Netherlands in Zulawy

When in the 16th century the Netherlands was destroyed by long years of ongoing wars with Spain, resulting in its ensuing economic collapse, and it’s expanding Protestantism suffered much from persecution of the Catholic Habsburgs, many Dutch people decided to leave their homeland and seek their fortune in faraway Poland. It was at that time a country of severe religious tolerance, and the owners of the flood-ridden areas of depression at the mouth of the Vistula River, called Zulawy, were waiting for them with open arms.

The reason was that Dutch immigrants – called Olendrzy or Olędrzy (Polish name for a Dutchman is Holender, plural – Holendrzy) – were for too many years used to solving their own water problems and they had great experience in development of the floodplains. The situation was favorable for both parties. At the depressive Zulawy immigrants from the Netherlands found a substitute for their homeland, and most importantly – freedom for practicing their religion. From the name of their religious leader, Anabaptist Menno Simons (1496-1561) – on the picture, they are known today as the Mennonites. On the other side local landowners and the authorities of Gdansk were highly interested in the development of those fitting though fertile lands, especially that in western Europe there was high demand for Polish grain. And after two great floods of 1540 and 1543 these areas, already sparsely populated after Polish-Teutonic wars, were deserted. Those who remained were unable to cope with the water element.


The first Dutch settlers arrived in present-day Polish territory (then it was Prussia) almost three hundred years before the Mennonites. They were invited there by Teutonic Order (in this time conquering the lands of Prussian tribes) to dry the swamp lands. Those first Dutchmen founded in the 13th century a town of Paslek, which originally was called Holland, and in the years 1701-1945 – Preussich Holland. 

The second wave of Dutch emigration arrived in the 16th century, after the Netherlands mastered the economic crisis and intensified persecution of Protestants.This time the area colonized by them was Royal Prussia, the lands of present Zulawy (Zulawy Gdanskie, Zulawy Malborskie and Zulawy Elblaskie). They also settled down in Kujawy, Mazovia and Wielkopolska (Great Poland). Traces of this settlement are still visible in the architecture of rural and urban spatial systems (mentioned Paslek) and in the names of villages and towns (Holendry, Olendry etc.). It is estimated that at the peak of the settlement (second half of 17th century) Mennonites owned about 38 000 hectares of land, while their number amounted to 13 000 people, which was 1/6 part of the whole Zulawy population residents.

Despite the separation from their homeland, Polish Mennonites maintained close contacts with the Netherlands, as evidenced by the so-called memorandum of Toens, whose writings concern relations between Haarlem and Gdansk. Living conditions in the Polish lands were bearable. It significantly worsened after the first partition of Poland (1772), when the lands inhabited by them were incorporated into the Prussia.

On the picture: memorandum of Toens


In many ways “olenderski” settlement differed much in a positive way from the Polish settlement. First of all farmer arriving from Friesland and the Netherlands was a free man, he cropped the ground following the principle of the perpetual lease of land, could transfer that land to his heirs or at any time sell the farm and leave the property. The most important feature was a collective, joint and several liabilities of the entire community to the lord and the specific nature of the municipality. For those reasons in the future the term “olenderski” referred also to the peasants of other nationalities who had privileges similar to the Dutch.

In comparison to Polish peasants Dutch settlers represented much higher level of civilization, which made them feel superior to Poles. But their contribution to the development of Zulawy was huge. Mennonites played an important role in the reconstruction, expansion and operation of the drainage system. They turned large tracts of the delta into fertile fields, and to do this, they had to dig hundreds of miles of canals, built bridges, dams and windmills to drive the drainage facilities. They also planted willows, which are living pumps. Zulawy largely owes to them its characteristic landscape, so familiar to every visitor from the Netherlands.


 Tiegenhof (Nowy Dwór Gdański) 1835


                                                         Tiegenhof, windmill

The newcomers from the Netherlands were not only excellent farmers, but also deserved in many other fields. Thanks to so-called “Jacob’s ladder”, created in early 17th century by Adam Wiebe (buckets to transport materials sliding on a rope), Gdansk fortifications were built, which later excellently defended the town against the Swedish invasion. Mennonits were also good in trade (they imported silk, velvet, lace and haberdashery products) and production of alcohol. In the years 1776-1945 in the Nowy Dwor Gdanski (formerly Tiegenhof) a Mennonite family Stobbe was running a distillery, producing the famous gin Stobbes Machandel. The last owner of the distillery, Bernhard Stobbe, was arrested in 1945 and sent to the Urals, and his company was liquidated. Fortunately, the formula of the gin survived but machandel today is manufactured by the German company Marken Horst in Osnabrück. (There is a special ritual of drinking machandel: drink it in a special glass, with a prune plum on a toothpick inside, so when the alcohol is drunk the plum must be eaten and the toothpick broken and left in a glass.) The building of the distillery still exists today, but has been turned into a café.

 machandel distillery, Tiegenhof

Gdansk was famous for the Goldwasser liquor whose recipe (a unique composition of over twenty herbs and spices mixed with flakes of pure gold), was invented in the 16th century by Dutch immigrant Ambrose Vermollen. After obtaining the citizenship of Gdansk in 1598 Vermollen founded an alcohol distillery named Der Lachs (The Salmon), which produced that liquor. Liquor was so appreciated that even is mentioned in the most famous Polish poem “Pan Tadeusz” written by Adam Mickiewicz. Currently produced in Germany, but the distillery is commemorated by a restaurant named “Under the Salmon”, situated in the same house  (Gdansk, Szeroka street). On the photo: machandel (left) and Golden wasser (right).

                                              Tasting Room “Der Lachs”

Industriousness, thrift and saving – those typically Protestant virtues made the Mennonites of Zulawy in 19th century to wealthy people.


Mennonites did not integrate with the rest of the inhabitants of Zulawy, living in their villages by the rules, which were imposed on them by their religion. They did not recognize the ecclesiastical hierarchy and chose the spirit guide from among themselves, and were baptized as adults (as a part of the Anabaptists). In their churches there was no altar, but the pulpit. They did not bear weapons and refused to serve in the army. Their daily life, similar to American Amish, was simple and crude, in line with the virtues of modesty and economy.



Mennonites women, apparently not very handsome, wore dark dresses buttoned up (this does not mean however that women did not decorated theirselves by small ornaments) and dealt with many children and a housework. Their biggest pleasure was eating well, especially pork, milk and butter. Any entertainment, even as innocent as playing violin, was prohibited, and gambling or alcohol abuse was punished. This does not mean that alcohol was not drunk at all.

Exhibition: “The Polish polder. The history of the Mennonites”, Zulawski Historic Park, Nowy Dwor Gdański

Initially, the Dutch settlers and their descendants spoke the language of Old Dutch, but gradually this language had been replaced by German. This process was intensified when Zulawy had been incorporated to Prussia in 1772, after the 1st partition of Poland. Unfortunately, they didn’t leave any monuments of the literature and today the only remains of their culture are buildings, including the famous arcaded houses, churches and chapels, windmills, cemeteries or the typical spatial arrangement of villages and towns. On the photo: former chapel of the family Scheweke in Wroblewo, 16th century.

A typical Dutch house was erected on an artificial hill (terp) – photo below, which was intended to protect against flooding. The building was connected to the barn and the cowshed.

At the end of the 18th century a new kind of house became typical for this area, but it is not original Mennonites invention. This impressive building had arcades – protruding floor supported on pillars (their number depended on wealth of the host). The wooden frame was filled with bricks arranged decoratively, and the transverse beam in front was engraved with the owner’s name and year of house construction, as well as the sign of the family, so called gmerk. Arcades originally served as a granary – for protection against water corn or flour was stored on the floor, and bags of them were hoisted through a hole in the roof.

 Trutnowy, arcade house from 1720

 Numerous Mennonite cemeteries also differ from Polish cemeteries. Because of the stone stellas they look a bit like the Jewish cemeteries.

Cemetery in Markusy / Tomasz Pluciński

Most of the monuments come from the 19th century but a lot of arcaded houses date from the late 18th century. Many of them are in ruins, but fortunately in recent years local authorities launched a program “To the rescue of historical monuments”, under which many post-Mennonites facilities are undergoing renovation. Unluckily, for many it is already too late. (Some non-existent buildings were photographed in last minute by Marek Opitz who presented them in his album “Zuławy – a time of breakthrough”). Photo: grave stele in Marynowy / Tomasz Pluciński

It is worth mentioning the initiative of establishing an ethnographic park of the Mennonite culture in Wielka Nieszawka around Toruń, where to elements from cemeteries, some churches and residential buildings will be brought from other parts of the country. Other places worth seeing have been written in a separate article: de Voetsporen der Dopersen.

In addition to the centuries-old monuments of the material kind Zulawy also shows the presence of characteristic Dutch landscape, with canals, dikes, embankments, windmills and willows. Very Dutch looking areas are situated in the west of Lake Druzno, so called Small Zulawy of Malbork. Roads here lead onto embankments and canals and rivers are clearly higher than the adjacent field. Only their creators no longer live here…


Żuławy Gdańskie – Steblewo / Vikimedia Commons


The situation of the Polish Mennonites had changed dramatically in 1772, when they became subjects of the King of Prussia. This country was in the 18th century highly militaristic, which was incompatible with the Mennonites pacifism and their refusal to take part in military service. For this pacifism they met repression. The Prussian chicanery was the reason that much of the Mennonites accepted in 1786 proposal of the czarina Catherine II to settle down in Russia. She had guaranteed them number of privileges, including freedom of religion and exemption from military service. They were settled in the so-called “New Russia” – the lands acquired on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, and in the southern Ukraine. (From the Russian Mennonites derived the mother of a great Polish singer Anna German, bearing the maiden name Martens.) On the photo: Anna German with her mother Irma Berner and grandmother Martens.


They fared relatively well there until the outbreak of the Great October Revolution (1917). In the 30s many of them fell victim of the big hunger which was the result of a forced collectivization in the Ukraine, imposed there by Joseph Stalin. This horrible event did not remain without influence on the political views of Mennonites from Zulawy, who – impressed by the genocidal policy of Stalin and cruelty of the communism – succumbed to the influence of German Nazism. Propaganda of the Third Reich exploited them for the presentation as pioneers from the Lower Rhein in the East. What’s more, Tiegenhof became in 1942 the base for the Hitlerjugend organisation. This is why Russians liberating Poland considered them Germans. For this reason the Mennonites – again fleeing from persecution – decided to leave Zulawy. Part of them has settled in the Western Germany, some in the USA., some scattered around the world.


The passage of years and scattering around the world were the reason of loosing by Mennonite community its identity, traditions, customs and religion. But the remembrance of ancestors and their ties with Żuławy survived, making the descendants of “Polish” Mennonites back here every few years since the end of the 20th century. They come here to take part of a few days meetings in an international group, see the places where ancestors lived and some memorabilia, presented at exhibitions. Like this one of 2007: “Mennonites in Żuławy. Saved legacy”. It happens that some of the participants recognize the members of their families on the exhibited photos…

On the photo: Egon Cornelissen from Canada.

Renata Głuszek

More about Dutch settlement in Poland:

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