The last of an aristocratic family

He is a great-grandson of Mieczysław Jałowiecki, Polish landowner, member of the “Arkonia” corporation, diplomat and writer related to the most illustrious families in Lithuania and Russia. Andrzej Jałowiecki has lived in Australia since he was a child, but the promotion of the distinguished great-grandfather’s literary and painting legacy became his mission in life.

The remains of Mieczysław Jałowiecki, who bought the Westerplatte peninsula for Poland, were brought from England and buried on December 5, 2022 in the Avenue of the Distinguished of the Gdańsk Srebrzysko Cemetery.

TVP WEEKLY: “Our family belonged to the Rurik dynasty” – writes your great-grandfather in the volume of memoirs entitled “On the verge of the Empire” (“Na skraju imperium). In turn, his grandson adds in the preface to this very book that the progenitor of the Jałowiecki family was prince Mykail Davidovich Pereyaslavsky, and on your great-grandfather’s tomb in Gdańsk there is an inscription “Mieczysław, prince of Pereyaslav. Should I address you as “Your Grace”?

I’ve never wondered if I’m a prince. I’ve lived in Australia, far from the world where European norms were applicable. Yes, my father told me that the great-grandfather was a price but for a long time I hadn’t had a physical proof of that. It wasn’t until 1989 that we received all the documents confirming our origins. But for me important is what Mieczysław [Andrzej Jałowiecki speaks of his great grand-father thus – ed. note] did for Poland. What he was like.

What have you inherited from your ancestors whose large estates were after all located in Lithuania, Ukraine and Russia?

Only a trunk [with dozens of volumes of Mieczysław Jałowiecki’s memoirs – ed. note] and the surname. Well, and the pride to use it.

Isn’t it a burden?

You have to earn it but I enjoy this kind of luxury in Australia that I’m a second category citizen and so may I behave [laughs]. In Poland I have to be more careful and somehow present myself.

For the participation in the January Uprising the Jałowieckis lost their fortune, while they had Lithuanian, Russian and even Scottish blood in their veins. Despite all that – as your great grand-father wrote – felt Polish. It’s hard to understand today.

I do understand that because I feel the same.
Book published by Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza Czytelnik in 2021

All my life I’ve had referred to myself as Andrzej and I have struggled to have people pronounce my name correctly. While it would be easy to call myself Andrew and to simplify my surname and alter it to, let’s say, Jalo. I would have peace of mind. Your Polish is excellent…

English is my technical language, Polish is for emotions.

Why have you taken up commemorating a world that is no more and, at that, in a language you didn’t learn at school? Was it your father who asked for that?

No, it was my choice. But today I think I didn’t have to choose anything. Quite simply, I was born Polish and I will die Polish. Wasn’t easy as I didn’t grow up in a traditional family, meaning I didn’t have cousins, uncles, aunties who would have told me every step of the way: “you are a Pole”.

How did you find yourself in Australia?

We quit Poland in 1980. Beforehand my father used to go to Spain. He was a Polish Register of Shipping representative. He didn’t belong to the communist party and that’s why he had to report every 6 months to prove he didn’t flee. The last time he came to Poland was because of his mother’s death. When the martial law was introduced he decided to never come back. We emigrated to Australia, to Adelaide first, then to Perth.

Your father – as we can read in the preface to <> - had no sense of communication with his grandfather. When they met in 1957 in London the latter annoyed him with “his anachronisms”, they felt weird in each other’s company. What did that distance result from?

My father, Micahł Jałowiecki, was still teenager the – he might have been 18. Anyway he didn’t go there to visit his grandfather but he was to meet his uncle, Tadeusz Zabłocki. So the old rule of not showing one’s feelings, something that the English call “stiff upper lip”, worked here. Anyway, my father didn’t know how to show love either. Such was the tradition of no family closeness and entrusting the education of one’s own children to governesses. Andrzej and Krystyna [Mieczysław’s children – ed. note] were raised thus. Perhaps it explains the distance between the grandfather and the grandson. They used the same surname but didn’t know one another.

And how was that your great-grandfather ended up in England?

He managed to leave occupied Poland thanks to a friendship dating back to the tsarist times, with the Nobel brothers. With his second wife and daughter they made their way to Sweden, and then – to the British Isles.

Back then, in London, at the meeting with his grandson, your great-grandfather managed to break the ice…

At the very end my great-grandfather gave my father a letter that his father wrote him before WWI. And he burst into tears. The love was there, but unexpressed.

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I felt the same distance, but towards my father. My great-grandfather met his grandson at the moment when he had lost everything, so there was no continuity. In the same way, my father had nothing material to give me in exile. He had to start from scratch to leave me something. Another thing is that the greatest treasure, greater than any fortune he could have left me, was the publication of Mieczysław’s memoirs. It is an incredible honor for me that one of the volumes of these memoirs, “Free City” [“Wolne Miasto”], was read by Wanda Półtawska to the John Paul II before his death.

And could those landowner stories that happened – as your great-grandfather wrote – “once upon a time”, interest a boy growing up in Australia?

It didn’t happen right away. My great-grandfather, then in England, tried to tell his grandson about a world that a man living under communism could not imagine. The same way my father tried to tell me these old stories and I was like, “OK, but what am I supposed to do with this?” I heard all these difficult names and it was a burden for me. Sometimes I wanted to be a Smith or Brown because that would have been easy. I once told a friend of mine that my grandfather was a prince. He widened his eyes and decided I’d been reading too many comics. Another time, I took a trunk with memoirs and family documents, Mieczysław’s legacy, to school, and I was convinced that it would interest my class. I took out a letter from Queen Elizabeth’s grandmother to Mieczysław, in which she expressed her joy that he had arrived safely in England. And nothing! Some of the documents in the trunk were older than Australia, but my colleagues didn’t care. The 40-year-old cricket ball made a sensation instead.

So when did you realize that your great-grandfather's memories were so valuable?

I think something started to dawn on me only in 1989, when we lived in Yugoslavia for a while. My father got a contract with the Norwegian classification company Det Norske Veritas and supervised the construction of ships. Our aunt Krystyna [Andrzej’s sister, daughter of Mieczysław and Julia Wańkowicz, who was daughter to Piotr Wańkowicz, owner of a large estate in Minsk – ed.] lived in Monte Carlo at that time. She gave us a trunk full of Mieczysław’s diaries. For her, it was such a remorse, because it reminded her of my great-grandfather’s wish that one day he would publish his memoirs and find a good place to store the watercolors he painted after the war. My aunt must have been glad we came because she could pass the burden on to my father. She was afraid of “meeting” Mieczysław. My father reluctantly took the trunk. Then it traveled the world with him.

What else is in the trunk apart from dozens of volumes of memoirs?

For example, there is a list of all Jałowieckis’ estates in Lithuania, Russia and Poland, supplemented with illustrations by Mieczysław. In his drawings, you can see the interiors of mansions, individual rooms, and even furniture: every chair, wardrobe or clock. They are also described in detail [Andrzej Jałowiecki shows drawings of a corridor in the manor house in Kamień, where there was an exquisite desk and broadswords hanging on the walls – ed.]. Our family has lost fortune many times. Maybe it was about having material proof of what we had and maybe trying to get it back someday?
What did your great-grandfather live on in exile?

He had many connections, and the noblemen helped each other. He probably also took gold and diamonds with him, and he was a really rich man. He even made a map of the banks where he kept his capital. I have his various securities which I cannot make out because they are written in Russian. Who knows, maybe I’m rich?

What happened to the trunk after you collected it from your aunt?

I was afraid to open it. I got used to the idea that we are related to the Piłsudskis or the Wańkowiczs, but the trunk probably contained information about thousands of other names of relatives and acquaintances. It terrified me. Besides, I couldn’t read Polish. The contents of the trunk were such forbidden fruit, although of course they fascinated me. My father didn’t really move the trunk either. Only when he retired did he start opening it and studying his grandfather’s papers. He compiled over a dozen volumes of memoirs, which resulted in “On the verge of the Empire”, and later “The Free City”.

Did you find in the trunk that telephone book of Petersburg from 1916 that your great-grandfather had in London?

Unfortunately not. Many such treasures have been lost. For example, my aunt had a copy of our family tree, the original of which hung in the estate in Kamień. It was burned by a German officer during the occupation. He then said that it was the end of our family. After the death of my aunt, this copy was most likely lost. In a normal family, such things are guarded, but in ours it is impossible, because no one contacts each other. You don’t even know someone is dying. Anyway, I'm the last one. The story ends with me.

There is a situation described by your great-grandfather in “On the verge of the Empire”, when he lands in a small town in Livonia (territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). An Estonian, owner of the boarding house where he is staying, leads him to the cemetery, to the graves of the former Polish owners of Annopol. Mieczysław Jałowiecki writes that he thought that someone was standing behind him, touching his shoulder...

Ghosts of ancestors. They live with me. I really believe that Mieczysław is with me.

Did you visit former estates?

Yes, I have been to Kamień [Kalisz region – ed.]. It’s terribly painful. Stone is no longer a beautiful place. The communists liked to spoil the landscape, which is why you can see the former state farm block from the windows of the house.

And have you taken the railway routes that your great-grandfather used to travel from St. Petersburg to his estate in Syłgudyszki (Saldutiškis) in Lithuanian, about 90 km north-east of Vilnius?
No, but I definitely have to do it. I’ve never been to Russia before. I only got to Lithuania, the first time with my father, on a canoeing trip, in the early 1990s. We started in Suwałki and hitchhiked to Syłgudyszki. Our mansion was devastated. We went inside through the window. We found tiles from an old stove and took some as souvenirs. We saw a man dressed like a Russian soldier. It turned out he was a priest. We introduced ourselves and he called the whole village together. We stayed overnight in what was left of a wooden railway station, designed in the Zakopane style by Stanisław Witkiewicz [Mieczysław’s mother's brother – ed.] The upper part no longer existed. We stayed there with a family who showed us around the houses in the area. They all hosted us, and some gentleman even brought Mieczysław’s Russian stamp. Toothless old ladies were reminiscing about old times. It was all very nice. But when I went there years later and saw that someone else had settled in my great-grandfather’s estate – that hurt me. I felt it was my land. And I’m not talking about wealth, money, but I felt that I should be there, where my ancestors’ graves are. I was drawn there. I thought running this farm should be my lifestyle, that it’s in my DNA.

”Behind the windows of the Syłgudyszki manor house there stretched to the south, into the distance, like a sea covered with bluish mist, the dark forests of the Łabonary Forest” – wrote your great-grandfather. And today?

The house and buildings are nicely renovated. The new owner – a very polite Lithuanian – lives the way Mieczysław used to live, moreover, he is his fan. He told me that I always have my room there.

I asked about rail travel because Mieczysław’s father, general in the tsarist Corps of War Engineers, was the owner of the Commuter Railway Company in Lithuania.

He was also the general inspector of tsarist travels. His factory built wagons for tsar Alexander III. They were so solid that they saved the tsar’s life when there was a catastrophe [at Borki - ed.]. Therefore, Bolesław received permission to buy back the family property lost during the January Uprising. He then bought Syłgudyszki, Kukułyszki and other nearby lands. It is interesting that after 1989 we were also offered the buyback of the manor in Kamień [the property of Mieczysław Jałowiecki’s second wife, Zofia Romocka - ed.]. There was no question of giving the property but of buyback. History repeats itself [laughs].

This is the fate of your family. In the introduction to “On the verge of the Empire”, your father also mentions Andrzej Jałowiecki, your grandfather.

That is why I would also like to somehow commemorate the figure of grandfather Andrzej, an extremely talented economist. During the war, he was director of the General Council of Care [actually the office of the Management Board of the General Council of Care, which, at the request of the Germans, changed its name to the Polish Committee of Care in Warsaw – ed.]. He was hired by Adam Ronikier. Andrzej had international contacts and, of course, financial skills and collected money for the Council, but some of it also went to the Home Army. The money was flowing from Sweden. The Swedish ambassador always demanded receipts from my grandfather, and when he was detained in Berlin, the Germans found them. Finally, they found out whose signature was on these papers and sent my grandfather to the Majdanek camp. The underground prepared an operation to rescue him. Everything was ready, but my grandfather – he was 32 years old – went down with typhus and died.
The funeral mass of Mieczysław Jałowiecki and his second wife, Zofia Aniela née Romocka Jałowiecka, in the Basilica of St. Brygida in Gdańsk, December 5, 2022. Photo. PAP/Jan Dzban
”Apart from memories, nothing remained of the whole, centuries-old family legacy." That’s how your father summed up the history of the Jałowiecki family.

It was his destiny too. He had to fight all his life. In the times of the Polish People’s Republic, he had a hard time at school, because he came from an “inappropriate” environment. It was hard for him to get into college with that name. Then emigration, which also destroyed him. All these experiences of our family turned into multi-generational scars. I don’t know if these scars would be passed on to my children if I had them. I used to think that these sad family stories didn’t concern me, that they were stupid superstitions. Now I know that they left a mark on me too. Sometimes I think it’s good that it ends with me. Certain eras should end.

Could your great-grandfather feel like a loser? That's how your father perceived it.

I look at it differently, more romantically. Indeed he was once a magnate, but he lost everything and found himself in England, in Fox Road, in a small flat. He was 63 and had already done his job, but he did not give up. During this time, he created about 2,000 watercolors. 1,171 of them are now held by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California. I would like them to come back to Poland one day. Mieczysław really worked a lot in exile. He even lectured on agriculture at the University of Glasgow and published books on agriculture. Looser? No. After all, he created tangible evidence of the existence of a world that no longer exists. The world of the gentry, the world of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, its landscapes and architecture. He also made lists of the inhabitants of the manors and palaces he knew, family and friends. He described the Piłsudski, Wańkowicz and Moniuszko families. He was very frank in his opinions, he did not embellish the truth.

And what did he think about his distant relative Józef Piłsudski? In “On the verge of the Empire”, he writes that he does not believe in the effectiveness of conspiracy or in socialism. He comments on the attack on the train in Bezdany as follows: “I admit that I was unpleasantly surprised that Piłsudski, our distant relative, a descendant of an old Lithuanian family, is involved in a case where there was a whiff of banditry...”.

This fragment is probably the only place where Mieczysław writes about Piłsudski. He mentions him very little, and if he does, it is done diplomatically, with great respect, unlike in the often harsh remarks about other relatives and acquaintance.

If there was an opportunity, would you move to Syłgudyszki, meaning: for good?

I would try. No, otherwise it would be my duty to take care of it, do something about it, maybe a museum? I couldn’t sell it. [A moment of reflection] But my real legacy is to popularize Mieczysław’s memories and commemorate his history. I insisted that Mieczysław return here, to Poland, and what it should look like, and I had it my way.

Was it your idea to bring your great-grandfather’ remains to Gdańsk?

About one battle and a certain proclamation that prepared independence

The content was clear - they would give a state, but created only from the lands of the Russian partition.

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Mine. I had been looking for a way to honor Mieczysław for a long time. At first I considered erecting a monument to him at Westerplatte, but it came to pass that in the meantime I got information about finding his grave in Beckenham near London. Then I thought Mieczysław should be buried in Poland.

Why specifically in Gdańsk?

I felt that because of his work in and for Gdańsk [after Poland regained independence, Mieczysław Jałowiecki became the first representative of the Polish government in the Free City of Danzig – ed.] he was completely unknown in Poland. He opened the door to Gdańsk for the Republic. Without this mission, he would have simply been a landowner from Lithuania. I think, however, that he left Poland with regret that no one appreciated his work, so I wanted to bury him in Gdańsk. It has the highest possible monument in the cemetery, made of the most beautiful stone. The obelisk of Gustav III in front of the royal palace in Stockholm is made of the same material. In my opinion, what has recently happened in Gdańsk may be called a “rebirth” – a rebirth of Mieczysław.

Now what?

Funerals are regarded as the end of an era, and in this case having your great-grandfather reburied is just the beginning.

What are your plans?

To publish more books. One is ready – “People I knew” (Ludzie, których znałem”). It is a register of all the people Mieczysław knew and his opinions on them. Afterwards it would be advisable to publish all that inventory of estates made by grandfather, because it’s something brilliant. I would also like to publish albums of Mieczysław’s watercolors, as well as memories from his studies at the Riga Polytechnic and membership in the Arkonia corporation, which included, among others, Władyslaw Anders. This book is also ready. People also want to know what happened to Mieczysław in England. I don't know if I have an answer to that. My great-grandfather preferred to write about the past. He had such a rich life before the war that emigration to England must have been trivial for him. In any case, his memoirs are like olives, and you can still squeeze five books out of them.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE I’m guessing it’s not the end.

I have always dreamed that Jałowiecki's books would be included in the school reading list. I know it’s hard, but people write about it in the comments on social media and add that these memories should also be made into a movie. And there will be one. Movie and series. Now that’s how it’s done. Three episodes for “On the verge of the Empire”, three for “The Free City” and three for “Requiem for the Landowners” (“Requiem dla Ziemiaństwa”).

It's “mission impossible”. It has been impossible to film better stories in Poland.

It will be a great challenge, but I hope to find partners who feel the same way about this topic. In fact, it’s already happening. I would knock on the doors of many institutions and nothing, and now they just open. I just don’t want another “Hiszpanka”… I've been thinking about establishing a Mieczysław Jałowiecki foundation and I believe that it is now necessary to strike while the iron is hot. It’s time for a foundation supporting children’s mental health, and on the other hand funding a literary prize named after my grandfather. And one more dream: I would like the memory of Mieczysław to bring people together, so that a Lithuanian, a Latvian, a Belarusian and a Pole could stand in one room and look at my great-grandfather’s watercolors, forget about politics and see how beautiful their common world used to be.

So the history of your family also has a more optimistic side?

Sure it does. For most of my life I was an emigrant wandering around the sea without a compass, it was only when I got to know the history of Mieczysław Jałowiecki, our family, that I found out who I am, where I come from and where I am going. Mieczysław gave me an identity that I didn't have for a long time. Now I am Andrzej Jałowiecki, born in Gdańsk, in a family that came from Sylgudyszki in Lithuania, which before the war ended up in Kamień and I have something to be proud of. Mieczysław also gave me a goal in life promoting his legacy is the best job I could have dreamed of. Thanks to it, I can leave a trace, somehow enter this family history. Cause I'm the last. And that's a beautiful thing. I can die today knowing that my ancestors will be proud of me.

– Interviewed by Anna Gwozdowska
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Wedding of Mieczysław Jałowiecki and Julia Wańkowicz, 1910, Minsk. Photo: Andrzej Jałowiecki Jr’s archive
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