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The purpose of this publication is to provide documentation for the material cultural heritage associated with the Dutch settlements in Mazowsze dating from the 17th century to the 1940s, including villages, crofts, residential and farming buildings, as well as churches and cemeteries.

Dutch settlement, which targeted non-cultivated floodplains located along the rivers (Vistula, Bug Wkra, and others), was developed on the lands of the Republic of Poland in the 16th century. The colonists originated in Friesland and Flanders and while their inflow was a result of religious prosecution, it also had pragmatic reasons. Since the settlers were highly skilled in the art of land cultivation and settlement development, they were very desirable colonists.

They were always settled either along rivers, or in lowland and marshy areas. Due to their centuries-old experience in fighting the floods in their native country, the colonists were able to turn barren land, seemingly unsuitable for cultivation, into a state of flourishing agriculture. They achieved this by establishing a complex system of channels, dams, and weirs. Based on cattle-raising and fruit farming, their agriculture was characterized by good work organization, and was much more advanced and productive than that of the local serfs. Therefore, the colonization of the previously uncultivated land was of great benefit to the local landowners.

Their goal was to increase profits not only by exploiting the labor force, but also by expanding the acreage of arable land through colonization of wilderness, marsh drainage, deforestation, and more intensive use of pastures and meadows. The settlers were obliged to pay rent to the landowners for the land they had on lease, which was also an important factor in the colonization process.

The Dutch law, under which the villages were settled, was so advantageous that it attracted not only Dutchmen, but also Germans and Poles.

One of most basic aspects that distinguished the "Olender" villages from the areas not covered by this type of colonization was the architecture. Many buildings that were erected by the settlers survive to the present day in the surveyed area. The majority of them were built at the beginning of 20th century; however, buildings dating as far back as the 19th century are also present. The oldest site is the church located in Sady (dist. Słubice) dating from 1806. In Mazowsze, the number of preserved buildings (both residential and farming) equals 193. These objects are located in 56 of the total 191 Olęder villages[1].

Even today, the Olęder houses, as compared to the Polish ones, look very impressive. The colonists, due to a different farming system, independence, prosperity, and self-government, could afford to erect large houses decorated with exquisite woodwork that leaves the visitor astonished by its beauty and professional execution. The relics of the Dutch settlement and architecture have been undergoing slow transformation and natural destruction. The cultural and historical continuity of the colonized areas was broken in 1945, when the descendants of the colonists were forced to leave. The buildings, crofts, and villages were taken over by newcomers, who transformed them according to their own designs. The current owners are not attached to the land they occupy and do not understand the purpose of specific arrangements: the distinctive lay-out of the homes and crofts, or their location on man-made elevations, which are removed from main roads and surrounded by planted trees.

It is this lack of understanding that is responsible for the underestimation of the previous colonists' true value and achievements. The buildings are not properly maintained and are being adapted to new customs. Moreover, new building sites are not adequately elevated. All of these factors contribute to the transformation of the rural cultural landscape and to the gradual destruction of the old sites. Disregard for the primary objectives of the colonization and its natural interrelation to the environment (especially to the neighboring river) were responsible for a number of undesirable changes. The Olęders' wisdom and experience is proven every year, when the rising ground-water threatens the non-elevated houses. The problem becomes especially acute in the case of snowy winters, after which water floods the entire ground floor. The present land owners do not take advantage of the colonists' experience in cultivating the land. The elevations are leveled; willow trees, poplar trees and osier beds are cut down. Drainage channels and excess-water ponds are left unmaintained and become slimed. All this leads to a gradual transformation of the cultural landscape of the riparian areas. The agricultural use of the area is diminishing as a consequence of depopulation and aging of the village inhabitants. This traditionally agricultural area is becoming subject to urbanization. Many land plots have begun to function as recreational spots. Newly erected buildings have nothing in common with the rural architecture.

In spite of the numerous changes, the villages settled under the Dutch law retained their traditional and historical character; especially in comparison to the surrounding settlements. The greatest changes affected historical architecture. A dozen or so years ago, in Mazowsze, wooden homes constituted one third of the total number of houses in Dutch villages; nowadays, traditional cottages have become increasingly rare.

The village layout has been preserved in much better condition. The riverfront villages, so called rzędówki bagienne, remained basically intact. All their elements (road network, plot localization, planted vegetation, drainage system etc.) are in good condition. This is probably a result of the fact that these villages are far removed from administration centers. Local roads and long distances do not favor rapid change. Therefore, the transformation that has taken place does not affect the preservation of the traditional arrangements. Of course, settlements do exist that have completely lost their original character due to their proximity to large urban centers.

The Dutch settlement is still a phenomenal example of successful cooperation between man and nature (river) in shaping the areas flooded by rivers. It shows to what extent man can learn by observation and cooperation with nature. Among the agricultural systems that were present in Poland, this system is probably the most closely related to nature.

It should be emphasized that this settlement is not associated with one area - it has a super-regional dimension and it should be examined in this context. Authors of historical and ethnographic publications assumed that the number of Olęder settlements was quite limited. However, the results of the field research and preliminary archival research show differently. For example, the number of Olęder settlements in Mazowsze exceeds 190. Although these settlements, in most cases, were founded relatively late (18th and 19th centuries) their sheer number demonstrates the scale of this phenomenon. It is also noteworthy that a large number of relics that are characteristic for this settlement survived. Even now, the settlements in this region can be perceived as a whole (despite the fact that the settlements are located along rivers, creating isolated clusters), and its sites are better preserved than that in the Kurpiowski region, whose sites are degraded to a large extent.

A similar situation occurs in other Polish regions that were colonized. Żuławy, which was the first region to be colonized, is the most interesting in terms of the cultural landscape and architectural forms. Action aimed at preservation of the Dutch cultural heritage is already well advanced in that area.

The material relics of the settlement are of immeasurable value not only for Polish culture, but also for that of Dutch and German heritage. Unfortunately, they are treated with indifference and are put at risk of being destroyed, or worse - forgotten.

In order to protect individual objects, their clusters, or the cultural landscape, it is necessary to accurately determine the range of the Dutch settlement in Poland, its sites, and the grade of preserved monuments. It is essential to explain the importance of this phenomenon and present results of the research to authorities and monument conservation agencies. Furthermore, society at large should be made aware of its immense significance for a common European heritage.

The Muzeum Etnograficzne (Ethnographic Museum) in Toruń, together with the Ośrodek Ochrony Zabytkowego Krajobrazu (The Center for Protection of Historical Landscape) from Warsaw, organized a conference dedicated to the history of the Dutch settlement and prospects for the preservation of its historical landscape. The conference, proved that the subject is treated with great interest by professional communities, and that their members possess extensive knowledge about the topic. On the other hand, the conference exposed flaws in the protection of Dutch sites, as well as the lack of interest among members of society. The participants of the conference emphasized that the determination of the scope of Dutch historical monuments and popularization of information about this settlement are fundamental for preservation of this heritage.

I hope that this publication addresses both issues.


[1]In total, 31 cemeteries associated with this colonization were preserved to the present day.

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