Culture always held a prominent place in the life of Zaolzie Poles. It helped to cultivate their national identity even under the most adverse conditions. Its importance grew during the communist era when Poles, deprived of their autonomy in other spheres of public life, focused all their energy on cultural activity. Yet even in this field serious restrictions – aimed at breaking the cultural code that since the 19th century strongly bound Cieszyn Poles with the body of the Polish nation and helped to maintain their emancipatory aspirations – were imposed by an alien, communist country. Thus, the only cultural activities in Zaolzie that were allowed, and even promoted and supported, were those strongly rooted in regional folk culture. References to national cultural heritage were permitted only when the communists considered the topic internationalist and progressive. Zaolzie Poles were to be definitively excluded from the historical Polish national community and, after being granted the status of one of the “nationalities” inhabiting Czechoslovakia, were obliged to build the national Czech and Slovak state. At the same time all cultural creativity and its dissemination could take place only within and under the auspices of the Polish Cultural and Educational Union (Polski Związek Kulturalno-Oświatowy – PZKO) – subordinate to the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Due to the plebeian descent of most Zaolzie Poles and natural – under the circumstances – leftist leanings of a significant part of them, the policy implemented by the communist authorities found fertile ground in Zaolzie and in time produced results expected by the communists and by the Czech majority. Its consequences became fully visible only after the 1989 transfer of power.
Music was always a dominant element in Polish cultural life in Zaolzie. Since the mid-19th century Polish song has been an important factor in the process of shaping national identity. Its significance was most prominent during the interwar period when over one hundred Polish choirs associated in the Polish Choirs Union in Czechoslovakia were active in Zaolzie. The concerts given by combined ensembles during choirs’ meetings were probably the most spectacular demonstration of Polish power in this region (e.g. in 1937 the performance of 5000 choir members in Český Těšín was transmitted by all stations of the Polish Radio). Many pre-war ensembles resumed their activity after 1947 under the auspices of PZKO. Soon after, new ones appeared. The high quality of performance of some choirs brought them international recognition. They were the key Zaolzie “export product.” Their frequent appearances in Poland were to attest the strength of Polish culture in Zaolzie. The best known ones, enjoying great reputations were “Gorol,” “Hutnik” and “Melodia” as well as the no longer existing Polish Teachers’ Choirs – “Przyjaźń” in Karviná, “Hasło” in Orlová and “Harmonia” in Český Těšín.
Till recently about 25 Zaolzie choirs worked together in the – no longer active – Song and Music Association (Zrzeszenie Śpiewaczo-Muzyczne). At present, the majority of the still existing 24 Polish choirs in Zaolzie work under the auspices of PZKO, a few within the Polish Artistic Society “Ars Musica” and the “Hutnik” choir functions independently. Although singing remains one of the pillars of Polish cultural life, in the last decades many of the once famous choirs disappeared (in 1984, 33 choirs took part in the Polish Choirs Competition in Karviná and Český Těšín). At the same time the number of members in individual groups decreased while their average age significantly grew. Former male and female choirs are being replaced by mixed ones. The popularity of chamber ensembles is growing. Especially the younger generation finds them more attractive than large, traditional vocal ensembles under the auspices of PZKO. The most crucial change concerns the role they play. It seems that the activities of a significant number of choirs no longer serve the demonstration and cultivation of Polishness. This is now a secondary issue and singers join the ensembles out of authentic artistic need and – traditionally – social considerations. This is reflected in the repertoires of the choirs which apart from songs in Polish feature almost as many in Czech, Slovak and other languages, depending on the preferences of the audience. Folk music, on which many generations of Zaolzie choristers were brought up, traditionally dominates the repertoires. At present, honours and awards in prestigious international competitions go mainly to relatively new choirs such as Collegium Canticorum or – affiliated with the Polish Artistic Society “Ars Musica” – Collegium Iuventum and Canticum Novum.
Although the folk repertoire of choirs was widely esteemed, their popularity was overshadowed by that of folk song and dance ensembles which in the post-war period enjoyed official support. Since the founding of PZKO, many such ensembles were formed at its local chapters. At the turn of the sixties there were 45. In the middle of the eighties their number went down to 30 and at present there are 15 folk dance ensembles and five music and song ensembles. Established in 1954, the “Olza” Song and Dance Ensemble remains the largest, such ensemble. It has been given a representative status and is functioning within PZKO structures as its separate branch. Unfortunately, the 30 member “Olza’s” best years, when it appeared before audiences not only in Poland and Czechoslovakia but also in many other countries, from the U.S.A to Turkey, are over. Equally popular, and also with “representative” status, the “Górnik” Song and Dance Ensemble ceased functioning many years ago. Once well-liked “Sibica” was also dissolved. Comparable to “Olza” and former “Górnik,” the “Górole” ensemble from Mosty, previously associated with PZKO is now independent. “Błędowice” from Hawierzów-Błędowice/Havířov-Bludovice, “Suszanie” from Sucha Górna/Horní Suchá, „Bystrzyca” form Bystrzyca/Bystřice, and „Oldrzychowice” Dance Ensemble from Trzyniec-Oldrzychowice/Třinec-Oldřichovice, enjoy considerable popularity. Many children and youth ensembles are still active and together with school choirs for the youngest members of the Polish community in Zaolzie they are their first school of active participation in social and cultural life of the region.
For some time now many ensembles, especially music ensembles, rather than trying to revive old folklore, tend to go to the origins of authentic folk music and, on their basis, create their own music. In the process many musicians and dancers abandon their national mission and more and more often present Slovak or Moravian folklore which displaces the folklore of Polish lands, once prevailing in Zaolzie repertoires. These changes are particularly visible in case of smaller ensembles and bands active in the mountainous part of Zaolzie where making music together is becoming one of principal forms of popularizing the cult of “gorolskość” (“highlanders’ culture”), which is not necessarily understood and presented as an integral part of the Polish cultural heritage. Not only choirs, but also dance groups and music ensembles are primarily motivated by an authentic passion for music rather than national causes. Quite often children presenting musical pieces in local dialect switch to Czech to talk to each other right after leaving the stage. Thus, in informal situations, it is difficult to differentiate between Polish groups and Czech folk ensembles such as „Slezan” („Ślązak”), „Javorový” (“Jaworowy”), „Mionší” („Mionsz”) or „Jackové” („Jackowie”). Their repertoire also includes texts in local dialect and many of their members graduated from schools with Polish as the language of instruction.
Music and folklore hold a prominent position in the life of Zaolzie community. Practically all events here include a performance by a choir, ensemble or a folk group and some – if not most – cultural events are fully dedicated to folklore. Besides entertainment organized by individual PZKO chapters such as balls (the best known are “Bal Gorolski” in Mosty and “Bal Śląski” in Český Těšín), harvest festivals, wreaths on the river festivities and pig slaughtering fetes, it concerns chiefly the ever more popular enactments of old rites (e.g. “Polyni milirza” or “Miyszani łowiec”) as well as reviews of folk ensembles and festivals. The latter are headed by the flagship “Święto Gorolskie” in Jabłonków/Jablunkov – attracting thousands of viewers – and a PZKO Festival organized every two or three years alternately in Karviná and Trzyniec/Třinec (lately organized at longer, even four-year intervals). Also, in their case the increasingly multinational character of Zaolzie culture is visible. During both events the univocal Polish accents are reduced to standard phrases in official speeches and to the presence of a red and white flag, first – together with a Czech flag – carried at the head of a pageant and then placed next to it on stage. Parades with numerous red and white flags attesting the national identity to be frequently seen at Polish events organized abroad are not customary in Zaolzie. This probably springs from the belief that the events are Polish by definition because they present local, that is Polish, folklore and are organized by Polish associations. In reality “Święto Gorolskie” (“Highlanders’ Festival”) differs less and less from „Slezských dnů” (“Silesian Days”) – organized since 1969 by the Czech community in Dolna Łomna/Dolní Lomná – a vivid illustration of the assimilation of Cieszyn folklore by Czech cultural heritage.
Zaolzie’s achievements in the field of folk culture are exemplified by the careers of its native musicians such as Stanisław Hadyna from Karpętna/Karpentná, composer, founder and artistic director of the Song and Dance Ensemble “Śląsk,” and Jan Gawlas from Żuków Dolny/Dolní Žukov, composer, lecturer and rector of the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice. Ewa Farna, who in 2011 became the face of a promotional campaign in Zaolzie “Opt for Polishness” (“Postaw na polskość”), and Halina Mlynková began their stage careers in folk ensembles. Renata Drössler, a cabaret singer and an actress from Trzyniec/Třinec made a name for herself in the Czech Republic. Barbara Łakota, Anna Niedoba, Barbara Bocek, Noemi Bocek and Roman Lasota are popular in Zaolzie itself. A few rock bands made-up mostly of graduates of “Polish schools” are also active in the region. The greatest popularity is enjoyed by groups such as “Glayzy” from Wierzniewice/Věřňovice, “Apatheia” from Hawierzów/Havířov, “Bosso” from Český Těšín and – recently – “Ampli Fire” from Stonawa/Stonava with its leader Przemysław Orszulik. A phenomenon of its own is “Blaf,” which – in accordance with their statement – plays “gorol-grass” music. Their texts are in Zaolzie volapük – a local dialect flooded by lexical and grammatical czechisms, by most listeners no longer identifiable with Polish. Although the band’s musicians grew up in Polish community, they avoid being associated with the Polish national group and on their website, in Czech only, express satisfaction that: “Our originality stems from the fact that we are the only band in the world which sings country in Silesian dialect. However, there is a price to pay. We are popular only from Mosty u Jablunkova to Ostrava where we are understood. In the Czech Republic we allegedly sing in Polish. Whereas in Poland in Czech.” The great number of fans that “Blaf” gained in the Czech community, which sees its artistic creativity as a regional curiosity – intriguing but also, especially on linguistic level, amusing – should be considered a symptomatic phenomenon and induce speculation as to what place may in the future await the cultural achievements of native Zaolzie inhabitants within Czech mass culture.
In the cultural life of the Polish community in Cieszyn Silesia theatre has an equally long- standing tradition as music making. It flourished in Zaolzie in the interwar period and revived after WWII. In 1948, 82 theatre ensembles were already active in the region, 66 of them associated with PZKO. It was a potential substantiating the aspirations aimed at creating a professional theatre ensemble. The goal was achieved in 1951 with the establishment of the Polish Scene of the Tešín Theatre (Těšínské Divadlo) in Český Těšín, the only professional Polish theatre outside Poland and probably the greatest pride of the local Polish community. From that time the ensemble has given between ten and twenty thousand performances (450 premieres). Many performances were later presented in the Czech Republic, Poland and other countries. The ensemble also performs regularly in six other Zaolzie towns. Since 2008, Puppet Scene “Bajka” has functioned as a separate entity within the Tešín Theatre. Formerly the independent Puppet Theatre “Bajka” – established in 1948 – operated under the auspices of PZKO and addressed its repertoire to pupils of Zaolzie schools with Polish as the language of instruction. At present, “Bajka” is a bilingual theatre and offers Zaolzie audiences performances in Polish and in Czech.
Many well-known artists have been affiliated with the Polish Scene. Several began their stage career here. Among them were actors famous in the Czech Republic and Poland (Polish movie stars Jan Monczka and Przemysław Branny as well as – representing younger generation – Teresa Branna, Izabela Kapias and Maciej Cymorek as well as admired by Czech fans Bronislaw Poloczek) and directors including the innovative director Janusz Klimsza. The success of the Polish Scene, supported by its faithful audience and drawing more and more spectators from the right bank of the Olza River, did not diminish the popularity of amateur theatre groups of which ten or so are still associated with PZKO while others – including school theatres – function independently. Founded in 1903, the Jerzy Cieńciała Theatre Ensemble in Wędrynia/Vendryně stands out from among amateur theatres. It successfully reaches for very ambitious repertoire and amazes even professionals. The Wędrynia/Vendryně amateurs favour high art and cultivate Polish literary language, sadly abandoned by most remaining groups, which stage mainly light, amusing productions in local dialect and dealing with local reality. It seems that the Zaolzie theatre movement is undergoing the same transformation that over the years has changed the character of local song, music and dance ensembles. Its – originally – most important mission of popularizing national culture and upholding national spirit in Zaolzie has faded into the background, giving way to the need to pursue social and artistic objectives. It might be worthwhile for a moment to consider Wędrynia/Vendryně. Possibly thanks to its specific genius loci, the town is a home not only to the oldest theatre ensemble (at present associated with the local PZKO branch located in the building erected at the beginning of the 20th century that housed the Polish Catholic Reading Hall), but also to a unique sports team whose origins are rooted in the “Sokół” sports movement. They are the “Gymnasty,” who since 1905 (except for the war period) have been presenting hair-raising acrobatics and human body pyramids. Theatre ensembles have many occasions to present their productions during various events organized in Zaolzie, including theatre festivals and workshops. Among them, in recent years the highest ranking is the “Melpomeny” Amateur Theatre Review in – where else? – Wędrynia/Vendryně. It is linked to the annual small theatre forms review “Melpomenki” popular in the seventies and eighties featuring stage performance, cabaret, poetry reading, documentary theatre, one actor theatre and puppet theatre. Frequent recitation contests for young people and children are also held in Zaolzie. There one can most clearly hear the sounds l, h, rz, sz, cz pronounced the Czech way by youngsters reciting poems and nursery rhymes that are the canon of Polish children’s literature.
One might think that during the communist era fine artists – among all artists – were least subject to ideological pressure. You could not be wronger. The pressure exerted on Zaolzie painters, sculptors and graphic artists was the same as that exerted on other creators – their works had to comply with the standards of socialist realism. This demand suited, in a way, the tastes of Zaolzie public, averse to all experiments and expecting works rooted in folk convention and local realia. Still, from the beginning of the sixties, the tendency to follow one’s imagination and reject realistic depictions of the world started to prevail not only among the younger artists but also famous ones, who had gained recognition already before the war, such as Gustaw Fierla and Dominik Figurny or the author of monumental works Franciszek Świder. Increased cooperation with fine artists in Poland and joint plein air workshops in Poland and in Zaolzie fostered their endeavours. A new generation, represented by such prominent artists as Bronisław Liberda and Tadeusz Berger, entered the art scene. The fine artists had to struggle with censorship which occasionally would take a painting or two off the wall on the eve of an opening as well as with a lack of acceptance by the majority of the local public. The artists were supported by the Literary and Artistic Section (Sekcja Literacko-Artystyczna – SLA) of PZKO, formed in 1947. In 1956 SLA was divided into separate but closely cooperating subsections: fine arts, literature, music and – later – photography and film. A number of interdisciplinary undertakings, some highly esteemed and almost all in cooperation with literary and art circles in Poland, were completed under the auspices of SLA. At the beginning of the eighties the SLA literary section, after a crisis brought about by a dismissal forced by the authorities of the section president, Kazimierz Kaszper, found itself at a standstill and gradually its members dispersed. The visual artists, on the other hand, held together. In 1997 they joined the Fine Artists Association (Stowarzyszenie Artystów Plastyków) and in 2004 they chose to work independently from PZKO. It is not possible to list all Zaolzie artists deserving acknowledgment, but – besides the ones mentioned above – worthy of recognition are the achievements of such creators as, representing the oldest generation and working already before the war Henryk Nitra, Gustaw Nowak, Karol Piegza and Rudolf Żebrok as well as representing later, including the youngest, generations: Józef Drong, Bronisław Firla, Stanisław Kraus (+), Darina Krygiel, Zbigniew Kubeczka, Władysław Kubień, Monika Milerska, Oskar Pawlas (+), Julia Polok, Tadeusz Ramik, Jan Rusnok, Józef Rozbrój (+), Stanisław Waszek, Tadeusz Wratny (+) and others. Their works are part of several gallery and museum collections and are often exhibited in Poland, the Czech Republic and other countries. Polish photographers in Zaolzie associated in the Zaolzie Photographic Society (Zaolziańskie Towarzystwo Fotograficzne) formed in 2001 also remain very active.
The tension between the model of the functioning of Polish culture in Zaolzie with regionalism and folksiness as its axis – as imposed by post-war authorities – and creative freedom as well as the natural need to participate in the universal world of ideas and values on one hand and serving the Polish community on the other hand was felt in Zaolzie literary life throughout the entire communist reign. The increased pressure by the authorities and a combination of several factors was responsible for the fact that literature was more firmly set in the regional and folk context than fine arts. Already in 1947, an editorial in “Szyndzioły,” a new cultural section of “Głos Ludu” stated: “Native, Silesian folk culture will be our primary concern.” Such course prevailed among Zaolzie writers till 1989, restraining creative freedom and forming the literary tastes of local readership.
The Zaolzie literary milieu, with pre-war traditions and extensive literary output, after 1945 found itself strictly controlled by the communist regime. The restrictions included: strict censorship, incessant ideological pressure, increased security service surveillance, ban on publication. Writers with such a ban were offered only blue-collar jobs, and in a few cases Czechoslovakian restrictions were automatically enforced in the Polish People’s Republic. That left some authors with writing for writing’s sake and, in effect, total marginalization. Others – this being a painful chapter in Zaolzie history – betrayed their values, decided to cooperate with the regime and even turned informers. Nonetheless, after the war, from the very first years, literary activity flourished and the pre-war writers were joined by representatives of successive generations. The generational character of Zaolzie literature is one of its characteristic features and throughout the post-war period inter-generational discussions and arguments led to many literary experiments.
Despite renewed efforts of some writers (and visual artists) to free themselves from regional involvement and create works of universal import undertaken already in the sixties which found expression and incentive in closer ties with Polish literary circles and resulted in attempts to introduce experimental, innovative forms to Zaolzie literature (e.g. referring to modernism “lingwizm” of Władysław Sikora and Wilhelm Przeczek) and a few ambitious publications (such as W. Przeczek’s novel “Kazinkowe granie” which Tadeusz Konwicki was to consider one of the best in Polish literature), it was impossible to break the domination of regionalism. It manifested itself not only in references to folk culture and Zaolzie everyday experiences in prose and poetry, but – above all – in recording folk tales, parables and legends and in ennoblement of the dialect in which some authors chose to write.
Even Henryk Jasiczek, one of the best Zaolzie poets who, under different circumstances, could count on a prominent place in Polish literary pantheon, set his works in a folk, regional context. To fulfil his mission of a spiritual guide of the Polish community in Zaolzie, in his writings he honoured its customs and literary preferences and gave up innovative forms dear to him. Repressions that in fact eliminated him from social life were the price he paid for the courage he demonstrated in his works and public activity. Besides Jasiczek, among the writers successful already in the communist period whose achievements should be recognized are: Wiesław Adam Berger, Adolf Dostal, Janusz Gaudyn, Piotr Horzyk, Kazimierz Kaszper, Paweł Kubisz, Janusz Klimsza, Gabriel Palowski, Gustaw Przeczek, Wilhelm Przeczek, Władysław Sikora, Jan Daniel Zolich and others. At that time literature drawing directly from folk culture heritage, fully based on folk motifs or written in dialect was also popular. Here Karol Piegza, Ewa Milerska, Józef Ondrusz, Adam Wawrosz, Anna Filipek, Władysław Młynek and Aniela Kupiec, born in 1920, that is the same year that Zaolzie “originated”, attained fame transcending the borders of Zaolzie; their writings were continually acclaimed and attracted wide readership.
Like other artists, Zaolzie writers organized themselves in associations. The need to cooperate, to combine creative and publishing initiatives, to interact with other social groups and, above all, to affect local reality was another specific characteristic of Zaolzie literary circles. Writers united in the Literary and Artistic Section (SLA) of PZKO, formed already in 1947, which unofficially drew on the traditions of pre-war Silesian Literary and Artistic Union (Śląski Związek Literacko-Artystyczny). Very active and held in high esteem, SLA was quite selective and remained closed to many amateurs. Its ambition was to ensure the literary output of its writers the highest artistic and social rank and to place Zaolzie in a national and universal circulation of ideas. It was here that the need to set Zaolzie free of the restrains of folksiness and regionalism imposed after 1947 was most clearly articulated. This tendency was even more apparent in the activities of successive formal and informal literary groups such as Grupa Literacka “63” (Literary Group “63”) or – formed in the Prague Spring atmosphere – contestatory groups “H-68” and “Skrzyżowanie” (“Crossroads”). Till 1959 works by Zaolzie writers were published by SLA and afterwards by the Czech publishing house “Profile” in Ostrava which in 1960 obtained a concession to publish books for the Zaolzie market (in the 30 years of its existence 81 books appeared – 51 fiction and poetry titles, three scientific studies on folklore and 30 annual issues of “Kalendarz Śląski”/“Silesian Calendar”) Many works authored by local writers appeared also in Poland (up till 1995 a total of over 150 books by writers affiliated with SLA were published on both sides of the border). During cyclical, even if not always regular meetings in “Karczma Artystów” (“Artists’ Inn”) in Český Těšín, “U Adama” (“At Adam’s”) café in Třinec or “Pod Pegazem” (“Under the Pegasus”) café in Jabłonków/Jablunkov and finally, in the nineties, in a Polish-Czech social club “Avion – kawiarnia, której nie ma” (“Avion – a café that is not”) writers engaged in discussions and presented their works to public. Already in the eighties the first signs of approaching crisis appeared. It started with the forced change in the leadership of the Literary and Artistic Section which gradually lost its elitism and gave up the ambition of influencing the fate of Zaolzie community through literature. A true crack-up occurred after 1989. Initially, the release from communist bonds resulted in new initiatives and growth of hope for the universalization of Zaolzie literature combined with the conviction that good Polish literature can defend itself. In 1990, an independent Polish Writers’ Union in the Czech Republic (Zrzeszenie Literatów Polskich w RCz) was founded. However, after three years of existence it fell into inertia. The literary subsection of the SLA held its last meeting in 1991; its members didn’t reactivate it. A few year long activity of the Zaolzie chapter of the Upper Silesian Literary Society (Górnośląskie Towarzystwo Literackie) also came to naught. After eight years of existence the Publishing House “Olza,” – brought into being by the Congress of Poles – which was to replace the defunct “Profile,” closed down. Since the beginning of the nineties Polish books in Zaolzie have either appeared on the initiative of Polish organizations and institutions or have been self-published. Generally, besides commemorative, documentary and historical publications, the publishing market in Zaolzie is dominated by memoirs and diaries by Polish authors belonging to the departing generation. The cooperation with Polish literary circles is on the wane. Also, no major phenomena or authors appeared on Zaolzie literary scene with the exception of Franciszek Nastulczyk (who settled in Poland), Bogdan Trojak (for some time already writing in Czech) and above all Renata Putzlacher who made her debut in 1990, after the “velvet revolution.” In Poland she is known mainly thanks to her collaboration with singer and songwriter Jaromír Nohavica. Polish and Czech artists working with them came up with many literary and theatre initiatives backed by – informal at first – “Spolek Towarzystwo Avion.” Wider audiences, also on the Polish side of the Olza River, became familiar with Putzlacher’s work through the musical „Těšínské niebo – Cieszyńskie nebe” (“Cieszyn/Tešín Heaven”) staged at the Český Těšín Theatre. It paints an idyllic picture of peaceful coexistence of Czechs, Poles, Germans and Jews who supposedly in equal proportions since the dawn of time had lived in the territory of the former Duchy of Cieszyn. The success of the musical which ran for a few years is symbolic. It not only expresses the longing for a multicultural Arcadia which at the turn of the century captured the imagination of Zaolzie inhabitants (and Polish part of Cieszyn Silesia where “Cieszyńskie niebo” also had its fans), but shows the direction the contemporary Zaolzie literature is headed for. While maintaining its regional orientation and at the same time relaxing or actually breaking off the ties with literary scene in Poland, it is opening itself to formal and ideological exchange with Czech literature. This is apparent in the growing number of Polish-Czech literary, theatrical and publishing initiatives and, more directly, in a growing number of Czech texts penned by Zaolzie authors. It is not surprising since in recent decades there appeared in Zaolzie many Czech writers with local roots as well as Polish writers demonstrating their attachment to the region. Among them are graduates of “Polish schools” (schools with Polish as the language of instruction) fully assimilated in the Czech majority. Their biographies and creative paths are for many authors associated with the Polish cultural life in Zaolzie an actual alternative and an example which in time may prove more and more attractive. Young writers find the Czech language with its simplicity and explicitness more appealing than full of pathos Polish found on the pages of classical works. They are simply not familiar with the colloquial, vivid language of the streets. To them literary Polish is not only spiritually alien, but with an incomprehensible vocabulary and grammar very difficult to work with. Literary competitions for youth would be impossible in Zaolzie without the participation of authors from Poland since local youngsters prefer to write in Czech. It is likely that the history of Polish literature in Zaolzie will end with writers whose literary debuts belong to the past. The recent success of “Głos Ludu” journalist, Danuta Chlupova, whose novel “Blizna” (“The Scar”) was awarded first prize at the 4th edition of “Literary Debut of the Year” in Gdynia in 2017, is not enough to change the odds.
Zaolzie writings are not limited to belles-lettres. Scientific, mostly popular-science, studies focusing on – as befits borderlands – history, linguistics and, of course, ethnography appeared here throughout the entire period of the region’s existence. Zaolzie researchers, mainly amateurs, authored many notable works on all these subjects. Like other circles, researchers and non-fiction writers organized themselves in societies. Ethnographers united in the Folklore Section of the Central Board of the Polish Cultural and Educational Union (Zarząd Główny PZKO – ZG PZKO), formed in 1965. They engaged in research and documentation and published the results of their work mainly in “Ethnographic Bulletins” (“Biuletyny Ludoznawcze”) which they edited. Initially, experienced folklorists Karol Piezga and Józef Ondrusz oversaw the activities of the Section. Later the leadership went to academic scholar Daniel Kadłubiec, nestor of Zaolzie folklore studies, to this day considered an authority not only in the field of ethnography. In 2001, the Ethnographic Section replaced the Folklore Section and a younger generation took the lead. Today the section, involved in intensive research and documentation, inspiring and organizing events reconstructing old highlanders’ customs and popularizing Cieszyn folklore, is one of the most active among Zaolzie organizations. To a large extent the credit for its dynamism goes to ethnographers from the Polish bank of the Olza who joined the Section in the past decade.
The Historic Section of ZG PZKO (founded in 1965 and renamed History of the Region Section in 1984) united mainly amateurs with a flair for recording historical data. In its heyday, in the 1990s, after the lifting of censorship and renewal of Polish-Czech discourse, Zaolzie historians were busy filling the gaps in the region’s history and engaging in discussions with Czech historians. For many decades Stanisław Zahradnik, an authority on history and one of the few professional scholars in Zaolzie, headed the Section. In the past few years, after Zahradnik’s withdrawal from the Section’s activities, the involvement of its members weakened. At present, they focus on recording and preserving Polish memorial sites in Zaolzie and no longer manifest serious scholarly or popularization ambitions despite the fact that during the past two decades a few academic historians with local roots moved to Zaolzie. They, however shy from participation in the Section’s activity and jealously guard their scientific autonomy. The Documentation Centre (Ośrodek Dokumentacyjny) was established in 1993 by the Congress of Poles in the Czech Republic to complement the work of the Section. It not only collects and records writings – in particular sources documenting the history of the Polish community in Zaolzie – but also actively popularizes the history of the region through exhibits, lectures, participation in research projects and publishing initiatives. The Centre’s director and its sole employee (at the same time the custodian of ZG PZKO archives), Marian Steffek, presently plays a major role in shaping the historical consciousness of Zaolzie inhabitants. The Intergeneration Regional University (Międzygeneracyjny Uniwersytet Regionalny – MUR) is active in propagating education, especially liberal arts, in Zaolzie. Under the direction of Danuta Chwajol, it often raised crucial and difficult issues concerning Zaolzie and the identity of its inhabitants. Lately, under new administration, MUR tries to avoid controversy and slowly turns into a kind of Zaolzie third age university focusing on universal topics.
Of course, publications by authors other than local ones reach Polish inhabitants of Zaolzie. Book lovers still have access to literature published in Poland thanks to Polish sectors of public libraries or Polish book collections. In the beginning of the eighties they were – regularly visited by almost 7 500 readers – 78 Polish literature sectors offering a total of 224 000 volumes. In 1999 only 53 sectors with 150 000 volumes and 5 000 registered readers still functioned. At present 27 libraries have Polish sectors or collections. Among them the Regional Library in Karviná stands out. Besides a collection of over ten thousand Polish books, it offers its Polish members close to 30 periodical titles. The Association of Friends of the Polish Book, a 1999 outgrowth of the former Librarians and Readers Section of ZG PZKO provides a steady supply of Polish publications. Besides supporting Polish library collections, the Association organizes prestigious Polish Book Fairs, cyclical “Literary Feasts” (“Biesiady Literackie”), meet the author sessions, also for children, and many other events popularizing Polish literature. In Český Těšín operates the only Polish – private – bookstore in Zaolzie. It offers libraries and individual customers access to new Polish publications, newspapers and periodicals. Unfortunately, the Zaolzie younger generations’ poor proficiency in Polish has resulted in a drop in readership. Children and young people prefer to reach for understandable Czech literature. Polish newspapers and magazines which during the communist era were a window on the world for many Zaolzie Poles, lost their appeal. Events in Poland are hardly of interest to most of them.
The Polish community in Zaolzie relies on its own media for current information. Here, “Głos, Gazeta Polaków w Republice Czeskiej” (“The Voice, Newspaper of Poles in the Czech Republic”) plays a key role, which – still as “Głos Ludu” – appeared three times a week until 2017, and at present comes out on Tuesdays (8 pages) and – expanded to 16 pages – on Fridays. It is issued in 4600 copies by the Congress of Poles in the Czech Republic. Although the paper, first and foremost, relates events relevant to the Polish community in Zaolzie, it gradually gives more and more space to regional news not different from the ones found in local Czech papers. It is thus slowly turning into another regional tile, except that it is published in Polish. Attempts undertaken in the past few years to enrich the news service with information from the Polish part of Cieszyn Silesia met with indifference – and occasional outright antagonism – of “Głos” readers totally unconcerned about life on the other bank of the Olza River. The monthly “Zwrot” (“The Phrase”) is Zaolzie’s periodical devoted to culture. It publishes, next to information on current developments in the life of the Polish community, fiction by Zaolzie writers, reportages, reviews of cultural events, memoirs, biographies, articles on the history of the region, and materials on cultural life in Poland. “Zwrot,” since 1947 published by PZKO, remains under its administration, maintaining its attractive layout and high editorial standard. A few years ago, both papers, often competing with each other, launched their online versions. “Zwrot” introduced also an e-version in Czech, thus – possibly unintentionally – foreshadowing the paper’s fate. Both papers are financed mainly from Czech government grants and that necessarily influences the choice of topics and the tone of editorials. The caution with which “Głos” and “Zwrot” approach all issues that may cause friction in the Polish-Czech relations stems also from the fact that many of their journalists are from Poland and as “guests” try to avoid possible controversies. The presence of Polish journalists is another sign of the crisis of Polish culture in Zaolzie. There simply is a shortage of local reporters fluent in Polish and familiar with journalistic techniques. Another indication of the crisis is the end of activity of the Association of Polish Journalists in the Czech Republic, founded in 1989.
The format of the “Kalendarz Śląski” published annually since 1962 is similar to that of “Zwrot.” The Calendar enjoys steady popularity thanks to its attractive, sophisticated artwork design, interesting literary and historical texts and diaries. Besides “Głos” and “Zwrot,” periodicals addressed to children and youth have appeared regularly in Zaolzie. They are “Nasza Gazetka” (“Our Paper”), once an organ of Polish Scouts in the Czech Republic, as well as “Jutrzenka” (“Dawn”) and “Ogniwo” (“Link”) which still make it to the hands of the youngest readership. These periodicals often serve as teaching aids in schools with Polish as the language of instruction, published by state Pedagogical Centre for Polish Ethnic Education in the Czech Republic (Centrum Pedagogiczne dla Polskiego Szkolnictwa Narodowościowego). In addition, Zaolzie readers can find permanent columns in Polish in the Czech regional press such as the popular Třinec’s “Hutnik”. The attempts made after 1989 to start new publications in Zaolzie were unsuccessful. The ones that appeared were either ephemeral or cantered on issues of interest to a limited audience. In addition, their printing techniques left a lot to be desired. Topics relating to Zaolzie are also present in public electronic media where cyclical programs prepared by Zaolzie journalists are broadcast. They include weekly five-minute “News in Polish” transmitted by Ostrava studio of the Czech Television every Sunday at 6 AM and the twenty-minute “Wydarzenia” (“Facts”) broadcast Monday through Friday after 7 PM by the Ostrava studio of Czech Radio. The Polish language still appears on websites of various institutions and organizations but is seldom used in private profiles on social networks. Facebook pages belonging to individual users filled in full or in part in Polish are a true rarity. An overwhelming majority of Zaolzie Poles online use mostly Czech, sometimes dialect or Zaolzie volapük, with frequent English insertions.
In Central Europe folk culture was one of the basic sources contributing to and feeding nation shaping processes which began in mid-19th century. That was also true in Cieszyn Silesia including its western part later called Zaolzie. At the beginning of the 20th century, a fully formed Polish community conscious of its identity and prepared to participate in national cultural life, inhabited this territory. The limiting, after WWII, of Zaolzie Poles’ cultural expression to its folk aspects and the ever weaker link with main trends of national culture – steadily restricted and in the 1980s almost broken – proved fatal to Polish culture in the region. Despite efforts of local writers and artists for Zaolzie to once again become an integral part of Polish national culture, already in the 1980s, Zaolzie culture found itself in a ghetto – to use the expression of regional scholars. At present, for the youngest artists, most of whom grew up in a Czech environment and have no emotional ties with Polish national culture, the natural way to enter the supra-regional scene is through joining the Czech culture. It is, therefore, to be expected that soon, with the gradual disappearance of organizations uniting Polish artists, Polish high culture as a separate phenomenon will cease to exist in this region and only individual writers or artists will be recognized. The situation is somewhat different in the area of popular culture, especially folk culture which some of its contributors and observers still see as a bastion of Polishness. In reality, however, for some time already, one can notice the disappearance from general circulation of a Polish referent to designate phenomena and events occurring in the folk culture in Zaolzie. More and more of its recipients fail to note – from this perspective most important – the genetic link between Zaolzie folklore and dialect and Polishness. At the same time the process of adapting Zaolzie folk heritage, without its Polish connotations, into Czech culture accelerates. Thus, sooner or later Zaolzie folk culture as a whole will be absorbed by Czech culture and Zaolzie will gain the status of another tourist attraction as an ethnographic region of the Czech Republic. And – as one may expect – its folk culture will be associated with Polish culture as often as is the case of folklore in the Slovak parts of Spisz/Spiš and Orawa/Orava.
The Highlander Festival, Jablunkov 2007 (Phot. OD KP collection)
The Highlander Festival, Jablunkov, 2017 (Phot. OD KP collection)
Vendryně gymnast at the PZKO Festival in Karvina, 2015 (Phot. OD KP collection)
Joined choirs performing at the PZKO Festival in Karvina, 2015 (Phot. OD KP collection)
The Glayzy rock band at the PZKO Festival in Karvina, 2015 (Phot. OD KP collection)
That’s us Festival, 2016 (Phot. OD KP collection)
The Olza Song and Dance Ensemble at the jubilee gala on the 70-th anniversary of the Polish Culture and Education Association PZKO, 2017 (Phot. OD KP collection)
Periodical “Głos” (“Voice”), issue 26, 2019, (Phot. OD KP collection)
Monthly “Zwrot” (“Phrase”), issue 12, 2017 (Phot. OD KP collection)
Children’s periodical “Ogniwo” (“Link”), issue 4, 2010 (Phot. OD KP collection)
Children’s periodical “Jutrzenka” (“Dawn”), 2009 (Phot. OD KP collection)
Periodical “Wiarus”, 09 2002 (Phot. OD KP collection)
The cover page of Władysław Sikora, The Writers of Zaolzie, published by Olza, Český Těšín, 1992 (Phot. OD KP collection)