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Where the heart of Central Europe beats

There is no multi-culti here, people are Catholic, conservative, vote for right wing parties, just like in Podhale” – explains one of the protagonists of Ludwika Włodek’s book Four Flags, One Address. But Spiš – or Spisz, depending on whom one asks – a tiny historical region in the Carpathian Mountains, located on the territory of Poland and Slovakia, has been home to more ethnicities than just the two main national groups. So is there really no multi-culti?

August 24, 2017 - Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska - Books and Reviews


Historically, Spiš/Spisz – the heart of Central Europe, was domiciled by seven nationalities: Hungarians, Slovaks, Poles, Germans, Jews and Roma people. It symbolises not only the grandness of the region, but also the nature of its citizens – their dash, contentiousness, determination, hospitality, as well as love of good fun, patriotism, religiousness and the ability to compromise. The last feature seems to be particularly important when it comes to neighbourly relations. In the Spiš/Spisz region they were not always good. Through the centuries, and especially after 1918, the territories were subject to numerous conflicts between Poles, Czechs and Slovaks.

Following the First World War, the freshly reborn Poland and Czechoslovakia both claimed rights to Spiš/Spisz, which had just become a popular tourist attraction. Polish and Czechoslovak troops even clashed over the area, but it luckily did not led to an open war. Until 1920 the disputed area switched hands several times, and between 1920 and 1939 only a small piece belonged to Poland, which further exacerbated the conflict. The border was delineated only in 1958. At the time Poland and Czechoslovakia were both under communist rule, and deportations and forced assimilation became a state policy. A lot of Poles living in the area were thus subject to Slovakisation.

For years, the inhabitants of Spiš/Spisz disagreed about their national belonging and in most cases felt affiliated with one nation, be it Polish or Slovak. Nowadays, however, local nationalism has been toned down and people from Spiš/Spisz rarely call themselves Poles or a Slovaks. They are simply from here and speak the local language. The best expression of Spis’s openness to the world has been the Euroregion Tatry Cross-border initiative created in 1994. European aspirations turned out to be a great binder linking Polish and Slovak nations not only in their pursuit to join the EU, but also in everyday integration of issues such as environmental protection or celebration of Polish and Slovak culture.

Poland and Slovakia are both Catholic, which is noticeable especially in the mountains. Spiš/Spisz, however, is not only Polish and Slovak, as for centuries the area was under German influence. In 2017, the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it is worth to note its profound impact on Spis. For the German Protestant landlords who ruled the area, it was very important that their subordinates were of the same religion. That is why a unique articular church was built there in 1717. However, before a provisional version of the temple was put in place, the area saw regular fights between Protestants and Catholics, especially during Counterreformation. Historian Nora Baráthová recalls that the temple was defended by Lutheran female parishioners throwing stones at Catholic priests. The Catholics retaliated chasing away Evangelic priests and taking over their estate. Over the years, the temple changed owners many times. In 1681 Protestants were granted freedom of religion and thus could build their churches. That is why in 1717 the temple was finally rebuilt in a record speed of three months and it stands until today, as a reminder of Spis’s historical diversity.

But Spiš/Spisz has been home to more religious groups. In the interwar period in Slovakia the presence of Greek Catholic Ruthenians was strongly visible. Until today they are one of the main elements of Spis’s multicultural landscape even though until 1960s they were subject to gradual Slovakisation. Ruthenians constitute almost all inhabitants of Kamienka in Slovakia and even holy masses in the village are conducted their own language. However, there are not many such places left and most of Spis Ruthenians prefer to call themselves Slovaks. Most often this is a result of a natural process of assimilation of groups which do not have their own state.

Today, Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodox Christianity are the only religions practiced in Spis, and there is a piece missing from the earlier religious landscape of the area. Before the Second World War Jews made up a fair per cent of the region’s citizens on both Polish and Slovak side. During the war the government of Slovakia denounced Jews to the Nazis, and their expullsions started in 1942. After the war the memory of the formerly important group started to fade, their possessions were sold at auctions, their houses were burnt. Not many memorials remained, but what stayed is really precious, like Jewish cemeteries in Niedzica or Łapsze Niżne in Poland.

The multicultural character of Spiš/Spisz in the 21st century includes one more numerous group – the Roma people. The first mentions about them come from the Middle Ages. During the Soviet era they were accommodated in houses left behind by the Germans. With the passing time – especially in Slovakia – the number of Roma people increased, unlike the number of ethnic Slovaks. The local population looks at Gypsies with contempt and most Roma people live in isolated ghettos. That is why they make little contribution to the culture of Spis, and even though they are an inherent part of these territories, they seem to come from a completely different world. At the same time, however, one can find traces of Roma influence in the popular culture of Spiš/Spisz. For example a singer Teresa Miga, who performs in both the Polish and the Romani language, is one of the most famous Roma (and Spis) artists.

The diversity of Spis is a symbol of Central Europe. History and present have a huge importance in the region, and coexist with conservatism and cosmopolitism, isolation and openness. But above all, Spis is a beautiful area, not always remembered and promoted in a right way. It is worth visiting to discover where the heart of Central Europe beats.

Monika Szafrańska is a student of European Studies and Journalism and Social Communication at Jagiellonian University. She is an intern with New Eastern Europe

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