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A City Divided, Český Těšín/Cieszyn

The Olza River, marking the international border

It’s New Year’s Eve, 2008, and we are in the northeastern corner of the Czech Republic. Along with my mother and sister I’ve made the trip to one of the country’s lesser-known regions, located right along the Polish frontier. This pocket of Eastern Europe, I am told, is called Cieszyn Silesia.

For no less than 600 years the town of Cieszyn was the seat of a small autonomous duchy, ruled by the Silesian Piasts and then the Habsburg dynasty. It became incorporated into the vast, multicultural hodgepodge that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a status that it retained until the empire’s breakup at the close of World War I.

But the change proved anything but peaceful. In an age when self-determination was championed across Central Europe, both Poland and Czechoslovakia claimed the entirety of Cieszyn Silesia as their own. In January 1919 tensions reached a boiling point and the two newborn states went to war over Cieszyn. It was an engagement that lasted all of seven days, ending with the diplomatic intervention of several major European powers. The following July a new border was hammered out at a conference in Belgium, splitting Cieszyn right down the middle. Most of the city – including the medieval heart – became part of Poland; the western suburbs and their immediate hinterland were transferred to Czechoslovakia. For the Poles this lost region, home to a predominantly Polish-speaking populace, was known as the Zaolzie, “the lands beyond the Olza”.

Benjamin is one such resident of the Zaolzie. Although born and raised on the Czech side, he would more readily identify himself as being of Polish heritage. At home his family speaks Silesian; depending on who you ask it’s either the local Polish dialect or a separate language altogether. When I meet Benjamin in 2008 he is in his late twenties, dressed in the manner of an American college student. He speaks like one too, no doubt the result of a year spent studying in the Midwest. But beyond his outwardly global appearance his eyes tell a story of hardship and tumultuous change. As a child he witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain, flocked to Prague to see the opening of its very first McDonald’s, and lived through the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993. Then came 2004, when eight nations across Eastern Europe became full members of the EU.

We are standing midway between the snowy banks of the Olza, on one of the two bridges linking Český Těšín with Polish Cieszyn. Not so long ago – until 2007 – crossing the river meant greeting immigration officials and having your passport stamped into a foreign country.

Benjamin points to the abandoned border crossing, an empty hulk of exposed beams floating precariously above the street. Even in its dilapidated state the canopy is a symbolic gateway to the original Cieszyn, now freely accessible to those living in the Zaolzie. “Take a photo,” he murmurs. “The next time you come it will be history.”

Crossing into Poland

The Rynek – Cieszyn’s market square

Looking up Głęboka, the main street on the Polish side

View from the Piast Tower, Castle Hill

Polish Cieszyn

Divided city, reunited by the Schengen Agreement

Český Těšín – “Czech Cieszyn”

Town Hall, Český Těšín

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. It is fascinating to read stories about places which are divided between two countries. There is a house in the Indonesian-Malaysian border in Borneo where its living room belongs to Indonesia, while its kitchen belongs to Malaysia. BTW speaking of Habsburg, it reminds me of my trip to Vienna in 2007. I learned a lot about the Habsburg family and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Have I mentioned to you that I love history?

    January 10, 2012
    • I too was in Vienna, but that was in the summer of 2000. It was my first-ever trip to Europe and I remember being struck by how beautiful the city was, especially the Ringstrasse. I would love to go back and spend more time soaking up the culture and history – and maybe learn a bit of Austrian German as well!

      January 11, 2012
  2. Blog world is such a wonderful world, you come to know lot of people and their wonderful stories. this one is also perfect and thanks for sharing James

    January 12, 2012
    • You’re welcome Harish!

      January 12, 2012
  3. Beautiful post. I especially loved the photo of the street scene.

    January 25, 2012
    • Thank you Jodi, it was my first-ever visit to Poland and I know I will be back for more!

      January 26, 2012
  4. Marcel #

    Nicely written. Hope you enjoyed your stay. Greetings from Cieszyn, Poland! 🙂

    July 7, 2012
    • Thanks Marcel, I felt like I had a truly Eastern European experience when I was there – it was such a special way to spend New Year’s. 😀

      July 7, 2012
  5. What a pitty that you have visited only one city in Poland :). Come and visit another places 🙂

    July 17, 2013
    • Yes, a pity indeed! Next time I’ll have to visit Warsaw, Gdansk, Krakow and other places besides. 🙂

      July 17, 2013
      • Yes, you have to :). The weather in Poland is terrible BUT there are some really nice places :).

        July 17, 2013
  6. George Octavian #

    I’ve seen that you haven’t visited any country of Eastern Europe except Poland. Romania and Russia are stunning . I recommend you beautiful Transylvania from Romania or Sankt Petersburg from Russia .

    September 15, 2013
    • Thanks for the recommendations, George – I would love to spend a couple of weeks travelling through Eastern Europe. St. Petersburg especially is high up on the wishlist!

      September 16, 2013
  7. Kamila #

    Regarding the borders I have Liberec and Jablonec nad Nisou in my mind: Czech Republic, Germany and Poland…all three communities living together in small towns and villages around, their struggles through and after WWII, their relocations and issues with owned land….Textile and jewellery companies were based there in the past. Also town hall in Liberec is a small version of Vienna’s one and architect is the same person. Besides that, Liberec means mountains, bikes, river Nisa with its dark stream, white tigers, great botanical garden with carnivore plants and student meeting place called Na Brize and mainly couple of artie and outdoor people I studied and lived with come from that part of country.it is also close to Cesky Raj. Other interesting and worth to see are Ceske Budejovice, Trebon, Domazlice, Karlovy Vary, Olomouc, Kromeriz, Telc, Trebic, Jihlava… and much more – it is also about people for me…

    April 1, 2014
  8. Kamila #

    The major question is the identity for me. After the Velvet Revolution, I still remember standing with other students from uni on Velke Namesti in Hradec Kralove on 17th November and clinging with our keys while snowing….Similar occasion was inniciated by sudden death of Vaclav Havel , an authentic symbol of freedom and independence my country. I have felt I belong to these people who came and expressed their condolences on Vaclavske Namesti in Praha as well as the once who came to see Nohavica in London. I do connect with them, but have to express complete oppositte if speaking about current situation in politics and society. Just to go home during holidays, see my closests, some friends and time to leave, but it doesn´t mean I left what has been given me there and I still appreciate not only the intelligence, but every ordinary person who somehow changed my views of life and I gained new skills though study, reading, listening and sharing. Czech people don´t like being called Eastern Europeans. They are Czech and European like any other country. I feel the same about it, as well as I do understand to those who emigrated to the UK, Germany, France, Canada in 60ies or who accepted different nationality and refused to publish their books in Czech like Milan Kundera.There is also co-living of bilingual literature in Praha respresented by Franz Kafka, Gustav Meyring, Egon Erwin Kisch and others…

    As I see the future, I don´t think I will come back home for good. I believe Putin would like to invade more and restore what used to be a part of SSSR. I saw its falla and prefer Angela Merkel with roots in evangelic family and east of Germany. I trust her more.

    April 1, 2014
    • Kamila, thanks for your deep, honest comments. It makes me realise just how much I have yet to see and experience in the Czech Republic; I loved both Praha and Brno so I can imagine how much I would enjoy Olomouc, Karlovy Vary and all those other places you mentioned. Thanks too for teaching me about Liberec and its town hall… I just did a Google search on it and the resemblance to Vienna’s one is uncanny! Someday I will have to go back and explore more of your fairytale country.

      April 1, 2014

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