The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, known as a “Jewish paradise” for its religious tolerance, attracted tens of thousands of Jews who fled persecution from other European countries. At the start of WW II, more than 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland, the largest Jewish population of Europe and second largest Jewish community in the world. But not only the Jews took advantage of religious tolerance.
When in the 16th century the Netherlands was destroyed by long years of ongoing wars with Spain, resulting in its ensuing economic collapse, and it’s expanding Protestantism suffered much from persecution of the Catholic Habsburgs, many Dutch people decided to leave their homeland and seek their fortune in faraway Poland. It was at that time a country of severe religious tolerance, and the owners of the flood-ridden areas of depression at the mouth of the Vistula River, called Żuławy (Werder), were waiting for them with open arms.
Home to the biggest Mennonite population in the world
The Mennonites began to settle in what is now Poland (part of which was known as Prussia) in the mid-1500s. The group persecuted in Habsburg Netherlands found solace by the Vistula River and lived there until 1945. From the hopeful moment of their arrival in the 16th century until the sad time of departure at the end of WWII, they were an important part of the extremely difficult history of Poland which was once home to the biggest Mennonite population in the world. There are still a few remainders of their over 400 year existence in my country.
One of the historic peace churches
The Mennonites are Christian groups belonging to the church communities of Anabaptist denominations named after Menno Simons (1496–1561) of Friesland (which today is a province of the Netherlands). Through his writings, Simons articulated and formalized the teachings of earlier Swiss founders. The early teachings of the Mennonites were founded on the belief in both the mission and ministry of Jesus, which the original Anabaptist followers held to with great conviction despite persecution by the various Roman Catholic and Protestant states. Rather than fight, the majority of these followers survived by fleeing to neighbouring states where ruling families were tolerant of their radical belief in believer’s baptism. Over the years, Mennonites have become known as one of the historic peace churches because of their commitment to pacifism.
Long term contracts and serfdom in the same neighbourhood
The Mennonites in Poland were descendants of Dutch immigrants. The settlers belonged to the Anabaptist movement, a radical Christian denomination with its roots in the Radical Reformation.
Unlike most Polish peasants they were free people, not serfs. Their relationship with landlords and bishops was based on long term contracts, usually signed by a group of several farmers staying in one area. With the right to lease the land, they also received privileges and obligations.
The Mennonites started settling on the bank of the Vistula River in the 16th century. Serfdom in my country became the dominant form of relationship between peasants and nobility a hundred years later, and it was a major feature of the economy of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, although its origins can be traced back to the 12th century.
In the early 16th century the situation for peasants was relatively good, but they deteriorated over the course of the time. Poverty was widespread, peasants were forced to work for the nobility, which resulted in them escaping in large numbers to the forests, hills and Wild Fields in the Ukraine, where they joined the Cossacks (a group of predominantly East Slavic-speaking people who became known as members of democratic, self-governing, semi-military communities, predominantly located in Ukraine and Russia).
The first steps towards abolishing serfdom were enacted in the Constitution of May 3rd, 1791, the first European Government Act and it was essentially eliminated by the Połaniec Manifesto (one of the most notable events of Poland’s Kościuszko Uprising, and its most famous legal act; partially abolished serfdom in Poland, granting substantial civil liberties to all the peasants). However, these reforms were nullified by partition of Poland. Over the course of the 19th century it was gradually abolished on Polish territories under foreign control, as the region began to industrialize.
One of the most powerful European states
The first Mennonites who had arrived in Poland in the 16th century enjoyed religious tolerance and the Polish Golden Age. The phrase refers to the period from the late 15th century Jagiellon (Polish royal dynasty) Poland to the death of the last of the Jagiellons, the King Sigismund August in 1572. Some historians claim that the Golden Age lasted until the mid-17th century, when in 1648 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was ravaged by the Khmelnytsky Uprising (a Cossack rebellion within the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1648–1657, which led to the creation of a Cossack Hetmanate in Ukrainian lands) and Swedish invasion (the Swedish Deluge, invasion and occupation of the Commonwealth as a theatre of the Second Northern War 1655–1660; during the wars the Commonwealth lost approximately one third of its population as well as its status as a great power). But during its Golden Age, the Commonwealth became one of the largest kingdoms of Europe, stretching from modern-day Estonia, to Moldavia and Silesia. Its army was able to defend the realm against numerous Teutonic knights, Turkish, Swedish, Russian, and Tatar invasions. The country prospered thanks to its enormous grain, wood and salt exports.
In the 16th century, the area of the Commonwealth reached almost 1 million square km, with a population of 11 million. Its goods were transported to Western Europe via Baltic Sea ports of Gdańsk, Elbląg, Riga, Memel and Königsberg. The Commonwealth had several major cities, such as Warsaw, Kraków, Poznań, Lviv, Vilnius, Toruń and Kiev.
During the Golden Age the Commonwealth was regarded as one of the most powerful European states. It had a unique system of government, known as the Golden Liberty, in which all nobles (szlachta), regardless of economic status, were considered to have equal legal status and enjoyed extensive legal rights and privileges. One of its features was the Liberum veto, used for the first time in 1653.
“One for all and all for one”
The priviliges the Mennonites received on Polish lands led to the 16th century Vistula river delta housing rural Mennonite communities with large autonomy and well-developed self-government. The contracts they signed often mentioned that all members of the community had to fulfill their obligations and be responsible “one for all and all for one”. This is a good description of the customs which regulated life in Mennonites` villages in Poland.
It`s a shame the 18th century Poles hadn`t been familiar with the motto of the Three Musketeers as Poland might not have experienced difficult history which was to come. Quite different attitude of nobility resulted in Three Partitions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth that took place towards the end of the 18th century and ended the existence of the state, resulting in the elimination of sovereign Poland and Lithuania for 123 years. That`s why Polish Mennonites were so unusual.
The Mennonites linked to the country of Poland
It was also customary to support victims of robbery. Even if only one horse or cow was stolen, each family had to send one person to chase the thief. Neighbours were obliged to give financial and material help to victims of fire as well. Self-governing organizations were also formed to protect dikes and ditches. They functioned until the 19th century and were another way the Mennonites were linked to the country of Poland.
The enclave of real democracy in Crown of the Kingdom of Poland ruined by noble democracy
The rules obeyed in the settlements were written down in so-called “Willkürs”, lists of articles in the form of decorated, long documents which were kept in special communal chests for generations. The most important parts included regulations for self-government. At its head was a “Schultz” accompanied by councilors, all of them elected by local farmers. They held their office for one year and afterwards had to give a report to the community on the money they had spent and the activities they had undertaken.
All the neighbours paid a set fee to maintain the school, the teachers and the cemetery. Special attention was also paid to finding the best guardians for orphans. Those who neglected the most important obligations like paying tax, maintaining dikes, ditches, borders or fire prevention where severely punished by the community, with fines or even exile.
The Mennonite techniques the Poles still use
The Mennonites are also acknowledged to have been a peaceful people who helped reclaim flood-prone land for agriculture that the Polish people still use. Having grown up in the Netherlands which literally means “lower countries”, influenced by its low land and flat geography, with only about 50% of its land exceeding one metre above sea level, they specialised in draining wetlands and swamps.
The reason was that Dutch immigrants – called Olendrzy or Olędrzy (Polish name for a Dutchman is Holender, plural – Holendrzy) – were for too many years used to solving their own water problems and they had great experience in development of the floodplains. The situation was favourable for both parties. At the depressive Żuławy immigrants from the Netherlands found a substitute for their homeland, and most importantly – freedom for practicing their religion.
On the other side local landowners and the authorities of Gdańsk were highly interested in the development of those fitting though fertile lands, especially that in western Europe there was high demand for Polish grain. And after two great floods of 1540 and 1543 these areas, already sparsely populated after Polish-Teutonic wars, were deserted. Those who remained were unable to cope with the water element.
The Mennonite traces in Polish architecture
The Mennonites who lived in Poland differed from their neighbours not only in their religion and ethnic origin, but also in the way they constructed their buildings.
In the areas of Poland where the Mennonites used to live there are hundreds of buildings of which the architecture is based on patterns brought over by 16th century Dutch Mennonites. Most of them are old wooden farm houses found in Żuławy and in the low and central valley of the Vistula river. They are easily recognized: the dwelling and the barn are built in a long straight line, covered with one roof. They are very large, often exceeding 40 metres.
The Mennonites living in marshy areas built their houses on man-made hills called “terps”. The foundation was constructed from oak, the side walls were built with pine or other soft woods. A wooden construction provided protection from the elements and made it possible to take the house apart again, and move it to a new site. The attic was used to keep hay and crops, but during high floods it would also become a shelter for the family and their property, including cattle.
In the first two centuries of the Mennonites’ existence in Poland their farm houses were also used as houses of prayer. In the 16th and 17th century there were only a few Mennonite churches. By the 18th century Mennonite communities began to obtain permission to build their churches in other places in Żuławy and the Vistula River valley. These churches were made of wood, long rectangles with a simple high roof which made them look more like barns or granaries than places of worship.
From the mid-19th century onwards old churches in Żuławy were replaced with new constructions which quite often followed the architecture of churches built by other confessions. Built with brick in a neo-gothic or eclectic style, but still easy to recognize because they had no tower. However, the tradition of building wooden churches was preserved longer in areas up the Vistula river near Toruń, Płock and Warsaw, where new churches were constructed by the Mennonites in the late 19th century.
Overall, in Poland Mennonites built more than 40 churches in 30 locations and used most of them until the great migration in the last months of WWII. Today there are only 9 former Mennonite churches preserved, some of which are used as houses of worship by communities of other confessions.
In Gdansk you can find traces of a Mennonite family of builders and artists – the Van den Blocke family. The Hansaic city of Gdańsk has been one of the richest and most beautiful cities in Northern Europe.
Willem was the son of the sculptor François van den Blocke, from Mechelen, Belgium. Together with his brother Egidius, Willem moved to Gdańsk, which was looking for skilled craftsmen to translate the city’s pride into buildings. His most reputable commission was the Upper Gate, which was the start of the “Royal Route” through the inner city. He decorated it in stone, with coats of arms of Poland, Prussia and the city itself. In Oliva (the quarter of Gdańsk) he built the tomb of the Kos family. In Königsberg another one of his tombs can be found.
Willem’s son Abraham, architect and sculptor, cooperated in building the magnificent Artus Court and Neptune’s fountain, and built the marble tomb for the marquis Bonifacio in the Church of the Holy Trinity. He also designed the Golden House of Mayor Speimann and the Golden Gate. Willem’s other son Isaac painted pictures in St. Catherine’s Church and in the City Hall, and painted images on the altar and the pulpit in St. Mary’s Church. Together with their other brother Jacob, a carpenter, they also worked on the triumphal arch for King Sigismund.
Newcomers to Gdańsk, like Egidius’ and Willem’s sons Abraham, Jacob and David, gained citizenship by taking the citizen’s oath. This might have been the reason they converted to Lutheranism, since Mennonites are forbidden from taking oaths.
Presumably Willem and his son Isaac remained Mennonites. A sign of this is that Willem named his three sons after the patriarchs. His ‘Vermeulen-Bible’ also points to this, because from a textual perspective it matches the Mennonite ‘Biestkens-Bible’. The Gdańsk merchant Krijn Vermeulen had these Bibles printed for his Dutch speaking fellow-believers. On Willem’s copy his name and the date 1607 are printed.
Isaac requested to be able to practice his trade without having to take an oath. His Anabaptism can also be found in his painted ceiling in the City Hall. God isn’t portrayed in it, but merely indicated by an arm coming from heaven and the Tetragrammaton (in Hebrew and YHWH in Latin script, is the four-letter Biblical name of the God of Israel).
The name of American Mennonites` dish most likely comes from Polish word
The Mennonites brought their culture, religion and cuisine from the Netherlands. In the beginning, Dutch cuisine, with its dairy products, was the base of their nutrition. Since the Mennonites bred cows, they made ‘Dutch’ cheeses.
The oldest Polish recipes for Dutch cheeses were written by Jakub Kazimierz Haur in 1679:
“Calf rennet is added to fresh milk which is then slowly heated up by the fire. The curds which appear are wrapped in a thin cloth and put in a tight wooden form with little holes at the bottom for whey to flow out. The form is covered with a lid and pressed with a rock until the Dutch cheese sets.”
Over time, their cuisine was shaped by the areas they settled in. For this reason, the Mennonite cuisine, similarly to Jewish cuisine, became a mélange of their own traditions and the ones adopted from other nations. In other words, the Mennonite cuisine is a cuisine of immigrants who adapted products and dishes from the country they happened to live in. Even today, the Mennonite restaurants in some Canadian provinces serve Polish dishes like borscht (barszcz). In turn, American Mennonites eat a dish called bidgot which is comprised of sauerkraut and fish meatballs. It’s possible that the name of the dish comes from the name of Polish town Bydgoszcz or the Polish “bigos”.
I am glad to inform you that there are more Polish traces in Mennonite cuisine
In Poland, the Mennonites adapted cabbage, both fresh and sauerkraut. They made various types of cabbage soups, like red cabbage soup or with “łazanki”, a type of Polish pasta. Before winter, they chopped cabbage heads which they then stored in tree logs or barrels. The same way the Poles still do.
Over time, more pork started appearing in Mennonite cuisine, in the form of ribs in cabbage, parsnip and beets, lard and bacon bits. The harvester’s soup is based on white and brown bread boiled in water with bacon bits seasoned with salt and pepper – Mennonite cuisine did not use many spices. Beef was served with plums, raisins and vinegar, while the “pierogi” cheese filling sometimes also included beets, which is quite uncommon. When potatoes started being grown in Poland, they also appeared in Mennonite cuisine. It’s possible that a visit to a Mennonite house would involve eating “kluski” or “knedle” (a kind of Polish dumpling) with bacon bits and onions, jacket potatoes covered with a thick sauce based on sour cream, butter and eggs. Perhaps even goose meat – Mennonites inhabited the area in which these birds were bred.
Wishing you “good appetite”, in Polish “smacznego”, I encourage you to visit Poland and look for the Mennonites traces.
See you there!
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski
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Abraham van den Blocke, Mennonite architect and sculptor, cooperated in building the magnificent Artus Court and Neptune’s fountain.
St. John`s Church in Gdańsk. Gray sandstone Renaissance main altar with height of 12 metres, dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The work of Abraham van der Blocke survived World War II and remains the symbol of St. John’s Church.
Malbork, noted for its medieval castle, built in the 13th Century as the Order’s headquarters and of what later became known as Royal Prussia is town in Żuławy region where the Mennonites settled.
The Mennonites started settling on the bank of the Vistula River. Above Vistula in Toruń, one of the oldest cities in Poland, having been established in 1233 by the Teutonic Knights
Żuławy Wiślane: Source: Wikipedia
Windmill nearby Palczewo: source: Wikipedia