Today, Thursday, January 27, 2022 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 but also to recognize others who were victims of Nazism. Today let us remember the murder of Poland’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens-its infants and children.
In the Nuremberg Trials after the war the Nazi criminals were charged with crimes against humanity in that the defendants…”ill treated civilians, imprisoned them without legal process, tortured and murdered them.” Among the charges lodged against the criminals were the crimes against Polish women who were made to work in Germany as forced laborers and the Polish children they gave birth to during that time.
The rules of war are clear in the Geneva Conventions that limit the barbarity of war: You do not torture people. You do not attack civilians. You limit as much as you can the impact of your warfare on women and children and other civilians – rules that the Germans ignored. Polish children, born in Germany during the war not only failed to receive protective status but were willfully, with the full knowledge and consent of the German administration, subject to malnourishment, dehydration and neglect leading to their deaths in catastrophic numbers.
The forced labor plan was such that the only thing that mattered for the German administration was that each worker work at full capacity no matter the cost to the individual.
On July 1943 Ernest Kaltenbrunner, Commander in chief of SIPO and SD issued a directive to all commanders in chief of SIPO and SD regarding the treatment of pregnant foreign women workers and children born in the Reich who were designated as not being racially valuable:
1. After giving birth, the foreign working woman has to resume work as soon as possible.
2. The birth should be confined to the portion of a German hospital that was designated for foreigners only. Separation from German women has to be guaranteed.
3. The children born foreign workers were to be placed in „special infant institutions“ of the most simple kind called "foreign child care facilities"
Not racially valuable
Historian Eva Seeber writes that the lofty or high sounding names given to the centers were to inspire confidence in the new mothers and keep the public ignorant of the reality—that it was a purposeful plan to starve infants to death and to liquidate Polish children.
All over Germany, "homes" for the babies of Polish forced laborers were established. As was discovered by Allied forces at the end of the war, infants and young children were, in truth, accommodated in sheds and huts unfit for habitation by anyone, let alone a newborns and infants. Placing children in these centers was mandatory and the mothers were given limited access to their children. Visitation was often limited to Sunday afternoons, twice a month or sometimes mothers were not allowed to see their child at all. The rules were enforced by local police and the Gestapo. There was lack of caring by nurses and doctors, the absence of even the most basic hygienic measures, and most importantly, the starvation of the infants.
Evidence compiled by American and British military forces after the war clearly show that from the time of their establishment, the infant homes for foreign children were houses of death for hundreds, perhaps thousands of Polish and Russian infants.
Just one example: The Velpke Children's Home
On March 20th, 1946, the British Military Tribunal in Occupied Germany began the trial of Heinrich Gerike and seven other German officials : Georg Hessling, Werner Noth, Hermann Muller, Gustav Claus, Dr. Richard Demmerich, Fritz Flint and Frau Valentina Bilien in the city of Brunswick, Germany for being involved in the killing of Polish and Russian children born on German territory. It was decided at this trial that at the Velpke Children’s Home, between May-December 1944, 84 out of 100 children brought to the home died of malnutrition and willful neglect.
Velpke was a town located in the district of Helmstedt in the northwest region of Germany. In the spring of 1944, Polish women who were working on the farms in the region delivered their babies in the town of Brunswick.
Based on the rulings that required the establishment of "nursing homes for children of Polish and Eastern laborers," Heinrich Gerike, Kreisleiter of Helmstedt and member of the Nazi party, was instructed by higher authorities in Hanover to erect a home where children could be kept after birth. The mothers were required to immediately return to work on the farms. Even infants who were already born and thriving with their mothers on the farms had to be taken to the home so that the mother’s attention was not divided between her work responsibilities and the needs of her child. It was not a voluntary choice made by the women. They were forced to give up their children.
In the spring of 1944, Gerike, along with other local officials named above, chose two corrugated iron sheds with a corrugated iron roof on an unpaved road near a quarry. One room contained cots, described during the proceedings as "wooden boxes" ordered up from a carpenter, along three sides of the room that could accommodate 25 children. Each child was to have one bed, one mattress (straw), one blanket and diaper. There were 60 diapers altogether. The room had "an enormous stove in the middle of the barracks and there was tropical heat in half an hour. There was no even temperature in the room." It also had two tables. One table held a register book with the names of the children, their dates of birth, as well as their dates of death and cause of death. There was a kitchen, sleeping quarters for the staff, a washroom containing one copper washtub and two baby baths. Other rooms were empty and used as a place to put the dead children. The huts were without running water. All water had to be carried in by the staff. It was without rudimentary tools for measuring infant weight. There were feeding bottles but no one seemed to know if there was a sufficient number. It lacked any means of isolation in the event of contagious diseases. It lacked a telephone for possible emergencies or contact with medical personnel. It looked like a stable.
The barracks were dirty. There was no hygiene in the place. The children were lying there without diapers. There was not enough linen. The baby's teats (pacifiers) were dirty... I don't think they ever had the same rations as German children and once I saw sour milk... " Gerike never spoke to the doctors, never checked with those responsible for running the home, and admitted that he "never went to the home myself." When the death rate began climbing Heinrich Gerike made remarks that it didn't really matter, that "there was no need to get excited about it because they were only enemies. "
The records showed 84 deaths at the home but ninety graves were found in the vicinity of the home. The most frequently cited causes of death were diarrhea and general body weakness.
And that was only one nursery.
According to the U.S. Army Command list, 365 Polish and Russian children died at another “special infant care facility” at Wolfsburg-Ruehen
Special barracks were built to house infants and children born to Polish and Russian women. The “special infant care facility” at Wolfsburg-Ruehen was behind barbed wire. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Another so-called maternity hospital and infant home for Polish and Eastern women who worked in the city and county of Brunswick. The so-called hospital and home consisted of two wooden barracks located at Broitzemerstrasse 200. One of the barracks was in ruins. The second barrack, 42.80 x 12.14 meters in length, consisted of only three scantily furnished rooms which was meant to house the expectant mothers, newborns and older children. Based on records of the local health insurance office in Brunswick, it was established that between May 10, 1943 to July 1944, 253 babies were born alive in the home. Of these 253 children: 174 died.
Mass graves of children at Brunswick. Photo taken by the British Military Tribunal. National Archives. Public Records Office . London.
The above-mentioned “children's homes” are the most well-known, receiving attention after the war by Polish, English and American military tribunals. How many such establishments existed? If, as German historians say, that every district throughout Germany had its infant homes for foreign children, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent Polish children that needlessly died as a result of Nazi policy.
On this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, let us honor their memory.
Cześć ich pamięci.
Public Records Office. London. National Archives WO309/585. Exhibit No. 520
Biuletyn Głównej Komisji badania Zbrodni Niemieckich w Polsce No. 5 1949
Law Reports of Trials of War Criminals UNNWCC Volume VII Trial of Heinrich Gerike and seven others.
Proceedings of a Military court for the Trial of War Criminals held in Helmsteadt, Germany Ruehen Case. London: National Archives. Public Records Office File WO235/159
For further reading: Wearing the Letter P. Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany 1939-1945. Hippocrene Books, Inc. The Polish translation title is: Naznaczone Literą P. Wydawnictwo Literacki.
“Kulig. A sleigh ride. This much-loved entertainment of Poles occurred on the 20th of January, 1695 in Warsaw. It was described by Ludwig Klermont, secretary to Oueen Marie Casimire d’ Arquien, wife of King Jan III(*Sobieski).
Drawing of unknown date illustrating sleigh in shape of a swan.
"A group of well-known individuals gathered at the palace of Daniłowicz which later was to become the Załuski Library."
*The library was reconstructed from the Daniłowicz Palace, adding an astronomical observatory. At the time (late 1700's), it was considered to be Poland's first public library. Destroyed during World War II, it was reconstructed once again.
"At 3pm in the afternoon, the trumpeters sounded the signal and the entire entourage set off: 24 Tartar horses in service to Prince Jakuba (the oldest son of the king) pulling 10 sleighs each with 4 horses abreast; on each a different set of musicians; Jews with hammered dulcimers; Ukrainians with torbans; more trumpets, fife’s and janissaries(*an elite guard of soldiers) from the various manor houses.
An example of a hammered dulcimer, a folk instrument called cymbały in Polish.
"They were followed by sleighs covered with Persian carpets, leopard skins, sables and other expensive furs. Each sleigh was pulled by a pair of horses decorated with feathers, tufts, ribbons and tassels; on each sleigh there were individuals of both genders and riding along the sleighs were young lords from the manors mounted on horses. There were 107 of these ensembles and hard to say which had superiority because all of them had fine horses, expensive furs and servants dressed in Hungarian livery.
At the end there were sleighs in the shape of Pegasus; sitting on it were 8 young men who recited verses that were written long ago by Ustrycki(*Andrzej Wincenty Usztrycki, Polish poet and preacher) and Chrościński(*Wojciech Stanisław Chrościński, Polish poet who also wrote in Latin).
The entourage ended with a branch of drabantów (*a type of Polish honor guard who carried halberds – an axe mounted on a long pole, topped with a spike, essentially a battle axe )
All the guests arrived first to Sapieźynki’s, then to the Princess Radziwiłła; followed by Potocki’s to the young Lubomirski prince; to the Castellan(a member of the Polish Senate) of Lublin and to Ujazdów (no mention of who lived there). Wherever they arrived, the host would give them the keys to the cellar and the hostess the key to the pantry so the guests could help themselves to whatever they wanted. Music kept playing, there was dancing and then they moved on. The last destination and get-together occurred at Wilanów(*the royal palace) where the King and Queen greeted their guests warmly; everyone was entertained, even the accompanying servants, until late into the night. The entire entourage returned home by torch lights, of which there were 800.”
King Sobieski's Palace at Wilanów.
It is said that some of the families mentioned above were richer than the king himself, in possession of incredible wealth and equipped with their own armies, let alone an honor guard. But, oh my, to have clapped eyes on those sleighs! Here is another illustration with the sleigh in the shape of a deer/stag.
The winter entertainment of the wealthy elite was still prevalent in the 1800's as caught on canvas by painters Juliuz and Jerzy Kossack within their lifetime.
Painting by Juliusz Kossak 1887 with sleigh in the shape of a bear.
By the end of the 18th century, the sleigh rides of court nobility disappeared. The custom of more simple sleigh rides through the snowy countryside persisted among the lower social groups for a long time. Here is a fun video that depicts the sleigh ride as enjoyed by the artistocracy as well as more simple folk by modern and historical painters.
Text of sleigh ride from book Gry i Zabawy (Games and Entertainment) by Łukasz Gołęmbiowski
Photos from Wikipedia
Illustrations from www.cultureave.com
It’s not an exaggeration to say there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Polish Christmas carols.
Collected over the centuries, the oldest known text of a Polish church hymn regarding the birth of Christ dates back to 1424 and was a handwritten translation from the Czech by a man named Szczekany of Prague, and begins with the words Zdrów bądz, królo anielski (Be well, King of Angels). In 1522, five Christmas songs written in Polish appear in a book titled Żywot Pana Jezu Krysta(The life of Jesus Christ) printed by Jan Haller and Hieronim Wietora in Kraków. One of the oldest Polish Christmas carols from the 16th century and still sung today is Aniol pasterzom mowil (The Angel Told the Shepherds). The author is unknown. The most well-known that survived from the 17th century is
W żłobie leży (In a manger). The words are credited to the famous preacher Piotr Skarga (1536-1612).
In the 18th and 19th centuries carols emerged from the pens of some of Poland's greatest writers and literary figures, as well as monks, priests, small town schoolteachers, organists and many unknown writers. Among these unknown writers and authors is the creator of the carol that for many individuals, officially opens the Christmas season and is titled Wśród Nocnej Ciszy (In the Night's Stillness)
It is the carol that opens the midnight Christmas Eve mass, called the Pasterka, the Shepherd’s Mass, in honor of the shepherds called to the stable that night.
“In the night’s stillness, voices unfurl
Wake shepherds, the Lord is being born.
As quickly as you can, hurry to Bethlehem
To greet the Lord.”
Postcard published in Warsaw sometime between 1905-1939. It is titled from the lyrics: Wstańce, pasterze, Bóg się wam rodzi...(Wake shepherds, the Lord is being born). Attributed to artist H. Czechowicz
That this carol, and so many others, have survived over the centuries is credited to numerous individuals but the most notable among them was Reverend Michal Marcin Mioduszewski, professor of canon law at the seminary in Kraków. Reverend Mioduszewski was not just a collector of religious songs that were being sung in his time but actively researched old manuscripts during his life time. As a collector and publisher of religious songs, he compiled the biggest collection of Polish Christmas carols for church services in his Pastoralki and Kolędy (Pastorals and Carols) published in 1843. Wśród Nocnej Ciszy first appeared in an Appendix to this collection when it was published again in 1853.
Face page and carol from 1908 edition of Mioduszewski's Pastoralki and Kolędy.
The carol appears in that edition as the song for the Introit of the Christmas Eve mass as it does in this 1908 edition. The purpose of the Introit (from Latin: introitus, "entrance") is to open the celebration, to turn thoughts toward the mystery of the celebration and accompany the procession, if there was to be one. In some churches in Poland, while this entrance carol was being sung, a statue of the Infant Jesus was brought to the manger erected within the church and placed there as a symbolic reminder that Christ is being born “in the night’s stillness.”
For 168 years(!), the faithful in the churches of Poland and Polonia scattered throughout the world, continue to rise from their seats at the opening notes of "Wśród Nocnej Ciszy" at the midnight mass (or first mass of the evening) to welcome, once again, the birth of Christ. It was given to us by an unknown individual from the 18th century, someone whose name remains in obscurity, who will never receive recognition for the joy it brings to the heart year after year - a true Christmas gift handed down through the centuries.
Here is a very old recording of it from 1929 along with b&w images of Poland celebrating Christmas Eve in those years. www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcBqowFY9NY
Wishing you every joy of this holiday season: peace, love and good health. May the new year bring each of you every blessing, and every hope and dream fulfilled.
From the time of the 13th century, the people of Poland began the Advent season with a special early morning mass called roraty. It is a special early morning mass, said before daybreak and devoted specifically to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The name for this mass comes from the Introit, the opening antifon or Latin chant, Rorate Coeli, said at the beginning of the mass. It was the prayer of the prophet Isaiah (45:8) begging the Lord for the arrival of a Savior:
"Let the heavens drop dew from above
and the clouds rain down justice
May the earth open and generate a Savior:
Reveal to us, Lord, Your mercy,
and give your salvation to us:
come, Lord, and do not delay."
In many parts of Poland, an ancient wooden horn called a ligawka, was likened to the archangel's trumpet, to remind the people of Christ’s second coming and the Judgement Day. It often
announced the beginning of advent and called the people to attend this early morning mass.
Ligawka. Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw
The mass is said before dawn, in the dark, as a symbol that the world was in darkness until the arrival of Jesus as Light of the World. A special feature of the mass is the lighting of a special candle decorated with a white or blue ribbon, the colors associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Gwiazda Zaranna, the Morning Star. Traditionally the liturgy began in the dark, the faithful often coming with their own candles or lanterns to light their way.
In this day and age, when many do not have access to churches that still offer this mass, the faithful can still have their own rorata, their own candle that is lit each morning before dawn. It can be their own time of thoughtfulness, reflection and quiet prayer during the Advent season while listening to "Rorate coeli" the Latin chant that opens the mass.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f06qdhO_sEY
In the time before Christianity became firmly established in Poland, there was an important annual ritual conducted by the early pagans to honor their deceased ancestors. It took place in autumn, a time when the pagans firmly believed that their deceased ancestors returned to the world of the living. The deceased souls were to visit the places where they had lived and if they were well received, would bestow prosperity and fertility in the form of a bountiful harvest. To greet the returning souls, food was left on the table, and a door or window was left open to welcome them. Food was also brought to the graves of the dead. One of the most important food items to be placed on the table or brought to the cemetery was bread.
One of the earliest breads made by the pagan Poles and brought to gravesites during this autumn ritual was a round, flat, unleavened bread called podpłomyk. The flat bread was baked on a hot stone that sat over the hot ashes of a fire. It was one of the earliest and most primitive forms of baking bread. One could call it the first “soul” bread as it was meant for departed souls. (My idea of what it may have looked like - today's naan bread- only the unleavened version)
Over time and the strong Christian influence, the pagan autumn ritual eventually became All Saint’s and All Souls' Day. The feasts at the graveyards, much frowned upon by the Catholic Church, were abandoned but the custom baking of podplomyk remained for a long time. The word appears in Latin medieval texts of the 15th century, stating that local priests in Poland were still decrying the pagan ritual of housewives making this flat bread from the same dough as that of their regular bread. With the last scrapings of dough, the housewife still made these small flat breads. Only now, instead of taking it to gravesites, the housewives said a prayer at the time of baking in order to ”lessen the suffering of souls in Purgatory who were in most need of help” and was shared with children and neighbors. It became a different way of honoring those that had died.
Kobiety przy piecu (Women at the stove) 1888 by Polish painter Wojciech Piechowski(1849-1911)
The old pagan practice underwent another transformation over the next centuries. Instead of a flat bread, the women, who now had access to yeast and brick ovens, baked small loaves of bread and because it was baked for the Feast of All Soul’s, which is called Dzien Zaduszki (the day of all souls) in Polish, the bread was also called zaduszki – a different version of soul bread, if you will. And because they were given to the poor and to beggars, the bread was also called dziady, the Polish word for beggars.
Beggars in Kamieniec Podolski now Kamianets-Podilskyi in western Ukraine. From Zygmunt Gloger. Encyklopedia Staropolska
Poland wasn’t the only country in Europe with these lingering practices. The Mexicans made Pan de Muerto or Bread of the Dead. In England they were called soul cakes and given to children and beggars right around the same time on All Hollow’s Eve, later known as Halloween, but later Christianized to All Soul’s. On this night poor peasants and children called "soulers" would go about town singing and praying for the souls of the dead. They would stop at homes and beg for a "soul cake" and promise in return to pray for the household's deceased family members to be released from purgatory. The refrains sung at the door varied from "a soul cake, a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake.”
In Poland, the zaduszki, the “soul bread” was distributed to the beggars who appeared at the entrances of churches and cemeteries at this time of year. It was believed that the soul of the ancestor could take on the look of a beggar, or someone in need, or someone especially vulnerable, so they were always treated with much respect.
Beggars at cemetery entrance. Illustration by Marian Chodowski from book by Tadeusz Janduła. Ocalić od Zapomnienia
What’s more, in exchange for accepting the bread, the beggar would loudly call out the names of the departed and say prayers for their souls, much like the "soulers" of England. There you have it- different people on different continents all honoring their ancestors in their own particular way but at the core is some form of bread, or it’s later sweetened version as a soul cake or cookie.
Eventually, beggars in Poland stopped traveling the roads and attending cemeteries to pray for the deceased on All Soul’s Day. Instead of giving bread to beggars, the next transition in these ancient customs was that families made a food gift of some sort to the parish priest in exchange for calling out the names of the deceased in the church on All Soul’s Day. 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, that the dear departed have not been forgotten. (See blog November 2019) From there, the giving of food to the priest changed into giving a small financial donation.
Which brings us full circle to today’s times. Families in Poland, and Polonia throughout the world, still visit the cemetery at this time of year to honor their dead but instead of food or bread, bring flowers and candles (which, by the way, is a substitute for the bonfires that also took place during this time of year) and instead of bread for the beggars to call out the names of the departed, they give a gift/donation to have a priest call out their names in church.
After all this time, all these centuries, the faint echoes of these very ancient customs are still very much with us.
“Kto żyje w pamięci swych bliskich, żyje wiecznie.” "He who lives in the memory of his closest, lives forever.”
References: Biegeleisen, Henry. U Kolebki, Przed Otlarzem, Nad Mogiła. Nakładem Instytutu Stauropigjanskiego 1929
"It was indeed Autumn, the mother of Winter...
The fair was to take place on the feast day of St. Kordula (Cornelia) (October 22) the last one before Christmas, so everyone was preparing for it properly...They had set out from Lipka at early dawn…Some went to buy, and some to sell, and some just to enjoy the fair.
Women from Orawa (Zakopane region) on the way to market 1930.
"One man led a cow or a big calf by rope; one drove a flock of shorn sheep in front of him; another walked behind a sow with her little ones, or a lot of white geese, with their wings tied; another trotted by, riding a sorry nag; while from under many an apron the red comb of a cock peered forth. The wagons and carts, too, were well laden. Often, from the baskets and straw within one of them, a hog’s snout would appear, squealing clamorously, till the geese gaggled in consternation, and the dogs that ran to market by their master’s side, barked in chorus.
Hucul's leading their goat to market c.1919-1939.
"(There were) tables sheltered under canvas roofs, displaying enormous coils of russet-hued sausages as thick as a ship’s mooring-rope; and piles of yellow fat and grease, brown flitches of smoked bacon, whole sides of fat salt pork and hams by scores, rose in multitudinous tiers..."
Olkusz. Southern Poland. 1931.
"while at other stalls, entire carcasses of hogs were hooked up, wide opened, gaping, and so dripping with blood that the dogs gathered round, and had to be driven away."
Lemko man selling lamb carcasses at market in Gorlica . 1936
"Close by the butchers were their brethren of the baking-oven; and on thick layers of straw, on wagons, upon tables and in baskets, and wheresoever they could be placed, lay monstrous piles of loaves, each as large as a small cartwheel. Cakes, too, were there, glazed over with yellow egg-yolks; and little rolls, and great ones as well."
Women selling obwarzanki, a ring shaped soft bread that is boiled. They are still being sold on streets of Poland today.
"Nor were stalls for play things wanting. Some were made of gingerbread in the shape of many a kind of beast, of soldiers and hearts – and strange forms, whose meaning no one could make out."
Gingerbread stand. Wilno.1938.
"Now, in every place – upon the carts, along the walls, and, in short, wherever they found room – saleswomen were sitting: with onions in strings, or in baskets; with cloth fabrics and petticoats of their own making; with eggs, cheeses, mushrooms, pats of butter of oblong shape and wrapped in linen cloth. Some had potatoes to sell, some a couple of geese, or a fowl already plucked and drawn; other, flax fibers finely combed out, or skeins of spun flaxen thread. Each of them sat by her wares and chatted pleasantly with her neighbor, as folk are wont to do at the fair."
Women selling herbs. Wilno. 1938.
"And before evening it grew gloomy in the world, the clouds dragged on low...and a light rain began to fall... and everyone was rushing home to get there before the night and more foulness."
The Peasants: Autumn Volume 1. Translated by Michael Dziewicki and published by Alfred Knoph 1924 from the original Polish book titled Chłopi:Jesien written by Władysław Reymont
In the cycle of farming and preparing for the coming of winter, the harvest of grains was completed in Poland by the middle of September but it certainly did not mean that all was in readiness for the harsh winter months ahead. Before the onset of the first frosts, it was imperative to bring in the last of the fruits and vegetables. There were cabbages in the fields ready to be cut and prepared into barrels as sauerkraut. Apples and root vegetables still needed to be picked and stored. Among the most important crop that needing gathering from the fields was the all-important potato.
A staple in Poland for over 400 years, potatoes made an appearance in Poland for the first time during the reign of King Jan Sobieski III(1674-1696). Jan III sent them home to Poland from Vienna, where he had won a smashing victory over the Turks and told his gardener to plant them at his palace in Warsaw. Initially looked at with disdain, the potato began to replace parsnips, turnips and rutabaga, which had, up until that inconspicuous tuber made its appearance, been primary foodstuffs for the peasants. By the reign of August the II (1733-1763) all of Poland and Lithuania were eating potatoes every day. Its versatility, in that it could be made into soups, noodles, dumplings, pancakes and often added to flour to make bread, made it the single most important food item to keep the poorest peasant from starvation. If the harvest was plentiful, potatoes could also be sold in order to purchase other items such as kerosene for lamps to light the long, dark days of winter.
There were different names for the potato in different parts of Poland. Many 19th century books use the term kartofel, from the German kartoffel. For instance, author Łukasz Gołębiowski in his book Domy i Dwory (Homes and Manors) from the 1830’s refers to them as kartofle. In the Lwów regions it was called barabola; in the language of the Lemki it was komпepa or kompera; the Kaszub’s called it bulwa; in the Poznań region it was pyra; in Orawa, the southern part of the Tatra range of the Carpathian mountains, the potato was called rzepa which is the word for turnip in the Polish language but seeing as how the potato replaced the widespread use of turnips as a foodstuff, one can see the connection. The current word for potatoes, ziemniaki, did not get established until the 20th century.
Potato harvesting, called wykopki, from the word wykopać, meaning to dig out, began in September but continued on throughout the fall. The work of digging was usually the role of women although the men helped with more difficult tasks such as carrying the heavy baskets, and transporting the potatoes by wagon. Entire families would go to the fields to bring in the potato harvest as it was something done manually by hand from beginning to end. Oftentimes entire families, men, women and children were out in the fields as were neighbors helping neighbors, creating a sense of solidarity and community.
The potatoes were dug by hand using a motyka, a long-handled hoe, which required the individual to be bent over the entire time. The unearthed potatoes had to be picked up manually, sorted and poured into sacks, collected into baskets or wicker bushels and then onto a wagon to be taken to the barn cellar or specially created root cellars for storage.
The advent of the potato harvester, a horse drawn mechanism (and later, a tractor) with prongs called a kopaczka, unearthed the potatoes rather quickly and made things easier, but all the potatoes still had to be sorted and collected by hand. It was a hard day of work.
One of the treats and highlights after a long day of arduous labor was roasting the freshly unearthed potatoes over an open fire, a real treat for children and adults alike. The fire was started by collecting and lighting the dried potato stalks and fed with additional twigs. The beautiful autumn evenings, the smell of the newly turned earth and the drifting smoke from the fire created a pleasant opportunity to rest, talk, recount legends, sing and, of course, eat. Oftentimes, the women brought a pitcher of beet soup or sorrel soup to pour over the potatoes. In the Leżajsk region in south eastern Poland, the roasted potatoes were eaten with a bit of cheese, cream, chopped onion, chives or dill, even garlic. Sometimes they were eaten simply with a bit of salt.
My potato basket bought in Kraków in 1980. It must have been the blood of my forefathers calling out to me or maybe it's because I love a potato in any way, shape or form but I couldn’t resist buying it. I walked through the museums and shops of that sophisticated city carrying the large potato basket until we got back to the bus. It garnered a few looks of amazement from people but I was very gratified when I was stopped on the street by a few elderly Polish women who admired my purchase and wanted to look it over, telling me it was “silny” (strong) and “dobrze zbudowany” (well built). The handle is reinforced with wire to withstand the heaviness of the potatoes. I brought it home on my lap on the plane. I have it hanging in my kitchen and is queen among the various baskets I’ve purchased over the decades.
It's time to make potato soup!
Photographs from Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe except for photo of root cellars taken from Polish Country Kitchen Cookbook.
To Polish Americans, the term placek conjures up the image of a sweet yeast bread with a crumbly topping of flour, butter and sugar baked in a rectangular loaf pan.
Polish ethnographers studying the preparation of food and its consumption among the country folk feel that placek, the name given to a cake made of yeast that was baked for special occassions, is the modern evolution of the ancient kołacz, the special bread baked for weddings. Ethnographer Jan Bystron states, "in certain parts of Poland the kołacz is called placek. This is a baked item made from white wheat flour with cheese and raisins."
In light of the requests I received for the recipe after I posted this photo of the placek I made for St. Casimir's Church (Buffalo, NY) Our Lady's Street Fair, I'm posting it here for those of you who asked (thank you for the compliment!) and for anyone who may be interested.
4 cups plus 4 tablespoons unbleached flour
½ cup golden yellow or dark raisins
½ cup hot water
Two ¼ ounce packages active dry yeast
½ cup warm water
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
½ cup butter (one stick)
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
⅓ cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
1.Bring eggs and flour to room temperature.
2.Soak raisins in the hot water for 30 minutes or until plump. Drain and squeeze raisins lightly to remove excess fluid.
3.Place ½ cup warm water (110º to 115ºF) into a 2 cup measuring glass or bowl. Sprinkle yeast over the water and mix. Add ½ teaspoon of the sugar to the yeast mixture and 4 tablespoons of the flour to make a tin batter. Set aside or 15 to 20 minutes. It should become bubbly and frothy.
4.Scald the milk in a saucepan, remove from heat and add the butter, salt nutmeg and vanilla. Cool to lukewarm (110º to 115ºF.)
5. In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs and remaining sugar until pale yellow. Add the lukewarm milk mixture and then the yeast mixture.
6.Gradually add the remaining 4 cups of flour, beating well. Add the raisins and mix thoroughly. The dough will be somewhat sticky.
7.Place in a warm area and allow dough to double in bulk about an hour(or sometimes more)
8.Grease and lightly flour 2 9x5 inch or 8x3½ inch loaf pans. Distribute the dough evenly between the pans. Cover and let rise again for 30 minutes.
9.While dough is rising, make the topping. Place dry ingredients in small bowl and cut the butter into the flour, sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon until it looks like coarse meal, as if making a pie crust. Or, place ingredients in food processor and pulse together for same effect.
10.Preheat oven to 350ºF. Sprinkle topping evenly over the dough and bake for 30 minutes.
Smacznego! May it be tasty!
Recipe from Polish Country Kitchen Cookbook by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab. Hippocrene Books, Inc.
On this day, August 24th, 1942 during the occupation of Poland by the Germans, Hans Frank, governor of the General Government, decided to starve the Polish people in order to provide more food for German troops and the German people. In a Cabinet session with his departmental chiefs in Kraków he ordered the stoppage of food rations for all Poles who were not working for German interests.
Hans Frank: “Before the German people are to experience starvation, the occupied territories and their people shall be exposed to starvation...The general Government has taken on the obligation to send 500,000 tons of bread grains to the fatherland….it must be done cold-bloodedly and without pity…you will essentially find an additional increase of the quota of foodstuffs to be shipped to Germany and new regulations for the feeding of the Jews and of the Polish population.” (1)
All food was seized for German consumption. Farmers in the Polish countryside were subject to compulsory quotas and levies developed by the Germans, resulting in the ruthless confiscation of wheat, cattle, eggs, honey, and poultry from farms throughout the General Government which left millions of Poles facing starvation. The absence of milk subjected an entire generation of Polish children to suffer from vitamin and protein deficiency.
Consumers were divided into broad categories in which each received rations in proportion to alleged needs and importance. All-important food groups were rationed at weekly or monthly amounts. Bread rations were cut drastically.
More from Hans Frank’s diary:
"…more than 3 million persons are non-German normal consumers (Poles), who do not work directly or indirectly in the interests of Germany"...and that these "non-German normal consumers will receive, from 1 January 1943 to 1 March 1943, instead of 4.2 kg of bread per month, 2.8 kg; from 1 March 1943 to 30 July 1943 the total bread ration for the non-German normal consumers will be cancelled." (2)
According to German regulations, each resident had to be satisfied with the amount of food he was entitled to according to the allocation set in the card system. The trouble was, they were starvation rations. Critical shortages of food arose in urban areas with people resorting to every possible means to find food. To try and fill the void, black markets sprung up, but being caught in any activity with black markets was punishable with a fine, months in a penal camp, or their life.
Photo: German soldiers during an inspection in search of illegal food.
Jadwiga Załuska, a nurse in occupied Warsaw, recalls:
"The food situation was getting worse all the time but being rescued by people bringing food to Warsaw illegally...Everyone in Warsaw had some kind of haunt where on a designated day they could obtain some dairy product and meat ...The business was generally conducted by women and their ingenuity was something. They brought in (from the outlying farms) sausage under their clothes, winding pork fat around their waist. The most difficult to bring in was eggs and cream...There were so many women raising their children alone that they would walk kilometers carrying potatoes or eggs, the entire time faced with the possibility of confiscation and a beating...the obtaining of smuggled goods was an impossibility - people didn't have the money and the majority were starving on food coupons. People were making up all kinds of dishes to quiet their stomachs. Sausage was being made from cabbage, pancakes from beans, spice cookies and cakes from carrots...and pumpkin."(3)
The situation for the people of Poland was critical. The few Polish-run charitable organizations allowed by the Germans were overwhelmed. The years 1942 and 1943 brought the greatest reduction in food available to the people of the General Government. Consistently malnourished, the people of Poland became easy prey to a host of diseases including tuberculosis, gastrointestinal and disorders, and communicable diseases. The people of Poland were doomed to suffer and starve right through to the end of the war.
1.Frank diary. Document PS-E-2233 Cabinet session 2 4August 1942 Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression. Volume 4
3.Chapter 5 . Wearing the Letter”P”. Polish Women as Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany 1939-1945
Child Feeding Station: New York Public Library: Poland in Photographs 1939-1944
Germans inspecting for illegal food: Narodowy Archiwum Cyfrowe
I’ve always been interested in knowing the names of plants whenever I see them flowering along a roadside or path. While walking along a marshy area at our state park recently I was looking over at the dark pink Joe pye-weed (wondering what it’s Polish name could be)
and the lovely pale lavender color of wild bee balm (Monarda fistulosa also known as wild bergamot) when I saw this other tall plant rising above them with an unusual pinkish-purple flower head.
I hadn’t noticed this particular plant before. If I don’t recognize a plant, I take a picture and then browse through books of wild plants specific to my region to try and discover their names. I know there are apps for this now that will tell you almost instantly the name of the plant but I haven’t moved on from my old-fashioned ways. I have lots of nice full color books that I like to pull out and browse through on a summer evening.
Its name is Verbena hastata or blue vervain, also known as swamp weed and its color can vary from blue to purple. True to the name it grows in soggy, sunny areas and is indigenous to North America but I don’t think it deserves the name swamp weed, as if it were some trashy old thing rising up out of the muck. I thought it rather lovely with its erect posture and its eye-catching cluster of flowers at the top.
There are lots of species of verbena world-wide and it is somewhat similar in appearance to Verbena officinalis which I’d read about it old Polish herbals. In Polish, Verbena officinalis is Werbena pospolita. Its folk name is koszyczki Najswiętszej Marii Panny meaning, baskets of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary. A single petal appears as if it could be a tiny goblet or bowl or, to someone at some time in centuries past in Poland, a basket. This species of verbena is native to Europe and can be found in Germany (Hildegard of Bingen was familiar with it) England, France and most commonly along the Carpathian mountain range of southern Poland. Its flowers are pale pink instead of blue or purple and it tends to grow in dry places. Medicinally, however, they carry the same beneficial properties of boosting lactation in nursing mothers, in treating headaches, and combating fevers and coughs. In Poland, the leaves were steeped in boiling water and ingested as a tea or by teaspoonful when soaked in vodka or whiskey.
So satisfying to learn of two plants of the same species, continents apart, with a long history as a medicinal herb across many different cultures.
P.S. Joe pye-weed (Eutrochium purpureum) is known in Poland as Sadiec purpurowy
Photo of Verbena officinalis: Wikipedia.
Photos of Verbena hastata, Monarda fistulosa and Joe pye-weed by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
If you'd like to read more about the plants once essential to the people of Poland utilized in their customs and traditions as well as medicinally I suggest my book: Polish Herbs, Flowers and Folk Medicine.
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.