Bytom (German: Beuthen) is an industrial city in southwestern Poland. The population is 231,200 (1991 est.). Coal, zinc, lead, and silver are mined nearby, and the city has an institute of mining. Major products include iron and steel, silver, heavy machinery, and furniture. Its silver foundry is the largest in Poland.
The history of Beuthen goes back to the Middle Ages, when it was founded in the eleventh century by King Boleslaw I, the Brave, and chartered in 1254. It was the capital of an independent duchy from 1282 to 1289 and was part of the early Polish nation. It was subsequently held by Bohemia and the Austrian-dominated Hapsburg Empire until it passed to Prussia under Frederick the Great in 1742, forming part of upper Silesia (Oberschlesien). The region's rich mineral seams have been extensively mined since the Middle Ages. During the mid to late 1800s Silesia became a major industrial area with the development of lead, zinc, iron, coal mining, as well as manufacturing.
The Industrial Revolution brought about a substantial increase in population, along with social and cultural conflicts among its German, Polish, and Czech inhabitants. The population of Beuthen grew steadily from about 1,000 in 1750, to 3,000 in 1831, and to 62,000 by 1925. With a population composed almost equally of Germans and Poles (and with many of mixed blood), the fate of Upper Silesia became a hot political issue after the First World War.
Following Germany's defeat, the Allies at first intended to transfer the whole of Upper Silesia to the newly resurrected Poland, which would otherwise have been a poor agricultural country with no industrial base. The Allies, however, dragged their feet on the issue. France, which wanted to weaken Germany as much as possible and to establish a strong ally to the east, favored Poland. Britain sided with Germany, believing that it made more sense for industries to be left in the hands of the nation that had developed them, rather than being handed over to a new country with no business experience.
Frustrated at the lack of progress, the Poles staged insurrections in 1919 and 1920. (My father, who was a child at the time, recalls there was a lot of fighting in the streets of Beuthen.) This was followed by a plebiscite in March 1921, which was won by the Germans (707,000 to 479,000 votes), and a third insurrection in May 1921 in which the Polish Army occupied the territory. The newly established League of Nations decided that partition was the only fair solution and used the plebiscite returns as the basis for the carve-up.
The Geneva Convention on Upper Silesia of 1922 granted Germany two-thirds of the land and three-fifths of the population, but an international boundary was cut through the industrial conurbation, leaving Poland with the vast majority of the coal mines and blast furnaces. The new border passed just to the east of Beuthen, so that Katowice and other neighboring towns became part of Poland while Beuthen remained German. The area, however, was kept as an economic unit, with guarantees on the movement of goods, material, and labor. The agreement endured for the full fifteen years it was scheduled to operate, despite dire predictions to the contrary.
The Jewish population of Beuthen during the inter-war period was about 3,500 (according to Mokotov) or 5,000 according to a former resident, who recalls that approximately 4,000 of them left Beuthen between 1933 and 1939. Today there are about 20-30 Jews in the city, most of whom are originally from other places.
During the Nazi Occupation, Beuthen was the center of the Polish underground resistance movement. Most of Silesia, including Beuthen, became part of Poland after The War, and displaced Poles from the Eastern Territories were brought in to replace the Germans who were evacuated from the region.
Postwar Silesia has developed a strongly Polish character, but many of the people with roots in the area are bilingual and consider their prime loyalty to lie with Silesia rather than Poland. During the Communist period, the region's population and economy continued to grow, thanks to the ideological stress placed on heavy industry.
The region around Bytom is Poland's main industrial area, consisting of an almost continuously built-up "conurbation" of about a dozen towns. Its two million inhabitants make it the most densely populated part of the country, with 350,000 in the largest city — Katowice.
During the Communist era, the region became notorious for the horrendous pollution of its outdated factories. It is considered one of the world's worst environmental disaster areas, with many of its inhabitants constantly subjected to severe health hazards, as the large number of disease-ridden children testifies. The infant mortality rate is particularly high in the Bytom area, while many children are born with congenital defects.
The dispersion of the pollution is responsible for the severe damage caused to the buildings of Kraków, some seventy kilometers to the east. In addition to the health and environmental problems, many enterprises have been shut down in recent years, resulting in high unemployment and a very uncertain fututre for the region. Telephone service in southwestern Poland has lagged behind that of northern and central Poland.
The American telecommunications company Sprint recently obtained a contract to build a modern telecommunications network in the Silesia and Pila regions of Poland as part of a joint venture. The project, whose total cost is put at $165 million, was announced in late 1994 and is expected to be completed in 1997. Lucent Technologies (formerly a division of AT&T) is providing about $9 million in network equipment to improve local telephone service in the Katowice region (9/96).
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