The painting by Polish painter and illustrator Piotr Stachewicz(1858-1938) depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary sowing crops. It celebrates an old Polish folk tradtion that falls on September 8th.
In the official Catholic church calendar, September 8 is celebrated as the birth of Blessed Virgin Mary but among the agrarian people of Poland, the Blessed Virgin was also the patron saint of winter crops so it was also came to be known as Matka Boska Siewna, Our Lady of Sowing. It signaled that it was time to plant their winter crops.
On this day, the farmers brought their seeds of wheat, rye and barley to church to be blessed with holy water. Added to the seeds were pieces of the grain that had been part of the bouquets blessed on Our Lady of the Herbs (August 15), or the herbs blessed during the celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi, or perhaps the crushed catkins of pussy willows that were blessed on Palm Sunday. All those bouquets and flowers were felt to have special powers because they, too, had been blessed and the strength of those blessings were thought to insure a successful crop.
The first handful of seeds thrown to the ground were made in the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross was also made into the air over the fields in the hope that the blessing would protect the crops against the devastation of hail, or a dry or an overly wet season.
The proverbs of Poland often served as a kind of Farmer's Almanac foretelling long-range weather predictions, offering gardening tips, instructions on the migratory pattern of birds and even direction for living and working. There are plenty for September but these are just a few that pertain to this particular day:
Na Siewną zacznij siać żyto, będziesz miał chleb na siebie i na parobka myto!
On the feast of Our Lay of Sowing, begin sowing your rye, you'll have bread for yourself and pay for your help(field help).
Kiedy Panna się rodzi, już jaskółka odchodzi.
When Our Lady is born, the swallows leave.
W Narodzenie Panny jaka pogoda, osiem tygodni takich nam poda
The weather on the Birth of Our Lady, will give us eight weeks of the same.
There were many important feast days when it came to gathering herbs and flowers in Poland but the single most important date occurred on the church celebration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15. So vital was this day that it was, and still is, called Matka Boska Zielna, Our Lady of the Herbs. On this special feast day, every village woman brought a bouquet of flowers, plants and herbs to church in order to be blessed by the priest.
In the Pomorze area, the northwest section of Poland, they have a saying on this day: "Każdy kwiat woła, weź mnie do koscioła!" (Every flower calls, take me to church!)
The women gathered whatever plants or greenery grew in their region, or the herbs and flowers they especially loved or needed. In the Mazowsze and Podlasie area took hyssop, southernwood, lavender, and mullein. They also took lovage, branches of the hazel tree, hemp and mint. Both herbs from the garden and the wild were gathered. These included poppy(Polish: mak), peony (Polish: piwonia, sage (Polish:szalwia), thyme (Polish: macierzanka), tansy (Polish: wrotycz), dill (Polish: koper), caraway (Polish: kminek), mugwort (Polish: bylica), chamomile (Polish: rumianek) (Kolberg Krakowskie I 1962: 227) Since the feast day coincided with the time of the harvest, it was also customary to take a few spikes of various grains such as rye(Polish: żyto), wheat (Polish: pszenica) or oats (Polish: owies)
The gathered and blessed herbs were used in endless ways: as part of wedding rituals, and death practices but mostly, medicinally. In the country villages there were few practicing physicians. Isolated and often poverty stricken, they were usually left to their own devices to treat themselves as best they could, utilizing various herbs and plants. All the plants and herbs were felt to be stronger, more effective for having been blessed. The most popular, most well known medicinal plants, and frequently brought to church included:
Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris) Polish: Bylica. Depending on their symptoms, mugwort was used to bathe a person back to health; used in poultices, it helped in pain along the spine or back as well as ease the pains of childbirth. If gathered from nine different areas helped women in situations where they were unable to conceive.
Southernwood (Artemesia abrotanum) Polish: Boze Drzewko. Universally used in treatment of bruises and contusion by application of poultices
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) Polish: Piołun. Wormwood appears all over Poland in wastelands and roadsides as well as in established herb gardens. The old herbals advised that an infusion of the dried leaves as a tea as a treatment for bad breath arising from the stomach, dispelling stomach gas, improving digestive juices and at the same time can build appetite.
Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) Polish: Rumianek. An infusion of the flower was taken for a fever, stomach troubles or various women's issues such as infertility or overlong menstruation. A compress of chamomile applied to the brow relieved headache, and was applied to wounds and to the eyes when suffering from a sty.
Mullein (Verbascum Thapsis) Polish: Dziewanna. A tea brewed from the dried or fresh flowers was used for illnesses of the chest and difficulty breathing. Fried with butter it was used to gray pimples and other skin eruptions and burns.
Coltsfoot ( Tussilago farfara) Polish: Podbiał pospolity. Found in every home medicine cabinet it was used for skin rashes, scrapes and tears of the skin on the arms and legs; for a cough and difficulty breathing and as a tea for most respiratory complaints.
Comfrey(Symphytum officinale)Żywokost. This plant is one of the best loved of all healing herbs. This tall, hairy leaved plant was used to heal broken bones, tears of the flesh and also for the aches of rheumatism. It was used both externally and internally. A deconcoction from the leaves, or flowers treatedrespiratory disorders. The root mashed together with an animal fat was used as a poultice for sprains and broken bones.
Elderberry (Sambucus Nigra L) Polish: Dziki bez czarny. A common plant through all of Europe, elderberry was also called bez lekarski, i.e., medicinal elderberry, to indicate its medicinal properties. The juice from the berries was especially beneficial for coughs. It would pull away the inflammation from infected wounds when the leaves and the skin were mixed with chalk and applied to the wounds.
Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) Polish: Skrzyp polny. This was also a much valued plant for its diuretic properties and as an infusion utilized for problems with the bladder or kidneys but must herbals caution that it must be on the weaker side as it is powerful and could weaken the individual.
Linden(Tilia cordata) Polish: Lipa drobnolista. From ancient times the linden was considered a sacred tree. It was so powerful that the fibers of the linden tree could tie up a devil. Branches of linden which had decorated an altar on the feast of Corpus Christi protected the house against lightning, when planted among a field of cabbage would protect it against bugs; teas made from the flower of linden was used to treat chronic cough, mucous and phlegm in the chest and larynx, to make one sweat.
Nettle (Utica diocia L) Polish: Pokrzywa. A tea made from the leaves of nettle for respiratory troubles, chiefly coughs. The leaves and stems were mashed and mixed with sugar which made a syrup within a few days.
Plantain (Plantago maior L )Polish: Babka zwyczajna, the mashed leaves are applied to the skin for wounds and ulcers.
Thyme (Thymus Serphyllum) Polish: Macierzanka. Used in the treatment of rheumatism. When bathed in it, it treated skin ailments and added to teas to treat gastrointestinal ailments.
Yarrow (Achilla millefolium) Polish: Krwawnik. This plant was used in poultices for inflamed and pus filled cuts and wounds by mashing and applying it to the wound. For the treatment of arthritis it is made into a liniment by soaking it in spirytus(alcohol) for 24 hours and applying to the limbs.
Wednesday, April 4th, 1945.
The time is somewhere between 6:19am and 7:44am. Forty B-17’s belonging to the United States Eighth Air Force leave Molesworth, England with the objective of bombing the Nazi air base in Fassburg, Germany. On approaching their target, the carriers encounter cloud cover. Unable to complete their original mission, the aircraft took advantage of a nearby “target of opportunity,” and drop their bombs on an armament factory located in a nearby town called Unterluss.
On the ground, the bombs are falling on my mother.
Sunday, May 30, 2004.
Today, I am standing on that same ground. I have traveled thousands of miles to stand on this ground in this small town in Germany. U.S. military aerial views from that day confirm this location. It was the place of her gehenna – the place where she lived and starved and suffered as a slave laborer during World War II. Today it is a soccer field.
I try to imagine what it must have been like – to hear the drone of the approaching airplanes, the whistling of bombs falling through the air, the explosions drawing nearer and nearer and knowing that death is approaching at a rate of 150 miles an hour. I raise my eyes to the sky. Instead of the sky darkening with the approach of forty massive Flying Fortresses, it remains blue and cloudless and… blessedly…. empty. “I ran out of the barracks,” I hear my mother say, “and all I could think about was your brother in the nursery and I started running and I hear bombs exploding, the earth shaking. From the corner of my eye I could see other women running too – all of us heading in the same direction towards the nursery, towards our babies. I snatched Michael up so hard he starts screaming. There wasn’t time to think about anything except to run, to run as fast as I could. I knew I’d be safe if only I could reach the edge of the forest. I could hardly breathe. My heart was pounding in terror. If only I could reach the trees! If only I could reach the trees!”
That evening, as Combat Mission #351 is writing up its report, my mother wanders through the forest in search of shelter. It is early spring and the night is cold.
“Our squadron crew dropped general purpose and M17 incendiary bombs with good results on this target. We made four passes at 12,000 feet. There was no enemy aircraft opposition….there were no casualties… returned to base between 1542 (3:42PM) and 1613 (4:19PM).” Altogether, the Allied mission dropped a total of 461 bombs. By this time, the Allies were using napalm in their bombs.
When my mother creeps back the next day, the German armaments factory where she has been a forced laborer for over two years is completely decimated and in flames. The barrack containing her pitiful belongings is still smoking and reduced to rubble. The reconnaissance photographs taken three days later show 15 small buildings damaged or completely gutted. These small buildings were the pitiful living quarters of the foreign laborers – men and women from Belgium, Ukraine, Russia and Poland – who were brought to Unterlüss from their homelands against their will and forced to work, replacing the men gone off to war and keeping Hitler’s German war machine moving at full throttle. Refusal to work meant either death or a concentration camp – essentially one and the same.
On this ground that I stand on there were, indeed, casualties. The nursery where female workers were forced to leave their babies while they worked twelve and fifteen hour shifts was completely destroyed. “Babies and mothers lay dead, burnt, mangled and twisted….babies we held and sang to and tried to care for while their mothers worked their shift in the factory….the babies were always hungry, always crying… there weren’t any diapers to speak of except what we could tear up from our clothes… our milk dried up because of lack of food…..” Her voice would trail off. Become silent. I often asked her to tell me more about that day, but she never did. “Be grateful” she’d say sadly, “that you have never known war.”
I was young when I first heard this story. When her hands were busy at some task and her thoughts were free to roam at will, they often traveled back to her experience in the German Reich: how she was taken from her home in Krakow by the Gestapo wearing her apron and house slippers; exposed and humiliated, filing naked past a German doctor whose cursory glance was supposed to determine her fitness for work; locked in a freight car while Gestapo with guns and dogs prevented anyone from escaping during the long, long journey to Germany; walking 3 kilometers each morning deep into a forest where the munitions factory was hidden to prevent detection by the Allies; burnt fingers and hands from hot metal each day; swaying from fatigue and hunger; wearing a bag of kasza tied to her waist with a piece of rope to prevent fellow prisoners from stealing it and assuaging their own hunger; my father throwing her a few beets wrapped in a cloth over the barbed wire fence; constantly under guard by the Gestapo to prevent acts of sabotage; wearing the obligatory letter “P” on her ragged clothes to identify her as a Pole at all times; witnessing the loss of hope, the attempts to escape, the suicides. And always, inevitably, if I remained quiet, she would return to that day when the Allies dropped their bombs and the babies died. Always, she came back to this particular story. It was like a photograph from her past that she pulled out frequently and looked at over and over again, looking for answers, looking for a clue.
That day in April when the Allies were dropping their bombs, it was the closing days of the war. Hitler continued to be in denial, but Germany was tottering to its knees. The Allies were trying to bring it to a swift end. Air forces were striking from above while ground troops were advancing from the east and west liberating the infamous concentration camps of Dachau, Ravensbruck, Bergen-Belsen, Nuengamme, uncovering Hitler’s annihilation of the Jews and liberating seven million forced and slave laborers- French, Belgians, Greeks, Italians, Ukrainians, Russians, Czechs, Danes, Finns, and Poles. Their exile was over.
On April 14, 1945, ten days after the bombing by U.S. Combat Mission #351, the British Wiltshire Regiment marched into Unterlüß and liberated the town. My mother, my father, and what remained of the four thousand European men and women held captive as slave laborers in that small German town, were free.
My mother is dead now. Listening to her labor those last breaths I thought about her hard life and especially the war experiences and the day the babies died. It was right up there with the most important events in her life. I knew this because she told it so often. When she became infirm, she’d ask me to come to lie down next to her so we would “talk” but I knew it was just a ruse to get me to listen to her talk. That’s what I thought about the night she was dying, how that event, more than any other was now etched in my mind. From her, to me.
Even before her death I have begun to search for information about that very small town in northeast Germany. It exists. Libraries, research, translations from German and many months after her death my heart starts pounding with a discovery. That discovery brings me here, to this very spot.
There is no monument of any kind to identify the events that transpired here. All is tranquil and serene but once, almost sixty years ago, blood was spilt on this ground. It is holy ground and no one knows it.
From here I go to the local town cemetery in search of the other thing that I’ve traveled so far to see. In one corner of the cemetery there are three gravestones located in fairly close proximity to one another if you just follow the gravel walkway. The first gravestone is little more than a huge rock, its surface rough and unpolished. It identifies Russian, Polish, Serbian, Croatian, French and other “unknown” adults – victims of Hitler’s racist policy that forced them to be transported to an unknown land against their will to work, to suffer and subsequently to die, alone and without family. The gravestones do not say all these things but I know this because I have the memory, passed on to me from my mother.
Further down I find what I have traveled these thousands of miles to see. On another rough hewn rock lies the testimony “Here lie 34 Russian children.” The third, located in front of an enormous evergreen, reads “Here lie 4 Italians and 23 Polish children.” Fifty nine years later I am face to face with the external evidence of the day that lived in my mother’s memory all of her life. My research discovered that the “57 children killed in the bombings were buried in the local town cemetery. Twelve Polish women in childbed also died in the attack.”
I kneel and pray.
Later that evening I take myself to the one Catholic church in this small, predominantly Lutheran town. I have never been here before but I know this church. My mother prayed in this church and it, too, loomed large in her memories. Once a month, the Poles could attend mass. They were forbidden to hear mass with the local Germans and fraternizing with the other ethnic Catholics was also not allowed to prevent collaboration and possible sabotage. Everyone had their own mass. Two armed Gestapo stood at the entrance, checking that everyone who entered wore the obligatory badge: a square piece of yellow fabric with a purple letter “P” sewn to their clothes on the right breast. Music, singing, or sermonizing was strictly verboten. The only thing audible was the hacking, coughing, and oftentimes, the crying of the assembled individuals. The priest said mass, distributed the Holy Eucharist and everyone returned to the barracks.
The church is tiny and the interior rather austere with old wooden benches and hard kneelers. No seat is really inconspicuous in such a small space. A stranger would be recognized immediately no matter where they sat so I choose a bench in the middle. I am early which gives me plenty of time to look around and watch the parishioners gather. I must be in someone’s assigned pew because first one elderly women sits next to me and then another on the other side. I feel strangely comforted.
The Mass is said in German but it doesn’t matter. It is the ancient ritual of the Mass known to me from my earliest years. The priest gives a sermon which I do not understand but I catch the soothing tone of his voice and his earnestness and he smiles towards his congregation as he speaks and I wish desperately that my mother could have heard such a voice so very long ago when she was here in this church. I can’t help myself. I start to cry. I cry for my mother whom I miss more than I can say. I cry because she mourned the women and children that died that day all the remaining days of her life. She had no way to make peace with their deaths. I cry for a lifetime of her having to take antidepressants to deal with her sadness. The women sit closer to me but say nothing.
When everyone has emptied out of the church I go to the stand of vigil lights. I press money into the collection box and light all the remaining unlit candles in honor of all the unknown forced laborers buried in the cemetery but especially the mothers and babies. They are not and never have been forgotten. I pray for them and for my mother who lived and could not forget. And I whisper, yes, mama, I am grateful that I have never known war.
Photo by Edward Knab, Unterluss, Germany.
The fate of hundreds of thousands of Polish women as forced laborers during WWII is told in: Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany, 1939-1945
A school teacher and a member of the underground resistance, Natalia Tułasiewicz was a passionate member of the Catholic lay apostolate of Poland during World War II. In 1943, she voluntarily signed up to be sent to the Third Reich as a forced laborer in order to give spiritual guidance and comfort to other female forced laborers.
In Hanover, Germany she worked at a factory that specialized in making artist paints and inks. Suffering from the constant hunger, cold and the exhaustion that was the fate of Polish forced laborer, she faithfully lead the laborers in prayer and song, provided religious instruction and held small retreats devoted to prayer and meditation. In 1944, when the Germans found out about her secret mission, she was arrested, interrogated, and tortured. In September of that year she was condemned to death and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp, number 75188. In spite of being increasingly weak and suffering from tuberculosis, she continued her ministry among the women of Ravensbruck. She was sent to the gas chamber on Holy Saturday, March 31, 1945, thirty days before the liberation of Ravensbruck .
She expressed her beliefs in her spiritual diary, where she wrote: "My mission is to show the world that the path to holiness also travels through noisy markets and streets, not only in monasteries or in quiet families."
She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1999. Her name is among the 108 Blessed Polish Martyrs of World War II, one of two lay women so recognized.
Eternal rest, grant unto her, O Lord, and let the perpetual light shine upon her.
The characteristic dish prepared on the occasion of the Green Holidays(Pentecost) was jajecznica or, as it was called in some parts of Poland wajeczyna or wajeczynica. It was a simple dish of scrambled eggs. The eggs were fried somewhere in the open air, most often by a forest or in a meadow, near a river or stream. Friends, relatives or neighbors got together and went out to the forest or to a nearby river. Using river rock or stones found nearby, they built up a bonfire on which to fry the eggs. Each housewife brought a few eggs in their aprons or baskets, a chunk of smoked bacon, or sausage, a large fry pan and a loaf of rye bread and some chives. The housewives placed portions of the scrambled eggs on pieces of the rye bread and distributed it those present. The men brought some alcohol to share and enliven the festivities. The young also invited a village musician to this scrambled egg feast because it was a great opportunity to be together to sing and dance until late in the evening.
There are many aspects to the celebration of Pentecost in Poland. The official church name is Zesłania Ducha Swiętego, the Descent of the Holy Ghost.
In Polish folk tradition, this time of year celebrated the blossoming and greening of nature and was called Zielone Swiątki, the Green Holidays. In very ancient times it marked the end of spring ( Pentecost ends the liturgical Easter season) and the beginning of summer. It was connected with many agricultural beliefs and customs and ceremonies that date to ancient pre-Christian times and the pagan cult of trees, water and fire. Among the most important among them was the triumphal "greening" of the world once again. 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, fences .
The tree branch that plays one of the most important roles was that of the birch tree. It comes up consistently in the celebration of the Green Holidays in various parts of Poland. It was to have the power to protect against witchcraft and the evil eye. Branches were tucked not just behind holy pictures and placed in vases, etc., but most often nailed around windows and especially the door, the entrance to the house, as well as tucked into the thatched roof of the cottage. Sometimes young green birch trees were placed in pots at the entrance to the cottage, and another entrance, the gates to the yard. Other greening branches were used as well such as maple, linden and hornbeam to decorate fences as well as church altars and roadside shrines.
The second most important greenery to be collected for the home on this holiday was the fragrant , scented sweet flag, known in Latin as Acorus Calamus. In Polish it is known as tatarak, kalmus, kalmusowym ziele or Tatarskie ziele. Growing in wet, marshy areas near rivers and streams it was placed in vases on a home altar or in the corners of the main room of the cottage. There was a saying: Zielone Świątki - tatarak w kątki (The Green Holidays, calamus in the corners). The most preferred method of having sweet flag in the house was to cut or chop it into smaller pieces and scatter it on the floors of the house. Whether a humble, hard packed floor of a cottage or the wooden floor of a manor house, the sweet smelling herb(many say smells like cinnamon) was indispensable. In the mid 1800's Polish ethnographer Oskar Kolberg described it: "On the day(Pentecost) they sweep the porch and the front of the house, and sprinkle the place with calamus..."
I think it's time to bring in some greenery and plant some calamus!
Google image. National Museum of Krakow(Muzeum Narodowe w Krakowie
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.