Already in the 14th century Cieszyn Silesia found itself outside the borders of the Polish Kingdom and for ages its history had little in common with the state of affairs in Poland. It is therefore not surprising that at present in Zaolzie there are no monuments or relics documenting Polish pre-partition history save for a few traces of the Piast dynasty reign in the Duchy of Cieszyn. The most spectacular among them is probably the stone eagle of the Cieszyn Piasts on the Town Hall Tower in Fryštát. Placed there no later than the 16th century, today it is a symbol connecting this region with past-times Poland. Also in Fryštát stands a castle – after numerous reconstructions no longer medieval in character – which used to be one of the primary residences of the Cieszyn Piasts. Some later-date ties with Poland can also be found. It was here that the future wife of king Zygmunt I Stary, Bona Sforza, stopped on her way to Cracow in 1518. Also here, on June 19, 1574 King Henryk Walezy (Henry Valois, Henry III) spent a night during his flight from Poland. The town fathers commemorated his stay with a Latin inscription in the town hall, unfortunately not preserved. Two centuries later, in 1772, one of the Bar Confederation centers was located in Fryštát and Casimir Pulaski himself paid visits to the town. It is possible that it was here that the decision to kidnap king Stanisław August Poniatowski (Stantislaus II Augustus) was undertaken. These facts, however, are not commemorated in Fryštát in any way.
The vast majority of Polish relicts still visible in Zaolzie relate strictly to the Polishness of its indigenous population. Among the most striking, and at the same time oldest, are the inscriptions above portals of Luthren churches in Bystrzyca/Bystřice, Nawsie/Návsi, Błędowice Dolne/Bludovice Dolni, Hawierzów/Havířov or Ligotka Kameralna/Komorni Lhotka commemorating the opening or expansion of the said temples in the years 1784-1850. Some tombstones found in the vicinity of churches have equally distant genesis as for example the one in Ligotka Kameralna/Komorni Lhotka of pastor Stefan Nicolaides deceased in 1808. Even though he had Slovak origins, he must have spoken Polish to his congregation and the inscription on his grave is in Polish. In Ligotka/Lhotka there are more 19th century Polish epitaphs. Cemeteries, including present-day ones, both Catholic and Lutheran, remain the most visible evidence of the Polish presence in Zaolzie. They are the final resting places of many personalities noted for their struggle for the Polishness of the region and commemorate many important, often tragic events marking its history, but above all they attest changes which took place over the period of two hundred years in Zaolzie. While Polish names and inscriptions either dominate or are clearly visible in the older parts of the cemeteries, they are marginal in the new sections. There Polish names characteristic for Cieszyn Silesia appear most often in Czech notation or within inscriptions written in Czech. Multigenerational resting places with grand, historical obelisks where initially Polish inscriptions are gradually supplemented with Czech names and inscriptions are the most apparent evidence of these changes. Quite often the wording of inscriptions, language slips and local dialect or Czech traces (often on family graves the last name is given in a form appropriate for the Czech grammar; in consequence we have, for example, “Rodzina Nowakowa” [“Nowak’s family”] instead of “Rodzina Nowaków” [“the Nowak family”]) painfully reveal the crisis of the Polish language in Zaolzie. It is impossible to mention all the cemeteries, but it is worthwhile to look at least at one of them – the necropolis in old Karviná, no longer operating, picturesquely situated near the St. Peter of Alcantara Church. There can be found not only tombs of many prominent Polish families headed by the Olszak family whose nestor Wacław, a known Polish physician, mayor of pre-war Karviná, was murdered by the Germans on September 11, 1939, but also monuments commemorating successive mining disasters with hundreds of Polish names upon them. Most poignant among them is the monument commemorating the death of 235 miners killed by a gas explosion in the coalmines “Franciszek,” “Jan” and “Karol” on June 14, 1894, the worst mining disaster in the Karviná Basin. Polish inscriptions, besides those on tombstones and cemetery crosses, can easily be found in Zaolzie on roadside shrines and crosses. Some, as for example the iron crosses founded in 1863 by Trzyniec (Třinec) Ironworks or those founded in 1874 by the local government in Karviná (now in Fryštát) are prominently displayed. Unfortunately, over time many shrines and crosses disappeared, others – following renovation – were provided with Czech rather than Polish inscriptions.
Characteristic architectural structures, most of which no longer serve their original purpose and are hard to identify, testify to the dominant role once played in Zaolzie by the Polish national community. They include Polish schools, many built by Polish communities themselves. Only a few still function as educational establishments. Others, providing they are still standing, were transformed into public utility institutions or turned into commercial enterprises. The Polish school in Piotrowice/Petrovice, very close to the Polish border, is now a hotel and the first site of the famous Szkoła Sztygarów (Mine Foremen School) in Dąbrowa/Doubrava houses a restaurant (a Czech school is located at the second site). Polish schools built in the interwar period in Bystrzyca/Bystřice, Jabłonków/Jablunkov, Lutynia Dolna/Dolni Lutyně and the largest one in Český Těšín still operate. In the Polish school in Stonawa Hołkowice/Stonava Holcovice one can admire the original 1900 plaque commemorating the opening of the facility. A touching artifact, a bell from the pinnacle of an old, 19th century Polish school in Bukowiec/Bukovec is now located at the entrance to the present Polish school in that village. A small local museum in Dolna Łomna/Dolni Lomna is located in a reconstructed 1852 wooden Polish community school. The most important Polish educational facility i.e. the Polskie Gimnazjum Realne in Orlowa/Orlova, founded in 1909, forever disappeared from the Zaolzie scenery. It is commemorated by an obelisk erected in 2009 in Orłowa/Orlova (borough of Obroki). The plaques in memory of fallen or murdered teachers and students once to be viewed in the school are now on display in the Juliusz Słowacki Polish Grammar School in Český Těšín.
An 1873 plaque in memory of Józef Dostał (1826-1873) – a social activist, superior of the Sucha Górna community, deputy to the Silesian Parliament in Opava where he safeguarded the interests of Polish population – built into a wall of a Catholic church in Sucha Górna/Horni Suchá is a unique memento of Polish activities in this region in the 19th century. Next to schools, model workers’ hostels built from the beginning of the 20th century are characteristic for the scenery of Zaolzie. They often served also as warehouses and cooperative stores functioning within the Central Association of Consumers (Centralne Stowarzyszenie Spożywców) for Silesia in Łazy/Lazy (in 1938 the Association had 178 stores and 14.5 thousand members). Today workers’ hostels with their characteristic décor can still be seen in Trzyniec/Třinec, Český Těšín, Żywocice/Životice, Olbrachcice/Albrachtice, Sucha Górna/Horni Suchá and Stonawa/Stonava. Although they served workers of all nationalities inhabiting Zaolzie (the great hall in Sucha Górna/Horni Suchá held up to 700 people) their history is closely linked to the Polish workers’ movement and Polish national life. Unfortunately, the 1870 building in Jabłonków/Jablunkov housing the Catholic Reading Hall (Czytelnia Katolicka) is no longer in existence. There, even after the war, a local branch of the Polish Cultural and Educational Union (Polski Związek Kulturalno-Oświatowy – PZKO) was active. The Reading Hall in Wędrynia/Vendryně in the building erected at the beginning of the twenties of the past century still functions and serves the Poles associated with PZKO. In Fryštát stands the remodeled building of the former Polish Catholic Home (now “Friendship House”) and in Český Těšín, opposite the railway station, is located “Polonia” House (now “Piast” hotel), built in 1931 by the Savings and Advances Society (Towarzystwo Oszczędności i Zaliczek). It was, also after WWII, the Head Office of Polish organizations in Zaolzie and today – privately owned – it still dominates Český Těšín’s urban space. Regrettably the Polish Tourist and Sports Society (Polskie Towarzystwo Turystyczno-Sportowe) “Beskid Śląski” mountain refuge on Kozubowa/Kozubova, built in the years 1928-1929, burned down in 1973. But in Nydek/Nýdek one can see the ski-jump built in place of a wooden one erected at the beginning of the thirties by Polish Sports Club “Grań” where in 1933 the first jump belonged to Bronisław Czech (at the same time smaller ski-jumps were built in Leszna Dolna/Dolni Lištná, Milików/Milikov, Piosek/Pisek and two on Kozubowa/Kozubova). Sadly the stadium of the best known Zaolzie Polish Sports Club “Polonia” in old Karviná is now only a memory. Over 40 houses of the Polish Cultural and Educational Union located all over Zaolzie remain a visible sign of Polish presence in the region today. Some are still located in facilities linked to the history of the Polish national movement in Cieszyn Silesia, having been adapted to meet contemporary needs.
Places commemorating the 20th century struggle for independence and boundaries of the Republic and martyrdom of Zaolzie Poles are the most expressive symbols of Polish continuity in Zaolzie. Monuments associated with the history of Polish Legions open a long list headed by the obelisk in Sikora’s Park in Český Těšín unveiled in 2014, commemorating the march-out of the so called Silesian Legion formed by Cieszyn volunteers, a squad of a few hundred men which joined Polish Legions established in Galicia. The park itself, still a place of recreation, holds an important place in the history of the Polish national movement in Cieszyn Silesia. It came to being on the initiative of a distinguished social activist Adam Sikora (1846-1910) who at the beginning of the 20th century bought with his own savings riverside wastelands to create a playground for children and a place where local Poles could hold their events and fetes. More sites closely related to the history of the Legions are in Jabłonków/Jablunkov and neighbouring villages where in autumn of 1914 the military cadre of the Polish Legions spent their winter’s rest. Some soldiers, the Legion’s cadet school (military college), and especially [field] hospitals with the sick and wounded also found shelter there. The stay of Polish soldiers in this region is commemorated by a plaque in memory of Józef Piłsudski found on the wall of the Lorenczuks’ villa – situated near the Jablunkov town square – where the future Chief of State stayed in 1914. Another plaque, situated next to the entrance to the school with Polish as the language of instruction in Návsí, is dedicated to Władysław Sikorski and commemorates his stay in Návsí. The Military Section of the Supreme National Committee (Sekcja Wojskowa Naczelnego Komitetu Narodowego) was lodged in the Lutheran church presbytery in Návsí and there the famous Christmas Eve supper took place – still present in the collective memory of Zaolzie Poles, attended by chief commanding officers and pro-independence politicians. The most moving legionary memento in Jabłonków/Jablunkov is the monument with the Piast eagle on the grave of Polish legionaries who died there of wounds or sickness. In every Zaolzie village one can find characteristic obelisks with long lists of names of inhabitants fallen in the First World War. As one would expect, most of the names sound Polish and the inscriptions on a majority of obelisks are in Polish. Czech inscriptions are outnumbered and some were added after renovations.
The next episode in the 20th century history of Cieszyn Silesia which left Polish graves in Zaolzie concerns the Polish-Czechoslovak conflict over this region in the years 1918-1920 and in particular the Czechoslovak armed aggression in the territory remaining in Polish hands. The most dramatic act of war took place on January 26, 1919 in Stonawa where 20 Polish soldiers were murdered by Czech legionaries. On the base of the cross marking their grave are engraved the following words: “Passer-by, tell Poland/Here we lie, her sons/Obeying/Her laws/Till the last/Hour”. Zaolzie Poles hold annual memorial services there – quieter from year to year. At least one more victim of the Czech invasion rests in Stonawa/Stonava cemetery – Józef Friedel, a member of the Polish volunteer militia, killed on January 26, 1919. Graves of other defenders of Cieszyn Silesia are also in Sucha Górna/Horni Suchá and Olbrachcice/Albrachtice. The ones (e.g. in Jabłonków/Jablunkov, Łąki/Louky and Karviná) disappeared over the years. Czech soldiers fallen during the invasion are buried inter alia in Jabłonków/Jablunkov and Orłowa/Orlova where, already before WWII, an impressive monument in their honour was erected. There, in the past few years Czech authorities organized memorial celebrations – more ostentatious each year.
In 1919 another significant, historic event occurred in the territory of present Zaolzie. In Piotrowice/Petrovice, just at the present border with Poland, members of secret Polish organizations active in Prussian Silesia, including the Polish Military Organization for Upper Silesia command, found shelter. And it was from Piotrowice/Petrovice, or to be precise from Krutki’s Inn, located near the railway station, that the signal for the outbreak of the First Silesian uprising was sent. It started with the attack on Grenzschutz posts in Gołkowice and Godów. Today “Krutki’s” houses a community centre. Also, at the Piotrowice/Petrovice railway station nothing indicates that it was here that refugees from Upper Silesia met with Ignacy Paderewski who in the summer of 1919 on his way to and from Paris stopped at the station to assure them of his support.
Probably the most famous memorial site in Zaolzie is the so-called Żwirkowisko in Cierlicko/Těrlicko. There in a fatal crush of a Polish plane RWD-6 headed for an air rally in Prague, pilot Franciszek Żwirko and mechanic Stanisław Wigura died. The crash, in hurricane winds, took place on September 11, 1932, barely two weeks after Franciszek Żwirko’s spectacular victory in the International Tourist Aircraft Competition Challenge 32 in Berlin. A mausoleum, authored by Jan Raszka and Julius Pelikán, was built on the site of the accident in 1935. In 1940 it was demolished by the Germans. After the war, a tall obelisk crowned with the figure of a pilot was erected in the same spot. Mass meetings during which Zaolzie Poles manifested their national identity and ties with the Motherland took place at the site of the crush during the interwar period. The practice was continued after the war and gatherings honouring Polish aviators were at the time the only ones in Zaolzie during which participants could openly manifest their Polishness without the folklore guise. In the past 25 years this tradition has been on the wane. Fewer and fewer Zaolzie inhabitants show up in Cierlicko/Těrlicko on September 11. Their place has been taken by guests from Poland who come here to honour Polish aviation traditions symbolized by F. Żwirko and S. Wigura. They are supported by the Polish House of the PZKO, opened in 1994 in the vicinity of the monument, which provides a room for the history of Polish aviation exhibition.
At present it is impossible to find in the public spaces of Zaolzie any mementos of the enthusiastic welcome which, in autumn of 1938, met the Polish Army followed by representatives of state authorities, headed by the President of Polish Republic, Ignacy Mościcki. Mościcki visited Zaolzie on November 11, 1938 and, on the West Cieszyn commons (behind Český Těšín hospital), participated in Independence Day celebrations, the last in the free Poland. The outbreak of World War II was also closely intertwined with Zaolzie history. Here, on the night of August 25, 1939 an attack by a German diversionary group took place, intended to take over the railroad tunnel under Przełęcz Jablonkowska/Jablunkovský Prusmyk (Pass) and the railway station in Mosty koło Jabłonkowa/Mosty u Jablunkova. The attack was to coincide with the date of Third Reich’s invasion of Poland, originally set for August 26. Hitler moved the date to September 1, but due to lack of communication between the military command and the group there was no way to stop the action and the attack occurred. The event is in no way commemorated either at the Mosty station or near the tunnel. No memorial celebrations (except in 2009) were held there.
The time of WWII and the almost six-year German occupation was the hardest period in the history of 20th century Zaolzie. Germans invaded the region on September 1, 1939 and left in the first days of May, 1945. During that time 1500 Poles (not counting Jews who amounted to 80% of the victims) perished at the hands of the Germans, either in executions, camps, prisons or armed struggle. Another 2000 died after they were forcibly conscribed into the Wehrmacht. Over 500 Polish policemen and Polish Army officers allied with Zaolzie, who in September 1939 were evacuated to the East, were killed by the Soviets in the spring of 1940. The Polish community in Zaolzie lost a considerable part of its elites, political leaders, clergymen of both confessions, artists and teachers. The martyrdom of the Zaolzie Poles is memorialized by monuments and obelisks with lists of the fallen or murdered found in almost all Zaolzie villages, either in cemeteries, execution sites or central places in given localities. It stands to reason that most names are Polish even if the inscriptions are bilingual. Some monuments are without name lists – a result of disagreements between Czech authorities and Polish organizations over the spelling of the names.
It is impossible to mention all WWII Zaolzie memorial sites, so let’s concentrate on the most important ones. The list opens with a modest and almost forgotten monument in old Karviná (near “Barbara” mine) where on September 18, 1939 the Nazis murdered 12 Poles, inhabitants of nearby villages suspected of taking part in Silesian uprisings. It was the first mass execution in Zaolzie. It was followed by many others (the last one in April 1945) in Bystrzyca/Bystřice, Jabłonków/Jablunkov, Lutynia Górna/Horni Lutyně, Łąki/Louky. Łomna Dolna/Dolni Lomna, Mosty koło Jabłonkowa/Mosty u Jablunkova, Nawsie/Návsi, Ołdrzychowice/Oldřichovice, Pietwałd/Petřvald, Ropica/Ropice, Sucha Górna/Horni Suchá, Wędrynia/Vendryně and Wielopole/Wielopoli. The most tragic massacre occurred in Żywocice/Životice. There, on Sunday August 6, 1944, the Germans, in retaliation for the assassination of two Gestapo officers killed two days earlier in a local inn by a Home Army unit, murdered 28 Poles and 8 men who declared Czech nationality. The Germans surrounded the village and, walking from house to house, killed all men not on the German People’s List (one man on the Volksliste no 3 was also killed). Today, the places where they were executed are marked by 24 stone steles with the names of individual victims and in the centre of the village stands, since 1949, a commemorative monument designed by Zaolzie sculptor Franciszek Świder. Annual ceremonies – probably the grandest in Zaolzie – in memory of the WWII victims are held there. However, with each year fewer and fewer Polish accents are present and the participation of Zaolzie Poles diminishes. The Żywocice/Životice tragedy itself is gradually becoming a part of the Czech historical memory and – as „slezské Lidice” – is generally considered one of the three greatest German crimes on Czech territory (quite often in the Czech media the Polish nationality of the victims is not even mentioned and the fact that the assassination was an act of the Polish Resistance is omitted).
In Zaolzie one can find places commemorating local Polish partisans inter alia in Koszarzyce/Košařiska where a cross stands in the place of a partisan bunker, in Łomna Dolna/Dolni Lomna where Germans caught and shot three partisans and in Nydek/Nýdek where on the stock of Czantoria/Čantoryje seven Home Army soldiers died in a German manhunt. Characteristic for this region are also monuments and plaques commemorating the victims of the so-called Polenlagers or German camps where Poles from Cieszyn Silesia, mainly from Zaolzie, who refused to sign the Volksliste were imprisoned. Many of them were later sent either to concentration camps or forced labour camps. Such camps were located in Fryštát, Bogumin/Bohumin and Piersna/Prstná. Today their victims whose remains rest in Skrzeczoń/Skrecon and Bogumin/Bohumin (mass grave of over 100 prisoners), are commemorated by modest plaques and monuments.
For Zaolzie Poles, besides Żywocice/Životice, the most important site dedicated to the victims of World War II is the memorial on the Olza River in Český Těšín’s borough of Konteszyniec/Kontešinec. It was built in the place where during the war stood one of the German camps for Soviet and allied (mainly French) prisoners of war. The memorial with Polish plaques was unveiled on September 9, 1979. Immediately after the ceremony the plaques, founded by the Polish War Veterans (Combatants) Circle, were dismantled. New, bilingual ones were to replace them, but finally the old ones returned. After a thorough renovation of the memorial in 2011, seven new plaques – this time bilingual – were placed around it. Three of them are dedicated to the Zaolzie victims of the Katyn massacre, two to the fallen soldiers of the Polish Armed Forces in the West and two to the fallen soldiers of the Czechoslovak Armed Forces.
Polish memorial sites in Zaolzie, although quite numerous, are not fully documented. Not all of them are marked and the ones commemorated with a monument or a plaque in most cases are not spectacular enough to arouse widespread interest. In Poland Żwirkowisko is probably the only one more widely known. Others do not exist in common historical consciousness. Almost entire responsibility for the protection of these places rests with the Zaolzie Poles. For the Polish community – progressively smaller and losing its national identity – the fulfilment of this task will be more and more difficult. One can expect that in a few decades most of the places mentioned here will either be forgotten or – as exemplified by Żywocice/Životice – will become a permanent element of Czech historical memory.
The Cieszyn Piast’s eagle from the townhall in Fryštát, 2012 (Phot. OD KP collection)
An inscription on the Lutheran church in Bystřice, 2007 (Phot. OD KP collection)
An inscription on the Lutheran church in Návsí, 2012 (Phot. OD KP collection)
An eagle on the monument to Polish legionnaires in Jablunkov, 2013 (Phot. OD KP collection)
A monument to the Polish legionnaires in the Adam Sikora Park in Český Těšín, 2016 (Phot. OD KP collection)
A mass murder grave in Stonava, 2019 (Phot. OD KP collection)
The Krótki Inn in Petrovice, 2012 (Phot. OD KP collection)
Żwirkowisko, 2008 (Phot. OD KP collection)
Kontešinec, the unveiling of new plaques, 2011 (Phot. OD KP collection)