WTF is Stare Brusno? It’s an abandoned village in southeastern Poland. Why am I looking for it? Because apparently some of my ancestors are buried there. And I’m not alone in this search for this cemetery, it’s one of many old cemeteries that survived the war and preserves a part of Poland’s history (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire).
If you’re looking to go to Stare Brusno, rent a car from Rzeszow. It’s a 2 hour drive and it’s not hard to find with GPS (even though it took me all day). If anyone is thinking of doing this by bus I’d say don’t. You can get to Lubaczów easily enough but any further than that and the buses become fewer and scarcer. And this is what Lubaczów looks like:
The drive out to Stare Brusno is scenic enough: farmland, forests, small old wooden churches, old grave sites, and lots of snow when I went.
So, Stare Brusno, “Old boor” (quite possibly meaning an “old wood pile”). Starry B, as all the cool kids call it, doesn’t actually exist any more. At some time in the recent past, Poland was divided up by the Austrians, and Brusno was split into New and Old (west and east, respectively). That division created a trio of cities right next to each other: Nowe Brusno (New Wood Pile), which was composed of Polish folks; Stare Brusno (Old Wood Pile), where Ukrainians lived; and DeutschBach (wasn’t he a classical composer? j/k, I think it means “German Creek”), where the Germans lived.
That division came to an end in World War 2. On September 21, 1945, the Polish guys (Polish People’s Army, (PPA)) got a little irritated with the Ukrainians (Ukrainian People’s Army, (YPA)) always reserving the karaoke rooms which meant that the guys had no where to take their girlfriends. Without karaoke, how else do you impress Polish women? And so the PPA burnt the village to the ground.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. Karaoke probably didn’t have anything to do with it. But the part about women…
Finding the place was a bit of a challenge, mostly because many maps don’t show Stare Brusno any more. I was able to drive to Nowe Brusno easily enough, but locating the cemetery was a little more difficult.
After driving around for a few hours without any luck, I stopped to ask a guy walking down the road. He didn’t speak English and I barely spoke Polish. I (tried) to ask, “Gdze jest Starrrrre Brrrrrrusno?” and requested that he speak slowly to me. I think the brand new rental car told him that I was a foreigner.
He seemed to understand me, though he was just as puzzled about where I could find it. Apparently there’s more than one cemetery in the area. He suggested two different directions. I thanked him and went on my way.
I chose to go through the most obvious forest first. As luck would have it, or maybe the spirits were guiding me, a huge snowstorm hit. Not wanting a 127-hour-type thing to happen, I turned headed back to the town proper. Waiting out the storm (which was to recur a few more times), I tried the other direction in which the man said the cemetery could be.
Turns out the cemetery is actually just beyond the villages of Nowe Brusno and Polanka. For those of you interested, when you come to the fork in the road, head to Polanka. You’ll come to a roundabout, keep right (you have an option to go left which would take you into a very bumpy back road) and drive for about 4 minutes. You’ll see a cross monument on your left and the cemetery is in the forest about 1 minute later. There’s a sign that reads “Site of Stare Brusno” on your right. I don’t recommend trying to drive down into the little ditch as, well, I got stuck there. Whoops.
But there it was, in the middle of the forest, an old cemetery of about 300 graves resting peacefully amongst the snow covered trees and shrubs. It is a truly remarkable site to behold: century-old tombstones seemingly haphazardly placed amongst the trees, a gentle snow fall adding to the ambience.
I walked around it a couple of times, searching as many stones as I could. I found 3 tombstones that matched what I was looking for, another I put into the “maybe” category. Two I couldn’t find. (I’d recommend being gentle with the tombstones because they may crumble.) Some engravings, however, are completely lost to history.
So, if my ancestors are there, I didn’t find all of them.
The claim to fame this cemetery is the skill of the stonemasons. All of the tombstones were made locally and, if you look at the dates of the burials, you’ll notice that the tombstones become more decorated as time goes on. The earlier tombstones are pretty basic stone crosses. Around the turn of the century, crucifixes appear. Finally, before WW2, you see some elaborate wreaths and fancier crosses.
A thought struck me, however, while walking through the cemetery, and I apologize if I wax philosophical for a moment here, but those tombstones without the legible engravings really made me think about life. Even your tombstone doesn’t guarantee to preserve your name. It’s at that moment that it struck me how lost to history you become. All these travels across the world, teaching English, movies, music, it all stops. You become, essentially, nameless.
And then I thought about being Ukrainian-Canadian. As a 2nd/3rd generation Ukrainian immigrant to Canada, to think that my grandparents made the choice to leave their home and everything familiar, cross the ocean, and help settle the Great Canadian Prairies, was a humbling experience. There I was, in a century-old cemetery, standing on a plot of land over which my ancestors probably, at one time, walked. What did they have back then? Certainly not the video cameras, GPS system, a heated car with power steering, an iPod, a cell phone, and not to mention Canadian citizenship, a passport and the English language that enables me to do a lot of things in this world.
A simple trip to a cemetery and I become a philosopher. Yikes.
I finally left after about 3 hours in the cemetery. I didn’t want to leave since it had been on my mind since I got into Poland two months prior. It wasn’t terribly cold but I wanted to get back to Rzeszow before sunset. But what a thought and a feeling, to finally be on the ground that my ancestors called home.