A Nobleman’s Haunting Legacy
by judy rakowsky
IN A POLISH VILLAGE IN THE 1930S, A BRIGHT FOURTH GRADER named Maria Nikolaevna Yazkovetz had little hope of returning to school in the fall, after state-funded education ended. Her widowed mother could not afford tuition on the meager pay of a seamstress.
Then one day a visitor from the local estate came to
Yazkovetz’s grammar school in Dabrowica in eastern
Poland, now Ukraine. Count Witold Broël Plater offered
to sponsor the two best needy students for three extra
years of education. Yazkovetz landed one of the slots.
“Lucky for me, Count Plater stepped in,” she
recalled many decades later.
Yazkovetz’s understatement belies the chain of
events —some tragic, some triumphant—that swept
her, the Count, and their families along in the churning
tide of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries,
depositing two members of their respective clans on the
unlikely shore of Boston College Law School in 2004.
But that’s getting ahead of our story.
Back in pre-war Poland, the young Yazkovetz not
only qualified for Count Plater’s three-year scholarship,
she went on to be named the best student in the
school. The honor came with the task of memorizing a
well-known poem about the Polish hero Emilia Broël
Plater. Dressed as a man, Emilia led hundreds of soldiers
into battle in 1831 against the army of Russian
Czar Nicholas I. She is known as the Joan of Arc of
Poland, rhapsodized in paintings and poems. She was
also Count Witold Broël Plater’s cousin, separated by
several generations. Although Yazkovetz grew up
speaking Russian, she memorized the Polish verses and
recited the poem at a large family gathering Count
Plater hosted at Worobyn, the estate by Yazkovetz’s
village southeast of Warsaw.
It was not the last time Yazkovetz benefited from the Count’s largesse. After seventh grade, her scholastic achievements once again earned her distinction and she joined a group of top students on a trip at the Count’s expense to see the mountain resort Zakopane and the Wawel castle in Cracow. They were supposed to conclude the trip in Warsaw. But the timing of their adventure, which started in late August 1939, was fateful: The Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, cutting the trip short. Yazkovetz, then thirteen, rushed home to find that her mother had obtained for her the last seat on a truck carrying children to safety in Siberia before the Third Reich stormed Dabrowica.
Yazkovetz’s seventeen-year-old brother
stayed behind and became active in the
Polish underground. Yazkovetz spent the
war in a grim Siberian orphanage. When
she returned home, she learned that villagers
had tipped the Nazis to her brother’s
underground activities and the Nazis
had retaliated by murdering her mother.
Aghast at the betrayal by neighbors and
acquaintances, Yazkovetz fled her hometown
with a Soviet military officer named
Krakovetsky, who became her husband.
The academic opportunities bestowed
by the benevolent nobleman served
Yazkovetz well. Eventually, she landed ahistory professorship at a university in
Moscow and set an example for her
daughter, who became an aerospace engineer,
and granddaughter, Irene Porokhova,
who arrived at BC Law School in 2004.
Unfortunately, Yazkovetz’s benefactor
lived a shorter, sadder life than she. By the
time he met Yazkovetz, Count Witold
Broël Plater had already endured tragedy.
The mansion near Dabrowica was destroyed
in 1918 by marauding Russians
who murdered two of his brothers. The
Count later inherited a great expanse of
agricultural lands, forests, and industry,
including a vodka distillery, and he rebuilt
the estate. But when World War II broke
out, the Nazis seized everything and arrested
him. Somehow he escaped, fled to
Warsaw, and survived the war. He did not
fare well under the succeeding communist
government, however, and died in western
Poland in 1962.
Irene Porokhova heard about the role
Count Plater played in her grandmother’s
life while she was visiting her in Ukraine
in January 2007. But the present-day connection
between the families was
Porokhova’s to make. As her grandmother
talked, Porokhova was struck by the
non-Polish name of the nobleman and her
description of a tall, slim benefactor.
Porokhova figured there had to be a link
to the lanky property professor she had
had as a 1L, Zygmunt Jan Broël Plater.
Porokhova and Plater already had a
standing joke that came up during the
first-year property class after they discovered
they hailed from the same part of
Poland. “We would say, ‘Ha ha, we could
be related,’ ” Porokhova recalled.
Excited by her grandmother’s revelations,
Porokhova emailed Plater from
Ukraine and stopped by his office when
she returned from winter break. At that
point, many details were missing, such as
the first name of the Count and how he
was related to the BC Law professor. And
where did the famed Emilia fit in? But it
was clear that Porokhova and Plater’s families
were linked not by blood or even marriage
but by the gift of education.
In the months that followed, the professor
and the student burned up phone
and computer lines researching their roots
and the connections between them. The
quest sent Plater digging through boxes of
documents and artifacts. He peppered his
ninety-seven-year-old father, Konstanty
Broël Plater, who settled in Pennsylvania
after World War II, with questions about
relatives from a faraway land and time. He
also asked his 103-year-old Aunt Helena
in Cracow for answers.
“If it weren’t for Irene, I never would
have even started this inquiry,” said Plater,
who even has the signet ring worn by his
great-great-grandfather Cesar Broël
Plater, Emilia’s cousin. Cesar is depicted in
a famous nineteenth century painting riding
to Emilia’s rescue as she battles a squad
of Cossack soldiers. Professor Plater already
knew that he descended from Teutonic
knights who settled on conquered
lands in Poland in the twelfth century.
What he didn’t know was that the fathers
of Cesar and Emilia were brothers of
Witold’s great-great-grandfather. Nor did
the professor know the details of the extraordinary
hardships that his eastern relatives
endured and overcame.
In the more recent past, for instance,
Professor Plater’s father, Konstanty, a Polish
diplomat, was posted to the US when
war broke out. When the Polish diplomatic
corps collapsed, Konstanty joined
the Polish Legion, and then the French
Foreign Legion, to fight Hitler. He shipped
off to Morocco and along the way had his
passport seized. He later snuck back into
the United States through the Philadelphia
naval yard. The strain and guilt of surviving
the war outside Poland took a toll on
Konstanty: His hair suddenly turned completely
white at age thirty.
Konstanty Plater was the second son in
his family and as such stood to inherit
nothing, that is, until his older brother
Ludwik died of pleurisy at the end of the
war, which he spent in concentration
camps. With the communist government in
Warsaw, however, the inheritance meant
little. Konstanty Plater, who grew up on a
different Plater estate from Witold, in central
Poland, learned that the Soviet-controlled
government took over the Bialaczow
estate just as it had seized Worobyn
from Count Witold Plater.
Zygmunt Plater was born in New York City and grew up on an eighty-acre farm in Pennsylvania that his father bought as a derelict property after the war. Years passed and Zygmunt’s father stood to inherit all the Plater properties after Count Witold died, but the government would not relinquish them. “Until I was fourteen,” Zygmunt said, “I was living with a foot in both lands. My father was always hoping the Soviets would leave and we would go back.”
For her part, Porokhova frequently
phoned her grandmother and prodded her
to talk about the childhood she’d never
previously discussed. Snippets emerged.
Yazkovetz was born in Kiev, where her father
was a railroad worker. He was assigned
to Dabrowica, where he moved the
family and then died in a work accident
when Yazkovetz was four years old.
As their quest continued, Porokhova
and Plater swapped the fruits of their research
in lively email exchanges. “Aha. I
think I have found my cousin,” Plater
wrote in May. “In a 1929 atlas of Polish
pooh-bahs I just found two listings that
may be one person, or one of whom may
be the link between our families: Witold
Broël Plater.” Porokhova’s grandmother
For the rest of the school year, more
pieces of confirmation fell into place. Even
the estate’s name, Worobyn, is the same as
the street where Porokhova’s uncle and
children live today. The street leads to the
grand property where Count Witold Broël
Plater was born in 1893. Zygmunt deciphered
his connection to the Count by going
back to the famous painting of Emilia
and her cousin Cesar.
Professor Plater knew that his family tree
was filled with princesses, counts and countesses;
he even holds a title of nobility. But it’s
a fact he seldom shares with acquaintances
or even colleagues. “That and $4.50 will get
you a double-latte,” he quipped. “I’ve never
really taken this stuff very seriously.”
He is proud, however, of his family’s
embrace of the tradition of noblesse
oblige. “For me growing up, noblesse
oblige was made clear all the time: When
you die, you jolly well don’t count the
money, you look back and see what you’ve
done for people.”
That tradition led Plater’s forebears to
uphold the obligation to feed, clothe, and
educate area residents and see to their
medical needs. In fact, when Zygmunt
Plater’s father Konstanty was younger, he
was robbed on a train to Warsaw. But the
thief was surely disappointed when he saw
the contents of the baggage he stole:
dozens of urine samples from town residents
headed for analysis at a Warsaw lab
at the Platers’ expense.
Porokhova and Plater say their discoveries
last year left them feeling enriched and
appreciative for the way their search
brought them closer to their family histories
and legacies. Plater, for instance, has
approached Harvard University and
Boston College about taking over the estate
on which his father was born, which
is inconveniently located 90 minutes by car
from Warsaw and Cracow and near the ruins
of a castle where Poles once held off attacking Tatars, mentioned in James Michener’s
book Poland. The fresco-filled
chateau at Bialaczow currently is a hospice
for 100 patients run by an order of nuns.
The government, which is the only one in
Eastern Europe that has never repatriated
property, might relent for an American institution,
he said, if not to its rightful heir.
Porokhova said she sees now that
whether he was conscious of it or not,
Plater’s family history actually predicted
his choice of legal specialty. “He loves the
land. The fact he became an environmental
law scholar is no surprise,” she said.
Since their discoveries of their families’ historic connection, Porokhova has passed the bar and started work as an associate in Boston for McDermott Will & Emery. She also has weathered sadness in her family in recent months with her mother’s hospitalization for a serious heart ailment and the death of her grandmother in September. Sadly, Plater also has suffered the loss of his father, who died in June.
The deaths prompted them both to reflect
on the events that their loved ones endured
and the looping connection between
their families. “Given our family histories,
Porokhova said, “I’m not at all surprised
we connected through education.”
Judy Rakowsky is a freelance writer from Somerville, Massachusetts, who is writing a book about her own family’s travails in Poland during World War II.
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