The children who were flogged to within an inch of their lives for refusing to pray in German
When the Polish children of the Catholic school in Września, then the Prussian-controlled town of Wreschen in the Province of Posen, went to classes on May 20, 120 years ago, it was not to be just another day of instruction.
They knew that they were to be brutally whipped by their German teachers. Their ‘crime’? Simply that they refused to pray in German language.
The pupils were crammed into a classroom on the first floor where they were given a final chance to repeat a religious song in German by heart. Those who did so were released home. The rest were held back to receive the flogging of their lives.
Each child was individually frogmarched to a chamber on the ground floor set aside for administering the punishment.
Waiting for them was the swivel-eyed enforcer of Prussian order, a teacher named Johann Schölzchen.
The children were given four to eight stinging strokes from a birch cane. The boys were flogged on their backsides, the girls on their open palms.
This was not just on ordinary case of disciplining children through corporal punishment, which was common at the time.
Each furious strike was intended to communicate the message: “This is Prussia, we are in charge, you Poles will do as we say”.
One girl passed out from the pain; others were not able to hold their books in their swollen hands.
As they emerged in tears to a crowd of shocked and angry parents, they had no idea that they would become a cause célèbre around the world.
Their patriotic struggle to retain the right to use Polish language in religion classes and resist forced Germanisation has been known ever since as the Strike of the Children of Września.
Nobel-prize winning writers would pen letters in their defence, famous poets would compose eulogising verses, statues would be raised in their honour, and newspapers from New York to Tokyo would devote column inches to their plight.
Września is still a sleepy town dominated by the shadow of nearby Poznan 50 kilometres away. However, it is intensely proud of the events that took place 120 years ago.
The main monument, which in similar towns is almost always related to the Second World War, depicts in stone nine of the striking children.
In a small square near the school there is a bronze statue of perhaps the most recognised of the striking children, Bronisława Śmidowicz, sitting at a school bench. The monument shows her refusing the German catechism book.
Even the statue of John Paul II outside the main church in the town is flanked by stone panels showing the striking children.
The background to the strike was the Prussians’ policy of germanising the Polish population in the part of Poland that had been annexed by Prussia in the late 18th-century carve-up of Poland by Prussia, Austria and Russia.
Up until 1901, all subjects in Prussian schools had to be taught in German, even if the school was attended by a majority of Polish children.
The exception was religion, which was taught in the pupils’ mother tongue. This was a right that was jealously protected by the Poles as it was an important pillar upon which they protected their Polish identity and culture.
This state of affairs lasted until 1901, when the Prussian school authorities decided that from the start of the new school year at the beginning of April, religious instruction in the two highest classes for 13 and 14-year-olds would be carried out in German.
In 1901, Wreschen was a small town with just over 5000 inhabitants. Over 75 percent were Polish and the German influence was weak.
The Polish population was intensely patriotic. Many families had members who had fought in the January Uprising in 1863/64 and in the Spring of Nations in 1848.
So, on that first day of term the Polish children were shocked to be handed German language catechism books.
The pupils either refused to accept the books or, in agreement with their parents, returned them the following day.
One pupil, Bronisława Śmidowicz, when returning her book to the teacher, held it through her apron so as not to stain her hands. Her protest caused a frenzy of rage among the teachers.
The children, in agreement with their parents, applied passive resistance by refusing to answer in German during subsequent religion lessons.
At first, the German teachers tried persuasion. They managed to get the German books stamped by the archbishop, thereby giving them his seal of approval.
The headmaster Fedke tried to make the children believe that they were German and that they should be proud of it. The girls responded by declaring “We are only subjects of the German Reich, but we are Poles.”
Another pupil, Bronisław Klimas, when asked in class what the national colour was, replied without hesitation: “Our national colour is white and red, and Prussia's is white and black.”
The panicked teachers resorted to physical violence and repression. The children were placed under arrest, sometimes for several hours.
Floggings were administered on 2 and 13 May on the grounds that the children had committed a breach of discipline.
However, the number of striking children grew. The main resisters were Stanisław Jerszyński and Bronisława Śmidowicz. They were flogged by the half-German half-Polish teacher Feliks Koralewski on May 2. All this caused a growing public outcry.
The situation came to a head on May 20 when the teachers tried to finally break the children’s resistance by carrying out a mass flogging. In fact, the opposite happened.
A crowd of up to 200 people, including the parents of the striking children, gathered outside the school. They remonstrated with the staff inside the building. The teachers claimed that stones were thrown at them. The Poles denied it.
Eventually, the German police arrived and took the names of many of those in the crowd. These people and the striking children were later put on trial for a range of public order offences in a court in nearby Gniezno. That was when the story went global.
The school building in Września still exists. It dates back to the 17th century and is the second oldest building in the town after the main church not far away. It is hard to imagine how nearly 700 pupils could fit within its walls.
It is not a school anymore. Today, it is home to the town’s library and a small museum that tells the story of the children’s strike. It’s centrepiece is a recreation of one of the school’s classrooms with period school benches complete with inkwells and chalk slates, as well as old globes and maps of Prussia on the walls.
The museum’s director, Sebastian Mazurkiewicz knows the story of the strike better than most. He was born in the tenement house next door and grew up listening to his grandparents’ tales about it.
He told TFN: “We Poles look at the strike as part of our struggle for national identity and independence, but for the Germans it was simply a discipline issue. It was Prussian rigour.”
“If there were rules, then those rules had to be observed. That is simply the German way of thinking. It surprised them that the community would react the way it did. Particularly when the case went to the court in Gniezno, because then it became a political matter,” he added.
The trial in Gniezno took place in November 1901. The charges included participation in a public disturbance, preventing teachers from performing official acts, and invasion of a school building.
A total of 26 people were brought before the Gniezno court, 20 were convicted. The sentences ranged from a few weeks to two and a half years in prison handed out to a parent named Nepomucena Piasecka.
Even a photographer from Września, Szymon Furmanek, was found guilty and sentenced to a 200-mark fine with a 40-day prison term. He was charged with “taking and distributing three photographs of persons connected with the Września case”.
These photographs were printed in the Polish and foreign press and were also made into postcards.
The trial did not weaken the resolve of the children, who carried on protesting, nor that of the school. The headmaster banned the use of Polish anywhere within the school and built a wooden barrack outside the town for classes to separate the reluctant children.
In the next school year, 1902/1903, the number of strikers fell sharply after the authorities announced that children who gave up their resistance would be released from their duty to attend school .
In 1903 and early 1904, a small group of children took part in the strike. The school authorities threatened to extend compulsory education even until the child was 16 years old.
In February 1904 there were three pupils left who refused to learn religion in German. One of the last striking pupils was Stefania Śmidowiczówna, Bronisława's younger sister. She still tried to continue her struggle after Easter 1904, but under pressure from the school inspector she gave up her resistance.
The incident in Września inspired a wave of children's strikes that swept through the Prussian partition in 1906-1907. In total, 75,000 children in over 800 schools in the Prussian partition resisted germanisation.
Polish poet Maria Konopnicka wrote an emotional poem entitled ‘Oh Września’, while Nobel prize-winner Henryk Sienkiewicz published a letter to Kaiser Wilhelm II, King of Prussia in November 1906 in which he condemned the behaviour of Prussian authorities towards Polish children.
This letter was printed by all Polish newspapers in the Austrian and Russian partitions, as well as by many foreign titles.
An early cinema film was even made celebrating the children’s protest.
The eight-minute film is the earliest surviving Polish film and can be viewed in the museum.
According to Mazurkiewicz, after 120 years, the story is still relevant. “It is very moving when groups from Lithuania come here, after all they are going through something similar with Polish language in their country,” he said.
“We have to keep on telling people about this story,” he added.
The round anniversary this year has produced a flurry of activity to do just that. A series of info panels has been distributed to schools in the region, a new plaque will be unveiled in the town to take its place along all the others, and a documentary film is almost ready to be shown.
If Września’s major claim to fame is the school strike, that is not likely to change any time soon.