The Olza in myth and history
The Olza in literature
Throughout the centuries, Cieszyn Silesia has developed on a small geographical area. It has always been a compact region, enclosed within natural borders of mountain ranges and rivers, with one dominating centre of power. From the end of the 13th century, the region was a duchy with Cieszyn as its capital. At first, the duchy was ruled by the representatives of the Piast dynasty and from the middle of the 17th century by the Habsburgs. When it comes to geography, the most important rivers in the region were the Olza and the Vistula, whose sources are located very close to each other. The Olza, which flowed through the capital of the duchy and next to the Piast castle, has become one of the most important foundations for self-identification that dominated in social consciousness. Since ancient times, it has been an element of regional culture. It featured in folk tales and legends, making their themes familiar and close to the hearts of people living in the region.
Paweł Hulka-Laskowski (1881-1946) "Silesia after Olza" (Śląsk za Olzą) published in 1938.
The literary culture of this area was shaped by peasants and to a lesser extent by townspeople, but later also by the working class. It was because these groups were the most numerous. Literature was influenced by local traditions (and this is why so many local symbols appear in literary texts, beginning from ancient rulers from the Piast dynasty, through legends, ending with beliefs). However, especially in the 19th century, literature developed and was enriched thanks to an influx of clerks and workers, the rapid industrialization of the region, wider access to education (thanks to which many more students could attend secondary schools and universities outside Cieszyn Silesia) and the beginnings of a modern national identity. National rivalry which started in the middle of the 19th century and political changes and divisions which took place at the beginning of the 20th century led to the collapse of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire (the Habsburg monarchy) and to the establishment of Poland and Czechoslovakia. As a result, the region was divided (artificially, because its shape was determined by external factors), which had a profound impact on the consciousness and emotions of its residents. In this context, the Olza, regarded as a factor determining the awareness of one’s own ethnic origin and the attachment to one’s home country, became a frequent motive in literature, especially since the second half of the 19th century. For thousands of Poles living in the part of Cieszyn Silesia which lay outside Polish borders, the Olza became a special symbol. Since that time, their native soil has been known as Zaolzie (the Trans-Olza Region, this name is actually alive only in Polish consciousness because it serves as an abbreviation for lands “beyond the Olza”, which expresses the Polish point of view on the region separated from the Polish national community).
The Olza appears mostly in literature from the 19th, 20th and 21st century. Paradoxically, the river, its significance to the region, as well as towns and villages located on it were described only recently, that is in 2000, when a publication devoted to the Olza came out. It sought to describe the river as a binding element and a symbol of an area which used to be uniform, but for almost 100 years has functioned separately in two different countries. From this perspective, the river connects people living on its opposite sides, which is expressed by the title of the publication: Olza od pramene po ujście (The Olza from Its Source to Its Mouth). The book was edited by Irena Cichá and a group of Polish and Czech contributors. The same author took up the theme of the Olza from a slightly different perspective in her work published in 2007, Beskydské grunĕ = Beskidzkie gronie: za Olzou a Wislou = nad Olzą i Wisłą (The Peaks of the Beskid Mountains: On the Olza and on the Vistula). An even more comprehensive description of the river, its ecosystem, nature and its use by man can be found in a work called simply Olza (The Olza), written by Bronisław Ondraszek and published in 2007.
The name of the main river in Cieszyn Silesia was commonly used by Polish researchers who focused on this region when they wanted to signal the direction and subject of their research. A book which deserves a special mention due to the scope of its topic is a monograph edited by Daniel Karol Kadłubiec (who was born in 1937 in Karpętna in Zaolzie), entitled Płyniesz Olzo: monografia kultury ludowej Śląska Cieszyńskiego (The Olza, Here You Flow: A Monograph on Folk Culture in Cieszyn Silesia) (the first edition in two volumes came out in 1970 and 1972, the second edition was published in 2016). The name of the Olza was often used by authors who described facts related to the history of the region, especially the birth and development of industrial and national processes. It included the conflict over the national affiliation of Cieszyn Silesia, which broke out in the first half of the 20th century. Some of such literary works are: Nad Olzą: Śląsk Cieszyński w wiekach XVIII, XIX i XX (On the Olza: Cieszyn Silesia in the 18th, 19th and 20th Century) written by Józef Chlebowczyk (1924-1985, born in Karviná) and published in 1971, which describes the process of determining national affiliation in 1918; Świt nad Olzą (Dawn on the Olza), written by Edward Buława (1825-2002, born in Łąki on the Olza) and Robert Danel (1934-2008, born in Cieszyn) and published in 1988; and Nadolzie zrywa okowy (The Olza Region Throws off Its Shackles) which was edited by Danel and published in 1998. The name of the Olza River also appears in numerous works describing the activity of the Polish ethnic minority living in Zaolzie. Some of such works which should be mentioned are: Polacy na Śląsku za Olzą (Poles in Silesia Beyond the Olza) by Witold Sworakowski, published in 1937; Śląsk za Olzą (Silesia Beyond the Olza) by Paweł Hulka-Laskowski, published in 1938; Działalność kulturalno-oświatowa Polaków za Olzą (1920-1938) (Cultural and Educational Activity of Poles Beyond the Olza (1920-1938)) by Zenon Jasiński, published in 1990, Po drugiej stronie Olzy: przemiany zasad samookreślenia polskiej ludności Śląska Cieszyńskiego w świetle prasy (On the Other Side of the Olza: Changes in the Principles of Self-identification of Poles in Cieszyn Silesia as Shown in Press) by Jolanta Krawczyk, published in 1992; Nad Olzą i Ostrawicą: działalność społeczno-wychowawcza i oświatowa Towarzystwa Szkoły Ludowej w Zagłębiu Ostrawsko-Karwińskim (1894-1919) (On the Olza and on the Ostravice: Social and Educational Activity of the Village School Association in the Ostrava-Karviná Coal Basin (1894-1919)) by Roman Baron, published in 2006. When it comes to the period of the Second World War, there are two notable works: Przewodnik po upamiętnionych miejscach nad Olzą: lata wojny 1939-1945 (A Guide to Commemorated Places on the Olza: The Wartime Years 1939-1945), published in 1977; and Kraj kde teče Olza: příspĕvek k dĕjinám boje proti fašismu na Tĕšínsku 1918-1945, a work by Roman Prášil, a Czech researcher, published in 1965. As we can see, these works were written in different historical periods. Today, some of them need to be assessed critically. Nevertheless, they show that the issues they take up are still valid and topical. They have been listed here due to the fact that they use the name of the Olza River as a synonym for the whole region.
The Olza is also referred to in various types of guides. Some examples are: W górach za Olzą: informacje i przyczynki krajoznawcze (In the Mountains Beyond the Olza: Sightseeing Information), written by Jan Żywioł and published in 1992; and Po tamtej stronie Olzy: mały przewodnik (On the Other Side of the Olza: A Short Guide), edited by Teresa Zemła and published in 2001. There are also the works of Michał Kowlaski, for example Śląsk Cieszyński po obu stronach Olzy: przewodnik turystyczny po Śląsku Cieszyńskim oraz gminach Godów i Jastrzębie Zdrój (Cieszyn Silesia on Both Sides of the Olza: A Tourist Guide to Cieszyn Silesia and Godów and Jastrzębie Zdrój Communes), published in 2004.
As we move on to discuss references to the Olza which appear in belles lettres, it is worth starting from a publication which combines visual art and literary creation. In 2005, a collection of paintings by Zbigniew Damiec was published under the title Olza w akwareli Zbigniewa Damca (The Olza in Watercolour Paintings by Zbigniew Damiec). The painter’s works were paired with poems written by Kazimierz Józef Węgrzyn (whose poetry will be discussed later). Another book with paintings which include a few depictions of the Olza is a collection of works by Zbigniew Szczepanek entitled Cieszyn: miasto nad Olzą = mĕsto nad Olzou = a town on the Olza, which was published in 2014.
Works in prose which make references to the Olza are not numerous. However, there were two notable novels: Święta rzeka (The Sacred River) written by Pola Gojawiczyńska in 1938, at the time when Zaolzie was reclaimed by Poland. Her novel is a fictionalized account of the attitudes and actions undertaken by people living on both sides of the border. The second novel which should be mentioned here is Marynka, cera gajdosza: powieść obyczajowa znad obu brzegów Olzy (Marynka, the Daughter of a Gaida Player: A Novel of Manners from Both Sides of the Olza) written by Paweł Łyska (1914-1978), who was born in Jaworzynka but emigrated during the Second World War. His book was published in London in 1973.
The Olza is also often featured in biographies and memoirs. An example is a short reminiscence of the river which appears in a story written by Walenty Krząszcz (1886-1959), a teacher and a folk writer from Górki Wielkie. He was not born nor raised in the vicinity of the Olza and in fact, it was the Vistula that should have been dearer to him. However, when he came to Cieszyn to attend a seminary for teachers, the Olza encouraged him to take walks: “I was walking along the incessantly murmuring and splashing Olza, staring into its flickering waves, I was immersing myself in a dark coniferous forest, growing on the steep riverside, I was wandering along paths speckled with gold...” (W złotym Cieszynie; In Golden Cieszyn). When it comes to more contemporary artists, the memoirs of Tadeusz Zubek (1912-2009, born in Wędrynia) were published in 1997 under the title Z nurtem Olzy: pamiętnik XX wieku (Flowing with the Olza: A Diary of the 20th Century). In 2006, Melchior Sikora (who was born in 1937 in Babice near Wadowice, but was raised and lived in Zaolzie) published a book entitled Przygody chłopców znad Olzy (Adventures of Boys Living by the Olza).
When it comes to poetry, there are plenty of works in which the Olza appears either as the lyrical I or as an important theme. If we managed to collect all these poems, they would make up a large anthology. This is why only a few examples from different historical periods will be quoted here. All these works make unique references to the Olza and express sentiment to the river.
The poet who most probably wrote the best-known poem about the Olza was Jan Kubisz (1848-1929). Both this author and his poem “Do Olzy” (“To the Olza River”), today known as the song entitled “Płyniesz Olzo (“The Olza, Here You Flow”), were described in a separate article. Here, I will present a fragment of a different poem written by Kubisz, namely “Ziemia nasza” (“Our Land”). It comes from a collection of poems entitled Niezapominajka (Forget-me-not). It expresses emotional attachment to one’s native land and its symbols, among them the Olza. Kubisz portrays this kind of love as an imperative.
Reaching the sky high above,
Huge mountains are standing in a semi-circle
And from their peaks are flowing down
The ribbons of the Olza and the Vistula:
This is your beloved land!
Just look all around:
Oh, if this sweet image
Is not engraved in your soul
And does not move your heart
And does not fill your eyes with tears,
Then you must have a heart of stone.
The title page of a volume of poems by Jan Kubisz “Niezapominajka” (“Forget-me-not”), with his most famous piece – here under the title “Do Olzy” (The Ode to the Olza). In the form of a song, it has been the anthem of Cieszyn Silesia for generations of the inhabitants of the region. Notable is the dedication to the nineteenth-century Polish writer Józef Ignacy Kraszewski and the facsimile of his signature being a proprietary sign of works from his private library, which is kept in Cieszyn. (Illustration from the collection of the Historical Cieszyn Library)
The literary output of Kubisz was deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the next generations. It is evidenced by numerous references both to the author himself and to his poems. A perfect example of this are the works of Reverend Emanuel Grim (1883-1950), who was born in Karviná and then lived in Istebna for many years. He wrote two collections of poems whose titles refer to the Olza: Znad brzegów Olzy (From the Banks of the Olza River) (1913) and Znad źródeł Olzy (From the Sources of the Olza River) (two parts, published in 1935). His poem entitled „Nad mogiłą pieśniarza śląskiego J. Kubisza” (“Over the Grave of the Silesian Bard J. Kubisz”) includes the following fragment:
Oh, the bard, the Silesian bard,
You have already gone!
Cemetery trees will soon talk to you,
When Silesians stand up to protect the Olza
Against future storms!
And in this sacred Silesian guard
Your living word will play a role!...
In a poem entitled “W obcym kraju” (“In a Foreign Country”), published in the collection Znad brzegów Olzy (From the Banks of the Olza River), Emanuel Grim expressed deep attachment to the native soil, embodied by the Olza and the Castle Hill in Cieszyn with the Piast stronghold. In the fragment quoted below, the poet confesses that it is easier to bear the hardships of life when he is staying in his beloved homeland. In his later poems, written after 1920, the same author expresses his deep pain caused by the division of Cieszyn Silesia. It was a feeling common for the generation which witnessed this division.
My heart wants to escape my chest
And rushes with my memories
Off to the land where the Olza flows
And her murmur sweetens the days of suffering...
Off to the land where the old Piast rock stands
In a dead dream of the centuries,
Where it is bathing in the waters
Above the transparent Olza riverbed...
Cover and title pages of volumes of poems by Emanuel Grim published in 1913 and 1935. (Cieszyn Historical Library Collection)
The reminiscence of homeland provided reassurance during even the most difficult life experiences. It is evidenced by a fragment of a poem written by Adam Wawrosz (1913-1971), an author born in the same village as Jan Kubisz, namely Końska. The poem is called “Nasz kraj” (“Our Country”) and was written in 1940 in Dachau concentration camp. It was published in a collection entitled Z adamowej dzichty (From Adam’s Cloth). The author included in it many elements related to Cieszyn which helped him in this difficult time of his life, such as nature, folk tales and a literary reference to “Płyniesz Olzo”, the anthem written by Kubisz:
Flowers grow on the meadows
And the Olza flows among them.
It proudly hums an olden tune
About our land.
On its dark banks in the night
The forest silently rustles
About nocnice and utopce
From old Silesian tales.
Silesian and Cieszyn identity was also beautifully expressed by Emilia Michalska (1906-1997), an author of poems, short stories and dramatic plays who was born in Pruchna, a village on the north of Cieszyn. She came from a peasant family and sometimes used the local dialect in her works. Her poem “Kto zacz jestem” (“Who am I”, published in a collection of poems entitled Chłopskie słowo, The Peasant Word) shows a strong sense of unity in Cieszyn Silesia and expresses admiration for its flora and fauna, natural resources and history. But most importantly, it expresses love for one’s country and roots.
I want the world to know who I am
I’ll tell everybody where my land is.
It lies where the old town of Cieszko stands,
Where Polish waters have their beginning,
Where Barania and Czantoryja
Hide their peaks in the clouds,
Where the black treasure lies hidden in the ground,
Where the ancient Piast clan lives,
Where there is plenty of riches,
That’s where my country and my kin are.
My land is where the Olza weeps,
Where a spark shines on a lump of coal,
Where Jabłonków and Karvina lie,
In Bogumin, where the Odra has its beginning
And takes its waters from our Olza,
Where ancient mossy settlements still stand;
This land is as beautiful as heaven itself,
This is where I come from, this is my land.
The symbolic meaning of the Olza was also noticed and expressed by writers who did not come from Cieszyn Silesia, but worked and lived here at some point of their lives. The motive of the “faithful river”, well-known in Polish literature, was used in reference to Silesia by Józef Gabriel Mondschein (1883-1963), who worked here in the inter-war period. He addressed this motive in his poem “Cieszyn”.
Oh, the Beautiful Town!
No enemy of silence will get your charm!
The silent Olza murmurs in this land,
And silently taps on your threshold...
With endless celadon fields,
Surrounded by blue hills,
Oh, the Silent Town, you symbolize
Cordiality, the sister of the sun!
You bloom with your simple honest heart
Treason is distant and foreign to you;
The Olza rustles under your bridge.
The Olza, the faithful river, rustles...
Cieszyn is listening if its current is alive.
(Open your ears too! Listen!)
How the silent Olza beats
With an incessant rhythm of the spirit.
Hear its whisper! - Hear how the Olza
Discloses its secret language to the town.
Under this unyielding tower,
The eternal tower of the Piasts.
Keep murmuring, keep murmuring the new faith
Springing from youthful hearts!
Keep muttering the ideas of Stalmach,
You faithful river of Cieszko town!
Among numerous poets writing at the end of the 20th century or at the beginning of the 21st century on the Polish side of Cieszyn Silesia, there is one who should be mentioned here. It is Kazimierz Józef Węgrzyn (born in 1947 in Miejsce Piastowe), a Polish teacher who settled in Istebna. In one of his poems from the collection entitled Cieszyn z lotu serca (Cieszyn from a Heart’s Eye View), he described the painful experience of witnessing the division made in the 20th century, focusing on the inner attitude of man, the fight against grudges, brooding over the past and accepting changes in the surrounding world, which usually turn out to be permanent. If we look at the literary output of this author from a wider perspective, his poems call the readers to respect the past and the attitude of earlier generations, as well as strive to improve their inner lives. A look on the Olza, which symbolizes the division, takes the poet to a spiritual sphere where good battles evil.
Because your heart won’t make the river turn back...
You say that I should forget, that there was enough black
Enough returns to the old days
Because your heart won’t make the river turn back...
The world will always be stronger.
Poetry written in Zaolzie after the Second World War is a unique phenomenon. The fascination with and attachment to the homeland found an outlet in lyric poetry. The style of this poetry is quite diverse. It depended on a given author’s individual choices and the fascination with different poetic forms, but also on external life circumstances and living in a totalitarian state, which decided what could be published. Expressing national feelings was under strict control of censorship. Authors risked being accused of revisionism and disloyalty. Therefore, it is not surprising that one’s own identity was expressed on the regional level, through the native land and the fear of losing it. There were many literary works which emphasized this attachment and constructed identity by referring to symbols, such as the Olza. Collections of poems by individual authors and anthologies of poetry from Zaolzie referred to the name of the river several times. Some titles were truly telling. In 1982, a small collection of poems written by authors from Zaolzie was published under the name Z biegiem Olzy (As the Olza River Flows). In 1987, a much larger collection entitled Zaproszenie do źródła: wiersze 26 poetów zza Olzy (An Invitation to the Source: Poems by 26 Authors from Zaolzie) was published. After the political transformation in Poland, it became possible to publish a collection entitled Z biegiem Olzy: antologia poezji zaolziańskiej (As the Olza River Flows: An Anthology of Poetry from Zaolzie). Even though the political transformation removed many former limitations, it also created new ones. This situation was described in another collection of poems entitled Trudniejszy brzeg rzeki: antologia wierszy zza Olzy (The More Difficult Bank of the River: An Anthology of Poems from Zaolzie), which was published in 1997.
Jan Szymnik (1930-2011), a teacher from Zaolzie who was born in Frysztat, described this attachment to the native land as sealed with painful life experiences. His poem “Do Olzy” (“To the Olza”), which comes from a collection entitled “Znad Olzy fal” (“From the Waves of the Olza”) emphasizes the connection between subsequent generations and the bond with one’s ancestors, using contemporary poetics. Faithfulness to the native land, regardless of external circumstances, is treated by the poet as a moral imperative, which was also an important factor in the poetry of Jan Kubisz, dramatically broken at the end of the 20th century.
Oh, the Olza, the river of my homeland!
In your sources
There is the source of my family home
In your swift waters
The blood of my tortured fellow man
And the tears of my sisters.
Oh, the Olza, the river of my home land!
On your banks
There are the roots of my father.
In your far-away mouth,
There is the end of my home
And the ashes of my ancestors.
A similar reflection can be found in the literary output of Władysław Bury (1926-2000), a coalminer born in Karviná. It was expressed in a fragment of a poem published in a collection entitled Z mojego kraju nad Olzą (From My Land on the Olza).
I’ve put down my roots
In my fathers’ land,
Here I’ll sleep my eternal dream
And nobody will change that!
Another member of the generation shaped by the Second World War was Władysław Młynek (1930-1997), born in Gródek. In his collection of poems entitled Droga przez siebie (The Road Through Myself), which was published in his twilight years, the author bids farewell to the river by which he was raised and then worked, emphasizing an almost personified relationship between himself and the Olza. The poet is aware of the fact that his generation strongly identified with their home land, but the next generation no longer feels this deep connection, for various reasons.
You are the inscrutable source
In this land, you have murmured
A thousand songs
The sun is above you,
The sun is in you.
The smile is above you,
The smile is in you.
Today, I’m singing a song
That will be buried with me...
You’ve wept, you’re orphaned
In the reverie of your banks.
Who will understand you...
This shrinking of the Polish community in Zaolzie was also expressed by Franciszek Nastulczyk (born in 1957 in Bystrzyca on the Olza) in one of his poems from the collection entitled Tam, za pozornie przeźroczystym powietrzem (There, Behind the Seemingly Transparent Air).
On the Olza
Silence is stepping down from the mountains on its toes
It thickens above the living scar of the river
Nobody asks about anything
Is our secret
We are silent
We are the most silent of men, the humble
We are so funny
Without a voice
The dream to prevent Cieszyn Silesia from being separated and to prevent the Olza from becoming a border river brutally dividing the town, the region and the human community which developed throughout centuries, was described by Renata Putzlacher, a writer from Karviná, in her collection of poems under the telling title Ziemia Albo-Albo (The Either/Or Land). She expressed her thoughts in a poem “Divertimento cieszyńskie” (“Cieszyn Divertimento”), whose fragment is as follows:
To be born a hundred years ago
In a town - a communicating vessel
Catch the first tram and stow away
Through the Olza (at that time, in both ways).
A metaphorical depiction of the river was presented by Henryk Jasiczek (1919-1976), who is believed to be one of the most eminent poets from Zaolzie. He worked as a Polish journalist in Czechoslovakia and was a member of various Polish organizations. After 1968, he was persecuted by the Polish government. It was prohibited to publish his works and Jasiczek could not cross the border. His poem expresses his feelings for his native soil and familiar landscapes, but also uncertainty towards his own experiences and the hope inspired by the observation of nature and spring which he wanted to extend and transfer to his own life.
A crumb of spring
I would like to express the Olza
In poetry today
Words are silver
They sneak like wagtails
In May wind
The landscape is so familiar
That I don’t know which one is real
The one flowing in me
With blackberry thorns
And shining with trout
Smelling like cut grass
Or the one flowing beside me
Carrying a green canoe
In oily shine
A fluttering willow leaf
Hauling the crumbs of spring
To the other side of summer
The reception of the Olza River in literature will be concluded with the words of a poem entitled “Do Olzy” (“To the Olza”) and written by Jan Pyszko (1925-2008), who was born in Nawsie. This poem perfectly captures constancy and changes in what Cieszyn Silesia used to be throughout the last 150 years and what it is now. It also shows that the anthem written by Jan Kubisz is still topical and that the “sacred river” is still symbolic for the residents of Cieszyn.
...Oh, the Oldza, Oliga, Olza - you Indo-European wetness
The river of Jablunkov, Trinec, and the black gold of Karviná
Of the two Cieszyns with the legendary well of the Three Knights
Keep flowing like years ago
Even though different, yet just as beautiful
On your banks.