Pilgrimage to Poland, part 2
Mark Wegierski returns to his roots
Twelve 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.
Especially after the crushing of the November Insurrection of 1830-1831, and the suppression 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.
We then continued towards Piotrkow Trybunalski, a historic town which was the seat of Poland’s Royal Tribunal for hundreds of years (before 1795). It was also an occasional point of assembly for the Polish Sejm (or Parliament), whose members were elected from and by the nobility. The traditions of the Sejm stretched back to the Renaissance period. Given that the noble class numbered around ten percent of the population in Old Poland -unlike in most other European countries, where it was only one or two percent – this meant that historically a far larger proportion of the population had full political participation than in some other countries in Europe, such as the French monarchy, where meaningful politics in fact usually revolved around a fraction of a percentage of the population. After the death of the last Jagiellonian King in 1572, Old Poland also had the system where a King was elected for life by the electoral Sejm – rather than having a hereditary dynasty – hence it could be called a Royal Republic. Indeed, it was referred to in European diplomacy as “Serenissima” – which could be rendered in English as “the Most Serene Republic” – a term which had also been used in reference to Old Venice. In the U.S. Constitution of 1787, the office of the President of the United States (which, it may be remembered, was not originally subject to term limits), may have been partially inspired by the Polish elected monarchy.
Turning towards the east, we traversed 80 kilometers to reach Zarnow, a small town whose earliest building (the church) dates back to the tenth century. Zarnow is where my relative’s grandparents were living at that time, in a decidedly modest house of a few rooms. I was told that when her grandparents were digging a well, they encountered a very hard wall of rock – which might have been remnants of early medieval walls. Unfortunately, with a very overstretched government budget, in a country which is – outside of Warsaw and a few other large centers – subject to considerable, often grinding poverty – funds for exploratory archeological digs are very limited.
We quickly loaded the grandparents into the car, which was a rather tight fit for four people and an increasingly nervy dog, and our problems became exacerbated when the grandmother began to suffer from motion sickness. Nevertheless, we persevered and finally reached Czestochowa by about 4 P.M. Her immediate family – including her mother, sister, and one brother, lives in a fairly large house with a large yard, on the outskirts of the city.
Without stopping to rest or snack, and leaving the dog tied up in the yard, we had to rush by car to the famous Jasna Gora Pauline monastery complex, where a commemorative ceremony had been reserved at the main sanctuary, before the famous icon, the so-called Black Madonna. This was actually the first time in my life that I would be at the shrine.
We drove up around the monastery walls to the huge parking lot at the back, at which we were fortuitously able to find a parking spot, owing mainly to my relative’s skill. I noted that various small shops selling devotional materials had been built right into what had once been the fortress walls of the monastery. Even in the short time we were there, we saw a fair number of large tour-buses going up the drive. We then walked along through a large gate-tower towards the main chapel where the Black Madonna resides. My relative’s grandfather had put on his partisan fighter veteran’s uniform with its many medals. He had been severely wounded in the fighting during the war, and, in fact, his first wife had been killed by the German occupiers.
One of my first impressions of the buildings was that they are in fact rather small and intimate, rather than ponderous and overwhelming – which is perhaps somewhat unexpected from such a world-famous site. Although one of the sharp steeples of the monastery complex can be seen from virtually anywhere in the town, the feeling of actually walking around in the monastery complex is rather human-scale.
As we walked into the sanctuary proper, we noticed a marriage ceremony going on directly before the Black Madonna icon. Of course, the icon always has a jewel-encrusted robe for public viewing, so it looks rather different from the unadorned painting. The priest, his attendants, and the young couple were obscured and separated from the main crowd in the chapel by a huge ironwork grille that looked somewhat like an iconostasis in an Eastern Orthodox church.
Pilgrims were continually streaming into the sanctuary, and joining in the ongoing prayers and singing of the wedding service.
Unfortunately, it turned out that we had missed our cue and arrived about fifteen minutes too late, whereas the wedding anniversary commemoration had been allotted little more than fifteen minutes. However, we participated in the prayers and singing. It was rather disappointing to have missed a 60th Wedding Anniversary commemoration.
Being very tired, I ducked out to the church which sits directly beside the sanctuary chapel, where I could admire the magnificence of the Baroque altar. Despite my near exhaustion I appreciated the uplifting beauty of the holy site.
Jasna Gora has had a very long history in the Polish nation. Its central fame derives from the time of the so-called Deluge. In July 1655, Sweden, then a militant, aggressive, Protestant power, invaded Poland from the north, quickly seizing most of the country. Poland (in union with Lithuania) was at that time a large, sprawling, but poorly organized state whose borders stretched to Riga in the north-east, and Kiev in the south-east. It had been wracked by the Dnieper Cossack rebellion, and continual wars with Muscovy. On November 18, 1655, the Swedish general Miller laid siege to the recently-fortified monastery with 3,000 soldiers, against a garrison of 170 soldiers, 20 noblemen, and 70 brothers. The indomitable Father Augustyn Kordecki decided to resist despite being massively outnumbered. After forty days of siege, the Protestant Swedes had failed to take the “fortress of Mary” – and abandoned their efforts. The failure of the siege was seen as a “miracle” brought about by the Virgin Mary’s intercession. It was a huge symbol that galvanized resistance to the Swedish occupation across all of Poland. On April 1, 1656, the Polish King, John Casimir, proclaimed the Virgin Mary the Patroness and Queen of Poland. The defense of Jasna Gora has been a symbol that continues to live even today. Indeed, the 350th anniversary of the siege (in 2005), and the 360th anniversary of the siege (in 2015), both brought distinctly patriotic politicians and parties to power in elections held in Poland.
In their rising against Russian domination of a weakening Poland, the Confederates of Bar (including Casimir Pulaski, who would later become a hero of the War of American Independence) seized and then defended the sanctuary between 1769-1772. The Confederates of Bar (konfederaci barscy) – named after a small south-eastern town where they had initially gathered – who also called themselves “knights of Mary”, or “soldiers of Mary” – have been dubbed by some historians as “the Polish Jacobites.” (The Jacobites were the doomed Scottish insurgents led by Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1745 rising.) Although their political aims had been rather confused – combining both sincere patriotism and a resistance to reforms which the Polish political system at that time desperately needed – they set an example of self-sacrifice for future generations. They were crushed by the Tsarist Russian armies that were tromping through Poland at that time. Indeed, they were one of the first of many generations of Polish freedom-fighters who would frequently end up in exile in Siberia or other remote regions of Russia.
Among the very first prominent Poles to be exiled to Siberia were the noble Senators who were resisting the onslaught of the Russian Tsar Peter the Great at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Indeed, it could be argued that the First Republic had largely lost its sovereignty already by that time. Nevertheless, a massive patriotic renewal movement endeavoured to restore the polity, the culmination of which was the Constitution of the Third of May in 1791. (Of which the 225th anniversary is occurring in 2016.) One of the first written Constitutions in history, it was effusively praised by Edmund Burke. Unfortunately, the Partitioning powers killed the First Republic at the threshold of its possible revival. The Partition period in Poland extended from 1795 to 1918 – 123 years of often harsh foreign occupation by Tsarist Russia, Prussia/Germany, and the Habsburg Empire.
Adam Mickiewicz, the great Polish national poet, who was one of the central creators of Romantic and modern Polish nationalism, mentions Mother Mary and Jasna Gora near the very beginning of his great lyric poem, “Pan Tadeusz”. One of the three books in the famous Trylogia of the Polish author Henryk Sienkiewicz (winner of the 1905 Nobel Prize in Literature, mainly for his Christians-in-Nero’s-Rome novel Quo Vadis) deals with the Swedish Deluge (Potop), and much of the narrative is focussed on the siege of Jasna Gora. One of the last official acts of Pope John Paul II – which had obviously been planned before the onset of his terminal illness – was an exhortative letter delivered to the Prior of Jasna Gora on April 1, 2005, along with some new “crowns” for the Black Madonna icon.
We eventually returned to the car and drove back to the family house. The charge for the parking is whatever you wish to donate.
The anniversary banquet was finally served at a large table in the house at 8 P.M. I pounced on all the delicious food, such as pork cutlets and roast beef, which I washed down with mineral water and some celebratory champagne. There were about fifteen people at the table, including cousins from various branches of the family. There was a separate table for the children in an adjoining room. The Westie got well fed too, especially enjoying tidbits given from the dinner table.
I enjoyed the boisterous conversation at the table, and I was told by my relative’s grandfather (probably with some exaggeration) that his branch of the family was a ducal house renowned in Polish history. I was also joking with a young male cousin about the brand of mineral water we were quaffing, which was being promoted at that time by an advertising campaign with Cindy Crawford, the American supermodel, who says four words in Polish in the television commercial.
The conversations continued at a rapid clip until about 11 P.M., when my relative drove me to the Ibis Hotel in Czestochowa, as staying at the full house was impossible. I checked into the hotel, thanked my relative profusely, and made my way to the comfortable room. I was dead tired and enjoyed the long, hot shower immensely, subsequently quickly falling asleep in the comfortable bed. This day of July 10, 2004, had been one of the longest and most event-laden days of my life.
Partially based on the author’s article that originally appeared in Chronicles (Rockford, IL), December 2005, pp. 38-39
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher. He was born in Toronto of Polish immigrant parents