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?"

Ben Little, right, is a Labour supporter while Jonathan Rogers supports the Green Party
general election 2015
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Life and Style
Former helicopter pilot Major Tim Peake will become the first UK astronaut in space for over 20 years
food + drinkNothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
Life and Style
Buyers of secondhand cars are searching out shades last seen in cop show ‘The Sweeney’
motoringFlares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own