|Storks in Nacmierz|
NACMIERZ, POLAND I reached Nacmierz through a narrow winding rutty paved road lined with elm trees. A sign indicated I had arrived, but there was no store, no gas station, no school, no church, no cemetery, just a row of houses, barns, and sheds surrounded by wheat fields and groves of trees, with an occasional hunting blind. Two storks were grazing on the side of the road and high above, on an electrical post, two more were tending their nest. I pulled over to take a picture of the storks as some young kids walked by. "Is this Nacmierz," I asked. They didn't understand me. I repeated the name slowly, pointing to the ground. "Tak, Tak, Nacmierz," the older girl excitedly responded. So I found it, the birthplace of Martin Vehlow, my great + grandfather, who, with his wife Christine, and their four children, had emigrated from this very town in 1853 to settle in Watertown, Wisconsin.
What prompted them to leave? There's little in the way of the Nacmierz landscape that would distinguish it from the countryside around Watertown. Were the Poles giving them trouble? At the time of Martin's birth in 1810 the town was called by its German name, Natzmershagen, but at the time of their last child's birth in 1850 it was known by its Polish name Nacmierz. Maybe it was the land reforms that Frederick William III, then King of Prussia, had implemented strongly strengthening the patrimonial privileges of landlords. Maybe it was the doctrinal church reforms the same King imposed that would have watered down the family's conservative articles of faith. Or maybe it was the massive amount of advertising in German papers that towns like Watertown were doing to attract settlers? We have no record of their reasoning, but their discontent and hopes for a better life were clearly strong enough for them to leave everything, undertake a 54-day cross-Atlantic journey, and start a new life, perhaps not exactly as Americans, but as German Lutherans in America.
Just four kilometers from Nacmierz, on the Baltic coast, is Jaroslaweic, surreal, in contrast to the stark ruralness of this entire region, a 50s like beach resort town, with kitsch laden shops, ice cream stands, snack bars, and hoards of flip-flopping, kids schlepping parents - beach towels and air floats of every imaginable configuration in tow. By their language and dress, the beachgoers didn't come from far, perhaps from Slawno or Slupsk, the two largest nearby towns. I wondered if anything like this existed when the Vehlows lived here and whether in leaving it had caused any regrets. I know how strong an attraction the ocean has for our own family. It would be difficult to leave Montara. I wished I could have lingered awhile, absorbing this idyllic throwback in time, the sun-drenched beach, and more of the beer that was flowing freely, but I had to get my rental car back to Slupsk and find a place to sleep for the night.