Wadowice - the hometown of John Paul II and a poor, idyllic town

A city of 10,000 inhabitants on the Skawa River, Wadowice seems a poor, idyllic place, far away from the hustle and bustle of the world. This is where Karol Wojtyła was born one hundred years ago.

by Wojciech Stanisławski

Cities and towns have their own destinies. For decades, Wadowice has played the role of the “papal city”. A city of transport interchange, a seat of local government in Małopolska, a seat of small industry and the starting point of a dozen or so mountain routes – today it is seen primarily as the birthplace of Karol Wojtyła. The city where the future pope spent his childhood and youth; this is the first association for a vast majority of people.

The ancient history of the town belonging to the Duchy of Oświęcim in the 14th century, called “Władowice”, “Wadowicze”, and, after the influx of German settlers at the beginning of the 15th century (probably due to the Marian cult), “Frauenstadt”, remained in shadow during the interwar period. The city’s promotion in the 19th century, when under Austrian rule it became first the seat of the district authorities, Kreis, (1819) and then – an important railway junction in 1888, is less remembered. A theologian of the Vasa family, Marcin Wadowita, is not frequently mentioned, nor [do many recall] an amusing anecdote about the town itself: Wadowice was a stage during one of the largest car rallies of the pioneering era of car factories, called Prinz-Heinrich-Fahrten in 1909. On this occasion, across the bridge on the Skawa River, celebrities such as Ferdinand Porsche, Ettore Bugatti, Wilhelm Opel, and August Horch passed by in their great machines. Even another fact that somehow fits in with the city’s uniqueness is not remembered much today – the prisoner who spent his last days here before his execution (and converted himself) was the commandant of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp, Rudolf Hess.

Marcin Wadowita (public domain)

But what is remembered about “Wadowice – the city of the Pope” except an anecdote about cream cakes being devoured by high school graduates in the confectionery of Karol Hagenhuber? Apart from the mention of Jerzy Kluger, a “Jewish friend of Karol” from junior high school? Of course, historians did a lot to find witnesses and memorabilia of a papal youth: historical accounts were archived, buildings were renovated, and the exhibition “Wadowice of Karol Wojtyła” has been on for 12 years now in the local museum.

However, it is worth describing this city on the Skawa River from the time of Wojtyła’s youth: how did its economy, infrastructure work, how did social relations develop? One can look for a moment at Wadowice as an average town in Małopolska, and as the background of one of the most famous Polish biographies of the 20th century.

Military operations of the First World War went through Wadowice: in January 1915, the 1st Brigade of the Polish Legions passed this way, and Józef Piłsudski greeted the parade on the market. However, later, the city remained under the rule of Central Powers for many months facing an uncertainty of independence, news from the fronts, and hunger. A great source showing the changes that occurred in these years are the diaries of Jan Doroziński, who was the head of the local junior high school from 1908-1924 which were published only in the 21st century. In the first years of the war, Professor Doroziński criticized the “eager and premature patriotism” of teenage Legion enthusiasts. In the autumn of 1918, however, he completely changed his attitude, and began noting down with fantastic insight the world of everyday troubles and great politics. “Wednesday. A perfect day – a trip to Mucharz on the Skawa River. Sunbathing and collecting acorns for coffee. The Austrian Empire does not exist” – he noted on 23 October. Food, material and political news began to intertwine with successive days. On 30 October, a noble but totally freezing professor noted, “The first day of winter! Caftan!” And on the following day: “We begin a new life as citizens of the Polish State!! Joy is common! (….) Salary 1148.25 K[roner] + 920 K. costs of living = 2068”. It wasn’t until 16 November, after five days, that news from Warsaw came (“Piłsudski – dictator, Daszyński – the Prime Minister!”). But it was hard to forget everyday worries: “We can’t get potatoes from Lewinger!!”

Wadowice on map of the Dukedomes of Oswitz and Zator by Abraham Ortelius, 1602 (public domain)

This winter was really hard. A month later, the municipal power plant authorities were forced to confiscate several tons of coal that belonged to the hospital. Power plants – from 1906 Wadowice had its own electricity network (direct current) and street lighting. From 1908, more privately owned buildings were connected to the network. Sewerage and running water appeared much later, not until the 1930s. The Skawa water intake was expanded and subsequent districts were gradually connected to the water supply. The symbol of modernity for Wadowice, however, was not electrification or waterworks, but – as befits the 19th century – railways. In the past two decades, passenger and freight traffic decreased slightly compared to Austrian times, but still, according to the schedule, more than 10 trains traveled daily, mainly from Bielsko-Biała and Kraków.

Although the former Kaiser-Chaussee, the first paved road in Galicia has run through the city since Austrian times, connecting Wadowice and other cities of Pogórze Beskidzkie with Krakow, the railway had no competition. The vast majority of transport was done by carts with horses, literally several cars moved around the city (the most magnificent, a Skoda Rapid that belonged to one of the landowners is remembered from that time). In the city of 10,000 inhabitants there was enough work for only two cart drivers. Life was centered around the Market Square, where the Town Hall and several other offices were located, and the open market was held. There were also nearly half of over a hundred stores. The rest was stretched between the Market Square and the railway station one kilometer away, on several main streets (3 May, Tatrzańska, Zatorska, Mickiewicza) or on Zbożny Square, renamed with time to Kościuszko Square.

Powiat office in Wadowice, 1902 (public domain)

Industry? Wadowice was not at the time (nor later) an industrial force in the 1920s. Its pride and trademark was the Wafer Factory “Mafo” in Małopolska, founded in 1909 and later significantly developed. One of the shareholders in Mafo, Wojciech Mirocha, withdrew his capital in 1925 and established his own competitive Wafer Factory. So Wadowice became a real biscuit and waffle tycoon in western Małopolska; Mafo, awarded with medals even at the National Show in Poznań, gave work to nearly one hundred people, its biggest competitor – to thirty people. When the west wind blew (both factories were located near the station) a pleasantly intoxicating sweet smell hung in the air.

In addition to the aforementioned, there were also the Feliks Romaszkan Paper Factory employing several dozen people and the Wire Industry of Wadowice (despite the name, iron construction was also produced in the factory). Thus one could say these were the seeds of the paper and metal industry: it is still not enough to consider Wadowice as an industrial city.

The rest are small craft enterprises. Among them one deserves mention for its artistic achievements, the Józef Jura Clay Tiles and Ceramics Factory, with its sculptor who made, among others, monuments or ceramic reliefs with images of Józef Piłsudski. The rest – as usual in a small town with agricultural facilities: two brickyards, two mills, a small fertilizer factory, a soda water factory.

Holy Father John Paul II Family Home in Wadowice (photo by Aphopis4; CC BY-SA 4.0)

Of course, it was much easier for trade and services to develop. Based on commercial catalogs, announcements and memories, more than 120 small stores, diners and service establishments from the childhood of Karol Wojtyła hasve been identified. One could easily go for a virtual walk from the Fischgrund stationery shop (and a tobacco shop) to the pharmacy “Pod Gwiazdą” and the hardware store with an adjacent gas station. There are even photos and people still remember signs and slogans. Some remember the fuels sold under the brand “Rock oil – Carpathians – Gargoyle. Ltd.”, the second advertisement “Bicycle PLN 100 per 100 years” in the sports and hunting equipment store of Chaim Bałamuth.

However, most of these places offered a common stock. In addition to the cream cake shop mentioned at the beginning, apart from the Bałamuth bicycles and the Foltina bookstore, also Wolff’s glass and porcelain shop, and Lieberfreund’s fruit shop, are remembered. Among service – the only cinema in the city run by Jerzy Wysogląd, three restaurants – of the mayor, Mr. Kluk and of Janusz Hołojewski in the very center and the restaurant “Venice” located on the Skawa river. The locksmith’s workshop of Karol Babiński, the private (!) waterworks, and the luxury bindery were especially valued.

There were also three printing houses in Wadowice, although they did not have, apart from school newspapers, their own press. So much from a bird’s eye view, because researchers (hardly any city the size of Wadowice was described in such detail) managed to reconstruct the city shop by shop, all shops and factories on the Market Square and describe, for example, its southern frontage: “Markielowski and Knapik bicycle shop, hairdresser salon “Krakow’s Hairdressers’, Kazimierz Flomme’s drugstore, Marek’s (formerly Goldman) shop with lamps, lampshades, paintings and frames, followed by Marek’s second shop with glass and porcelain. In the next building, Kaftal’s toy store, later a fruit shop, Weinfeld’s cosmetics, leather goods and clothing store, next to a shop with woolen materials, Roman Waligórski’s shop selling alcoholic beverages and paintings…”

The dining room in family home and birthplace of Karol Józef Wojtyła (photo by Dom Rodzinny JPII; CC BY-SA 4.0)

However, the most complete list of state institutions and public utilities is more important for a full picture of the city. Wadowice was the seat of the district (and hence the District Supplements Headquarters and District Police Headquarters), the parish and the Jewish commune, the Tax and Monopoly Office, post office, PKO (“General Savings Bank”) and Common Savings Bank. Branches of the Krakow Chamber of Commerce and Polish Economy Bank, numerous banking cooperatives and credit unions were also open in Wadowice.

However, the two main institutions in Wadowice were the army and schools. The city was the seat of the 12th Infantry Regiment (sometimes the name “12th Infantry Regiment of the Wadowice Land” was used unofficially), based on the 56 Austrian Regiment. The regiment was closely associated with the city and its district, where more than 2/3 of its recruits came from. Its influence can also be proved by the fact that as many as 1/5 of graduates of Wadowice junior high schools in the last years before the war chose officer schools for further education. The ceremony that took place on 31 July 1938, on the day of the regimental holiday, says a lot about the close relations between the regiment and the city: the Wadowice residents handed over the armament and equipment purchased as a result of the collection to the National Defense Fund.

In Wadowice, there were as many as three state gymnasiums at the time, and besides them – a gymnasium run by Carmelites and Collegium Marianum priests with the right to conduct final exams, and two technical schools. The number of primary schools fluctuated, and it would be hard to estimate the number of private and church orphanages and kindergartens.

The wedding portrait of John Paul II’s parents, Emilia and Karol Wojtyła Snr (public domain)

Instead, the city was proud of scout teams organized in two district offices: male teams included the students of two junior high schools and one from the Wadowita Primary School, and later also church gymnasiums, and the female’s teams included students from the M. Konopnicka Secondary School and the Emilia Plater team consisted of junior high school students. Scouts organized hikes in the Tatra and the Pieniny mountains, camps in the Vilnius region – and were the best among all other youth organizations, from Straż Przednia to Sodalicja Mariańska.

The competition was not that high when it comes to the organizations of adults: the Polish Socialist Party was strong in the city, organizing effective strikes in the wire and waffle industries, the Polosh People’s Party had a strong position: one of the paradoxes of Wadowice, clearer with time, is the fact that the youngest MP of the Sejm, and, in the following terms the probably best known anti-clerical in the 1920s, was the advocate Józef Putek. However, pro-government parties, opposition nationalists and numerous Jewish groups also had their supporters. Nevertheless, fewer people were involved in party activities than in guilds, trade unions and credit unions, the Women’s Citizens’ Union, the Winter Aid Committee, and the Association of Invalids.

And let us not forget about theaters. There is no biography of young Karol Wojtyła that would not mention his involvement in the amateur theater of the Polish philologist Mieczysław Kotlarczyk. When sketching the panorama of Wadowice between the wars, it should be remembered that the “Kotlarczyk Theater” that became famous thanks to the pope, belonged to the third generation of amateur theaters in Wadowice. Mieczysław’s father, Stefan, in 1908 founded the King Władysław Jagiełło Association, called “Jagiellonka”- in fact the first stage in Wadowice for which he wrote dramas and short one-act plays that he himself directed, which he financed from his own resources and engaged his entire family. His wife, Maria Kotlarczyk, was responsible for the scenography, her sister, also Maria, was the head of the sewing room, three children performed in plays from a small age – until Mieczysław, after completing Polish studies in Krakow, founded the Amateur Universal Theater in 1931.

Karol Wojtyła as a young priest (public domain)

Seen from a perspective of a hundred years, the city seems almost idyllic: collected editions of famous lawsuits do not mention any big crimes committed in Wadowice. Children came from the villages in the mountains, middle school students yawned on a train, entering the Wadowice station around seven. Bells rang at the Carmelites’ parish, “on the hill” and in the 18th-century parish church. The area around the station was being cleaned up after the great flood in 1934, when the silt from Skawa stopped the trains for a week. Lieutenant Szymon Kacperek left the barracks to conduct military training classes in junior high school. In the local synagogue, preparations were being made for a song concert which was to be given by the famous Mosze Kusewicki – a cantor in Warsaw, serving at the time in the 12th Regiment. The apothecary Mieczysław Spiegel wondered whether to take a loan at the People’s Bank or rather at the Gemilat Chasudim association of craft.

It all ended, as junior high school student Stanisław Czarny wrote in an essay in October 1939. On 2 September 1939, a few days before the school was closed by the Germans – “At four o’clock in the afternoon the noise stopped. (…) Until suddenly 12 giant German bombers appeared on the horizon, which immediately found themselves over the Polish army. (…) There was a barrage of missiles, a huge roar, and the ground was covered by a curtain of smoke, in which groans and cries were heard. And with the smoke, the view was scary. Shattered carts blasted by the pressure of bullets, killed soldiers, torn to pieces and covered with black dust. ”

The most famous junior high school student from Wadowice had managed to leave the city to study in Krakow a year earlier.


In the text, apart from studies on the history of Wadowice, I used the accounts and source texts published in the Historical and Cultural Review “Wadoviana”, published from 1998-2015.

Author: Wojciech Stanisławski
Transation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin