Reversing Oblivion is the story of a family estate called Bzionkow in Upper Silesia--and how it evolved from a royal estate, to an entrepreneur's value-added farm, to a communist collective farm, to the free-for-all of post-communist privatization by looters and speculators.
In Spring 2013, Ann Elisabeth Jessen, a Danish radio producer, calls Ann Elizabeth Michel to invite her to participate in a feature-length radio documentary about Americans unaware of their Jewish heritage. The original plan is to record a 2-minute story about Ann to combine with similar stories from other Americans.
During the recording, Ann Michel and Jessen make some surprising discoveries: the property that had once belonged to Ann’s great-grandparents is now for sale in post-communist Poland.
The buildings pictured in the real estate listing seem unchanged from images in Ann’s family scrapbooks. However, the estate is much smaller in size. The offering is for only nine buildings on 27 acres. The original holdings included three villages and close to 1000 acres.
The family had owned it for decades until, as Loschka Hepner Michel, Ann’s grandmother, said: “Mr. Hitler took it.” After World War II, the family estate lay locked behind the Iron Curtain. The Michel family memories of the estate fade.
Googling “Bzionkow,” the name of the forfeited property, Phil Wilde, Ann’s husband, discovers an essay written by Aleksandra Mucha, a local schoolgirl from the nearest town, Dobrodzien. In Polish, “Dzien Dobry” means “Good Morning.” In German, it is “Guttentag.” Today, this town close to Bzionkow retains both names, in two languages.
Illustrated with photos, this five-page essay posted on the internet reveals Aleksandra’s great love for Bzionkow Her grandfather had been the director there during the communist era in the 1960s and 1970s. She claims that a German nobleman, named Udo von Schweinichen, had previously owned Bzionkow.
Ann finds this revised history shocking.
Her great-grandparents, the Hepners, had lived at Bzionkow from the 1890s until 1938. Her great-grandfather had bought the property from Frederick Augustus III, the last King of Saxony. Her grandmother was born there. As a boy, her father had played on the grounds until the age of 14. Ann has postcards addressed to family members in Bzionkow from the 1920s and 1930s.
Ann inherited scrapbooks filled with photos of idyllic family life on this prosperous estate. But these scrapbooks contain no documents providing proof of prior ownership. Ann has only two things in her possession: the family pictures and family stories that have been passed down.
This disconnect between the Polish schoolgirl’s essay and her own family memories compels Ann, her husband, and the Danish radio producer, Ann Elisabeth Jessen, to find out more.
This property is now for sale. It can easily be visited. Monika Hemperek from Radio Lublin joins them to produce a Polish version of the radio show. They plan Ann and Phil’s trip to Bzionkow.
In Fall 2013, the radio crew does groundwork in Upper Silesia and Dobrodzien. They set up interviews in the area which reveal only partial answers to the question of who owned Bzionkow. Yet new mysteries emerge.
Jessen gathers enough material to produce a full-length radio feature documentary. Ann and Phil record video as well.
It also plays at listening events as well as at radio and film festivals.
Interest grows. Germans who know Guttentag, Dobrodzien and Bzionkow contact the makers.
In March 2015, Ann starts planning for Bzionkow’s future. Jessen and Hemperek’s radio feature plays at a multi-language public listening event in Dobrodzien. More hidden history is learned. The son of Udo von Schweinichen--the German nobleman who owned Bzionkow during the Second World War-- comes to the event.
To help navigate Polish culture and language, the filmmakers turn to their close friend, Professor David Ost. Ost is a professor of politics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York. He is also a leading expert on Poland and Polish political transformation
Luckily, Professor Ost, who speaks Polish fluently, is on sabbatical and living in Poland. He accompanies Ann and Phil on their return trips to Bzionkow. He opens the way for Ann and Phil to meet the people of Dobrodzien. He facilitates an alliance with Marian Rust, a Pole who is the current owner of Bzionkow. Mr. Rust could potentially help to make something happen at Bzionkow.
Having grown up in a family of engineers, builders, and architects, Ann Michel understands how they conceptualize projects. She knows that they could help to create what would become a pre-feasibility study at the now empty and dilapidated Bzionkow. She knows that colleges often send students into the field to do hands-on projects.
Through mutual friends, she meets Aleksandr Mergold, a Cornell University professor of architecture who researches adaptive reuse for old properties. He finds new purposes for old buildings so they will not die. Mergold was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and is now an American citizen. He understands Eastern Europe and former communist countries.
Mergold designs a studio class for his advanced students. He writes:
“The studio will engage the current stakeholders (local residents), regional consultants (design schools from Poland, and Germany), and a client – the descendants of the family who owned the farm before WWII, who are looking for proposals of the equitable future use of this farmland.”
He instructs his students to learn the history of the region in advance of their trip to Poland in Fall 2015.
In Dobrodzien, (formerly Guttentag) Ann, Phil, and David Ost help Professor Mergold arrange a town meeting between his students and local stakeholders. The locals share their concerns and ideas. Their input helps the students to explore practical redesigns by reflecting the desires and needs of the larger community surrounding Bzionkow.
Ann and Phil hope to revive Bzionkow with a new purpose in a sustainable form.
In subsequent meetings, local officials become enthusiastic about one of the students’ proposals: a facility that combines eldercare with childcare in rejuvenated old buildings.
Bzionkow has survived royalty, capitalism, communism, collectivization, and free-market abandon. Armies marched over its meadows and through its woods. An unmarked, yet well-tended grave sits mysteriously on the land behind the Manor House. Bzionkow holds memories of births, marriages, work, play, and death.