Once bloody warriors, today tourist draw: Polish city trying to cash in on Teutonic knights

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Poles hope deadly knights will now bring some good

KWIDZYN, Poland — They were medieval warriors who spread Catholicism by the sword and seized Polish lands with great cruelty. But that’s not stopping the Polish city of Kwidzyn from capitalizing on the aura surrounding the Teutonic Knights.

The city — dominated by a massive red brick fortress that was once a base for their notorious raids — is consecrating a church crypt and displaying the newly discovered skeletons of three of the order’s 14th- and 15th-century military leaders — or “grand masters.” The aim is to stimulate tourism in a region still struggling with high unemployment, old roads and other legacies of communism.

“This history belongs to this city,” said Wojciech Weryk, who leads a drive to promote the city. “It is a very good product from the point of view of history and tourists. I don’t think that any historic remains of the grand masters have been found anywhere else.”

The ceremony began Saturday with a Roman Catholic Mass celebrated by local priests and modern-day representatives of the Teutonic order, which today exists as a religious order in Austria devoted to charity. Among them was Bruno Platter, a priest dressed in black robes and a purple skullcap who today holds the title of “Grand Master of the Teutonic Order.”

Kwidzyn was once the German town of Marienwerder, one of key fortresses of the Teutonic Knights in the Middle Ages. But the city fell to Poland in 1945 when Hitler’s defeat forced Germany to relinquish a swath of territory to Poland, the eastern neighbor on whom it inflicted six years of occupation and death.

Weryk says there are some people in the town who object to honoring the Teutonic Knights, a Germanic order that in the national consciousness represents an earlier chapter in the centuries of German aggression against Poland.

But he argues that such feelings have no place in a European Union.

And many of the local people also feel proud that their historic town of 40,000 has something new to boast of.

“We are happy that something so significant was found here and that we will have something of interest in our cathedral,” said Janusz Urbanowicz, a 64-year-old retired carpenter. “We know that this was the cathedral of the Teutonic Knights and that this was Prussia before the war. But we are glad this historical finding was made and that it will bring more tourists.”

Later in the ceremony, priests are expected to bless the closed oak coffins holding the grand masters’ remains below a glass floor in the crypt of St. John the Evangelist Cathedral, a Gothic church that is part of the fortress complex.

The remains were discovered in the cathedral’s crypt in 2008 and identified by DNA and other testing as being those of Werner von Orseln, the knights’ ruler from 1324-1330; Ludolf Koenig von Wattzau, who ruled from 1342-1345; and Heinrich von Plauen, from 1410-1413.

Next to the coffins will be plastic replicas of what the men are believed to look — long-haired men draped in cloths — based on a 16th century mural in the cathedral, said Bogumil Wisniewski, a city archaeologist.

Fragments of original gold-painted silks found on their skeletons are being displayed separately.

The Order of the Teutonic Knights of St. Mary’s Hospital in Jerusalem was founded in the late 12th century to aid German pilgrims in the Holy Land. It evolved into a military order whose knights wore trademark white coats with black crosses. Later, they forcefully brought Christianity to swaths of northeastern Europe and ruled an area near the Baltic Sea coast in what is now northern Poland.

Their bad image in Poland was reinforced with a popular 19th century novel “Teutonic Knights” by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Nobel prize winning author of “Quo Vadis.”

And every year Poles celebrate the anniversary of the 1410 Battle of Grundwald, also known as the first Battle of Tannenberg, which marked the end of the Teutonic order’s eastward expansion along the Baltic Sea and the beginning of its decline.

Just two weeks ago, in fact, tens of thousands of people turned out to watch 2,000 actors dressed in armor re-enact the battle on its 600th anniversary.

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