Photo by Sarah Squires
Bytow (Poland) Mayor Ryszard Sylka, at left, along with Father Paul Breza and Bytow City Council Chairman Leszek Waszkiewicz, visited the Winona Polish Heritage Museum last week. The Bytow leaders traveled to Winona to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Father Breza's ordination.
Last week, leaders from Winona's sister city, Bytow, Poland, traveled across the globe to celebrate the work of one of Winona's most celebrated Polish and Catholic leaders, Father Paul Breza. Bytow Mayor Ryszard Sylka, along with Bytow Council Chairman Leszek Waszkiewicz and interpreter Asia Pawelska, came to river city to honor Father Breza as the city celebrates the 50th anniversary of his 1963 ordination as a priest.
Father Breza has been a church leader and community figure for decades, and in Bytow, Poland, he is just about as well known. "If you ask any person in Bytow on the street, 'Do you know Father Breza?' they would all say something about him," said Sylka, who said Winona and Bytow's blossoming sister city relationship is in large part due to Father Breza's hard work.
Father Breza first traveled to Bytow in the early 1990s, when he met Sylka, Waszkiewicz and many others. He has since helped foster exchange programs and taken the lead in maintaining and enhancing a relationship between Winona and a region in Poland from which many Winona area families with Polish and Kashubian heritage emigrated.
In Bytow, residents celebrate Winona Day each year. Children create Winona-themed artwork for a Winona Day art competition, plays about Winona are staged, and newspapers and web sites in Bytow publish information about the special tie that binds the two cities. "Everybody knows Winona," explained Sylka.
"It's great that not only adults who have Polish and Kashubian roots [are part of the sister city relationship]," said Waszkiewicz. "But the most important thing is that young people are involved with the exchange of cultures."
Three years ago, Father Breza was honored by being named an honorable citizen of Bytow, and presented with a special medal only awarded to four others. "Father Paul is a person who has so much warmth and hospitality," said Sylka as he visited the Polish Cultural Institute and Museum on Thursday. "We are impressed by, and like so much, that Father Paul preserves Kashubian and Polish culture. He does so much to preserve our history." Father Breza was also recently honored with the Cavalier's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland Fifth Class. It is an honor bestowed by Poland upon foreigners and Polish citizens permanently living abroad who have made outstanding contributions to creating international bonds between Poland and other nations and countries.
Being able to attend the June 1 celebration of Father Breza's ordination was something very special for the dignitaries from Poland. It gave the Bytow leaders a chance to learn more about Winona and the U.S., as well as explore ways that the two cities can further cooperate and collaborate on the sister city program.
At the Polish Museum on Thursday, the group pored over a worn shirt with words scrawled in aged marker. "Potulice," and "1981," it read. Sylka explained that the garment was one that Father Breza had gotten from a Potulice prisoner. Now a prison, Potulice was used as a Nazi concentration camp during the war-torn decades when the country changed hands between Poles and Germans amid bloody battles. "It's very special," said Sylka of the worn shirt. "For us, it is something to be able to see Polish things so far from Poland."
Bytow is a city similar to Winona in size, seated in the Pomorze Province. "The history of our town is very rich, and at the same time, very complex," explained Sylka. About half of its population are Kashubians, of slavic origin, who speak a different language and were formerly considered a minority. The city also includes a diverse population of people with Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Polish and German heritage. "Everybody preserves their cultures," said Waszkiewicz. "That's why we think our community is interesting to people. It's multicultural; it's colorful."
Bytow is home to the Teutonic Castle, built by Teutonic Knights in the 13th and 14th centuries, which serves as a tourist attraction, disco, hotel and museum. Waszkiewicz said that Bytow attracts tourists, as does Winona, for its lakes, rivers, forests and beautiful green expanses.
For the rest of their stay, Sylka, Waszkiewicz and Pawelska said they will focus on networking, meeting with Winonans, and working to further the relationship between Bytow and Winona. "The cooperation has been very fruitful so far," said Sylka, who said there was always more that could be done. Additionally, the group hopes to learn more about both the community, and the city's democratic ideals. Poland is a relatively new democracy, and the group expressed excitement to learn more about Winona and the U.S. "We've had such a warm welcome; we are just happy that we can feel like home here," explained Sylka. "We want to learn something from your country."