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Bi-city Bielsko-Biala

30 of November '22

The article is from the 02/2022 issue of A&B.


There are many multi-towns. We all know Buda and Pest. We talk about the phenomenon of the Tri-Cities on a daily basis. Less obvious to many of us may be Krakow's Five Towns, which will be discussed here next month. Still different will be Cieszyn's dual-national doublecity , which we'll write about here in two months. Still different will be the mining multitown, a composite of the multiple conurbations of the Upper Silesian Basin - about it in three.

Today, however, we are going to discover together a bi-city that is so close to all of us that until now we didn't know how to see it. Or rather, we looked, but didn't see it.

Bielsko-Biala

A combination of fire and water. A binary city, with double richness, multiplied potential, multiplying its possibilities arising from the richness of the past and what is born from it. A city that is architecturally interesting and astonishingly entrepreneurial. Such qualities do not come out of nowhere and cannot be a coincidence.

Somewhere the double name rings in the mind. Bielsko and Biała. But it's not simply that there was once a town called Bielsko and another town called Biala. It wouldn't be that unusual that two closely located cities grew and over time merged into one organism. Just ordinary history.

Bielsko-Biała — miasto w górach

Bielsko-Biala - a city in the mountains

photo: Naddachami.pl | Bielsko-Biala City Hall

In this case, the ordinariness of history simply cannot be spoken of. The fact that the city of Bielsko-Biala was established in 1951 by a decision of the then authorities is in itself not a very revealing starting point for the investigation we will hereby conduct to discover the true identity of the culprit... the awe that the Beskid mountain metropolis can inspire in attentive observers.

The widespread ignorance about the nature of this city, which has been orchestrated, is the result of deliberate propaganda efforts on the one hand, and the social repression effect is at work here on the other. A convoluted and uncomfortable history for many was rewritten after World War II - not very gracefully, but effectively. As, by the way, is always the case after the end of world-changing conflicts - this new history was written by the victors. In this case, it was the Poles, who managed to survive the turmoil of war, and their Communist rulers, who had a vested interest in falsifying and masking the city's history. And it was like this: before World War II, there were two cities: on one side of the Biała River to the marrow of the bones, Galician, Lesser Poland's Biała Krakowska. It was inhabited by Poles and a sizable community of Orthodox Jews. A beautiful town with predominantly single-story buildings, characteristic of the region, stretching picturesquely along the former imperial route, a trade route connecting Vienna with Krakow and Lviv, further leading all the way to Kiev.

ulica 11 Listopada w dawnej Białej Krakowskiej — charakterystyczna, jednopiętrowa zabudowa

11 Listopada street in the former Biala Krakowska - characteristic one-story buildings

photo: Dorota Koperska | Bielsko-Biala City Hall

On the other side of the river rose much more monumental buildings, forming the impressive architecture of the Viennese in style, imperial until recently the city of Bielsko, but called Bielitz by the vast majority of its inhabitants.

Yes, Bielsko was a thoroughly German, or rather German-speaking (imperial? Austrian? hard to specify) city. Simply put - it was absolutely unique. The German-speaking community was surrounded on all sides by a Polish-speaking sea. The Bielsk language island was a unique phenomenon. For the Bielsko situation cannot be confused with the well-known stories of the Recovered Territories.
Stories about Wrocław (Breslau) or Szczecin (Stettin) are completely different stories. After the war, land in the east was taken away from Poland, in exchange for giving post-German territories in the west. The clever name "regained territories" is the beginning of all the propaganda - somehow these mostly post-German towns and villages had to be tamed, assimilated, welded to Polishness. But the stories of Lower Silesia, Western Pomerania, the areas along the Oder River are in a sense simple. After 1945, the original inhabitants "from across the previous border" disappeared from them, and in their place a new population flowed in. Newcomers from across the Bug River and migrants from all over the Republic came to the empty, until recently Germanic space and arranged themselves in it, having, as it were, a worn-out blackboard to write on completely anew.

architektura w otoczeniu „Pigala”, czyli placu Chrobrego; na pierwszym planie zamek Sułkowskich

Architecture in the surroundings of "Pigal", or Chrobry Square; in the foreground the Sulkowski castle

photo: Dorota Koperska | Bielsko-Biala City Hall

Things were different in Bielsko. After World War I, when Poland regained its independence in 1918, the former Cieszyn Silesia, previously part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was included within its borders. And German-speaking Bielitz was that empire's border town. Inhabited by more than 90 percent German-speaking, imperial ethnic Germans until 1918. And a strong community of liberalized, also German-speaking Jews. The city was surrounded on all sides by a Polish-speaking and Catholic population of villages and towns - Upper Silesia on one side, Lesser Poland and Galicia with the Beskids on the other, and the largely Protestant, though still Polish-speaking population of Cieszyn Silesia on the third. Quite complicated, isn't it?

To make matters worse, after 1918, the German-speaking residents of Bielitz (who often defined their identity as German-Israeli-Austrian-Hungarian-Polish or Jewish) had no intention of moving anywhere at all. One of the richest and most modern cities of the Empire was an incredible treat for Poland, devastated by years of occupation and centuries of captivity. In fact, it was an inestimable gain - in a sea of Polish post-partition poverty and backwardness, the splendor of a sumptuous city suddenly shone before the eyes. Large, rich tenements of wealthy Jewish businessmen, magnificent palaces of Evangelical entrepreneurs, illuminated, decently paved streets, and on them modern streetcars, monumental schools and, finally, what was most important for ruined Poland, more than a hundred and fifty modern factories.

widok z Placu Chrobrego

View from Chrobry Square

photo by Dorota Koperska | Bielsko-Biała City Hall

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