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A Bit of Poland in Turkey

by Charles E. Adelsen

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As you travel east of the Bosporus where it flows swiftly between Europe and Asia at Istanbul, the typical Muslim villages of Turkey follow one after the other. Slim minarets rise over tiled roofs, oldsters sit at their backgammon boards in the teahouses, women in ample pantaloons go to and from the public fountain in village squares.

Go further east still, over rolling moors of bracken and scrub oak, and pause on a hilltop where you may hear the unmistakable sound of a church bell pealing in the distance. No great highway brings travelers here, only a country road that passes through neatly fenced fields and leads at last to farm buildings of unfamiliar shape, their thatched roofs overhanging walls of rough clapboard and plastered brick and stone. Heavy vines run over roofs and pergolas of cottages where a confusion of turkeys, geese and tow-headed children scurry and play in picket-fenced yards. In the center of the village, wisterias ramble over the veranda of the community teahouse where a fat and gleaming samovar can be seen through bright window panes. Marble crosses in the village cemetery bear the names of local families: Wilkoszewski, Dohoda or Minakewski, and some of the stones there display a white eagle with outspread wings. Over everything, very near now, floats the strong, clear sound of a bell ringing from a high church tower.

The church is that of St. Mary of Czestochowa, Poland’s beloved “Black Madonna.” Tapers burn inside, and by their light, if you know the language of the villagers, you can read slips of paper with words on them asking the blessing of the “Queen of Poland.” Men and women gathered in the halflight of the church offer up prayers in Polish, the language of a country most of them have never seen. And the white eagle on the crosses in the village burial ground is the same one chosen by Poland’s first king for his emblem.

Here in Turkey, at peace with itself and with the Muslim society that surrounds its fertile farmlands on every side, is Polonezkoy, “Village of the Poles,” the only wholly Christian village in the country.

What is a village of Catholic Poles doing here in the East? The answer is simple, but altogether strange. A century and a half ago, when Poland rose up against the czar, and later still, in the Crimean War, Poles found themselves scattered over the face of the earth, exiles for freedom’s sake.

Turks, too, defending what was left of a dwindling and weakened Ottoman Empire, were marching off to far battlefields to wage war against the common antagonists of Poles and Turks, the armies of the czar. In their patriotic fervor, it seemed natural for Poles in exile to lend their lances to the might of Turkey, which was itself afflicted by the great imperial power of the north. The Sultan welcomed the magnificent cavalry of Poland, cossacks and dragoons, to ride with him against the czar.

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