Before I met Father Paul Breza I had little knowledge of Poland. After helping out at the Polish Cultural Institute in Winona, I became more curious about this little country wedged between Germany and the Soviet Union. So when Father Paul offered me the opportunity to visit Bytów, Poland for the Christmas season I was excited and intrigued.
Father Paul, Beth Briese and I landed in Gdańsk, a large port city on the Baltic Sea. We were met by a Bytów city official and a high school student who would serve as our interpreters for the drive to Bytów. In Poland, students begin learning English very young. The drive from Gdańsk to Bytów took about an hour and a half, and as darkness descended, the beauty of the forests we drove through was amplified. The pine branches of the towering, snow-covered trees hung over the road, bringing to mind Christmas stories from my childhood. The lyrics “over the river and through the woods” became real and the season suddenly held a deeper meaning.
The country provided much more breathtaking scenery during the remainder of our stay, from the icy shores of the Baltic Sea and the Three Cities of Gdańsk, Sopot, and Gdynia, to the 600 year old castle of Bytów (that’s right, there is a castle in town). The beauty of the hills, forests, streams, and the quiet of centuries-old churches in villages filled with generous, unassuming people were like nothing I had ever experienced before. We were guests at an out-of-the-way bed and breakfast called Zamek Zaborski, and enjoyed the bustle of modern day cities and parks like Szymbark.
Bytów, a sister city to Winona, Minnesota honored Father Paul by bestowing him Honorary Citizenship. Only the third recipient to receive this honor, and the first non-Polish resident, Father was overwhelmed and humbled. Speeches praised him for his relentless work to keep the Polish heritage alive in Winona. The ceremony was held at the castle, and included local dignitaries and city officials in formal dress including the chain of their office and the usual media. Later Father Paul was interviewed on a Polish television program.
We spent our days with various people, starting with Joanna and Bartek Malek; Joanna would serve as our interpreter and trip coordinator. Christmas Eve was spent with Mayor Ryszard Sylka’s family, Christmas Day with Deputy Mayor Adam Lejk’s family, and the next with previous mayor, Stanislaw Marmolowski’s, family, to name a few. I don’t mention this to brag. It is simply that I have never heard of any politician here in America showing that kind of hospitality to two complete strangers and one acquaintance who is only known from emails. The Polish have a saying, translated it says, “Guest at home, God at home.” It means that if you have a guest, you give them all the best food, drink, and hospitality as you would if that guest were God. This attitude was abundant everywhere we went. We were accepted and treated as family by everyone we encountered. I myself was invited to go to Kulig with Bartek and some of his friends. Kulig is supposed to be horse drawn sleigh rides through the forest, but Bartek and his friends have taken it up a notch and we tied metal runner sleds to the back of a Jeep and pulled them over snow-covered forest roads. It was a heck of a ride; even the wipeouts were fun. Most of Bartek’s friends spoke little English, and I had no interpreter with me, but they all treated me as if we had been longtime friends.
Poland sits at the geometric center of Europe. Its history is rich and deep, and it is a very pious culture. Through the many hardships they endured from the Russians to the Germans they have prevailed and remained steadfast in their faith. Americans may remember how, in September of 1980 at the Gdansk shipyards, Solidarity, an independent trade union, was established and would be instrumental in the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. This primary catalyst would transform Poland from a repressive communist satellite to the European Union member democracy.
All I can say about the food is, “Mmmm!” I start drooling just thinking about it: a lot of fish, pork and chicken dishes with boiled potatoes and cabbage. We also had traditional dishes such as Pierogi, little dumplings filled with meat, potatoes, cheese or fruit, and Goląbki, which are little meatloaves wrapped in boiled cabbage and baked in a tomato sauce. Not to mention a wide assortment of holidays cakes.
The greatest impression I brought home from Poland was the overwhelming kindness and generosity of the people. Yes, there is natural beauty everywhere you go, but without the warm hearts of the people who live there it would not be worth seeing. Poland is a hidden gem, a quiet and beautiful place. I have seen Rome, Paris, and many places in between, and while they all have their history and beauty and culture, but Poland feels like home. Maybe it is because the terrain is much like ours here in Minnesota (obviously without the Mississippi and with the Baltic Sea added). Maybe it is because many Polish people immigrated to this area (I certainly felt the “Minnesota Nice” vibe while I was there). Maybe you should go see for yourself. Or maybe you should start by checking out the Polish Cultural Institute in Winona. Father Paul will tell you all about it.
Written by Lukus R. Therneau