“THERE IS NOTHING HERE,” the young German engineer said through his cigarette, staring off the balcony of the largest house on St. Anne’s Hill, in the small pilgrimage town of Góra Świętej Anny, or St. Annaberg, in Polish Silesia – he was looking out to the A4 autostrada and the white goateed visage of KFC’s Colonel Sanders, globalism’s ghostly grinning avatar looming over what once must have been the total dark of the Polish countryside in summer. But the darkness was incomplete; there were halogen lamps yellowing the square below us, and white Sanders smiling with his eyes.
It was early August; Tobias Spruch, of Dortmund, Germany, was back in his parents’ hometown for a family wedding. On most days of the year, the arrival of Tobias and his family – brother Matthias, sister Sarah Maria, and father and mother Berthold and Brigitte – would swell the tiny hillside town’s population from about 600 to a robust 605. But that week their appearance in Annaberg was but a drop of holy water in the proverbial aspersorium: it was the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, and thousands of Roman Catholic pilgrims were making their way to the top of the hill, to its Calvary and to the 33 Baroque chapels and reliquaries that form a path to the basilica on top, as they and their forebears had been doing since the Franciscans arrived and built their monastery on the 1st of November 1655.
Hundreds of thousands venerate at the hill each year – one historian recorded 400,000 visiting the monastery and its famed wooden statue of St. Anne in 1865 – but aside from a handful of Catholic feast days, the town’s population remains comfortably under 1000, and non-religious tourism is virtually unknown. Nearby Krakow and Warsaw are popular vacation destinations; and tourists stop close to Annaberg at the Pałac w Mosznej, or Moszna Castle, an enormous edifice of 365 rooms and 99 turrets combining Baroque, Neo-Gothic, and Neo-Renaissance elements, each palimpsestic addition of wings and towers funded with Silesian coal-money. But Annaberg’s treasures don’t attract the same type of attention. The town boasts a Lourdes grotto, wall-sized 17th century paintings housed in the chapels, pristine Baroque architecture, near-empty pre-war mansions quietly and elegantly decaying, and – perhaps most impressively – a massive Nazi amphitheater carved out of an abandoned quarry, all in the middle of an untrammeled national nature preserve.
Twice or more every year Tobias and his family drive the 880 km from his home in Dortmund to St. Annaberg, where both his parents were born. In this way he is like many of the sons of Silesia, a region historically contested between Catholics and Protestants, Prussians and Poles, with a German-Polish-Czech mix of food, tradition, and language. In 1921 Annaberg was the site of the biggest clash of the three Silesian Uprisings, a series of wars between 1919 and 1921, when Silesian nationalists, attached to the Weimar Republic after World War I, attempted to break away and join the new Second Polish Republic; they battled the Weimar Provisional National Army as well as German veterans of WWI formed into paramilitary “Freikorps.” Between 19 and 20 May 1921, the monastery of St. Anne was at the center of the Uprising: the Silesians took the hill, but the Freikorps pushed them back. St. Annaberg would remain part of Germany, under the Republic and then then Third Reich, until 1945.
Like so many of the liminal communities in Europe, the Silesian people were left half-assimilated, never “national.” “We are not quite Polish,” Tobias told me; “We are not German, exactly. The food is different. The …” He sought for a word, and found only one. “We are Schlesisch.”
When his parents came of age in Annaberg, then under communist rule, they fled – separately – to West Germany, settling in Dortmund. They were part of a Silesian diaspora, hurried, dangerous, illegal. Brigitte headed west carrying Tobias, not yet born. She stayed in Dortmund with a benefactress, now known to the family as “Oma” Michalski, who remembers fondly sharing her flat with the young Brigitte and her infant son. Berthold followed when he could, bluffing his way past East German authorities. In wasn’t until 1988, seven years after Berthold came to Germany and renounced his Polish citizenship, that he could sneak back over the Berlin Wall to visit his family. Today, expatriates and pilgrims are almost the only travelers who return to rediscover St. Annaberg’s charms and wonders. As Steve and I happened to be in Dortmund at the time of the Spruchs’ summer visit, we were lucky enough to join them on their cross-Germany road trip into the Silesian heartland.
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War and religion quite literally carved out the landscape of St. Annaberg. The hill – technically a monadnock, rising suddenly out of the flat Polish plain – is the cone of a dormant volcano, a mount of basalt at the eastern terminus of the Silesian volcanic belt. In pre-Christian times tribes used the hill for pagan worship; but by 1100 the population was Christianized and monks had erected a chapel, either to St. James or to St. George. Historians and locals disagree about the precise date of the hill’s dedication to St. Anne, Christ’s maternal grandmother according to the Catholic and Islamic tradition, though her name is only mentioned in the apocryphal gospels – most legends surround the wooden statue of St. Anne, long revered as miraculous, which appeared in the town in the sixteenth century. One tale claims it was a spoil of war, and that the oxen carrying it, having reached the monadnock’s peak, refused to move; the victorious prince took this as a sign and built a chapel on the spot. Other stories cite a dragon – perhaps even Smok Waweleski, the dragon said once to have inhabited Krakow, where its purported bones still hang from ancient chains outside the main door of Wavel Cathedral. Suffice it to say that most medieval historians, citing frequent wars and fires, insist only that the statue resided in a Franscican monastery at Annaberg by the sixteenth century, and has remained there – with a few interruptions – ever since.
There are no physical reminders of Napoleon’s expulsion of the Franciscans between 1810 and 1859, nor of Otto von Bismarck’s expulsion in 1874, part of his “Kulturkampf.” But a second sort of “Kulturkampf” left very visible scars.
The most visually impressive structure at Annaberg is at the bottom of the hill, not the top. Between 1936 and 1938 the Nazi government constructed a massive stone amphitheater, capable of seating 50,000, at Annaberg’s abandoned quarry – part of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels’ project to unite the disparate peoples of the swelling empire through the old Germanic Volk tradition of the “Thing,” large public gatherings for rituals, festivals, or councils of war.
//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js“Thing,” as its English equivalent suggests, can connote whatever message the definer wishes to convey. Because of this – and because of a turbulent history – the meaning of the Annaberg “Thingstätte” has changed dramatically over the years. The amphitheater was once strung with swastika pennants (you can still buy picture postcards of this in Annaberg’s square), leading down to a sheer cliff face, at the top of which sat an imposing, fortress-like mausoleum glorifying the German Freikorps – an insult to many in Annaberg, sons and daughters of the Polish rebels. After the Second World War the new Polish government was quick to dynamite the mausoleum. The sculptor Xawery Dunikowski designed an open-air monument to replace it, featuring stern reliefs of the Silesian rebels and Polish laborers. By the time of the Communist takeover, the latter element was emphasized; the structure glorified the common worker more than the fallen Polish nationalists. Today the amphitheater is untended – the eternal flame of the monument has been swallowed up in rainwater, and the long stone slabs of the Thingstätte are choked with weeds – but the whole structure, from the cliff face to the seats spreading out in huge stone ripples, remains an impressive ruin of the Third Reich. History heads can learn more in the town’s Uprising Museum, but naturalists and hikers might be more excited to know that Annaberg is the center of a national landscape park, comprising six nature preserves. Though only 50 km in diameter, the preserve is far from any heavy human population and infrequently visited – the small area is rich with wildlife, from the common barn owls, badgers, martens, and voles to the rarer red deer, and the striking red-capped woodpecker and woodchat shrike, or the cool blue European roller; as well as recent Eurasian migrants like the raccoon dog and the collared dove. Goldmoss stonecrop colors the quarries and paints whole hills when it flowers in June – though you can find it in town poking out of shady spots in forgotten buildings. The woods are filled with white puffy danewort and delicate pink four-petaled daphnes, while butterflies – from bright purple emperor to the swallowtail with its wings like Art Nouveau piano keys – flock to the ornamental Turk’s cap, hanging heavy stamen down while the petals bloom up and curve back, bright red or spotted orange. //embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
We left Annaberg for a day trip to Krakow, but it;’s more likely that Krakow’s visitors would want to take a breather from the city with a drive to Annaberg and environs. The park encompassing the town even offers a chance for a kind of meta-tourism: not far from the Thingstätte one can find the remains of slowly decaying shelters, perhaps intended for the the 50,000 nationalistic Nazi visitors that the amphitheater never hosted.
The pilgrims, of course, offer another kind of meta-tourism: watching them fill Annaberg overnight, seeming to bring with them stalls that crowd the narrow streets and brass bands that rise with the sun is an impressive sight, especially when juxtaposed with the silence of the town on any other day. On special occasions, the Franciscans will lead thousands of pilgrims up a path passing the hill’s 33 Baroque chapels, many holding saints’ relics and eighteenth century artworks, candelabras, and fine carpentry. Three of the chapels are large enough to accommodate a hundred or a few score; as they progress, chanting in Polish the Litany of Saints, the priests will stop to offer masses in these chapels, novitiates multiplying folding chairs for the faithful like so many loaves and fishes, while altar boys stand outside the doors, swinging censers amid the massed majority of the pilgrims pausing under the trees to listen. We numbered among the devout, Steve and I, when, alone at the house one evening, we hit the Tyskie keg and then the iceboxed Sobieski and finally, circa sunset, set out in search of adventure. We found it – and found ourselves caught in a massive procession up the hill, mumbling holy nothings in Polish, Saint This and Saint That, pray for us.
//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.jsIt is best, though, to walk up St. Anne’s hill when it’s empty, early in the morning when the dew is still heavy on the grass: the effect is like walking through a mist-lit out-of-doors museum. Many of the chapels are open even at this hour, 33 shelters gilded inside in 18th century gold and outside by a hazy sun, offering a place to rest the feet and contemplate. The stroll should take you past the wide field behind the Dom where Pope John Paul II addressed several thousand from a tall metal staircase erected for the occasion and still standing, where Catholics continue to leave flowers and votives in his memory. Then you’ll head back up the hill, to the dramatic Calvary and the basilica, where, according to a Latin manuscript in the monastery, a 66 cm wooden figurine holds the relics of St. Anne. If you’re lucky enough to know a local, they’ll take you, as Brigitte took us, to a holy spring, where you’ll look askance at roundback slugs in the water and then bring a palm-cupped swallow to your mouth anyway, hoping for the best. We even bottled a few litres for the long drive back home. [Note: Steve came down with a viral illness days later.] //embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js
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Beneath the art and the architecture spanning five centuries of war and worship, upheaval and pilgrimage, lies a small town of some 600 souls, the fabric of which carries the organic legacy of that history. This is the real charm if not the greatest draw of St. Annaberg – the people and their land, quiet two-cow farms and grand prewar houses fallen into disrepair but still sturdy. The largest of these sits directly below the monastery’s steps, rising four stories out of the hillside above a statue of Pope John Paul II and overlooking the town “square” (comprised of two restaurants, an ice-cream shop, and a bodega) and beyond that, the flat green-blue Polish countryside, broken only by the distant Sudeten mountains in the far, far southwest. (And, of course, the KFC sign – not quite as distant, but still far enough away.)
This red-roofed house – visible in nearly every St. Annaberg postcard, as much a landmark as the monastery – was the home of Tobias’ and Matthias’ forebears: their father Berthold and uncle Mikhail grew up there, and their Oma Helena Glomb still lives there today. After World War II the Glomb family opened their doors to Annaberg’s pilgrims, as the Franciscan hostel was then unbuilt. Helena and her husband Paweł hosted as many as 250 pilgrims in the house, feeding them tea and soup, and entertaining them in the basement pub; they filled the lower floors, sleeping on straw, for two or four days, a long weekend – and when they left the house was empty and the town quiet, maybe for months at a stretch . Helena Glomb has retired to the middle floors, but the ground floor still has the large washing vats and banks of sinks first installed for the pilgrims, and the spare beam-crossed attic is still strung with the ropes off which the visitors once hung their drying clothes.
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Sometime after midnight on our first full day in Annaberg, Tobias and Matthias Spruch took pints of Lech beer from the hilltop house and took us, the Americans, on a walk through the town, past the monastery and the graveyard where their grandfather lay, strewn with the brightest red, yellow, and pink flowers in the Polish-Catholic tradition, then glowing ghostly pale in what little moonlight was filtered through the trees. An hour and a half down the autostrada, Krakow’s nightlife was just beginning; but the only light in Annaberg came from three high halogen lamps in the empty square we’d left behind.
“You see, there’s nothing here,” Tobias said again, he and his brother leading the way, sure-footed, while we trailed behind in the total dark, down uneven stone steps and blind curving paths. We turned a corner and the darkness lightened into something paler – we were standing at the edge of a sharp grass-covered cliff, looking into a valley where miles away the smokestacks of a coking plant pumped white clouds into the night – an odd reflection of the 99 turrets of the Mozsna Castle. We sipped our beers in silence.
“Nothing here,” Tobias said, for the third time that night. “But you can’t get this anywhere else.”
Pictures More on St. Annaberg, Poland: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1208347/Opolskie http://www.swanna.com.pl/news.php http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silesian_Uprisings http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Annaberg https://www.poland.travel/en/museum/uprising-museum-a-branch-of-the-museum-of-opole-silesia/ http://www.protectedplanet.net/sites/Park_Krajobrazowy_Gora_Sw_Anny_Landscape_Park