Identity and Assimilation among the Poles of Zaolzie

By Kevin Hannan

An imposing man in his mid-thirties, Karol Siwek serves as mayor in Sucha Gorna, a village in the Zaolzie district of the Czech Republic. I paid Siwek a visit one Saturday and found him in his overalls working in the barn behind his house. His sister-in-law teaches in the local Polish-language elementary school. Like much of the village's ethnic Polish population, Siwek's family was living here when the oldest local records were compiled. "We were here three hundred years before the Czechs and we'll be here when the Czechs are gone," he states. There were four ethnic Czechs and 1,900 ethnic Poles living in Sucha Gorna in 1900. Today the 2,485 ethnic Czechs outnumber the 1,228 ethnic Poles. Assimilation with the Czech majority is the trend in Sucha Gorna and throughout Zaolzie. Despite the pride that Siwek and his neighbors demonstrate in their Polish ethnicity, there is no guarantee that future generations of Poles in Zaolzie will survive.

Zaolzie is a part of the former Duchy of Teschen (Cieszyn in Polish), now part of the Czech Republic, which was ruled from 1290 until 1653 by a branch of the Piasts, or the Polish royal dynasty. Few regions of Europe have known so many different cultural influences. Teschen Silesia is located at one end of the Moravian Gate, a lowland passage between the Carpathian and Sudeten Mountains which historically has separated the Baltic Sea and the north European plain to the Mediterranean. At least as early as the ninth century a fortified settlement existed on the site of modern Teschen. The city developed as the administrative and cultural center of the Duchy of Teschen. Sharing borders with Moravia, Slovakia and the Polish Ma¸opolska [Little Poland], the Duchy evolved as the southeastern-most territory of Silesia. During the Middle Ages, the borders of the Polish, Czech, and Hungarian kingdoms met in the Beskid Mountains east of the city.

While Silesia's early development took place within the Polish state, in 1335 it became a part of the Czech kingdom. German colonization began in the thirteenth century. Though never so strong as in Lower Silesia, German influences became evident in the language and culture of Teschen. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Beskid Mountains in the southern half of the Duchy were colonized by shepherds of mixed Romanian-East Slavic-Slovak-Polish ethnicity.

After the death of the last Piast ruler in the seventeenth century, the Duchy passed directly to the Habsburgs. In 1742, Austria was forced to cede most of Silesia to Prussia, but it retained the extreme southeastern corner including the Duchy of Teschen, which was henceforth known as Austrian Silesia. From the time of the Reformation, the region has been inhabited by Protestants. Today some 20% of the population on both sides of the border is Lutheran. In certain villages in Zaolzie the old stereotype of Catholic Pole and Protestant Czech has been reversed.

The reappearance of Slavic states after World War I reflected the modern trend to recognize the rights to sovereignty of ethnic groups possessed of a distinct language and territorial integrity. The delimitation of political borders however was complicated by the existence of regions such as Teschen Silesia, where the population was ethnically mixed and national identity was in dispute. In the twentieth century Teschen Silesia has been the source of a bitter dispute between Poland and Czechoslovakia. Ethnicity and the spoken language formed the basis for Polish claims on the region. The Czech claims were based on dynastic ties and economic considerations. Both sides claimed considerable literary tradition associated with the region. By the 1920 decision of the Allied Powers, the former Duchy of Teschen was divided. Czechoslovakia received the richer industrialized territory in the west, which the Poles called Zaolzie, "the land beyond the Olza River", and Poland received the eastern half, populated primarily by peasant farmers. The newer suburbs of the city of Teschen, subsequently called Cesky Tesin, became part of Czechoslovakia, while Poland received the old town. Ironically, support for Czechoslovak rule had been most vocal in that part of the former Duchy awarded to Poland, while the main centers of pro-Polish sentiment became part of Czechoslovakia.

At that time, one of the local political figures was Jozef Kozdon, mayor of Cesky Tesin in the interwar period and leader of the Slazak movement. Before World War 1, Kozdon advocated the establishment of a neutral Teschen, a Little Switzerland in the Beskids. While the Slazak policies were at first pro-German and only after 1920 pro-Czech, KoÏdon and his Slazakowcy were motivated primarily by anti-Polish prejudice.

In the period between the two world wars, Poland was not reconciled to the loss of Zaolzie. Following the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938 and German annexation of Czech territory, Poland seized that part of the former Duchy which it considered linguistically and ethnically Polish. Until 1939, when most of the region was attached to the Nazi Reich, the Polish border stood just to the east of Ostrava and Frydek-Mistek. After World War 2, the region was briefly a source of tension. Since both countries were occupied by the Soviets, whose sympathies were on the Czechoslovak side, Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1947 signed a treaty ratifying the border of 1920.

The Iron Curtain not only separated Central Europe from the West, it also restricted contacts between the individual Soviet-occupied countries. Throughout much of the communist period the border between Poland and Czechoslovakia was tightly sealed, even for families with close relations on the other side. This particular border was one of the last sections of the Iron Curtain to fall after the collapse of communism.

Today again after many years it is possible for local residents to cross the border without a visa. Separated by the Olza River, the modern cities of Cieszyn (pop. 37,800) and Cesky Tesin in (pop. 27,900) are a major border crossing between Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as a major entry point for Slovaks visiting Poland. Some 18 million people crossed the border here in 1994. The old town of Cieszyn, with a Romanesque rotunda dating from the twelfth century, remains one of the most charming cities in this part of Europe. On Wednesdays and Saturdays the narrow streets of Cieszyn are filled with Czechs and Slovaks who purchase furniture, food products, and gasoline in Poland. Teschen Silesia made the news in 1995 when Pope John Paul II during separate trips to Moravia and Slovakia canonized as saints of the Roman Catholic Church two natives of the region: Czech, Jan Sarkander (1576-1620) and Pole, Melchior Grodziecki (1584-16l9).

Despite the political and economic changes, traces of the old tensions are still evident. Karol Siwek and the ethnic Poles of Zaolzie, who according to the most recent census number 44,000, are recognized as a national minority within the Czech Republic. The Poles of Zaolzie have their own Polish cultural organizations, schools, and periodicals, including Glos Ludu, published in Cesky Tesin thrice weekly with a circulation of 6,500. Yet though the Czech Republic under the leadership of Vaclav Havel has gained a reputation as one of Europe's more tolerant states, Czech policies in Zaolzie reflect a long-standing lack of tolerance concerning Silesia. While Sorbs in Germany and Hungarians and Rusyns in Slovakia have the names of their villages posted in both the national and minority languages, under Czech rule in Zaolzie such signs have never appeared in Polish. Though the river which divides the region is called Olza by Poles and local Czechs, the Czech government insists that the name is Oläe. Some Czech business proprietors in Zaolzie have ordered their employees to speak only Czech. Since 1920, Poles have felt strong political, social and economic pressures to assimilate as Czechs. Owing to the similarity of the Polish and Czech languages and cultures, assimilation for many of Zaolzie's Poles has been an effortless process.

In many cases during the past century, families have been divided by ethnic consciousness and literary language (though not by spoken language). Among the older population the relation between spoken and literary language and ethnic consciousness still defies classification. Some of the most nationalistic Czechs are unable to speak Czech, but like their Polish neighbors speak po naszymu [in our own way]. The oldest features of this dialect are Polish and in recent decades, the dialect has increasingly become associated with Polish ethnicity. While teachers in the Polish schools prefer that their pupils speak standard Polish rather than po naszymu, the ethnic Poles remain the real guardians of this dialect and the regional culture. The Zaolzians of Polish ethnicity manage to be Silesian and Polish at the same time, whereas the population of Czech ethnicity has sacrificed many of the regional traditions.

The political border of 1920 is reflected in certain cultural and social characteristics, e.g., attitudes towards organized religion, which distinguish ethnic Poles in Zaolzie from citizens of Poland. Czechs are stereotyped as indifferent to religion and it is estimated that regular churchgoers make up only 5% of the population of the Czech Republic. While ethnic Poles in Zaolzie are more supportive of religion than Czechs, in this respect they are less religious today than Polish citizens. The cemeteries of Zaolzie reflect assimilation in the tombstones with Polish surnames and Czech inscriptions, but they also demonstrate that the practice of cremation has gained acceptance among some ethnic Poles. The communist government of Czechoslovakia discouraged the burial of corpses and promoted cremation.

Among the youth, one often searches in vain for traces of the former regional culture and identity. Among older folks, the borders of culture, language, and ethnic consciousness remain as sharply drawn as ever. As some Europeans speak of a New Europe, a continent of microregions including, for instance, Catalonia and the Basque homeland, Teschen Silesia seems to be a prime candidate for this kind of political development.


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Kevin Hannan is the author of a forthcoming book, Borders of Language and Identity in Teschen Silesia. He has taught Russian and Czech at the University of Texas, Austin. Research for this article was supported in part by a grant from the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX).

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