Travelling east on minor roads, we cross the former boundary of East Prussia and slowly the landscape changes. The village churches in this one-time German territory of Ostpreußen hardly differ from those we know so well in Berlin’s rural hinterland. There is a familiar mix of coniferous and deciduous woodland, interspersed here and there by lakes, their still waters often fringed by reed beds. Two deer stand by the side of the road, their knowing eyes monitoring the occasional passing tractor or car.
There are Prussian-style red brick barns and tumbledown houses constructed in brick and solid dark-brown wood. Our old map shows German place names that don’t feature on modern signposts. One-time Hohenstein changed to become Olsztynek, while German Ortelsburg has become Polish Szczytno.
We slip ever deeper into the forests. Mushroom gatherers sit patiently by the roadside, many looking in anticipation at us as we approach, always hopeful that we might stop and buy the rich pickings they have found in the forest. We pass the fierce fences which hide a remote military facility. In a nearby village, Stare Kiejkuty, locals talk of night-time comings and goings. “It was a clandestine CIA detention centre,” says one man. “Codename Quartz. The Americans might still be there for all I know. That’s where they rounded up suspects after 9/11,” mutters the man who doesn’t want to say more and settles down for a late afternoon beer by the side of the village pond.
These remote Polish borderlands are out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Edgelands that provide cover for those with something to hide and sanctuary for those who just want to escape from modernity. The latter was just what the Old Believers were looking for when they moved to the East Prussian village of Eckertsdorf in 1831.
Eckertsdorf to Wojnowo
Swinging off the main road, we follow the rutted tarmac north to Eckertsdorf, a village which straggles along a single road. Today it is known by the Polish name of Wojnowo. It is a neat place with well-tended gardens, trimmed grass verges and an evident sense of community.