The texts I translate below describe the experience of two Polish families which have settled in Wislok in the socialist period. The contrasts between them could hardly be stronger. The first tells the story of Jan Janicki, one of the pioneers in 1948, who was headman of the village for more than thirty years. It is an unabridged translation of a text published in 1953 and circulated in brochure form by the county authorities in Rzeszow. It was intended explicitly to encourage others to follow the footsteps of Janicki. His story is therefore somewhat idealized, but there is no factual misrepresentation.
The second text is a translation of fragments of an article which appeared in a weekly newspaper in April 1980 and won a prize for the journalist Adam Warzocha. It is about the experience of Krzysztof Oltarzewski, born in a refugee camp in Holland in 1944, brought up in Warsaw, a resident of the Bieszczady region from the early 1970s, and with his own farm in Wislok between 1978 and 1983. Just as the article about Janicki presents the experience of the early settlers in rather too rosy a light, Oltarzewski would perhaps admit that this article gives an unduly graphic account of the problems encountered by a recent immigrant whose background, convictions and aspirations are fundamentally different from those of other Wislok residents. He was not perfectly satisfied with the style of the journalist; but again there is no misrepresentation of the basic facts.
I. Jan Janicki
It was the year 1930. When one of the youngsters from Filipowice in the county of Cracow went courting in the neighboring village a mischievous whisper would accompany him, which poisoned the life of even the girl who loved him: look, the goatherd is here! This meant that the young man was poor, so poor that no cow's tail lashed
the flies in his croft; only goats could survive on the willow twigs and weeds of his estate. Janicki himself wasn't living much better than this. He had just a few acres of land, he had raised a cottage on the common land of the village, paying a rent of 5 zloty. And because he was young and robust he finally found a girl who would marry him; things were supposed to get better that way, two heads being better than one.
But life for them did not work out the way they had promised themselves it would. The yield of a few acres of poor soil couldn't even suffice to meet subsistence requirements. Try as he might, Jan was unable to pick up work in the town, and in the villages it was getting harder to find something all the time, because any openings would get snatched up by workers cast out by the crisis. Meanwhile, around the hearth the hungry mouths were multiplying. Jan went here, there and everywhere to keep his family above the bread line, but Poverty stared them in the face continually. The worst time was before the harvest, for quite apart from the lack of bread the elements wreaked havoc on the unfortunate: the river which flowed nearby was swollen by the spring thaws and flooded the house practically up to waist height. Then he had to carry his sick wife and children up on the kitchen stove.
Years sped by and no help was to be found. To make matters worse his health began to go. After suffering the experience of Nazi occupation he found himself practically devoid of strength in the fatherland now liberated from the yoke of capitalists, both native and foreign; but he was still curious what the rule of the workers and the peasants would bring to him.
At the village meeting he was always present, amongst the poor. Things improved in the countryside, it became easier to sell produce and it wasn't difficult to find work. But he was dreaming of another life altogether. Every night he dreamed about land, having enough land to feed and clothe that swarm of children so that they would not ask for more. Once he went along to a meeting, got there a little bit late and had to prick up his ears to get the drift of what the speaker was saying. Then he started to twitch with impatience - the subject was land, fallow land that was waiting for settlers; and had not been touched by a plough-share for a couple of years. At first he couldn't believe that it was enough to express a desire to take over a farm and without paying any money at all you could obtain land, a house, farm buildings, credits for farm implements and even a free warrant for the railway journey to get there. Jan put his head down and made some long and careful calculations. So engrossed did he become in them, so captivating was the vision of owning so much land, that he completely lost the track of the meeting. He was brought back to his sense by a sudden clatter as the farmers got up from the benches. Going up to the speaker, he started to ask him all sorts of questions: where was that land? what quality? what sort of houses, and could it all be true?
The speaker burst out laughing - he was saying all this for the umpteenth time - in the county of Rzeszow, in the district of Sanok, you'll find land in abundance, houses and barns; and if you think it sounds too good to be true, anyone can check it out with his own eyes and the railway will cost him nothing .
Janicki went home and he was contemplating and brooding over the next step for such a long time that his wife looked at him anxiously. In the end he did decide. And because he went around the village before setting off on his voyage of inspection, talking about this and that, and the attractions of that land at Sanok, seven others all as poor as himself accompanied him on that first journey. He left without even telling his wife what was really afoot, for it would have been a shame to disappoint her and he was afraid to build up vain hopes of a better life.
What they saw exceeded their wildest expectations. They traveled to Wislok Wielki in the district of Sanok. There was so much land to be seen that even today, though plenty of families have settled there in the meantime, there are still several hundred acres laying fallow. They walked carefully around the entire village, they had a good look at the houses and the farm buildings; they even scuffed up clods of earth and examined them to see how rich the soil was, to see if it could produce . . . It was a beautiful place, a village located on gentle slopes and surrounded by forest. There were flowers everywhere, everything seemed to be in blossom and alive, except that the soil lay covered by a thick layer of green grass, whilst up on the higher slopes the withered hay was almost gray in appearance. 'Land' was all Janicki murmured, neither in sorrow nor in envy, as he strode across the beautiful fields. He selected for himself a house with proper foundations well above the level of the river, remembering the endless flooding they had known in Filipowice. 'It'll never come up this far!' he thought. The farm buildings were not bad at all and there was a garden with a few fruit trees. 'Yes, this one will be the best' Janicki confirmed his choice, and the others who had come with him were also unable to turn down such an opportunity to improve their
living standards. Each of them chose a place for himself and informed the presidium of the District Council in Sanok of his decision. There they were assured that everything would be facilitated, that they Should fetch their families to Wislok at once. For Janicki the journey from Sanok to Filipowice had never seemed so long before. In the train he was still deliberating where and what he would have to do, he had his future life already worked out in his thoughts. He had hardly crossed the threshold of the house when he greeted his wife and welcoming children with words that, for him, were now plain and self-evidently joyous: 'We're off to a new life!'.
His wife momentarily did not understand. It was inconceivable to her that they should leave for a region she did not know and leave behind them their bit of land and house. She was absolutely aghast when she heard that Jan had decided to sell everything. 'My God,' she exclaimed, 'what am I going to do with these little ones?' But six little ones, and above all Felek, the oldest of them, supported their father. What was the point in staying on this small plot when, in Wislok, they would receive enough land so that they all could eat to their hearts' content? There was some other idea lurking in that young head, but Felek was silent.
The migration cost them nothing. The removal operation was a bit reminiscent of a gypsy camp: they had a few bundles of belongings, a pile of children, and a cow on the end of a rope, and this was how they arrived in Wislok Wielki. Mrs. Janicki breathed freely when she saw the house: she liked it. She rejoiced in the knowledge that they now had six hectares of land and could sort out their lives properly at last.
A little later their joy gave way to a certain apprehension. How were they going to plough and sow, and was this really their property? On this score they were satisfied by a representative of the Sanok presidium, who welcomed them warmly and wished them success in their new environment. They talked over what the Janickis would need, and the upshot was that Jan received credits for seed and for essential implements - loans. Altogether he was able to put together about 200,000 zloty of the old currency. He bought a horse and a cow, the agricultural machines they needed, and with the aid of young Felek he started ploughing. The first time they went out the whole family watched them, curious about the soil which the jealous grass and shriveled weeds had hitherto hidden from them. The sharp blades turned over a dark ridge in the earth, so fertile that it gleamed in the sunshine. That soil would produce fine yields. Nor did the soil of Wislok let them down. Barley grew there admirably, each hectare producing about 16-18 quintals. Clover for fodder grew almost up to the waist, while sugar beet, rye and wheat also gave good results. The potatoes grown that year in the Janickis' garden would have graced an exhibition.
Janicki is a wise farmer. 'If the state puts everything into my hands, does all it can to help me, then it's up to me to organize a model farm here. I won't miss a single opportunity,' he resolved.
The Janickis have now been living in Wislok Wielki for five years. The document conferring full legal ownership of the farm has long been lying in the bottom of a drawer, and all the fears of Mrs. Janicki have long vanished. Today in their barn you can see 4 cows, 2 heifers, 16 sheep, a couple of horses and a foal, 4 pigs, and chickens and geese everywhere. In the orchard in front of the house Janicki setup 14 bee hives, collecting 320 kg of honey from them last year. The nearby woods keep the inhabitants of Wislok well supplied not only with fuel but also with mushrooms, of which there is a superabundance. Last year Janicki got 6,000 zloty for the mushrooms he collected and dried, and though the present year was not a good one he'll still pick up 2,000. The forests also provide extra sources of earnings through the trimming and transporting of trees and logs.
Janicki paid off all his loans a long time ago. Profusion and prosperity have become permanent guests in his house. It is enough to glance at the chubby face of young George, or at the rosy cheeks of the youngest of all, nine-month old Eugene, at their casual clothes, warm sweaters and boots they can put on every day, at all the games and toys in the house - everyone can see for himself how prosperous they have become. Both the Janickis today are happy and contented with their children's prospects in life. They may have nine children, but not one of them is threatened by poverty or destitution; the People's Government has created this life for Janicki.
'I'll tell everyone who comes along here not to hesitate for a moment,' says Janicki, 'but to pack his goods and chattels and join us here. Today the conditions are actually much better than they were six years ago when I settled here. You can get loans for equipment and the seed you need, whilst the loan to buy cows and horses is written off when you have completed three years on the new farm. You don't pay any taxes during those first three years, and for two of them you're free of the compulsory deliveries. This really gives you time to get the farm organized, and the new settlers are given help and protection at every step. Anyway, what's the point in talking so much? Anyone can judge whether it's worth coming or not just by looking at my house, the stables and the yard,' Janicki ended our conversation.
On both sides of the road which leads from Zagorz through Koman'cza to Wislok you can see lands which have to be wrest back from the dead, which the plough-share must bring to life again. They ought to be yielding something. The productive reserves of our agriculture are lying hidden here: thousands of tons of grain, possibilities to breed thousands of head of cattle, sheep and pigs. And for settlers a life of profusion and prosperity is also waiting, a new life (published in Rzeszow in 1953 by the Agriculture and Forestry section of the presidium of the County Council in a 44 page brochure entitled Na Nowe Gospodarstwa (Moving to New Farms), compiled by C. Blonska, E. Jakubowska and J. Ciaston').
II. Krzysztof Oltarzewski
How long have we been in Wislok? Since May of last year, right? -No, we've been here eighteen months. - Nope, it'll be two years in May. Sure, two years in May, it all began in 1978.
In February the formalities, I gave 140,000 zloty for these putrid buildings and 14 hectares of land. Of course I got credit, I didn't have that much money. I had two horses. We went at it in earnest from the start, set out in grand style - nothing wrong with that in my opinion. I heard there were 10 hectares for sale right next door. The average peasant would spend three years thinking about it: worth buying or not. I wrote at once to the gmina offices telling them I'd take it, giving me about 23 hectares altogether. You can appreciate it - I came here at the beginning of May, and by the last day of the month I'd already got forty head of cattle with a cooperation agreement with the State Farm. Do you appreciate it? Here a guy would keep two horses and a cow and couldn't scratch a livelihood, and along comes this madman who takes on forty head of cattle for fattening. .
Services I got from the SKR, and bloody awful they were at it. In the course of two years they never once managed to execute a job on time and as it should be done. Cutting hay is no problem, but with only a couple of horses and so many fields I obviously have to order the whole range of services. Gierek made this speech on the television, saying that the SKR has to be able to collect the hay, so I went in to them the next day and signed a contract for precisely that. They signed it, they'd have looked foolish if they hadn't.
Losses in 1978 due to badly implemented services I estimated to be in the order of 40,000-50,000 zloty. They did the mowing, then they were supposed to come out to ted and rake it up together, and that was all I wanted from them, even though a trailer and automatic gathering equipment were also listed on paper. I had this absurd way of thinking, I thought that if a firm signs a contract it will stick to it -but here not even 10 per cent. Not to mention the fact that before every job you have to go 12 km to Komancza several times, which means catching the bus before six in the morning and kicking your heels there until the SKR administrators arrive. There you get these Danteesque scenes, hollering and brawling, it's such an ugly sight you need to see it to believe it. Eventually your tractor will arrive and it turns out that some screw is missing, so back it fucking goes about 30 or 40 km to Szczawne, which is where they've got their workshop. It's a fine firm.
Nevertheless we made it somehow, got the hay in, the cattle came along well. That first year was a good one, and then I got my photo in the provincial paper, receiving my candidate's membership card in Krosno from the First Secretary of the county.
At the same time there was this stupid situation - I started to have some troubles with the neighbors. In the hamlet where we'd been before it was like this -your horses, your cart, you want to work on Sunday: your own private business! And here the priest damned me from the pulpit for working on Sunday. The people here are unable to understand that there is only the two of us and we can't look to anybody else. Really there's only one and a half, with Jadwiga busy most of the time with the children. There is no Sunday for me, I can't fulfill 200 per cent of the norm on Saturday, all the more so since everything has to be done by hand. I've been shoveling the dung out by hand for two years now because I can't get hold of machines. I've scattered all the fertilizer by hand, imagine, on an area like that! I tell you, you could strain yourself.
There's no way you can manage this by physical strength alone, like a yokel or a peasant; you have to devise some sort of strategy . .
That first year was really a fine one. Come the autumn we sold the cattle, sold hay and sold some grain, we got back what we paid for this farm in the course of a single season.
I spent the winter hammering away in the forest because we needed the money. Jadwiga was at her mother's in Silesia, because you know it was just impossible to live here, things were really a mess. From the spring - more renovation work and tinkering around the house.
As soon as I came here I knew at once that we'd have to get new buildings up. I sent off a request to a firm of architects in Cracow for their current catalogue and possibly something already completely worked out, making it clear to them what I wanted. Five months later they sent me back a scrap of paper, and on this scrap of paper a little wooden outhouse, I just couldn't believe it.
This time I didn't manage to repeat that cooperation agreement with the State Farm and I had no choice but to take on some beef cattle from the Stockbreeding Enterprise. In my opinion there's a big mistake in their assumption, in fact only about 30-40 per cent of their animals are really good enough to be worth fattening up, I'm convinced of that, and I've been through it. Come the autumn, it turned out that from forty head I could only sell fifteen, in other words fifteen head were up to standard in terms of weight and condition, the others were not. Even so I came out the best in the whole gmina; there were three of us who tried, the others didn't manage to deliver a single beast, the lot of them were sickly and in lousy condition.
'And what have you been rearing?' they said to me in the State Farm, 'What have you been rearing!' If I'm prepared for a conversation I can talk quietly but I get bloody angry when they talk to me like that. Those cattle consumed eight tons of protein food, 10,000 litters of specially prepared milk, in the spring there weren't any antibiotics to be found, I had to hunt around with vodka and with money, begging, borrowing and stealing in order to wangle some somewhere. I said to those women that maybe they could buy those animals through the regular marketing channels, and they replied that these were full to capacity. Right, let's take them home again! It really stung me, mind, because I am conscious of all the money and all that work, but I just couldn't manage to slobber, kiss the old girl's hand, bribe her with 1,000 zloty or invite her for some vodka, cravenly beseech her; maybe I could have landed some snot somewhere and got something out of her, but that would have been stooping too low, I raised those cattle, that's my work, I'm a productive firm and not a beggar, that's what really hurt me most of all.
The people at the gmina's Agricultural Service and the rest, they ought at least to know their jobs. I don't expect them to be intelligent, but I don't like that director coming out to me here and standing on that little hill to ask about this and that. He's afraid to go and see for himself, he'd get his shoes soaked in the dung, but why doesn't he buy himself a pair of wellingtons for 150 zloty? Then the son of a bitch could go inside the stables and see what it all looks like. He even gets his wellingtons for free because of his job, but maybe he finds he doesn't actually need them. He's a bureaucrat and I'm a farmer, how could we be able to talk like two farmers?
I know that the way that I behave is not going to win me many friends here. When I lose my temper I start to swear, I just can't help it, you know, at times I can't control myself and of course that's not good ...
The business of building anew from scratch - stable, silos, sties, manure pits, not including a new place for us to live in, that bit was to be our own personal investment - it all worked out to be two million, seven hundred thousand zloty. And people were aghast, people couldn't conceive this, nobody had ever proposed a credit on this scale before. It's a question of the mentality here. People build a stable for ten head, to plan for twenty is pretty awful, and I wanted forty. My neighbor Filozof, that's his family name, has been building his barn for 7 or 8 years and he still hasn't any mechanical equipment in it. What I do by hand in my own eighteenth century barn he has to do by hand in his would-be twentieth century version. It's still not finished, but if he decides to finish it the way it ought to be finished he has another five years' work in front of him. They're surprised at me because I want it all done by outsiders according to their blueprint, for that costs money; but while it's going on I can carry on producing in these old buildings; if I've got to do the building myself I'm not going to have time for agricultural production, and so I prefer to pay half a million more and get the buildings up in two years than to mess around myself for five whilst paying out half a million less.
These are perfectly obvious matters to me, but I don't manage to explain them to the people from the bank or those at the gmina; in fact it's difficult to explain anything to those people. Please wait for our letter, we'll contact you, wait for our letter with an answer to your request for credit; and then silence, nobody knows what's going on, like a Czech movie. Every one of them is afraid to take a decision, every one just shakes his or her ass when they hear that I want such a large credit: the lady in charge of the local branch of the bank thinks to herself, that's more than I can earn in a hundred years. My first impulse was to write to the Central Committee, a naive step if you like but that's the way we organize our business, you have to get some piece of paper with an important seal on it supporting you, and then you get things done - this is the established way. Write it down briefly and to the point, it doesn't have to be literary. In fact better if it's specially non-literary, for if one's a bit tense things might spill out too colorfully. Just write down the incontrovertible facts ...
'That the bank in Koman'cza has refused me the credit on the grounds that they don't see any prospect of my repaying it, that after renovating my old stable I had good conditions for production and didn't produce as much as I should have done...' I tell you bluntly
they don't understand that a barn and cow shed are not like a mass-production conveyor belt. They think that it ought to start producing without a moment's hesitation, but I tell you that it's a cow shed, with living creatures inside it, which might grow but might equally well not grow. In agriculture there is an element of risk, you couldn't possibly run a farm without risk. I've got 450,000 zloty of credits to pay off: 170,000 of this is turnover credit which I'll pay in 1980,140,000 is for the renovation, that I'll pay the following year though I'm not obliged to for ten years, and 150,000 for the purchase of the farm - that's spread out over thirty years .
I can educate my neighbors, you know, on things to do with the land. If I scatter fertilizer in March and collect the first crop of hay in May, with another following in the middle of summer, if I manage to get two crops like this for two or three years in a row, then pretty soon other people will begin to do it, for up to now they've only collected the one crop.
But it's awfully difficult to remodel the habit of doing everything by asking. There is this habit - if you as a farmer go to see the administrator and you demand from him something he gets paid to do, he'll be shocked. How can a farmer demand anything? A farmer ought to ask, he has to ask, his grandfather used to ask and his great-grandfather before him; his father asked and so must you.
A gigantic provincial asking process! Well, Oltarzewski doesn't like this!
Sure, I know it's not going to be easy for me.
(published in the newspaper Tygodnik Kulturalny, Vol.24 no.17, 27th April, 1980, the words of Krzysztof Oltarzewski reworked in article form by Adam Warzocha)
Page prepared by Walter Maksimovich
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© LV Productions Originally Composed: April 8th, 1996
Date last modified: May 30th, 1999.