Imagine a place you know to be in Poland where the focal point is an onion domed Orthodox Church, where many posters and notices are in Cyrillic, a place where you feel that you are not quite in Poland any more. Such a place is the sleepy town of Siemiatycze, a few miles from the border with Belarus. It is also a place that is beguiling in its tranquility. Nothing much happens here and the only tourists are people from over the border in search of what they can’t buy at home. Nothing happens, people sit out on summer evenings, neighbours chew the fat over nothing of significance. That is fine. Too much happened here between 1939 and 1945. The Soviet occupation saw scores of deportations into the depths of the Soviet Union, the Nazi one that followed it saw the end of the town’s once thriving Jewish community. Later on the men of Siemiatycze worked, often illegally, in Belgium. They quite literally helped to build the EU which is funding long overdue improvements to the roads. Roads or no roads, Siemiatycze will always be off the tourist trail. Nothing happens here any more. And that’s fine by everyone.
SIEMIATYCZE – THE ORTHODOX CEMETERY
Cyrillic makes these borderlands
doubly foreign. I read like a child,
my fingers feeling their way through
words like wet feet over stepping stones.
I am crossing a river as borders and armies
crossed and recrossed the Bug, ideologies
shackled to their misanthropic ballast.
Each headstone is a place, a time, here
a birth in the days when landlords owned
the souls, dead and alive, of serfs, there
death in old age in the leaden years of terror
when younger souls were claimed by
trench-coated men of the night who came in
dark saloon cars heard by everyone and no-one.
They have dark as we have light this summer’s day.
It shines on the domed church on its hill, shines
on the busy bearded Orthodox priest, shines on
the Catholic tolling the Angelus bell, on the mound
where once stood the synagogue, on those misanthropy
denied a grave, illuminating these wounds of God
enjoining remembrance, as if to heal them.
Copyright Peter Bateman 2012