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Chronicals of Lake Narocz by Mieczyslaw Lisiewicz

This long out of print autobiographical work by this Polish author is reproduced here in full. I have transcribed the work and present it here for all to read. Copyright remains the property of the owners whoever and wherever they are. If anyone who is reading this has any historical facts, documents, maps or photographs about Narocz I would be very grateful if you would contact me, Alan at Landschaft I hope readers enjoy, as I have, the tales from this forgotten corner of the world.

Chapter XIV: The Spells of Autumn


Hatowicze, Pale Lake, Nieslucz, Pronki, Radzillow, Lewiatynski Grove, Polesie, Uzla, Wilno


Autumn draws in and the author prepares to depart as the end of the holiday season approaches. As the settlement battens down for winter a mine from the Great War is dredged up, and the talk turns to the remnants of the war; discarded munitions, skulls, and the war cemetry at Pronki - which the author visits and is downcast by the mood of the place. Lisiewicz stumbles across a battlefield, churned up and still stren with the debris of war, in this, one of the most poetic chapters that reminds me of a story "Arnhemland" by Edgar Allen Poe. We learn a little more of the author's war service - that he was at Radzillow and Lewiatynski Grove and poingnantly, "in my memory arose the days of my youth, days shot through by the bullets of Russians and Ruthenians". At Pronki cemetry the author notes at date 18 March 1916. Returning to the hostel, he loses the path and is taken by a panic and suffers an unsettling spiritual experience inthe smashed landscape. The next day Lisiewicz takes to the lake in his canoe and is caught in a storm, but is exultant in the physical effort and makes landfall. The chapter closes with the author departing Narocz. It is September.

Read in conjunction with Chapter 17 which relates Wilhelm Neumann's account of lead-up to the battle in which he died, and Chapter 18 an account of the battle itself.

Further reading

The Battle of Lake Narocz commenced 18 march 1916 (the date Lisiewicz notes on the gravestone he tripped over at te Pronki war cemetry). It was the Russians "share" of diverting the Germans from reinforcing the Verdun offensive; France's life or death struggle. There were 90,000 casualties in all, 20,000 to the Germans and 70,000 the Russians. The battle was inconclusive, but succeeded in it's strategic mission of tying up German troops in the East. 3,050 Germans are buried in the Pronki cemetry. Like Flanders, a lot must still lie where they fell. Unlike Flanders, they will never be recovered. I have been unable to find mention of the burial of the Russians, who suffered higher casualties. Chapter 18 hints at their fate - hurried unmarked mass graves.

Battle of Lake Narocz 1916

Wikipedia: Narocz Offensive

Pronki war cemetry (p16)

Chapter XIV: The Text

AZA has died before our eyes; soon she will certainly pass from our thoughts too. She has entered the country of ghosts, wandering at dusk about the great spread of the lakes and pine forests. Maybe some time in the late evening will be heard .the echo of the hunting music of that dead pack, and the amazed eyes of man will behold that extraordinary chase. How often the land of shadows crosses the path of our lives, the path of 'every-day matters.

The fine autumn day, the day of Aza's death, was as it were the final seal set on the summer. The sun, yesterday still victorious, to-day is cooled by the mists and shines without warmth. On the horizon great clouds are piled, in which hide gusty squalls and storms full of rain. The lake sinks to sleep in the evenings in murmurings and threatening mutterings. In the mornings it is covered deep in the soft autumn mists.

Thus from one day to the next, without warning, came tawny autumn. It rustled in the dry reeds, and on sight of it the swamps turned rusty, and the humbled pines collected in thick crowds. Long in the nights the uneasy plumes of the firs played their mournful symphony of farewell to the migrating birds.

Now in the early dusk, on the forest and lake tell a thick darkness, from which blew a deadening chill and the scent of decay. In the darkness the lake muttered and the frightened forest murmured its "miserere."

The Hatowicze hostel stood empty.

When one evening I was helping Mikolay to pull the canoes out of the water, I noticed that they too were under the influence of the autumn. Their gunwales were cracked, keels crooked, bottoms decaying. They were a perfect picture of the end of summer. We carried the invalids, one after another, to pine blocks on the shore. Dejected Nerus kept getting under our feet. A sharp chill came from the water. Mikolay wiped his sweaty brow, leant against a pine and gazed at the wood. The dusk blotted out the stony outlines of the trees.

"It's murmuring!" he said, "it's murmuring. When it begins to murmur it's sad and terrible. It's empty; no men, no boats; just murmur-murmur."

"Autumn will pass, winter will come," I muttered.

"A hard winter!" he said glumly.


"Ay, real hard, but when in winter we draw the nets, there's lots of fish!"

"Well, you see!"

"And after winter comes the spring!" he finished triumphantly. "The wind drives the floes on shore, breaks 'em up into little bits like bricks, and piles 'em up as high as a house. And we'll have to do up the canoes."

"And the forest?"

"The forest's the same, spring, winter or summer."

He walked heavily back to the hostel.

The time for our return to town was drawing near, so I began feverishly to make the most of every ray of sunshine. A few times yet I went out on the Pale Lake after fish, but caught nothing. They would not bite, for they had all fled from the cold to the deepest places, where, collected in dense crowds, they drowsed on the ooze in places rich in weeds.

In the reeds on the Narocz the twitter of birds had ceased. It's true that there appeared occasional geese belated on their journey, but usually the waters were deserted and silent. Many kestrels with truly autumnal voices, flew in and cried gloomily along the shores.

We sailed in two canoes to bid farewell in Nieslucz. The courses were finished long ago. The lads remaining in the hostel, mostly instructors, tired themselves daily with dragging the great keeled sloops and heavy "fifteens" out of the water for the winter. It was hard work in the icy water, in chilly winds and cutting rain, and was not done without scraped knees, scratches, cut hands and crushed fingers. Mottled with iodine, naked, up' to their waists in water, the lads worked to the last available ounce of their strength.

Being unable to help them, we waited in the hostel for the return of the proprietor, looking through old bound volumes of the "Illustrated Weekly.".. Then from outside came some voices and shouting. Curious, I broke off my reading and went to the window to see what was going on. At that moment the door suddenly opened and in came one of the instructors, with a worried look, and asked me to go down to the shore. While they were dragging the bottom for a lost anchor the nets had brought up an iron box of an odd shape. No one knew what it was, and they would like me to look it over.

I ran. The first glance told me the secret origin of that box. It was simply a deep water mine, one of those which the Germans used during the Great War. They contained no treasure, only nitrotoluol, or ecrasite, and looked like great pipes, about 18 in. long and 12 in. thick. This one was rusted away, covered with weeds, ooze and moss. Thank God it lacked its detonator, or it would have been enough to blow up the hostel and the whole neighbourhood.

"It's full of the darned things!" complained one of the scouts, "there's shrapnel, grenades and mines everywhere. One just can't dig. The peasants are afraid to plough, for more than one man has been blown up."

"I've seen," interrupted one of the younger instructors, "near Zanarocz, by the birches, you know where, heaps of skulls in the sand."


"It's true. I've seen them too," agreed another.

"There's no lack of war cemeteries in the district," added the leader, and turning to me, asked, "have you been to our cemetery near Pronki?"

"I've heard of it. It's supposed to be lovely. I want to visit it. Perhaps to-morrow?"

"In Pronki the peasants do beautiful embroidered cloths," remarked one of the lads.

"Oh! That's something for me!" said my wife in delight. "Let's all go, shall we?"

We agreed to go all together to Pronki.

But the next day work did not go easily. One of the boats stuck on the slipway, and when it was clear they still had to fold the sails away in the store.' My wife and our companions.were helping the Scouts. It was late afternoon when, tired of waiting, I decided to go alone. I went.

The way led through young woods. Pronki was not far, about two miles. As I went I looked about me. The place was not beautiful. Well, maybe it was, but there was an air of immeasurable sadness about it. Orphaned, deserted and sterile, and something more, to which I could not put a name, something terribly tragic and depressing. The leader had told me of a shorter way. So following his directions I turned off the road to the left, up the second path. It was very much over-grown and led twisting through gorges and little valleys. At one moment I was overtaken by a fear that I might lose my way, but encouraged myself by the thought that by walking east I was sure to come to the lake, and walking along the shore, could not possibly lose myself. Any-way I was not far from the shore. I wetit with more confidence. Suddenly from under my feet two young blackcock rose with a startling flutter, only to alight a little farther on. I dashed after them, and, thrusting through a narrow belt of bushes, found myself in a small clearing, very damp and boggy. There was no sign of the blackcook, but I was confronted by a great puddle of black water, on which floated large greasy patches, from which rose a strong bitter-sweetish smell which I recognized as that of decomposing ammunition. There was no hope of catching the blackcock, so I' returned to the path which was to lead me to Pronki. In the bushes my foot hit something hard. I stooped to pick it up, and saw it was an old German steel helmet.

War everywhere! The whole area was riddled by shell holes. The gorges and valleys were certainly the remains of trenches, gunpits or shell holes. A shiver ran over me. There was an uncanny feeling in this wood, and I was glad to sec that the trees were thinning out. Soon I found myself on, the edge of open pasture. This also was literally criss-crossed with ditches. Here and there pinkish heather grew on the sand and peat, between its clumps were dry tufts of yellowed grass and some vague rustling brown stems.

The last rays of the setting sun shone on the damp leaves. It turned chilly. A drop fell on my cheek, and I looked up. The branches were covered with drops, around which the slanting rays of the sun lit up bright little haloes. Evidently the torn and gloomy landscape was shaking off the too bright colours of the rich sunset, and hiding in' its habitual shade of grey steel. That is why it was surrounded by the rusting autumn leaves, sparse heather and,dried-up grass.

A little farther off some birches, faithful war widows, seemed to weep by the melancholy little pine wood. Weep for what? Maybe over the grave of the third horseman of the Apocalypse. The sky above my head was grey, the colour of a corpse with a bullet through its heart.

Before me in a hollow in the ground lay the village. Behind it, outlined in black, lay the hills on the horizon under a crown of creeping sunbeams. Bald, naked, empty, completely deserted, they stretched out in the bloody light of the sunset, which glowed like a mock fire: clouds like black smoke, and below them the village in purple ashes. I had seen such a landscape somewhere before: near Radzillow in 1915? Perhaps the Lewiatynski Grove in 1916? Or in the Polesie in 1920? Suddenly in my memory arose the days of my youth, days shot through by the bullets of Russians and Ruthenians.

It grew colder still. The sandy track through the empty fields led me to a group of tall trees, which stood out sharply in the black landscape against the purple veils of the heavens. Going downhill I suddenly found before me a small, dense pinewood, surrounded by a low fence, beyond which, in the depths of the green pines, rose a squat stone monument. I guessed that this must be the war cemetery at Pronki, and indeed, in a moment I discerned the graves : they lay in many rows, dug in the thickets of shrubs and plants. They gave the impression of being too deserted, too well forgotten, too far set aside from the road of life. And yet here someone had once made straight paths of gravel, planted trees and flowers. Soldierly comradeship, the comradeship of death had industriously built these graves, grudging neither work nor workmen. Each of the fallen had received two granite slabs. One, smooth, covered the mound and was surrounded by moss, the other, set upright, had been carved by a mason with the name, regiment and company of the man who lay there. With difficulty, as dusk had fallen, and rain had partly obliterated the letters, I read out the inscriptions. I was surprised to find that all the graves had much the same. date. I found many Polish names, but remembered only one German one : Wilhelm Neumann, of Lipsk, died 18th March; 1916. I remembered it quite by accident, because I happened to trip on the split slab over his grave. Again that date in March!

What days those must have been!

In the course of time the trees had covered the cemetery with a thick shield of needled branches. Their roots, greedy for the richer and damper depths of the ground, passed by the slabs and reached down to the very coffins, to the skeletons in the coffins. They say that when a tree's roots touch the heart of a dead man its sap runs faster and its leaves take on richer colours. That must be the reason why the trees here, though it was autumn, were fairly bursting with growth They overflowed the boundary fence like beer poured into a tankard. Good German beer.

The dusk grew thicker, and the sun set in deep silence For a moment its half-circle set the bushy heights aflame then it rolled downward, letting loose mists, night and darkness. They leaped from behind the hills, fell on the village gathered up the cottages and ash trees, then attacked thf cemetery, joining its shadows in one great funeral, circle.

I wanted to leave, but could not. I was ashamed to desert these already deserted. But as it was late, and high time to go. I left at last. Not looking back, I vaulted the fence reached the road and began to climb the slope. To right and left lay ditches and hillocks, deserted artillery positions. Before me, quite close, was the wood. I reached my path safely, and was soon among the trees, but the shapes of the branches began to melt into one grey mass with their trunks in a vague mist I looked at the sky: above the trees it was quite clear, a lew stars had begun to shine. For a minute I wondered whether it would not be better to go back to the edge of the wood and follow it till I came to the main road. On this were telegraph poles, the best guides. On the darkest night I could follow the poles right to the hostel. I decided that it would bt better, especially as in this silent-, deserted place I felt rathel uncomfortable'. I am not afraid of apparitions or ghosts, but all the same it was too gloomy here at night. I turned on my heel and went marching back, but immediately walked into a denser pocket of mist which had risen from below. In a moment I was enveloped, and lost all sense of my surroundings.

Evidently I had left the path, for some bushes caught me by the legs, and grew across my way. I began to press through them, with-it must be confessed-my heart in my mouth. In this there was some anger against this-damit-unnecessary wandering in the wilderness. What's more, I simply couldn't find my way back into the 'open. The night was dark, and I could see nothing, even above the trees. Every few moments my feet stuck in the horrible mud. At the very thought that I might come upon some deeper quagmire I was filled with fear and horror. Sometimes, straining my eyes, I seemed to see a distant light, but it was only a delusion, or perhaps a will-o'-the-wisp. It occurred to me that I would do better to sit down in some less damp spot and wait till they found me. But on the one hand I was ashamed to face the Scouts, and on the other I was soaked and cold. It splashed more and more under my feet. Giving up, I was wishing to stop, when I came to hard ground. I was no longer running into trees, roots were no longer sticking out their knotted knees. I was only tired, with a tiredness bordering on unconscious-ness. I stood still for a moment, by an effort of will overcame a desire to rest, and in spite of the feeling that I was dragging hundreds of pounds of lead on each foot-moved on. I was still surrounded by thick, opaque mist. I knew that I was out in the open, away from the forest, hut where-1 hadn't the slightest idea. Then fatigue came over me again, my eyes began to close, and it started. It's really difficult to tell what it was, but it was certainly not sleep. I tried to explain it as poisoning by the evil breaths of the earth-maybe marsh gas-who can know or ascertain ?

The mist which enveloped me in its opaque veil. was not completely dark. On the contrary, it glowed dully, like the sea on a summer's night. Its cold fire penetrated to one's very heart. I remember in what deep draughts I drank in the mist, and what pleasure it gave me, but at the same time it increased the feeling of bewilderment which lay on me. My thoughts floated lazily, as light as the interplanetary ether, but as clear and shining as the stars sown in that ether. Above all dominated the feeling of gratitude that everything had turned out so well. I was content, one would have said bursting with satisfaction. As I went I wondered how people can speak of bad luck, have troubles, bah! worry about anything at all. All reality seemed very far away, unnecessary and quite unimportant.

As I have said, I didn't stop walking. There was no question of fatigue. On the contrary I was hungry for action, but my whole desire for expansion was confined to the forward march, which didn't worry me, rather amused me. For this march was not a march at all. It's true I moved my legs and touched the ground with them, but nevertheless I flew. There is no other word for it. Flew! I can't explain it any other way. It was floating in space, rising in a light element, being oneself an element without weight. I rid myself of my heavy and clumsy body, which changed in miraculous fashion into uncertainty and dissolution.

How long this lasted I do not know, but it was splendid. I remember, too, that at times I was not alone, but moved among other shadows. Maybe they were only thicker mist, or earthly objects imperfectly seen through the mist, maybe only the sights of life. thrown outside the world of contrast where the sun, an intolerable, burning jailer, sketches recognizable shapes in black, white and colours. Out of the world, where one can touch with the hand trees, flowers, stones or animals. Here in the mist all ideas came from outside, formed not by the mind. nor the imperfect fancy, but by a sixth, tenth or hundredth sense, the sense oi: the infinity ot the mist.

Somehow these fancies had human faces. To-day I can swear I recognized them. I recognized them with delight, seeing in them the sign of a new element existing outside time. They were the laces of those gone before, mixed with those present and even those to come. They did not surprise me with thei/ unexpected appearance from the intangible imagination, the more so that they joined with me, as I joined with them, making one whole of the mist, its theme and heart, the misty soul in its swimming liquidity.

At last, after an infinite age-infinite, I write, because no gauge can measure it. I felt the weight of my body and at the same moment the feeling of flight vanished. The transference was easy and without shocks, as if a good driver had braked a train before it came to the station. Everything began to move more slowly, the rush of figures before my sight was swept away, and the mist thinned, till in a moment I found myself out of the mist, in the dark night, on some road. There was a ringing in my ears and my head ached-these were the -last traces of my superhuman existence, but how earthbound, tiresome, and oppressive! But that too soon passed, and in the place of my bewilderment was a hair-raising fear. Then I should have certainly done something stupid, shouted for help, or, worse, fled blindly ahead into the night, if I had not caught sight of' the light of an electric torch in front.

I shouted: "Hey! Hey!"

"Hey! Hey!" a shout came back from. far away. In a moment I was with the boys. who, worried by my failure, to return by night time, had come out to meet me. I would gladly have hugged them all. For I must honestly admit that, while I lived through all that, it was pleasant, but the afterfeeling was one of the most horrible I had ever known. I had the impression that I was smeared with some grease, something horribly sticky, and that I- should wash as quickly as possible. Those fields around Nieslucz are full of the poison of war.

Early next morning, well' and in good humour, I set off for Uzla. My wife and her companions had taken a sloop. The wind was favourable, so the canoe under sail sped along. heeled well over. Foamy waves came under my weather gunwale and I climbed them passionately and with pleasure. Every drop of water splashing on my face was a new attraction, a seal confirming (maybe this sounds banal) that it is grand to be alive. Perhaps during the past night I was too near the gloomy Erebus. Here on the wind-blown water the lowering images splintered into nothingness and the wind blew all the mist away. The shore was sharply drawn on the horizon, touched-by the stormy, roaring, living lake!

Three kilometres before I reached the hostel a squall fell on me from behind the hill in a black cloud. The waves grew foamier, and their short manes struck the gunwale, driving the boat from her course into the middle of the lake. The wind had changed, and was blowing in my face, straight oft the land. I looked behind me. Not a sail, no sign of a sloop. I was alone on the lake: the canoe had no weather boards,and much canvas. I had to decide quickly : either to turn and run with the wind over 10 miles of stormy water, or to risk my luck, against all the principles of seamanship, and make into the wind toward the shore. I decided on the second course, took down mast and sail, in rough fashion tied them to the gunwales, and began to work with the oars.

The waves rose, and the wind blew with all its force. It was. no wind, but a tangible body, a real heavy body throwing itself on me and my little boat. More and more water poured into the cockpit. I was sitting, in water, working with all my strength, the sweat poured off me in streams, and I realized that I was not moving from the one spot. The oaks on the shore grew no larger. A black cloud covered the lake and a wide sickle of the opaque crepe of rain raced over the water. It blew over me in a shower of tiny drops and a moment after the dull outlines of the shore showed again. I saw that it was nevertheless nearer. The wind grew lighter, and I realized that I was under the shelter of the hill and the forest.' Now I knew I could make the shore. A little while later I ran to the first reed bed, and slipped from one to another toward the Uzla. I was soaked, frozen to the bone, my teeth chattered, but I was inexpressibly happy. For fun I came to a sandbank and tipped the water out of the canoe. It is not done to come home with one's boat wet.

A minute later I was sitting in the warm shelter and gulping hot tea laced with brandy. It is good to be alive.

In the sunny September afternoon the bus took us to Wilno. The road led home. Through' the open windows, as we crossed the Skiema, we threw the traditional pennies into the water to ensure our return.