DRIVING past the sign proclaiming IWONICZ-ZDROJ, the spa in the Carpathian Mountains in south eastern Poland, I was visited by a mixture of curiosity and dread. Iwonicz -- the seat of the House of Zaluski since 1799, when my great-great-great grandfather Teofil bought it and began to exploit the rich, natural springs emanating from the forest-clad hills. Our family, now spread throughout Poland, England and Denmark, have been making legal noises to reclaim our properties, stolen by the Communists after the war.
I was named after Iwonicz -- or to be precise, I was named after an ancestor of questionable reputation who was named after Iwonicz. My brief was thus given to me at my baptism in the timber village church: to cover up the old rascal's bad name. The chance never materialised -- at least, not in Poland; when I was six months old the Germans and the Russians carved up my country. My parents gathered me up in the early hours of September 4th, 1939, and we fled.
I was brought up and educated in England, became anglicised, and married an English wife. I visited Poland as a tourist in August 1968, and watched the tanks rumbling south to smash Dubcek's Prague Spring. I did Iwonicz on a day trip out of Krakow, out of curiosity.
Iwonicz was a dump, in the same way as all of Communist Poland was a dump. Very pretty centre, working spa, good sanatoriums, lovely countryside, but a dump nevertheless. I went to see my father's house, Belweder -- a sixteen-roomed, timber manor with verandas and outside staircases, set on a thickly wooded hillside overlooking the village. I took a photograph only because it seemed like the right thing to do. As I say, I was anglicised and young.
Middle age, however, does bring on a tendency to look over one's shoulder at the past; to reflect and re-assess life's values. Have I fulfilled my baptismal brief, and made the name of Iwo synonymous with redemption? I turned right round and stared into the dim and distant past -- at my roots. Could my heritage, for so long just a vague dream in someone else's consciousness, now become a reality once more?
I started buying calendars featuring Polish painters, and acquired CDs of Karlowicz and Szymanowski. I found secondhand editions of Sienkiewicz in the original from the Oxfam shops of Ealing and brushed up my rusty and accented Polish. I made my wife use dill in just about everything she cooked. I bought an antique map of 18th century Poland -- when it stretched from the Baltic to the Ukraine, framed it and hung it in the sitting room, beside a freshly resurrected and framed greeting signed by Paderewski, which had been given to me by an admirer after I had played Chopin's Revolutionary Etude at a school concert.
I re-edited the family tree that my father had spent years compiling when he re-emigrated to Poland. It goes back to 1435. It set me dreaming about epic family sagas like in all those blockbusters. Romance, adventure, revolution, heroes, villains: it was all there, and it was real. General Jozef, sentenced to death -- mercifully in his absence -- by the Russians for his revolutionary activities; Andrzej, Bishop of Krakow and avid bibliophile, who has a chapel and a statue in Wawel Cathedral; his brother Jozef, who pooled his books with Andrzej's and helped institute the largest and finest library in 18th century Warsaw; the imposing Karol, who married the enigmatic Princess Amelia Oginska, with whom he turned Iwonicz into one of eastern Europe's most fashionable watering holes. There were Maltese knights, papal prelates, warriors, and the usual sprinkling of villains -- among them old Iwo, of whom nothing is known beyond a bad press handed down by word of mouth.
Thereby doubtless hangs a tale. Maybe I'll write it one day.
I decided to take my wife Pamela to show her the Land of my Forebears, and to follow the Chopin trail with research on a further book on the composer's travels in mind. …