After repeated requests, my father, in his later years, handed me a hand-drawn map of a place in eastern Europe on the river Dnestr, which meanders to the Black Sea. The map came with a page and a half of instructions headed Route to Toporowno, typed on his old Olivetti typewriter, where the s’s always came out faded. The instructions were dated June 1989, so Tatusz (Dad) drew the map from memory fifty years after he fled the family estate at the outbreak of World War II.
The map showed where he and his brothers buried the family silver before their hasty departure.
In that late summer of 1939, my grandfather had recently retired from Lwów to the family farm where my newlywed father, having completed his agricultural studies, had begun farming. My father’s three brothers were visiting them for the holidays. The family was enjoying Sunday lunch when one brother heard on the radio that the Russians were about to invade eastern Poland very near their farm. Leaving lunch on the table, my father, his new wife and brothers crossed the southern border into Rumania. They had tried to persuade my widowed grandfather to go with them, but he refused to leave his homeland.
Tatusz’ map and instructions described where the family treasure was buried. The last line said: “On the left side of the pencil drawn map you will see the broken line going from the stone wall towards the forest (oaks) it is there on the border of the forest but already among the trees that you must look for our silver and my hunting guns.”
I had heard about this treasure in faraway, communist Eastern Europe since my youth and when I read this, I let out a deep-seated wail for reasons I was only able to understand years later. The centre-piece of the map is the manor house which had a cellar where my father kept his vegetables to sell at the local market.
My first trip to Toporowno was to see how the land lay. I discovered that the cellar was all that was left of the manor house. The rest of it had been destroyed by the invading Bolshevik army. The stone wall shown on Tatusz’s map was the yard wall which ran around the back of the house. I had to find its foundations as the broken line he drew begins there and that’s where I had to start walking to find the treasure. The line crosses a flat “cultivated” field and ends at an abrupt slope. The instruction is to walk down to: the border of the forest but already among the trees. It is there that I have to look for the treasure. I resolved to return some time in the future.
Dadzio (Grandfather) narrowly escaped being executed by the Russians. He made his way back to Lwów, which ended up behind the Iron Curtain as the boundaries of Poland were re-drawn at the end of the war. Toporowno was also included in the newly formed, communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Dadzio was to live for another twenty years but was never to see his four sons again.
My Polish parents had arrived in South Africa a few years after World War II, having served in the allied army in the Middle East where my three elder sisters were born in Palestine, Tel Aviv and Cairo. After the war, the family sailed from Cairo down through the Suez Canal and landed in Durban. I was born in 1953 in a rural village near Cape Town.
The map was handed to me when I was in my mid-thirties. At the time my own life seemed tumultuous. A State of Emergency had been declared in South Africa, prospects of a challenging but exciting academic career emerged, a life-threatening illness had to be confronted. Childhood ideas of retrieving family treasure, buried somewhere in communist Eastern Europe, were forgotten. But with the success of the Polish resistance movement, Solidarity, and with the Berlin Wall coming down resulting in the fall of communism, the possibility of visiting the family estate now in Ukraine, became more likely. Youthful fantasies of a treasure hunt re-emerged. A few years later, a trip to an academic conference in London created the opportunity for a side visit to the former ancestral land.
In London I visited Stanfords, “the world’s biggest and best map shop…” and bought large- and small-scale maps of the region. The most detailed of these was in indecipherable Cyrillic. But a few days later I spread the Cyrillic map out on my Polish cousin Pawel’s kitchen table for him to exclaim “Here is Toporowno ”. It dawned on me that Toporowno was not the name of the farm, as I had assumed, but the name of the adjoining village. I realised that many of the villagers of Toporowno had worked on the farm and the village was inseparable from it. Would the workers have had wind of the buried family silver and dug it up soon after the war? How practical would it be for a bunch of foreigners to arrive in rural Ukraine, walk around with metal detectors and start digging. It seemed a pipe dream.
On my first visit to Toporowno I wandered around, exploring the farm for about an hour. The muddy Dnestr in the valley below seemed hardly to move. My Polish cousin was busily ridding his Kombi of a swarm of midges which had welcomed us as we bumped to a halt on the farm. Two of my older sisters, Wanda and Marysia and their husbands, who had joined me on the trip, spread out a bit. I felt the sun on my back and saw an old, stooped man and his dog crossing the farm some distance away. He saw me ambling over and changed direction towards me.
“Dzien dobri (Good day)”, I greet him in my rudimentary Polish, which seems to be understood by most Ukrainians. I notice his piercing blue eyes, gold-capped front tooth and working boots. He responds warmly, asking about my interest here. “My father and grandfather lived here many years ago, before the war…” I begin in Polish.
“Ah Glazewski…” his eyes light up. “How wonderful… I remember your father…”. “No, probably grandfather,” I correct him. “My parents worked for him…” he continues, getting animated, “they paid them two zloty a day and me one zloty as I was only twelve years old then.”
I beckon my two sisters who were gathering flowers in the field to come over. He immediately takes a shine to Marysia, remarking on how beautiful she is. They chat away about what was where on the farm, about our father and our grandfather.
“Ah” he says, “when the Russians came, they wanted to shoot Mr Glazewski. But my parents and the other workers protested: no, let him be. He is a good man.” The soldiers relented and ordered my grandfather not to return to the manor house and razed it to the ground. This was done to all the maionteks (manor houses) in the district.
“Why don’t you come back…” his eyes glint mischievously, “…and farm. It was much better in those days.” I fantasize about rebuilding the house, sitting at a log fire, sipping steaming Polish broth.
I come back from my reverie. “Yes, my son is now in Kiev,” he is saying to my sister. “Life is difficult there but not as hard as here. He can find some jobs.” But I sense he has lost touch with his son who has disappeared into the industrial heartland. I also sense a longing in him as he sets off down the hill, stick in hand idly swishing at the ankle high grass. Or is it my longing? His scrawny, brown dog bounds along a short distance away.
My first seven years were spent mostly on a stony farm, Cotswold, outside the small village of Durbanville near Cape Town. My first language was Polish, which my three older sisters and I spoke amongst ourselves and to our parents as well as in the greater Polish community in the area. My second language was Afrikaans, which I spoke with the workers’ kids as we romped about on the farm.
It was in those early years that I first heard how in mid-September 1939 my uncle, who understood English, was monitoring world events on BBC World Service on the crackling valve radio. He heard that the Russian army had mobilized near the eastern border only ten kilometers away. By that time, the German forces had already invaded western Poland and fleeing refugees were gathering in the area, including the barn and granary on the farm. So, my parents and uncles fled south through Rumania. My mother had packed the old linen, thinking that this was a “little war” and that they would eventually return.
Gradually the realization that there was family treasure buried in faraway and impenetrable communist Eastern Europe became embedded in my childhood psyche. At this time, my mother became mysteriously ill, and I started wetting my bed. This seemed to be a constant point of discussion amongst the many Polish aunts who came to visit. Mama was confined to her shuttered bedroom and I was not allowed to bother her. On my first day of school, she made a big effort to get up from her sickbed to accompany my father in our old Standard Vanguard to the local village seven miles away. I remember her weakly waving from the car window as I trudged down the school driveway to begin my formal education. She died later that year.
In my first year of retirement and after several previous, exploratory visits to Toporowno I arrive again at the farm at lunchtime on an overcast Monday after a bumpy drive along pot-holed roads from Lwów. The big skies, the black earth, geese scattering as we drove through muddy villages, a peasant woman standing staring with her tethered cow, all remind me of Africa. But I am in western Ukraine, formerly Poland, with my twenty-four-year old niece Layla, my late father’s youngest granddaughter. In our group is my Ukrainian-Russian-Polish translator friend, Alina, and her sixteen-year-old son, Marek, who has dyed his hair green. The key person is Taras, the Ukrainian metal detector man whom I had recruited through email correspondence with Alina. He had arrived a few minutes before us.
As I get out of the car, I ask Alina to broach the Ukrainian-speaking Taras so I could cut a deal with him in case we found anything. “No, now is not the right time,” she responds. I never did get around to cutting a deal with Taras, an omission I was later to regret. It is October 2019 and here I am at last in Toporowno to make a final attempt to find the silver buried by my forebears, eighty years previously. The mild autumnal air greets us warmly, the rich earthy odours embrace us. Strangely, I feel that I have come home.
I feel an immediate connection to Taras but he remains an enigma. Like me he is a retired academic. Alina had told me that he is an archaeologist so I assume that he has a permit to explore and dig. Communication is difficult — my Polish is poor, he speaks Ukrainian and Russian — and he seems more keen to talk to Layla, which they do via Google translate. We stroll towards the Dnestr river valley, surveying the terrain as we go along. During my father’s time, this was a cultivated vegetable field. During the communist era it was first cultivated, then abandoned and is now covered with grass and low bush. Taras continues in broken Polish that his academic specialty is medieval archaeology and that he does “Black Archaeology” as a hobby and does not have a permit. He describes how searching for contemporary World War II artefacts is a common practice attracting many illegal hobbyists and amateurs. At our first meeting the previous evening, he had told me that having retired he teaches law at a police college and is an honorary policeman. A retired archaeology academic and a part-time policeman? This seems unusual but I surmise that he teaches legal aspects of archaeological activities including buried treasure.
Taras explains, through Alina, “There are varying classes of ‘specialization’ — some in World War II artefacts, others in 19th and 18th century remnants.” It becomes apparent that different metal detectors are required for different classes of objects from different eras, made of different substances and occurring at different depths. I note that the metal detector Taras is carrying is similar to those that hobbyists use on Cape Town beaches to find lost valuables. That world seems so far away now. I frown, my treasure is likely to be a metre, or more, deep. Again, it occurs to me I have not done my homework thoroughly enough. I regret this.
We reach the edge of the field and gaze at the forested slope and river meandering far below. This is the same view that greeted my father, grandfather and generations before that. I am convinced that the manor house overlooked this magnificent view but as I wander around, I am not able to find the foundations, in particular, the cellar which had been easy on my earlier visits. The terrain has become overgrown with bushes, mainly prickly rosehip. I feel disoriented and anxious. We have allocated at most three days to this project as Alina has to return to her family in Poland by the weekend.
We must locate the foundations of the manor house as the starting point of my father’s broken line. Maybe I am imagining it, but I think I overhear Taras mumbling something about “romantic foreigners” in Ukrainian. I am embarrassed and despondent. We go down the slope towards the forest to do some preliminary exploration with the metal detector. It bleeps a few times but these turn out to be false alarms. I am even more despondent. The first day has been disappointing.
The next morning, we head to the local village school. Maybe we can get more information about the location of the farm buildings from the history teacher. We find ourselves in the principal’s small, crowded office. He is taken aback that there are people from “Africa” here. Initially he seems disinterested, saying that there is no written history of the village and adjoining farm. In any event, he has only been here for the last ten years. He has never heard of the Glazewskis, according to Alina’s translation.
But then he perks up and suggests we talk to some old people in the village. He escorts us down the road and hails an elderly babushka just leaving her friend’s garden with a load of sugar-beet. We engage her in conversation; she beckons her friend who reluctantly emerges in her apron, shyly protesting that she is not dressed to talk to visitors. The surname “Glazewski” certainly strikes a chord and one of them tells us about the “Polish Hill” where the Polish “landlord” lived. I announce that I am the grandson “from Africa” to the somewhat awed audience.
Other curious passers-by join us as we amble down the road past quaint cottages, all with abundant food gardens. A lost-looking, unshaven man in a shabby, hand-me-down suit and grey-white shirt joins the fast-growing throng. I’m reminded of the Pied Piper. All seem to be agreed that we should go to Pani (Mrs) Paulina’s house. She will remember. En route I am offered a handful of walnuts by an elderly lady with whom I chat in broken Polish. Someone mentions that my grandfather “was a good man” repeating the story that the workers pleaded that he be spared from execution when the Bolshevik army arrived, as they had shot other landowners in the district. We eventually reach Pani Paulina’s house. Taras tells her that we are interested in hearing about pre-war life on the farm but does not disclose our underlying agenda. The sprightly 92-year-old recounts that she certainly remembers Pan (Mr) Glazewski; in fact, her late sister worked for him in the kitchen. I am touched to hear that her sister had kept a photograph of my grandfather on her mantelpiece. I wish I could find it.
Pani Paulina is initially reluctant but Taras persuades her to show us around the farm and offers to drive her up the hill. She timidly gets into the car. We make no mention of our real motives but simply say we are trying to locate the old buildings. The man in the shabby suit joins us in the vehicle while others walk the short distance up the gentle hill. He announces that he will take us to the cellar. Pani Paulina dismisses him with a wave of her scrawny hand. While Taras, Alina and I set off, drawn towards the river, to survey land with Pani Paulina, the shabby-suit man indeed makes a beeline through the overgrown shrubs and thorny bushes followed by Layla. As we wander towards the river over the bushy scrubland, Pani Paulina points out in broken Polish, “Here there were vegetables, brussell sprouts, potatoes… and here big watermelons…and there,” in the distance on the slope she points to where my father who had trained in agriculture in France had pioneered planting vineyards in Poland.
After ten minutes, Layla returns, yelling, “We have found the cellar.” She borrows my cellphone to film its interior. This is our big break because having found the cellar, which was under the manor house, we should be able to find remnants of the adjoining yard wall. We contain our excitement and survey the rest of the farm guided by Pani Paulina. She reminisces about the three wars she has been through and points out where a variety of crops and flowers were grown back in the day by my father. Taras eventually offers her a lift back down the hill but she declines and heads home alone. I gaze at her disappearing back; this could be my last connection with someone who was associated with my forebears here on their ancestral land.
Now that we know where the foundations of the house are, Taras and Layla revisit the map for the umpteenth time. Something triggers in Layla’s mind and, bingo, she seems to have discovered the key. She finds remains of the yard wall which serves as the starting point for the dotted line leading across the field and down the slope to the forest, as shown in my father’s map. Although it is late afternoon, we start at this base and, from the broken line on the map, estimate the angle to walk to “where the forest starts”. A few preliminary surveys yield nothing. It is getting late and we retire to our accommodation at a nearby resort. It has been a satisfactory day.
The third and last day dawns. I am not hopeful but am egged on by Layla’s enthusiasm and Taras’ doggedness. I am also encouraged by the fact that he had sourced a second and, apparently, more effective, “radar” metal detector. He introduces “Vasyl, a former student who will assist us”. I do not warm to the thick-necked, voluble Ukrainian.
We locate a protruding foundation stone of the manor’s yard wall. Taras, map in hand, surveys the former “cultivated field”, now bush and brambles, and estimates which angle we should take across the field. My father’s sentence, “On the left side of the pencil drawn map you will see the broken line going from the stone wall,” beats in my head like a mantra. Taras and Layla take the lead over the field which becomes more and more bushy as we approach the slope down to the forest. I gash my hand making my way through the thorny bushes; not good for a haemophiliac. I wrap my hankie around my hand and press on.
The two, metal-detector men and Layla forge their way down the slope heading towards the young undergrowth and beginnings of the forest. I lag behind not wanting to twist my recently replaced ankle or fall in this faraway place. I am aware that I have left my blood-clotting medication behind with my luggage some three hours’ drive away. I hear Taras’ voice below debating how far down the slope we go. I wonder: How can we tell where “the border of the forest but already among the trees” is located, eighty years later? Has the forest receded or has it grown up the hill? Layla recommends that we find the old growth. Taras chooses an arbitrary spot on the supposed line and sensibly announces that he will try 20 metres on each side of it.
I sit down on the damp black earth, carpeted with autumn leaves. I have the feeling that my father and his brothers would not have gone too far down the slope which becomes steeper and more wooded the further down we go. I hear the two metal-detector chaps and Layla further down the slope. I think of Tatusz and ask his guidance. I am convinced that he is here in spirit. A chirping robin lands in the shrubbery nearby. Layla comes up to join me. “Maybe that’s your father sending a sign,” she says. In my musings, I am convinced that the brothers would have wanted to be just out of sight of the farm and any workers. I have a strong sense that I am sitting on “the border of the forest but already among the trees,” even though it’s eighty years later.
Taras explores to the left and moves further down. His radar, metal detector bleeps a few times. It has a deeper sound than the round metal detector. My heart leaps. But these turn out to be false alarms. After twenty minutes or so he signals that he will try on the other side of the imaginary line. I suggest that he comes up the slope nearer to where I have been sitting meditating. He does so and within five minutes, he calls out for the round-based metal detector which Vasyl was randomly trying here and there. We gather around the promising hot spot; my eyes rivetted on the fallen autumn leaves as if I could pierce the secrets below. The bleeping continues. Vasyl announces “maybe a bomb” in his thick Ukrainian accent. I take a step back. Taras takes a shoulder length probe and plunges it into the soft black earth. We hear a dull metallic thud. Could it be? He plunges his archaeological spade into the soft earth, slowly removing the leaves then black soil, layer by layer. Silver speckles start appearing in the black fertile earth, getting larger as they remove the soil.
We see the distinct glint of a metal object in the black earth and lever it into the open. A broken brass candlestick appears. Layla tries to temper my mounting hope and excitement, indicating that “it may not be ours”. Taras continues to dig; Layla and Vasyl jockey for the second spade, competing for turns to remove the soil; Layla gently, and Vasyl not so gently. I watch, my chest pounding as I fumble for my, thankfully, fully charged cell phone.
Next is another candlestick, this time silver. The gleaming silver contrasts with the dark earth. I marvel at what good condition it is in. Later it dawns on me that there was no oxygen underground to tarnish it. More objects and then coins appear. Taras fingers them and throws items into his carry-bag. I am handed a spoon wrapped in yellowing newspaper; the bone handle has perished. I marvel at the fact that the Polish print is still clearly visible and readable. But the newsprint crumbles as soon as I touch it. Layla is now knee-deep in the freshly dug hole and continues to gently remove the soil. She removes a silver goblet, candelabra and then hands me a square, silver jewelry box.
With trembling hands, I gently open it. Inside are some smaller items: a silver milk jug and a much smaller, possibly ebony-encased jewelry holder, inside of which are some trinkets and a striking gold cross embedded with amethyst. I feel a strange sensation in the pit of my stomach. My deep subconscious realization that these were my mother’s has not yet registered. These items were last touched by her, hurriedly packed and placed carefully in a bag which has perished with time. These would have then been carried by my father over the field, down the slope to be quickly buried along with the family silver and his hunting guns. All this buried emotion to be uncovered by me, eighty years later.
We continue to dig and pull out an apparently boundless number of items: silver candlesticks, coffee cups and saucers, cutlery. I take pictures and videos. The wooden cutlery boxes had presumably rotted allowing Layla to scoop out handfuls of teaspoons, spoons, forks and knives. The bone handles of the latter have perished. Most of it is engraved with the family crest though not so much the “Glazewski” crest, but prior generations’ marks. The bulk of the items is engraved “AR”, that is, Adela Romer, my grandmother who had died of Spanish Flu in the late 1920s. She must have brought these into the family as her dowry. The name “Adela” has continued in our family; Layla’s mother as well as my youngest grandniece are both Adela. More coins and also medallions appear. Some seem to come from Roman times, others are inscribed in Arabic, others dated in the 1700s or earlier. I was not aware of any coin collector in the family.
Since making the first find, Vasyl is as excited as a little boy. But as more and more silverware is uncovered, I sense he is flagging and I understand him to say in Ukrainian to Taras, “This belongs to Ukraine, no compensation”. I have heard this phrase before but in my elation, I do not heed the implicit warning. Both men seem infatuated with the lovely Layla and no doubt want to impress her. Her presence tempers what could become a volatile situation.
After about an hour of unearthing things, Layla gasps, “Look Jan….” She hands me a silver christening spoon with my father’s name, “Gustaw”, engraved on it. I plunge it straight into my shirt pocket close to my heart. I am determined to smuggle at least this back home.
We are totally unprepared for such a hoard and have limited bags to lug the bounty to the car. Vasyl and a reluctant Layla walk up the hill, pretending they are lovers, to dump one load into the boot. Taras continues to dig, putting more items into the newly emptied bag. We hit bigger items. These are my father’s rusted hunting guns and knives. His words “you must look for our silver and my hunting guns” reverberate through my head for the millionth time. The realization dawns on me: I have now found them. We then hit bedrock, return the rusted guns and steel hunting knives and a few other items back into the hole and cover them lightly with earth. As we prepare to leave, I feel a sense of completion. I have fulfilled my father’s instructions. What more is there to do? I wish I could tell him. But I feel his spirit is with me amongst the dappled leaves of this forest. And that he knows.
I could never have done this without Layla. She and I walk up the slope, carrying the remaining haul over our shoulders. The sun is setting on our warm backs. Taras is already at the vehicle, his backward glances beckoning us to hurry. Layla is breathlessly talking and in my mind’s eye, I see the ghostly images of my father and his brothers rushing down the slope, bags of family silver over their shoulders. Now eighty years later, we are trudging up the slope with the same silver in our bags.
What now? I am sitting in a Ukrainian man’s car with a load of family silver in the boot. He and Taras are no doubt wondering what their share of the loot will be. But I have my father’s engraved christening spoon in my shirt pocket.