A City Divided, Český Těšín/Cieszyn
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.”