ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

A Bit of Poland in Turkey

A small village in Turkey adheres to its Polish roots.

As you travel east of the Bosporus where it flows swiftly between Europe and Asia at Istanbul, the typical Muslim villages of Turkey follow one after the other. Slim minarets rise over tiled roofs, oldsters sit at their backgammon boards in the teahouses, women in ample pantaloons go to and from the public fountain in village squares.

Go further east still, over rolling moors of bracken and scrub oak, and pause on a hilltop where you may hear the unmistakable sound of a church bell pealing in the distance. No great highway brings travelers here, only a country road that passes through neatly fenced fields and leads at last to farm buildings of unfamiliar shape, their thatched roofs overhanging walls of rough clapboard and plastered brick and stone. Heavy vines run over roofs and pergolas of cottages where a confusion of turkeys, geese and tow-headed children scurry and play in picket-fenced yards. In the center of the village, wisterias ramble over the veranda of the community teahouse where a fat and gleaming samovar can be seen through bright window panes. Marble crosses in the village cemetery bear the names of local families: Wilkoszewski, Dohoda or Minakewski, and some of the stones there display a white eagle with outspread wings. Over everything, very near now, floats the strong, clear sound of a bell ringing from a high church tower.

The church is that of St. Mary of Czestochowa, Poland’s beloved “Black Madonna.” Tapers burn inside, and by their light, if you know the language of the villagers, you can read slips of paper with words on them asking the blessing of the “Queen of Poland.” Men and women gathered in the halflight of the church offer up prayers in Polish, the language of a country most of them have never seen. And the white eagle on the crosses in the village burial ground is the same one chosen by Poland’s first king for his emblem.

Here in Turkey, at peace with itself and with the Muslim society that surrounds its fertile farmlands on every side, is Polonezkoy, “Village of the Poles,” the only wholly Christian village in the country.

What is a village of Catholic Poles doing here in the East? The answer is simple, but altogether strange. A century and a half ago, when Poland rose up against the czar, and later still, in the Crimean War, Poles found themselves scattered over the face of the earth, exiles for freedom’s sake.

Turks, too, defending what was left of a dwindling and weakened Ottoman Empire, were marching off to far battlefields to wage war against the common antagonists of Poles and Turks, the armies of the czar. In their patriotic fervor, it seemed natural for Poles in exile to lend their lances to the might of Turkey, which was itself afflicted by the great imperial power of the north. The Sultan welcomed the magnificent cavalry of Poland, cossacks and dragoons, to ride with him against the czar.

In that long time ago, a Polish aristocrat and head of a Polish government-in-exile, Prince Adam Czartorysky, bought from the French Lazarists at Constantinople 500 hectares of wooded land beyond the Bosporus, a haven for Poles yearning to till soil they could call their own. The settlement was at first called Adampol – “Adam’s Town” – and Sultan Abdulmecit would later on confirm the Poles in the ownership of the land, as veterans of the Uprising of 1830, and then of the Crimean War, swelled the ranks of the villagers.

From the start, the Poles set about turning the forested landscape into a replica of the Polish motherland they had left behind. They had brought with them their language and all its rich folklore and tales of Polish heroism. They had carried with them their memories of Polish architecture and ways of farming, which they would imitate here in the East. And they brought with them something else, something that was as necessary to them as their ancient tongue and their staunch patriotism: the Catholic faith. Down through the years, generation passed to generation the steady flame of their Christianity.

The villagers of Polonezkoy were never, in either the Polish or the Turkish sense, simple farmers, though they have the true farmer’s fierce love of the land. Descendants of soldiers and intellectuals, they were a proud and self-reliant people who bowed to no man, and their women rode horses and hunted the wild boar as well as their sons and husbands. They made everything from sausages to wodka at home in the old Polish way, raised livestock, searched the woodlands for wild mushrooms, made borscht as they had always done, and danced to the old Polish tunes played on accordions. In song and in speech, the mother tongue, Polish, has never been forgotten, though all the villagers speak Turkish fluently.

The land itself looked from the start as it does even now, like the rural Poland of a century ago. But time has brought changes. With the felling of the deep forest, the bears have all gone. The land is tamer. Only now and then, when winters are especially hard, does a solitary wolf howl its hunger from an icy ridge over the snow-covered town. And the wide world beyond Polonezkoy beckons to its youth.

Filip Wilkoszewski, head of a Polonezkoy family, stands in the village graveyard which is a testament to the past, and talks about the future. Looking at the crosses with their Polish names, Filip says simply, “I shall stay with the village, with the land.” His son Modest looks beyond the graves of Polonezkoy where the wind rises off the moors to blow leaves among the crosses, and sees some place far distant. “I will leave the village,” he says, “and go away from Polonezkoy.” The father will stay where the sacred ground guards the dust of the Polish cossacks. The son will go.

Where only a decade ago horses and wagons still carried the pork and produce of the village to city markets, automobiles run swiftly now, bringing tourists that are a mainstay of the village economy, but also bringing new ways and lately even new settlers, city folk who establish a weekend retreat for tourists or even a rich man’s holiday villa. Graduating from the tiny village grammar school, the youth of Polonezkoy enroll in high schools in Istanbul, yesterday’s Constantinople, now a city of more than four million souls. To some, even Istanbul is not fulfillment enough for spirits excited by the influence of television or by emigrants’ tales of even greater cities in Europe or America. Shops and factories, laboratories and classrooms abroad offer a challenge that the village can no longer match in a mechanized and electronic world.

Yet to some, Polonezkoy gives security and returns love for love in a way that cannot be found beyond its moors and woodlands. These, like Filip Wilkoszewski, will remain, no matter how different the world becomes. And Polonezkoy will live on.

But whatever changes, one thing will remain the same. Rising over the village, the church dedicated to the Black Madonna of the Poles will continue to remind the world that once, long ago, Poland in exile found refuge in the East, found friendship and peace in the land of the Muslim Turks.

Charles E. Adelsen, an American journalist, lives in Istanbul and writes frequently about the Middle East.

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