Pentecost is the Christian festival celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Jesus. It occurs in May or early June since it is, like Easter, a mobile holy day on the church calendar. The official church name in Polish is Zesłania Ducha Swiętego, the Descent of the Holy Ghost.
There were many aspects to the celebration of Pentecost in Poland's agricultural past that date to ancient pre-Christian times and the pagan cult of trees, water and fire.
The illustration above from 1901 is called a maidło (most likely from the Polish word majenia, that is, to decorate with greenery) that was made by weaving together small, newly budding birch branches around the horns of the cows and tying it together at the top. The newly budded branches, symbolized the revival of life, fertility and the promise of a harvest. It was believed that the green branches also protected from spells, plagues and all evil and accounts for their widespread use in the festivities that centered around the home, barnyard, and fences. The branches of the birch tree also had the power to protect against witchcraft and the evil eye. Shepherds, wanting to include animals in the holiday (and thereby protecting them as well) decorated their cows as part of the celebration.
Depicting this particular custom of making a wreath for the heads of her flock is the painting by Polish artist Józef Chełmonski (1849-1914) and titled Pasterka (Shepherdess).
You’re most likely to see a statue of him near rivers and bridges. He is known as the patron saint of water, bridges, and of farmers who have fields they want to protect against floods. He is often found near wells and springs, watching that they not dry out. He is also considered the patron saint of the drowning with his statue erected at sites of a drowning. Today, May 16, is the feast day of St. Jan Nepomucen. (Święty Jan Nepomucen).
Born in Nepomuc, Bohemia near Prague, St. John was and ardent minister who was murdered by King Wenceslaus IV when he refused to reveal what he had been told in confession. The king ordered that his hands and feet be bound and weighed down with rocks and thrown into from a bridge into the Vlatva River in Prague in the middle of the night. The year of his death was 1393. The cult of St. John Nepomucen began to spread in Prague soon after his tragic death.
In 1638, even before his beatification, a statue of St. John Nepomucen was erected on the Charles Bridge in Prague. The figure depicts the saint standing in priest’s clothes consisting of a cassock, surplice and stole, his head covered with a traditional priest’s biret and a nimbus of five stars surrounding the head. In one arm he cradles a crucifix and in the other holds a palm, the traditional symbol of martyrdom. It is this image that is the most widely reproduced of St. John Nepomucen throughout all of Poland .
The Jesuits promoted St. John Nepomucen throughout the known continents as the patron saint of a good confession. He is patron saint of confessors and those who wish to control their tongue from excessive talking so he is sometimes depicted with a finger against his lips in the traditional symbol of silence or sometimes holding a padlock. Sometimes he holds an open prayer book in both hands.
Considering the great number of shrines dedicated to this saint, it is clear he is much loved and venerated in Poland.
Top photo: Wikipedia. Lower photo: by author in Baranow Sandomierski, Poland
Although there are many various shapes symbolizing the cross, the most familiar to many of us is the Latin cross, the form on which Christ was crucified. When we look at the numerous roadside shrines and crosses across Poland’s landscape, we can sometimes see a cross with two horizontal cross pieces. Typically, the upper cross beam is shorter than the lower one but in Poland sometimes the two beams are the same length. This is called a Caravaca cross, called karawaka, in Polish.
These crosses, chiefly made of wood, but in later years, of metal, were usually erected at the beginning and end of the village or town with the faith that they would prevent the entrance of the “bad air” into the town and thus protect the inhabitants from contracting communicable diseases. The two-armed (sometimes, three armed) were also called krzyż choleryczny, or cholera crosses, referring to the cholera epidemics that raged through Poland, often decimating entire populations.
From the time of the Middle Ages, here were all kinds of epidemics such as typhoid, typhus, and the bubonic plague that swept through various regions of Europe, including Poland. There was very little knowledge of what carried diseases at the time. Much of it was attributed to "bad air" and everyone turned to God with prayers to contain or reverse the epidemics and also by erecting crosses, the strongest symbol of the Christian faith, to protect them. Written on the crosses were written the words " Od powietrza, głodu, ognia i wojna zachowaj nas Panie." (From air, hunger, fire and war, save us Lord.) Help was also sought through prayer to other saints such as St. Roch or St. Rozalia who, according to folk tradition, were given special powers to negate pestilential air.
The first crosses with two horizontal cross arms as a means to protect against epidemics began in a Spain town by the name Caravaca de la Cruz and it is from this Spanish town that the Polish word karawaka is derived. The city contained a relic, splinters of the Holy Cross in the shape of a cross with two horizontal cross beams. The relic was credited with miraculous powers protecting the town from pestilence. News of this spread quickly throughout all of Spain and Europe. It reached Poland by the second half of the 17th century through the efforts of the Jesuits. Karawaki began to be erected all over the country. For that reason, it is also often called krzyż hispanski, the Spanish cross.
Besides being found at various crossroads, entrances and exits to towns and villages, the karawaki were also placed near cemeteries or often located far from the rest of the town at the site where epidemic victims had to be buried in mass graves. Such a cross at a burial site was both a protective measure to keep the disease away, but also acted as a reminder of the loss of souls and the need to remember them in prayer.
Photo from Wikipedia. Cross from Łomza(Kurpie region)
In this time of the corona virus, for the good of humanity, Pope Francis, the bishops and every local dioceses of America have been forced to close their doors to their congregations. In this crisis, both physically and spiritually, many faithful acutely feel the loss of Mass and the comfort of Holy Communion. This closing of doors is a first for me, as it is for the people of this country, but in the history of Poland we see that it is not.
From the times of the Middle Ages, epidemics such the plague, cholera and, dysentery raged throughout Poland wiping out entire villages, killing young and old. People stayed in their homes, afraid of venturing out further than the confines of their village. During the German occupation of Poland, churches were closed, often converted into warehouses or stables. Sacred liturgical vestments, chalices, etc., were pillaged. Priests sent to their deaths and nuns sent to concentration camps and forced labor. Many centuries-old roadside shrines and crucifix’s, such a predominant fixture of the Polish countryside, were destroyed. But the German’s didn’t manage to destroy them all and it was here, at the foot of a roadside shrine, that the people said their prayers and found comfort.
In addition, churches in Poland in centuries were not as numerous as they are today. Small villages often lacked their own church and the faithful had to travel many miles to hear Mass, either by foot or horse and wagon. If that was the case, the faithful visited the nearest shrine to pray alone or together.
It is no accident that when we look at all the little chapels, statues and crosses that dot Poland’s cities and countryside, we often see it surrounded by a fence. Very often there is a bench. The fence is to remind us, if the statue itself does not, that this is a sacred place. The bench is an invitation to sit down and pray. Every cross, every shrine of a saint, every small chapel was blessed by the church, and provides a sacred space in which to pray.
I t is no different in today’s world. Any cross, anywhere, can serve as a place to say the stations of the cross during Lent. Any figure on church grounds or at a cemetery is a place to say the rosary, to chant a litany to our favorite saint, to seek intercession in this time of crisis. We know that Poland has been doing it for centuries. And it has endured.
Photo by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
Next posting: Karawaki: The Roadside Cross against Epidemics
On April 20th, 1941, during the occupation of Poland, the German authorities ruined all the roadside crosses in Sieradz and the surrounding region on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday.
The photo on the left depicts the cross lying on the ground surrounded by people and a woman in plaid bowing down to kiss the fallen cross.
From the first moment of the occupation of Poland in 1939, the leaders of the Third Reich and the National Socialist Party began a ruthless campaign to eradicate the Polish nation. The Roman Catholic Church was suppressed throughout Poland because of its previous history in leading nationalist forces to fight for Poland’s independence. Churches were closed and converted to warehouses. Religious services forbidden. Catholic clergy were killed or imprisoned. Convent properties and lands were requisitioned, the nuns shipped to Germany for forced labor. Those nuns who managed to avoid deportation kept secret chronicles of their day to day, year to year struggle to survive and to keep the faith.
In her Chronicle of the Occupation of the Convent of the Ursulines in Sieradz 1939-1945 (Kronika Okupacyjna Klasztoru Sióstr Urszulanek w Sieradzu), Sister Paulina Jaskulanka writes:
"Early this morning Sister Emma Dropiewska returning from night shift at the hospital noticed that the cross in front of our church was knocked down and leaning on the fence near the bell tower! She ran into the back yard knowing that the sisters working in the gardens are up early, even on Sunday and told Sister Pankracja Łukasiak what happened. Immediately, with Sisters Michała Krakowiak and Sisters Emmanuela and Walercia Marsz, they ran to the front of the church and with much difficulty lifted the heavy cross and brought it inside the convent to the cloister.
Another entry for that day by Sister Ludwika Miedźwiecka at the convent:
"On this night the crosses and roadside shrines in town, in the surrounding countryside and in the cemeteries, the crosses were broken, the monuments shot at -in this way the Hitlerites celebrated the birthday of the Führer, the sacrilegious acts offered as a gift."
Holy Week in Poland has always been a busy time of refreshing the interior of the house in preparation for Resurrection Sunday. The walls of country cottages were freshly whitewashed, windows cleaned and simple paper curtains hung. One of the items that received special attention during this time was the home altar.
At one time, home altars could be seen in almost every cottage in Poland. In its earliest form it was a small shelf hung in the corner of the room, on the east side of the house between two windows. Below it was a table. It was considered the holy corner, the swięty kąt. It was here that a crucifix was placed as were holy images of the Blessed Virgin Maty and patron saints. The table below it was covered with a white tablecloth and, according to Polish ethnographers, where the woman of the house kept a loaf of bread wrapped in a linen cloth. Bread and salt were kept here. For Christmas, a bowl of kutia, a dish of honey and wheat berries, was placed here. It was also under this shelf, in this corner, that a sheaf of wheat or rye was placed on Christmas Eve and kept until the Feast of Three Kings. It was here that priests and special guests were seated when they visited
Over time, the corner shelf began to disappear. The holy pictures were still hung in the corner but the table became the repository of the crucifix, Blessed Virgin Mary, or special souvenirs brought back from pilgrimages. As a rule, the rosary was hung on the cross, in such a way that it entwined the upper arm of the cross, while the cross from the rosary hung freely in front of the standing cross. A pair of candles flanked the cross or sometimes just one. In spring and summer, bouquets of fresh flowers were placed on either side of the cross. In the winter when they were unavailable, bouquets of flowers were made from the small feathers of domestic poultry.
In the first decades of the 20th century, crepe paper came to the villages through traveling traders and small-town shopkeepers. Polish housewives began using the colorful paper to make flowers to decorate the home altar. It was this work, among all the others, that kept the housewives and their daughters so busy in the days leading up to Holy Week. They dusted holy pictures, washed and starched the tablecloth and made crepe paper flowers so that during Holy week all would be in readiness. Not everyone was able to afford such an altar, so neighbors came together with those who could, to pray and praise God together.
Photo by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab in the Kurpie region of Poland
National Day of Remembrance of Poles Rescuing Jews under German Occupation-Sister Bogumiła (Zofia) Makowska
March 24th is recognized by Poland as the National Day of Remembrance of Poles Rescuing Jews under German Occupation
Testimony of Tamy Lavee** on February 12, 1988 in Haifa, Isreal.
"…All I remember from my childhood is that in the convent there were these very long corridors. I remember the nuns who were good and always smiling. I also remember that one day some people came to the convent to take me. It happened that it was the Szymankski’s who adopted me …then came two men to take me away. Mrs. Szymanski didn’t want to let me go and cried and when they told her she could get another child she said that a child is not a glove that is removed from the hand and given away. In spite of it they took me away and then I learned I was a Jewish child."
Testimony of Sister Bogumiła Makowska, FMM July 16,1985
"During the war I was a formation tutor (at the orphange) in Zamość. In the 1940’s, a two or three-year-old child was left at our convent on Żdanowski Street. She was nicely dressed and around her neck she had a small bag with a note: Wanda, baptized.
Sometime toward the end of the 70’s I received a telephone call from Israel asking if there was in the convent index a record of a foundling by the name of Wanda. I replied that, for sure, such a girl child was left with us and in the archive there is still the piece of paper that had hung around her neck when she was left on our doorstep. According to the notes in the archives, shortly after Wanda was left with us, a woman came to work for us peeling potatoes and took an interest in the child and the sisters suspected she was the mother. However, Wanda was taken by a family from Izbica for raising. [After the war] in 1947 a Jewish man claimed that she was his granddaughter. A sister went with him to Izbica and he took Wanda away from her adoptive family. The matter ended up in the courts. In the later notes is a comment that Wanda was taken to the Jewish center in Łodź.
After a while I received a letter from Israel in which the author wrote: “It is me, I’m the Wanda but my name is now Tamara. I was adopted by a Jewish woman but I want to know my history and I’m asking your help. It was difficult for me with my mother. That I wasn’t her daughter I learned only after I married and gave birth to my children…where did I come from, what is my background and who were my parents."
[A nun from the convent recalls that she ran into the woman who had peeled potatoes at the convent during the war at the bus stop and that the woman was going to Skierbieszów]
Sister Bogumiła continues:
"I wrote to the priest in Skierbieszów to announce from the pulpit that I’m seeking the woman who during the war left a child by the name of Wanda with the sisters. After a while, Maria Pawelec came to see me and told me Wanda’s story."
I’m not her mother. I met Wanda’s mother at the market. She was selling something. I was selling something. We got friendly and she told me her situation. She came from Bydgoscz. The Germans killed her husband in Włocławek and she and her son were fleeing east. Wanda was just on the way. She was pregnant. She gave birth to her on the train. That was 1939. She arrived in Zamość and tried to make a living buying and selling. At this moment I don’t remember her last name.
There was an incident when the Germans caught her children and took them to the children’s camp in Zamość. She managed in some way to get them back but then she was afraid because it was apparent that she was Jewish and these were Jewish children. She asked me to take Wanda in the hope that at least she would survive. She decided to stay with her son. After a while they were taken to Izbica and shot. I stayed with Wanda in Zamość and took care of her. One day the Germans came to see me asking who is this child. I told them it was my niece and Wanda, when questioned, confirmed that I was her aunt. But from that time on I was afraid for the child and for myself. I came to the conclusion that I had no choice but to leave Wanda with the sisters. I opened the gate to the convent front yard, gave the child a push and in that way, no one knew who or what…a foundling. Wanting to know what was happening with the child I came to the sisters offering to peel potatoes.
[Sister Bogumiła sent all this information to Tamy Lavee and a correspondence began. Tamy Lavee visited Poland to thank her and the congregation for saving her life]
According to YadVashem: The nun, Zofia-Bogumiła Makowska, who knew the child was Jewish, never revealed her true identity to anyone, and looked after her until the end of the war.
On September 21, 1993, through the efforts of Tamar Lavi, Yad Vashem recognized the Sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary and Zofia-Bogumiła Makowska as Righteous Among the Nations.
The link can be found here https://righteous.yadvashem.org/?searchType=all&language=en&itemId=4044030&ind=27
More stories of rescue in Poland can be found on the website of the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews at https://sprawiedliwi.org.pl/en/stories-of-rescue/list/A?role=90
*Please note that there are inconsistencies as to the spelling of the name. This spelling from Yad Vashem.
**From the book: Medytacje Nad Życiem a Świetle Doświadczeń II Wojny Światowej[Meditation on Life in Light of World War II Experiences] by S. Irena Murawska FMM 2019
Sincerest thanks to the Sisters of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary for permission to use photo of S. Makowska.
The drowning of Marzanna is one of the few Old Slavonic rites that is still cultivated in various regions of Poland today. According to folklore Marzanna is a Slavic goddess who symbolized death. A remnant of pagan times, it is still a custom celebrated by Polish children to take joy in the upcoming springtime, the beginning of the rebirth of the earth after the lifelessness of winter. In this ancient custom winter is drowned or burnt and there is rejoicing in new life as shrubs and trees begin to green and flower.
The symbolic getting rid of winter generally takes place on the first calendar day of spring, March 21(this year March 19). The oldest writings about Marzanna in Poland comes in the 15th century when Jan Długosz wrote: “In some Polish villages on the 4th Sunday (Laetare) in Lent, the people place an effigy of Marzanna on long poles and then throw it into the nearest bog.” This year it falls on March 22.
Marzanna is celebrated by making a straw effigy or doll made from sheaves of grain or straw, rags or material in the shape of an old woman. Most often, the doll or effigy is of a size that can be mounted on a stick, which makes it easier to hold up in the air by small hands. Most often, schoolchildren and supervising adults participate in the ritual by making the effigy together and on the appropriate day, sometimes accompanied by the entire village, is taken to a local stream, river or lake and drowned. In other parts of Poland, she is burnt. Very often everyone returned to the village with a green branch as a symbol of spring.(Photo: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe)
This is a photo of a simple type of Marzanna I did with a group of schoolchildren and their parents a few years ago. The structure for the effigy was a wooden spoon, the arms and clothes made with corn husks but almost anything that can readily be glued can be used. The children clamored to draw the face they wanted on the front of the spoon with crayons or colored markers. The parents assisted and encouraged where needed. As we worked together, we talked about what we liked and didn’t like about winter and how did we know the weather was changing and what we liked best about spring. What was their favorite flower? We looked at pictures of snowdrops beginning to bloom under the snow and bears coming out of hibernation. I was able to share some Polish folklore and tradition. The children got to choose colors and glue together their own particular Marzanna (so creative!) and took her home as a sign that winter was over and spring was here.
Today, January 27, 2020 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a day designated by the United Nations General Assembly to mark the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, to honor those that died there and to recognize others who were victims of Nazism.
Auschwitz was the death place for millions of people of all nationalities. There was hardly a country in Europe that did not see its people imprisoned there by the Germans during World War II. According to the Auschwitz Birkenau web site, the greatest numbers that died there were Jews and Poles, murdered in cold-blooded, inhumane ways utilizing gas chambers, execution and injections. Among them were the non-Jewish Polish men, women and children of the Zamość region in southeast Poland. In her book, The Extermination at KL Auschwitz of Poles Evicted from the Zamość Region in the years 1942-1943, published by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, author Helen Kubica offers readers official documents, camp photographs, and transport lists carefully researched at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum about the Poles from this region that perished in Auschwitz.
The tragedy inflicted upon the Zamość region of Poland during the German occupation was tied to the Third Reich’s policy of Germanization of the eastern territories of Poland. In order to free the region of all Poles and bring in German settlers, entire villages were emptied, sent to temporary transit camps where they were segregated according to their usefulness to the Reich: forced labor, Germanization, or sent to the concentration camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz.
The first transport of Polish evictees from the Zamość camp was sent to KL Auschwitz on December 10, 1942. A brief excerpt regarding the fate of pregnant women and their infants: Those women from the Zamość transport who were visibly pregnant or who gave birth shortly after arriving at the camp, were killed together with their children by a nurse who gave them phenol injections…Maria Marciniewicz of Zamość(Prisoner No.26978)…gave birth to a daughter in Auschwitz. Both she and her daughter were killed on the 7th of January 1943. In the hospital barrack at Auschwitz, Zofia Węcławik of (the village of)Skierbieszów(Prisoner No.27089) and her fellow prisoners witnessed a visiting SS doctor take her newly born child and throw it into a burning stove. She, too, was dead soon afterwards.”
The second transport from the Zamość camp at Auschwitz on December 16th, 1942:…. of the 48 women and girls, 30 died in the camp by April 1943
The third transport: …. of the 301 women and girls in the third transport, at least 231 died at Auschwitz… as for the fate of the 282 men and boys from this transport, only the fate of 146 has been determined and 124 of those are known to have died at Auschwitz.
The author offered an excerpt from a poem by Polish poet Franciszek Fenikowski titled Żałoba (Requiem) as the motto for her book:
Z pokolenia niech głos nasz idzie w pokolenie:
O pamięć, nie o zemstę proszą nasze cienie!
Los nasz dla Was przestrogą ma być - nie legendą.
Jeśli ludzie zamilkną – głazy wołać będą!
Let our voice sound from generation to generation:
For remembrance, not vengeance, our shadows plea
Let our fate caution you- and not a legend be
And if people fall silent - the boulders will call out!
Let our voice sound in their memory.
Cześć ich pamięci.
The book is an English translation of the original Zaglada s KL Auschwitz Polakow Wysiedlonych z Zamojszczyzny w Latach 1942-1943. Panstwowe Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau (2004)
One of the biggest moments in my life was being able to sign for my very own library card. When I'm not reading, researching and writing I'm riding my bike, sewing or gardening. I love flea markets, folk art, and traveling to Poland.