The highlight of my two-week trip to Poland and Ukraine this summer was a visit to the small town where my grandmother Katarzyna Bosakowska (1889-1966) was born. She knew the town by its Polish name, Założce (pronounced za-WOYZ-tseh). You’ll find it on the map today under its Ukrainian name, Zaliztsi (za-LEEZ-tsee).
My grandmother emigrated to America in 1912 at the age of 22 – and never saw her hometown again. She was one of at least 20 Bosakowski cousins to make that journey. At the time, Założce was a regionally significant town situated in the far northeast corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, about six miles from the Russian border. It had a population of about 7,000, comprised of Roman Catholics (mainly Poles), Greek Catholics (mainly Ukrainians) and Jews. Its houses of worship served nearly two dozen neighboring villages.
For whatever reason, the population of Założce began to decline in the early 20th century. I have a theory about this. Old church records indicate that the inhabitants of Założce were townspeople (oppidani in the official Latin). They made their living through trade (I noticed a lot of butchers in the family tree, for example) or by making things. One key local industry appears to have been shoe making. Multiple members of the Bosakowski family are identified in the church records as shoemakers (sutores).
I was struck by the fact that my great-grandfather Jozef Bosakowski (1847-?) and two of his brothers, Piotr (1849-?) and Wojciech (1854-1893), served in the Austrian army before taking up this line of work. So did they parlay their military experience into a small business making boots for the military? And did that business eventually dry up when large-scale producers, using modern manufacturing techniques, were able to make boots faster and cheaper? Could that be why so many townspeople, including nearly two dozen Bosakowski family members, decided to leave?
After World War I, which broke out two years after my grandmother left, Założce found itself within the borders of the newly reconstituted Polish republic. Although the town was devastated during the war, due to its unfortunate location near the border, it appears to have bounced back in the 1920s and 1930s. A 1929 town directory lists dozens of merchants and tradespeople, including three Bosakowski family members – a swine herder named P. Bosakowski and two tobacconists identified as F. and St. Bosakowski.
But then World War II struck an even harsher blow. In 1939, the Soviets occupied eastern Poland in a secret deal with Hitler. Under two years of brutal Stalinist rule, many of the town’s residents were deported to Siberia – or killed. Then in 1941, the Nazis invaded and brought a new wave of death and destruction to the town. Almost all the town’s Jews, a third of the population, were killed. By March 1944, the Soviets pushed the Nazis back on their march to Berlin, claiming the territory for the USSR. Ukrainian paramilitary bands waged a campaign of terror against the Poles. Finally, in early 1945 the town’s Polish residents – whose families had called the area home for centuries – were expelled with three hours’ notice, “repatriated” to new homes within Poland’s new post-war borders. Over one million Poles were expelled from western Ukraine.
The town is now Zaliztsi. Its population, now almost entirely Ukrainian, is only a third of what it was a century ago. War, genocide, ethnic cleansing and emigration all took a toll. It’s a story common to many places in the borderland region of Central and Eastern Europe.
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I made the trip with my third cousin Dariusz Bosakowski. Darek and I share the same second great-grand-grandparents, Bazyli Bosakowski (1822-?) and Rozalia Kwaśnicka (1824-1879), who raised a family of six sons and two daughters in Założce. I wrote in an earlier post about Bazyli’s rise from the son of peasants in nearby Milno to a respected townsperson.
We were joined by Ukrainian relatives of Darek’s who live in Ternopil, the nearest large city. These were Darek’s cousin Lena Klymenko, her husband Anatoliy and Lena’s grandfather Mykhaylo Kotsiunbovych. The three of them could not have been nicer, taking an afternoon to drive us there and show us around. And Lena and Anatoliy spoke excellent English, to boot.
Their family connection shines a poignant light on the town’s postwar history. Mykhaylo’s wife Jadwiga Lobaj was born and raised in Założce. Her parents were Anton Lobaj, a Ukrainian man, and Hanna Maliszewska, a Polish woman, both born in 1904. Marriages between Poles and Ukrainians were hardly unusual in that part of the world. I can see much evidence of that in my own family tree. Hanna was the sister of Darek’s grandmother Maria, who married Franciszek Bosakowski. So Darek and Lena are second cousins.
When that fateful day came in 1945, and the town’s Poles were getting ready to be herded onto cattle cars for their deportation to Poland, Hanna refused to go. She was married to a Ukrainian man, after all. She remained with her family and lived out her days in Zalozce. But her Polish family, including sister Maria and brother-in-law Franciszek, had to go.
Our little group departed from Ternopil on a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon. Midday thunderstorms cleared the air and by the time we reached Zaliztsi – a 35 km drive on two-lane roads – the weather seemed to getting nicer and nicer.
The town is situated on the banks of the Seret River, just as it opens up into a small lake or large pond created by a dam. (In Polish, the word is staw.) The main road passes along the lake, atop a levee, and then up into some hills.
This is how Założce was described in an 1895 “geographical dictionary” of towns and cities in the former Poland, the Slownik Geograficzny Krolestwa Polskiego:
Located there are a district court, a post office, a notary, a military station, a physician and a pharmacy. … Almost in middle of the territory flows the Seret River which at Założce becomes a vast pond. The pond is at elevation 315 meters above sea level. The city was built on the south side of the pond and on the right bank of the Seret River. The city includes a Castle which lies on left bank of the river among the wetlands. Together they comprise Założce Stare. Beyond the levee and at the south-east edge of the pond lies a portion of a town named Założce Nowe.
The town center is still there, on the southern bank of the pond, but there was not much in the way of commercial or official buildings. It is dominated by three structures: a Greek Catholic tserkva (or church) near the pond, a two-story school and the ruins of the Roman Catholic church. The only shops we saw were on the main road leading into town.
Once we turned off the main road, the pavement was dusty gravel. Not much appeared to be going on. As we got out of the car, a woman tending a lush garden took no notice of us. I peered into the school, which must be where my grandmother studied, but it was hard to make much out.
Our first stop was the Lobaj family home, located near the ruined church. Mykhaylo opened the door and let us in. No one had lived in the house for awhile and the living room was being used for storage. Still, it was an amazing opportunity to see what a traditional home looked like.
There was a living room, kitchen and another locked room (presumably a bedroom). The entire house – which looked like many of the others – could not have been bigger than 700 square feet (65 square meters). It was difficult to imagine how it could accommodate the large families that were common back in the day.
Among the stored items, Mykhaylo pulled out a handsome framed portrait of Anton and Hanna Lobaj. It was wonderful to put a face on the people who made this small house their home.
Next, we walked through the foundations of the old castle. It seemed a lot less imposing than it did in some old photos I found online. I have to wonder if we missed part of it. Anyway, it was interesting to wander around the stone defensive walls – and a bit scary to descend into one of the dank rooms. In the distance, across the wetlands, was Założce Nowe (New Założce).
Walking back toward our car, we caught a horse drawn cart carrying a huge pile of hay, with the ruined church softly lit in the background. It was the trip’s Kodak moment, and I raced across the field to capture the money shot.
Now it was time to visit the church. Comparing it to pre-war photos, you can see that the church lost its roof and an entry portal. The stained-glass windows, of course, were also blown out. As you face the front of the church, the right side has become crowded with trees. The interior, too, is home to eight-foot trees standing straight like long-gone parishioners. I’m not sure how the church was destroyed. I’m pretty sure I read that the Soviets blew it up.
Although I was standing in the place where my grandmother was baptized, where generations of family baptisms, weddings and funerals took place, it was hard to summon any particular feeling. It felt like a truly ancient ruin. (Click on any image below to activate slideshow.)
Stepping across the old church yard, now a grassy lawn with a path beat across it, I compared the view in my mind to an old postcard of Założce that my Uncle Walter gave me (see above). The postcard shows the church and school from the vantage point of the river bank, just behind me. The riverbank is now clogged with trees so it not possible to recreate the image exactly. But the before-and-after contrast is still pretty striking.
Next, we ambled further down the road to reach a small wooden footbridge crossing the river. I gazed out at the river, with its trees along the banks bending lazily toward the water, and thought how this must have looked much like this when my grandmother was a girl. As we crossed the bridge, I was touched to see Lena share an emotional moment with her grandfather. The visit had clearly brought back many memories of Mykhaylo’s late wife.
On the opposite side of the river was a small shrine. I thought it might be St. Anthony, after whom the ruined church – and my own father – were named, but I’m not sure. To the left, a road led into the residential streets of Założce Stare (Old Założce). Since time was short, I didn’t get a chance to wander through that part of town. But you could see that some of the older houses had been renovated and enlarged. But many others seemed unchanged from a century ago.
On our way out of town, we passed by a house with a sign that advertised shoe repair. An interesting flashback to the days when my ancestors earned their livelihoods in this very place making shoes.
Our next stop was the old Catholic cemetery, up in the hills on the western side of town. We were able to get a good look at the town and the pond in the afternoon light.
I’ll write about our cemetery visit in another post. In the meantime, you can view a complete gallery of photos from this trip on my SmugMug page.