Michal Wolosiewicz was born in the Russian empire, grew up in Poland, spent the war in Nazi Germany and his adulthood in the Soviet Union. When I met him, in the fall of 1991, he was an elderly citizen of the independent republic of Belarus.
Yet during all that time, Pan Michal — Mr. Michal, as his wife and everybody else called him — had never left his village: The borders had moved, but his small white thatched house had stayed in place. Rulers had come and gone, invaders had been and left, official languages had been declared and then banished. But Pan Michal, a poet by vocation, still spoke in Polish — and often communicated in rhymed couplets as well:
“Do they know our pain, in their Warsaw souls,
When they tell us that we are not Poles?”
Pan Michal had never been to what we now call Poland — the lands to the west of Poland’s post-World War II borders — but he felt deeply Polish nevertheless. Someday he would visit Warsaw, he told me, but what was the hurry? He’d already been published there. He showed me a scrappy leaflet entitled “Songs from the East,” published by the Society of Eastern Poles.
For him, Poland was a state of mind, not a place. Pan Michal didn’t need to see its capital, he didn’t need to visit its cathedrals, he didn’t even need to spend much time with Poles (and there weren’t any, aside from him, in his Belarusan village). “Poland is here, too,” he explained. “Poland is still here.”
As a child, Pan Michal had sometimes brought food to a blind old woman, and one day she had told him an incredible story. When only a girl, she had been a servant on an estate near the village, where the countess, a sour old woman, had made a strong impression on her. During the day, the countess wandered her estate, picking flowers and twisting them into garlands as a young girl would. In the evenings, she played the popular songs of her youth on her ancient harpsichord. Everyone said she had been unhappily married, that she pined for someone else.
Pan Michal realized that the countess was none other than Maryla, the heroine of the greatest love affair in Polish literature. He asked for more details. The blind old woman told him of a special place on the estate, a small cluster of trees, inside of which was a large stone. At that stone, Maryla had arranged long ago, in the summer of 1818, to meet her lover, Adam Mickiewicz. Pan Michal listened raptly: Like himself, Mickiewicz was a poet; in fact, he was Poland’s most famous and beloved national poet. Mickiewicz was also a man of indeterminate, borderland heritage. Mickiewicz wrote in Polish — but he began his most famous poem with the line, “Lithuania, my fatherland!” As a child, Mickiewicz probably spoke the Belarusan dialect of his village — but his mother may well have been a convert from Judaism.
Pan Michal took me to see the stone. As we walked, he pointed out the other local landmarks: The forest where the anti-Nazi resistance fighters, and later the anti-Soviet resistance fighters, had hidden from the authorities; Maryla’s estate, since 1945 a collective farm; the cemetery where Maryla was buried, along with the man who became her husband instead of Mickiewicz (he, too, was a borderland figure, a Lutheran of German descent). Pan Michal had written and memorized poems about all of these places, and he recited them along the way.
But when we reached the stone, he fell silent. It was not an unusual stone at all, just a big and rather flat granite rock that lay in a little clearing, surrounded by small bushes and dry pine needles. Nothing about it was much worth noticing — except that in the very center of its flat surface, someone had carved the sign of the cross.
Or rather, someone had sat, day after day, using a smaller stone or perhaps a penknife, and etched, over and over, the sign of the cross. Months or even years had been spent patiently carving the two deep lines into the granite. After a long moment of silence, Pan Michal began to recite:
Already, another century is coming to an end.
But in our Fatherland,
And everywhere that Polish is spoken,
The name of Maryla,
Like a refrain
Will always be heard.
In that tiny Belarusan village, I understood that borders, and national identities, can be as fluid as the human imagination itself.