From Austria to Poland

The effects of World War I were felt most keenly in Skotschau after the hostilities ended on November 11, 1918. At that time, grandfather Emanuel Spitzer was 54 years old and had been managing the tannery since his father’s death in 1910. In fact, the war had provided a windfall for the factory. Requisitioned to provide for the army, the business thrived. Leather was required for the soldiers’ footwear and for the reins and saddles of the horses that still hauled the steam kitchens and supply wagons to and from the fronts.

But all this had been done in the service of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and in 1918 it had ceased to exist. Skotschau, once an entity in Austrian Silesia, would now be Skoczów, a town in the newly constituted, but by no means settled, Republic of Poland. It would take four more years and six wars—-large and small-—to confirm the country’s borders and Skoczów was to be at the center of the skirmish concerning one of them. Because of its well developed industries, productive coal mines, and key railway hubs, the part of former Austrian Silesia that lay in Skoczów’s vicinity—-the border area surrounding the city of Cieszyn—-was claimed by both the Czechs and the Poles, though the latter were in the majority.

On January 23, 1919, when Polish officials began to set up procedures for elections to the new national Parliament in Cieszyn, the Czechs objected. They threatened to attack the Poles if they did not begin to evacuate the the city within two hours and move as far as the Biala River twenty miles inland. When there was no compliance, the Czechs occupied Cieszyn and forced the outnumbered Polish army–most members of which were involved on other fronts–to retreat as far as Skoczów . A second attack planned for January 31st and already announced as the “Battle of Skoczów” was only averted by the intervention of the peace makers working out the postwar treaties in Paris. The Czechs withdrew to a line outside Cieszyn and an International Commission arrived to supervise the border negotiations.

This must have been a tense moment for the population of Skoczów. No longer citizens of Austria, were they now to be Polish or Czech? All I remember my father telling me about those days was that as a curious teenager of 14, he had spied on an officer handing over his sabre to an adjutant before taking care of some personal needs in a nearby field.

One of the ironies of history is that the city of Cieszyn, being fought over so bitterly between the Poles and the Czechs, had been transformed by the Austrians over the decades of their control. As a British member of the International Commission recalled, it was “a thoroughly German town with German beerhouses and cafés and restaurants, German policemen in Austrian uniform, German tram-cars, German churches, German banks, German cinemas and German theater. There was nothing Czech about it except an inscription above a bank, or Polish except for the lace caps of the married women of the poorer classes.” Even General Franciszek Latinik, who commanded the Polish forces, had been trained as an Austrian soldier.

My family was a product of the Polish-Austrian symbiosis of that region. Produced over generations, it could not be wiped out with the signing of border treaties or even the creation of a new country. German and Polish continued to be spoken interchangeably in Skoczów. And after the border issues were settled to no one’s real satisfaction at the 1920 conference held in Spa, Belgium, the Spitzer tannery drew on the profits made from the war to expand, grow, and extend its benefits to the new economy to which it had been relegated.

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1 Response to From Austria to Poland

  1. janice Urbach says:

    Eliezer Urbach, my husband, grew up in Skoczow between the two world wars and recalled the tannery very well. Good job of posting this historical information!

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