Priests and Witches on Polish Border (Part 2)

Orthodox Church in Stary Kornin. Photo by Olesja Sekeresh

If Part 1 of this story is about witches and modern folklore of Podlesie on the border between Poland and Belarus, this part is all about people, beautiful, insane, enthusiastic or all of the above.

I stopped at the point where two Ukrainians (i.e. me and Lesia) took bicycles to the village of Stary Kornin. Halfway into the village we saw a wooden church. It was sky blue and surrounded by an old graveyard. All the engravings were in Russian, and all of them had not just the same year, but the same exact day of death. 1944, WWII. There was that big mystery, the deeply personal story of a small place that we came here for.

Lesia said that a priest probably lives nearby. And although me being an atheist and Lesia — a catholic was a risky business going to an orthodox priest, we knocked on the next door house and saw a man about thirty with the kind of beard too long for a hipster, the beard only religion can explain. The young priest was busy alone with his multiple kids, and anyway this whole “art project” sounded like a shady business to him. He said we should go across the street to talk to “batjushka”. Now batiushka (or “father” in Old Slavic) lived like a king. At first we thought it could be a townhall or a club. His house was three times the size of any building we’d seen so far including the church, and there were so many doors we couldn’t wrap our heads where to knock.

As it often happens with big houses, front porch was not used. We did some heavy knocking and soon saw a hefty woman whose fingers were covered in golden rings. It was “matushka” for sure (priest’s wife). She looked out of the window and asked what we needed:

Batjushka is not home. Who are you?

We told about art project, and the woman gave us batjushka’s phone number. Luckily the man himself drove into the parking lot as we were trying to leave. Batjushka made a view worth seing (but not making photos of, which was clearly indicated). It was the whole mountain of religion. A grandiose rablesian statue with all the paraphernalia, crosses, hats and everything. He’d just came from confession-at-home type of thing.

Batjushka looked at us full of well reasoned suspicion. I think he could smell herecy in the air. However the fact that we were Ukrainians (“or Belorussians, whatever”) led him to some sort of a light misunderstanding. He reasonably assumed that we belonged to the orthodox “kindred” and offered to show church from the inside the next morning. I recognized a market spirit by the way he said that later we would be able to buy books and magazines, maybe even an icon at the church shop. To the question about the churchyard batjushka waved “later” and directed us to works of a certain professor.

Mystery of the church graveyard? Ask locals. Photo by Olesja Sekeresh

We rode back in cold winter twilight. But the day wasn’t over. On our way back to Stare Beresovo, the home of world traveler Eva, our couchsurfing host, Lesia saw a small rectangular kiosk lit from the inside.

We thought it was a “sklep” (small shop), or sauna, or a local pub, and what a better place to gather info? The building turned out to be “mlecharnya”. Place where locals come to give away milk for sale. And the heart of social life. When we asked in a broken pseudo polish, what this place was, a busy fifty-something woman looked surprised. And then she answered in Ukrainian, (“та то є млечарня, розумієте”).

“So you speak Ukrainian”, laughed Lesia.

The woman shook her had, “no, it’s our local language, we call it “gwar””.

Having heard that Stare Beresovo could become a media-art-famous spot the woman quickly directed us to several local “wise men”. Together we travelled to another mlecharnya, where the woman introduced us to a relative of some man called “Grishka Moroz. And he knows everything about these places”. The woman wasn’t only a source of information, but a trained interviewer too:

“By the way, where did you stay, girls?”

Here, with Eva

Eva who?” We explained and it turned out woman was Eva’s godmother.

Relatives sprang up at every corner. In twenty minutes we met all Eva’s distant aunts and uncles. “Mlecharnya” in Stare Berezovo turned out a vibrant place. We met another Grishka’s relative, but he couldn’d dictate us his phone number:

I can’t read the number, cause in my phone I see him as just “grisha””.

Then take them to him right away.” Reasonably said our patron woman. She was amazingly persistent and in another life had to be a major or a cult leader, because everyone did just what she told. Surrounded by 10 people on bicycles we rode to Grishka’s place and arranged to meet the next day.

On the way we asked Grisha’s wife’s brother if he knew local songs and he gave us a diamond. A song about Ukrainians that can’t be subjected to translation, but hints at Ukrainian wealth and messy young girls:

“Розпрягайте, хлопці, коней та курку хохлату
Поїдемо на Україну по дівку багату
В Україні хата гарна та жито рясніє
Мати шлкянки миє, а донька не вміє”.

At the dinner it turned out that our host Eva had another couchsufer-esque guest from Israel, Liam, and he wanted to go to the church the next morning with us.

I joked to Lesia, that it could be an epic beginning to an anecdote: “a Jew, a catholic and an atheist come to an orthodox priest”.
Snowstorm came together with the heretics.

We knew right away batjushka was not the man to leave our belief systems alone. I was too desperate for the churchyard story and created an intricate lie of my supposed christening as a baby. From the look on his face it was clear that batjushka didn’t bought a single piece of my tale. He also immediately understood that Lesia was catholic to the bones. When he found out Liam was from Israel, his face faded the most. I looked at Lesia and sighed. But then something strange happened, as Liam added:

Anyway I’m orthodox”.

The news made Batjushka extremely delighted, and he let us in the church. He carefully inspected Liam’s broken cross, advising a gold-shop in Hajnuwka. Then saw Liam’s earring:

“Listen, my child, don’t take it as an offence, because it is my lesson to you. But have you ever seen on icons men with earrings? No? And you know why? Because it’s a demon’s doings”.

Liam answered that his personal batjushka in St Petersburg never said anything of that sort.

Well, somebody had to. And that somebody is me.” He wanted to continue, but the snowstorm was coming and we wanted to learn about the graveyard and get out. It was clear that we were not buying icons, which made batjushka as tired of the meeting as we were cold.

“About graveyard, yes, it was a tragedy, all these people are martyrs. I don’t know the details though. Ask locals.”

And so we did. Liam, the orthodox Israeli, took off in his car, leaving locals wonder, whether he was mafiosi on top of everything else. In Russia he got his number plate stolen (“Some people think it cool to have EU number plate on their walls or something”).

Getting closer to the story. Photo made by Olesja Sekeresh

After a short stop at Eva’s aunts where we witnessed the birth of a small calf, we went to Grisha’s house at last. Grisha was an old man with a kind intelligent face, good sense of humour and a matching wife. In a warm family kitchen we were immediately offered tea and biscuits.

Do you still have the pictures you made yesterday?” Asked Grisha’s wife out of the blue.


This woman from yesterday, Glasha, washed a bucket there, and our head of mlecharnya said its not allowed. So she’s very worried you’ll publish it and it’s not allowed”.

Lesia smirked, “oh, sure, sure, don’t worry anyway they weren’t good pictures, light was no good”.

Anyway”, Glasha said she will be “looking out for you and come by”. And not two minutes past Glasha did come by. Having interrupted our tape recording as Grisha talked about 1944 tragedy. Glasha came in, sat in the corner and immediately pointed out that she “didn’t want to interrupt”. Then told us about her photoshoot restrictions and just as suddenly took off.

Meanwhile Grisha remembered. It was 1944, Soviet army was chasing Germans back “to Berlin”. One brigade of Soviets went before the main troops and got in the loop. Germans didn’t hurry up. As Grisha said,

You know, famous German pedantism, always getting clean and taking time to wash their boots, they didn’t notice Soviets at once. And then Soviets hid behind those railway wagons, they shoot back and eventually fled to Belovezskaya Pusha”.

In the conflict between two sides no matter what the outcome — locals always suffer. Photo by Olesja Sekeresh

After seeing Soviets, Germans suspected local population in hiding partisans (they didn’t know Soviets were regular army). Half of the village population was shot the same day.

Germans knew that is was an orthodox region, so they made it out of spite really, they took dozen of our locals and executed them. They didn’t let people bury the bodies. But you know, it’s not human. So some of the locals came up to the churchyard and started digging graves. When Germans saw, they, they just did it out of spite, just with cruelty. Made those who tried to bury bodies dig more graves, then shot diggers and pushed over in the graves”.

After the war relatives made those crosses. There was one guy who survived by accident (Germans took him for the dead and left in a common grave). He told me he was lying quietly in the grave, then at night crawled out and kneeled to the Pusha too. There were, he said, about thirty corpses. Then Soviets came and chased Germans away”.

The air in Grisha’s small kitchen was heavy with silence and kettle steam. His wife made tea, Lesja decided to change the subject:

What about your story?

My story? Oh I don’t have any, what story I would have!

Grisha was definitely on defense. When he was telling about Germans his daughter walked in. Middle aged woman who was smiling a child smile, that naive expression characteristic of a down syndrome. We knew because me and Lesia both at one or other time worked in the facilities for disabled.

Was there a day that completely changed your life?” asked Lesia.

Grisha laughed:

Oh, when I got married to this insufferable woman”. An angel of a woman Grisha’s wife smiled with irony from the corner.

Before we left Lesja took a promise from Grisha that next time he’ll sing her an old lullaby. Grisha’s wife promised to introduce Lesia to their cousin, “an old witch”, and with this promise in the cold snowy spring day we left.

As the snow receded Eva urged us to Pusha park before it would grow dark. She dropped at her mothers, bringing us two chicken wings and two pieces of homemade cake “for the road”.

We walked around deserted Pusha park, jumped on the next bus to Bialystock. After a short visit to a local gallery “Arsenal” filled with elegant women who were “super eager” to help,we returned to Warsaw. Lesja had a lot of stories to discover. I was left wondering about “gwar”, people’s mentality, religion, many things I didn’t think of when I looked at Eiffel Tower.

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