Digging for Family Roots in Uzbekistan
When his family had been deported from their homes in eastern Poland in 1940, my dad was only 9 years old. He saw his father for the last time in his home village of Niechniewicze (now in Belarus) when he had been taken into custody by Soviet forces and transported to Siberia. Only recently my dad, who is in his late seventies, learned through military archives that his father had succumbed to typhoid in 1942 and had been buried in the military cemetery of Kermine, now renamed Navoi in central Uzbekistan. Having read so much about the Silk Road and seen the incredible images of Samarkand and Bukhara, the chance to travel to these fabled cities and investigate some of my heritage was too good to pass by.
He had lain here for 66 years and had finally received his first visitor.
And so, on a warm Sunday morning, my wife and I set out from Bukhara station for the town of Navoi. We had enjoyed the wonders of Bukhara the day before; the narrow lanes, the madrassahs, the ornate mosques dressed in beautiful majolica tiles and the agreeable buzz of a place that has occupied an important strategic place for many centuries and is now a sleepy town, welcoming to all who make their way to admire its well preserved treasures. Samarkand before that had also exceeded its promise – imposing architecture on a scale that could only have been commissioned by an unlimited supply of money and labour. Both cities provided a wonderful insight into the past, to a time when this region was the centre of the trading world.
We had set off early, in full anticipation of a day of hard work, searching, asking, retracing our steps, and with no certainty of a positive outcome. The journey to Navoi took an hour, and as we neared Navoi I scanned the landscape for any signs that might help us.
We disembarked to some suspicious glances. A number of Westerners used the train, mainly to travel between the two popular cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. None of them got off at Navoi however. In a country where the state makes it their business to know the whereabouts of every visitor (and likely every native) we were not following expected behaviour and as such attracted a degree of interest from those at the station.
Navoi is a small city that was developed largely in the 1960s and was an important military production site in the latter years of the Soviet Union. It remained closed to visitors until the mid 1990s, and even now holds little of interest to break the journey between the famous, historic cities that sit 100km on either side of it.
Our first plan was to retrace the road back to a Russian cemetery that we had seen from the train. It wasn’t far, and would be a good place to start our wild goose chase. We followed the road for around 5 minutes, and then turned down what seemed to be a deserted street that led towards the tracks. It was still only around 9.15 and there was no-one in sight. As we rounded the corner at the end of the lane, my heart skipped a beat. We could see in the distance what appeared to be small walled enclave. I had read another account of a visit to a Polish cemetery in this part of the world and this looked familiar.
We approached with a mix of excitement and disbelief – surely this search that we had fully expected to take a whole day couldn’t be over in less than 15 minutes? The plaque on the wall by the entrance gate confirmed that we had struck lucky at the first attempt!
I stood for a while taking in what we had found. Was it really here that my grandfather had been laid to rest? The grandfather I had never known, who my father had only known for 9 years of his childhood. It was a peaceful place. Maybe the calm of early morning added to the tranquillity of our surroundings, but even two young boys playing on their bikes couldn’t shatter the ethereal serenity of this small plot, which held the remains of over 400 Polish military and civilian casualties. These souls had not died in the torment of the battlefield, but had succumbed to a deadly combination of typhoid, dysentery, heat and malnutrition.
We started to investigate the name boards, which were listed alphabetically. I looked along the board where I wanted to find my grandfather’s name with some excitement, and it was a feeling of relief and satisfaction that I found it there. We had succeeded in our quest!
I stopped at the point along the mass grave where I figured he was buried and stood for a while, lost in my thoughts for my grandfather. He had lain here for 66 years and had finally received his first visitor. And for my dad, who finally knew where his father had been laid to rest. He would take comfort from the care and dedication that had been taken in preserving this special place, so that the brave men, women and children who had suffered so much at that time would not be forgotten.
It was then time to return to Bukhara. As there were no trains for another 6 hours, we hitched a ride from the main road. Every car in Uzbekistan is a potential taxi, and sure enough we were soon picked up by a guy who eventually squeezed seven into his small saloon car! He flew along at over 140 km/h, and my only comfort in the back was the thought that the dense packing of bodies in the car might cushion us in a crash.
This was an experience that brought much pleasure to my family, who experienced my journey by proxy. We now know where my grandfather is buried, and hopefully others will follow where I have trodden a path. From a personal perspective, not only did I find an important link to my family, but I also experienced an exciting day in small town Uzbekistan, and saw a part of the country that may not be beautiful, but that is fascinating to the outsider. There are many further gaps in my family’s history, where people have been deported and travelled as refugees. Russia waits, as do Kazakhstan and Iran. This journey has only whet my appetite for these future adventures.
I would encourage anyone out there who is interested in following up their family roots to make a trip to the places where their parents and grandparents have been. Especially if these relatives are elderly, you will not only provide them with great comfort but more importantly you will ensure a link between your family’s valuable past and its future. Do it while those who can guide you are still around!