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Dual-city Cieszyn. Polish, Czech, shared?

27 of December '22

Article from A&B issue 04|2022

This time it will be different: I will write about a city that caught my attention recently. For various reasons it has eluded me so far - somehow it was not on my way. Overlooked, though close, unconscious, though sensed. Other than all - that's what I love cities for, these infinitely complex, intertwined organisms of history and people, which are always completely unique.

panorama Cieszyna

panorama of Cieszyn

Photo: Jakub Połomski © UM Cieszyn

I usually describe cities that I've had a chance to get to know before. In this case we will do the opposite - with Cieszyn we are just getting acquainted. A text written from such a perspective has its advantages - it will be different from the others emerging in this series, a great series about the crazy development of Polish cities in the last, unbelievable thirty years. Because we ourselves, Poles, do not fully realize what we have done. And we have collectively made the greatest socio-economic transformation in the entire free, democratic world. The key to this leap through hyperspace was the development of Polish cities. Already described in this series we have Elbląg, Bielsko-Biała and Krakow. The Silesian agglomeration, the Tri-City are planned, but today it's time for Cieszyn.

Why did my choice fall on this small city, located on the sidelines of mainstream events? It is probably logical to start with the image of Cieszyn that I have in my head so on a "good day".

miasta dzieli rzeka Olza

The cities are divided by the Olza River

Photo: Jakub Połomski © UM Cieszyn

Before I was able to get to the Olza River, I actually had quite a few associations with Cieszyn, which I probably share with most people in Poland, and probably the Czech Republic as well. So: we all know that we have historically pushed for Cieszyn with our Czech neighbors. Zaolzie was the subject of conflict between the two emerging statehoods in 1920. Times were unsettled, borders were contractual, rules of the game - did not exist. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, after the trauma of World War I, after the October Revolution - after all this, the world of the time, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, changed completely. The entire present-day map of this part of the continent began to be sketched after 1918. Here history unfolded in such a way that the border was finally established on the Olza River, cutting Cieszyn almost exactly in half. On the Polish side, the historic part of the town remained, and on the Czech side, a younger but more modern part, including all the railroad infrastructure. Polish Cieszyn today has a population of just over thirty thousand, while Czech Cieszyn has a population of almost twenty-six thousand. On the Polish side are left monuments, the most important offices, cultural institutions and a power plant. On the Czech side - the main industrial plants, waterworks and gasworks. Separated, the two towns had to be organized from scratch... Czech Cieszyn had to build practically from scratch its entire urban residential base for the industrial zone. Polish Cieszyn, on the other hand, was deprived of its most important jobs overnight, cut off by communications and thrown to the specific periphery of reality.

At the same time, while remaining one of the oldest cities in Poland, with a remarkably interesting history, it ranks among the most intriguing urban centers and communities in this part of the world. It is a unique place - and therefore - today with unique potential. What is it? First of all - Polish-Czech!

Our world today is changing rapidly - what until recently was on the border, today can be the center of attention. Contemporary Cieszyn is becoming a place "somewhere between Prague and Warsaw". A place that may have once been the subject of a Polish-Czech dispute, but today can be (and is) a field of dialogue and a place of cooperation. Formerly "Polish or Czech," today it is rather wonderfully Polish-Czech, shared. The place of frontal meeting of cultures must be absolutely amazing, I thought to myself, as soon as something in my head said: go there, peasant.

mural Kina na Granicy w Parku Pokoju

The mural of Cinema on the Border in Peace Park

Photo: Rafał Soliński © UM Cieszyn

Before I went, I read, looked, took stock. Something in the back of my head whispered about the old Piast (?) building from the (twenty-zloty bill), something I heard about the Silesian Castle of Art and Enterprise (now Cieszyn Castle), about the Cinema on the Border / Kino na Hranici festival. Some premonition told me to go back ten years - and there was a surprise waiting. Well, what is really amazing, a decade ago the city of Cieszyn gained a brand strategy by my own company (!). And I didn't know about it, because just then, for the only time in my life, I spent many months away from Poland. Ordinarily-unusually, the adventure with Cieszyn passed me by a hair's breadth. Which doesn't prevent it from starting over now, so to speak. Maybe it was just meant to be.

romańska rotunda św. św. Mikołaja i Wacława

Romanesque rotunda of St. Nicholas and St. Wenceslas

Photo: Rafał Soliński © UM Cieszyn

The road to Cieszyn was pointed out to me by another city I had just had the pleasure of working out, I mean Bielsko-Biala (about which in issue 02/2022 of A&B). In Bielsko-Biala I learned more about the Polish Reformation, about the Evangelicals, about the peculiarities of Cieszyn Silesia - and I already knew that I simply had to get there eventually and try to comprehend this city somewhere on the event horizon, this Cieszyn, which today I intend to describe with the zeal of a neophyte.

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