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Zdjęcie Cieszyna

Zaolzie – the notion and the area

Krzysztof Szelong


Zaolzie, inseparably connected with the Olza River, remains for many Poles a notion hard to define, most often equated with the Czech part of Cieszyn Silesia situated beyond the Olza. Is it correct and what in fact does the notion of Zaolzie designate? What is its genesis, where does the name come from and where to look for Zaolzie on a map? Those who intuitively associate Zaolzie with the division of Cieszyn Silesia between Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1920 are of course right. However, they are wrong in identifying it with the entire area of Cieszyn Silesia granted at that time to Czechoslovakia, at present situated in the Czech Republic and known as Těšínsko. Although Zaolzie lies within this area, the territories do not strictly overlap because Zaolzie does not encompass Těšínsko’s western peripheries. There, in past centuries, Polish ethnic communities gave way to Czech population and, in consequence, these parts already at the beginning of the 20th century were unquestionably in the Czech sphere of influence. Thus the area of Zaolzie can include only those parts of Cieszyn Silesia, given in 1920 to Czechoslovakia, where the Polish population either had absolute majority or dominated the Czech population (with the simultaneous presence of a considerable German community). In this sense the western border of Zaolzie corresponds to the ethnographic border which – certain fluctuations notwithstanding – already at the turn of the 20th century clearly set apart the areas of Cieszyn Silesia populated by Poles and by Czechs. Another criterion that can be applied when justifying the inclusion of certain localities in Zaolzie is a political one, strictly related to the Polish-Czech dispute over the statehood of Cieszyn Silesia. Within such an understanding Zaolzie refers to an area, an object of Polish aspirations, which in 1918, in consequence of a spontaneous action of the Polish majority inhabiting the territory, was absorbed into the newly reborn Poland. Later, as a result of the Conference of Ambassadors’ arbitrary decision of July 28, 1920 in Paris, the area was given to Czechoslovakia only to turn again, 18 years later, in the autumn of 1938, into an object of dispute, and subsequent revindication by the Second Polish Republic. The inhabitants of Zaolzie themselves most often identify Zaolzie with two counties which emerged in 1920 in the part of Cieszyn Silesia granted to the Czechoslovak Republic, namely Český Těšín County and Frysztat/Fryštát County. Such an interpretation avoids the identification of Zaolzie as an object of Polish-Czech conflict and revisionist connotations associated with the name.


In as much – with the above interpretations in mind – as the northern, eastern and southern borders of Zaolzie raise no doubts, for they correspond to the borders of the Czech Republic, as well as Poland and Slovakia, it is obvious that the western part of the area defined as Zaolzie defies all attempts at demarcation and its border can be drawn in many different ways depending on the adopted premises. Applying the broadest interpretation, the one evoked, inter alia, during delimitation in November 1938, the west of Zaolzie should include Wierzbica in the north, then – moving southward – Rychwałd/Rychvald, Orłowa/Orlová, Pietwałd/Pietvald, Szonów, Datynie Dolne/Dolní Datyně, Błędowice Dolne/Dolní Bludovice and Błędowice Górne/Bludovice Horní, Żermanice/Žermanice, Szobiszowice/Sobisovice, Domasłowice Dolne/Dolní Domaslavice and Domasłowice Górne/Horní Domaslavice, Toszonowice/Tošonovice Dolne/Dolní and Górne/Horní, Wojkowice/Vojkovice, Dobracice/Dobratice, Ligotka Kameralna/Komorní Lhotka, Rzeka/Řeka, Tyra, Koszarzyska/ Košařiska and Łomna Górna/Horní Lomná. From an ethnographic point of view problematic on that list are Orłowa/Orlová, Pietwałd/Pietvald, Szonów, Błędowice Górne/Horní Bludovice, Żermanice/Žermanice, Szobiszowice/Sobisovice, Domasłowice/Domaslavice Dolne/Dolní and Górne/Horní, Toszonowice Dolne/Dolni Tošonovice, Wojkowice/Vojkovice, Dobracice/Dobracice, as well as - situated further east – Łazy/Lazy and Dziećmorowice/Dětmarovice, two communities which in 1918 were the object of Polish aspirations and which – although in 1900 populated mainly by Poles – in accordance with the Austro-Hungarian census of 1910 had more Czech than Polish inhabitants. In the remaining localities situated between the above listed and the 1920 border with the Polish Republic, according to the same census, Poles had an absolute majority or at least dominated the Czech population.


Paradoxically, the justifiability of the eastern and northern borders between Zaolzie and Poland can also be contested. Many localities making up Zaolzie (literally: “the lands beyond the Olza River”) – further still, occupying a significant part of its area – do not lie beyond the Olza. On the contrary, looking at them from the Polish perspective, they are in front of the river. Within this group in the north there is the community of Piotrowice and the city of Karviná with Frysztat/Fryštát; in the south (in full or in part) lie Trzyniec/Třinec, Wędrynia/Vendryně, Bystrzyca/ Bystřice, Nydek/Nydek, Jabłonków/Jablunkov and Piosek/ Písek. Thus, from the geographical point of view, the name “Zaolzie” is purely conventional and can be explained only by a symbolic identification of the border with the Olza River in Cieszyn, the capital of the region, where the border and the river can be visualized, which, in effect, leads to equating the border line with the course of the river. In reality only a short stretch of the river, from Cieszyn to Raj (Karviná), runs along the Polish-Czech state border.


Perhaps it was precisely for this reason that the name Zaolzie in reference to the lands inhabited mostly by Poles and granted to Czechoslovakia in 1920 was not coined immediately after the event. Initially, in Poland, the region was either pointedly described as “Czech seizure” or was given a more neutral yet imprecise name of Czech Silesia, which actually applies not only to the part of Cieszyn Silesia within the Czech borders but also to Opawa/Opava, Karniów/Krnov and Hulczyn/Hlučín Silesia. In the nineteen twenties one would look in vain for the term Zaolzie – used in the sense it interests us – not only in the central news media but also in regional papers. In the latter, the name Zaolzie appeared occasionally but only in strictly local contexts and always referring to hamlets beyond the Olza River such as Istebna Zaolzie [literally: the part of Istebna lying behind the Olza river) or Wędrynia Zaolzie. At that time the name was not used to denote the entire area which was the object of the Polish-Czech dispute. In such sense it appeared in the second half of the nineteen thirties when the conflict over the border in Cieszyn Silesia flared up again. What’s more, it started to circulate outside Cieszyn Silesia and was popularized by Paweł Hulka-Laskowski who while working on his famed book “Śląsk za Olzą” (“Silesia beyond the Olza River”) published many texts devoted to the status of Poles in Zaolzie, repeatedly using this very name. It was not until 1938 that the name found its way to general usage and everyday language, that is when, in connection with the revision of the Polish-Czech border, everyone, not just in Poland but in the whole of Europe talked about Zaolzie. At that time the Polish press relished such terms like Śląsk Zaolziański (Silesia Beyond the Olza), also Zaolziański (Beyond the Olza) and finally – short and melodious Zaolzie. One should, therefore, not be surprised by a part of the Czech public opinion which even now looks upon the notion of Zaolzie with distrust and rejects it as being marked by revisionism. For this reason in Zaolzie itself the name was not used in public discourse throughout the postwar period until 1989. Anyone who would somehow try to refer to this notion risked being automatically suspected of revisionism. The notion had its renaissance after the fall of communism, however the inhabitants of the area still find it controversial. The controversy is no longer rooted in historical associations and implied meanings which for the vast majority of Zaolzie inhabitants are irrelevant and unintelligible, but in the contemporary reality made up of the everyday attitudes and choices of Zaolzie Poles. For many of its inhabitants of Polish origin Zaolzie became not only “the center of the universe,” an Arcadia glorified beyond measure, but – more importantly – the strong Zaolzie patriotism seems to have completely ousted from their consciousness the need to embrace Polish national culture, and seems to have been replaced by folklore, by regional culture in which Czech influences are increasingly visible. For this reason when Mariusz Wałach, elected in 2016 the President of the Polish Congress in the Czech Republic, stated once publicly: “I don’t like the word Zaolzie” his declaration horrified some of his countrymen.


In summing-up, it befits to once again emphasize that Zaolzie is not a geographic region and its name does not appear on any contemporary map. Neither is it an administrative or political region since it lacks any attributes of distinctness or subjectivity. It is solely a cultural area, to some extent also ethnographic, and any attempt to identify or describe it has to be solidly and distinctly rooted in a historical context. In addition, the borders of Zaolzie are liquid and difficult to mark out. The name itself is burdened with many ambiguities and misunderstandings while its meaning seems to evolve.


The area of Zaolzie amounts to only about 800 km2 and is exceptionally diverse. In the south it spans the Moravian-Silesian Beskid range (highest peak Ropica 1062 meters above sea level) which descends northward to give way to the uplands of the central part of Zaolzie (mean altitude about 450 meters above sea level) and finally to the Ostrava Basin (mean height about 240 meters above sea level). Except for the Beskid Mountains the entire Zaolzie is highly urbanized. The key centers of the Czech Republic heavy industry are located here with the Karviná coal basin and Trzyniec steelworks. Through Zaolzie also runs the Košíce-Bohumin railroad, once a line of strategic importance to the whole of Central Europe. Natural resources, well developed industry and a vital railway junction were the main reasons why the annexation and keeping of this area within the Czechoslovakian Republic (created in 1918) was invariably one of the major objectives of the Prague government. For Zaolzie its economic potential had far-reaching consequences. Intensive coal-bed exploitation during the communist period caused enormous mining damage and turned considerable parts of the area’s landscape into a moon-like surface. Portrayed in the writings of Gustaw Morcinek, Karwina literally sank into the ground. Cemeteries and the intriguing St. Peter of Alcantra leaning church are all that remained of the once dynamic mining community, till the end of the 19th century the center of the Polish workers’ movement in Cieszyn Silesia. The city presently known as Karviná came into being in 1948 and consists of the depopulated area of former Karviná (now the borough of Kopalnie) merged with Frysztat/Fryštát and seven adjacent localities. It is a huge dormitory town inhabited by miners brought here from all over Czechoslovakia. The city, where there are hardly any traces left of the traditions and character of the once Polish Karviná, with its name, socialist-realism architecture and pre-cast concrete housing, overshadowed also the history and heritage of the town incorporated into its borders, Frysztat/Fryštát, one of the most important residential towns of the Cieszyn Piasts and until the second half of the 20th century a local administrative center. Trzyniec with its huge steelworks, after consolidation with a dozen or so neighboring villages underwent similar changes. It turned into yet another overpopulated urban center marked by socialist-realism, its industrial character clashing with the soothing landscape of the Beskid mountains so attractive to tourists just beyond its outskirts. In the nineteen fifties one more such center, Hawierzów, sprang up in Zaolzie. Located on the lands formerly belonging to Dolne Datynie/Dolní Datyně, Dolne Błędowice/Dolní Bludovice, Dolna and Średnia Sucha/Dolní and Prostřední Suchá, Szumbark/Šumbark and Żywocice/Životice, it is another dormitory town inhabited by the Ostrava-Karviná Basin workers.


Ruthless economic exploitation combined with equally brutal urbanization in the postwar period completely altered the face of Zaolzie. Many architectural monuments and cultural centers disappeared together with numerous villages and traditional workers’ settlements with origins going back to the 19th century. Former social structures were shattered, proportions between various national groups inhabiting Zaolzie unsettled, customs, traditions and systems of values changed. Poles, who still in 1920 outnumbered other nationalities in Zaolzie and lived in close-knit communities, after several dozen years found themselves in the role of one of many minorities, only a few percentage strong, scattered amid the Czech majority and dwelling in large socialist realist dormitory towns.


The administrative reforms launched in the area were also significant for the Polish national group in Zaolzie. At the beginning the Frysztat and Cieszyn (after 1920 Ceský Tešín) Districts remained as they were, except for the counties incorporated by Poland, with Opava remaining the capital of Silesia. In 1928, however, the entire area was united with Moravia, forming the Moravian-Silesian Region (next to Bohemia, Slovakia and Zakarpattia, one of the top-level units of administrative division) where Polish as well as German minorities lost much of their influence. Aside from small assignments to neighboring Ostrava and Mistek counties and subordination of Olbrachcice to the Frysztat/Fryštát administration, the Český Těšín and Frysztat/Fryštát Districts retained their status after WWII. At the turn of the nineteen forties and fifties, and in some regions of Zaolzie until now, separate counties were consolidated into larger urban or rural entities (some of these changes were reversed at the turn of the 21st century). At that time the names – the genesis of which went back to the Middle Ages – of two localities were changed. Niemiecka Lutynia (German Lutynia) became Lutynia Dolna and Lutynia Polska (Polish Lutynia) – Lutynia Górna. The names of localities incorporated by new Karviná and Hawierzów/Havířov were displaced by borough numbers assigned to them within these cities, gradually disappearing also from common usage, especially among the arrivals from other parts of the Republic.


Significant changes occurred in 1960 when Ceský Tešín District was divided between Frýdek-Místek District and Karviná District which replaced Frysztat/Fryštát District. In the next two decades smaller counties were deprived of their independence and either annexed to neighboring cities or consolidated into larger rural entities. The Frýdek-Místek and Karviná Districts survive till the present although in 2006 they lost their administrative stature but continued as a seat of courts and police. Simultaneously with changes on county level, the reforms were introduced on a higher administrative level. In 1949 the Moravian-Silesian Land (Země Moravskoslezska) ceased to exist and Zaolzie found itself included within the Ostrava Region (Ostravský kraj) and subsequently, in 1960 – together with the rest of it – became a part of the newly created North Moravian Region (Severomoravský kraj) which in 2001 changed its name to Moravian-Silesian Region (Moravskoslezský kraj).


All these changes, by breaking up the existing territorial divisions, liquidating some regions and disintegrating the communities inhabiting these lands for centuries, led to the homogenization of society within the entire Republic. It radically lowered the standing of the Polish national group which could no longer exert any significant influence over the future of the region where not long ago they held the majority. Ultimately, the Polish presence in Zaolzie became less and less noticeable, not only from the perspective of the right bank of the Olza River but also for the Czech majority populating this region.



The Olza River (Phot.: AERO FOTO BZ Chojęta, The collection of the Municipal Office in Cieszyn)



A view on the Czech side from the Piast Tower, 2015 (Phot.: Renata Karpińska)




Bilingual plaques at the railway station in Český Těšín, 2019 (Phot. from OD KP collection)


Třinec ironworks, 2008 (Phot. from OD KP collection)


A view of Karvina, 2012 (Phot. from OD KP collection)


St. Peter of Alcantara Church in Karvina, 2014 (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