• August 12, 2023
  • 185

In the footsteps of my grandfather in Vilnius. Touching family story

During my visit to Vilnius, I had a sense that my grandfather Jan was accompanying us on this journey. I felt his presence,” says Mrs. Magdalena Czepas. Together with her daughter Victoria, they visited the house on Połocka Street, which belonged to their family before the war.

Following the publication of the article about the Wooden Architecture Museum in Vilnius’s Zarzecze in the “Kurier Wileński,” Magdalena Czepas contacted the editorial office. She lives in Germany and is the granddaughter of the former owner of the house where the museum is currently located. A year later, Mrs. Magdalena, along with her daughter Victoria, arrived in Vilnius for the first time. “I have long dreamed of visiting the city where my grandfather lived and where my father was born. After reading the article about the house on Połocka Street, which belonged to my grandfather, in the ‘Kurier Wileński,’ I decided that I absolutely had to come here,” says Magdalena.

The first and last owner of the property with the house

Currently, the Wooden Architecture Museum is located in the house at 52 Połocka Street. The wooden residential house was built here in the 1880s.The museum’s documents indicate that Jan Czepas, a resident of Vilnius, was the first and last owner of the property, along with the existing house. He purchased the property with the house from an Orthodox monastery next to the Holy Spirit church. Jan Czepas’s parents lived in the house at that time and rented an apartment there. It is likely that the owner lived on the ground floor, while the apartments on the upper floor were rented to others. Presumably, during the interwar period, there were 5-6 apartments for rent here. After the war, when the house was nationalized, several families lived here continuously. The building had more apartments divided than before the war. People still lived here as of 2016.

Archival photos will supplement the exhibition

“Archival documents revealed that Jan Czepas was imprisoned in 1944. His subsequent fate was unknown to us until now. We suspected that he did not survive the imprisonment. We didn’t even know what the last owner of the house looked like,” says Indrė Užuotaitė, the museum’s curator. Finding a close family member of Jan Czepas came as a big surprise to the whole museum team.”Receiving a message from the ‘Kurier Wileński’ editorial office about the arrival of Jan Czepas’ granddaughter and great-granddaughter to Vilnius brought us great pleasure. We are thrilled and honored to have them as guests in the former home of their grandfather and great-grandfather. They brought archival photos, documents, and letters that we have scanned and will supplement our museum exhibition. From our conversation, we learned many interesting facts about Jan Czepas’s life. We now know that he was a Polish officer, holding the rank of lieutenant colonel. He fought in the ranks of the Home Army (AK) and had the pseudonym Belmont. During the war, he was persecuted by the Soviets, which forced him to leave his hometown. We also learned that his father Michał is buried in Vilnius’s Rossa Cemetery,” adds the museum’s curator.

They Managed to Avoid Katyn

After being released from prison, Jan Czepas spent some time in the vicinity of Vilnius. “In 1944, my father Cezary was born in Vilnius. My grandfather managed to avoid Katyn. After the war, he returned to Poland and stayed briefly in Łódź and Wrocław. Then he came to Żary near Zielona Góra and stayed there. He worked as a dairy manager and later took over as the manager of a jewelry store. My grandmother and mother also worked there. My father had a lot of information, but unfortunately, he’s no longer with us. My grandfather passed away in 1983. Jan also met his future wife Irena, née Piątkowska, in Vilnius,” Magdalena Czepas shares her memories.

After the war, Jan Czepas visited Vilnius multiple times. He also came here together with his son Cezary. He took photographs of the family home, where strangers lived at that time. Additionally, there are photographs captured at Cathedral Square, Rossa Cemetery, and near the Gate of Dawn. Magdalena and her daughter Victoria wandered through the streets of Vilnius in search of those places, known to them only from their grandfather’s photographs. It’s hard to imagine the feelings they experienced while visiting the house that belonged to their family before the war. The beautifully decorated latticed veranda, wooden windows with shutters, doors, walls, and floors on the upper level have all remained preserved, just as they were in the times when Jan Czepas’ family lived there.

A handcrafted wooden plaque on the front wall of the building serves as a reminder of Jan Czepas, the first and last owner of the house on Połocka Street. It is an exact replica of the authentic plaque that the museum has preserved and keeps in a separate display case. The plaque features the owner’s name and surname in Polish, along with an address that remains the same to this day. The pre-war plaque is an incredibly valuable keepsake. During the restoration, the house made of pine wood was painted gray. It was determined that this was its pre-war color.

Old memories came to life

Our stay was, is, and will be unforgettable for us. After visiting the home of our great-grandfather Jan, old memories came to life, and we have the desire to learn more about our ancestors. There are many unexplained events related to the fate of our great-grandfather that interest us. Of course, we are planning another trip to Vilnius – shares her impressions Victoria Stodolska, the great-granddaughter of the last owner of the house in Zarzecze. Mrs. Magdalena says that during the visit, she felt that her grandfather Jan was accompanying them on this journey through Vilnius. “I felt his presence. I also regret that I can’t share my impressions with my father Cezary… Visits to the family grave remain for me,” said Jan Czepas’ granddaughter.

Translated by Agnieszka Julia Olchowik within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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