Poland's farming villages wither

Exodus: A way of life is dying as the nation leans toward the European Union and young people migrate to cities.

May 19, 2002|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KRUSZYNIANY, Poland - Konstanty Makar stores his hand-drawn map atop a Bible kept in a dank kitchen furnished with a wood-burning stove and rusty bucket beneath a cold water tap. The map depicts Kruszyniany during the 1930s, when some 700 people - 180 families, 164 houses - lived along two roads and tilled the rocky soil in the shadow of pines.

Each square on the map represents a house from that time. The old farmer points a gnarled finger at square after square.

Here's where the people lived who were sent to work in Germany during World War II. Here are the houses of the people who emigrated to Russia in the 1940s, and the houses of the people who left for Polish cities, the houses of people who died and left farms that remain abandoned. And here are the houses of people like Makar and his wife - 98 people, most of whom are elderly - who remain behind.

"This village," Makar said without fear of contradiction, "is dying."

In eastern Poland, near the border with Belarus, farming communities are vanishing. As Poland moves toward joining the European Union and young people continue an exodus to the cities, isolated villages like Kruszyniany struggle to cling to life.

They are sustained mainly by memory and the $100-a-month checks collected by the dwindling band of aging pensioners. After decades of bitter harvests, these villages face the possibility of bitter ends, their passing unlamented and lost.

The beauty here lies in the rolling countryside, soaring pines and a quick rustling of deer. But there is a sadness, too, one that can be seen in every tumbledown farmhouse standing like a ruined scarecrow over fields that no longer yield a harvest.

EU uncertainty

For all the beauty and bleakness, there is still something almost mystical to Poles about the villages. "Poland is still very much a rural country," said Konstanty Gebert, an author and pro-democracy activist during the Communist period who founded and edited Midrasz, a Polish-Jewish journal. "Villages and farming represent a pristine myth of the national order."

Farming employs about 20 percent of the work force, but Polish agriculture is inefficient, uncompetitive and doomed to radical change or death. The process will likely be hastened by the country's entry to the European Union, which could come as early as 2004. Western farmers in the EU are aided with lavish subsidies, financial cushions unlikely to be immediately available to newly admitted Eastern countries.

To join the West, Poland will likely leave its farms behind.

"This is Poland's major existential question," said Gebert. "On one hand, we aspire to European Union membership. On the other hand, the Polish family farm will no longer survive. There will be a massive bankruptcy of the family farms. It's anyone's guess if we can really weather this."

Dead villages

Jozef Wornowicz, the chief administrator for the region, can chart the area's decline by looking at the list of 50 communities under his control. "Eleven villages have died already," he explained. "They exist in name only. There are no people there."

Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union fought over this land in the 1940s, and Polish communism forcibly established farm cooperatives here in the 1950s. In the 1990s, Poland's young democracy struggled to rescue the economy.

The regional capital is the town of Krynki, occupied by Soviet troops in the first months of World War II. The Nazis captured the town in 1941, herded its 3,500 Jews into a ghetto and, a year later, deported them to death camps.

"Even I live in a Jewish building," said Wornowicz, whose white clapboard house stands near Krynki's town center. The only remnants of the Jewish community are the stone foundation of a synagogue and a cemetery where headstones inscribed in Hebrew are overgrown by weeds.

Wornowicz, a tall, striking man with silver hair, toured the countryside with a visitor, driving past mile after mile of uncultivated fields. The farmhouses lacked window panes; the roofs were caved in. Traffic consisted of an occasional cart pulled by a plow horse.

Some remnants from the past still stand, including an obelisk erected in the memory of a Soviet general. When communism collapsed, someone made off with the memorial's brass sign; the general's name is lost to history. "In a few years," Wornowicz said, "there will just be a forest here."

A little farther along, up a one-lane dirt track, was Ozierany Wielkie, a hamlet that backs to a river. Belarus lies on the opposite bank.

Ozierany Wielkie has 13 families, six tractors and two cars. Of its dozen farmhouses, half are unoccupied. Electricity arrived 10 years ago. Back yards contain outhouses. A few barking dogs provide a measure of life. The youngest resident is 20, the oldest in her 90s.

"Nobody wants to live in such small villages anymore," said Wlodzimierz Baranczuk, 74, a farmer, now toothless, who chops wood and tends to his chickens. He wore a herringbone sport coat to ward off the spring chill. "Even little birds are escaping."

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