WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?
My name is Danuta Onyszkiewicz and I want to tell you the story of my great-grandfather’s older brother by – among other things – this website and following his footsteps in a journey around the world.
Why is his story worth telling, you may ask?
He had a difficult life filled with loss, grief and defeat, but he did not accept his fate without a fight. He always strived to be better, to help those around him and to spread knowledge and tolerance. Being only 21 he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in the Far East Russia for an attempt to assasin Russian Tsar Aleksander III. From a young convict with no perspectives he became the Ajnu King, protector of indigenous people in Far East Russia and North Japan, pioneer in social sciences.
Until this day in Japan he is considered to be a national hero. I believe it is crucial for us to honour such people by remembering their legacy. Read more
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Bronisław Piłsudski Association
Account number 91 1050 1025 1000 0090 3176 0698 (in Poland)
SWIFT and IBAN numbers coming soon
WHO WAS BRONISŁAW?
Bronisław the Tzar assasin
His name was Bronisław Piłsudski, he was born into a Polish gentry family in Lithuania in 1866. He, along with his brother Józef were involved in Polish independence movement from an early age, which resulted in him getting kicked out of school. Then he moved to St. Petersburg and joined an anti-tzar movement as a first-year university student. He and a few of his co-conspirators (for example, Lenin’s brother, Alexander Ulianov) were involved in an attempt on the Tzar’s life which ended in failure and as a result Bronisław was sentenced to death. The scope of Bronisław’s involvement in the conspiracy is a subject of debate – was he an active member or was he just friends with the wrong people? Was he just printing anti-government leaflets in his apartament or was he building bombs? Either way, the police did not concern themselves with such details.
Bronisław’s father was beside himself when he heard the judge’s verdict and pleaded with various officials to spare his son’s life. Fortunately, he succeeded and death sentence was reduced to exile in the Far East of Russia, Sakhalin, considered the worst penal colony in the Empire.
Bronisław the convict
The twenty-one year old was loaded onto a ship along with other criminals – thieves, rapists and murderers – and set off on a gruelling journey, locked in the ship’s brig for months on end with barely any food or water. A large part of the prisoners never made it to Sakhalin, so horrible were the conditions during transport.
Finally, when he made it to Sakhalin he was sent to a labor camp where his main job was cutting down trees. Somehow he managed to persevere in the unwelcoming climate and difficult, oftentimes deadly work.
After almost two years he was singled out by the camp guards as „the man who can read and write” and thanks to these sought-after abilities he started working in the camp’s office. Soon, he was instructed to perform whether observations, geographical research, census and other tasks essential for the Russian Empire to control new land.
Bronisław the anthropologist
Once he started his explorations of the island he came into contact with its indigenous peoples – the Nivkh, Orok and most of all Ainu. Although he was initially seen as an emissary of the conqueror, he was able to communicate that he was, in fact, also a representative of an oppressed nation and because of that he was able to bond with the locals and delve deep into their life.
He started studying their language and culture all the while helping them adjust to the reality of living under Russian rule. For example he began teaching them how to preserve food, because their old fisheries were now controlled by the Tzar’s officials.
Bronisław’s research was so impressive that he, a person who was still convicted and serving time in a penal colony, received orders to continue his work exploring the indigenous cultures and even got extraordinary resources to do so. He got a camera and an Edison’s phonograph with which he recorded traditional Ainu songs. It is largely thanks to these recordings that we now know how their language sounds.
Bronisław the family man
He became so close with Ainu people that he gained their trust. He married an Ainu woman, Chuhsamma, and had two children with her. Unfortunately he never got to see his younger child, daughter Kiyo, because he had to flee Sakhalin. Russia and Japan were at war, and all able men were being enlisted to fight. Bronisław, a pacifist, did not want to participate in a war and so he had no other option but to escape. He gathered whatever resources he had and boarded a ship to North America.
His American period is the least known part of his story, and one which I intend to uncover during my travels, but we know for a fact that he sold some of his possessions and got in contact with a few Polish migrants living in the New World to get back to Europe and reunite with his family in Poland.
At that time his younger brother, Józef, was already a prominent independence activist, soon to become the first Marshall of the resurrected Republic of Poland. He commanded great respect and was a beloved military leader. With his help Bronisław tried to get his Sakhalin family to come to Poland, but all efforts proved fruitless. Chuhsamma’s family would not allow her to go and Bronisław was starting to realise that a woman that different form everybody else would be considered a freak in the society.
After that he reconnected with his childhood crush and started to find some semblance of peace, but unfortunately she soon died of breast cancer.
Bronisław the (suffering) patriot
Things only got worse for him from there. He could not get a proper job – he was an experienced anthropologist, but he had no formal education. Another famous Bronisław who was also an anthropologist, Malinowski, was able to formulate his method of research thanks to his talks and correspondence with Piłsudski, but the latter did not get much credit for it.
He tried to follow in his brother’s footsteps and advocate for Polish independence, but as it was mentioned before he was a pacifist and he wished to do so rather through dialogue and diplomacy, than with a weapon in his hand. He travelled Europe meeting with various people, but many of his friends and acquaintances noticed that his behaviour was getting odd and erratic. He was coming to people’s homes in the middle of the night, kept murmuring that he had to go back to Sakhalin and save the people there, started to wander alone forgetting what was going on around him…
Now we know the reasons of his behaviour – he suffered from PTSD and depression, but over a hundred years ago he remained undiagnosed. There are many theories concerning his death, but the most common one is that he finally committed suicide in May of 1918, jumping into the Seine. He never saw his family again or free, independent Poland, which was brought back to the map in November of the same year after 123 years of subjugation to Russia, Austria and Prussia.
Bronisław the Ajnu King/the pioneer
Although his end was tragic and his life was hard, he left behind a legacy that still lives on, even a hundred years after his death. Slowly, the public begin to notice the brother of a great military leader who did not want to fight, but protect. He succeeded in doing so – thanks to him we now have Ainu dictionaries, songs and traditions recorded. His grandchildren live in Japan to this day and meeting them and reconnecting with family after all these years is a privilege.
My goal is to travel the world in Bronisław’s footsteps, maybe discover new facts about his life that have evaded researchers and see Bronisław descendants in Japan (which is coincidentally my family as well 😉 ). But most of all – this journey is about respecting my roots, about showing the world what an amazing individual my great-granduncle was. I hope you will go on that journey with me as I travel Europe, Asia and North America, searching for an echo of a world long gone.
Bronisław travelled mostly by ship, the trans siberian railway was not yet completed when he was exiled. I intend to be as close to the „source material” as I can, so I decided to forgo planes and get around the world the old fashioned way. It will take a lot of time, but I feel it will also get me closer to how my ancestor was feeling. Of course, I realise I am not a convict and I am free to do what I want and go where I please, but I would like to feel at least a tenth of what he was experiencing.
I expect my route will look as follows:
Warsaw → Vilnus (Lithuania) → Zułów (Lithuania) → Tallin (Estonia) → St. Petersburg (Russia) → Moscow (Russia) → Kiyv (Ukraine) → Odessa (Ukraine) → Istambul (Turkey) → Port Said (Egypt) → Colombo (Sri Lanka) → Port Kelang (Malesia) → Singapore → Shanghai (China) → Vladivostok (Russia) → Khabarovsk (Russia) → Nikolaevsk (Russia) → Sakhalin (Russia) → Japan → Shanghai (China) → Vancouver (Canada) → Seattle (USA) → Chicago (USA) → Philadelphia (USA) → New York (USA) → Londyn (Great Britain) → Paris (France) → Zurich (Switzerland) → Geneve (Switzerland) → Berlin (Germany) → Prague (Czechia) → Vienna (Austria) → Zakopane → Kraków → Warsaw
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What will become of Project Bronek?
– Me and my team intend to gather all information uncovered by me during my travels and create a Web Doc – an interactive web documentary in which the users will be able to put themselves in the shoes of a late 19th century character observing Bronisław’s life.
– I am an amateur photographer, so I take a lot of pictures (you can check out my Instagram here). When I finish my journey I want to organise an exhibition of my photos and give a few lectures about Bronisław and my experiences