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 (a Polish name for a Dutchman is Holender, plural – Holendrzy) – were for a great many years used to solve their own water problems so they had a great experience in development of the floodplains. So the situation was favorable for both parties as the depressive Zulawy immigrants from the Netherlands found a substitute for their homeland, and most importantly – the freedom to practice 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 the local landowners and the authorities of Gdansk were highly interested in the development of those fitting though fertile lands, especially becouse in western Europe there was high demand for Polish grain.
After two great floodings (in 1540 and 1543) these areas were sparsely populated and after the Polish-Teutonic wars this area was deserted. The few ones who remained were unable to cope with the water element.


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

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

On the picture: memorandum of Toens


In many ways a “olenderski” settlement differed much in a positive way from a Polish settlement. First of all farmers arriving from Friesland and the Netherlands were 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 the 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 the excellent farmers, but also capable in many other fields. Thanks to the 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 things like silk, velvet, lace and haberdashery products) and produced 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. This liquor was so appreciated that even is mentioned in the well known famous Polish poem “Pan Tadeusz” written by Adam Mickiewicz. Today this is still produced in Germany, but the distillery is remembered by a restaurant named “Under the Salmon”, situated in the same building (Gdansk, Szeroka street). On the photo: machandel (left) and Golden wasser (right).

                                              Tasting Room “Der Lachs”

Their industriousness, thrift and savings – those very 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 refused to recognize the ecclesiastical hierarchy and chose the spirit guide from among them-selves and were baptized as adults (as 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 housework. Their biggest pleasure was eating well, especially pork, milk and butter. Entertainment even 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) Middle Dutch, but gradually this language was replaced by German. This process is intensified when Zulawy was incorporated into Prussia, in 1772 after the 1st partition of Poland. Unfortunately, they didn’t leave any monuments or literature and today the only remains of their culture are buildings, including their famous arcaded houses, their churches and chapels, their windmills, cemeteries and 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. That building was connected to the barn and to the cowshed.

At the end of the 18th century a new kind of house became typical for this area, but it is not an original Mennonites invention. This impressive building had arcades – protruding floors 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, theso called g-merk. 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 of non-existent buildings were photographed in last minute by Marek Opitz who presented them in his album “Zuławy – a time of a breakthrough”). Photo: grave stele in Marynowy / Tomasz Pluciński

It is worth to mention 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: the Mennonite trail.

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

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 strong 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 the 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 the 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 are the reasons of loosing its identity, traditions and religion by the Mennonite community. But the rememberance  of its ancestors and their ties with Żuławy survived, making the descendants of “Polish” Mennonites return there 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 their ancestors lived and some memorabilia, are presented at exhibitions. Like the one of 2007: “Mennonites in Żuławy, the 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:

Photo:Vikimedia Commons, / na_polskich_polderach/menu/menu.html,,, Renata Głuszek, ,

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