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Articles --> Conference 2001

Bolesław Klein

Nowodworski Club, Nowy Dwór Gdański

Reflections on the 1st and 2nd Mennonite Convention and participation of the Klub Nowodworski in the protection of the Mennonite cemeteries

Klub Nowodworski and Żuławski Oddział Towarzystwa Przyjaźni Polsko-Niderlandzkiej (Żuławy Branch of the Association of Polish-Dutch Friendship) in Nowy Dwór Gdański have been involved in activities associated with the Mennonites in Żuławy since the 1980s. In Żuławy (Vistula and Nogat delta) this movement was initiated by the late and much lamented Roman Klim. Fascinated by objects that remained from the settlers, he began to work on preservation of artifacts as early as 1946. The scope of his interests included not only works of architecture, but also hydrotechnical devices and cemeteries, where the farmers' ancestors were buried.

Roman Klim and a group of activists gathered around him initiated numerous projects whose purpose was to reconstruct and preserve the history and relics of the Żuławy colonists.

The formation and activities of the Klub Nowodworski, which was run by Klim, were inspired by actions of PTTK (Polish Tourist Association) Elbląg, Klub Przyjaciół Kultury Mennonickiej (Friends of the Mennonite Culture) "Olender", the Museum of Vistula in Tczewo and by studies and publications (by Edmund Kizik, among others) devoted to the Mennonites. Through his activities, he established relations with the Mennonite centers in the Netherlands, Germany, the USA, and Canada.

As a result of extensive public campaigns, Roman Klim succeeded in organizing the 1st Helmut Reimer International Mennonite Convention. It was the fist such a convention in the post-war history of Poland. The conference took place on September 4, 1993 in Stogi Międzyborskie (former Heubuden). Over 400 people, including 129 authentic Mennonites from different countries participated in the convention. The event was of fundamental importance for the protection of the settlers' heritage, and first of all, it broke the conspiracy of silence regarding their existence. The ecumenical mass celebrated by bishop suffragan Józef Wybicki from Elbląg was a historical moment of the convention. The convention was accompanied by numerous cultural events, for example, photography exhibits of Tadeusz Magdziarz, Roman Klim, and Marek Opitz, which are still on display in the Museum of Vistula in Tczewo.

It was concluded that subsequent Mennonite conventions will facilitate popularization of the settlers' culture, spread the relevant information among the general public and provide a platform for encounters with authentic colonists.

The second Helmut Reimer Mennonite Convention was organized by Klub Nowodworski and Żuławski Oddział Towarzystwa Przyjaźni Polsko-Niderlandzkiej with the financial assistance of Fundacja Stefana Batorego (Stefan Batory Foundation). The convention took place on June 7-8, 1997. Approximately 140 people participated in the event, including 70 Mennonites from abroad.

The two-day meeting provided an opportunity for friendly discussions and visits as well as for making plans for the future. Following a visit to the Museum in Nowy Dwór Gdański and a gallery of Mennonite stalls, the participants of the convention took part in an ecumenical meeting in Lubieszów led by a member of the Klub Nowodworski administration, Andrzej Domiń and a minister of the Mennonite community in Haarlem in Netherlands, Arno Thimm. The meeting was followed by a visit to a Mennonite cemetery in Stawiec (former Ladekopp), which was restored by a group of Mennonites from Aalsmeer and members of the Klub Nowodworski.

The next site visited by the participants was a cemetery in Stogi Malborskie (former Heubuden), which was cleaned up by Marten Hart and his colleagues from Aalsmeer with the participation of the local residents. The works carried out in this site provided a model for cooperation in cleaning up other cemeteries.

The program of tidying up the Mennonite cemeteries in Żuławy stimulated development of a Mennonite tourist route, which includes cemeteries and other historical sites located in their vicinity.

The consistent and persistent efforts already bring notable effects. There is still much to do, however, considering the increasing numbers of Mennonite pilgrims who come from around the world to visit the graves of their ancestors, we need not be ashamed of their condition.

Recently, two additional cemeteries have been restored: in Wików near Elbląg (with considerable assistance of the secretary of the Elbląg district, Genowefa Kwoczek) and in Niedźwiedziówka, which was cleaned up thanks to Mr Kurkowski, Mirosław Czajka, and especially the local priest Tomasz Bielecki. Rev. Peter Foth from a Mennonite community in Hamburg expressed his thanks for the completed works.

On November 1, Rev. Bielecki with the Niedźwiedziówka parishioners celebrates a yearly mass on both the Catholic and Mennonite cemeteries. Participants often light candles on the graves. It is noteworthy that this custom became common in other villages, especially on those cemeteries that are looked after by school students.

Cleaning up the Mennonite cemeteries in Żuławy provided an example for similar actions in other areas, for instance, in Tczew district in the Nizina Walichnowska region, where the cemetery in Walichnowy (former Falkenau) was restored due to the efforts of Mrs. Jabłonowska. The Mennonites from the Aalsmeer community including Rev. Arno Thimm were invited by the Klub Nowodworski to participate in an unveiling of the commemorative plaque.

In addition to coordinating and supporting the working groups from the Netherlands the Klub Nowodworski accumulated gravestones (stalls) from destroyed cemeteries in Żelechów, Orłowo, or Różewo, among others. The stalls are on display in the gallery of Muzeum Żuławskie (Żuławskie Museum) in Nowy Dwór Gdański. The stalls were restored with the financial support of the National Agencies for Historic Monument Protection in Elbląg and Gdańsk and presently constitute an integral part of the Muzeum Żuławskie. A larch wood stall from the 19th century deserves a particular attention. This unique artefact is probably the only such a stall in Poland; it was partially buried in the ground in bushes and was found by accident in a former cemtetery in Cyganek (former Petershagen). The object was superbly restored by a restoration specialist, Szymon Juźkowiak from Toruń.

The annual meetings with a group of the Dutch Mennonites have become a tradition. The events are also frequented by representatives of district authorities, administration of schools that maintain the cemeteries, and cooperating non-governmental organizations.

In 1999, during one of such events, which was organized on the Klub Nowodworski's initiative and was attended by over 50 people (including 18 Mennonites from Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada), the participants signed an agreement regarding cleaning and an ongoing maintenance of the Mennonite cemeteries. The agreement was signed by the Mennonites from Aalsmeer on one side and by schools and district authorities from Nowy Dwór Gdański, Elbląg, Markusy, Stare Pole, and Malbork on the other side.

Due to an increased interest in the settlers' culture, the public library in Nowy Dwór Gdański accumulated a considerable collection of literature and publications regarding the Mennonites and made it available to the interested public. Among other books, the collection includes four volumes of "Das Mennonitisches Lexicon", which was donated by the minister from Haarlem, Arno Thimm. A similar collection was handed over to the University Library in Gdańsk and the Public Library in Elbląg through the efforts of Klub Nowodworski. It should be emphasized that the publications are used by increasingly large number of people, for instance, university students who gather materials for their doctoral and master theses.

Some of these works were presented during the annual meetings with the American and Canadian Mennonites as part of project "Mennonici na Żuławach (the Mennonites in Żuławy)". The publications aroused great interest and gained recognition for the authors and the universities. The director of the Międzynarodowy Pogram Współpracy (International Cooperationa Program), University of Fresno, California, Prof. Peter Klassen proposed that Klub Nowodworski would organize a contest for the best work on the Mennonites and donated 1000 dollars as a prize for the 4 winners. The contest will be concluded in June 2002 during the next Mennonite convention in Nowy Dwór Gdański.

Due to the established contacts, our modest programs and activities presented above contribute to broadening our scope of knowledge and popularizing the information about the colonizers. Particularly, we will initiate and continue our efforts to maintain the former cemeteries. Unfortunately, after the war, we were unwilling to respect the history of the former residents of the region and now, years later, we are trying to remedy this situation.

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