Christmas in Poland During
and After World War II

by Prof. Jerzy Gałkowski

Christmas in Wartime

I remember him being dressed in a winter coat tied with a wire (which was very suspicious to me) and sounding like my uncle, but I dared not say anything. 

The holidays were on the calendar but not in my memories, for two reasons. One was because I was too small to remember them, the other was because they had been preceded by tragedy. It was 1939, and I was two. Poland had fallen a few months earlier, attacked from two sides by two military powers. We lived in a small town in southern Wielkopolska [Great Poland], right near the border with then-German Wrocław. My father worked for the post office and just before the War broke out was armed … just in case. Families of government workers like ours were told that, in the event of the danger of war, we were to evacuate to the county seat and await removal to central Poland. War approached so, on the signal, my mom went obediently with me to Rawicz where, of course, there was no removal.

“Go, they’ll catch up to you.”

So she went with a whole group of refugees, carrying a sick me on her back. It’s better not to imagine what she went through. Happily—if one can speak of luck—she met her brother/my godfather, along the way. He was in the artillery, so he took us part of the way on an artillery vehicle carrying ammunition. Dad stayed at the post office but nothing came of their defense, because a couple of people with pistols could not stop tank columns driving through the town, where they didn’t even stop.

Dad therefore followed in my mom’s footsteps where, strangely, they met. They later went home but didn’t stay there for long because, on December 13 at 4:00 a.m. the Gestapo came for us. With a previously prepared letter in their hands, they escorted local Germans in. I can therefore say that I had two such December 13s in my life, because later there was Jaruzelski’s War, as we call martial law imposed December 13, 1981.

Our tender German neighbors gave my family fifteen minutes to get dressed (taking my mom’s fur in which she had dressed, because the temperature was - 40°) and, along with a couple dozen people from our little town (the local administration, government workers, doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, etc.) and a few hundred from the surrounding area, packed us all into cattle wagons and took us a few hundred kilometers east, to the so-called General Governement, someplace around Rzeszów. Wielkopolska was incorporated into the German Reich and thus so dangerous an element as the Polish intelligentsia had to be thrown out! My grandmother hid me and perhaps because of that I am alive, because travel in such train cars in bitter cold without food or drink for several days, followed by everybody being thrown out in an open field would have been a difficult experience.

Eventually, following various adventures, my teenage aunt brought me and my younger cousin, who was similarly situated, back to my parents. Thus we survived physically, but the psychological wounds didn’t heal for years. But that is another story.

The earliest wartime Christmas that I remember was in Kraków. I don’t know the date, but it was sometime in the middle of the War. It has stuck in my mind because of the presents: such is the memory of a child. Wigilia took place according to Wielkopolska ritual, hence presents came not from St. Nicholas but Gwiazdor [the figure who distributes Christmas presents in the areas that had been part of the Prussian Partition—ed.] I remember him being dressed in a winter coat tied with a wire (which was very suspicious to me) and sounding like my uncle, but I dared not say anything.

The first two Christmases that stick in my mind I remember from the presents I received. The first was a mechanical toy—a bellboy who pushed a heavy trunk and then jumped atop it. Beautiful! I also remember the orange, perhaps not so much as a present as part of the Wigilia menu. My cousin (who was raised with me) and I got one orange to share. It was gotten from some German soldier who came from Greece and wanted to make some money. The adults were pleased that they could give the children such a delicacy. Then, for many years even after the War, I never saw another orange. At the time, I didn’t like its taste: it was dried out and I couldn’t understand the adults’ fascination, which they likewise expected from me.

I remember no other dishes except the fried fish (where did they find it?) and some horrible grits, but we sang carols for a long time, because my family was very musical. There was a beautifully decorated Christmas tree with prewar decorations, because our relatives had lived in Kraków for many years. The windows were tightly sealed with black shades so that the “Allied enemies” (what enemies? They were our friends, maybe even our relatives, but the police enforced the blackout strictly) could not see Kraków from the air. The traditional Polish Pasterka took place, of course, in the afternoon due to curfew. Such was life at the time, such were the holidays.

Christmas After the War

These are mysteries the human mind cannot penetrate but which go to the core of man, giving endless possibilities to reflect on God, human fate, and their interrelationship.

When you get older, it’s harder to remember what happened yesterday as opposed to what took place in childhood. That’s well and good, because the mind readily stores happy memories while discarding the bad ones. That’s why I remember better the Christmases right after the War than the ones later on.

After our wartime sojourns, we returned to our little family town in Wielkopolska near Wrocław, to which we later moved. Part of our family, however, stayed in the town: grandmother, grandfather, some of my mother’s brothers, cousins. Thus, we spent Christmas mostly at the grandparents’, which was especially happy because many other aunts, uncles, and cousins spread throughout Poland would gather there. It was cramped, loud, and happy. But first things first.

The Christmas season really began in my home in early December, because that’s when mom baked her magical pierniki. At first, they were hard as rocks, but those that were stored in a big metal box for Christmas (if they survived till then) were soft but still crunchy.

In the week before Christmas, typically on Sunday, a box full of Christmas ornaments was brought down from the attic and everybody sat down at the largest table. The ornaments all had to be inspected, broken ones mended and new ones made. It was hard to call that work: it was rather a happy game, full of stories and memories (and we had lots of them after the War). Everybody readily made chains out of colored and crepe paper, hay, and other items. Some made them simple; others, endowed with an artistic spirit, did more refined work. Little figures were made from shells and wire and painted gold. Angels arose from hay and cotton. There were many different stars and colorful chains. And we had to be sure there were enough glass ornaments left, because they most often broke.

After the bustle of December 24, evening at last fell, as the children watched for the first star. First came prayer, then reading of an appropriate excerpt from Scripture. Following this was the sharing of opłatek and greetings, followed by the traditional twelve dishes.

The foods changed, depending on whom in the family had the deciding voice that year—family members lived in and had husbands and wives from different parts of Poland, so there were lots of traditions. The only unchanging items were herring, fried carp, and cabbage with mushrooms. There was no problem with carp because there was a huge fish pond nearby, established already in the Middle Ages by some monks. Even the war and, later, socialism didn’t manage to destroy the fish. There were lots different kinds there, all tasty, but grandma wouldn’t tolerate any changes: carp. After the appetizers and soup came the tray with fried fish. There were several soups and they changed annually. My bane was sweet soup (made from pierniki) but, happily, it was rarely made. There had to be ground poppy seed with raisins, kompot from dried fruit, and pastries like poppy seed rolls and pierniki. Fruit and nuts followed. Chocolate treats were rare, if they appeared at all, because obtaining them was difficult. Other products, produced locally, were easier to get because the area was agricultural.

Something more about the opłatek. During our exchange of greetings, we broke a beautiful white opłatek. There were also colored opłatki (pink, green) for the animals, which the area farmers shared with the cattle, horses, chickens, and dogs. My dog had been brought from Kraków, where he had wandered from house to house which the fleeing Germans had abandoned. He ate all kinds of opłatki. The children went around midnight to listen to the animals, who spoke at that hour with human voices, but I never managed to hear them.

After supper, we sang kolędy and pastoralki, the former hymns of a theological and doctrinal character, the latter folk songs with references to a given area and its customs but always connected to the birth of Jesus. Singing was long, because my family was musical. At that time, presents were also distributed, which is what most pleased the children. Carolers, called Gwiazdorzy, used to visit houses on Christmas Eve to distribute presents, but that custom quickly disappeared, because their behavior could be tough, especially towards the girls.

At midnight, we went to Midnight Mass (Pasterka) in the church on the other side of the square. Quiet, aided by the hiss of the gas lamps, the crunch of snow falling in big flakes and making a deep carpet, the trees capped in white—a magical time. Because there was no electricity in the town, gas provided lighting and heating. The church was illumined by hundreds of candles.

The parish church (because there was an older one, at the cemetery) had been built in the early 20th century and paid for by the local aristocracy. Because of that fact, the best artists in Poland had been invited to decorate it. The walls were covered from top to bottom in frescoes of the Młoda Polska style (usually extended angels in prayerful positions), executed by artists like Wyśpianski, Styka, and Falat. A huge picture of St. Isidore the Farmer, also by Falat, was on the side wall of the nave, obviously because of the agricultural nature of the place. The stained glass windows, full of stunning colors, were by Mehoffer. (Similar windows by that artist supposedly exist only in the largest churches of Switzerland, e.g., St. Nicholas Cathedral in Fribourg).

Just entering the church on that magical and holy night lifted the soul to heavenly heights. One has to be mature to grasp that beauty. And then there was the organ, blasting out carols sung wholeheartedly by everybody there, expressing the mystery of God’s encounter with earth, the Creator with the creature. There is a carol full of the paradoxes of that encounter:

Bóg się rodzi, moc truchleje,
Pan niebiosów obnażony.
Ogień krzepnie, blask ciemnieje,
Ma granice Nieskończony.

Wzgardzony, okryty chwałą,
Śmiertelny król nad wiekami,
A Słowo ciałem się stało
I mieszkało między nami.

These are mysteries the human mind cannot penetrate but which go to the core of man, giving endless possibilities to reflect on God, human fate, and their interrelationship. The poet who wrote those words was certainly a great theologian, an intellectual full of faith.

The children could still admire the crčche with its figures of actual height. After Mass, everybody extended greetings to everybody else. Then, some returned home to receive guests while others went to visit family and friends. Once again there were carols and exchange of greetings. One could now eat meat, because the fast was over. Everyone loved each other. It was hoped that such love might suffice for a long time. In any event, the thread of hate was broken, something was reborn in us, something started anew.

How much of these are the memories of youth, how much the reflections of age, I know not.

Prof. Jerzy Gałkowski (b. 1937) is emeritus professor of philosophy in the Chair of Ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, and a student of St. John Paul II. Wojtyła had presided in 1964 at his marriage to Maria Braun-Gałkowska, emeritus professor of psychology at the Catholic University of Lublin.





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