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Coffee: A Polish Gift to Civilization?
Polish American Journal, April 1994
by Anthony K. Podbielski, Lt. Col. Aus. Ret.

During the recent, and I hope last days of the blizzard, I met a close friend in a local eatery for a cup of coffee and conversation.

"Ah," he said, "a brew of the gods. Nothing like a good cup of coffee on a cold day for warmth and stimulation."

"Agreed," I answered. "And to think that coffee is a Polish gift to civilization."

"What?" was almost hysterically followed by another, "What are you doing?" when he attempted to prevent the waitress from pouring more coffee into his unfinished cup.

"I was just putting a head on it," said the embarrassed girl.

"My dear lady, what is proper for beer is improper for coffee. A fresh cup should be supplied, or a completely empty cup could be refilled."

"Sorry" she mumbled, shaking her head and walking away.

"Now, Tony, what’s this about coffee being a Polish gift to civilization?"

I recalled the well-known historical facts of the Polish King, Jan III Sobieski (1624-1696), who on September 12, 1683, headed the Christian coalition of Polish, German, French and Austrian armies and lifted the lengthy Turkish siege at Vienna. The Moslem troops panicked at the sound and fury of the heavy mounted, winged Polish Hussars’ avalanche, and frantically fled off the field of battle. On October 9 at Parkany, Hungary, Sobieski won the decisive battle. Never again did the Islamic military attempt to subjugate Europe.

During those long weeks of the Turkish siege of the Austrian capitol, the Polish king was ably served by a personal confidante. This Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki could be termed the erstwhile version of a current CIA agent. He was of noble birth and though his ancestry originated in Serbio-Croatia, he carried the Polish nobility crest of SAS. He was a wealthy merchant who traveled extensively in the Middle East and was fluent in Turkish and other languages. Speaking the Turkish dialects and dressed in appropriate Turkish garb, he was able to penetrate the Turkish siege lines and into the tunnels beneath Vienna walls in to the city proper. There he kept Count Von Starhenberg informed of the impending rescue attempts. Both men developed a code of mutual information for both sides through the use of primitive rocket signals. The beleaguered Viennese were morally uplifted. Through his broad experience in the Middle East, Kulczycki became aware of the far-reaching Turkish political and military plans of Kara Mustafa for conquering Europe.

The morning of September 12, 1683, Sobieski ordered his thousands of soldiers, basically the heavy-mounted winged Hussars, to constantly repeated mass charges and forays on all fronts against encamped Turks. Surprised on every turn, the Turkish commander, Kara Mustafa, ordered a rapid, massive retreat to the East. Left behind were their command posts with maps, battle plans, armor, cannons, tents, stables, kitchen fires, coins, jewels, food and bags of Turkish coffee beans. Despite their forced swift evacuation, the Turks killed most of their concubines and camp followers, lest they fall into the hands of the Christian infidels. By evening, the battle was over and Sobieski relaxed in the Turkish Grand Vizier’s magnificent tent.

The spoils of war—the booty—were divided amongst the victors. But the bags of coffee beans were strange items to the Viennese. While coffee was already known in England, Marseilles and Paris, it was unfamiliar to most of continental Europe.

The grateful Viennese presented Kulczycki with a house in the Inner Stadt, the inner city or Old Town. Here the enterprising Pole established the first coffee house in Central Europe. The idea caught on rapidly and he expanded it into a small restaurant. At first the coffee was served black, but later he added milk and sugar to taste. But Kulczycki also created an appropriately designed piece of pastry which he served with this new intoxicating brew.

This first pastry he made was in the form of the Turkish crescent, or half moon, a symbol on the Turkish banners. Legend also claims it was based on the form of the jeweled stirrups of the Polish King’s saddle. When Sobieski made his triumphal entry in to the Austrian capitol, the enthusiastic Viennese reached out to touch the Polish monarch, rather his boots and stirrups. The pastry design eventually evolved into other molds, one of which is the present round, hard-glazed doughnut shaped roll, known as the bagel.

With other Turkish war booty and Middle Eastern artifacts, the coffee bean and bagels also came to Poland. But Kulczycki remained in Vienna, operating his Kaffee Haus and continuing to serve his King as a man of confidence and observer of things political. As in Austria and other European countries, the coffee house or "kawiarnia" became popular in Poland. It was the cultural center of meetings, discussion for the literati and cognoscenti and ordinary gossip not devoid of political connivance. It became a library of sorts where ultimately newspapers and books became available to the patrons. In our times, with the development of the radio and the omni-present television, this pacific, relaxed atmosphere has been considerably disturbed.

Following my 1944 combat infantry service with the 88th Division in Italy, I was reassigned to Vienna with the U.S. Occupational Forces as a Public Welfare Officer, later as a Coordinator of Catholic, Jewish and Protestant Relief Agencies. The duties were important: our American theme was "prevent disease and unrest." My 1945-48 Army tour of duty gave me many educational opportunities including studying the "1683 Sobieski Saga."

In 1883, the 200th anniversary of Vienna’s rescue, the grateful Viennese erected a larger-than-life statue of Kulczycki. It is located on the first floor pediment of an apartment house at the corner of Favorittenstrasse and Kolchitskygasse in Vienna. There he still stands in a Turkish dress, holding a coffee urn in his right hand and in his left hand a tray of cups and bagels. At his feet lie Turkish flags, banners, pikes, swords, shields and bags of coffee.

My patient friend listened attentively, occasionally nodding his head in understanding. "Tony, let’s have another cup of coffee and a bagel." The waitress who stood close by listening to my chatter, now unrequested, smilingly brought us fresh cups of the Polish gift to civilization.

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