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Saving the forgotten homes of the borderland

Centuries ago, thousands of Dutch and German Mennonites fled religious persecution and settled in the Żuławy region of Poland, introducing their arcaded houses, windmills and dykes to the area. Though this rich cultural history has deteriorated since the Second World War, some inhabitants are determined to revive it.

April 2, 2019 - Máté Mohos - History and Memory

Arcaded house in the village o Trutnowy built in 1720. Photo: Andrzej Otrębski (cc) wikimedia,org

Lodged between a line of trees fringing the road from Tujsk to Cyganek and the Tuga river in the Żuławy region of Poland, the Mały Holender (The Little Dutch Boy) gives off the impression of a typical exhibition house. The idea of pleasant country life is represented by a cut-out of a cow and pieces of wooden cheese lookalikes nailed to the porch. The Polish flag hanging from the top gives the arcaded front a homely yet alien feel, a distinct constellation of old forms and modern tools, underlined by the noises of the crackling river and cars speeding on the nearby road.

Remnants of a rich cultural history

There is something special about this house, something that connects it to the troubled history of Poland and the status of the Żuławy region in the Pomeranian Voivodeship as one of the most storied borderlands of the country. “After the Second World War there were about two hundred houses like this, now there are only about ten that have survived,” explains Marek Opitz, who had spent ten years of his life restoring this nearly-destroyed building to its former glory. He is now starting a business hoping that the flatlands of Żuławy and their rich cultural history will be of interest to tourists.

“We discovered some old cheese recipes and started selling them here. We also recreated the Machandel vodka from the 18th century, and here you can also taste it now and try the traditional way of drinking it,” Opitz says. “The food is also based on an old recipe. It all comes in the framework of an all house and traditional experience.”

The history of arcaded houses like the Maly Holender, as well as the region itself, is heavily tied with the Mennonites who migrated into the region in the mid-1500s from lands that today we know as the Netherlands and Germany in order to escape religious persecution by the Habsburgs in the turmoil of the Reformation. Soon about a thousand members of the Anabaptist community lived in Gdansk and in 1562 Michael Loitz, a wealthy merchant, invited them to settle to the area around the Tuga river. Besides leaving their cultural mark in the Friesian-style arcades, windmills and other pieces of folklore over the region, Mennonites introduced new irrigation techniques that helped to drain swamps in the area and save the land laying below sea level from flooding. Over the centuries they became an integral part of local history.

This is the history that Opitz, along with a handful of historians, local experts and businesses want to preserve. But, as he explains, such endeavours sometimes come with heavy costs. Even though the Polish government has allocated nearly 160 million euros in funding for cultural purposes in the Pomeranian Voivodeship, up to two million of which organisations can apply for, struggles with bureaucracy and a still lacking interest in the region have created significant obstacles to those investing in arcaded houses. “Renovating a house like this can consume millions and millions of zloty. If you want to do it by the book and keep all formalities, it is really expensive. If you do it on your own, at some point you’ll just be fed up with it,” Opitz describes.

Struggling to preserve the borderland’s past

The ten-year-long process was tedious as it did not only involve refurbishing the building, but also taking it apart brick by brick and putting them back together on a land that took Opitz an entire year to acquire. First he thought he could use about 80 per cent of the original material, but as hidden deteriorations started to reveal themselves, he realised he could use less than half of the original building. The costs kept piling up. He finally finished renovations in 2013 and set out to find a way for the house to earn back what had been spent on it. Now he is hosting visitors and is selling cheese, liquor and food based on local recipes for people looking for a taste of the real Żuławy.

Izabela Chojnacka had gone through similar struggles with her own passion project in the area. The writer who prides herself in collecting and preserving local histories had also bought and renovated an old village house years ago. She fell in love with it during the weary project of restoration. “My ex-husband thought it was way too expensive. But I wanted to find myself a house that has a soul,” Chojnacka relates.

As they explain, the government to this day does not provide much aid to help with the renovations, and many of the specialists who have knowledge of the arcaded houses craft have long since left the country. Figuring out things on your own can be hard. “To renovate these houses properly, you need special types of wood that are of specific weight and height. A couple of my friends once tried to get a carpenter to help them with the material, but he simply said you couldn’t get this stuff anymore,” says Marta Łobocka, a local historian with the We Love Żuławy association.

Caught in the painful memories of war

Attempting to bring arcaded houses back to life is quite a task, as the years following the end of the Second World War have weighed heavily on their walls. The area, which was the borderland between the Soviet Union and Hitler’s empire, got ransacked by Russian soldiers as they pushed towards Berlin. Later the post-war reconstruction efforts also eluded the arcaded houses of Żuławy. It was still considered as a somewhat contested land between the Soviet Union and Poland, so the interlocking bureaucratic hierarchies overseeing the region were not keen on pouring resources into the area.

More importantly, the locals did not see the arcaded houses as part of Polish history but rather as remnants of the area’s German heritage, something foreign that had been forced upon them. Most people did not want to live in such houses, did not want to take care of or renovate them. Consequently, after the war most arcaded houses were inhabited by the poorest who had nowhere else to go. Łobocka recalls one such arcaded house that was shunned and avoided by most locals after a German soldier hung himself inside of it, most probably to escape capture by the Russians. “They just did not want to live there,” Łobocka says. “They thought it was bad luck.”

Both Opitz and Chojnacka recall that once the dust of the war had settled, sometimes even three or four destitute families would move in together into these buildings. Chojnacka explains that they often lacked the means and the motivation to be responsible owners and helped to facilitate the houses’ deteriorating state. “They didn’t know how to live in these houses,” she says. “They washed their hair in the toilet, and they burned the windows and the doors in winter to keep warm.”

But the government seemed to be on board with this approach: some owners were told that if their houses got destroyed, they would be financially aided to build new ones. That meant that besides the natural and war-caused degradation of these buildings, sometimes people would purposefully harm them in order to get support from the state. The Mennonite heritage in the land of Żuławy has thus been all but forgotten.

“Up to this day there are people who think like that. They are among those who want projects like this to fail,” Opitz explains. “I always felt that in Poland we have this kind of thinking that we want to see others fail. I have to tell people that I need to run this as a business to earn money, not to get them suspicious. Some people wouldn’t believe that you would do something altruistically.”

Cultivating agri-tourism to preserve history

The strive to put Żuławy on the map through agri-tourism continues. According to Opitz, more people are taking interest in kick-starting businesses here, and agritourism endeavours in the nearby Lubieszewo are also taking ground. And here, amidst the bowers and rivers of the lowland, under a painful history suspended in the thin air, he is taking his last stand to make it all happen.

“If this business doesn’t work out, we’ll either sell the house or just leave it. This is our last attempt, but I have faith that it is going to now. We don’t need too much money, but we cannot be drained by this whole idea. It cannot be a burden to us. My wife once said: I hope this house will not end up as our coffin.”

Even though the situation might not seem hopeful at times, Opitz does recognise the importance of his work and expresses a vague hope for those who will follow in his footsteps. “In other regions of Poland, this sort of agri-tourism has been working out fine for some time, but here we are the first ones. And the first ones always have it the most difficult.”

Máté Mohos is a postgraduate journalism student at the University of Sheffield. He holds a BSc in media studies from New York University (NYU). He has published non-fiction writing and journalism in New York, Prague and Shanghai. He has worked for Index.hu and 24.hu, two of the most prominent Hungarian independent news sites. Currently he lives and studies in the UK with aims to start a career in journalism there. His areas of interest include culture, tech and politics.

This article is part of the Solidarity Academy – Borderlands 2018, an international project supported by a grant from the International Visegrad Fund.

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