As most other towns of the Oberzips, Bela is on the high plain between the towering Tatra mountains. Its median altitude is 631 meters, about 2,000 feet. The town’s name derives from the Bela creek, in Slavic meaning “white,” an appropriate name for the gushing whitewater creek flowing through the town. There were several such rivers in the old kingdom of Hungary, and places named for them, hence informally "Zipser" was added to Bela till it became official in the 20th century. In the local German dialect, one did not say I go "nach Bela" (to Zipser Bela) but "in die Bejl" (I go into the Bela area).
After the Mongols left, the Hungarian kings called new, mainly German, settlers to the Zips. They mixed with the few German and Slavic survivors and rebuilt towns and villages. Some settlements were built on land the king had given to nobles. Others, like Bela, were on land still owned directly by the crown. Bela received city rights in 1271. Bela had an extensive land area under its jurisdiction, for a small city, around 72 km2 (that is about. 28 square miles), including large forests and pastures for cows and sheep in the mountains. Many burghers were peasants, too, with fields outside the town. The mayor (Richter) was elected directly by the burghers, as were the 6 Geschworenen (aldermen). As the city grew, a second church, St Anthony’s, was added in 1264 to the rebuilt St Valentin’s. Bela was a member of the league of 24 Zipser cities on crownland, who paid an annual rent to the king for the land, and were otherwise not subjected to the myriad of petty taxes and labor dues burghers and peasant on noble lands owed their lord of the manor. Bela’s Catholic priest was a member of the brotherhood formed by the priests of these 24 cities. These were autonomous from the Zipser provost (Probst). As in the rest of Christian Europe, an important burden for subjects was the tithe. In Hungary, all non-nobles had to pay the real tenth of their annual income to the Catholic church, whose hierarchy also determined its local beneficiary, the priest, without input from believers, except when nobles had built and endowed the local church, making then the church “patron” with the right of veto over the bishop’s choice of a priest. But the burghers of the Zipser cities were, which was rare in Europe, the patrons of their own churches because they had built and endowed them with land, whose income paid the priest. Hence the town owned the tithe and the local parishioners elected their priest. As the tithe was generous, the priest also had a powerful economic role in the city.
In 1412, together with 12 other royal towns and the royal domain of Lublau, Bela was mortgaged to the King of Poland. The mortgage was supposed to last only for a few years, but ended only in 1772. The King of Poland appointed a governor, the Starost, to manage the income from his security deposit. He lived in the castle in Lublau (for more details see the general Zips History page). During the Polish era, Bela’s population suffered like the rest of the Zips from epidemics and famines, as well as fires. The city records noted 17 devastating fires from the 16th to the 18th centuries, notably in 1518, 1521, 1551, 1553, 1607, 1667, and 1707. The plague struck hard in 1600 (700 dead), 1622 (175 dead), 1679 (418 dead), and especially brutally in 1710. As a result, the town was smaller in the late 17th century than Eisdorf, for example, which most of the time had been smaller. In 1674, the fee from Bela’s minister to the Brotherhood was set at 3 Goldgulden, 66 Denare, while Eisdorf paid 4 Goldgulden, 20 Denare, as did Zipser Neudorf and Menhard, while Leibitz paid over 5 Goldgulden, and Leutschau 11.
The King of Poland gave the Starost a free hand as long as the money flowed regularly. Initially, the king of Poland changed Starosts at least once a generation, and kept them under some control. But in 1596, needing the support of the powerful Lubormirski family, he made them hereditary starosts of the mortgaged cities, which they remained till 1745, when that branch died out. The starostship then passed to a cadet branch of the royal Poniatowski family and then to Count Brühl. The Lubormirski owned of course much more land in the Kingdom of Poland proper. Yet, because of its strategic location at the Southern entrance to Poland, and the closeness of the Turkish threat, since the border was near Kaschau till the reconquest of Hungary in 1697, they paid close attention to the small mortgaged Zips, through their castellan in Lublau.
At first little changed for the burghers of Bela, save the address to send the royal taxes. But after a few decades, the Starost began to interfere in local affairs. In 1460, the Starost ordered that the mayors of all 13 cities be henceforth not be elected by a general assembly of all burghers, but by delegates elected by each ward, to limit the influence of poorer craftsmen. But not all interferences were negative. Greatly adding to Bela’s prosperity was the right to hold weekly local markets every Sunday, awarded by the king of Poland in 1535, and in 1607 the right to hold two annual regional fairs, on St Anthony’s Day (January 7) and St. Matthias’ Day (September 21), increased to in 3 in 1667 and 5 in 1739. This benefited Bela’s craftsmen. They formed numerous guilds since the middle ages, notably butchers, shoemakers, dressmakers, furriers, smiths and weavers. Flax was widely grown, and the linen made from it sold throughout the Hungarian Kingdom. The town was prosperous enough to build a new town hall in the 16th century. However, the city had no regular town walls, never having receiving royal permission for fortification, and for defense relied on the adjoining stout backwalls of the burgher’s barns, supplemented by wooden stockades. The town also had its own militia, and those who could afford firearms trained since 1637 in the shooting society, the Schützenverein, which existed till after World War I.
Concerning taxes, the Polish governor initially demanded only what had been due to the King of Hungary, that is from the 13 cities their share of the Zipser city league tax, which in 1412 was for them 200 currency Mark in silver annually (at the time, a good horse cost 4 Gulden, an ordinary house in Bela 12 Gulden), plus whatever was needed in case of war. This was raised to 700 Gulden in 1674, which might reflect inflation and currency changes. But the citizens were really hurt by a stream of extraordinary levies, sometimes justified with the huge cost of the Turkish wars, and sometimes simply by mailed fist. After 1541 another 300 Kuebel (one Kuebel was 125 liters, in US measures 3.57 bushels @ 35 Liters) corn had to be paid jointly by the 13 city parishes, after 1594 an additional 82 Florin in cash, and then the corn tax was doubled to 600 Kuebel (or 2,143 bushels). In 1616 a new tax of 500 gold ducats, the Podor, was imposed on the XIII cities, plus many smaller ad-hoc demands as well. The worst period was under Theodor Constantin Lubomirski, who ruled 1702-1745. He asked that the burghers start to pay annually the Nona, the 9th of all goods, which was not only a lot but also an insulting mark of servitude,. He then allowed the cities to buy themselves free of this tax for 21,000 Gulden, a very large sum, which they did. From 1714 to 1716 alone, about 181,000 Gulden were extorted from the 13 cities. The extortions ceased after 1745.
The increasing oppression from the Starost also threatened the religion of the inhabitants. The burghers of Zipser Bela traditionally had the right to elect their own priest, who then received a generous salary—but also had to pay the deacon and the school teacher, and give a number of statutory gifts to the Provost of the Zips, to the Hungarian count administering the Zips, to the king of Hungary, and now to the Polish Starost as well. The minister also had to help hosting distinguished guests of the city in his stately parish house, and wine and dine them.
After the last Catholic priest of Bela Valentin Szontagh de Bielitz died in 1545, the city elected a Lutheran priest as his successor, Laurentius Quendel (called Serpilius), who was actually a native of Bela. The whole city became Lutheran without struggle. The reformation led to more public spending on education. In the 16-17th centuries, the city school had three teachers, the rector (usually with a degree from a German university), an assistant teacher, and a cantor who taught singing. The teachers were expected to participate in the city festivities, write Latin speeches, etc., for free though the cantor received additional fees for singing in church and at funerals. In 1674, school taxes were thus: Each big house (there were 173) paid 1 Kuebel grain, each small house (102) 0.5 Kuebel, to the rector, a total of 224 Kuebel (800 US bushels), worth 220 Fl. There was no assistant teacher any more, but the rector had to pay the cantor 12 Fl., and various other school employees 23 Florin, leaving 185 Florin for him. Collective worship was a powerful expression of the town community. In 1565, the Starost had promised to respect the free exercise of religion for Lutherans in all XIII cities for an annual gift of 300 Kuebel grain from the ministers, and 100 Dukaten from each newly elected minister. The burghers of Bela worshipped fairly unmolested after that, despite various anti-Lutheran policies from the King of Hungary and the King of Poland, till the apex of the counter-reformation in the late 17th century.
In June 1671, the King of Poland ordered the confiscation of all Lutheran churches and schools, and the expulsion of all Lutheran office holders from the XIII cities. But Starost Hercalius Lubomirski did not implement the decree provided the Lutheran cities now let Catholics worship freely, help them set up churches and schools, and limit public office to Catholics. However, under pressure from the Catholic clergy, in September 1672 he had to order the expulsion of Lutheran ministers who had fled from other parts of the Zips. The pressure soon increased dramatically, as the titular lord, the King of Hungary Leopold II, now also demanded the suppression of Lutherans in the wake of the Wesselenyi-conspiracy that rocked the Hungarian kingdom. Leopold II ordered that all churches and schools, and the tithe, be given to Catholics. In Bela, the church was handed over to the Catholics and minister Johann Fontany expelled penniless with his family. Ordinary local Lutherans were not expelled and could still worship in their homes, though not without molestation from various officials. Also, the Catholic priest was now the sole public official recording births, deaths and marriages, and received the fees for it. In 1700, the Starost again allowed the cities to maintain Lutheran ministers, in Zipser Bela it was Georg Roth, a native of Bela and son-in-law of Fontany, but only for services in private homes. The Lutheran ministers had to leave town right after services ended. This was not enforced till Starost Theodor Lubormirski took power. On August 10, 1703, in Kirchdrauf, the elderly minister Samuel Platany was caught a few hours after services. The Starost had him publicly whipped out of the city, and then banned all private worship. But in 1707, for a considerable bribe, he allowed a durable compromise. Private worship was allowed and the minister could even live in the city. However, all Lutherans services had to end at 8 AM, so that all Lutheran city officials could attend Catholic services, which were mandatory for them. The city school was seized in 1674, and Lutheran children had to attend the now Catholic school. Home schooling was banned, as was sending children outside the 13 cities area for education. In 1758 Starost count Theodor Brühl allowed some Lutheran home schooling but in 1771 Starost Poniatowski banned it again.
Overall, though Poland and Hungary pursued sharp re-catholization policies, it was in the Starosts’ material interest not to harm the economic viability of the XIII cities, and to attract loyalty by being a tad more liberal than the ultra-Catholic Csaky who ruled the part of the Zips that remained under direct Hungarian rule. Incidentally, these oppressive policies did not lead many people to switch their faith, noted Reverend Samuel Weber, who from his parish registers counted about 30 adults who became Catholics from 1674 to 1781, mostly to marry, as Catholics who converted risked the death penalty.
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The attitude of the Catholic county administration also affected the school after 1772. First the Hungarian officials simply forbade Lutheran schools, claiming they were bound to honor Poniatowski’s edict. Then, in 1780, “national schools” (public grade schools with a national curriculum) were created, in theory non-denominational except for religion and singing provided by the respective Catholic and Lutheran parishes. But in practice only Catholic teachers were hired. In 1785, Josef II allowed Lutheran schools, and the local Lutherans opened their own grade school. In 1802, teacher Martin Lang received a free apartment in the school house and use of a vegetable patch, 150 Gulden (Florin, Fl.) in cash and 6 Metzen corn, mainly rye, (10.71 bushel), 8 Klafter firewood (a Klafter had 3 cubic meters, or 83% of a US cord, it was 6 2/3rd cords total), but he had to cut and cart the logs himself. He also received sundry fees from each child, such as a 10 Kreuzer registration fee and a 6 Kreuzer on his name day and certain holidays, altogether estimated by Samuel Weber at 50 Fl. over the year. The teacher had to substitute for the minister if the latter was sick for free, but earned additional money by doing the organizational work at funerals, incl. writing the funeral oration. If he had the training (and strength) to also work as the parish cantor, he could earn another 80 Fl. salary, plus fees for organizing the singing at marriages and funerals. In 1842 mandatory Latin was dropped from the grade school curriculum, but drawing, geometry, mapmaking, gymnastics, and Hungarian, added to it and the teaching method changed from rote learning to more active student learning.
The aftermath of the revolution of 1848/49 brought full legal equality, and also led to a change of attitude among the local Catholic Magyar nobles who enforced that law. Local Germans, in Zipser Bela and elsewhere, had supported the Magyar revolutionaries against the Hapsburgs. After the revolution was over, Bela Lutheran minister Karl Maday was even briefly jailed (He later became bishop). The Catholic Hungarian nobles took note. And so religious strife lessened over time and in 1870 the Bela Lutherans gave up their parish school to join the reformed public school, which also hired the four Lutheran teachers. After 1870 grade school teachers were lavishly paid, receiving still free lodging with a large garden, but now 400 Gulden in cash (US-$ 160 then), 12 Klafter firewood (about 10 US cords), with free cutting and carting now, and still a small cash gift from each child on name day. They were morally expected to be active in their parish, but not forced anylonger to act as clerical help to the minister. However, they now were expected to be agents of Magyarization. Two important persons in Bela during that era were Rev. Samuel Weber (1835 Poprad-1908 Bela), Lutheran minister in Bela from 1861 to 1908, and his successor Franz Ratzenberger (1863 Schwedler-1930). Both were literary active and wrote on local history as well. Weber was honored by the city in 2008. Unfortunately in the exhibit the names of his family were “Slovakized” though his ancestors were all Zipser Saxons, giving a misleading impression of how he saw himself.
The economic situation of Bela remained good throughout the 19th century, despite a devastating fire in 1828, and four Cholera outbreaks, 1831 (85 dead), 1856 (a smaller number), 1866 (45 dead), and 1873 (65 dead). From 1783 to 1793, Bela had accepted 199 craftsmen as new burghers, after showing that they had completed their regular journeyman training, then wandered for 3 years, had done their masterpiece, and were financially able to set up a household. While many were relatives of existing burghers, others were new to the town and long-lasting boost for its economy. In the 17th century, several mineral springs located 1.5 km (a mile) from the city had been discovered, and became Bad Zipser Bela (Belianske Kupele), locally famous for helping with arthritis, gout and skin conditions. By 1881, the city developed 2 miles upmountain the new resort of Hoehlenhain (Grove at the cave, because of the nearby cave Belaer Tropfsteinhoehle), in Magyar Barlangliget, in Slovak today Tatranska Kotlina. Another new industry was tanning, and the distilling of a local gin (Borovic^ka) that had originated in nearby Liptau Megye. As Andrej Novak noted, home brewing for sale was still important, too. In 1812, of 400 houses in the city, (many of which were not burgher houses), 29 used their burgher brewing rights. In the second half of the 19th century, several new industries came. Factories were opened to make flaxy canvas (1869), starch (1878), bricks, lumber, the liqueur factory Kleinberger (1875), the breweries Szimonisz (1870) and Reich (1872), a plant making smoking tobacco (1892), a distillery for industrial alcohol (1902), etc. A further boost came from the building of a train branch from Kesmark to Zipser Bela in 1892.
The town’s prosperity supported numerous associations. The shooting club of 1637 still had 95 members in 1845. There was a theatre club (1870), the Belaer Chor (1862), hunting club (1860), fishing club (1889), voluntary fire brigade (1878), sports club (1910) and many others. The Faschingsverein (founded around 1900) created a lively mardi-gras, with up to 4,000 tourists coming to town to watch the parade. Yet there was a change of spirit in the meetings. Till the 1880s, a meeting of local “Bejler” might begin, reflecting their genuine love of their Hungarian homeland, with the magyar shout “Eljen” (for Eljen a Kiraly, long live the King) and the pious wish, to please any Magyar government officials, that someday in the (far, far) future all Hungarian citizens would speak Magyar as their mother-tongue. Then the Bejler would happily continued in the local Potoksch German dialect. Now, civic leaders enforced Magyar through legal pressure and social mobbing. In 1855, according to Samuel Weber, there were 81 inhabitants speaking Slovak and 6 Magyar at home--and 2,225 German inhabitants. The population was 96% German. But then emigration and Magyarization, together with the hiring of Slovaks for the new factories—they worked for less than the sons of German burghers and craftsmen--cut that number. As Erich Fausel noted in 1926, citizens declaring that their household language was German dropped to 1,889 (or 72.8% of 2,589) in 1880 and 1,242 (43.1% of 2,887) in 1910, rising to 53.8% (1,557) of 2,894 in 1919 as some Magyarized Germans returned to their roots. But the trend was towards Slovak. The Karpathen-Post reported that in 1912, of 94 live births, 64 had been Slovaks, 25 German, 5 Magyars. (16 Jan 1913). In terms of religion, in 1877, there were 827 Catholics, 36 Greek Catholics, 1,605 Lutherans, 10 Reformed and 111 Jews.
Looking through old copies of the weekly Karpathen-Post, one glimpses in the last years before the war also an active local democracy. In November 1910 for example, in the elections for the county legislature, a majority of voters in Bela voted, with Dr. Friedrich Gabriel receiving 184 votes, Armin Mayer 174 votes, Michael Neupauer 124 votes. There may have been other candidates, too. The Gabriel clan was very active in local politics, including in the city council, which had 12 elected aldermen. The town’s prosperity was envied by its neighbors, as the budget was entirely paid by income from the town’s forests and other ventures, such as the brickyard and spa. Only Kesmark was in the similar happy situation of not needing to levy city taxes. Income and expenses were predictable. The projected budget for 1914 was 171,545 Kronen, of which 76,938 came from the forest, 9,005 from the brickyard, 16,838 from the spa, 21,972 from interest on bonds. Expenses were 165,125 Kronen, with expenses for forestry 24,846, brickyard 7,880, spa 10,000. The city payroll proper was 47,510, office supplies 2,374, upkeep of city buildings 18,710, sanitation and city veterinarian 3,495, local help for schools and churches 10,658 (Karpathen-Post 17 Nov 1910, 4 Dec.1913). The future seemed predictable. But it was not to be.
In August 1914, World War I broke out between the Central Powers and the Entente. By November 1918, the Central Powers were defeated. Austria-Hungary was cut into pieces by the revenge-mad victors, who created the foundation for a new world war. After the Armistice,and upon learning of the surrender of their country to the Czech separatists who had been supported by the victors, Hungarian troops and administration slowly retreated. On December 15, 1918, Polish and Czech troops faced each other before Kesmark over conflicting claims to the Oberzips. The Czechs won. They occupied Bela, too. Without moving, the citizens of Bela had become part of a new country whose elite was hostile to them and as early as 1919 hoped to get rid of the non-Slavic native population.
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In the 1920s, the Wintergasse in Zipser Bela looked like this.
Still, Carpathian German life continued. My mother, as a child, in the late 1930s and 1940s, visited often her aunt Emma Teltsch, born Alexy, who had married the widowed former mayor Arthur Teltsch. She was the oldest surviving child of Rev. Matthias Alexy from Eisdorf, my greatgrandfather. Matthias Alexy’s wife Julianne Schmeiss, also spelled Schmeisz, was herself from an old Zipser Bela family. My mother recalled the Simonis family, with the brewery, who were in-law relations, having married other Alexy cousins. In the USA, there was my aunt (a few times removed) Liesel Hentschel, born Alexy, from Eisdorf, whose husband Emil Hentschel was from Zipser Bela. As it turned out, they were in-laws of the Simonis as well, and share more than half of my Zipser Bela ancestral surnames, too. The Oberzips was a small world.
Most Carpathian Germans were Lutherans. The parish had in the early 1940s 841 members, plus 112 in Nehre and 270 in the “Diaspora,” including Kreutz. The last minister, 1931 to Jan. 1945, was Georg Hirschmann (1904 Pressburg-1966 Stuttgart), the parish inspector was August Rissdorfer, the cantor for Zipser Bela was Julius Roth and for Nehre Ladislaus Buchalla. Between November and January 1945 about 850 Germans were evacuated to prevent a massacre by the Red Army and the returning Beneshists. Those who stayed, or returned, often died in camps or were murdered. By 1947 most remaining survivors were resettled to other places in Slovakia. Rev. Michael Holko (1866 Pressburg-1960 Deutschendorf), who had administered the parish in 1930-31, was able to stay (though his children not) and served as administrator of the Lutheran church till he had to retire in 1947. The historic Zipser Bela is gone. As a result, though there are a dozen local Germans left, they have no presence, no power to reclaim their past.
As noted earlier, there were scarcely any native Slovaks in the city in 1855, and most of the Slovaks living there in 1945 had moved there at best one or two generations earlier. A new batch of settlers in 1947 were Ruthenian Greek Catholics from Lendak, which had burned in 1947. Instead of rebuilding the remote village, the authorities simply moved the peasants to the empty German homes in Bierbrunn and Zipser Bela. Other settlers came from further North, Zdiar and and the Zamagursky area, and often were Ruthenian and Greek-Orthodox, though now in a process of Slovakization as well. Historically, they often were friendly to Germans, and that is crucial for how they deal with the remnants of the Zipser Bela’s German past.
After the end of Communism, which used Czech nationalism to make itself more attractive, the city created a museum for native sons Josef Petzval (1807-1891), a pioneer in photography, and Michael Greisiger (1854-1912). I’m not sure if the exhibits always point out that when alive, the two were neither Slovaks nor German-Slovaks (as Carpathian Germans are sometimes mislabeled today—a German Slovak is someone with mixed German and Slovak ancestry, not a German from an area only since a century called "Slovakia"), but Magyarophile Zipser Saxons. A Slovak-language history of the town was published in 2006, which, according to informed readers, is fairly accurate in most parts. In an interview in the Karpatenblatt, Primator Dr. Stefan Bielak stated that he was very positive on the German history of the city. The sister city partnership with Brück/Austria, where many deported Zipser live, helps to remind the current inhabitants of who lived there before.
1. Schmeisz, Pauline Julianne, b. 27.01.1862 Zipser Bela, House 180, died 21.07.1939 Bulkesz, in the Batchka, (http://www.bulkes.de/) today Magli?, Petrovac Municipality, Vojvodina Province, Serbia). She married on 10.06.1878 in Zipser Bela the Lutheran Minister Matthias Alexy, a native of Eisdorf (1853-1934). The couple lived in Rissdorf and Bierbrunn, before he accepted a call from the parish of Bulkesz in 1912. Their 15th child Desider Alexy was my mother’s father.