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Zdjęcie Cieszyna

Poles beyond the Olza River

Krzysztof Szelong


According to the Czechoslovakian government’s official documents from 1920 the entire area of Cieszyn Silesia granted to Czechoslovakia was inhabited by 30 192 Germans, 113 152 Czechs and Slovaks, 137 043 Poles, 118 people of other nationalities and 5 495 foreigners. The same source gives the following ratio for the inhabitants of parts of former Cieszyn and Frysztat districts, the area usually identified with Zaolzie incorporated by the Czechoslovak Republic: 18 248 Germans, 32 661 Czechs and Slovaks, 121 950 Poles, 87 persons of other nationality and 4 218 foreigners. The data shows that insofar as in the entire Czech part of Cieszyn Silesia Poles in 1920 accounted for almost 49% of the population (not counting foreigners) while Czechs, Moravians and Slovaks for 40%, in Zaolzie itself the percentage of Polish population reached 70.5% whereas that of Czechoslovakian amounted to barely 19%. Czechoslovakian officials, basing the above mentioned documents on the Austrian 1910 census where only the language spoken on daily basis by inhabitants of Cieszyn Silesia surveyed and not their nationality was taken into account, explicitly described the said inhabitants as Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles and others. Evidently the Czechoslovakian authorities, preparing to exercise power over territories awarded to them, realistically evaluated the situation and avoided hair-splitting arguments over identity issues so characteristic for the subsequent period which emphasized and justified discrepancies between everyday language and national affiliation. For Czechoslovakian bureaucrats, as for the Austrians before them, language was an adequate prerequisite for determining the identity of a given group of population.


In accordance with the latest 2011 census taken in the Czech Republic, in Zaolzie 206 877 people declared their nationality as Czech, Moravian or Slovak, 26 551 as Polish, while 105 463 either specified other nationality or didn’t declare any. It means that in 2011 the Poles in Zaolzie conscious of their identity and willing to publicly acknowledge it amounted to only 8% of the population. Thus, in less than 90 years their number decreased fivefold and their percentage share of the region’s ethnic makeup – tenfold. What were the causes of such drastic drop?


A pronounced slump occurred in 1921 when the first census taken in the Czechoslovak Republic revealed that Zaolzie was inhabited by only 67 928 Poles who accounted for 38.6% of the population. Within a decade the number of Poles had fallen by over 50 thousand or close to 56%. Admittedly, the census taken ten years later ascertained an upswing in the Polish national group’s population to 76 330 but that amounted to only 35.3% of all inhabitants, or a drop of a few percentage points. This phenomenon can only partially be explained by departure from the western part of Cieszyn Silesia of a dozen or so thousand Poles. Their exodus began in 1919 in consequence of Czech acts of terror and reached its culminating point after the territory was incorporated by the Czechoslovak Republic. Also, the drop in the Polish population cannot be explained by the omission, in the quoted 1921 statistics, of 18 401 Poles (9% of total population in Frysztat (Fryštat) and Ceský Tešín counties) who after the division of Cieszyn Silesia stayed in Zaolzie but had no domicile right („domovské právo”) and were deprived of Czechoslovakian citizenship. Of key importance was the methodology of statistical research implemented in the 1921 census in accordance with which subjective declaration of those concerned replaced language criteria in ascertaining nationality. It opened wide opportunities for abuse among which the pressure exerted by census commissars on the respondents was neither the gravest nor a crucial one. Much more significant were the far-reaching consequences of the Czechoslovak authorities’ policy which – while seemingly neutral toward nationality issues – clandestinely inspired and supported activities aimed at the czechization of the Polish-speaking inhabitants of Zaolzie. A vital role in this area was played by non-governmental organizations such as the Slezská Matice osvěty lidové (SMOL, Silesian Foundation [Matice] for People’s Education) attracting chiefly ‘hraničařy” (frontiersmen), a term used for police officers, officials and teachers assigned to Cieszyn Silesia and actively engaged in its czechization. SMOL, invoking the idea of reclaiming “polonized Moravians” (popolszczonych Morawców), - as, in accordance with a theory formulated already in the 19th century, the Cieszyn Silesians were called - by the Czech nation, followed a carrot and stick policy. Supported by the State and relying on the wide influence it had in various enterprises with Czech or German capital it won over the inhabitants of Zaolzie with offers of better employment, promotion, better schooling in modern, fully equipped Czech schools springing up in great number in Zaolzie, and even allowances and material benefits raised during charity events. In return SMOL received the welcomed nationality declarations, usually accompanied by a transfer of children to a Czech school, a change in the spelling of the last name, involvement in pro-Czech agitation within communities, participation in Czech festivities and propaganda campaigns or outright access to SMOL. Those who resisted or opposed such practices often lost their jobs or couldn’t find any, or – as was the case with railway workers – were officially transferred inland. In the workplaces they could expect harassment and discrimination by their co-workers and management. The effectiveness of such actions was aided by the dejection experienced by many Poles in Zaolzie who in the years 1918-1920 had actively worked for the union of Cieszyn Silesia with Poland and who after its division felt disappointed and forlorn. It was further facilitated by the national indifferentism of significant blocks of Cieszyn inhabitants, especially those with so-called Ślązakowcy sympathies popular in this area. In effect many Cieszyn Silesians, even though Polish was their sole everyday language, felt a deep antipathy toward Poland and remained open to Czech influences, closer in their opinion to the heritage of the former Habsburg Empire, for them a proper point of reference. Such people without much hesitation were willing to declare Czech nationality. It was made easier thanks to a regulation intentionally introduced only in Cieszyn Silesia concerning additional nationality classification allowing for registering, during census data collection, as “Silesian-Czech,” “Silesian-Slovak,” “Silesian-Czechoslovak,” “Silesian-German,” “Silesian-Pole” and “Silesian.” This option not only created new opportunities for census results manipulation but, of greater consequence, led to further blurring of national identity of persons for whom it was never fully crystallized and interiorized. Decisions - often ill-considered and made under pressure or for purely opportunistic reasons - to change one’s national status bore on the lives of the next and future generations. Children of parents who changed their national identity, transferred to Czech schools and were raised in the spirit of militant Czech patriotism, and in their adult life at times demonstrated greater tendency to submit to nationalistic sentiments than native Czechs. Others learned to adapt themselves to changing reality and revised their national affiliation to fit current circumstances. This category of people was given, the contemptuous name “szkopyrtocy” once widespread in Zaolzie (from slang “szkopyrtać się” or turn over).


The annexation of Zaolzie to Poland in 1938 radically, although only for a short while, changed the situation. About 30 thousand Czechs, mostly those who had arrived in Zaolzie after 1920, were expelled from the area. Many native inhabitants of Zaolzie whose Czech identity was of recent date – in the face of the mostly brutally enforced repolonisation of the region – returned to their Polish roots. Many people forced to leave for Poland in the 2nd and 3rd decade of the 20th century returned. However, only a year later Zaolzie together with the rest of Upper Silesia was appropriated by the Third Reich. Its Polish inhabitants became a target for German terror and the protection which the signing of the so-called Volksliste was supposed to provide was only illusory. The Volksliste was forced upon most native Polish-speaking inhabitants of the region and was an instrument of yet another national experiment to which Zaolzie was subjected. German occupation, followed by two turbulent years during which the third and final stage of the Polish-Czech dispute over the statehood of Zaolzie took place painfully weakened Polish community in this area. Elite leadership and Polish intelligentsia had been decimated, either fallen victim to German genocide or – as was the case of army officers and police functionaries captured by the Red Army – to Soviet terror. Many former inhabitants of Zaolzie were dispersed all over the world, either fleeing the occupying powers or fighting, first in Wehrmacht and later in the Polish Armed Forces in the West. Many of them were afraid to return to Zaolzie where Poles, called “Beck’s occupants,” were at that time harassed and discriminated against and – in the plans of some Czech politicians – appeared as the next candidates after Germans to oust from the Republic. Persecutions and increasing difficulties in staying in contact with their homeland caused another great wave of emigrants from Zaolzie to settle in Poland.


The communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948 once again diametrically changed the conditions of life of the Polish community in Zaolzie. Admittedly, the overt persecutions of Poles ceased and they regained their – very limited – right to schooling in Polish and to bilingualism in the public sphere, but at the same time the assets of Polish organizations were confiscated. Most of these organizations were not permitted to reactivate after 1945, others were liquidated. The only one left was the Polish Cultural and Educational Association (Polski Związek Kulturalno-Oświatowy) subordinated to the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. While keeping up appearances of respecting the rights of all national groups inhabiting the area and under the banner of internationalism, omnipresent in all propaganda, the Zaolzie authorities ruthlessly put down any attempts at manifesting Polish spirit and commitment to Polish national heritage. It was possible to cultivate and externalize Polish identity only in the spirit of communist internationalism and in a folk costume. The Zaolzie Poles found themselves in a kind of ethnic reservation where, for the possibility of preserving their regional Polish heritage including dialect, folk rites, art, music and dances, they had to remain submissive to the communist party and forgo cultivating values and traditions national in character. What’s more, after the new People’s Poland authorities definitely abandoned their aspirations in relation to Zaolzie, its inhabitants were left without any support or protection from the Polish state. At the same time major economic and social changes took place in the region. Rapid industrialization and urbanization brought mass migration from the depths of Moravia, Bohemia and Slovakia. The plans of colonizing Zaolzie which the Czech nationalists began to formulate in 1920 were being realized.


At the beginning it might have appeared that these processes, without direct bearing on the number of Polish nationals (in thirty years, between 1950 and 1980, it decreased by only 12.5%, dropping from 59 005 to 51 585 people) would not necessarily influence their status and prospects. The reality was different: although the drop in absolute numbers was slight, the percentage share of the Polish group in total population of Zaolzie fell between 1950 and 1980 from 26.8 to 14.1% or by nearly a half. What’s more, an equally dramatic change occurred at that time in the mental realm. It took place at the turn of the sixties and seventies following the participation of communist Poland in the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The majority of Zaolzie Poles who with enthusiasm and hope welcomed the Prague spring felt betrayed by their compatriots from the other bank of the Olza River. These events, coinciding in time with the natural passing away of the generations that in the years 1914-1947 actively fought for Polish independence and Polish holdings in Zaolzie, had far-reaching consequences. For many inhabitants of Zaolzie, in particular those born after 1945, Poland stopped being not only a real but also a spiritual homeland, turning in their eyes into “a nearby foreign land,” a country in fact unfamiliar, incomprehensible, sometimes looked upon with outright antipathy. Many of them without nominally changing their identity, more or less consciously, joined the Czech community, at the same time giving up their participation in the Polish national community. On the sidelines of these events, a new, specific identity of young Zaolzie Poles had been born - identity concentrated on the region, contesting the traditions and experiences shared by the entire nation and, at the same time, increasingly open to the possibility of acculturation or even assimilation within the community of the majority.


During the next decades these processes accelerated and deepened. The eighties turned out to be an especially trying period for the vitality of the Polish community in Zaolzie. In reaction to the “Solidarity” revolution the Czechoslovakian authorities closed the border with Poland which, within a decade, resulted in practically breaking off family and social ties till then still existing between many Poles in Zaolzie and their countrymen in the Polish part of Cieszyn Silesia. The inhabitants of Zaolzie could no longer follow directly the changes occurring in Poland. Their isolation and instilled submissiveness to the Czechoslovak regime made them an easy target for the communist propaganda which painted Poland as an obscurant, poor and backward country whose deeply clericalized inhabitants, lazy and disruptive, avoided honest work but readily indulged in drinking and shady dealings. The 1989 breakthrough in Poland did not stop this trend. The border was not fully opened for still some time and Poland seen from the perspective of frontier bazaars and lines of “ants” smuggling cheap alcohol did not carry much prestige. On the contrary, it lost whatever allure it had under communism thanks to the availability of western films, literature and music at that time not accessible in Czechoslovakia. What’s more, the repercussions of the “pedagogy of shame” consequently implemented in Poland in the nineties began to reach Zaolzie where – among Polish inhabitants – it found fertile ground prepared already by communist propaganda. Parallel to identity changes demographic processes took place, objective in character but to a large extent conditioned by mental changes. Aside from migrations, we’re talking about a huge increase in mixed marriages into which members of the Polish community entered with Czech or Slovak nationals. At present such relationships account for over 70% of marriages contracted by Poles in Zaolzie and their number is growing. The fact that only 10% of these couples decided to bring up their children as Polish-speaking shows how acutely this phenomenon bears on the enduring of the Polish national group in Zaolzie. What is and will be the national identity of children from these marriages? As for the remaining 90% - it is easy to guess. Under the circumstances it is not surprising that in the period of the next thirty years, beginning in 1980, the number of Polish nationals dropped by 49% and in 2011 numbered only 26 551. What’s more, the national awareness of members of this drastically diminished group has been deeply transformed and nothing links them to the patriotism characterizing the generation of Poles born before WWII. As a body, the Zaolzie Poles – even though nominally and from force of habit they still define themselves as such – stopped perceiving themselves as an integral part of the Polish nation, abandoned thinking in national categories and build their identity solely on the devotion to their region and regional culture. Dr Józef Szymeczek, president of the Congress of Poles in the Czech Republic for many-years, observed that in the past decades Zaolzie experienced regression of national awareness which, as a result, returned to a premodern state and the Polish national group, losing the attributes distinguishing a nation, turned back into an ethnic group. Szymczek writes: “Zaolzie inhabitants less and less often contemplate being a part of the Polish national group. Young Poles in Zaolzie have problems with defining their identity: the answer most often heard is: I am neither Czech, nor Polish; I am tustela [dialect – from here]. Poles in Zaolzie feel no bonds with the Polish state. Poles in Zaolzie do not live in a world of Polish culture. They lost touch with live Polish culture, especially since culture turned into business. Times when first-class Polish artists visited Zaolzie are history. The Zaolzie inhabitants feel much closer to Czech culture, Czech sport, Czech television. For them folklore – folk culture – is the top achievement of Polish culture.” Elsewhere the author states outright: “Since 1920 the Polish minority in Zaolzie followed as if the same path which it pursued till 1920 but in the opposite direction: from the national community it undoubtedly had been in 1920 it turned into an ethnic community - people of Polish origin.”


Revealed by the last, 2011 census, inter alia through identification of a large number of people who refrained from declaring their national identity (in Zaolzie 72 266 people or 21.4% of total population) or declared double identity, Polish and Czech (2 151 people or 0.64% of total population), identity crisis, in the next few decades inevitably – the way it looks now – leading to total disappearance of the Polish minority in Zaolzie, in the nearest future may prove devastating to it. After all, as the 2011 census shows, in only 10 districts (namely Bukowiec, Bystrzyca, Gródek, Koszarzyska, Łomna Górna, Milikowo, Ropica, Śmiłowice and Wędrynia) Poles exceed 20% of all inhabitants and in just two of them (namely Milikowo and Gródek) they number more than 30%. In the remaining 36 towns and rural communities in Zaolzie they account for less than 20%, and in 17 of them for less than 10%. Nineteen districts with the number of Poles between 10 and 20% are in the most dramatic situation. If the depopulation of Polish communities in Zaolzie continues at the present rate – the number of Poles there in the planned-for 2021 census may fall below 10% of total population – the Polish minority in these districts may lose many rights it now enjoys. These include, first and foremost, the right to bilingualism, schooling in the Polish language and representation in local governments through committees for minority affairs. The fact that among localities where Poles amount to less than 20% are Trzyniec (13.4%), Ceský Tešín (13.7%), Jabłonków (15.7%), Górna Sucha (17.1%) and Stonawa (19.4%), or places which for decades have been leading centers of Polish national life in Zaolzie, with almost emblematic meaning for the Polishness of the region, indicates the gravity of the problem. The loss by them of whatever Polish character and image they retained may lead to a disappearance of the Polish national group in Zaolzie much faster than prognosed by current statistics.


The distribution of the Polish population in Zaolzie, 1930. (Arnold’s map) (Phot. from OD KP collection)


The Festival of Macierz Szkolna Polish educational society – the competition for the prettiest outfit, 1935 (Phot. from OD KP collection)


The cover page of Poles in Zaolzie 1920-2000, Ed. Józef Szymeczek, published by: the Congress of Poles in the Check Republic, Český Těšín, 2002 (Phot. from OD KP collection)


Jackowie Jabłonkowscy (Jacks from Jablunkov), 1908, (Phot. from OD KP collection)


Highlander costume, ca. 1930. (Phot. from OD KP collection)

Projekt dofinansowany przez Unię Europejską ze środków
Europejskiego Funduszu Rozwoju Regionalnego
 w ramach Programu Interreg V-A Republika Czeska – Polska