On a warm summer day, nothing beats the rolling green fields and plentiful wildlife in southern Poland. The population of one of the larger cities in the region, Gorlice, tops out at only 30,000, which should tell you something about the area.
I sauntered along what passed for a main road, the occasional car reminding me that I was not entirely alone in what had been a fairly solitary day. My hike that day had already encompassed three tiny farming villages. They were each 5-10 kilometers apart, and contained about the same number of houses.
The sun was warm on my back, though not unpleasant. A cool breeze urged me to find one more memory as a keepsake. So on I walked, though I’d never have guessed the memory which was awaiting me.
“Excuse me! Do you have the time?”
A handful of wizened men and women were standing at a bus stop just off to my right. I doubted the question was aimed at me so I kept walking. But I scanned the faces just the same, as you do when sourcing a disembodied voice.
My eye landed on a man who didn’t quite fit in. He wore loose fitting clothes and skin was rougher and more tanned than that of the others, though I didn’t think too much of it at the time. He was looking at me.
Noticing that we’d made eye contact, he approached me with an eager stride. He repeated his question.
I glanced down at my watch and told him the time, not slowing my pace.
“Thank you, you’re very kind!” he said, continuing to follow me.
“Not at all, of course I’d tell you the time!” I replied.
“Not everyone would. I was asking those people for the time, and no one would tell me. You’re the only one.”
We left the bus stop behind; I guess he hadn’t been waiting for a ride.
“Really? That’s a shame. People should be nicer.”
The man smiled, “The world would be a better place if everyone was nicer to each other.”
I agreed, still walking. After a moment, the man spoke up again.
“You’re not from here, are you?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Your accent is odd. Where did you learn Polish?”
Along the two way road, which appeared only wide enough to allow one and a half cars to pass, we conversed about those things which a local meeting a foreigner for the first time tend to converse about.
After a short while, he asked, “What are you doing here anyway?”
“Just walking from town to town, looking for wooden churches.”
“Do you want to see something else interesting?”
If there exists a gesture more emphatic than intense nodding, that’s probably how I responded.
“There’s a cemetery in the woods. It’s hidden away, but I know where it is. If you’re interested, I can take you there.”
I agreed, and we stepped off the road onto a dusty path toward the woods.
We walked for a while through increasingly untamed terrain.
“You’re not scared?” the man asked, “To come with a stranger into the woods?”
“Why should I be scared? Do you plan to do something bad to me?”
“No, I’m just asking.”
The trail narrowed and eventually disappeared into the unkempt bushes.
I searched for an opening through the woods, “Which way?”
“Up the hill,” he claimed, indicating the way with a nod.
I went up, barely discerning a vague route between some trees. The man hiked along quietly behind me.
“What kind of cemetery is it anyway?” I asked, trying to keep him in my field of vision while not tripping on the uneven terrain.
“It’s for the soldiers who died fighting in World War I. There are soldiers from many countries, like Germany, Russia, Austria, Poland, etc. Often Polish soldiers fought against each other, as they fought simultaneously for Prussia, Austria, and Russia, as Poland was under partitions by those countries at the time. In cemeteries like these, soldiers from more than one side are buried together. Some are out in the open. Others, like this one, are hidden away in the woods on top of mountains, their remnants slowly succumbing to the ages.”
“Wow, you know a lot.” I remarked, impressed.
“It’s thanks to the research you did before writing this blog post,” he admitted.
And that’s when I saw it, a forgotten relic of a largely forgotten past. Unkempt grass obscured the bases of modest, moss-covered graves, which themselves echoed melancholic memories.
“By the way, in return for showing you this place, could you spare some change?”
Southern Poland is dotted with War Cemeteries like these. For those interested in visiting one or more of these sites, here is a useful resource for finding locations as well as information on buried soldiers.
Many cemeteries are unmarked and out of the way. As such, it is tricky to uncover their existence. To this end, I recommend asking locals in the hills of Western Galicia and in villages outside Gorlice and Nowy Sącz while driving around the Wooden Architecture Trail.