Report A town in Europe
Cieszyn's market square. © Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy

Cieszyn, a border run through it

It is not easy to celebrate a common past in a town that has been divided by history. However, in spite of tensions between Poles and Czechs, life in Cieszyn and Český Těšín is beginning to benefit from the border that separates the two towns.

Published on 5 February 2010 at 15:27
Cieszyn's market square. © Marek and Ewa Wojciechowscy

In early December when municipal authorities in Cieszyn (on Poland's southern border with the Czech Republic) were finalizing plans for celebrations of the town's 1,200th anniversary, at the last minute, their neighbours from across the border in Český Těšín announced that they wanted to take part in the festivities. The news came as surprise because the local government on the Czech side of the Olza, which divides the two countries, is traditionally less than enthusiastic about joint celebrations: a fact highlighted by Czech plans for wholly separate ceremonies to mark the 90th birthday of Český Těšín, which was created in 1920 by a redrawing of the border, which split the town of Ciezyn in two. Many Poles living in Zaolzie (literally the lands beyond the river Olza, an area that is now in the Czech Republic) are none too happy about this latter anniversary — nor are most of the citizens of Cieszyn.

According to the legend on both sides of the Olza, the town of Cieszyn was founded in 810 when three sons of a Slavic king, Bolko, Leszko and Cieszko, crossed paths there while returning from pilgrimages, and decided to establish a settlement. Following the demise of the Austro-Hungariain Empire in the autumn of 1918, the national council of the Principality of Cieszyn officially took power on behalf of the Polish government. Its goal was to implement an agreement on the division of Cieszyn Silesia into Polish and Czech parts, which had been drawn up to reflect linguistic data from the 1910 census, and was signed by both the Polish and Czechoslovak governments. At the time, there were 123,000 Poles, 32,000 Czechs and 22,000 Germans living in the area.

Richest part went to the Czechs

The Poles were convinced that the question had been settled, and nothing was to be gained from keeping troops in Ciezyn. They even sent the local infantry regiment to eastern Galicia to fight with the Ukrainians — a fact, which the Czech army later turned to its advantage. The war that followed, which proved to be short-lived but bloody, quickly ended with a ceasefire imposed by the Entente powers. In July of the following year, at the ambassadors' Conference in Paris, the future of Ciezyn Silesia was finally sealed by a largely arbritrary decision: the richest and most industrialized part of the region, with its mines, its steelworks, and the railway that links Czechia to Slovakia was attributed to Czechoslovakia.

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The bloody events of 1919 were later marked by a crop of monuments on both sides of the border. In Český Těšín, local authorities are now planning to reconstruct a monument to Tomáš Masaryk - the father of independent Czechoslovakia, and its president from 1918 to 1935 - which was destroyed in October 1938 when the Polish army entered Zaolzie. News of the project has upset some Poles, for whom Masaryk's policies contributed to the division of Cieszyn Silesia; others adopt a more stoic attitude. "It is a Czech celebration for a Czech hero. What has that got to do with us?" exclaims Zygmunt Stopa, President of the Polish cultural and educational association in the Czech Republic. A few years ago on the other side of the border, the Poles rebuilt a 1934 monument commemorating the successful battles of the Polish troops, which had been destroyed by the Germans in 1939. "I know that the Czechs were none too happy about that, " explains the mayor of Cieszyn, Bogdan Ficek. In the declaration on shared ceremonies to celebrate 1,200 years of Cieszyn, which was adopted in early September at a joint session of municipal councils from both sides of the border, it says: "We cannot change history, or forget the past, but we can build a common future for new generations." As Bogdan Ficek explains, "We believe that both our towns should reach out to each other, even if not everyone is in favour of that."

Retailers in Cieszyn make 70% of their sales to Czechs and Slovaks, who take advantage of the favourable exchange rate between korunas and zlotys. The day of our visit to the market in Cieszyn was marked by a brisk trade in wicker products. Artificial Christmas trees, rugs, shoes, vegetables and sweets also appeared to be selling well. Heavily loaded Czech shoppers hailed Polish taxis for transport to the train station, or back to their cars on the other side of the river. A little before the bridge over the Olza, cabbies pull over to hide the taxi signs on their cars. It is easier to cross the bridge, which marks the border, as an ordinary driver, but that is not to say that that local authorities apply the law to the letter. "If we were to strictly apply the rules, Polish ambulances would have to stop in the middle of the bridge and wait to hand over their patients to Czech ones," explains the mayor of Cieszyn.

The tolerance for minor violations on the border also extends to local police who are allowed to pursue criminals from one jurisdiction to another. Today, it seems inconceivable that there was a time when young singers like Zaolzie's Ewa Farna were unable to perform on both sides of the Olza. Singing in Polish and in Czech, She is the best ambassador for Polish identity in the region and a huge star with young people from both the Czech and Polish communities, where at the end of the day, everyone, as they say in Cieszyn Silesia, "is as local as the day is long."


Not such a peaceful coexistence

The Czech authorities have promised to solve the problem concerning rights abuses of the Polish minority in the border region of Cieszyn Silesia, reports Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza. The promise was made during Polish president Lech Kaczyński’s recent visit to Prague. The 40,000 Poles living in the region complain that signs in Polish are vandalised by Czech right wing extremists. Of the 31 townships entitled by the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages to post bilingual signs, only half have decided to exercise their right, and many have backed down.

Problems have even occurred for a plaque on a house in Smilovice, commemorating the birthplace of the current president of the European Parliament, Jerzy Buzek. “The Czechs are just not used to it, and we need to give them more time,” says Józef Szymeczek, head of the Congress of Poles in the Czech Republic. The worst case, according to Szymeczek, is the town of Třinec, with a Polish minority of 6,000, where local authorities attempted to close down a Polish school and refuse to even discuss the matter of bilingual signs. Poles living in the Czech Republic claim that most of the hatred directed at them comes from young Czechs. An internet group called “I Hate Poles” has nearly a thousand members. “It is obvious that Polish-Czech relations are much better at a governmental than local level”, concludes the daily.

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