The custom of the midnight mass on Christmas Eve is so deeply rooted in Poland that even during the occupation of Poland by the Nazi's during World War II, when churches were closed, when priests were being sent to die in the concentration camps of Dachau and Auschwitz and curfews forbade the Polish people to leave their homes in the evening, the pasterka, the midnight mass, prevailed. The Zamość region is one such example.
In the last days of November 1942, the villages and inhabitants of this region were being completely emptied by force by the Germans with the purpose of bringing in German settlers from other parts of Europe. With only the goods that they could carry and held hostage at the point of a gun, the Poles were being sent to transit camps from which they were sent to Germany for forced labor, or shipped to Auschwitz or Majdanek, either to work until dead or sent directly to the gas chamber. It was a time of acute terror and loss of hope with many fleeing and hiding in the forests to avoid the Germans.
In the midst of this chaos, and as Christmas approached, one man named Feliks Petryka, a member of the underground army known as the Batalion Chłopski, took action. To raise the morale of his men and the villagers who were to be evacuated permanently from their homes, he decided to organize a midnight mass. He took into his confidence one of the remaining priests still living in Zamość. The priest, a Reverend Kostrzewa, shared the secret only with the nuns of the Sisters of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who prepared the liturgical items. The morning of Christmas Eve, the priest was transported from Zamość by horse and wagon by the underground partisans to the home of Marii Turczyn who lived not far from where the mass was to be held.
Referring to himself simply as “the priest,” the Reverend Kostrzewa gave the following account:
"At 11PM we started for the forest; we went in the dark, in the mud. From a distance we could hear the barking of German dogs...the forest was filled with people; one could hear murmurings, sometimes the sobs of the women. There were men, women, children and teens, who the most numerous. At the edge of the forest, the soldiers stood guard so that the Germans would not catch us unaware. In the middle of a clearing, under the fir trees, a small altar was erected. A table, a portable altar, a tablecloth, a cross and two candles. In the introductory rite to the mass the priest compared the expulsion of the parishioners from their homes to that of the fate of the Christ Child who was born without a home. The sermon was brief, both because of the sobs of those listening and the priest’s tremendous emotion. During the mass they sang carols and at the end sang "Boże coś Polskę." In his concluding words, the priest encouraged the faithful to hope and to persevere. He assured them that the enemy would be defeated and there would come a time when the parishioners would return to their home and to his parish."
Besides the underground partisans, there were almost 500 faithful who attended this Midnight Mass, this Pasterka, from the villages of Łabuniek, Mocówki, and Wielki Łabuniek. The Sisters of Franciscan Missionaries of Mary spent the entire night before the Blessed Sacrament praying for the safety of all those participating in the midnight mass. In the morning the priest was returned by horse and wagon back to Zamość. That midnight mass was an unforgettable experience for those who participated.
It was a bright light in the darkness of the German occupation.
Google image. Painting by Wojciech Betley 1915
This is a photo of Czesława Kwoka, a Polish Catholic girl who was murdered in Auschwitz by phenol injection. She was one of the children of Zamość. This is a small tribute to her and what happened to her and many other Polish children and families during World War II.
In the winter of 1942, the Germans, who had been occupying Poland since 1939, began expelling Polish Catholic families in the Zamość region in southeastern Poland from their homes to make way for new German settlers. The region was to be free of all Poles. The families were taken to a transit camp in the city of Zamość where they lived in unspeakable conditions and died from exposure, disease and starvation. Those who were deemed capable were sent to work as forced laborers to Germany. Children who met certain racial characteristics were forcibly separated from their families and sent to Germany to become Germans, losing their Polish identity forever. Some elderly and children were sent to live among strangers in the General Government, many dying along the way in freezing cattle cars. Many were also sent to the concentration camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz.
From the collection of German documents gathered by Poland after the war we read the following:
Report on the transport of 644 Poles to the work camp in Auschwitz on December 10, 1942.
The transport was dispatched from Zamość on December 10th at 1600 hours. The arrival in Auschwitz took place December 12 at 2300 hours. From among the 644 Poles, three escaped on route during the stop near the distribution station in Kraków with the help of Polish railway workers who opened the locked door of the wagon. The escape was made possible by the darkness and occurred at a time when the guards were at the other end of the train. An immediate search produced no results. Another 11 people — the number accounted for in Zamość during the loading was accurate — apparently jumped out the top window of the freight car. It would be directed that in the future the unsealed top window be secured with barbed wire.
Admittance to Auschwitz took place on December 13, 1942; the list of names was not read.
The transport arrived as planned with the exception of the 14 individuals who skipped out and (the transport) was definitely late.
In the matter of capability to work SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Haumeir made it clear that arrivals to the camp should be Poles capable of work in order to avoid unnecessary overloading of the camp as well as modes of transportation. A certain number of individuals, idiots, cripples and sick people must be in the quickest manner be removed from the camp by liquidation to prevent overload. (Document #80 Zamojszczyzna-Sonderlaboratorium ss. Zbior Documentow Polskich i Niemieckich w okresu okupacji Hitlerowski Tom 1)
The men were sent to Birkenau (section B 1b) and the women to B 1a) Over the next few days they underwent selection, were registered and tattooed. During the selection, the older, disabled and younger men and boys were separated out. It is known that in January 1943 some of the boys from Zamość were included in the group of young prisoners who underwent pseudo-medical experiments. They were injected with typhus germs, and most of them died. In February and in March 1943 two groups of boys from the Zamość region were murdered through cardiac phenol injections.
All the women were quarantined, during which mothers and daughters were separated. Women who were visibly pregnant were also isolated from the others. Birthing mothers and their children faced a particularly tragic fate in the camp. Until June 1943 the infants were killed with phenol injections. After quarantine, women were placed in work commandos.
Also murdered through phenol injection, one of the most efficient killing methods devised by the Germans, was Czesława Kwoka.(Google image)
Cześć ich pamięci. Honor their memory.
If you are interested in reading more about what happened in the Zamość region of Poland during WWII click here www.polamjournal.com/Library/Sophie_Knab_Index/sophie_knab_index.html and click on Zamość under German Occupation 1939-1945
Over the centuries, the Feast of St. Andrew, celebrated on the night of the 29th through the 30th of November, stole the limelight from that of another saint. In Polish customs and tradition, it was a night of magic and fortune telling observed by young marriageable girls to divine who their future husbands might be. This custom, called andrzjeki, was once the province of just young girls but over time included young men and became what amounted to be a party with lots of teasing and merriment. Completely forgotten was St. Catherine of Alexandria, the third century virgin and martyr, who from the time of the Middle Ages, was the patron saint of young men and pious bachelors and patroness of a successful marriage in Polish tradition. It was on the evening of her feast day on November 24th into the 25th, that young men sought to determine something about their future marriage partners. The custom was called katarzynki, after Katarzyna, the Polish name for Catherine.
On this night, young men curious about their future paid special attention to their dreams: a white hen - meant a wedding with a maiden; a black hen - a wedding with a widow; a hen with chicks - marrying a widow with children; an owl - meant a wise but unmerry wife; a pigeon – a wife that was sweet and kind, but unfortunately, not too bright: a gray horse meant he would remain a bachelor for life.
Just as important as finding out her marital status and personality characteristics, was finding out her name. The men used a similar method as the girls during their night of St. Andrew's fortune-telling. Instead of cards with the image of St. Andrew , used by the girls, young men used holy cards with the image of St. Catherine, and on the back of the cards wrote the names of females they were interested in and placed them under their pillow overnight. This action gives understanding to the Polish proverb, “W noc świętej Katarzyny, pod poduszką są dziewczyny,” meaning, “On the eve of St. Catherine, the girls are under the pillow.” In the morning one of the cards would be drawn blindly from under the pillow to determine the name of the future wife.
Having learned these details about their future bride, there was still another detail to discover: would all this happen soon? To find out, it was necessary to cut a cherry branch (and some sources say apple or other fruit bearing tree) and put it in the water on Saint Catherine's day. If the branch bloomed by Christmas, it meant a wedding soon and a happy marriage.
In the end, as patroness of young bachelors and happy marriages, it was recommended that the young men attend church or a chapel and pray to St. Catherine for help and guidance in matters of the heart.
In Christian iconography, St. Catherine of Alexandria is always depicted with a wheel, the instrument of her torture and a palm, the symbol of martyrdom. Her image was often adopted as the crest for various noble families and for Polish towns and villages, such as the one above for Nowy Targ in southern Poland.
Ceremonies honoring the dead occur among people all over the world, regardless of place, worldview and religion. In the Catholic faith, it is on All Souls' Day(November 2) that cemeteries fill up with relatives and friends of the dead, often coming from far away, bringing flowers, lighting candles, and staying for a moment to be with those who are no longer among the living. Many individuals recognize it as the Day of the Dead. In the Polish language, it's called Zaduszki, All Souls' Day. In the doctrine of the Catholic Church, All Souls' Day is an expression of the conviction of the communion of saints, the resurrection of bodies, eternal life and the effectiveness of intercessory prayer.
All Souls' Day is derived from the practices of early medieval monks when services were held annually in various monasteries for their deceased brethren. In Poland, the oldest source confirming an All Souls' Day celebration is in the 12th century with the Cistercian monastery in Ląd in Wielkopolska(Greater Poland). In 1311, by decision of the Holy See, All Souls' Day was introduced to the church calendar and the Roman liturgy and gradually spread throughout the Catholic Church. By then, All Souls' Day was being celebrated by many more religious congregations, including Dominicans, Norbertine and Poor Clares, also among secular clergy in Kraków, Poznań and Gniezno.
One particular aspect of All Souls' Day was that of prayer intentions. The prayer intentions were something that had its beginnings in the Eucharistic liturgy of the very ancient church where the names of deceased bishops, kings, church founders, and later, the names of saints, were written down and read out loud by the clergy. The time and frequency of the reading the names changed around over the centuries based on the Vatican councils(before the Mass, during Eucharistic liturgy during the Mass, etc.) but during these remembrances of the faithful, the names of the deceased were read out loud and the public participating in the Mass was invited to join in praying for the deceased with the words "Dobry Jezu, a nasz Panie, daj im wieczne spoczywanie.” "Good Jesus and our Lord, grant them eternal rest." In some abbeys, prayer intentions were started for all deceased Christians, not just deceased religious individuals. The tradition remains to this day.
In Poland, this calling out of names of the deceased and asking for their eternal rest on All Souls' Day is called wypominki from the word wypominać, that is, to keep reminding. In this case, that the dear departed have not been forgotten. It is an intercessory prayer, an act of praying in behalf of souls who may be in Purgatory, awaiting entrance into heaven. At the same time, it is also an act of remembrance
The oldest existing text written in the Polish language calling to pray for the dead, comes from a fragment of a sermon from the 15th century:
"Do not forget the dead, all today remember the souls of your father, mother and your friends. I kindly ask your prayers for those souls whose bodies lie in this house, that is in the church, and also in the cemetery. I am asking you for one Hail Mary for their souls, whose bodies were lost in battle, at sea. I am asking you for one Hail Mary for the empty souls who are in purgatory, who have no help but look at us and call out: have mercy, have mercy on us."
Today, just as in yesteryear, throughout Poland and in Polish American churches, family and friends still submit the names of their dearly departed to the clergy for their name to be called out loud in church, in remembrance, in intersession. To hear the names of loved ones called out in the quiet stillness of the church, to hear everyone present raise their voices to pray for them is a true moment of spiritual and emotional communion between us, the living, and the dead. In that hallowed space, as their name is called, we are with those who are no longer with us... but are not forgotten.
The custom of taking the earth's bounty and offering it up in a sacred place has gone on for millenniums. And I shall do the same today.
I have gathered roses and black-eyed Susan's from my garden because I have nourished them and helped them grow.
I don't have an orchard but I do have a crab apple tree, a thing of joy that lifts the spirit when it blossoms in the spring and then yields berries than can sustain the body in the form of jellies and preserves in the summer.
I walked through fields this morning, aware that what at first glance appears to be a weed, is truly a gift, an offering from Mother Earth. I picked Queen Anne's Lace ( wild carrot) because the root can be eaten and my ancestors knew the root was high in vitamins. I cut down chickory. What looks like a pretty blue wild flower has a root that can be converted into a drink. At the beginning of the 18th century Polish agronomist Krzysztof Kluk wrote: "The roots are kept over the winter by burying in sand in the cellars. The roots were cut into chunks, dried in the oven and used in place of coffee....the roots of this plant are a much respected medicine: it opens, cleanses, loosens phlegm and fortifies the stomach and lungs. The most common way of ingesting it is through an alcoholic beverage. For the lungs, it is taken with sugar."
That this Polish custom of taking plants to church to be blessed has is its roots in pagan times does not disturb me. Instead, I feel a sense of continuity, a part of something that has been going on for as long as man has roamed the earth. There's a feeling of gratefulness.
Everything is gift.
She is the patron saint of marriages, mothers, widows, bakers and sailors.
In paintings and iconography she is often depicted with the Virgin Mary as a girl or with the Virgin Mary and little Jesus such as the one shown above, painted by Leonardo de Vinci in 1508, now hanging in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
One of the most famous churches carrying her name can be found in Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania. Formerly known as Wilno, the city was at one time part of the Polish-Lithuanian empire until the partitions of Poland. The church was built by Polish King Aleksander Jagiellonczyk beginning in 1501, right within the same time period as Leonardo was struggling to pay homage in his own vision of the saint. In much later years, it was said that even Napoleon, after seeing the church during the Franco-Russian war in 1812, coveted the architectural jewel built of 33 different kinds of brick.
In Poland, Saint Anne enjoys unflagging popularity with 184 churches built in her honor as well as numerous sanctuaries, the largest located southeast of Opole in Silesia and called Górze Świętej Anny, the Mountain(or Hill) of St. Anne. The Franciscan monastery and the Church of St. Anne, built in 1209 and sitting high at 1,263 feet above sea level, is a unique place of worship visited by thousands of pilgrims each year. They are drawn by the miraculous figure located on the main altar known as Św. Anna Samotrzecia, the word "samotrzecia" an old Polish word meaning threesome or three of us, roughly meaning the St. Anne Threesome: the three figures of St. Anne, with her daughter Mary and grandson Jesus, in her arms. (below)
Yet, we do not find any word of Anne in the New Testament. The only information about her comes from apocryphal writings, that is, writings from the beginning of Christianity by unknown individuals, and subsequently of doubtful authenticity but remains part of the church traditions. The writings say that Anne was from Bethlehem and married a wealthy young man from Nazareth named Joachim. They were devoted to one another but their happiness was marred by the lack of children. They prayed for a child but years passed without an answer. Anne was considered barren when at the age of 45 an angel appeared announcing that they will become parents. In gratitude for the gift of an offspring, the parents offered their only child, Mary, later known as the Blessed Virgin Mary, to God.
The cult of Saint Anne appeared around the 4th century and expanded over time with increasing reverence towards the Virgin Mary. It was born among those who wished to place themselves in the care of the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary and grandmother of Jesus. Families, brides, spouses, women expecting offspring, childless women, mothers, grandmothers and widows placed themselves under her care and protection.
It is generally acknowledged that St. Anne was born on a Tuesday. In the folklore of the people of the Tarnów-Rzeszów region of Poland, it is believed that whosoever burns a candle to St. Anne every Tuesday throughout the night and prays to her, will not be afflicted by poverty.
The successful marriage of St. Anne is reflected in the Polish proverb that says, "Szczęśliwy kto na świętą Annę wyszuka sobie pannę"
"Fortunate is the man who finds himself a young woman on the Feast of St. Anne."
Happy name day to all Anne's, Anna's, and Hanna's and the numerous variations in Polish such as Ania, Anka, Hanka, Hania.
A long, long time ago in Poland there was a shrub that was considered to be magical and secretive. It was often seen at burial and internment sites. Bouquets were made of it and placed on graves and tombs. It protected the living from powerful spirits looking to do wrong and also gave peace to the deceased.
Besides Poland, European bladdernut (Staphylea pinnata), was also a familiar shrub among other ancient Slavs, Celts and Germanic tribes. The Polish name for it, kłokoczka, is derived from word klekotania, from the characteristic klek, klek noise made from the seed pods of the plant rattling in the wind, the sound of which in those early pagan years was connected with frightening away evil powers. This feature caused it to be planted on burial graves and mounds, a place always connected with the spirit world. It was believed to protect against evil powers, vampires, demons, water spirits. It was also used during exorcisms, magical practices and occultism.
The meaning and practices associated with bladdernut changed considerably with the influence of the church and the growth of Christianity but many of the very early pagan beliefs remained alive in the form of folk customs and traditions. The shrub, seen growing near a home or a within the boundaries of a farmyard, guaranteeing the absence of dangerous spirits, remained in folk belief for a very long time but also became intermingled with the new Christian faith.
The shrub became known as a holy shrub. Christians began to carve religious figures out of the thicker branches to adorn churches and roadside shrines. The branches with leaves and flowers were was added to Easter palms and became part of the wreathes made on the feast of Corpus Christi. Bouquets of bladdernut were also brought to church Our Lady of the Herbs(Feast of Assumption of Blessed Virgin Mary-August 15) to be blessed. The blessed and dried plant was scattered on fields of growing crops to ensure the harvest and protect the land from natural disasters.
Crosses carved from branches of bladdernut were nailed above the door of a home or inserted at the various corners of fields. These were generally made before Easter and the crosses nailed near the door of the house after the Resurrection mass. These customs existed in the regions around Kraków, Rzeszów and Low Beskid (Beskid Niski) region. The thicker branches were crafted into pipes, recorders, cigarette holders and wooden plungers for butter churns, believing that plungers made out of bladdernut made good butter. The Hucul (western Ukraine and Romania) maidens made bracelets and necklaces out of it. Oil was produced from the seeds and used in primitive lighting devices to illuminate a room. It's most important use, however, came from the clusters of drooping white flowers that developed into bladder-like pods that held shiny brown seeds. A hole was made on two sides of the roundish seeds and threaded together with thin wire or twine to make rosaries. Hence, it's other name, kłokoczka paciorkowa, i.e., bladdernut, the rosary plant. The shrub was cultivated in monastery gardens where monks made rosaries for personal and public use, and where the leaves were burnt as a form of incense.
The rosary shrub is found in southern and eastern Poland as well as in Slovakia. It likes shady places among clumps of trees. It flowers from May to June and can grow 15 feet high and taller. It is currently on the list of protected plant species in Poland. It can be bought in various nurseries in the U.S. and UK.
More details about the feast of Corpus Christi or the Feast of Our Lady of the Herbs can be found in my book Polish Customs, Traditions and Folklore.
In the early years, a Polish country cottage could not boast of having a such a luxury as a window. This was something available to castles and palaces already in the 14th century in Poland but humble cottages had to wait until the 18th century, before glass and a window became the "eye" of the house to the street. The window was mostly located at the front of the house, on the gable end, facing the street and the earliest form of window decorations were the decorative exterior shutters on either side of the window. They were either carved in some interesting manner or painted. The next major form of decorating the windows in the peasant's cottage were clay pots blooming with flowers, predominantly, geraniums.
I haven't been able to locate a documented source of what one particular event led to the making of lacey, white tissue paper valances that became the norm for most humble Polish cottage windows. Perhaps it was the sight of true Venetian lace by a servant that gave such servant the inspiration to copy it on something cheap and available such as white tissue paper. Some Polish folk art historians indicate that the paper curtains were another form of wycinanki, the folk art of cutting on paper.
It is documented, however, by Polish folk historian Jan Dekowski, that tissue paper valances appeared in the village of Jasień, near Rawa Mazowiecki around 1910 and lasted right up until 1958. The rectangular valances were made from white tissue paper with the use of sheep shears to cut notches and circles to create a lacy effect. In this region the valance was made of two or three parts, depending on the available paper. Each part was made separately and then joined together using glue or thread. In other areas, such as Kurpie and Łowicz regions, the tissue paper was folded accordion style to fit the width of the window and then cut to achieve the desired effect. The curtains were hung on a string, a painted strip of thin wood or a rough rod whittled from a tree branch. There were also curtains just for the upper corners made from tissue paper folded into triangles. This look was something like two open fans in the top corners of the window.
In the Podlasie region, rectangular paper cutout curtains also became popular after the first World War. They decorated not only windows, but also shelves on sideboards and the frames of holy paintings.(see March 2019 blog))
In addition to sheep shears, knives were used to make them. Skillful hands could cut them into complex plant-geometric or animal shapes. Another technique was to use a chisel with different blade shapes.
Paper curtains were eventually replaced by curtains made of thread. The first curtains made of thread were made from flax, spun into a linen thread. These resembled something close to fishing nets. The even-spaced woven net was then stretched onto a frame of some kind and a design such as roses or branches with leaves were filled in using a single needle. You can see this interesting technique here
These types of curtains made of thread became widespread in the Polish countryside in the 1930s and were popular primarily in Greater Poland, Mazowsze and Silesia, where to this day stories still circulate about the time-consuming starching and stretching of curtains made of linen thread. A special frame with dozens of nails nailed to wooden slats served for their stretching. Thanks to this treatment, the fabric, which would shrink and change shape during washing, was returned to its original form. ( I so remember my mother using these curtain stretchers when I was growing up here in the United States. Each spring, in preparation for Easter, my mother would take down the heavy winter drapes and replace them with white lace, cotton curtains, heavily starched and stretched out on the stretchers. They took up the whole front room). These type of thread curtains disappeared when nylon was discovered and began to be used to make curtains which became readily available in local shops.
Everything changes but we can still admire the lengths our ancestors (and our mothers and grandmothers) went to beautify their homes with the means available at the time.
When I travel through Poland, especially the small towns and villages, I don't see paper curtains in the windows except for the cottages in the skansens, the restored villages that depict life in previous centuries. What I do notice is that house after house, today's Polish housewives still prefer to hang white, lacey curtains in their windows.
Photos by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
Dekowski, Jan. Wnętrze Chaty Jasieńskie.j Pracy i Materialy Muzeum Archeologicznego i Etnograficznego #2 1958
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.