Piła  (Schneidemühl) is a town in northwestern Poland. It had 77,000 inhabitants as of 2001. It is situated in the Greater Poland Voivodeship (since 1999), previously capital of Piła Voivodeship (1975-1998). Piła is the largest town in the northern part of Great Poland. It is the capital of Piła County. The town is located on the Gwda river and is famous for its green areas, parks and dense forests nearby. It is an important road and railway hub, located at the intersection of two main lines - Poznań - Szczecinek and Bydgoszcz - Krzyz.
Numerous villages and towns were established and were often known by their German-sounding names from then on. Frequently, towns were given Magdeburger Stadtrecht (Magdeburg rights) nach deutschem Recht, in other words home-rule rights, jus municipale (municipal rights) according to German law — a concept that eventually spread throughout Eastern Europe. The fact that a town had attained Magdeburger Stadtrecht invariably indicated the existence of a fair number of German settlers in its midst. That area remained under Brandenburg's control until 1368 when the land of the Krajna became Polish. General immigration of German settlers diminished, however, when Poland under Kazimierz IV Jagiellonczyk (1447–92) defeated the Teutonic Order in 1466.
The period of the Renaissance and its ideas flourished in Poland during the reign of the last ruler of the two-hundred-year Jagiellonian dynasty, Zygmunt II Augustus. As a monarch, he was recognized for his humanist ideas characterized by tolerance, far in advance of his time.
The area around the settlement of Pyła, situated in the southern Pomeranian Lake District, was one of dense pine forests and lakes. Legend has it that two ancient routes once crossed here, namely an ancient Heerstrasse (military highway) from central German lands, leading across the River Oder, running parallel to the River Notec, the river that became later known by its German name Netze. That route led into an area of the Vistula, further east, claimed by some to have been the old amber route of the Romans. This ancient military highway is said to have intersected a road from the south of Poland that led to the Baltic Sea. Speculation exists that a narrow ford through the River Gwda or Küddow — as early German settlers called the river that was a tributary of the Notec — may have led the road to the east, prompting a primitive settlement on its banks.
It may be conjectured that a Slavic settlement of woodcutters in the fishing village Pyła may have existed before any of the later villages and surrounding towns of the area were established. Thus, in the 1300s Pyła grew to some extent because of its position on the Gwda a mere 11 kilometers from where it joins the river Notec. Yet, the settlement developed less than others that were situated at such major water routes as the rivers Warta or Vistula. Pyła's simple layout of unpaved streets and primitive clay and timber houses gave little protection to its inhabitants and was still far from becoming a commercially interesting locale. If one were to credit a Privilegium (charter) of the early 1380s as evidence, a document associated with the building of a church in Pyła and ascribed to the very young Polish-Hungarian Queen Jadwiga d’Anjou — a copied document that still existed in the archives of Schneidemühl prior to 1834 — then that period could well be regarded as the time the village of Pyła/Snydemole was elevated to the status of town. The recurring Polish-German double naming Pyła-Snydemole may be attributed to the fact that two originally separate localities took their name from the water-powered sawmill that had been part of the town's raison d’être from the beginning.
Documented references to Snydemole and Pyła are reportedly found in parish church sources of 1449, where there is mention of a sawmill and of the name of the current wojewoda (governor) Paul. Evidence also exists of a letter from 1456 by the Brandenburg Elector Kurfürst Friedrich II of Hohenzollern, der Eiserne (the Iron one) who had purchased the Neumark region from the German Templars in 1455. The missive is addressed to bishop Andreas of Poznań and to Lukasz Gorka, the local judeophile Starosta, the royal constable of Wielkopolska. The Kurfürst complained that in prevailing peace times some burghers of Snydemole and Pyła were making raids on his lands. This accusation may tend to give additional credence to the earlier claim that Queen Jadwiga in the 1380s was indeed the founder of the town of Pyła.
Until 1480 Pyła was a Mediatstadt, a town owned by the nobility, belonging to Maciej Opalinski who later presented his holdings to King Kazimierz IV, at which time Pyła became an Immediatstadt, a royal town. It is known that ten years later the burghers of the town were accused and penalized for tax evasion that had been traced over a period of five years. However, King Zygmunt I — during whose reign immigration of numerous Jews from the Iberian peninsula, Bohemia and Germany was encouraged — bestowed Magdeburger Stadtrecht, municipal rights, upon the town of Pyła on 4 March 1513, a landmark decision. Attaining Stadtrecht was a sterling achievement for Pyła since it gave the burghers not only status, but also the rights to self-administration and its own judiciary, leading to the elimination of different rights for Polish and German burghers. The administration of the town's affairs was now in the hands of three legislative bodies, elected from among the burghers. They were the council with the mayor, the Schöffencollegium (jury court) and the elders of the guilds. Only the position of the Vogt (bailiff) remained in the hands of the crown or its deputy, the Starosta. The sovereign, however, remained the ultimate judge, warlord and owner of the land. Being free from the arbitrariness of a Kastellan (king's official) or of a Wojewoda (governor of the province) — Pyła's town folk took advantage of the town's privileges by owning property, carrying on any trade and enjoying the right to hold much needed market fairs.
Economic circumstances or personal feuds may have been responsible for the frequent changes of ownership of the town, as Pyła was ‘purchased’ in 1518 by Hieronymus von Bnin; the document outlining the deed and ownership during his lifetime was given to him by King Zygmunt I in 1525. Following the demise of Bnin, the town became the property of the dynasty of the mighty Gorka family. This family, secretly leaning toward Protestantism and in power until the seventeenth century, included some of the wealthiest landowners and most influential nobles of Poland and was known to be benevolent to their town's folk.
In 1548 Pyła obtained a privilege that banned any foreign potter from the town's markets, and in 1561 a fishing privilege was obtained. Pyła was part of the Województwo Poznań, the region divided into the four Starosty (land holdings) of Poznań, Kościan, Wschowa and Wałcz (Deutsch Krone), the latter encompassing the Starosty Ujscie-Pyła (Usch-Schneidemühl), the area between the rivers Gwda, Notec and Drage. Stara Pyła, the old Pyła, a town that never had walls, was slow to grow.
By the middle of the sixteenth century, many German Protestant craftsmen and traders, driven out of Bohemia by religious persecution during the Reformation, settled in numerous towns in the region. Some may have settled in Pyła too, yet in 1563 the small town had no more than 750 inhabitants. They are known to have lived in 153 houses, primitively built, primarily with timber and clay, covered with straw and grouped mainly around the Alter Markt, the Old Market. When King Stephan Istvan Bathory confirmed two of the town's privileges on 3 September 1576, the burghers were granted the right to hold their weekly market on a Monday, an important feat. Over the following 150 years, numerous privileges and charters were re-issued by the Polish crown, mainly as a result of loss by fire. By 1591 a statute allowing apprenticeships in various trades was obtained.
Pyła was particularly affected when the widowed Johan Zygmunt III married the pious 17-year old Catholic princess Konstancja, archduchess of Habsburg, in 1605. He presented the town of Pyła, together with the lands of the domain of Ujscie, as a wedding gift to his new bride. By her husband's benevolence, she became responsible for changing Pyła in several ways over the next few decades. Acting in concert with the tenets of the prevailing Catholic Counter Reformation, the queen first attended to what seemed closest to her heart. She saw to it that numerous Protestant churches in the region of Wałcz, the most German of areas where seventeen Protestant villages existed, be handed over to the Roman Catholic clergy, hounding many a German Protestant burgher in the process.
After one of the town's frequent fires in 1619, the queen — in a benevolent gesture and as her ‘present’ to the burghers of Pyła — appropriated funds from the large estate to have the old burnt-out wooden Catholic Church, the Alte Marienkirche, rebuilt. Alas, given the random, close proximity of houses to one another, town fires occurred with such regularity in numerous communities during that period that in 1626 another devastating fire broke out in Pyła. This time the entire town was laid to ashes, including the newly built church. Konstancja subsequently charged her secretary Samuel Targowski on 15 July 1626 to survey what was left of the town. His proposal for a new layout was to be drastic for Christian burghers; to the developing Jewish community it was most consequential and of particular detriment. Queen Konstancja decided on a distinct segregation of Jews and Christians. The Jewish community was to resettle in a ghetto, what was to become a virtual town within a town. The new site, from thereon often referred to as Judenstadt, the Jews’ town. To demarcate the newly created ghetto, the decree called for a sizable trench to be dug to surround the Jewish quarters where feasible; otherwise a tall wooden fence had to serve to close in the area completely.
A new church arose in 1628. Unlike most other buildings in town, the choir room section of this edifice was to remain intact in its original form until 1945. New houses were constructed of brick and stone and the town was reconstructed in plain Renaissance style. On July 24, 1655 during The Deluge, Swedish troops captured the mostly Lutheran town of Pyla, pillaged and destroyed most of it. During October 1656, a Polish troupe of Stefan Czarniecki's army sought terrible retribution upon the largely German and Protestant burghers of Pyła, accusing them of collusion with the Swedes — while Loyola's zealous disciples fanned their anti-Jewish hostilities in many parts of Poland. During the consecutive Great Northern and Seven Years' Wars similar havoc was visited upon the remaining inhabitants. To add to the plight, it was discovered that the plague had been carried in.
With the signing of the definitive treaty to divide Poland between Prussia, Austria and Russia in 1772, the First Partition of Poland was accomplished. Pyła became part of the Kingdom of Prussia and was renamed Schneidemühl. (In 1793 it was recaptured for a short period by a Polish army led by Colonel Wyganowski.) After Friedrich II signed the Besitzergreifungspatent, the Ownership Protocol of his Polish lands on 13 September 1772, he created out of the northern parts of Great Poland and Kujawy the Departement Westpreussen. Part of that area was later also known as the Netzedistrikt, a governmental administrative district consisting of a wide strip of land both sides of the river Netze (Notec), stretching from it source north of Września to the border of the Neumark, incorporating the Küddow and the Drage, as these rivers were known from thereon.
In the year 1781, another huge fire occurred in Schneidemühl, devastating half the town. Despite the fact that Prussian authorities had brought in chimney sweeps and regulations that spelled out fire emergency tasks, hardly anyone in the town was prepared for a major conflagration. Forty-four houses, thirty-seven stables and seventeen barns burned down.
Following Prussia's disastrous defeat at the hands of Napoleon at the battle of Jena, and after signing the Peace of Tilsit of 7 July 1807, Prussia had lost nearly fifty percent of its recently acquired territory. Schneidemühl's new Polish-Prussian border ran very close to town and together with the largest part of Posen, Schneidemühl became part of Bonaparte's Grand Duchy of Warsaw. This semi-independent state was created out of parts of Prussia's Polish territories, headed by King Friedrich August of Saxony.
In 1815 the Congress of Vienna gave Schneidemühl to Prussia again. The Polish language was banned from offices and education and the city saw a significant influx of German settlers. By 1834 Schneidemühl had barely recovered from the worst outbreak of cholera of 1831, an epidemic that affected the town's burghers to such an extent that a special Protestant cholera cemetery had to be laid out in the town's suburb Berliner Vorstadt. In the summer of 1834 the city was again struck by a fire that destroyed a large part of the city centre and the city archives. The city was rebuilt shortly afterwards. Until 1846 Piła belonged to the Grand Duchy of Poznań, which was then renamed the Province of Posen of the Kingdom of Prussia, which in turn became part of the German Empire after 1871. In 1851 the city was connected to Berlin and Bromberg by a railway.
The Germanization policy of the Prussian and Imperial German government replaced its Polish identity with a German one. By the end of the 19th century the city had become one of the most important railway centers of the region and one of the biggest towns in the Province of Posen. It was turned into a Prussian military garrison town. Schneidemühl was revisited by a catastrophe, known as the Brunnenunglück, or the ‘calamity of the well’ that made national headlines. The drilling of an artesian well in August 1892 went horribly wrong and led to unexpected widespread flooding of many of the newly laid-out streets of 1834, causing numerous houses to simply collapse and leaving more than eighty families without shelter. The worst was that this disaster came only a few years on the heels of unexpected flooding caused by the spring thaw of March 1888 that had turned the Küddow into a raging river, when many people were forced to use rowboats to navigate the streets.
During the first World War Schneidemuhl had a prisoner of war camp, initially taking mainly Russian prisoners but later including prisoners from most allied nations including Australia. A telling account of life in the town during that period survives in the form of the diary of Piete Kuhr, then a young girl whose grandmother worked at the Red Cross canteen at the railway station. Piete Kuhr is better known for her later work under the pen name Jo Mihaly.
After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, and after much protest by the German majority of its population, Schneidemühl was not included in the Polish Second Republic after World War I. After the Greater Poland Uprising, the new Polish-German border ran five kilometers south of the city. On 21 July 1922 Schneidemühl became the Regierungsbezirk, the centre for local administration of the new province Grenzmark Posen-Westpreussen. In 1925, with the sudden influx of the so-called Optanten, and with considerable publicity, the town's population swelled temporarily to 37,518.
The city experienced a short period of growth followed by a period of decline in the early 1930s. High unemployment and the ineffectiveness of local administration led to rising support for the NSDAP. The administrative arrangement lasted only eleven years when the province, also known as Gau Kurmark, joined the province of Brandenburg as a governmental district. Thereafter, in March and September 1938, a Verwaltungsgliederung, or administrative reform, divided the entire area west of the Polish border into the three entities Brandenburg, Schlesien (Silesia) and Pommern Pomerania—placing the Netzekreis with Schneidemühl into Pommern, with which it formed the Regierungsbezirk Grenzmark Posen-Westpreussen, the governmental district of Grenzmark Posen-Westpreussen, as of 1 October 1938.
With the onset of the Nazi period and the begin of the Gestapo's harassment of political and racial undesirables, the climate for Schneidemühl's shrinking Jewish community that had reached over one thousand members during the mid-19th century, changed irreversibly — institutionalized anti-Semitism had arrived in Schneidemühl. 1938: the terror that was the Kristallnacht embodied so much more than a night of broken glass. The freestanding structure of Schneidemühl's fine synagogue became a prime target for the Nazis who set fire to the one-hundred-year old house of God. The 300-year old Jewish community of Schneidemühl was destroyed when the last remaining Jews were arrested and deported after 21 March 1940. During World War II a camp for civil prisoners-of-war named "Albatros" was established. The city became part of the Pommerstellung a line of fortifications. In 1945 the town was declared a Festung by Adolf Hitler. It was captured by the joint Polish and Red Army forces after two weeks of heavy fighting. 75% of the city was destroyed and almost 90% of the historic city centre was in ruins.
Resulting from the Potsdam Conference in 1945 the city became part of Poland again with the official name of Piła. The remaining local ethnic German population was forcibly expelled by Polish and Soviet troops from 1945 to 1948, while Polish expelees from the east and refugees from areas of Central Poland destroyed by the Germans were resettled in the city. The historical city centre was only partially restored.
In 1975 Piła became the capital of the newly-established Piła Voivodeship, which started a period of fast development of industry in the area. Currently Piła is one of the most important cities of the region. It is famous for its green areas and parks, as well as for its speedway club Polonia Piła.