But when exhumers stopped at Mrs. Teresa Witkowska's grave in the village of Promna, Poland, which was scheduled for several days of work with their brushes, buckets, and shovels, and removal of her remains, they were surprised to find that the exhumation was unnecessary.
Their expectations rose dramatically September 23 when, after digging up a little soil and taking out a few rows of bricks in the ceiling of an underground crypt, Dr. Karen R. Burns, a forensic anthropologist from Charlotte, North Carolina, stepped down a shaky ladder with a flashlight, looking for teeth and bones for mitochondrial DNA testing, and got samples without moving the 206-year-old body of Mrs. Witkowska out of the brick-entombed crypt.
The purpose of the probe by a team of American experts was to confirm whether or not General Kazimierz Pulaski's bones were in Savannah, Georgia, 5,242 miles from Warsaw. No one expected the mission to come to an end so quickly, easily, and successfully. Dr. Burns, who sent three front teeth of Pulaski's maternal relative to a forensic lab for DNA testing, said the chances of success are very good.
Before anyone knew that General Pulaski's grandniece was in a brick-entombed crypt, officials of the Polish government decided a 13-piece monument, approximately 15 feet in height, on the grave would endanger the lives of gravediggers and ordered the Americans to hire a contractor to take it down for a short period of time and then raise it again. On Sept. 21, Szczepan Kowalski of Radom, the third generation of his family in the monument business, arrived with his crew and did this work before all the permits were issued for the exhumation. Then Kowalski, who sent half of his crew back to his marble works in Radom, used two men after lunch to grapple with the roots of an acacia tree that had grown over the top bricks of the burial chamber.
On the morning Promna expected the work to begin, the Rev. Jan Gorny, pastor of St. Mary Magadalen Church in the village since June, who had instructions from his chancery office to cooperate with the American investigators, was horrified when he learned that gravediggers planned to carry Mrs. Witkowska's remains to an old barn across the road from the entrance to the church cemetery. He prepared a room with running water in the parish house and, because he could not reach the cemetery overseer by telephone, he walked about a mile to the cemetery and told his servant that he had a more suitable place for the work of the forensic anthropologist. Neither the barn nor the parish house, however, were needed.
The plan for Father Gorny's next visit to the cemetery was more successful. Just before Dr. Burns was to go into Mrs. Witkowska's crypt, Janusz Paciorek, a retired engineer from Poznan who had a two-door Hyundai car, picked up the priest at the rectory, which was undergoing repairs next to the church, and drove him to the cemetery. Walking to a cement base at the head of the grave, where the monument stood before, the priest, dressed in a white blouse and purple vestments over a black cassock, took off his zucchetta and opened a prayer book. He read from it, sprinkled holy water on the grave, and then kneeled down to peek into the vault where the granddaughter of General Pulaski's sister was laid to rest in 1861.
Nothing stopped the spectators from soaking in all the sights and feelings of a would-be exhumation until Dr. James Metts of Savannah, the leader of the investigative team, tried to keep a horde of reporters, photographers, and onlookers away from the scene. His administrative assistant, Charles Powell, pulled out a roll of yellow tape, on which was printed in English Crime Scene/Do Not Cross -- By Order of Savannah Police Department, and unrolled it from tombstone to tombstone. It was a waste of time. Most of the spectators didn't understand English.
It took only a little bit of watching the college professor from North Carolina to realize that she didn't want too many people prying into her work. When photographers hovered over her like vultures, she acted like she would leave the diggings unless they moved back to the surrounding graves.
Perhaps no person followed the scene more closely when Dr. Burns faded in the dark hole than the 82-year-old Edward Pinkowski of Philadelphia. Where he sat, with his back against the yellow tape, he hardly missed the click of a camera, the flick of a pencil, or the passing of objects from the grave to the surface. Many a Polish journalist, or dziennikarz as each one was called, devoted a sentence or a paragraph to the eagle-eyed observer on the sideline. A Polish news service thought the Philadelphian instead of Dr. Metts, the laconic, perfectly coiffed, rather laid back medical examiner from Georgia, was head of the probe. Actually, Pinkowski only financed it. At the grave, Father Gorny offered a prayer for his health.
With Dr. Burns down in the crypt, two persons who work in government bureaus of Poland, Paul Barford, a British-born archeologist in Warsaw, and Witold Bujakowski, a monument conservator in Radom, remained on top of the vault. When Dr. Burns handed to Bujakowski a moldy crucifix, which she found inside the coffin on the chest of the corpse next to a bone of an index finger, I asked the receiver in Polish if it was made out of gold. "It's bronze," Bujakowski replied in Polish.
No sooner had Barford deposited the cross in a plastic bag than Lazar, who flew to Poland at Pinkowski's expense to serve as a translater for the non-Polish investigators, came over and told Pinkowski not to ask any more questions.
In that one flash of arrogance, Lazar, about half of Pinkowski's age, was in stark contrast to Bujakowski who, it should be on the record, knew very little English. After Lazar walked away, the Polish conservator asked the man who had spent years looking for maternal relatives to identify the bones of General Pulaski he found in Savannah if this was the most important day of his life. Pinkowski grinned from ear to ear.
Memories of the Past
No matter how excited he was, Pinkowski will never forget the cross that was lighted by sunshine for the first time since 1861. Mrs. Burns also found a long green velvet cross on the lid of the rotted coffin.
The bronze cross, no more than six inches long, did not have the figure of Jesus on it, but it was a reminder that a cross was also unearthed in 1852 when General Pulaski's remains were dug up on Greenwich plantation and moved a little more than three miles to Savannah, Georgia.
Eyewitnesses made a big difference between then and now. Lazar would have you know none of all this. Minute after minute, Dr. Burns, who was born in Pennsylvania and educated in Florida, was surprised by what she found in the crypt. She is the only person in the world to hold in her hands the skulls of General Pulaski and his sister's granddaughter. Powell took a picture of her holding Teresa Witkowska's skull. Then it was put back by the anthropologist in the coffin. There were only three eyewitnesses to the incident.
For people who want to know more of Dr. Burns' findings, they have to wait. "My final report from this trip," she wrote, "will entail every detail about the samples and all other information obtained from the grave."
One of the best memories she has of the expedition to Promna is a photograph. She put it in a little frame by her computer. It shows her, Dr. Metts, Paul Barford and Edward Pinkowski on the last day in the cemetery with happy grins on their faces.