Friday, 21 August 2015

Whatever happened to Poland's Amish?

Dutch Mennonites fled 16th Century religious persecution to America - where some of them are well-known as the Amish folk of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Poland also welcomed Mennonites (anabaptist followers of Menno Simons) ; they found Polish kings tolerant and welcoming - and their skills in taming waterways were highly sought after in Poland.

A few weeks back, I was exploring the Vistula near Kozienice. I came across villages called Holendry Kozienickie, Holendry Piotrkowskie and Holendry Kużmińskie. Checking the Polish gazeteer (download it here - 100,000 Polish place names on 2,627 pages), I find many traces of Mennonite settlement in Poland enshrined in toponyms. Holandia, Holenderki, Holendernia, Holendrów, Olender, Olendry, Olenderki - Olędry even (three of them). But that's just the places that were openly named after their founders.

The 'Holendrzy' (who later came from Germany - the common factor was their religion) tended to settle along the banks of waterways and lakes. The Vistula has a cluster of them between Nowy Dwór Mazowiecki and Płock. Kazuń Nowy, settled by Mennonites from Prussia after 1764, is an example.

Poland was densely forested and typical mechanisms of settlement would take the form of a group of people being given the right to clear ground for agriculture in exchange for future taxes to the landowner. The Holendrzy, who brought with them expertise in flood-protection and irrigation, contributed to the development of Polish agriculture by implementing practices brought over from the Low Countries. Simple ideas such as building cattle-sheds down river of human habitation, so when the river flooded, the animal dung would not be washed into houses. And planting poplars and willows in the floodplains, to break up and hold ice floes which might otherwise damage buildings.

The Mennonites would not take part in wars, they dressed in plain clothes without ornamentation, they were baptised once of an age at which they could understand their oaths. They worked hard and prospered. Most importantly, they kept themselves to themselves. While having good working relationships with the surrounding Polish population, they did not willingly intermarry nor assimilate. Mennonites did not welcome outsiders into their closed communities.Their numbers were smaller than their influence; the census of 1921 gave numbers of Polish citizens claiming to be Mennonites as a mere 1,500.

When the Second World War broke out, the Nazi invaders treated them as Volksdeutsche - ethnic Germans - despite the fact than many of their ancestors had fled Prussian persecution in previous centuries. This status led to the expulsion of remaining Holenders after 1945. Internment camps were set up for them - mainly women, children and old people - there was one in Leoncin, between the Puszcza Kampinoska forest and the Vistula, for example. They were deported to East Germany in the late 1940s, thus ending nearly four hundred years of Mennonite settlement in Poland.

Traces of their existence here can still be found - not only in village names, but also cemeteries, barns and houses. Fortunately, they are relatively well documented (link here to English-language pages of Holland.org.pl) and there is a partial list of Mennonite remains across Poland. Mazowsze itself is particularly well documented.

The story of Poland's Mennonites - quite unknown even among educated Poles today - is an interesting tale of refugees, migrants fleeing religious persecution. Poland was officially tolerant towards victims of the counter-reformation, and local landowners were quick to make use of the newcomers' skills and propensity for hard work. Yet by maintaining a strong ethnic and religious identity that set the Mennonites apart from the hosts, the seeds of their ultimate fate were in place.

This time last year:
PKP publishes plans for upgrade of Warsaw-Radom line

This time two years ago:
World's largest ship calls in at Gdańsk

This time four years ago:
Raymond's Treasure - a short story

This time five years ago:
Now an urban legend: Kebab factory under W-wa Centralna

This time six years ago:
It was twenty years ago today

This time eight years ago:
By bike to Czachówek again

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