The self-organizing traditions of the Polish community in Cieszyn Silesia go back to the time of the Spring of Nations. The political, religious, educational, cultural, professional, economic and even charitable organizations which sprang to life in this region in the second half of the 19th century formed an elaborate and highly dynamic network, serving all aspects of Polish community life. Their activities not only shaped the modern Polish national identity in Cieszyn Silesia and integrated the community around common goals but also ensured it a considerable degree of self-sufficiency by forming structures that on many levels were an alternative to the institutions of the State, which was averse to the emancipatory aspirations of the Poles.
After the division of Cieszyn Silesia in 1920, many region-wide organizations had to establish themselves as separate entities and operate independently in Poland and in Czechoslovakia. Also, some new ones came to being – the answer of the Polish community to circumstances under which they had to function within the Czechoslovak state. Just as before 1914, these organizations were active in all spheres of public life. They concentrated on safeguarding the legal rights of the Poles, such as the education of children and the preservation of the Polish national heritage. Economic activity financing various Polish undertakings played a vital role. In Zaolzie, in the thirties of the past century there were 90 Macierz Szkolna (Polish Educational Society) circles, 16 private schools (including 6 primary schools and one secondary school), 60 private kindergartens, 91 choirs, 181 public and private libraries, 42 scouting teams, 40 “Siła” circles (athletic organization), 12 “Sokół” nests (gymnastics organization), 10 other athletic clubs, 7 workers’ hostels (and “Polonia” house in Český Tešín), 81 Polish financial institutions, 149 cooperative stores, 81 Rodzina Opiekuńcza circles (social assistance organization), 56 fire-fighting units, and countless other groups such as political parties, trade associations, religious and social associations, amateur music and theatre ensembles, etc. The diversity and richness of social initiatives in Zaolzie were reflected in dozens of periodicals and newspapers. Regional publications testified to the ideological multiplicity within the Polish community whose aspirations were represented by several parties – from Christian democratic through peasant and socialist to, finally, communist. The latter party was quite influential in Zaolzie thanks to its commitment to safeguarding Polish minority rights. Yet, despite all differences, the Polish community, throughout the entire interwar period, maintained its Polish national orientation and displayed ultimate unity in matters of vital interest. It managed to retain control in many local governments in Zaolzie and regularly won seats in the Prague parliament where it was represented by deputies from several parties.
The war and German occupation with its immediate, physical threat to the Polish community in Zaolzie brought its structures to total collapse. All Polish associations and organizations were illegalized, their assets confiscated by the Third Reich, and many activists imprisoned and murdered. After the war, Czechoslovak authorities once again took control over Zaolzie and – in the face of the newly rekindled controversy over the region’s national status – successfully blocked the reactivation of Polish organizations, at the same time taking over their assets as “formerly German.” The last issue remains unsettled to this day and many properties which before the war were owned by Polish organizations are still held – as property once belonging to the Third Reich – by the state treasury or local governments. The war, followed by a two-year period of uncertainty over the borders and related victimization of the Poles which made many of them move across the Olza River, greatly weakened regional Polish elites, impeding the rebuilding of pre-war organizational structures.
The 1947 settlement of the Cieszyn Silesia border dispute did not significantly improve the conditions for organizing Polish community life and posed new, hitherto unknown challenges for the Zaolzie Poles. Even though the ban on reactivation of pre-war organizations remained in effect, two completely new ones – which from then on were to manage all Polish activities in Zaolzie – were approved. Formed in 1947, they were the Polish Cultural and Educational Union (Polski Związek Kulturalno-Oświatowy – PZKO) and the Polish Youth Association (Stowarzyszenie Młodzieży Polskiej). The latter was soon incorporated into the Czechoslovakian Youth Association leaving PZKO as the only representative and organizer of the Polish nationals’ activities. This fact left a strong mark on the Polish community and its consequences can be felt till this day.
In a totalitarian state, which Czechoslovakia became in 1947, having all public activities of the Zaolzie Poles concentrated within one association guaranteed the authorities full control over the form and direction of such activities and supervision of their ideological correctness in line with communist party directives. The nurturing of Polishness the way it was practiced before the war, the insistence that Zaolzie Poles were an integral part of the Polish national community and could participate in shaping its destiny was no longer possible. The cultivation of one’s identity was subordinated to the rules of communist internationalism and, in effect, was reduced to activities in the sphere of folk culture. The Zaolzie Polishness was to be locked inside a specific ethnic reserve and away from traditional national values.
Despite all restrictions, the growth of PZKO was remarkable. The majority of the adult Polish population in Zaolzie joined the Union (in 1979 it had 24 000 members) in order to realize their common goals and aspirations within its structures. PZKO circles sprang up in almost every Zaolzie locality. Houses, so-called PZKO Houses, were built or renovated. At the beginning, due to scarce Czech population, the circles, which engaged in wide-ranging cultural activities, were often the only cultural centres in a given district. Dozens of choirs and ensembles, mainly folk but also theatre or youth, were active within PZKO. In time, the following sections were formed: women’s, literary-artistic, academic, social activities, dance movement, folklore, library-readership and history of the region. The authorities’ reluctance notwithstanding sports activities were organized. The Union published a cultural monthly “Zwrot” (The Phrase) and books penned by local authors. The best known Zaolzie’s paper “Głos Ludu” (Voice of the People), a paper appearing three times a week in the period from 1945 until 1990, when it was briefly controlled by the PZKO, was an instrument of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. It also watched over the only professional theatre outside of Poland performing in Polish, formally functioning under the wings of Těšínské Divadlo in Český Tešín.
Above all, however, PZKO organized a number of cultural events including its flagship events such as Gorolskie Święto (cultural-folk festival) in Jablunkov, the annual PZKO Festival, Youth Rallies and hundreds of festivals, concerts, performances, shows, conferences and training courses, balls, exhibits, fetes, sports events, etc. Many of these events were not necessarily organized on the initiative and under the auspices of the central board of the Union but realized by local PZKO circles in their regions. Local activists took a particular liking to the traditional ritual year with such calendar events as carnival balls, spring egg frying, harvest festival, pig slaughtering, etc. These gatherings, social in intent, integrated the local Polish community and reinforced its customs. Folk ensembles, choirs, community clubs and hobby groups functioned at almost all PZKO circles. The dynamism and diversity of region-wide and local activities undertaken by the Union were absolutely exceptional. No analogy can be found – not only in other Polish communities outside Poland but also in Poland itself – if we take into account the relatively small Polish population in Zaolzie and the scale of its social activities and achievements. Impressive is also the commitment of the grassroots of PZKO. There was never a shortage of those willing to perform every day, tedious, unnoticed tasks, offering technical and logistic support and taking care of the current needs of a given circle. Many members of PZKO worked without payment for hundreds or even thousands of hours on renovation or building of houses for the Union.
As a matter of course, in return for the possibility of conducting such intense and diversified activities the Union had to remain fully submissive to the Czechoslovak communist party. It had to subject its entire doings to party control and eliminate all that had even a slight appearance of being “bourgeois-nationalist.” Nevertheless, as long as people who grew up in the interwar period were still active, underneath the official rituals, saturated with communist ideology, Polish patriotism and unity with the motherland were still propagated by the members of the Union, especially at local levels. As time went on, the restrictions imposed on PZKO combined with other factors aimed at weakening the Polishness of the native inhabitants of the region began to bear upon their sense of identity. A poignant wisecrack of the nineties maintained that Polish patriotism in Zaolzie has been replaced by PZKO patriotism characterizing a growing number of its inhabitants who no longer felt emotionally bound with Poland, its traditions and culture. Some even felt outright antipathy toward Poles and focused all their activities on the cultivation of local and regional traditions and ties. Doing so under the Union’s Polish banner was purely utilitarian.
PZKO had such mass membership and was so deeply rooted in the local community that the 1989 transfer of power in the country did not unsettle the Union’s position. Although its leadership was sharply criticized and new or reactivated organizations sprang up like mushrooms, PZKO’s structures remained intact and the bulk of its members – including those engaged in activities of new organizations – stayed within its ranks and worked on its behalf. At present, according to official data, PZKO has 12 000 members (in reality probably much less) in 81 circles scattered over the entire Zaolzie area. It still owns 40 PZKO houses (and 11 community centres). Each circle has legal status enabling it to independently conduct its activities. The Central Board of the Union represents the organization on the outside, acts as a coordinator and secures material support for the activities of individual circles and organizational units of the PZKO. In addition, the Board oversees the activities of the Intergenerational Regional University (Międzygeneracyjny Uniwersytet Regionalny), as well as the Academic, Women’s, Ethnographic and History of the Region Sections. It also continues to publish the monthly “Zwrot.”
The changes which occurred in Zaolzie after 1989 were stimulated by the Polish Section of the Civic Forum. Thanks to the Polish Section, Zaolzie Poles joined the “Velvet Revolution” taking place in Czechoslovakia. Already on March 3rd 1990 the Section organized the Rally of Poles during which the Council of Poles was constituted. It represented circles seeking reforms in the functioning of the Polish community in Zaolzie. The rebirth of organizational activity favoured such initiatives. Already at the turn of 1989 and 1990, many organizations with pre-war traditions were reactivated and new ones were formed. In a short time, besides PZKO, close to 30 Polish organizations started to operate in the region. They either represented certain communities or were formed with particular goals in mind. None, with the exception of the Council of Poles, could rival PZKO. The Council, in the face of the Central Board of the Union resistance to any significant changes, opted for the restructuring of all Polish activities in Zaolzie. Soon (1993) the Council was renamed Congress of Poles in the Czech Republic and turned into an “umbrella organization” bringing together nearly all Polish organizations active at the time in Czechoslovakia, including, surprisingly, PZKO itself, which joined the Congress in 2002.
The above did not end the conflict between the “conservative board” of PZKO and “reformatory circles” within the Council and the Congress of Poles. It went on for years leaving, to a greater or lesser degree, its imprint on the life of the Polish community in Zaolzie. Although it would seem that the essence of the problem was determined by historical reasons, a reluctance to settle with the past on one hand and an inclination to do so on the other, neither party was in fact ready to subject itself to scrutiny and bring to light its past links with the communist regime. Yet, something else was at the heart of the conflict. Purely personal animosities aside, it was rooted in differing views as to which body – Central Board of PZKO or the Congress – should represent the Zaolzie community in relations with the Czech majority and competent Czechoslovak (since 1992 Czech) and Polish state agencies and, in effect, which one would have actual control over the distribution of funds destined for the Polish minority and the prestige that the position carried. Of course, ideological differences also played a part. They influenced the choices of strategy which was to ensure the survival and growth of Polish community in Zaolzie, which – in view of the systematic and dramatic decline in Polish population – was at the time a critical issue calling for a downright visionary approach.
In recent years, the controversies between PZKO and the Congress of Poles has abated and the primacy and leading role of the Congress in Zaolzie is no longer officially contested. The Congress coordinates the activities of Czech citizens of Polish origin and represents the Polish community. Affiliated with it, besides PZKO with the largest membership, there are 30 organizations. Among them are ones invoking pre-war traditions such as The Educational Society (Macierz Szkolna) in the Czech Republic, Polish Teachers’ Association in CR, Polish Scouting in CR, Polish Association of Tourism and Sports “Beskid Śląski,” and ones formed after the war, chiefly after 1989, as for example The Katyn Family, Circle of Polish Combatants in CR, Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners, Franciszek Żwirko and Stanisław Wigura Zaolzie Aeronautic Society, Tešín Photographic Society, Culture Centre, Polish Fine Artists Association in CR, Polish Art Association Ars Musica, Polish Singing Society Collegium Canticorum, Association of Polish Journalists, Association of Friends of Polish Books, Avion Society, Zaolzie Photographic Association, Zaolzie Potrafi, Polish Writers’ Association, The Association of Polish Youth, The Association of Polish Pensioners, Polish Medical Society, Beskid Cooks’ Association, and others. One of the most important tasks of the Congress of Poles is the publication of the newspaper “Głos” (The Voice), since 2017 “Głos Ludu” (Voice of the People), and books by Polish authors writing in the Czech Republic. The Congress administers the Documentation Centre where source materials pertaining to Zaolzie history and present day are collected. It also organizes cultural events headed by the annual “Tacy jesteśmy” (That’s Us) gala, during which chief achievements of the representatives of the Polish community are presented. In addition, it organizes theatre, journalism, historical and European workshops for young people.
From 2017 the Congress of Poles administers the Zaolzie Development Fund whose funds, coming from private sources, are distributed among organizations, informal groups and individual beneficiaries realizing projects profiting the Zaolzie community – all selected by means of competition. The main criterion in financing a given proposal is its bearing on the “development of Polishness in Zaolzie.” This initiative is consistent with the principles of “Vision 2035. Development Strategy of “Polishness” in Zaolzie,” a document drawn up by an informal group allied with the Congress of Poles and published in 2015 as a basis for discussion within Polish communities. “Vision 2035,” which openly states that Zaolzie Polishness is in deep crisis, offers a comprehensive diagnosis of the condition of the Polish national group in Zaolzie and proposes a number of measures. According to the authors, such measures can stop the crisis of Polishness in the region and within the time one generation reaches maturity (thus year 2035 in the title) even bring about its rebirth. Interestingly enough, the authors of the “Vision” seem to pin their greatest hopes for the survival of Polishness on the strengthening of regional identity which, in Zaolzie, ousted and replaced Polish national identity for years. For considerable factions of the Polish community it was the most comfortable way – one that was not marked with a single act of national apostasy – to relinquish Polish nationality and – in the next stage – join the majority which more and more readily accepts regional traditions but as a part of Czech cultural heritage. The 12th General Assembly of the Congress of Poles deliberating on April 23rd 2016 in its resolution obligated the executive board of the Congress to implement postulates contained in “Vision 2035.”
The only significant Polish organization active outside the Congress of Poles is the Polish Section of the Political Movement “Coexistentia” established on the basis of PZKO structures at the turn of 1990 in opposition to the Polish Section of the Civic Forum, which the Movement accused of ignoring the needs and freedoms of the minorities. “Coexistentia”, which is in fact a political party representing national minorities (besides the Polish Section there are Hungarian and Ukrainian Sections), has a liberal-conservative orientation and concentrates on measures aimed at inducing state and local authorities to fully enforce the rights of national minorities living within the democratic Czech Republic. It takes part in elections with perceivable success at the local level. In discussions concerning internal matters of Zaolzie, “Coexistentia” takes a strong, decidedly pro-identity stand and occasionally expresses its antipathy towards circles allied with the Congress.
Looked at superficially and only through the prism of media reports and official statements, the activities of Polish organizations in Zaolzie do not warrant formulating pessimistic prognoses. On the contrary, rather than crisis one sees activity at all organizational levels and new initiatives springing to life. On closer scrutiny, however, it turns out that the activities of Polish organizations in Zaolzie are being steered from top down while rank and file members limit their involvement to strictly routine activities, local in character. They tacitly resign from the participation in developing strategic course of action, and cede the responsibility for the condition of the Polish national group, its identity and its future to the management of the Congress and PZKO working quietly in the privacy of their offices. The political discussion which the authors of “Vision 2035” hoped the document would trigger turned out to be very inefficient – its participants for the most part avoided any controversy and limited themselves to making trivial proposals and suggesting minor improvements. Only the argument – reportedly unfounded – concerning the crisis of Polishness in Zaolzie and the question of the ambiguous mandate of the authors of the study to formulate diagnoses and programs for the entire Polish community in Zaolzie aroused some emotions. Whereas the information concerning the sale of PZKO houses, which the individual circles were unable to maintain (e.g. the houses in Bohumín and Řeka), the closing of some circles due to lack of members or their insufficient involvement (14 disappeared since 1985), the conclusion of activities of ensembles and choirs, the cessation of activities or outright closedown of some organizations established after 1989, which once petitioned the Congress of Poles for entry, went unnoticed (closed or about to disappear are Tešín Photographic Association, Circle of Polish Combatants, Educational Society in Vendryně, Polish Association of Former Political Prisoners, Association of Polish Journalists in the Czech Republic, Association of Persons Studying or Working Abroad, Avion Society, Singing-Musical Association). This phenomenon, although highly symptomatic, does not seem to cause much concern in Zaolzie.
A Poles Rally, 3 March 1990 r. (Phot.: Wiesław Przeczek, OD KP collection)
The Council of the Congress of Poles in the Czech Republic, 2016 (Phot. OD KP collection)
The cover page of PZKO Lexicon, Ed. Martyna Radłowska-Obrusnik, Otylia Toboła, published by: ZG PZKO, Český Těšín, 1997 (Phot. OD KP collection)
The Żwirko and Wigura Polish House of the Polish Cultural and Educational Association (PZKO) in Těrlicko Kostelec, 2016 (Phot. OD KP collection)
Scouts taking part in the PZKO Festival in Karvina, 2007 (Phot. OD KP collection)