Noble heroes or common robbers? Janosik, Baczynski, Proćpak... Who were the fearless bandits of the Małopolska region?

Men in highland costumes dance with shepherd’s axes (ciupagi). Carnival in Bukowina Tatrzańska
Some see them as low-class thugs stealing from everyone without exception, while others see them as heroes, rebels avenging injustices done by powerful people and the harm that greedy rich people did to their loved ones. So, who were the Carpathian robbers? The picture emerging from the surviving court documents confirms the first opinion, but folk tradition often attributes many noble deeds and good intentions to them. So what do we know about the most famous robbers of Małopolska, how much of the stories about their lives are true, and how much is romantic legend? Come with us on the robber trail to learn about the fate of the extraordinary people of Małopolska!

On the brink of life and death

Bandits were active in many mountainous regions of Europe from the 16th to the 19th century, but most were in the Carpathian Mountains. They were mainly villagers – shepherds, farmhands – and also criminals who had fled from other areas or were people looking for the opportunity to live freely without the constraints of social rules.

Surviving documents show that the robber-band chieftain (harnaś) was generally a good organiser, often ruthless and profit-driven, and keen to enjoy the pleasures of an extreme life. A completely different picture emerges from folk accounts - the harnaś is a great hero, performing almost impossible deeds, all for the good of the local community. So what is the truth?

Gangs of bandits headed by the hetman

In Małopolska, there was no shortage of gangs that banded together to carry out just one attack, as well as those that operated for several months or even years. Their activities were facilitated by their excellent knowledge of the area, their adaptation to life in the harsh mountain conditions and, at times, the kindness of the locals.

Internal quarrels and disputes, for example over the division of spoils, were effectively suppressed by the personality of the harnaś, who commanded the group either as its creator or as a stand-out personality chosen the companions for his unique qualities. However, commanding such a company required not only charisma and courage, but also leadership skills. Anyone who could not meet these demands was quickly replaced.

Not surprisingly, the entire justice system of the time was focused on capturing the harnaś. After all, his job was to free his imprisoned predecessor or avenge his death. His duties also included planning the robbery, commanding the group, deciding on the admission of new members and distributing the loot. He must have enjoyed wielding an authority that was often backed up by brutality or cruelty.

The tales of brigands we hear today generally concern historical figures actually living and working in the Carpathians. However, the most popular ones make little reference to the actual achievements of their protagonists. From documents, court records and local chronicles, a very different picture of bandits emerges than the one in folk accounts.

So, let's take a look at some of the robbers whose activities are associated with Małopolska, at least in folk tales.

Janosik – Polish and Slovakian folk hero

Janosik is undoubtedly the most famous of the Carpathian robbers. His character was popularised in Poland by a TV series starring Marek Perepeczko. There are legends about Janosik's exploits on the Polish and Slovakian sides of the Tatra Mountains, and there are disputes about the meaning of his deeds. However, it is almost sure that Janosik never visited the Polish lands.

It is difficult to say why this bandit became so well-known and popular, why it is to him that folk tradition attributes so many noble deeds, celebrates his fight against social inequalities, and, on the Slovakian side, attempts were made during the Communist era to make him a national hero fighting against the structures of the Austrian Empire. It could be the need for a character to refer to in stories or the result of concern for Janosik's own image. After all, stories circulate that, when visiting villages, the harnaś would hand out gifts to girls singing songs about his deeds.

It is true that Juraj (George) Janosik was born on 25 January 1688 in the village of Terchova on the Slovak side of the Tatra Mountains. He fought in the Hungarian uprising against the Austrian army, then served as a conscript in the castle guard in Bytča. There, he met and befriended Tomáš Uhorčík, a harnáš in the castle prison. When the latter escaped from the fortress, he visited Janosik at his family home in the autumn of 1711 and suggested that they team up as bandits. It did not last long, as Uhorčik decided to settle down and start a family, and his house became a resting place for his companions, now led by Janosik.

Barely a year after starting his activities, Janosik was sent to prison, from where he escaped after bribing the guards. He continued his outlaw life until March 1713, when he was recaptured again in the village, at Uhorčik’s place. His trial began before the court in Liptovský Mikuláš on 16 March 1713. After a short trial, he was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to hang from a hook driven into his left side.

A shirt, a shepherd’s axe (ciupaga) and a belt – a gift for Janosik from the witches

In folk tradition, Janosik's biography looks very different. According to the legend, when he was returning to his family home after his studies, he lost his way in the woods and ended up in the hut of three sisters, who as it happened, were witches. When he bravely endured a test of courage, he was given a shirt (according to other stories, heels) giving him immortality, a ciupaga that could attack the enemy by itself, and a belt providing incredible strength. Thanks to this, Janosik could plunder the rich and distribute his loot to the poor. His comrades also reportedly possessed extraordinary skills that helped the gang achieve the mission it had assigned itself.

According to legend, Janosik's activities were brought to an end by a girl to whom he revealed the secret of his successes. This one, on the other hand, hid her shirt, ciupaga and belt when she called the gendarmes.

The unlucky harnaś was hung on a hook on the square in Liptovský Mikuláš and hung there for several days. At that time, news of his trial was to reach the Emperor, who immediately sent a messenger with a pardon in gratitude for Janosik's help to the state during the war. The messenger arrived in town when the harnaś was already dead, so the Emperor demanded that the town councillors pay him a fine in gold every year for wrongfully convicting Janosik.

As you can see, the official and folk versions of events are quite different. In the latter, there are also many threads telling of the impressive treasures hidden in various parts of the Tatra Mountains, the extraordinary feats of the harnaś and his companions, the special trials that those who wanted to join the gang of thieves had to go through (e.g., jumping over the Dunajec River at the foot of Mt Trzy Korony).

If Janosik was active in Slovakia, why do stories about him circulate in Podhale, Spis and Orava? This was largely due to Kazimierz Przerwy-Tetmajer and his epic 'Legenda Tatr', consisting of two parts: 'Maryna of Hruby' and 'Janosik Nędza Litmanowski'. Works by other artists followed, and the series mentioned above, which was shot, among other places, in the Tatra valleys and Podhale, consolidated the belief that Janosik was ours, Polish. Many people still find it hard to believe that this harnaś was hardly ever on Polish soil.

The ubiquitous harnaś – Józef Baczyński

Józef Baczyński was born in Skawica, at the foot of Mt Babia. Initially, there was no indication that he would go down the brigand’s path - he served with rich landlords, got married and moved in with his wife's brother near Wadowice. Baczyński's surviving testimony shows that his criminal activities began by accident.

During the fair in Wadowice his wife and his brother-in-law met three men. One of them persuaded the gang to rob a rich tailor. Baczyński handled the sale of the looted fabrics, but the chronicles are silent on whether he shared the proceeds with his comrades.

A year later, he set off with another group as far as Dobczyce, where they robbed a brewery. Baczyński had the smallest share in the division of the loot, as he only stood guard, but he still obtained a substantial sum from a townsman in Wadowice for it. However, the owner of the surrounding estate found out about the transaction. The thief was captured and taken into custody, but he escaped after a few weeks with the help of guards. When news of the arrest of his accomplices reached him, he went into hiding and met new companions with whom he carried out several robberies of local landlords. He was with his comrades in Orava and in the Gorce Mountains until he finally settled for longer in the Wadowice area.

It has to be said that the company had a lot of courage, behaving in an almost fearless manner. One farmer was visited by robbers a year after the attack, asking for refreshments. On another occasion, they attacked Mr and Mrs Lisicki, the owners of Łętownia, who were returning home, and 'asked' them to organise a party at an inn in Bystra, to which the local priest was also invited. While the Lisickis were recovering from the party, Baczyński and his comrades robbed their manor in Łętownia, as well as the local vicarage.

Baczyński then settled for a time with his family in Biała Woda near Szczawnica, where he led a quiet life until he began to gather a new group with whom he set off for another season of robbery, this time mainly in Mt Babia area.

Baczyński was captured in Wilczyska

Information about the cruelty of the Baczyński gang, which often resorted to torturing those who would not reveal where money or valuables were hidden, is interspersed with news of his nobility. He was said to have left a substantial sum to a peasant to look after an injured companion. On another occasion he did not touch the valuables gathered in the church, demanding that the priest give him only his private savings. When it turned out that he had none, he left with nothing.

In the following seasons, Baczyński's brigands operated in Ochotnica, venturing as far as the vicinity of Stary Sącz and Nowy Sącz and also Mszana Dolna, all the while raiding, robbing and then partying and feasting. Baczyński and one of his companions were captured during one of such feasts in the hamlet of Wilczyska, which belongs to Dobra. Tried in Kraków, he was sentenced to death and executed in early 1736.

As in the case of Janosik, Baczyński was portrayed quite differently in folk accounts. According to them, he was a nobleman who embarked on a criminal path in order to take revenge on the rich forwrongs done to him as well as injustices suffered. He distributed the stolen goods to people experiencing poverty, ensuring that no harm came to them, but at long last, he was eventually captured and imprisoned in the Czorsztyn Castle. He was about to escape from it when he was asked to use his healing skills and was led to a sick old woman. He is said to have been a soldier later who became famous for his bravery.

According to other accounts, he lived in the area where he used to operate, taking advantage of treasures hidden in various places. Much of this stolen treasure is said to still lie hidden in forest backwoods or rock crevices. Baczyński's good heart is can be seen in the numerous shrines he founded in the areas where he visited.

From a poacher to a harnaś The story of Proćpak from Kamesznica

Proćpak, also known as Kroćpak, is actually Jerzy Fiedor, born in Kamesznica, near Żywiec. Although the area of his activity stretched from Mt Babia to Mt Barania, he also ventured much further west, even to the area around Czantoria, and frequented the territory of present-day Slovakia.

Proćpak started as a poacher. On one occasion, he shot a heifer by mistake, whose leathery skin became the main evidence against him. Accused and convicted of poaching, he was sent to prison in Wiśnicz, from where he escaped to his hometown. However, he quickly had to leave his village because an arrest warrant was issued for him. So he poached further in the surrounding woods, where he met several like him, some of them deserters from the army, others who were murderers hiding from justice.

The forest guards tracked them down more and more effectively, so they moved to the Mt Babia area, where they began a genuinely bandit-like activity – ransacking merchants travelling with goods, wealthy farmers, and even vicars. The most famous episode is from Zawoja, where they tricked the parish priest and used the organist as a hostage.

Proćpak's three-year activity, from 1792 to 1795, came to an end when two companies of the army were summoned to start combing the area, relentlessly tracking down the robbers and finally capturing several of them. Those who assisted them in hiding were sentenced to flogging and sent to prison. The harnaś enjoyed his freedom for a few more weeks.

The woman he lived with contributed to his demise. Talking to one of the innkeepers, she said things that led him to believe she knew the robber's whereabouts, so he notified the army. A search of the woman's hut yielded nothing. Proćpak was accidentally discovered when one of the searchers wanted to steal a piece of lard. His closest companions were captured shortly afterwards.

The brigands and the local people who helped them were tried in several towns and more than 100 sentences were passed, including 28 people sentenced to death. Many executions were carried out in the convicts' hometowns to deter others from following in their footsteps. Proćpak was executed in January 1796 in his hometown of Kamesznica.

Folk tales soon followed, in which the harnaś was a paragon of virtue, a great benefactor of the poor, able to reward honesty and punish those who tried to hide something from him.

Today, few remember him anymore. Like others who robbed in the Małopolska region, he was overshadowed in fame by Janosik.

The loot also went to a... worthy cause

There is no shortage of stories suggesting that theforever tough and tenacious bandits believed in God, feared eternal damnation and sought to redeem themselves somehow. One way to encourage this belief was to allocate some of the loot collected to a noble deed, such as the erection of a church or a shrine.

According to folklore, this is how the Church of St Anne was created in Nowy Targ. The robbers not only founded it but also placed an image of Saint Anne, looted in Hungary, in the main altar. A very similar legend also relates to the first, still intact wooden temple in Ludźmierz, where today there is the Sanctuary of Our Lady Queen of Podhale.

The participation of robbers in the creation of the temple is also mentioned in the case of the the Chapel of St Zorard and St Benedict in Zakopane and the most famous of all such structures in Podhale, the wooden Church of St Michael the Archangel in Dębno Podhalańskie. The latter is said to have been erected where the bandits had a vision of Saint Michael in the branches of an oak tree as they fled the scene of one of the robberies.

The bandits’ plunderwas also rumoured to have been used to help fund the erection of the Chapel of St John the Baptist in the hamlet of Policzne, belonging to Zawoja, which was built in the place where, centuries ago, the robbers sorted through and divided up their booty. Reportedly, during one of their meetings, they came up with the idea of using some of the treasure to build a chapel and thus make a votive atonement for their sins. The choice of patron saint was not accidental, as St John the Baptist was considered the protector of thieves.

Without the involvement of the bandits, but using the treasure they were said to have hidden, people were then able to build the Church of St Luke the Evangelist in Lipnica Wielka in Orava. However, the bandits’s contribution could not have been very substantial, becausethe money from sale of the old, wooden, church in the village of Chyżne formed the greater share of the financing. There are also accounts that there was no need to find a way to finance the church, because the moneyfor it was donated by one of the Mt Babia robber-band chieftains or, according to others, the last of the Orava bandits.

God's punishment for robbery

A completely different story is the robbers' involvement in the creation of the wooden Church of the Holy Cross on Mt Piątkowa. Legend has it that it was erected on the spot where robbers attacked a rich merchant centuries ago. This one raised his eyes to the sky and called out: Holy Cross, save! After these words, a burning cross appeared above him, the forest swayed and the terrified robbers fled in terror. The merchant, in turn, erected a church with a beautiful view of the Tatra Mountains.

A legend also mentions the bandits' misdeeds in regard to the already mentioned Ludźmierz. One day, bandits attacked the centuries-old Cistercian Monastery. Having taken many valuables, they fled into the forest. The monks set off in pursuit, wanting to recover at least the monstrance and the precious chalice. The bandit who was carrying the holy objects in a sack stumbled and fell, and the holy objects spilled out onto the ground. At that point, the forest roots turned upwards, and all around it became a bottomless swamp in which the thieves drowned while the Cistercians, guided by God, happily returned to the buildings.

A statue of the Virgin Mary Immaculate, standing in Szczawnica near the Dolny Park, is also associated with the bandits’ misdeeds. The chapel is also known as the thieves’ chapel, as it was built in the 19th century to protect the Virgin Mary from attacks by the bandits who were numerous in the area at that time.

Truth versus legends

So, as you can see, folk wisdom remembers events quite differently and judges the actions of those who have grown up in the local community differently from the law. The local folk are able to see the good in the thieves, that they have noble intentions and their deeds are very often charitable. Colourful legends are the part of history that gives it colour, which allows researchers to separate the truth from what is just myth.

As a result, while wandering around Małopolska, you can hear many fascinating stories about more or less true events, hidden treasures and places that no longer exist today. Find this extraordinary Małopolska with us, discover its secrets and hidden valuables!



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