Poland ‘Vistula’

Language: Polish

Religions: Roman Catholic 87%, Orthodox 1.3%, Protestant 0.4% (mainly Augsburg Evangelical – Lutheran - and Pentecostal)
Population: 38 million

Capital: Warsaw

No registered baptized Mennonites

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Mennonite bike route

Part of the 9000 km Migration Route will pass through this area.

A builder and artist

Author: Paul F. Thimm
Translator: Eliza ten Kate 

In Gdansk you'll find traces of a Mennonite family of builders and artists, the Van den Blocke family. The Hansaic city of Danzig (Gdansk) was one of the richest and most beautiful cities in Northern Europe.

Willem was the son of the sculptor François van den Blocke, from Mechelen, Belgium. Together with his brother Egidius, Willem moved to Danzig, which was looking for skilled craftsmen to translate the city's pride into buildings. His most reputable commission was the Upper Gate, which was the start of the 'Royal Route' through the inner city. He decorated it in stone, with coats of arms of Poland, Prussia and the city itself. In Oliva he built the tomb of the Kos family. In Königsberg another one of his tombs can be found.

 

Willem's son Abraham, architect and sculptor, cooperated in building the Artus Court and Neptune's fountain, and built the marble tomb for the marquis Bonifacio in the Church of the Holy Trinity. He also designed the Golden House of Mayor Speimann and the Golden Gate. Willem's other son Isaac painted pictures in St. Catherine’s Church and in the City Hall, and painted images on the altar and the pulpit in St. Mary's Church. Together with their other brother Jacob, a carpenter, they also worked on the triumphal arch for King Sigismund.

 

Newcomers to Danzig, like Egidius' and Willem's sons Abraham, Jacob and David, gained citizenship by taking the citizen's oath. This might very well be the reason they became Luterhans, since Mennonites are forbidden from taking oaths.

 

Presumably Willem and his son Isaac remained Mennonites. A sign of this is that Willem named his three sons after the patriarchs. His 'Vermeulen-Bible' also points to this, because from a textual perspective it matches the Mennonite 'Biestkens-Bible'. The Danzig merchant Krijn Vermeulen had these Bibles printed for his Dutch speaking fellow-believers. On Willem's copy his name and the date 1607 are printed.

 

Isaac requested to be able to practice his trade without having to take an oath. His Anabaptism can also be found in his painted ceiling in the City Hall. God isn't portrayed in it, but merely indicated by an arm coming from heaven and the Tetragrammaton.

 

Sources:

Horst Penner, ‘Niederländische Täufer formen als Baumeister, Bildhauer und Maler mit an Danzigs unverwechselbarem Gesicht‘, in: Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter (MGB), 26. Jg. 1969, S.12-26.

Horst Penner, ‘Kunst und Religion bei Wilhelm und Isaac von dem Block‘, in: MGB 27.Jg. 1970, S. 48-50.

Rainer Kolbe, ‘Wie mennonitisch war die Danziger Künstlerfamilie von Block?‘, in: MGB 66. Jg. 2009, S.71-84.

Rainer Kolbe, ‘Die Vermeulen-Bibel des Wilhelm von den Blocke von 1607‘, in: MGB 67. Jg. 2010, S.69-75. Nachtrag zu dem Artikel “Wie mennonitisch war die Danziger Künstlerfamilie von Block?“, in: MGB 66 (2009).

‘One for all and all for one’

Author: Michał Targowski

The motto of the Three Musketeers was well known to Mennonites living in Poland, who were famous for their support & solidarity within their communities.

 

Solidarity and trustworthiness

The Mennonites in Poland were descendants of Dutch immigrants. Unlike most Polish peasants they were free people, not serfs. Their relationship with landlords and bishops was based on long term contracts, usually signed by a group of several farmers staying in one area. With the right to lease the land, they also received  privileges and obligations.

 

This led to the 16th century Vistula river delta housing rural Mennonite communities with large autonomy and well-developed self-government. The contracts often mentioned that all members of the community had to fulfill their obligations and be responsible ‘one for all and all for one’. This is a good description of the customs which regulated life in Mennonites villages in Poland.

 

‘Willkürs’

The rules obeyed in the settlements were written down in so-called Willkürs: lists of articles in the form of decorated, long documents which were kept in special communal chests for generations. The most important parts included regulations for self-government. At its head was a 'Schultz' accompanied by councilors, all of them elected by local farmers. They held their office for one year and afterwards had to give a report to the community on the money they had spent and the activities they had undertaken.

 

All the neighbours paid a set fee to maintain the school, the teachers and the cemetery. Special attention was also paid to finding the best guardians for orphans. Those who neglected the most important obligations like paying tax, maintaining dikes, ditches, borders or fire prevention where severely punished by the community, with fines or even exile.

 

Supporting victims

It was also customary to support victims of robbery. Even if only one horse or cow was stolen, each family had to send one person to chase the thief. Neighbours were obliged to give financial and material help to victims of fire as well. Self-governing organizations were also formed to protect dikes and ditches. They functioned until the 19th century and were another way the Mennonites were linked to the country of Poland.

 

Mennonite architecture in Poland

Authors: Wojciech Marchlewski, Michał Targowski

Mennonites who lived in Poland differed from their neighbours not only in their religion and ethnic origin, but also in the way they constructed their buildings.

In the areas of Poland where mennonites used to live there are hundreds of buildings of which the architecture is based on patterns brought over by 16th century Dutch Mennonites. Most of them are old wooden farm houses found in Żuławy (Werder) and in the low and central valley of the Vistula river. They are easily recognized: the dwelling and the barn are built in a long straight line, covered with one roof. They are very large, often exceeding 40 metres.

 

Mennonites living in marshy areas built their houses on man-made hills called terps. The foundation was constructed  from oak, the side walls were built with pine or or other soft woods. A wooden construction provided protection from the elements and made it possible to take the house apart again, and move it to a new site. The attic was used to keep hay and crops, but during high floods it would also become a shelter for the family and their property, including cattle.

 

In the first two centuries of the Mennonites’ existence in Poland their farm houses were also  used as houses of prayer.  In the 16th and 17th century there were only a few mennonite churches here. It was not until the 18th century that Mennonite communities began to obtain permission to build their churches in other places in Żuławy (Werder) and the  Vistula valley. These churches were made of wood,  long rectangles with a simple high roof which made them look more like barns or granaries than places of worship.

 

From the mid-19th century onwards old churches in Żuławy were replaced with new constructions which quite often followed the architecture of churches build by other confessions. Built with brick in a neo-gothic or eclectic style, but still easy to recognize because they had no tower. However, the tradition of building wooden churches was preserved longer in areas up the Vistula river near Toruń, Płock and Warsaw, where new churches were constructed by Mennonites in the late 19th century. Overall, in Poland Mennonites built more than 40 churches in 30 locations and used most of them until the great migration in the last months of WWII. Today there are only 9 former Mennonite churches preserved, some of which are used as houses of worship by communities of other confessions.

 

Mennonite cemeteries

Author: Łukasz Kępski

Although Mennonites have lived in many areas of Poland for about 400 years, there are only a few material relics of their presence which have survived until today. A part of this heritage are old and often forgotten cemeteries. The oldest Mennonite cemeteries in Poland were established by the first migrants who settled in the Vistula delta and valley in the 16th century. Maintained by all members of the local community, the cemeteries were usually found close to the settlements, on specially chosen natural or man-made hills, which protected them from dangerous flooding of the river.

Symbols

Mennonite cemeteries were filled with important symbols, still found on relics of tombstones. Broken trees and butterflies symbolize the fragility and transience of human life, while poppies are used as symbols of eternal sleep. Skulls, situated usually at the bottom part of the gravestone, lead our thoughts to unavoidable death - the end of winding life, which is often symbolized by decorative borders. Other interesting decorations are gmerken – the coat of arms of families which were placed on the gravestones together with initials of the dead.

 

Relics

After the Second World War many of the Mennonite cemeteries, as well as those used by other protestants and Jews, faced a tragic fate when, as a  result of the  forced migration of Mennonites from Poland in 1945, they were left without any protection. Seen as traces of hostile German culture, old gravestones were often destroyed or removed by new inhabitants of the area. Many of the cemeteries disappeared. However, some of them, especially those situated far from settlements, remained, as more and more forgotten relics of the former communities that had lived there.

 

Restoration

Today the situation is very different. In many places in Poland old Mennonite cemeteries are being carefully restored by various organizations and institutions, often with support from Mennonites living in the Netherlands, Germany and USA. There are lots of good examples of such activities, including the restoration of a cemetery in Stogi Malborskie (Heubuden) or a lapidarium called ‘11 villages cemetery’ which is a part of the Muzeum Żuławskie (Żuławy Museum) in Nowy Dwór Gdański. Nowadays these extraordinary sites are more than just places visited by descendants of members of former local Mennonite communities. They are also a space for educational activities and intercultural dialogue, as well as sites of eternal commemoration of the Mennonites - the previous inhabitants of the local area.

Remembrance of Mennonites in today’s Poland

Author: Michał Targowski

The disaster of the WWII forced Mennonites to leave oland, their homeland of 400 years. The heritage they left is now being re-discovered and fascinates new generations of Polish people and visitors from abroad.

Respect

Farms and houses left by Mennonites who emigrated from Poland were taken over by Polish families exiled from eastern Polish territories that were annexed by the USSR. The new inhabitants’ attitude towards their predecessors was negatively influenced by the painful experiences of the war and Polish-German antagonism. However, they had great respect for the Mennonites because of the buildings, devices and systems they left, which allowed farming on the wetlands.

 

Educational and cultural exchange

The period of the Cold War made it impossible for Mennonites to come back to their homeland. Remembering their roots, they managed to organize substantial help for Poland many times , especially in the first post-war years. It was not until the 1970s when, as a result of the normalization of some Polish-foreign relations, a few Mennonites were allowed to visit their former churches and settlements for the first time. This was also the beginning of an educational and cultural exchange organized by the Mennonite Central Committee. The developing contacts led to a closer, though informal, cooperation which resulted in the restoration of forgotten cemeteries,  historical research on Mennonites in Poland and material support sent to Poles in difficult times.

 

Muzeum Zuławskie

In today's independent Poland one can observe a growth of interest in Mennonites. Relics of their existence are recognized as precious elements of the far reach and diverse heritage of the Polish territories. There are many organizations and associations which take care of the remembrance of Mennonites through exhibitions, cultural events, restoration of cemeteries and the saving Mennonite buildings. Since 1993 the International Mennonite Conference is organized by the Klub Nowodworski in Nowy Dwór Gdański. This association opened the Muzeum Zuławskie with a rich exhibition describing the story of local Mennonites. Their heritage is promoted by official tourist routes (Szlak Mennonitów) and also by the Mennonite Weekend in Chrystkowo near Chełmno. In the near  future the Olęderski Park Etnograficzny (Dutch Colonization Open Air Museum) will be opened near Toruń, with original houses and pieces of art left by Mennonites who lived in the Vistula Valley. Last, but not least, in 2007 the Agape Mennonite Fellowship was established in Mińsk Mazowiecki as a community of Christians continuing the beliefs and traditions of Polish Mennonites.

 

Key moments in the history of the Polish Mennonites

Author: Michał Targowski

From the hopeful moment of their arrival in the 16th century until the sad time of departure in 1945, Mennonites were an important part of the difficult history of Poland which was once home to the biggest Mennonite population in the world.

 

Welcomed and feared

In the mid-16th century the first Mennonites settled down in Poland. Their migration from the Netherlands to the delta and valley of the Vistula River evoked various reactions in the local people. On the one hand, they were seen as a threat to Catholic and other Protestant churches and as dangerous competitors for urban jobs. On the other hand, they were welcomed because of their skills in farming on marshy lands. From time to time towns, bishops and nobility wanted the Mennonites gone, but they stayed in Poland, supported by kings,  landlords and administrators of land estates.

 

In contrast to other states in early modern times, Poland was famous for its legally guaranteed religious tolerance. In 1642 Polish Mennonites received a special privilege in which they were promised freedom of belief and protection from persecution. This, however, did not save them from Northern wars taking place in the area in the 17th and 18th centuries, which caused decimation or even annihilation of many Mennonite settlements, destroyed by wandering troops and epidemics.

 

Lost Freedom

For more than two centuries the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was a place where Mennonites could exist according to their traditions and beliefs. This changed completely with the partitions of Poland in 1772 and 1793, when the areas they lived in were incorporated into the Kingdom of Prussia . The new monarchy imposed new regulations on the Mennonites, who were forced to pay a great sum of money annually for exemption from obligatory military service and were not allowed to buy farms which had not been in Mennonite hands before. This resulted in a  new migration from Żuławy and the Lower Vistula Valley to the East. Some Mennonite families settled near Płock and Warsaw, but most of them responded to the invitation from Czarina Catherine II to colonize Russian steppes. Families who stayed in Prussia identified themselves more and more with the Germans and in the 1870s they finally lost the struggle for exemption from military duties. Meanwhile a new stream of migration took many Mennonites from Prussia to the Northern and Southern Americas.

 

After World War I the Mennonites who lived in Żuławy and the Lower Vistula Valley were separated by the new borders of the Republic of Poland, Germany and the Free City of Gdańsk. Treated as Germans and therefore later charged with responsibility for the disasters of World War II, they were forced to leave their homes in the beginning of 1945. They fled, mainly to Germany or the USA. This way, the more than 400 years of their existence in Poland were brought to a dramatic and painful end.

 

 

Mennonite settlements in Poland

Author: Michał Targowski

The Mennonites who migrated to Poland from the mid-16th century were mostly peasants. Their excellent skills in farming on marshy lands allowed them to settle down in low-populated areas in the delta of the Vistula river.

Choosing to live in the countryside

Although communities of  Mennonite craftsmen and merchants existed in Elbląg (Elbing) and in the suburbs of Gdańsk, most followers of Menno Simons chose to live in the country. The first Mennonite settlements were situated in the delta and valley of the lower Vistula, only a few lived at the Baltic sea coast and on the marshes of the river Noteć. In the early 17th century the Dutch organized their colony on one of the river islands which is now within the borders of Warsaw. Further development was hindered by wars until the late 18th century, when new generations of Mennonites, born in Poland, began to migrate again and to colonize new areas upstream of the Vistula and its tributaries.

 

Established in demanding locations with a high possibility of floods, villages settled by Mennonites had a unique form and character - wooden cottages usually built along a dike or an edge of dry land close to the marshes, the houses spaced out evenly. Fields were divided into regular long lots, perpendicular to the dike or a road and bordered by ditches. Linear villages of that type are called ’row villages’. Their design, preserved in many locations in Poland, is one of the elements of the heritage left by these immigrants.

 

Integrated communities

Mennonite settlements in Poland formed local groups which allowed cooperation between smaller communities. They organized common prayers and services which were attended by inhabitants of several villages. A lot was done to protect a Mennonite’s farm from being seized by Catholics or Lutherans. This is why the Polish Mennonites formed close-knit communities which were able to preserve their identity and religion for a long time, at least till the time of Germanization in the 19th and 20th centuries, and sometimes even until their dramatic migration from Poland in 1945. These centuries-old Mennonite settlements include dozens of villages in Zulawy and the Lower Vistula Valley, such as Wielka Nieszawka (Nessau), Sosnówka (Schonsee), Przechówko (Wintersdorf), Mątawy (Montau), Grupa (Gruppe), Bratwin, Jezioro (Thiensdorf), Kazuń (Deutsch Kazun) and Wymyśle. There, as well as in many other places, one can still find traces of the Mennonite history, preserved in lowland landscapes, in old examples of wooden architecture or in silent cemeteries.

 

Zulawy – New beginnings

Author: Łukasz Kępski
Translator: Michal Targowski 

Zulawy - the fertile green lowland at the mouth of the river Vistula, with its unique traditional architecture and incredibly complex drainage system, was a home for many generations of Mennonites from the 16th to the mid-20th century.

Tolerance

The first Mennonites settled in Zulawy in the mid-16th century. The area, called also Werder, was then a part of Royal Prussia, one of the provinces ruled by Polish kings. In earlier centuries,  Poland had shown tolerance towards people of different religions: Jews, Roman and Orthodox Christians who lived in the Kingdom. The first half of the 16th century, a time of religious conflicts in Western Europe, brought a peaceful victory of Reformation in big Polish cities, especially in wealthy harbours like Gdansk (Danzig) and Elblag (Elbing), connected by busy sea trade routes to the Netherlands. This situation gave hope to persecuted Dutch Mennonites. Migration to Poland via Gdansk seemed a way to save their own identity.

 

Skillful farmers

Mennonites did not find a warmly welcome in Gdansk where local merchants and craftsmen were afraid of competition with the newcomers. However, their skills in farming on marshes enticed administrators of the marshy Vistula lowlands to invite Dutch migrants to settle in the rural, sometimes even uncultivated areas of Zulawy. The region became inhabited by Mennonites, with a developed network of settlements, canals and dikes to allow effective agricultural development of the region. Newcomers were usually given a privileged status with long-term lease contracts called emphyteusis, which protected their religious freedom, self-government and customs. From the 1540s the Mennonite population in all parts of Zulawy grew in number and area. They settled in old villages and established new ones on the lowlands between Gdansk, Elblag and Malbork.

 

Another migration

The peaceful existence of Mennonites in Zulawy was disturbed by Northern wars in the mid-17th century and by the annexation of the area into the Kingdom of Prussia in 1772. Restrictions of freedom and a growing demand for military service forced by new authorities caused another migration - to the Ukrainian steppes. Many Mennonites found a new home there. However, they did not forget their roots and called several new settlements after their villages left in Zulawy.  Those who stayed along the banks of Vistula had to flee from their country in World War 2, leaving behind a beautiful landscape and a cultural heritage developed during 400 years of Mennonite existence in the area.

Looking for a place to stay

Author: Michał Targowski

The wish to lead a better life where they could follow their own rules and beliefs brought the Mennonites to Poland in the 16th century. In the years to come the same desire forced them many times to look for new places to live, within Poland and beyond.

Between growing intolerance and religious freedom

Mennonite migrations in Poland increased in the late 18th century, most probably because of overpopulation of their settlements and growing intolerance among a part of Polish society. Migrants went up stream of the river Vistula or went abroad. In the new places it was not always easy to stay longer. In the 1760s Mennonites from the regions of Świecie, Toruń and Grudziądz established two important settlements between Płock and Warsaw - Kazuń (Deutsch-Kazun) and Nowe Wymyśle (Deutsch-Wymysle). In this area they lived until the end of the Second World War. Another group of about 30 families migrated to the wetlands of the Noteć river near Drezdenko, a part of Brandenburg, where they built the settlements Brenkenhoffswalde and Franzthal. In 1765 these settlers received special privilege in the form of religious freedom and exemption from military service, but when Prussian authorities announced plans to end this privilege in 1834 , most of the Mennonites migrated again.

 

Military service

Their most important migration destinations were the territories around the river Dniepr, which in the 18th century belonged to Russia (today Ukraine). At the invitation of Catherine the Great a large group of farmers from Żuławy moved to that area and established the first colony along the Dnieper, Chortiza. In the years after that they were followed by thousands of other Mennonites who could not accept the limitations imposed upon them by the Prussian state. When Prussia finally demanded military service in 1860s , it caused the next wave of migration, this time mainly to North America.

 

Mennonites in Poland until 1945

Despite the massive exodus in the 18-19th century, many Mennonites stayed in Poland. But in 1945 they had to leave their homeland as well, as a result of the tragedy of the Second World War. Faced with the hardship and chaos of the end and aftermath of the war, almost all Mennonites chose to move to Western Germany, Uruguay, Paraguay, the USA and Canada.