Photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Edward Knab June 14, 2006
One time I was watching my mother crush left over pieces of dried bread into breadcrumbs. She'd gather the odd bits into a paper bag until they were completely dried out and when she needed breadcrumbs she'd pull out her wooden bread board and rolling pin. Bread was considered something sacred at our house. It was never wasted and if a piece of bread happened to fall on the floor she taught us to pick it up and kiss it. In apology for being careless with it? In gratitude for its presence in our lives? Perhaps for all of these reasons and my mother was the most fervent in this action.
The action of crushing crusts of dried bread into usable breadcrumbs tended to generate a lot of memories for my mama especially the scarcity of bread, not just during the war, but while growing up as well. Her mother had kept it under lock and key and parceled it out carefully to make sure that what she baked lasted a whole week.
The really hardened pieces of bread that wouldn't give under the rolling were covered with a clean dishcloth and attacked with a hammer. She was really whacking at the bread one day when she told me how, during the occupation of Poland, while she was living and working in Kraków, she wanted to send bread to her sister Hanka who was imprisoned in Auschwitz - not too great a distance from herin terms of miles yet impossible to reach through the barbed wire.
"The loaf of bread had to be completely dried in order not to spoil before it reached her," she tells me, "as well as the piece of sausage. The package could only weigh so many ounces including the wrapping paper, the string and the food. I remember I had to pay in reichmarks which were hard to come by." I can see her now, bringing that hammer down on the bread. I was what? 12? 13 years old? but it was a story I heard often.
Fast forward some fifty years. It's 2006 and I am at Auschwitz, at the archives located on the grounds. I am trying to find information about my Ciocia (aunt) Hanka, my mother's sister, the one who spent almost two years in Auschwitz, the one to whom my mother sent dried bread. We are cordially met by a female archivist who is very kind and very helpful, producing a letter that my aunt wrote to her family while at Auschwitz. The archivist tells me she was among those who were death marched from Auschwitz westward towards Germany to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in the closing weeks of the war. She explains to me what it was to be in a death march in January of 1945: freezing cold with a single blanket for warmth; marching on foot, then packed into cattle cars and again by foot; little or no food, no place to sleep except barns or the open sky; prisoners who can't keep up and/or those attempting to escape are shot on the spot; it's a distance of some 500 miles. It's a miracle she survived, she tells me gently, seeing me fight back tears.
When we take our leave, the archivist sees us to the door and as we emerge outside I catch site of men in full Górale folk dress carrying the Polish flag and banners as if having marched in a parade. I ask the archivist what was going on and she tells me: "Today is the 66th anniversary of the first transport of Polish political prisoners to arrive at Auschwitz from the city of Tarnów in 1940. The first major group of people to be imprisoned at this concentration camp were Poles, not Jews, and survivors and their families have come to commemorate the event." Most of the prisoners brought in that day were from the southern region of Poland, including people who from the mountain region, called górale.
It was June 14, 2006. That we were there on this important day was not planned but I doubt I'll ever forget the day. Through the information I received at the archives I found out that my aunt also arrived at Auschwitz via the Kraków-Tarnów line of transport as a political prisoner three years later in January of 1943. In addition, in the one letter she was allowed to send home to her family in 1944, she writes, " Everything you have sent me, I received, and in good condition..." and I think of my mother hammering at crusts of bread and the value of a loaf of dried bread.
Lately I've been taken with the notion of planting a Midsummer Garden, and call it ogród Kupalnocka, or ogródek Świętojanskie, a garden that celebrates the key herbs and plants that played an important role in the ancient summer solstice celebrations of Poland.
I always find it amazing to read about those long, long ago days, when on the longest day and shortest night of the year, ancient people paid homage to the gods of fire, water and vegetation; how they lit huge bonfires on mountaintops, along the valleys and river banks, and danced around the fires, staying up to greet the rising sun; where young maidens collected plants and herbs while dancing naked in the evening dew and then wove wreathes that were floated on water as homage to their god; and how specific plants collected on this night were felt to have special power for both healing and magical purposes, to do good or to do evil. It was a night celebrated by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Druids, Vikings as well as Germanic and Slavic tribes. The Latvians call it Jāņi ( Jan or John). The Poles call it Noc Świętojanska, the eve of St. John the Baptist, a name given to this night after the advent of Christianity, but the old names of Sobótka( for the fires that burned that night) or Kupalnocka(the night of the ancient god Kupala) persisted for centuries afterward.
At the center of the garden would be elderberry(Sambucus nigra). In Polish it is known as bez czarny or dziki bez czarny, the wild black lilac to differentiate it from the other lilac (Syringa vulgaris) and was also called bez lekarski, i.e., medicinal elderberry, to indicate its healing properties. It's a tall lovely shrub with large white flowers that eventually turn into the small, purple elderberries that is used to make syrup or wine. It was seen as both a holy and demonic tree, both magical and medicinal, untouchable except under certain conditions. Planted near the home it was believed protective of the house and its inhabitants. Wherever it grew, in an established garden or in the wild, it wasn't to be dug out or it branches cut without courting death or other grave consequences. It's roots were not to be disturbed. In those early days when little was known about the causes of illness and it was felt that an illness could be "transferred" to some other object, children who were sick were placed on the ground under the tree while the parents chanted:
"Święty bzie, weź moje bolenie
pod swoje zdrowe korzenie."
Holy elderberry, take my hurt
Into your healthy roots
Gathered on the eve of the summer solstice it had super powers to heal. The juice from the berries was especially beneficial for coughs. It would pull away the inflammation from infected wounds when the leaves were mixed with chalk and applied to the wounds. Salves were made to treat the pain of rheumatism. If one was to gather its branches for medicinal and healing purposes, it had to be done, according to folk belief, in complete silence.
The single most important plant that should be in this garden is mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris). It's Polish name is bylica. My guess is that you've seen this plant growing around roadsides and empty fields and not given it a second look. I always find it growing around abandoned railroad tracks. It grows 3 to 4 feet high, and is not very showy but it was at one time considered one of the oldest and most esteemed of herbs, woven into both witchcraft and healing practices of Poland. Sixteenth century herbals claimed it could break all spells and later herbals in the 20th century documented its continued use to incense against spells and the evil eye. On St. John's Eve branches of mugwort were hung over doors, windows and tucked into eaves against evil souls and witches; girls would run out at dawn to pluck mugwort to throw into the midsummer fires and to wear around the waist in the belief that their backs would not hurt during the harvest or around their head to keep away headaches.
It's also doubtful you'll find the next plant at your local nursery but it's easy enough to recognize growing wild in the fields because of its small yellow flowers. When you crush the flower it bleeds red on your fingertips. The plant was so much part of this night it received the name ziele świętojanskie (herb of St.John) or St. John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum). In Polish it is called dziurawiec, or dzwonki Panny Marii (bells of the Blessed Mother). Hung in the window it protected the house against lightning. A tea made from the buds of this plant assisted in many illnesses of the gastrointestinal tract, the liver as well as the respiratory tract. It's red color was believed to heal internal bleeding and clear the blood.
The herb arnica (Arnica Montana ) or Arnica Górska growing in the hills and mountain tops of Poland is often called by its more ancient folk name of kupalnik, from the ancient god Kupala. It bears a lovely yellow, daisy-like flower. It was one of the herbs that young girls (now with their clothes back on) wove into the wreaths for their hair and around their waist along with mugwort. St. John's Wort, and thyme and danced around the fire, occasionally throwing in a stem or branch from each of the herbs in order to stave off any evil.
There are numerous other herbs plants that could be included in this garden. Wormwood (piołun) also effective against witches; lovage (lubczyk) and adder's tongue (nasięźrzał) for love potions; chamomile (rumianek) to help me sleep at night; mint(mięte) for a soothing tea.
I know it will be too late to have anything substantial for this year's Sobótka but for me, my garden always seems to be about "next year" anyway, i.e., next year I'll plant earlier, next year it's going to look great, next year maybe we won't have as many rabbits, and so on. I doubt very much that I'll be dancing naked in the evening dew as I collect my plants but next year I'll have some herbs and plants to throw into the midsummer fire.
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.