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The abandoned homes of Poland’s most tourist-heavy region

Decades ago, Poles from the Podhale region flocked to the US in droves. But even those who never planned to return still refuse to give up their homes.

May 9, 2023 - Katarzyna Skiba - Stories and ideas

“You could always tell which houses were American,” said Józef Para, who moved back to the Podhale after living and working in the United States for over thirty years.

Poland’s southernmost region, the Podhale, is largely recognised today as a tourist destination. Skiers flock to its largest city, Zakopane, for winter holidays among the Tatra mountains. Regional specialties, like oscypki, a smoked cheese made of sheep’s milk, became so popular among visitors that its imitations have even been investigated. Podhalan folklore, dialect and music are distinct from the rest of Poland, and represent a remarkably-preserved and centuries-old Góral culture. But in spite of its many visitors, countless residents have long left, opting instead to immigrate to the United States. The tens of thousands of emigrants took little with them, planning to someday return back after earning a living. And the homes they deserted remain a symbol of their absence in the Podhale, and an ever-present reminder of just how many people chose to leave.

View from above of Białka Tatrzańska, which has around 2,200 residents in the off-season. The snowy paths in the distance are ski slopes.

Neither sold nor repurposed, many of these homes are still owned by their original residents. The majority of these owners plan to remain in the States, and have American children, who lack a strong emotional attachment to the region. This experience is not exclusive to a few people. In Czarny Dunajec, a village outside of the city of Nowy Targ, over half of the residents emigrated, leaving behind dozens of abandoned homes. But after standing empty for years, these wooden buildings are now in a state of disrepair, rotting from the inside. As the history of this culture hangs in the balance, the homes have become a potent reminder of emigration from the Polish countryside, and a source of local controversy as people debate what to do about them.

The boarded up windows of an abandoned American mansion outside of Nowy Targ. Many of these houses never had any inhabitants.

A fading world

The first wave of abandoned buildings preserves a way of life that no longer exists. Large families lived in continually expanding houses, built one room at a time, which often had stables attached to the side. Most of them lived off the land, raising animals and planting gardens themselves, sometimes selling their harvest for a disposable income. “Money wasn’t necessary here,” said Krzystof Szewczyk, who owns a bed and breakfast in the village of Białka Tatrzańska, “it was something extra.” These generations grew their own food, chopped their own wood, and bartered with neighbours if something was lacking. Many of the houses I saw had underground storage space, where the gazdy – as these landowners are called in the local dialect – kept potatoes, preserves and other foodstuffs to last them through the harsh mountain winters. Even today, some parts of this lifestyle remain, and Szewczyk himself raises chickens and goats for milk, meat and eggs.

Even the construction of these buildings is tied to the land they come from. At the base of many of these houses are large, round stones, taken from the bottom of the Białka river. According to Paweł Dziadkowiec, who led me around the region, this practice has now become illegal, owing to ecological concerns. But the history of the land remains woven into these buildings, from the local wood that was used to build the outer walls, to the stones, shaped by waters flowing from the Tatra mountains. Many of the rooftops are rusty and overgrown with moss, their sinking foundations slowly returning to the earth that they once came from. Dziadkowiec, an English teacher raised in the village of Szaflary, had a personal connection to many of the houses that I photographed. One belonged to his grandparents, another to his cousin. Others he identified as the site of family arguments, as members disagreed about what to do with the houses they grew up in. “I remember when this house was being built,” he says as we pass an eight-room wooden mansion originally belonging to his cousin. Though he lives only about fifteen minutes away, his cousin, who has now lived in the US for over two decades, is unlikely to ever open it for him.

It is impossible to enter any of the houses we pass, the doors remain shut, and their keys, across the Atlantic. Although some have broken windows and graffiti, no one has tried to make their way inside, either out of shared respect or sheer difficulty. The stairways leading to them are often dangerous, as many of the wooden steps have fallen in on each other, or have instead become weak due to rot. The only signs of life are a few scattered beer bottles, left on the outside of what was once a stable. “I wouldn’t like to live here,” says Dziadkowiec as we drive through Gronków. The area has a few residents, many of them elderly. Its only asphalt road winds uphill, and is blocked off during the wintertime for fear of accidents on the ice. After taking a few photos, a neighbour’s guard dogs chased us off the premises. “They’re protecting what’s left,” he said.

Two abandoned houses next to each other in the village of Szaflary. Both of their owners have since left for the United States.

A debated inheritance

Though they may be commonplace for those living in the region, some have started to view the abandonment of these houses as a particularly local phenomenon that needs to be addressed. Natalia Dogołowska, a photographer and visual artist, aimed to document the clear and unique presence of America in the Podhale, and the void left behind in the empty homes of emigrants. She remembers economic emigration to the States as an “everyday occurrence”. Even if a family did not make the move themselves, almost everybody had a classmate, a cousin, or grandparents who did. “America was a better world then, which we associated with the smell of bubblegum, or shiny new gym shoes someone had sent us,” she said. When asked what is the most important aspect of her photography project, titled “This is All America,” Dogołowka answered simply, “the earth”, from which all of these buildings were formed.

Some houses have been preserved as historical sites, including the museum of Tatra Folk Culture in Jurgów, built in 1835. But some homeowners are reluctant to apply for historical site funding, for fear that their homes will no longer be practical. One of two main churches in Białka Tatrzańska, for example, is only open to parishioners in the summer. Local laws prohibit the installation of modern heating or ventilation systems, and the sites must remain exactly as they were.

Traditional pants worn to this day for special occasions in the Podhale and in its neighboring Slovak region, Spisz. This particular pair was on display at the Museum of Tatra Folk Culture in Jurgów.

A second generation of homes was built with American dollars, sent back by emigrantsworking in the United States. They tower over their predecessors, made entirely of bricks rather than wood. A 2013 report from the Agricultural University of Kraków estimated that, in the villages of Czarny Dunajec and Poronin, one fifth of economic migrants invested in apartments or built a house. Mansions from the 1970s with up to ten rooms and traditional wooden houses built before the Second World War have little in common with one another, but both remain alike in their disrepair.

In a book chapter she wrote, titled “Reproducing the House: Kinship, Inheritance, and Property Relations in Highland Poland”, anthropologist Dr. Francis Pine described a pattern of inheritance among Górale which reinforces the constant need to emigrate. In typical family structures, inheritances are equally divided among all children, resulting in what she calls “constant insecurity”. As the land is further and further divided, it becomes less viable and diminishes, forcing its former residents to leave it behind and start from scratch. “To remain who they are, Górale have to leave their homes,” she wrote. Her sentiment is reflected in the traditional music, folklore and oral tradition of the region, much of which has to do with the longing that comes with leaving one’s home. “Góral, come on home,” reads a popular folk song, “your fathers are still in their huts, what will become of them?” The preservation of Góral identity not only concerns the question of what to do with historical artifacts themselves, but with the shared cultural history of loss.

The broken windows of an abandoned building in Szaflary, where Dziadkowiec once had Sunday school classes.

An uncertain future

“If there wasn’t any tourism, then everyone would have left a long time ago,” said Szewczyk, who runs a bed and breakfast in Białka Tatrzańska with his wife, Monika. The village has only 2,200 residents but has recently become a popular destination for skiers.

Across the street from their business are large hotels, many of them equipped with saunas and spas. But this new construction cannot hide the fact that the culture so many tourists come to visit is disappearing. “There’s an entire street in front of us full of empty houses,” said Monika Szewczyk.

When I looked out from their balcony, I saw that she was right. At least four large, empty buildings stood, scattered along the backdrop of the mountains. Even with this grim prognosis, there are exceptions, people who have come back from the United States to their family homes in the Podhale. Bronisława Para and her husband Józef returned to Poland after thirty-three years in Chicago, leaving behind their three adult children and numerous grandchildren. After working for years in factories and as a mechanic, Józef Para and his wife became disenchanted with the American mythos that was once presented to them. “They called me ‘sleeper’ at work, because I slept while working the machines. I barely had time to rest at home,” he said, reflecting on the time he spent in the States.

One of several ski lifts in Białka Tatrzańska, one of the region’s major tourist attractions.

Tourism, though economically necessary for the region, remains more controversial among some of its residents. “A city with such a rich culture has now turned into a tourist trap full of plastic souvenirs,” said photographer Natalia Dogołowska about Zakopane, the city where she was born.

Krzysztof Szewczyk also owns his grandparents’ home in the nearby village of Leśnica. He admits that he has a sentimental attachment to the home, but does not remember the last time he went inside. “If my mum and her siblings, their generation, if they weren’t alive, I would probably sell it,” he admitted. Older generations do not want to see the homes where they raised their families torn down, especially in small towns where they will not sell for much, where they may see a hotel put up in its stead.

Podhalan folk culture and tradition remain remarkably well-preserved, especially in comparison to many other regions in Poland. Even so, some maintain that new waves of tourism, and mass movement abroad are threatening its future.

Together, we drive about twenty minutes from his bed and breakfast to the family home he still owns, built by his paternal grandfather. These homes were built one room at a time, and wooden banners on the inner walls of each room are engraved with the year in which they were built.

His grandparents’ bedroom is falling apart, with uneven boards sticking out of the floor, and walls bordered with cobwebs and settled dust. Though people tend to stay out of these abandoned buildings, animals make their way in through cracks in the foundations, and their scratches and droppings remain after they leave. Still he decides to leave it be, in its original state. Standing out against the landscape, the house recalls a time that passed not so long ago, that residents, emigrants and visitors continue to try and hold on to. A reminder that part of them still remains in the lands where they come from.

 All photos by Katarzyna Skiba

Katarzyna Skiba is a freelance journalist, photographer and translator, currently studying for a master’s degree in journalism and international affairs at Sciences Po Paris.

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