breakfast plate high with pickled gherkins in Polish hotels and giggle when Steve turns pale at the sight of them "so early in the day".

There's a second reason for my smile: someone has recently visited these Kukowskis. Three pots of silk daffodils guard the slab in front of the grave, their fake petals still unfaded by the sun.

"I know what I want to do."

Steve guesses straight away. A few metres away from the churchyard is a florist's shop with a lucrative sideline in graveside memorials: candles, lanterns and china cherubs. There I buy a modest pot plant with red blossoms and succulent leaves and carry it back to Kunegunda's final resting place, where I set it down next to the daffodils.

"A small mystery for the living Kukowskis of Rumia," says Steve.

I'm filled with joy that having found an anchor to my past, I'm now journeying onwards with the man who is my future.

"Thank you." I hug him and he leans forward to whisper into my hair.

"Next time," he says. "Next time can we please print out a Google map?"

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