History of the Village of Niwiska Near Rzeszow, Poland
The village of Niwiska is situated in the Sandomierz Basin, which was at one time referred to as the Sandomierz forest, near the confluence of the San and Vistula rivers. At the beginning of the 14th century, the Sandomierz forest abounded with silver fir and beech tree patches, as well as numerous mixed forests, composed largely of pine trees, the likes of which may be found today in the forest of nearby Kolbuszowa. Niwiska lies on lower terrain where different types of peat bog can be found. The soil is predominantly sandy.
During the middle ages, Niwiska and other settlements in the area were owned and ruled by the Tarnowski and Jablonowski princes. The princes relinquished their claim on the land when they sold it and all of their belongings to the Hupka family. The Hupkas governed the area, and the last of the family was Dr. Jan Hupka who maintained control of the land until 1941. After World War II the forests were taken by the state, and the land was divided for use in agriculture.
According to documents dating to the 14th century, the Tarnowski family princes employed the peasants of Niwiska in the cultivation of the land, forestry, and metalworking. Niwiska grew steadily in the shadows of such larger neighboring towns and villages as Kolbuszowa, Mielec, Rzochow, Przeclaw, Popczyce and Sedziszow Maloposki.
Parish records include a history of the village that predated the founding of the parish of Niwiska. The earliest settlers were Roman Catholics who attended services in Rzochow, five miles away. The first high chapel in Niwiska was built by the princes of the Jablonowski family on a plot of their land. It was consecrated in 1593 and came under the administration of the parish of Rzochow. The chapel became a branch of Rzochow that served not only the residents of Niwiska, but also those of the villages of Hucina, Trzesn, Zapole, Zabieniec, Hucisko, Poreby Huciskie, Huta Przedbortwa, Leszcze (later called Legeziny), Poreby Kamienskie, Koziowki, and Debryyna. Most of the current residents of these villages are members of the parish of Niwiska.
The first wooden church in Niwiska (not to be confused with the aforementioned wooden chapel) was built in the 17th century. At the time of the construction of the church in Niwiska, the new lord, Mr. Hupka constructed a small manor where he was to live. To this day, the manor is maintained as a historic home and cultural center.
The church burned down in the 1870’s. On its ashes, a stone and plaster church was built, consecrated, and first used in 1880. In 1925 Bishop Walega granted full parish status to Niwiska during his pastoral visit. The first pastor, Father Sikora is buried in the Niwiska parish cemetery which has been in use since the middle ages.
In the second half of the 19th century, a one classroom wooden school sat next to the church. This building was demolished and replaced in the 1930’s. Another 19th century two classroom building made of mortar and stone was expanded under the direction of Headmaster Jan Rak during the 1930’s reconstruction. This school served the youth of Niwiska and nearby areas. According to the villager’s memories, not all children went to school nor did all who attended get to finish. The Austria-Hungarian occupation during the Third Partition of Poland did not encourage education as it was to their advantage for the villagers to be illiterate.
Many Sandomierz Forest dwellers worked in small glassmaking establishments during the middle ages. The workers separated sand and made it useable. Two full glass foundries were located in Niwiska: the Przedborski Plant, and the Komorosowshi Plant. In the early 1900s there was still one glass works, but it was liquidated in 1912.
I was informed that several centuries ago, a visitor from Germany was in the area and mentioned that the soil was very conducive to the glassmaking industry. The German returned home and brought families of glassmakers with him. This may be folklore, but who knows?
In Kamionka, not far away was a blast furnace for melting iron ore. The Poreba Blast Furnaces benefited from the areas plentiful and pure supplies of hard iron ore. The landowners ran the glass and iron ore factories. Between ten and twenty steelworkers and a few loaders were employed by the Niwiska Steel Works.
The majority of the villagers worked the land. The farming manager made the people work long and hard hours with little compensation. A few dozen families were employed by the owner of the lands in forestry, field labor, at the small sawmill and at the grain and agricultural products mill. In the 1980s, family farms and the nearby furniture factories in Kolbuszowa accounted for much of the villager’s employment.
From 1890 to the beginning of World War I, difficult living conditions forced many of the inhabitants of Niwiska and surrounding regions to seek work elsewhere. Young people were enlisted by middlemen to emigrate in large numbers to immigrate to the United States. It was common to change one’s date of birth to qualify for work in the United States, and many who immigrated were no more than 14 years of age. Members of the Jablonski, Kolis, Kasz, Skarbik, Bryk, Jemiol, and Soltys families emigrated to Cleveland. The Biesiadecki, Majka, Dzik and Ziomek families moved to Chicago, and there were many others. A few returned to Poland, especially those who immigrated after WWI. Very few immigrants came back to visit their families in Poland, and when they did, it wasn’t until after WWII.
Poland regained its independence after 1918. Life continued to full of hardships in the countryside during the inter-war era (1918-1939.) Outbreaks of infectious diseases such as diphtheria and smallpox ravaged the area, and the mortality rate for children and infants was especially high. In some homes, several newborn children would die for everyone that managed to survive. Malnutrition and inadequate public hygiene facilities were the primary causes. Tuberculosis could affect an entire family after just one was diagnosed. A lack of medicine and doctors and inadequate means to pay for care was the impetus for people to look for opportunities elsewhere.
The chance to immigrate came partly from the cooperation of village families who would pool their resources, loan money or parcels of land to send some to America. In turn, those who left and found success would invite their family to come to work in the factories and mines of the USA, France, and Belgium. A dozen families took advantage of the reapportionment of lands left behind by emigrants in the vicinity of Lublin and Drosno. They gained larger plots of land than the ones left behind in Niwiska. In turn, this made more lands available in Niwiska. Gifts of foreign currency from America helped to ease the financial situation of the families left behind in Niwiska.
In 1936-1937, ten to twenty workers found jobs in the vicinity when building began on the Central Logging Works. Still, seasonal migration to German and Latvia of agricultural workers took place during the summer and autumn months. In Niwiska, serval dozen families were employed on the grounds and forests of the Hupka manor and at its granary and sawmill. Several families were able to begin a second trade such as pottery, weaving, blacksmithing, cabinet making, and the wheel wright’s trade. It was difficult to make ends meet solely on family farming.
The Second World War was one of a series of devastating war tragedies for the people of Niwiska and Poland. In 1502, Tartars invaded Niwiska followed by the Swedes in 1565. Vestiges of the Swedish invasion during the Great Deluge was discovered in the 1930s when the graves of Swedish soldiers were discovered when two ancient oak trees were removed. A dozen other such oaks in Niwiska likely mark other Swedish graves as it was their custom to plan an acorn above the remains of a fallen compatriot. Some of these same oaks were uprooted in the blasts from bombs dropped by the Nazis during WWII.
Villages of Niwiska and surrounding areas were evicted from their homes during the Nazi occupation. Most of the village’s buildings were destroyed, and most of the villagers were dispersed and settled into adjacent villages. Some of the young people were imprisoned and sent to prison camps in Germany or forced labor camps set up by the German army in occupied villages. If a Pole were caught in an evacuated village, they would be shot. Many of those who were sent to forced labor camps died from poor living conditions, while others were shot and some died in concentration camps.
Soviet occupation during the early stages of war proved even more brutal to the villagers and destructive to the remaining properties. Many villagers were sent to the Siberian forests with no belongs or means to support themselves.
Those who survived were often malnourished and ill. They made broth for themselves from whatever plants they could find. On rare occasions, they would be able to catch small rodents for food. Their travel in open train cars were long and inhumane ordeals. They had no news about the progress of the war nor did they have the means to find out about those they left behind or who were taken elsewhere.
It was not unusual for people to be sent by the Soviet occupying forces (they referred to themselves as “liberating forces”) to Siberia and then to places like Arkhangelsk in the far north, then to Kazakhstan and near the end of the war to Persia. From there the refugees eventually found their way to Israel, America, Australia, Western Europe, or back to Poland. Few found their way back to Niwiska, and many were exiled to Siberia even after the war.
After World War II, many people migrated within Poland to work in the reconstruction of the country’s industrial centers. The remaining residents of Niwiska who returned from exile found work in their own fields. They rebuilt their homes in brick and plaster, in no way reminiscent of their prewar style. Today, the Kolbuszowa Ethnographic Park features many authentic structures that tell the story of village life at the turn of the 20th century in Galicia.
A modified school program was implemented immediately after the war to ensure that the young people could complete their studies and training. Many accepted work in areas not far from Niwiska while others were resettled in the areas given to Poland as restitution by the Germans. Many took residence in the area of Snizka Mountain near Jelenia Gora.
Among the present landmarks in Niwiska are the church and school, the health clinic with a maternity room, a drugstore and a post office. A network of roads and buses link Niwiska to the neighboring towns.