Poland,  Przemyśl

Religion & Communism in Przemyśl

Przemyśl
Maciej Orzechowski
Barszcz

The Place: Przemyśl, Poland

“…tiles clung precariously to snow-dusted rooftops and cracked window frames released a flurry of flaking paint with a strong gust of wind… The sad fact is that a wilting local economy combined with a rich history means that there are simply too many historical sites in the town for the council to invest in the maintenance of them all. So, for now, residents can only watch as time takes it’s toll, second by second; death by a thousand cuts.”

Read About Przemyśl

September, October and November came and went, and I continued my race to the East against the snow. But I suffered defeat just before my arrival at my last stop in Poland, as Przemyśl finally succumbed to December’s icy grip and the first snowflakes of winter fluttered from down above. The cold permeated through the city, as locals wrapped up in layers, braced for the months ahead, and then seemingly evaporated into the night after dark, leaving nothing but the occasional echoing bark of a dog to fill the streets.

Przemyśl, in a way, struck me as a less polished Kraków. The grand Austro-Hungarian architecture was still on display, but it lacked the immaculate preservation that I’d seen in Poland’s cultural capital. Stray away from the main plaza, and you’ll find tiles clung precariously to snow-dusted rooftops and cracked window frames released a flurry of flaking paint with a strong gust of wind; years of neglect have meant that the decay is difficult to hide. The sad fact is that a wilting local economy combined with a rich history means that there are simply too many historical sites in the town for the council to invest in the maintenance of them all. So, for now, residents can only watch as time takes it’s toll, second by second; death by a thousand cuts.

But there is a charm to that roughness, a sense that you’re exploring a side of Poland that isn’t your typical generic postcard scene; a side with more character. Ancient churches, cathedrals and castles in suspiciously perfect condition can feel hollow, each one the same as the next and the last. And, despite my painting such a dreary picture, by no means are all of the buildings in dire straits. It’s the B-listers set away from the square that cry out for attention, while the likes of the ‘Bells and Pipes Museum’, an infamous local attraction inside an old bell-tower, looks as though it’s been plucked from the past.

For much of my time in Przemyśl, I was left looking back on my time in Poland with nostalgia, knowing that I was soon leaving a country I’d grown accustomed to; one where I was just becoming familiar with the quirks of the language and the culture, and where, despite being constantly on the move, I’d settled. It almost felt like I was setting off on my trip for the first time again and, as I battled against an unforgiving headwind out of Przemyśl towards the Ukrainian border, I pedalled with a twinge of sadness.


Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.

The Person: Maciej Orzechowski, 43, Genealogist

“I look for the ancestors of different people, from Canada, America; all over the world… up until 1945, records were kept only by religious communities. The state didn’t write birth, marriages or deaths…. That’s why, before the war, nobody could be atheist, because if you were atheist, it meant your birth was not recorded.”

See Maciej's Full Background

I am a genealogist and also an English teacher. I look for the ancestors of different people, from Canada, America; all over the world. Of course I work for Polish clients as well. I live here with my wife and two girls – one is six years old and the other is 10. They are Alexandra and Gabriella. I mainly work in the Roman Catholic archives of Przemysl, and for 99% of my work I’m searching for ‘vital records’: births, marriages and deaths. I sometimes work in other places, like Tarnow or Krakow. Catholic archives are run by the church. From the 19th century, up until 1945, records were kept only by religious communities. The state didn’t write birth, marriages or deaths. So all the information about people who were living here are in the Catholic archives. Jewish communities and Greek Catholics also kept records. That’s why, before the war, nobody could be atheist, because if you were atheist, it means your birth was not recorded. So everyone had to be a believer in order to be recorded. I research simple things; like I’m looking for the birth of someone’s great great grandfather, then when I find the record of it I take a digital photo of it and send it to the client. Clients are mainly just interested people. All the records are written in Latin. I know Italian so Latin is easy for me. Here in this region, there are only 4 people doing genealogy as a profession. They are: me, my wife, my brother and my friend.

 

I spent a year in Italy. I’m interested in languages, and I like studying them. I know Spanish, too. My main hobby is to get to know the culture of European nations better.

 

What does ‘home’ mean to you?

“Home is a place of love, of everything that brings joy to me. My kids give me lots of joy, and spending time with my wife… I’m also very attached to my city. When I leave for a long time, I miss it. That’s why I decided to never work abroad.”

See Maciej's Full Answer

So, the first connotation with home is family. Home is a place of love, of everything that brings joy to me. My kids give me lots of joy, and spending time with my wife. It’s all connected with home, so for me, it’s love. I’m also very attached to my city. When I leave for a long time, I miss it. That’s why I decided to never work abroad. I never went to England. Many of my friends who work abroad tell me they miss it, and that they would like to return.

What is special about Przemyśl?

“…you’re in a very historical region of Galicia – that was the name under Austrian rule… The location was very important from a strategic point of view for the Austrians. It was called the ‘gate to Hungary’. So if the Russians wanted to invade Hungary or Austria, they had to go through Przemyśl. That’s why they built the fortress.”

See Maciej's Full Answer

We have lots of historical sites, like our churches; it is famous for having a dozen churches in a very small area. There is a famous fortress, which was the third biggest in Europe during WWI. The remnants of it can still be seen. Przemyśl is more than 1,000 years old, so all this history and all the buildings make it a very special place. However, I think lots of money needs to be invested here to renovate them. If you go to some parts of the city, you’ll see that a lot should be done to make it look better. But we’re a very poor city, so the we don’t have enough money to do that.  They renovated the historical center, but the old city of Przemyśl is very big compared to others in this province, and so we just cannot afford to fix everything, because we have hundreds of old buildings here. I don’t know if you know, but you’re in a very historical region of Galicia – that was the name under Austrian rule. This was the third biggest and most important city in this region. The location was very important from a strategic point of view for the Austrians. It was called the ‘gate to Hungary’. So if the Russians wanted to invade Hungary or Austria, they had to go through Przemyśl. That’s why they built the fortress. There are about 40 forts around here!

 

It has also become popular among Polish moviemakers. In the last two years, two of them have come here to make a movie. There was a film about young Piłsudski, who was this Polish hero fighting for independence, and Przemyśl ‘played’ Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. 

We also have bishops of two rites here, a Greek catholic bishop and a Roman Catholic bishop.

What have you learned from living in Przemyśl?

“…I think I learned everything here about what’s important in life… I was part of a religious youth group, and I think it was the most important experience in my life. I became very religious because there was a priest who was very influential and very charismatic…”

See Maciej's Full Answer

I was brought up here, so I think I learned everything here about what’s important in life. I learned especially how to approach other people. I was part of a religious youth group, and I think it was the most important experience in my life. I became very religious because there was a priest who was very influential and very charismatic, so being a member of this catholic youth group was the most important thing that influenced my future life until now. Poland is the most religious country in Europe, I think.

 

When I’m abroad, I miss the mass in Poland; this sense of community. When you go to the church in Poland, usually it is full. Abroad, there are far less people. So I miss the church full of people praying. But, on the other hand, I think everywhere in Europe that people, even if they don’t go to church, always try to be honest and that God is somewhere in their life. We say that god is in everyone, even the biggest sinner; always somewhere, at the bottom of their heart.

Where’s your favourite place outside of Poland?

“I really enjoyed Barcelona… I attended the European meeting of this ecumenical community, where many different Christian denominations come together. So not only Catholics are there but also protestants, orthodox people, friars, and so on.”

See Maciej's Full Answer

I really enjoyed Barcelona in Spain. I was there in the middle of winter and it was very warm. There is nice architecture and very hospitable people there. I attended the European meeting of this ecumenical community, where many different Christian denominations come together. So not only Catholics are there but also protestants, orthodox people, friars, and so on. They live together and organise European meetings of youth every year. It happens in a different city each time. This year, it will be Madrid. So I attended four times from 2000-2003. It’s always at the end of December and it lasts five days.

 

I also enjoyed Vienna for the architecture. In Poland, I think Kraków. It’s a city that’s not that discovered in Europe but is just as worth visiting as other big cities of Europe.

Can you think of a time you have been proud of Przemyśl or Poland?

“Despite the fact that it is said in the gospel that no prophet is well-liked in his own country, I think it was not the case with John Paul II. When he came here, millions of people were attending the masses with him…. it was a great testimony of faith to the whole world… It is important, in my opinion; to show people that we are not ashamed of God.”

See Maciej's Full Answer

The time I was proud of Przemyśl, it was world youth day in 2016. Every two years, there is a world youth day in some city somewhere. It’s a huge gathering of Catholic youth from around the world. In 2016, it was in Kraków, but before that, there were ‘days in diocese’, and Przemyśl hosted youth from different countries. I took part in the organisation of this event. I was proud of the Przemyśl families who hosted hundreds of people for that. I think it’s the first time in the city’s history that it’s hosted so many people from abroad, and it was a kind of promotion for Przemyśl.

 

I think I was proud of Poland when the Polish pope, John Paul II came here. Despite the fact that it is said in the gospel that no prophet is well-liked in his own country, I think it was not the case with John Paul II. When he came here, millions of people were attending the masses with him. I think it was a very good testimony to the world that the pope is coming and two million people came to the mass. I think it was a great testimony of faith to the whole world; we just showed that faith is important for us. It is important, in my opinion, to show people that we are not ashamed of God.

What is your main concern or worry about Przemyśl and Poland?

“Polish people should not think that they are inferior. During communism, we were a very poor country. People here were earning $20 per month during those times… We are still a much poorer nation than… Western Europe, and I think that too often we think  that this means we are ‘worse’.”

See Maciej's Full Answer

Some people here in Przemyśl complain all the time that the city is poor, there’s no jobs, but they do little to try to change their situation. With Poland as a whole, for sure not everything is good here. Maybe Polish people should not think that they are inferior. During communism, we were a very poor country. People here were earning $20 per month during those times. Because they were poor, many people thought they were worse people. We are still a much poorer nation than the ones in Western Europe, and I think that too often we think  that this means we are ‘worse’. And this should be changed, because money isn’t everything.

Could you share some experiences from communist times?

“My mum had money until maybe the 10th… day of the month, then she had to borrow from her mum. If my grandma didn’t feed us… we would probably have been starving… My grandma said to me that she still has nightmares that she doesn’t have money, because she was always concerned during communist times that she wouldn’t have enough to buy food.”

See Maciej's Full Answer

I remember that it was a big problem to buy something, during communist times. We could afford to eat meat mainly on Sundays. And in order to buy meat you had to wake up at 6am, and be in the queue at the shop for 2-3 hours. So many people wanted to buy meat! When a woman wanted to buy shoes for winter she had to spend her whole monthly salary. I also remember that during my elementary school, I had for a whole year I think just one pair of trousers. It was difficult when they were dirty. I remember that my aunt’s husband was in America, and he sent my aunt jeans. She gave those jeans to me. This was the first pair of jeans in my life! I was about 13 or 14. I remember I was so proud of wearing jeans. Nobody could afford them then, so having a pair of jeans made you a king. You felt like the richest person in the city because you had jeans.

 

At that time, it was even difficult for my mum to feed us. My mum had money until maybe the 10th or the 15th day of the month, then she had to borrow from her mum. If my grandma didn’t feed us and give us lunch, we would probably have been starving. The lack of money was the biggest problem. My grandma said to me that she still has nightmares that she doesn’t have money, because she was always concerned during communist times that she wouldn’t have enough to buy food. The poverty was terrible. That is why everyone was dreaming of going to Western Europe, the USA or Canada, because one year of work there would have been enough to build a house in Poland. You could bring maybe $10,000, and have enough to build a big house. We were earning $20/month here.

What was the adjustment like after the shift from communism?

“…in the 1980s, people had very little, but they at least had something. After the change of system, there were some people who had a lot, but the majority of people had nothing, and if they didn’t have jobs, they couldn’t even pay rent for a flat.”

See Maciej's Full Answer

In the 1990s, there was a lot of poverty still in Poland. Unemployment was a very big problem. About 20% of people in the 1990s were without work in Poland. The salaries improved in 1995. That was when I got my first salary of $100 per month. It was much more than the $20 per month in the 1980s. For one person in 1995, it was ok. But if you had to pay for a flat and bills, even if two people were working, you still did not have enough to feed a family. That’s why people were still leaving Poland in the ‘90s and going abroad. The situation improved only in recent years. Only now, we can feel that we have more money. Before, unemployment was a problem, finding a job was very difficult. Now we have a very low unemployment rate, so people find jobs much more quickly. But here in Przemyśl, still, the unemployment is high. So lots of people go to other parts of Poland or abroad to work. It was mostly in the last 5 years, in this region, that it improved. But I’m only talking about this region, because the situation in Warsaw, for example was always quite different. Even in the 1990s it was much better in Warsaw and Kraków, but here in the Southeast of Poland, it was always a lot of poverty.

 

I remember that people changed in the 1990s.  They were not as nice as in the ‘80s. Because in the 1980s, people had very little, but they at least had something. After the change of system, there were some people who had a lot, but the majority of people had nothing, and if they didn’t have jobs, they couldn’t even pay rent for a flat. So many people were just desperate. They became more aggressive. The economic situation made people much more nervous and aggressive.

Do you remember the period of martial law in 1981?

“I was very frightened, because everyone was very nervous and I didn’t know what was happening, just that there was something very bad happening in Poland, with soldiers and tanks in the streets. I was scared for a few years at the start of the 1980s… General Jaruzelski was claiming that he introduced martial law to prevent the Russian invasion, but it wasn’t true.”

See Maciej's Full Answer

I was six years old, but I remember. I remember when general Jaruzelski was announcing introducing martial law in Poland. I also remember the tanks in the streets. I was very afraid of them for a few years. I even remember going to a funeral in 1982, and soldiers came to the bus and were checking everyone’s documents, and asked for them from my mother. I was very frightened, because everyone was very nervous and I didn’t know what was happening, just that there was something very bad happening in Poland, with soldiers and tanks in the streets. I was scared for a few years at the start of the 1980s. It was in response to strikes, because people were striking and the general was trying to stop them. It was also said that Russians were preparing to enter Poland, and that Russian tanks were close to the border to invade. So General Jaruzelski was claiming that he introduced martial law to prevent the Russian invasion, but it wasn’t true. The Russians didn’t enter, but he claimed that if he didn’t do it, they would have.

What are your thoughts on Stereotypes of people from Przemyśl?

“…in order to understand the joke, you need to understand Polish language. In Polish, we say, ‘Russian Pierogi’, and ‘Lazy Pierogi’ – that’s the literal translation. So people say that Przemyśl people are like pierogis; half of them are Russian and half of them are lazy.”

See Maciej's Full Answer

There is a saying about Przemyśl people, but in order to understand the joke, you need to understand Polish language. You know pierogi? The dish? In Polish, we say, ‘Russian Pierogi’, and ‘Lazy Pierogi’ – that’s the literal translation. So people say that Przemyśl people are like pierogis; half of them are Russian and half of them are lazy. Partially this is true, because I know people who just do nothing, and there are also many people of Ukrainian origins who come to live here now. My wife’s aunt works in the medical centre for children, and tells us that more and more Ukrainian children are registered at this centre.

What is the best thing to ever come out of Przemyśl?

Przemyśl is famous for ‘Inglot cosmetics’. They have a few hundred stores in the world, and I think they’re on every continent.”

See Maciej's Full Answer

Przemyśl is famous for Inglot cosmetics. They have a few hundred stores in the world, and I think they’re on every continent. This city is famous for producing cosmetics. It’s the best known Przemyśl brand. A few hundred people work here producing their cosmetics, and I think it’s one of the biggest employers here. It was founded about 30 years ago.

What is the biggest change you’ve seen I your lifetime here?

“…the change in infrastructure… 20 years ago, I think, we had maybe 80km of highways… Now we have about 3,000km of highways, so travelling in Poland became much easier and faster, so I think it’s something everybody can feel.”

See Maciej's Full Answer

In Przemyśl, it was building the bypass. 10 years ago, going through the city centre for 2-3km woul take maybe 40 minutes in rush hour. After the bypass it changed completely. Moving through Przemyśl became much easier and faster.  In Poland, it was the change in infrastructure. 20 years ago, I think, we had maybe 80km of highways. We didn’t really have any other than that. Now we have about 3,000km of highways, so travelling in Poland became much easier and faster, so I think it’s something everybody can feel.

 

There was also the change in salaries. The average salary 20 years ago was $200 per month, now it’s more than $1,000. That’s generally in Poland, not here. I would never have expected that in 20 years the salaries would rise by five times.

How do you think being so close to Ukraine has affected Przemyśl?

“…Przemyśl people made fortunes trading with Ukrainians. In one day, you could earn the equivalent of a monthly salary by selling to Ukrainians. It was such a good business, that Przemyśl could afford to enter the first division league in basketball… Ukrainians even come to our discount stores like Lidl, and they buy things for hundreds of złoty, and sell them in Ukraine!”

See Maciej's Full Answer

I think it’s a good thing to be close to Ukraine. I don’t know if you know, but in the 1990s, Przemyśl people made fortunes trading with Ukrainians. In one day, you could earn the equivalent of a monthly salary by selling to Ukrainians. Selling shoes, clothes… thousands of them were coming here and buying things. It was such a good business, that Przemyśl could afford to enter the first division league in basketball. We were second in Poland. The sport club had money from people who were trading with Ukrainians. And still there is lots of commerce in Przemyśl with Ukrainians. They are still coming here to buy electronics: computers, dishwashers, fridges, washing machines… I very often see them buying them and taking them to Ukraine, because it’s cheaper here! I know that sounds strange, but they can also get a VAT refund on the items. There is a shop on the border called Biedronka, and they sell much that the trucks with supplies are always going there to resupply it, because the Ukrainians are always buying everything. So being so close to Ukraine is good for business, especially for commerce. Ukrainians even come to our discount stores like Lidl, and they buy things for hundreds of złoty, and sell them in Ukraine!

What do you eat during the Holidays here?

We should not eat meat on Christmas eve, but we can on Christmas. Although, it’s not forbidden by the church to eat meat, it is a Polish tradition not to; an ancient tradition.”

See Maciej's Full Answer

We eat barszcz: soup made from beetroot, with dumplings. We also have a poppy seed dish called kutia, which we have on Christmas eve.  We also have pierogi, golumki, which are cabbage rolls and there’s mushroom soup. We should not eat meat on Christmas eve, but we can on Christmas, although it’s not forbidden by the church to eat meat, it is a Polish tradition not to; an ancient tradition. Fish is ok, we eat carp all over Poland.

What is your favourite and least favourite Polish Dish?

We have rather simple food here. But I don’t like flaki. It’s disgusting for me. It makes me vomit.”

See Maciej's Full Answer

I like barszcz. It’s very tasty. And I like pork chops, which are usually served on Sundays. I must say that Polish cuisine is not very sophisticated. I think Italian and French cuisine is very sophisticated, with lots of interesting dishes. We have rather simple food here. But I don’t like flaki. It’s disgusting for me. It makes me vomit.

Reccomendation:

Barszcz with dumplings… It’s simple beetroot soup, and there are some extracts from vegetables…. It should be clear… without lumps of beetroot.

See Maciej's Full Reccomendation

Barszcz with dumplings. The dumplings can be stuffed with mushrooms. It’s simple beetroot soup, and there are some extracts from vegetables. I never cook, so I don’t know much about how it’s made. It should be clear. Clear is good, without lumps of beetroot. Sometimes there can be an egg inside it.

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The Plate: Barszcz

“I was greeted with a crimson lake of beetroot extract, devoid of any chunks or particles save for three dumplings lurking so deep below a bloodlike surface that it took me a few squints before I could determine what they were. The clarity resembles more of a juice than a soup, and it doesn’t so much satisfy your hunger as it does quench your thirst.”

Read About Barszcz

I was waiting for someone to recommend Barszcz (too many consonants, I know), a staple of Eastern Europe and, according to my previous interviewee, Wojtek, one that stimulates the release of feel-good hormones. Sat at one of Poland’s famous ‘Milk Bars’, I was greeted with a crimson lake of beetroot extract, devoid of any chunks or particles save for three dumplings lurking so deep below the bloodlike surface that it took me a few squints before I could determine what they were. The clarity resembles more of a juice than a soup, and it doesn’t so much satisfy your hunger as it does quench your thirst. Compared to what I’d eaten before, it didn’t seam that ‘Polish’. Could it be? Was it possible? Had I finally discovered a ‘light’ Polish meal?

If you’ve ever had beetroot, you probably already know what Barszcz tastes like; a strange but natural earthy sweetness combined with a heavy dose of salt courtesy of the chef. It’s easy to become fatigued by the lingering aftertaste it leaves behind, as the purity of the liquid makes for a consistent intensity, and if it wasn’t for the dumplings, you may as well be downing a pint of steaming, salted beetroot tea. Though lacking in number, they’re a saving grace, providing desperately needed texture to remind you that you’re eating, not drinking, and adding pockets of varying flavour to harness when the soup alone becomes too much. Barszcz seemed to me to be more of an appetiser than a main meal and, for once, I left a dinner table in Poland without the sensation that I’d just lost a fight. I would, however, come to learn that the vibrant-looking soup comes in several different varieties, but that’s for a later interview.


Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!


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The Changing Face of Poland
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Attempting to cycle from Tromsø in Northern Norway to Baku, Azerbaijan while interviewing locals en route. Despite my chequered history with bikes, here’s to me returning home with an intact facial structure and at least as many body parts as I left with.

7 Thoughts on Religion & Communism in Przemyśl
    Victoria Gazda discusses attitudes to Russian and more in Lviv, Ukraine
    14 Mar 2019
    9:59am

    […] Przemyśl […]

    Hilda
    1 Mar 2019
    5:03pm

    Good to read about Poland’s economic improvement. Borscht (English version) is a staple of traditional Jewish cuisine. when will Maciej be doing your genetic background!!!!!!!!!!!

      Tieran Freedman
      1 Mar 2019
      9:13pm

      I didn’t know that! But it makes sense since there was such a large Jewish population in much of Poland and Western Ukraine.

    Paweł
    12 Mar 2019
    10:39am

    I know why only he and his family is working as a genealogist there. He has some deal with the diocese archive because the curator of that diocese archive is stalling all independent researchers – archive curator is denying them access and instead sending everyone to him. So if an average person want to search for his own ancestors’ history there – he has to pay him because only he has access there. It’s absolutely outrageous and I wonder how much money he shares with the diocese for his continued monopoly. When it comes to the diocese archives – the one in Przemyśl is the worst and the most unfriendly for the people interested in genealogy.

      Tieran Freedman
      25 Mar 2019
      5:19pm

      Thanks for the comment and apologies for the late response! That’s interesting, I’ve never looked into genealogy before so I don’t know very much about it. Normally in other towns do you not have to pay to search for your history? And are there similar issues in many other diocese archives in Poland, or is it just the one in Przemyśl?

        Paweł
        27 Apr 2019
        11:08pm

        No, the one in Przemyśl is probably the worst and most unfriendly in the whole country. Usually you just go, ask for permission and then you can browse the archive freely. In Przemyśl they refuse you access and constantly send you to this guy. It is almost impossible to check the archive documents by yourself. I’ve heard the only people who are allowed there are some rich people from the US. That’s why I suspect there’s money behind that shameless monopoly of mr. Orzechowski.

    Dennis
    6 Mar 2019
    11:37am

    Couldn’t agree with Hilda’s comments more……particularly about Borscht, brought to us by our Lithuanian ancestors.

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