Zakątek pamięci. Życie w XIX-wiecznych Dworkach Kresowych

TitleZakątek pamięci. Życie w XIX-wiecznych Dworkach Kresowych
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsGolesteanu, Raluca
Author(s) of reviewed materialDomańska-Kubiak, Irena

Book. Title translated:
The Corner with Memories. Life on the Manors of the Eastern Borderlands in the 19th Century

Publisher ISKRY Publishing House, Warsaw . pgs.
ISSNISBN 83-207-1761-2
Review year


Full Text

Zakątek pamięci. Życie w XIX-wiecznych Dworkach Kresowych invites the reader to a virtual tour inside the houses of 19th century Polish gentry families. The work of ethnographer Domańska-Kubiak, the book is divided into seven chapters that seek to reconstruct the everyday and seasonal customs and rituals specific to the Polish manors of the Eastern Borderlands. The diverse topics covered include the theme of the manor in Polish literature and the values associated with it, the typologies of the houses and its compounding parts, specific activities related to gender, age or the function of particular servants, ways of spending leisure time and the hours after the main meal of the day, activities involving people from outside the manor, associations and the efforts for economic betterment, and the ways in which the values of the gentry have been transmitted to members of other social groups. The visit we are offered provides abundant details, for instance on the predominant design of a maiden room (pp.32-33) or the political functions of the chapels hosted in private homes in times when public manifestations of Catholicism were banned by the Russian administration (p. 178).


The aim of Zakątek pamięci. Życie w XIX-wiecznych Dworkach Kresowych is twofold: to serve as an account of identity and of mentality. The explicit and somewhat nostalgic purpose of Domańska-Kubiak`s endeavor is to recall styles of living that have disappeared, revive the idea of particular species of rose or oil lamps as they existed.[1] The very choice of describing everyday life in the manors of the so called Eastern Borderlands is far from neutral. This territorial expression roughly speaking denotes the lands located east of the current Polish border, comprising parts of Ukraine, Belarus or Lithuania. Throughout the 19th century, the Polish population residing here, largely belonging to the gentry, were partly under Russian jurisdiction and were subject to religious and political interdictions. Furthermore, such measures continued at a time when in Galicia, the Austrian parts of Poland, for instance, Polish language was one of the official languages and the numerus clausus ruling against Polish citizens was annulled in the provincial administration. Thus, it was the Polish population under Russian administration that proved more sensitive to national issues, and here the memory of historical events like the 1830 and the 1863 insurrections remained vivid.


Zakątek pamięci. Życie w XIX-wiecznych Dworkach Kresowych describes the manners in which Polish gentry families attempted to preserve Polish traditions sometimes in a hostile environment as was the case in the post-1830 or post-1863 periods, when lands were confiscated or state administration imposed high taxes on them (p.9). Domańska-Kubiak deciphers the common denominator behind all the patriotic manifestations: to keep alive the tradition of insurrections in Polish history and enable it to serve as an agenda preparing Poles for the future attainment of independent statehood. Social gatherings were filled with stories of the insurrection told by participants of the Napoleonic campaigns to their sons, later participants in 1830 revolt, who in turn told them to their sons, later participants in the 1863 uprising (p. 176).


Without ambitioning the exhaustive coverage of all the manifestations described by Domańska-Kubiak, one should mention the fashion of designing the houses as places of remembrance of past national tragedies: the houses, usually draped in black, displayed paintings, flags and sculptures symbolizing insurrection-related topics (p. 173). Another manifestation was the way women dressed: typically in black, without jewelry and exotically even their marriage trousseau could be all-black (p. 174). Yet, the most powerful attempts to keep alive the spirit of insurrection were the readings of the post-1830 and the post-1863 generations. The former avidly read the political pieces of Mochnacki, a theoretician of Polish Romanticism, and L. Mierosławski, a theoretician of war, whereas the latter read the Romantic poetry of Słowacki and Mickiewicz, or the works exalting Sarmatian culture by H. Rzewuski.


The second aim of the book is to discuss mentalities and human typologies that could be found in these 19th century manors. This is the century of women who know to sing to the piano and do sewing by hand in order to make a good choice for marriage (p. 56, p. 61), but also the century of women who cure the peasants at the manor and teach their children how to read and write (p. 79, p.87). The relation of shifts in mentalities to the political and economic contexts is also described. The author mentions how the pressures imposed by the Russian administration on property owners lead the latter towards changes in lifestyle (e.g. economy instead of spending), or how the philosophy of organic work caused a blossoming of agricultural associations and experiments with raw-materials exploitation. Perhaps the most important outcome of organic work was the concept of the economically self-sufficient manor, which could thus give birth to adjacent industries (more on which see in the chapter titled Joint Forces).


Zakątek pamięci. Życie w XIX-wiecznych Dworkach Kresowych evolves around two related concepts, both very popular in Polish modern historiography. The first one is the “model Pole” of noble origins, a Catholic and patriotic person. This ideal defined Poles as people full of bravery who cultivate the values of Polishness in their everyday lives, but who are also affectionate fathers and good neighbors. The second concept extends the previous model to an entire social category and designs a culture that has at its centre the noble, Catholic, patriot Pole and the manor as instrument for cultivating national traditions and memory. This culture envisions the gentry as the leader of the nation (see how the heroes of Sienkiewicz’s works Fire and Sword or the Trilogy became trendsetters of national and patriotic feelings even among other members of social groups on p. 176). The entire book is based on these conceptions; what is more, the author justifies the choice of topic by reference to them. Hence the peasants, the Jews and other figures specific to the Polish manor of the Eastern borderlands are absent. Domańska-Kubiak explains this exclusion by invoking the “civilizational gap” between members of the Polish gentry and the local peasantry mostly of different religion and language.


As stated above, the book is a nostalgic reconstruction of the life of szlachta (Polish gentry) in the given time and area. The author states from the beginning that her endeavor does not have scientific ambitions and it is not an exhaustive account of life of landowners in Eastern borderlands (p. 18). Moreover, she is not concerned about the technical aspects of architecture and art in the manor. Having stated this, one cannot fault Domańska-Kubiak for not touching upon social issues. [Characteristically, Jankiel, the character who appears in Pan Tadeusz of Mickiewicz (p. 172), epitomizes the Jew in this book. It follows that a complex topic like the relations between the Jews and the predominant Polish population at that time is oversimplified because it reduces an entire network of interests and influences to the image of the Jew as Polish patriot.] Yet, the conflict between the emerging nationalisms of Ukrainians and Lithuanians and Polish nationalism, as well as the social uneasiness between peasants and landowners could have been at least mentioned. Memory, even when heavily influenced by nostalgia, belongs to history par excellence, but the historical account that Zakątek pamięci. Życie w XIX-wiecznych Dworkach Kresowych presents risks, through omission, to provide a superficial image of the 19th century manors of the Eastern borderlands. Again, the predominant typology is the patriotic Pole, of noble extraction and Catholic, and every aspect is judged according to this pattern. Based on the idyllic portrait provided by Domańska-Kubiak, the reader will have difficulties in tracing the routes of conflicts that erupted in 1846, 1863 and 1905, not to mention the pogroms of this period. The social harmony presented by Mickiewicz was becoming rather obsolete, if it ever existed, in the era of emerging Socialism and Nationalism.


Beside the simplistic view of social reality, another critical point is that the author fails to assert the specificities of the manors of the Eastern borderlands as compared to its Galician or Great Polish counterparts, for instance. Although she states clearly that she will deal with the description of the manors of the Eastern borderlands, nothing in the account of the room disposition or accessories reveals to the reader that those manors are from that particular region. Furthermore, some customs described as being part of the life at the manors of this area were realities of manors in many other places, including those existing in different social and religious contexts.


When it comes to the discussion of mentalities, the work does not appear much more sophisticated either. For instance, the author mentions at some point that in these borderlands the guests were always welcomed, meaning that they could drop by at any time. With reference to Wielkopolska (Great Poland), the author states that guests` arrival was conditioned by specific rituals (p. 121). Hence, this dissimilarity could have been exploited in order to perceive the possible differences in mentalities at the level of regions, as partly due to the Russian and the German administrations in place.


In respect to the sources used in this book, they predominantly consist of memoirs by the likes of B. Zaleski, J. Żółtowska, A. Kieniewicz and A. Grabowski (notably, among the three territories under foreign administrations, the one under Russian administration is the richest in memoirs). Classics of Polish literature are employed, like E. Orzeszkowa`s On the Niemen (Nad Niemnem) or Cz. Miłosz`s Issy Valley (Dolina Issy). The book draws on specialized literature like a dictionary of the images of the Polish language, or a compendium of recipes written during the era of organic work.


Despite its shortcomings, Zakątek pamięci. Życie w XIX-wiecznych Dworkach Kresowych proves a precious study of everyday life in the period of Poland’s partition and adds to the exploration of themes studies before in the acknowledged works of J. Tazbir (Kultura szlachecka w Polsce on gentry’s culture in Poland), the comprehensive work of St. Wasylewski on Polish customs and manners of the 19th century (Życie polskie w XIX wieku) and B. Suchodolski`s impressive history of Polish culture since Middle Ages, covering cultural institutions as well as worldviews.




[1] The function of nostalgia (i.e. the idealization of reality) is assured by the pieces from Pan Tadeusz placed as mottos for each chapter. This element of nostalgia is further strengthened through the pictures. Archive photos, letters and other documents add to the attempt to revive the atmosphere of the period.