Hidden in a glade on the outskirts of Białowieża Forest stands a piece of local heritage: a charming abandoned manor whose history is deeply intertwined with the region’s dramatic 20th century. Here follows its story.
The manor’s origins
The historical landscape in which the manor lies befits the tale. Here a Polish-Belarusian civilisation lives amongst thick woodlands in villages encircled by small farms. The local houses appear unchanged for centuries, with well-preserved wooden architecture and cobbled streets having resisted the onslaught of modernity. A few miles before you reach the manor, as if to affirm your journey back in time, the tarmac ends and a sandy track begins.
Jodłówka manor was built in Russian Poland in 1901 by a local aristocrat, one Samuel Bernard Wołyńcewicz. He built it in the local style, with its only extravagance, at least to my untrained eye, being its three porches. As the family primarily resided 50 km to the east in Liniewicze, it was to be the family’s summer house. Only Samuel’s mother lived here full-time in the years before WW1.
During the great war, fearing the encroaching German army, Samuel and his wife Antonina escaped to Rostov-on-Don. The Czarist government deliberately chased out 2-3 million of its own citizens as part of its scorched-earth policy; the aim was to leave nothing behind for the Germans invaders. This little-known event, where a third of evacuees died, became known as ‘Bieżenstwo’, which is Russian for escapee or refugee.
The interwar period
After the war, as Poland regained its independence Samuel, Antonina and their six children returned to find their main manor burned. Jodłówka became their home.
The interwar period was the manor’s heyday. It gained a park, a fish-pond and sixty beehives, and became the centre of local social life. Each year, on May evenings local women sang to the mother of God, to the accompaniment of the lady of the house playing the piano. As Samuel and Antonina’s children flew the nest, only their daughter Helena remained, becoming a teacher to local school children. Each summer friends and family gathered at the manor to escape the city.
In 1933, as if with premonition, Samuel divided his estate amongst his children. This decision would later prove critical to avoid expropriation by the communists. (the commies would ban people from owning property over a certain size).
WW2 changed life irrevocably. The first invaders, the Soviets, came from the east, and evicted the manor’s occupants. Staying between 1939–1941, they destroyed the orchard, cut down most of the park, and devastated the buildings. They massacred one of Samuel’s sons at Katyn. Next came the Germans from the east, who continued the plundering.
After the war, Soviet-backed communists took over the national government. They expropriated the manor and park as part of their class-war. They gave the main building to the army, who ‘renovated’ it, and the park to the state forest company, which destroyed the remaining ornamental trees. Samuel died in 1948. His children kept their land.
After the army were done with it, the manor served as the local primary school between 1954-1968. The property was then finally returned to Samuel’s grandchildren in a decrepit state. They say his descendants own the property to this day.
In the face of sparse investment, the forest is reclaiming the manor. Its eerie feel left me somewhat reflective. I usually love the sight of abandoned land making space for nature to recover. But this is a place that needs human energy. I hope one day Jodłówka will return to its rightful position at the heart of the local community.
A mile down the road I bumped into four grazing bison. The ancient beasts looked to have been there for millenia. I found that comforting as I pondered the ephemeral nature of human affairs.