Winona takes first step in connecting with sister-city, Bytow, Poland

by Christina Eberhard

When Father Paul Breza went to Bytow, Poland, to trace his family ancestry three years ago, he realized the striking similarities between Bytow and Winona.

Not only is Bytow located in the Kashubia Region of Poland, where many Winona Poles have traced their family roots, but its diversified economy, population base, landscape make it eerily similar.

Bytow, which is near the city of Gdansk and the Baltic Sea, has a population of 23,500. With its hills and greenery, it is known for outdoor recreation. Biking near the lake is an especially popular pastime in Bytow.

"It really looks a lot like Winona in many ways," said City Manager Eric Sorensen.

On his second trip to Bytow last summer, Breza, representing the Polish Cultural Institute of Winona, brought with him a letter from Mayor Jerry Miller. The letter, addressed to Mayor Jerry Burzowski of Bytow, expressed the interest of the City of Winona in becoming a sister-city to a city in the Kashubia Region.

In his enthusiasm, Mayor Burzowski answered that he "could see no other city better suited to be Winona's sister city than Bytow," said Breza.

On Monday, the Winona City Council approved to authorize a formal proposal to the city of Bytow in order to form an official sister-city relationship between itself and Winona. Once the transcripts have been translated to Polish, City Manager Eric Sorensen said the documents will be forwarded to officials in Bytow.

The council also approved the establishment of a citizens' committee in Winona to facilitate exchanges with a similar committee of the citizens of Bytow.

The people of Bytow are "young and industrious and very excited about Winona" and the possibility of future visits to our area, according to Breza.

Mayor Miller suggested inviting students from Bytow to Winona and said he "would like to see some schools here get in contact with schools there."

Miller pointed out that students in Bytow are fluent in English.

Another perk: the airfare to Bytow costs less than flying to Chicago, said Breza, making the trip very affordable.

Drue Fergison, executive director of the Polish Cultural Institute, said it is a "no-brainer that Bytow is the perfect sister-city for Winona."

Establishing a sister-city relationship will be the "single best course of action to help unify" Winona's two Polish societies, the Polish Cultural Institute, and the Polish Heritage Lodge, which has also corresponded with officials in Bytow.

Fergison is anticipating being part of the citizens' committee that will be formed.

But, she said, interaction between the two cities "is not going to happen overnight. The committee will have to do the work."

From about 1855 to 1910, said Fergison, the Polish population in Winona "started growing by leaps and bounds," in direct correlation with the growth of the lumber industry.

"It's clear the ethnic group with a clear sense of its heritage in Winona are the Poles," said Sorensen.

Breza has no doubt that Bytow is a city worth getting to know.

"The biggest thing is, it feels like home," he said.

"This is the first step," believes Fergison. "As time goes on, there will just be more sharing."