Fifteen years since a 60th wedding anniversary celebrated at Czestochowa, Poland (Part One)
By Mark Wegierski
Fifteen years ago, I had been invited to the celebration of a 60th wedding anniversary in Czestochowa, which was the first time that I saw the city, and its world-famous shrine of the Virgin Mary, with its Black Madonna icon.
Indeed, on Saturday, July 10, 2004, during my three-month-long visit to Poland, I took a long trip by car with my female relative from Ciechocinek to Czestochowa, to reach the celebration of her grandparents’ 60th Wedding Anniversary. Ciechocinek is a spa and resort town about 200 kilometers northwest of Warsaw.
We set off early in the morning in her elegant Peugeot 206, along with her dog -- a purebred West Highland Terrier -- which had been purchased about a year earlier as a puppy from a leading kennel in Radom (a city in south-central Poland). It was a sunny and fairly hot day. We were travelling in a southwest direction, towards Lodz, the second-largest city in Poland. A superhighway system in Poland has yet to be built, which means that most driving takes place on two-lane highways, where passing slow-moving trucks or cars is itself fairly perilous, requiring superb driving skills.
I still recall the approach to the environs of Lodz, with the distinct freshness of the early morning in the air, with the quaint-looking suburban tramcar line running alongside the highway, where we were practically the only traffic. It was the height of the summer -- everything seemed green and fresh. I had a great sense of satisfaction as we sped by one slow-moving tramcar. There were small groups of mostly young people waiting for the tram at widely spaced stops. Ah, the freedom of the road!
We drove through downtown Lodz to reach the southern highway exit. The city had a large Jewish population before the Second World War. The Poles have been tremendously respectful of the city’s Jewish heritage and remembrance of the Holocaust, for example, in the very solemn ceremonies memorializing the destruction of the Lodz Ghetto by the German occupation forces.
There is also a very prestigious arts festival which has been running for several years in the city, “The Dialogue of Four Cultures” – Polish, Jewish, German, and Russian. There had been a German presence in the city long before Hitler; while the city was under Imperial Russian rule from 1815 to 1914. Between 1815-1830, the main part of Russian-occupied Poland was known as the Congress Kingdom (after the Congress of Vienna of 1815 which had decided on the shape of Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars). The Polish nickname for this area during that time and later was “Kongresowka”.
Lodz is a city that sprang up as a result of the Industrial Revolution in the mid to late nineteenth century. Andrzej Wajda’s famous film, Ziemia Obiecana (The Promised Land) (1975) (based on the novel by Wladyslaw Reymont) – and also a close runner-up for the Best Foreign Film Oscar -- gives an atmospheric portrait of the ruthless capitalism of the late-nineteenth century, and of the relations between Poles, Jews, and Germans in the city. Nevertheless, by 1914, about half of the industries of all of the Tsarist Empire were located in what was informally called the Kongresowka. (It should be added here that Wladyslaw Reymont was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1924, for his monumental tetralogy, Chlopi (The Peasants), a poignant, superbly rendered work of agrarian sensibilities.)
Especially after the crushing of the November Insurrection of 1830-1831, and the crushing of the January 1863 Insurrection, Imperial Russia endeavoured to forcibly turn the Poles into Russians. The very name of Poland was to be eradicated – the area was to be called (what is rendered in English translation) as “Vistula-land” -- and Poles were ordered to call themselves “Privislentsi”. In all the state schools, universities, administrative apparatus, and public and commercial signage, Russian was the sole official language. Active Polish patriots faced heavy jail sentences and were frequently exiled to Siberia or other remote parts of the Russian Empire, or executed outright. Unlike the case of Russian exiles to Siberia, who were usually allowed to eventually return home, the Tsar gave specific orders that the Poles should never be permitted to return. Huge numbers of Poles were also conscripted into the Russian army, and few of them ever returned from the numerous wars fought by Imperial Russia, or from the garrison duty in godforsaken places.
It was only as a result of the 1905 Revolution (when the Tsar was forced to create the Duma or Parliament), and the increasing conflicts with Imperial Germany, that some Poles began to hope that Imperial Russia might eventually liberalize itself. In this context, the Kongresowka was the most dynamic and progressive part of the Tsarist Empire.
Lodz continued under Russian Partition until late 1914; it then passed briefly under the control of Imperial Germany – but in 1918 an independent Poland was reborn after 123 years of Partition.
(Partially based on the author’s article that originally appeared in Chronicles (Rockford, IL) (December 2005), pp. 38-39.)
To be continued.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher.