Published: Pathways & Passages volume 23, number 2, summer 2006.
“There exists a great multitude of religions
especially in Poland, about which one speaks legendarily
And if someone loses their religion, let him search in Poland
and he will certainly find it. And if not, then it can
be said, that that religion has disappeared from the face of the earth”
— Sir Edward Sandys
Presently Poland has become ethnically homogeneous and overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. In 2002, 96% of the Polish population identified itself as Polish and 95% as adherents of the Roman Catholic Church. This ethnoreligious structure came about as a result of World War II and postwar political decisions.
But it was not always so. Exactly the opposite in fact. One associates the Old Polish Commonwealth with religious tolerance and human rights freedoms. The beginnings of this fame of Polish tolerance can be found in the country’s medieval history. In the year 1349, King Kazimierz the Great annexed the lands of orthodox Ruś to the Polish crown and did not try to force or persuade its inhabitants to convert to Catholicism. Some historians assert that because of this, he was excommunicated from the church by papal decree. Others however, attribute his expulsion due to his royal gluttonous lifestyle, his fondness for women and a life of revelry. In 1573, decrees by the Warsaw Confederation guaranteed religious freedom. And in later times, the May 3, 1791 Constitution echoed these guarantees for religious and human rights “Wherefore we do respect, assure and confirm the personal rights and security of, and all property by rights belonging to anyone, as the true bond of society and the pupil of civil liberty and we desire that they remain respected, insured and inviolate for all time to come.“
These few historical facts give rise to the basic notions of tolerance. But what was this like in practice? There are several incidents indicating that these principles were violated at several points in history. Dozens of heretics were burned at the stake by the inquisitor Jan Polak in 1305. Bishop Henryk of Wrocław in 1315 ordered the burning at the stake of fifty heretics along with their wives and children. There were mass executions of heretics between 1346-1348 in Poznan and Wrocław. It seems that the religious tolerance extended to groups who had separated long ago from the Catholic Church or that never had any connection to it and not to people who found no spiritual value in the church and directed their thoughts to other religions.
Poland, in fact, was an “asylum for heretics.” Poland accepted deserters who found refuge within her borders but we also must be aware of the fact that this granting of asylum did not always happen in an atmosphere of general agreement and love. The church administration made a concerted effort to suppress this procedure. However, the Polish nobility stood as the guardian of tolerance and freedom throughout this period. The nobility was accustomed to freedom and it was inconceivable to its members that others would meddle in its choices. If it were not for the so called “Golden Liberty” of the nobility, Poland would have been no different than any other European nation in this regard. Religious tolerance of this era was not just a political idea but a fact as evidenced by the arrival of people of various nationalities and religions who, in Poland, were able to practice their religion in a reasonably peaceful atmosphere free from the threat of repression. The mixture of various ethnoreligious groups in medieval Poland was extensive – Poles, Rusyns, Lithuanians, Tatars, Jews, Germans, Armenians and the Dutch who were adherents of the Mennonite Church.
The Beliefs and Brief History of the Mennonites
The Mennonite religion is a Christian Protestant religion which emerged in the Netherlands in the thirties of the seventeenth century after the fall of a faction of the Anabaptists. The end of the Anabaptists came after bloody unrest in the town of Műnster. The Mennonite beliefs grew from core Anabaptist beliefs but mindful of the tragedy in Műnster, the religion recognized that going to battle with sword in hand was not the true path to the Kingdom of Heaven. Only submission to God could insure personal salvation. The founder and leader of the Mennonites was Menno Simens (1496-1561) who was originally a Catholic priest born in the town of Witmarsum in Frisia. The Bible is the base of the faith and is considered the infallible unerring word of God. The basic tenets of the Mennonite religion were enumerated by Menno Semens in his work entitled “Fondamentboek.”
• Baptism after the age of fourteen – People were redeemed from original sin on the cross by Christ, therefore it was unnecessary to baptize infants. Adult baptism is regarded as a profession of faith and underscores a conscious choice of membership in the Mennonite community.
• Universal Love & Brotherhood – Mennonites put this belief into action by mutual support in their daily lives. Older, ill members of the community or those who have experienced a tragedy could always count on unrestricted assistance from their co-religionists.
• Total ban on the bearing and use of arms – The origins of this belief arose from the bloody confrontations in Műnster. Another consequence of those events is the Mennonite refusal to serve in the military.
• Collective action – Mennonites choose their own pastors from among their ranks.
• Prohibition from holding high offices -Mennonites believe that obedience to civil authorities is necessary but they themselves do not hold high positions as that would constitute serving evil.
• Prohibition of taking oaths for any reason.
• Possibility of exclusion from the community – Those who broke religious rules are threatened with expulsion. This action had dire consequences such as the seizing of property and a deprivation of means of support.
In their daily lives, Mennonites emphasized modesty and the preservation of the faith. They used very simple tools and clothing, without any decorations. They did not use alcohol, tobacco or attend dances. The guiding principle of the community was intergroup solidarity and joint communal responsibility. The severity of the religion and the application of its precepts caused the communities to become closed entities. The Mennonite community had rare contact with non-Mennonites and did not usually participate in village life when they constituted a minority in any given village. Strangers were not taken into the community. In many cases, they were skilled craftsmen in their field and were highly regarded both by other villagers and civil authorities. Because they came from low lying areas of the Netherlands, their skill in recovering wetlands and flood prevention were unparalleled.
The mid sixteenth century was a difficult period for the humble and hardworking Mennonite groups. The Queen of Spain and Regent of the Netherlands, Anna, under the influence of King Charles V, issued a decree making the practicing of the Mennonite religion a severe crime. Persecutions and mass murders followed. Any person who captured or killed an adherent of the religion received a reward. In a book written by Dutch pastor Thielman Van Braght entitled Martyrs’ Mirror, published in 1660, one can find a list of hundreds of Mennonite martyrs, most from Holland. In Switzerland, as late as 1616, death sentences were still being handed out to Mennonites. The only way to keep the faith and lifestyle alive was to abandon Holland and migrate to other parts of the world.
Settlement Patterns in Poland
At this time in history, Poland was experiencing its Golden Age of freedom. Simultaneously, trade relations with the Netherlands were on the rise. Large tracts of wetlands in the valleys of Poland’s rivers were unable to be cultivated. The skills of the Dutch in the field of drainage technology were highly regarded by the Polish authorities. Cooperation between the Mennonites and the Poles seemed a natural one – the needs and skills of both sides were a perfect match. The first areas settled by the Mennonites were Żulawy Wiślane and the area around Gdańsk. The most well known figure in the Polish Reformation, Jan Laski, was instrumental in bringing the Mennonites to settle in this area. Laski had traveled several times to Frisia where he had met Menno Simons and the latter visited Gdańsk in 1549. The chief organizer of the Gdańsk area Mennonite settlement was the then Mayor of Gdańsk, Ferber. After his death, the City Council furthered these colonization plans. Excellent results in land recovery caught the attention of holders of the royal lands and others, resulting in the invitation of more Mennonite settlers. Settlers were given the right to farm the land and were granted renewable leases. However, at this time, they were not allowed to actually own the land. For the first few years, the new settlers were exempt from paying taxes connected to their farming activities. They were likewise exempt from military taxes and service. In exchange, they were obliged to drain marshy land and bring it up to farming standards thus increasing its value. They were also allowed to take lumber from nearby forests to construct buildings on their land.
These exemptions, called “wolnizna”, were valid for 1-7 years, after which Mennonites were obliged to pay rather high rents ranging from 50-60 złotys per lan (a lan is an ancient land measure equivalent to 16-18 hectars). Most Mennonite farms ranged from one to four lans. All members of the community had to pay these rents and proof of this can be found in the leases , some of which have been preserved in various archival repositories. Monies were pooled collectively to pay the rents as the clause “all for one and one for all must be responsible” appeared in many of the leases.
The first Mennonite settlements in the Gdańsk area were in Wrzeszcz, Orunia, Stare Szkoty and Nowe Ogrody. Later. newer settlements appeared in Gogatka, Bystra and Lędowo (1547), Wislinka (1549), Błotnik and Długie Pole (1552), Szerawa (1556), and Cedry Małe (1561).
In the area of Nowy Dwor Gdański, Mennonites were settled by Michael Loitz who gave them unused marshy lands near Niedźwiedzica, Leśniewo, Tuja, Tujsk, Stobiec, Rychnowy and Stogi. In some cases, they were given entire farms as in Orłowo. Mennonite settlements later appeared farther east near Elbląg, the earliest being in the village of Markusy in 1566. This was followed by Karczowiska, Lozgart, Jezioro, Kępniewo, Wikrowo and a dozen other nearby villages.
Other settlements appeared in the upper Wisła area in the Sartowo-Nowska valley. By 1568, the chief administrator in Rogożno, Jan Dalski, had arranged for Mennonite colonization in the villages of Mątawy and Zajączkowo. Many others followed in Osiek (1570), Mały Lubień (1570), Wielki Lubien (1591), Dragacz (1592) and continued until 1710 with the founding of settlements in Bzówko and Fletnowo.
In the Chełmno area, Mennonites first established themselves in Przylubie in 1594, Kokocki in 1598 and in a host of other nearby villages, the last being in Chrystkowo in 1669. The Toruń area was also the site of Mennonite settlement notably in Silno (1562), Wielka and Mała Nieszawka in 1602 plus others. In 1624, documentary evidence points to a settlement near Warsaw. Mennonite colonies ranged along the Wisła as far as Kozienice.
The sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries was a period of development and material wealth for not only the Mennonites but for the country as a whole. They conscientiously paid off their leases, dried out more and more plots of land and developed a drainage system to keep this land functional. They also erected dikes, flood walls, locks and windmills. They introduced a new style of architecture as well. Their houses and cottages featured large arcades and they kept under one roof all the things necessary to conduct a farm – living quarters, barns and sties. The buildings they erected were constructed on artificially created elevations which protected them from minor flooding. In the event of a major flood, all of their possessions were placed in an upper level of the house and they even constructed special inclines for the livestock so that the animals could go to higher ground and wait for flood waters to recede. The Mennonite farms were considered to be in a class of their own. They were well tended, large and modern. Despite their simple and Spartan lifestyle, the household items they had aside from their utilitarian purposes, also exhibited a high degree of artistry. The furniture, chests and porcelain objects were works of folk art.
Crafts and trade constituted only a marginal aspect of their daily lives and most commercial activity was concentrated in or near urban areas. They did not engage in political activities nor did they join guilds. However, as they became more affluent, they could lease buildings and parcels of land in cities. Lacework produced by them had no equal and some community members were talented carpenters and locksmiths. Some Mennonites managed breweries and others were involved in haberdashery, spice and textile products. One also needs to mention the Kroeger family and their famous timepieces. This family tradition was begun by Peter Kroeger (ca. 1730-ca. 1770) in Żulawy and continued when the family migrated to Southern Russia. Another notable person was Ambroży Vermoellen, the creator of a recipe for a famous Gdańsk vodka called Goldwasser. Although Mennonites did not consume alcoholic beverages, nothing prevented them from engaging in their production and sale. The same held true for buttons. It was prohibited to use them. Instead, tied ribbons or laces were substituted but Mennonites engaged in their production.
In modern times, very little has remained of the Mennonite material culture in Poland. Some of their distinctive homes can be seen in the Żulawy region as well as in more southerly portions of the Vistula’s valley. Some of them are in a state of ruin beyond restoration but others are still salvageable and are able to be restored to their former state with a bit of capital infusion and desire. One such house still in partial use and in an excellent state of preservation can be seen in the village of Chrystkowo. Household items, old drawings, carvings and documents can be seen in several museums and archives notably the National Museum in Gdańsk, the Żuławskie Museum in Nowy Dwór Gdański, the Gdańsk State Archives and the Wiehler Collection at the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in Warsaw.
Because their religion demanded simplicity, their literary and artistic output was negligible. In the documents regarding the community, there is no mention of artistic professions which were viewed by the community as unnecessary and impractical. However, one can find in the documents descriptions of punishments meted out to community members for playing the violin or attending village parties. There are also accounts of conflicts between the artist Enoch Seeman and the community elders who, because of his painting, was forced to emigrate to England.
The Mennonite communities did not form a network of parishes as in the Catholic church and until the mid nineteenth century, they had no legal status. They instead had an autonomous Protestant community of circa 500-1,500 faithful in Żulawice. They gathered for common prayers in private homes or in Houses of Prayer which were Spartan-like in construction save for some ornamental carpentry work. There were no other decorative additions to the structures. Until the mid eighteenth century, the services were conducted in Dutch and in later periods in German. Using building permits stored at various archives, we can discover where these Houses of Prayer were located. Some of these localities included Barcice and Jezioro (1728); Orłowskie Pole (1751), Różewo (1754) and Lubieszewo Stogi and Tujce (1768). They were mostly wooden structures which we can determine from building sketches and detailed written descriptions.
In later periods, the prayer houses were constructed of brick in a Neogothic style, several of which have survived to the present time. However, some of the most valuable traces of the Mennonite community can be found in cemeteries which, as we all know, are essential sources of genealogical information. The best preserved Mennonite cemeteries in the Żulawy area include Lichnowy Nielkie, Stogi, Pogorzała Wieś, Pordenowo, Żuławki-Niedźwiedzica, Cyganek, Stawiec, Orłowskie, Pole, Żelichowo, Dzierzgonka, Jezioro, Kępniewo, Markusy, Złotnica, Kępiny Małe and Różewo.
However, not every Mennonite community had its own burial ground and often community members were buried in Catholic or Lutheran cemeteries. Thus, if we are undertaking a genealogical expedition in search of Mennonite ancestors, it will be necessary to visit all cemeteries in the vicinity. Although Mennonite life was characterized by severity, minimalism and frugality, many of their tombstones are comparatively richly decorated. Gravestones could take the shape of obelisks, columns and stele (a stone slab more tall than wide, decorated with the names of the deceased in bas relief). Most typical were the latter, inscribed on both sides. One side usually contained names, the other verses of inspirational religious passages. They are thus a good source of genealogical information. The tops of such monuments were frequently in the form of a tympanum with symbols, many having universal cross cultural significance.
• Acanthus leaf – these give the monument an “ancient” look and symbolize both the tree of life and the heavenly garden.
• Angels – carry the soul of the deceased to heaven.
• Ivy – as a plant that is forever green and self-regenerating, it is a symbol of immortality and rebirth in eternal life.
• Dove – a symbol of the Holy Spirit, a symbol of hope and redemption
• Pomegranate – the many seeds symbolize wealth and richness and by its red color, the blood of Christ
• Star – symbolizes the heavens
• Extinguished Torch – a symbol of a life ended
• Hour glass – symbolizes time and eternity
• Anchor – frequently with a cross, a symbol of a strong faith in Christ
• Lily – symbol of purity and innocence
• Poppyseed – symbol of eternal sleep
• Butterfly – symbol of a short time on earth as well as the deceased’s soul
• Rosemary – glorifies the deceased individual
• Spiral – symbolizes infinity, eternity and the path to God
After the first partition of Poland in 1772, the situation for the Mennonites gradually worsened. German militarism was antithetical to core Mennonite beliefs. For example, the taxes paid to be exempt from military service skyrocketed. Commencing January 1, 1773, Mennonites were required to pay five thousand talars to the Cadet’s Academy in Chełmno to avoid conscription. To put this into perspective, note that a skilled tailor was paid one talar to make a hand sewn cape and the rector of Jagellionian University earned just less than 1,000 talars yearly. At the same time, Czarina Catherine II introduced a widespread recruiting campaign. For this reason, groups of Mennonites fled to Southern Russia and others to the U.S.A. and Canada. Those who remained underwent gradual assimilation and were forced to accept more and more government intervention in their religious affairs. The Second World War led to the total abandonment by the Mennonites of Polish and Ukrainian territory. They left en masse to North and South America and to Germany, taking with them only the memories of their now lost “Promised Land.” This land was not forgotten by their descendents and when the social and political situation underwent recent changes, they can now come and search for the places their ancestors once walked. Many of the physical traces of the Mennonites in modern times have disappeared due to wars or a simple lack of knowledge by the local population. Now there is a time of peace and a growing awareness of things historical. Existing Mennonite organizations are working cooperatively with Polish museums and historical societies. Several exhibitions and scholarly conferences have taken place. Gradually the level of interest in a culture which once was part of the Polish cultural landscape is growing.
A collection of documents which can be used to research the Polish Mennonite communities has been compelled by the Polish State Archives and can be viewed on their website. The Archiwun Akt Dawnych in Warsaw has records of the Mennonite communities in Galicja. The State Archives branch in Gdańsk has records from Czatkowy (Czattkau), Dziewięć Włók (Neunhaben), Elbląg (Elbin), Gdańsk, Myszewo (Gross Mausdorf), Popowo (Poppau) and Żelichowo (Petershagen). The Grodzisk Mazowiecki branch of the Warsaw City Archives possesses records from Cząstków Niemiecki and Kazuń Niemiecki. The Płock State Archives possesses the records from Nowe Wymyśle while the Diocesan Archive in Płock holds records from Troszyn. Records for the community in Grupa can be found in the State Archives in Bydgoszcz.
In researching Mennonite communities, land records are important and should be consulted. Many times researchers ignore these sources but when there are no vital records registers, these become more important. At times, dispersed among the land records, we encounter supplementary documents such as birth records, wills with lists of heirs, notarial agreements, loan and credit agreements and the like. In the case of the Mennonites, there is apt to be information on pastors, community council members and names of the members of the community.