There’s a Polish proverb that says “Lepsze rydz niż nic.” In literal translation it says “Better the Lactarius deliciousus (saffron milkcap mushroom) than nothing at all.” On another level it’s said in situations to indicate that something was gained but not exactly what you wanted or what you got was better than nothing at all. In the mushroom picking world of Poland everyone would prefer to find Boletus edulis, the porcini mushroom, king of forest mushrooms. However, in the absence of porcini, the saffron milk cap will do.
There’s a reason this woman, who just emerged from the forest, is happy to pose for me. She holds in her hand a lovely specimen of the much sought-after Boletus edulis called prawdziwek (translates into “the true one” in Polish) and also called borowik szlachetny or “noble boletus.” It is considered the tastiest of all edible mushrooms whether dried or marinated and was the preferred mushroom for the tables of Poland’s rich and famous. Jan Kochanowski (1530-1584), a famous 16th century poet and author, described the duties of workers on his estate. There were those tending the grain harvests, the vegetable gardens, the dairy barns and then there were those assigned to gather mushrooms. Foraging for mushrooms was not a hobby like it is now but genuinely hard work as it was an important foodstuff from May until first frosts. Mushrooms were eaten fresh, dried for use in the wintertime, and when salt became widely available, they were stored by salting down or pickling.
So what about the second rate saffron milkcap? the Lactarius deliciosus? Why give it such a name if not delicious? As the proverb implies, it’s a consolation prize, something one could enjoy even if not fully what you wanted. Lucyna Ćwierczakiewicz (1826-1901), the famous Polish cookbook author, wrote a lot about mushrooms and didn’t scorn it at all. "Mushrooms are collected twice a year in spring and autumn. The young tender spring mushrooms should be sliced and dried in the sun and will be like fresh when added to vegetables in winter. The fall mushrooms should be dried on a string or in the oven after baking bread or for marinating because they are longer lasting and easier to keep. Rydze begin at the end of August until late into the year. Be careful to get them as frosts can begin early in November and the rydze are lost. “
Besides drying, salting and pickling mushrooms for winter consumption, mushrooms were also collected to trade or to sell at the marketplace to buy items like kerosene, matches or shoes.
Market in Krakow 1931. Images from Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe.
I grew up listening to my mother talk about the forests of Poland where she picked berries and mushrooms with her siblings. She used the proverb Lepsze rydz niż nic a lot. It’s her I think about when on mushroom hunting excursions with my cousins in Poland.
In the third photo, my basket is the empty one behind the bouquet of heather I had picked. There were only two mushrooms left in my basket by the time my cousin finished throwing out all the non-edible ones I had picked. Embarrassing, since even little Tomek knew his mushrooms but as the proverb says, it's better than nothing at all.
Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1, 1939 marked the beginning of World War II. Over the next five years, the conflict would take more lives and destroy more land and property around the globe than any previous war. In Poland alone, it cost the lives of an estimated 6 million people among them 3 million Jews murdered in Nazi concentration camps as part of Hitler’s planned and carefully executed “Final Solution,” now known as the Holocaust. Photos taken by a German photographer now part of Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe(National Digital Archives) in public domain.
The assault by air destroying railroad lines.
Germans attacking an undetermined village.
Germans in trenches waiting to attack Warsaw.
Bombing of the Citadel, a Polish Army garrison,training center and depot in Warsaw
German soldiers on Grojecka Street in Warsaw by September 26,1939
Let us not forget.
The year 1410 saw one of the greatest battles of the Middle Ages under the command of Polish King Władysław Jagiełło(1386–1434) when he defeated the troops of the Teutonic order at the Battle of Grunwald. The King’s banner in battle was adorned with the image of Our Lady of Częstochowa. On the lips of Polish soldiers was the song Bogurodzica (Mother of God), becoming the first act of giving Poland’s armed forces to Our Lady of Częstochowa.
Our Lady of Częstochowa on roadside shrine. Łysaków, Poland. Edward Knab photo.
In the time of the “Deluge” when Swedish armies invaded the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and it was thought that the country was lost to the foreign invaders, the one place that still resisted the Swedes was the holy monastery at Jasna Góra- the most sacred place in Poland containing the icon of the Black Madonna, Our Lady of Częstochowa.
Close up of depiction of Seige of Jasna Góra in 1655 by Polish artist Janaury Suchodolski. 1845. Wikipedia photo.
On 1 April 1656, during a Mass in the Latin Cathedral (also known as Archcathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary) in Lwów (today Lviv, western Ukraine),King John II Casimir entrusted the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania to the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whom he announced as The Queen of the Polish Crown and of his countries. ” Great Mother of God, Most Holy Virgin. I, Jan Kazimierz, for the love of Your Son, King of kings and my Lord and Your merciful King, having fallen at Your Most Holy feet, I choose You today as my Patroness and Queen of my countries.” Polish troops went on to victory.
King Michała Korybuta Wiśniowski ( reigned 1669- 1673) vowed the same at Jasna Góra on December 7, 1669. In his war against the Ottoman empire, he begged the mother of God “Support me and this Kingdom – not mine, but yours, in all troubles.”
When King Jan Sobieski III (reigned 1674-1696) began his fight against the Turks at Vienna in 1693, he also entrusted his kingdom to the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and saved Europe from Muslim domination. With Mary's name on their lips, and her likeness painted on their armor and flying high on their banners, the kings and knights of Poland fought against the Tartars, the Turks, the Swedes and all foreign invaders.
King Jan Sobieski wearing a ryngraf, originally used as plate armour worn in battle to protect the throat. Wikipedia photo.
During the 123 years of partitions of Poland, when Poland as a country was erased from the maps of Europe, Our Lady of Częstochowa at Jasna Góra became a symbol of identity and unity. Poles in all three partitions regarded Jasna Góra as a symbol of their national sovereignty and in spite of the political situation, remained alive in the nation’s collective consciousness. “Our Lady” was the sovereign of the country, the Queen of Poland and the Grand Duchess of Lithuania and nothing could change that.
During the Uprising of 1863-1864(also known as the January Uprising), an insurrection principally in the Russian partition to restore the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, every insurrectionist wore a small scapular with the picture of Mary as a reminder that through her intercession, Mary was the nation’s hope for regaining its freedom and becoming an independent nation again.
In 1920, during the Polish-Bolshevik War with the Red Army, Polish soldiers again asked the Mother of God for help, and ended with a sensational victory in Warsaw called “Cud nad Wisła, the “Miracle on The Wisła.” According to the soldiers' reports, it was the intervention of Mary and her appearance over the site of the battle that caused the victory. In memory of the event which took place August 13-25, Polish Army Day was established in 1923, to be celebrated on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into heaven, the day she was to have appeared in the battle. In 1950, the communist authorities changed the date to October 12, but in 1992, in a free and independent Poland, August 15 again became Polish Army Day.
In 1939 with the outbreak of World War II, Poland’s men and women went underground, became a resistance force called Armia Krajowa (the Home Army, abbreviated AK) and fought the German occupiers throughout the five-year struggle. Their vow begins with: “In the face of Almighty God, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of the Polish Crown, I swear to be faithful to my homeland…”
In 1944, in the battle for Monte Cassino in Italy, considered to be among the most important land battles of World War II, it was the soldiers of the 2nd Polish Corps, led by General Władysław Anders, who ultimately opened the way for the Allies to march on Rome. An image of Our Lady of Częstochowa was on the field altar for holy masses after the battles.
Throughout the centuries, the protection of Our Lady of Częstochowa has been sought by knights, confederates, insurgents, legionnaires, scouts, partisans, and soldiers in the fight for a free and independent Poland. She was their constant source of support and hope. She was their supreme hetman, the spiritual high commander, of Polish armies in battle.
Some of the above are excerpts from forthcoming book titled Spirit of Place: Roadside Shrines of Poland. Available October 2022.
You can listen to Bogurodzica, Poland’s oldest hymn here www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziCfs5tES_Y
On August 1, 1944 at 5pm Poland’s Home Army (in Polish, Armia Krajowa, abbreviated as AK) began what has been called the greatest and most tragic uprising in European history.
Photo. The emblem of the Warsaw Uprising with a P and W stands for Polska Walczy (Poland Fights)
The Warsaw Uprising was a heroic 63 day struggle
by Poland’s underground resistance Home Army and civilian non-combatants to liberate Warsaw from Nazi occupation.
Although the Polish attack was planned as a two-to-three day revolt until the Russians could arrive with additional support, the Russian support never materialized and the short coup turned into a brutal and bloody two month struggle for the Home Army. The Germans used tanks, aerial bombardment and long-range artillery on the insurgents. They began rounding up people from the houses in the districts which they still controlled and shot them - women, children and the elderly were not spared. They executed tens of thousands of Polish citizens in what is now referred to as the Wola Massacre.
Polish civilians murdered in Wola, a district in Warsaw August 5 through the 7th, 1944. Source:www. pl.wikipedia.org
The genocide was intended to crush the Poles spirit for the fight but it didn't work. The people of Warsaw wanted their city, their country back in their own control and endured incredible hardships and sacrifices including lack of water, power, food, ammunition, death and destruction. The battle raged on.
Photo: The iconic image of the destruction of Holy Cross Church on the main thoroughfare of Warsaw. It was interpreted by Poles as Christ pointing to the heavens and gave the underground resistance, courage and hope. Source:pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/BazylikaŚwiętego Krzyża w Warszawie
After the war was over and Poland was handed over to the Soviets, the Warsaw Uprising could not be discussed. The Soviets had never come to the rescue of Poland during one of its darkest hours even though they were stationed at the other side of the Wisła River and could see the smoke and flames rising from the city. Members of the Home Army that had managed to survive the war were hunted down, executed and secretly buried so that no traces of them remained, so that the treachery of the Soviets could not be discussed, so that memorials would not be erected in their honor. The Warsaw Uprising never received the attention it deserved until the end of communism when Poland became a free and independent country.
Cześć ich pamięci. All honor to the memory of those who died for a free and independent Poland.
For those interested: A Polish film with English subtitles is available on Netflix titled Warsaw 44. The true story of a group of scouts called Szare Szeregi (Gray Ranks) during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. The liberation of one of its members through maverick military action in broad daylight known as ''Action at the Arsenal," was the single biggest feat undertaken by a youth resistance organization in all of occupied Europe during WWII.
Feast of Our Lady of Berries
Painting by Polish artist Lela Pawlikowski titled "Matka Boska Jagodna" 1939
For many centuries the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic Church was celebrated on July 2. The feast day commemorates the day that Mary, pregnant with the infant Jesus, visits her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant. Elizabeth immediately knows that the child Mary carries is the one who will be sacrificed for the world. Elizabeth cries out “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Luke 1:42-45) This holy day was established in 1263 by St. Bonaventure of the Franciscan Order and then introduced by Pope Boniface in 1389 throughout the Church. As a result of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in 1969, the Feast of the Visitation is now celebrated on May 31, ending May - the Marian month.
In Polish folk tradition July 2nd, the Feast of the Visitation, was also called Matka Boska Jagodna, Our Lady of Berries. The day is associated with a legend in which a pregnant Mary walked many miles along lonely paths in order to visit her cousin Elizabeth. During the long journey, Mary's main food was the berries growing in the forest. Folk tradition dictated that until July 2 picking berries from the forest was to be avoided so as not to take the food from the pregnant Mary, who traveled to visit Elizabeth.
This refraining from picking and eating the berries of the forest, such as raspberries and blueberries, until that date was especially important to the pregnant women of Poland. This small sacrifice (because berries were already present and ripe for plucking by Feast of St. John the Baptist, June 24) was a way of asking Mary for the grace of giving birth to a healthy and strong child. Our Lady of Berries was seen as the guardian of mothers and pregnant women, especially those who had problems with pregnancy, miscarried or had still births. Mary would also provide protection for the still born children in the afterlife.
Our Lady of Berries (Matka Boska Jagodna) depicted in folk art. National Ethnographic Museum in Warsaw.
Our Lady of Berries also became the patron of forest berries and orchard and garden fruit, all beliefs captured by Polish poet Leopold Staff :
Matka Boska Jagodna, Panienka Maryja,
Która owocnym, rodnym drzewom sprzyja,
Chodzi po sadzie kwitnącym i śpiewa
Pocałunkami budząc w wiosnę drzewa.
Nocą wieśniaczki jej śpiew słyszą we śnie,
Wieść, aby jagód nie jadły przedwcześnie,
Każdą jagodę z ust matce odjętą
Da zmarłym dziatkom Panna w jagód święto…Leopold Staff
Our Lady of Berries, Virgin Mary,
Who favors fruitful, fertile trees,
Walks in the flowering orchard and sings
Kissing trees awake in spring.
At night, the peasant women hear her singing in their sleep,
A message that the berries should not be eaten prematurely,
Every blueberry abstained from mother's mouth
The Virgin will give deceased children on the feast of berries ...
The Visitation is the subject of much devotional art. The Visitation of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth Workshop of Goossen van der Weyden. National Gallery London
St. Anthony of Padua( Św. Antoni Padewski) is the patron saint of innumerable churches, parishes and sanctuaries all over Poland and it is estimated that over 198 towns derive their name from the name of St. Anthony. There is hardly a church in Poland without an altar or a statue of this saint not to mention roadside figures and chapels. The chapel of St. Anthony, carved in salt in Wieliczka, one of the oldest chapels in the mine dating to the 17th century. The first mass said in the chapel for the miners, who also took him on as a patron because they searched for “white gold,” i.e,, salt, was in 1698.
Chapel of St. Anothony in Wieliczka Salt Mine from old postcard. Public domain.
St. Antholny proved to be an excellent preacher and a person with deep theological knowledge. He began to preach the word of God earnestly as an itinerant preacher. He is usually invoked in finding lost or stolen things. “Św. Antoni, dopomóż odszukać koni!” St. Anthony help us find our horse, says the old proverb/prayer that was invoked with lost (or sometimes stolen) horses.
The history of praying to St. Anthony for lost items can be traced back to an incident in Anthony’s own life when he had lost a book of psalms that was very important to him for teaching students in his Franciscan order. A novice who had grown tired of living religious life decided to depart the community and also took Anthony’s psalter with him. Upon realizing his psalter was missing, Anthony prayed it would be found or returned to him. The novice became conrite over his actions and was not only moved to return the psalter to Anthony but returned to the Franciscan Order as well. Shortly after his death people began praying through Anthony to find or recover lost and stolen articles.
St. Anthony of Padua is generally depicted in a brown Franciscan habit, having taken vows with the Franciscan order who spread his popularity throughout Poland. He is typically portrayed holding the child Jesus (who was to have appeared to him) in his arms, or a lily (symbol of a pure life devoted to God), or a book (he was canonized as a Doctor of the Church) or all three. His feast day is celebrated today, the 13th of June.
Excerpted from upcoming book: Spirit of Place: The Roadside Shrines of Poland by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
Photo of St. Anthony shrine by Michał Zalewski located in Zwiartów, Lublin region, eastern Poland.
On this day, Hans Frank, Governor of the General Government of occupied Poland during World War II, writes in his diary:
“…Upon the demands from the Reich it has now been decreed that compulsion may be exercised in view of the fact that sufficient manpower was not voluntarily available for service inside the German Reich. This compulsion means the possibility of arrest of male and female Poles… General Fieldmarshal Goering some time ago pointed out in his long speech the necessity to deport into the Reich a million workers. The supply so far was 160,000. “ (Documentary Evidence 2233-A-PS)
Frank announced that under his program, 1,000,000 workers were to be sent to Germany, and recommended that police surround Polish villages and seize the inhabitants for deportation.
Photo credit: Poland in Photographs 1939-1944 . Collection of the New York Public Library.
The ”compulsion” and “possibility of arrest” took the form of establishing people quotas. The counties and districts of the General Government were mandated to deliver an established a number of Poles who would be transported for work in the Reich. The summons sent to Poles to present themselves for work in the Reich stated: ”In the event that you do not fulfill this obligation, members of your family(parents, wife, siblings, children)will be placed in camps for criminals and will not be released until you present yourself. We also remind you that we have the right to seize your, as well as your family’s movable goods and fixed properties. Beyond that…you can be sent to a penal jail, a heavy labor jail or sent to a concentration camp.” (Seeber)
Polish slave laborer and his family liberated by the 1st U.S. Army near Meggen, Germany. Photo courtesy of the Still Pictures Branch National Archives at College Park, Maryland
In this quest to keep Hitler's war effort running at top speed Hans Frank sent men, women, and then entire families as laborers to Germany. The slave labor program was designed to achieve two purposes. The primary purpose was to satisfy the labor requirements of the Nazi war machine by compelling foreign workers, in effect, to make war against their own countries and its allies. The secondary purpose was to destroy or weaken peoples deemed inferior by the Nazi racialists, or deemed potentially hostile by the Nazi planners of world supremacy.
To quote the American and British Prosecuting Staff before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany, regarding the Nazi foreign labor policy: it consisted of mass deportation and mass enslavement. It was a policy of underfeeding and overworking foreign laborers, of subjecting them to every form of degradation and brutality… It was, in short, a policy which constituted a flagrant violation of the laws of war and the laws of humanity.
Documentary Evidence 2233-A-PS. Trial of the Major War Criminals before International Military Tribunal.
Seeber, Eva. Robotnicy przymusowi w Faszystowksiej Gospodarcze Wojenny p.352-353
Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression Volume 1 Chapter X - The Slave Labor Program, The Illegal Use of Prisoners of War.
Knab, Sophie. Wearing the Letter P: Polish Women as Slave Laborers in Nazi Germany 1939-1945. Hippocrene Books, Inc. 2016
On October 15, 1941 during the German occupation of Poland during World War II, the Germans issued a decree that anyone who provided any form of aid to Jews would receive the death penalty. For Poland, the symbol of Polish martyrdom for helping Jews is the Ulma family of the village of Markowa. At the end of 1942, Józef and Wiktoria, who lived with their six children welcomed to their home eight Jews from the Goldman, Grünfeld and Didner families. Everyone, including the seventh child in Wiktoria's womb, were murdered by the German police on 24 March 1944. That day, March 24th, was chosen as a day for Poland’s Remembrance of Poles who saved Jews.
As of this writing, the web site of Yad Vashem (The Holocaust Martyr's and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem) lists 7,177 Poles as Righteous Among Nations, a number which has increased in recent years. Among the names listed are that of Stefania Podgorska and her sister Helena, two Catholic girls who rescued 13 Jews during the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Before the outbreak of World War II, Stefania Podgorska was 14 years old and living in a village outside the city of Przemyśl. Not caring for farm life, Stefania, with her mother’s approval, went to live with her older sister in Przemyśl and obtained a job at a grocery store owned by a Jewish family by the name of Diamant. She was much loved by the entire family who treated her as if she were a daughter. Originally in the hands of the Soviets, the city of Przemyśl fell to the Germans after Hitler attacked Russia. When the Germans occupied Przemyśl on June 28, 1941, there were about 16,500 Jews in the city and life for the Jews became increasingly impossible with a series of anti-Jewish edicts. On July 16, 1942, a ghetto was established and the Diamant family was forced into the ghetto. At the Diamant’s request, Stefania stayed in their apartment while they were in the ghetto. Stefania remained in contact with the two brothers of the family, Max and Chiam, even though it was a dangerous and risky business.
the When Stefania’s mother and brother were taken to Germany as forced laborers, it left her six year-old sister alone and without care and so Helena came to live with Stefania in Przemyśl. By then Stefania was 16 years old.
In 1942 news began to spread that the ghetto was being liquidated. Stefania decided to help.
Through a series of notes smuggled into the ghetto, Stefania agreed to hide the brothers Max and Chiam if they were able to escape. To prepare to hide them, Stefania and Helena left the city apartment and rented a small two-room cottage with an attic, which was located on the outskirts of the city. Max managed to escape the train taking Jews to the extermination camp at Belzec and found safety with Stefania. Chaim did not manage to escape and his fate was sealed at Belzec, the same place where their parents had been taken in an earlier deportation. Max became determined to get his remaining brother Henryk and his fiancée Danuta out of the ghetto and into the apartment. In time, several more arrived until there were thirteen Jews ranging in age from ten to fifty living in the small attic space. They could not leave or be seen. For a Pole to help a Jewish person was punishable by death – for the Poles helping and for the Jews being helped.
The house did not have electricity or running water. A bucket served as a bathroom and had to be emptied daily into the outhouse. Since she was such a young child, Helena did not come under the radar of the Nazis, the neighbors and others in town. She often emptied the bucket in the outhouse, carried water from the well, or was sent to the open-air markets to buy food because she wouldn’t be noticed or draw much suspicion. She kept watch at the window for anyone approaching the house when the Jews came down from the attic to stretch their legs or for a bite to eat. Stefania left the cottage each day to work in a German run factory employing Poles and used her earnings to buy food for everyone. She also traded clothes and goods for food at a time when food was scarce and had to bought in such a way as to not arose suspicion over the large quantities or the frequency of the purchases. Feeding thirteen people was only one of her daily worries. Discovery was her constant fear.
Things became impossibly dire when the Germans set up a hospital across the road from Stefania’s cottage and started taking over homes and apartments in the area. German nurses moved into one of the two downstairs rooms. Stefania and Helena were relegated to the one remaining room where they and the Jewish residents in the attic lived in constant fear. SS men were frequent visitors of the nurses, staying long into the evenings, eating, drinking and playing music for seven months while overhead 13 starving Jews struggled to ignore the smell of food and remain silent as stones lest they be discovered.
Stefania and Helena hid the 13 Jews for a total of two and a half years until Przemyśl was liberated on July 27, 1944. Because of the bravery of Stefania and Helena, all thirteen Jews they hid survived the Holocaust. They were recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1979.
For more reading on these heroic women: The Light in Hidden Places by Sheila Cameron. While listed as a Young Adult book it is certainly of a level that adults can relate to.
Also: Hidden in Silence. Available as DVD Even though this film was made in 1996 it is still worth watching the courage of Stefania Podgorska as she hides thirteen Jewish refugees in her attic during World War ll.
Photo credit of Stefania and Helena Podgorska: Jewsih Foundation for the Righteous
Fridays during Lent: The Stations of the Cross and a legend from the Kurpie Region
From the earliest days of Christianity, pilgrims have journeyed to Jerusalem to walk in the footsteps once taken by Jesus Christ on the road to Calvary. Indeed, it was pilgrims who originally performed the stations (although it wasn’t called that back then) when they visited Jerusalem and prayed at the sites of Jesus’ Passion. It took centuries for it to evolve into what Christians today call the Way of the Cross or the Stations of the Cross, the devotion which commemorates the Passion and death of Jesus Christ
The yellow line depicts the route that is believed by many to follow the path that Jesus walked, carrying his cross, on the way to His crucifixion.Photo credit: https://santeos.pl/droga-krzyzowa-jak-to-sie-zaczelo/
After Constantine the I issued the Edict of Milan in 313 AD which allowed Christianity to be a freely practiced religion, the holy city of Jerusalem became a mecca, a sacred place of pilgrimage for European Christians. But by the 7th century , the flow of pilgrims was effectively cut off with the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, a control which would not be threatened until the beginning of the Crusades whose goal was to restore the holy city of Jerusalem to Christian control.
One of the illustrious pilgrims who devoted much effort to enable Christian pilgrims to visit the Holy Land was Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) who traveled to Egypt with the Fifth Crusade and walked into a Muslim camp to meet the Sultan Melek-el-Kamel. As a result he, as well as his friars, were granted safe conduct to visit the holy places. In 1217, St. Francis founded the Custody of the Holy Land to guard and promote the devotion to holy sites.
The Holy Land changed hands many times between Christian crusaders and Muslims over the centuries with evictions and expulsions on both sides. In the 13th century the Franciscan order was allowed back into Jerusalem. Their earlier efforts to guard and protect the holy sites was later recognized when the Franciscans were officially proclaimed guardians of the shrines of the Holy Land by Pope Clement VI in 1342. The Franciscans accompanied pilgrims as they visited the sites and told the story of Jesus’ death with time for reflection and prayer at each site. Through their efforts, the Passion of Christ as a spiritual devotion, truly began to flourish.
William Wey, an English pilgrim, who visited the Holy Land in 1458 and again in 1462, is credited with the term “stations” and interestingly enough, his description of the way a pilgrim followed the steps of Christ was in reverse from what is done today. Instead of beginning at Pilates house, the steps moved from Mount Calvary to Pilate’s house.
In the 16th century, the path that Jesus would have taken, forced by the Roman soldiers on the way to his crucifixion, was officially titled the Via Dolorosa (Sorrowful Way), or simply the Way of the Cross or Stations of the Cross. (Wikipedia photo)
In 1686, Pope Innocent XI, realizing that few people could travel to the Holy Land due to Muslim oppression (again), granted the Franciscans the right to erect stations in all of their churches. In later years Pope Clement XII permitted stations to be erected in all churches and fixed the number at 14 (the number varied over the centuries). In 1742, Pope Benedict XIV exhorted all priests to enrich their churches with the Way of the Cross, which had to include 14 crosses and to be accompanied with pictures or images of each particular station. In Catholic churches (it is also practiced by the Lutheran and Anglican faiths), The Way of the Cross is depicted in paintings or sculptures placed most often on the side walls of the church.
Polish army walking the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem 1944. Photo: polona.pl
The Franciscans began to introduce the Way of the Cross, called Droga Krzyżowa, to their churches. In Poland, the oldest surviving Polish text, titled Sposób nabożeństwa droga krzyżowa nazywanego, “The Manner of Devotion called the Way of the Cross,” was published in Wrocław in 1731. When one counts the number of churches and calvaries (outdoor reproductions of the Via Dolorosa) and crossesthat dot the landscape of Poland, The Way of the Cross has withstood the test of centuries and remains a very spiritual devotion among the faithful, especially during Lent and most significantly on Fridays during the Lenten season.
A Legend from Kurpie Region
The Puszcza Zielona, the Green Kurpie Region, in the northeast corner of Poland was a place of erection of numerous crosses throughout the centuries. On a church wall in Nowogród there was at one time a painting (lost during a remodeling in 1904) depicting Christ and a Kurp (the name given to a person from the Kurpie region) carrying a cross to Golgota. Adam Chętnik, an untiring scholar of the region, documented that the painting was connected to a popular legend:
The Lord Jesus left Pilate and began the road to death carrying His cross to the hill of Golgota. He was tortured, beaten, dripping with blood and sweat and stumbled with the heavy load on the uneven road. The Jews who walked along were in no hurry to help. A Kurp passing by saw this and felt terrible sorrow for the person with the crown of thorns. He pushed his way through the throng and took the cross on his left shoulder which immediately eased the Lord Jesus. And Jesus looked over, smiled, blessed him and as the Kurp was leaving, said to him: For that, that you have a good heart, may you and your countrymen never be without wood - for your own needs and for crosses. And there grew the enormous forests of Puszcza Zielona, and the Kurps found themselves rich in wood and everyone who could, wherever they could, erected crosses.
A blessed Lenten season.
Chętnik, Adam. "Krzyże i Kapliczki Kurpiowskie." Polska Sztuka Ludowa. 1977
Candlemas (also spelled Candlemass), celebrated on February 2nd is also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Polish folk tradition, the other title for this day was Matka Boska Gromnicza, “Our Lady of the Thunder Candle,” appeared around 1471 in Płock and began to be used interchangeably with the Feast of the Purification.
Women from the village of Modlnicy in procession with their gromnicza.
An inseparable element of celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Candlemas in Polish tradition is blessing specially made and decorated candles during the service, called gromnicza, meaning thunder, because the candles were used to try and deter storms and lightening that were generally preceded by thunder. How were these candles made?
In old Poland, when bees were tended in the wild in the forests, the candles were made only from pure beeswax as it was considered the purest of substances, the fruit of the unrelenting labor of thousands of workers of God’s creation. Beeswax candles burned clean and pure, smelling like flowers and honey. Very often the color of the candle could vary anywhere from golden to brown, depending on what type of flowers the bees had been foraging on. The beeswax was collected over the course of the year and even though difficult and time consuming, handmaking the candles was often undertaken by various societies or brotherhoods to burn in church for the glory of God but also to make and sell or to gift family and friends on the feast of Candlemas on February 2nd.
Extracting honey to reach the wax comb in village of Momoty in southeast Poland. Author photo. 1992.
The candles were made using a wooden wheel called in some places a kołowrot (not to be confused with a spinning wheel also called kołowrot) hung on a wooden shaft so that the wheel could move freely. Nails or hooks were evenly hammered across the flat wheel. Depending on the size of the candles to be made, appropriately sized wicks were attached to the nails. In the early years, the wicks made of linen (and later of cotton) by the women on a drop spindle. Some of the candles could be over a yard long requiring 6 or 8 threads twisted together to provide a proper sized wick.
In a room that was not given to sudden drafts or changes in temperature, or the wax would solidify too soon, hot beeswax that had been heated in a copper pitcher to the right temperature was poured ever so slowly along the wick so that the wax ran down it evenly, requiring a very steady hand. Each candle was made from numerous pouring’s along the length of the wick, time and again until a desired width was obtained. When all the candles had been poured, hopefully while each candle was still slightly warm (or, if cooled too much, one technique was to place the candles under a pierzyna, a homemade goosedown comforter, to warm them again) it was rolled between two wooden planks with just the right pressure to level them into a uniform round appearance. Time consuming and labor intensive!
Artisan in Poland utilizing the pouring method to make candles. You can see more photographs of the tradition of pouring wax to make candles here: izbaskarbow.blogspot.com/2016/01/tradycyjny-wyrob-swiec-z-wosku.html
Unlike today, when most taper candles are about 12 inches long, the gromnicza candles were made much longer, some over a yard long, others shorter but long enough to last through a lifetime of being lit during difficult times and moments. A blessed gromnicza had the power to ward off all evil and misfortunes, and believed to protect against storms and lightening and attacks by wolves. It was lit only during special circumstances but also during processions, a serious illness, life crisis, and in the hands of a dying person or at their bedside to ease their death.
It must be noted, too, that at one time the candle played an important role in in the days when purification of a woman delivered of a child was still a custom not just in Poland but among most of the Slavs. Often forgotten is that Candlemas day celebrates the Purification of Mary after the birth of Christ and that tradition lived on in many countries for centuries.
Forty days after the birth of a child, the mother (considered “unclean”) entered church through a side entrance. In her hand she held a lit candle, a gromnicza. The priest sprinkled her with holy water, whereby she could enter the main part of the church, pray cleansing prayers with the priest in front of the altar and, depending on local custom, walk around the altar with her lit candle. Having been purified, she could now rejoin the rest of the congregation at the mass.
Making of gromnicza 2022 at St. Casimir Church, Buffalo, NY . Photo courtesy of Irene Woszczak.
It was customary to tie green twigs of boxwood or juniper or myrtle (myrtus communis) to the candle with a piece of freshly combed flax, but in later years it was replaced with white or blue ribbons, the color most associated with Mary, to whom the day is dedicated. In the Lublin region, a candle was decorated with koraliki, i.e., coral beads. Once decorated, the candle was taken to church, where it was blessed.
When not being used the candles were kept on the front wall of the room behind holy pictures, much like the Easter palms or placed in a candleholder and kept on the family home altar where it was lit on all the Marian holidays, to honor Mary, and on any occasion where her intercession was wanted and needed.
With the passage of time, the craft of beekeeping declined as did the traditional makers of the candles. Candles began to be manufactured from stearine and paraffin, which were cheaper and even brighter to the eye when lit. But do they smell like honey and wild flowers from the meadow?
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.