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Konstanty Moes-Oskragiełło was the first Polish vegetarian. But he also held a number of radical – ...
2021-04-13 09:00:00
healthy living

Vegetarian Paradise
The First Polish Vegetarian

Vegetarian Paradise

A bore with an imagination, a noble warrior, a radical, an idealist or a pathological liar? Who was Konstanty Moes-Oskragiełło, the first Polish vegetarian?

Read in 13 minutes

“Moes-face is boring as hell,” wrote Maria Kłopotowska of her neighbour in a letter to Natalia Andriollowa. She added: “Maybe boring, but he has quite some imagination.” In his spare time from lecturing in medicine, Konstanty Moes-Oskragiełło (1850–1910) played melancholic tunes on the flute. The sounds floated across the Bojarowo estate, through the pine forest to the Świder River and to the ears of holiday-makers walking along its high banks. In his study, Konstanty completed word puzzles, so complicated and long – and spiked with Persian and Ethiopian letters – that his neighbours, to whom he sent them (along with flower seedlings and even whole shrubs) threw their hands up in defeat. They whispered among themselves: “Moes has his quirks.” Like the one that Kłopotowska was gossiping about: “[…] he fires [his pistol] when some new idea comes into his mind, without looking at who or where he’s firing.” She admitted, however, that Moes-Oskragiełło “[…] is, despite his peculiarities and clear manias on several points, a man with well-established concepts: honour, righteousness and nobility.” On the first anniversary of his death, Przegląd Wegetariański [Vegetarian Review] noted: “In words, restrained, and even with those close to him, not a talker. However, once engaged in conversation, he delighted with his directness, finesse and powers of persuasion.”

“The worthiest of Poles”; “A warrior for vegetarianism”; “Moes-Oskragiełło is a pearl that is extremely rare”. This is how he was described in obituaries. Was it mere courtesy? Was he praised because it is not proper to speak ill of the dead? Doubtful. During his lifetime, he became an icon of the vegetarian movement in Poland and all around the world. “Oskragiełło was the first person here who dared to claim vegetarianism as the eternal true religion,” emphasized Janisław Jastrzębowski – a proponent of vegetarianism and author of the book Down With Carnivorism (1907) – in the Jarskie Życie [Vegetarian Life] monthly. But Moes-Oskragiełło was also the object of mockery, vulgar jokes and harsh criticism. Why?

From industry to nature

His grandfather, Ernest Moes, ran a weaving mill. Konstanty’s father, Christian August Moes, was also involved in the textile industry – and with Poland, to where he came to from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, in search of his holy land, flowing with roubles, where everything was possible and great fortunes were to be made and lost. He managed to find such a place. At first, in Zgierz, where he was manager of a textile factory. Later, with his brother Fryderyk, he ran the C.A. Moes & Company factory. When high customs duties were imposed across the Kingdom of Poland after the November Uprising (1830), affecting among other things the export of textile products to Russia, the Moes family left for the Białystok region, where there were no such restrictions.

At Choroszcz, they rented the summer residence of the aristocratic Branicki family and shortly afterwards our hero entered the world: Konstanty Alfons Moes (he took the Oskragiełło surname in adulthood). Here, a tweed factory was swiftly established, as well as a dye house, steam mill and saw mill. The tweed factory was the largest business in the Białystok region at the time; in 1846, it employed 500 people. The employees could count not only on stable employment and pay, but also on social support. Christian Moes built them a housing estate, hospital, pharmacy and, for the Evangelists, a prayer house with a two-class primary school. Did the young, teenage Konstanty watch his father and think this is how it should be done? Was it here, in Choroszcz, that his social conscience was born?

The businesses did well, but the Moes family were not in good health. It was suspected that it was down to the climate on the boggy terrain of Choroszcz. Christian Moes decided to buy an estate in Pilica, which at the time was in the Kielce Governorate. Once again: tweed factory, dye house, steam mill and saw mill. When Konstanty finished school, his family sent him to Germany. There he studied technology and economics before returning to Warsaw to start a career in trade and industry. Soon, he went to Germany again to study medicine, which he did more for pleasure than because he had to. He spoke fluent English and German. “Konstanty Moes Oskragiełło was extraordinarily hard working, and spent a long time looking for answers to learned questions. He read a lot and worked hard,” is how Dr. Piotrowski wrote of him years later in Przegląd Wegetariański.

Although Oskragiełło was a prolific writer, after reading his books one is left feeling slightly dissatisfied. He mainly shares his own views in them. These are fascinating, of course, but there is little there about Oskragiełło himself, the man who was plagued by illness from birth by chronic gastroenteritis. Permanently weakened, he lost both kilos and the hope that he would ever get better. At first, he looked for help in conventional medicine, took the advice of family doctors and then “the leading authorities of Warsaw, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Moscow and Odessa.” He scrupulously stuck to the prescribed treatments, systematically took his medicines and regularly went to spas. He inhaled mountain air and bathed in mineral and mud baths in the best resorts in Europe: Carlsbad, Marienbad, Baden-Baden, Bad Kissingen, Warmbrunn (today, Cieplice Śląskie-Zdrój). For eight years he chased his health, but in all of this time, he claimed, he only felt relief the once: when he went to Constantinople, stopped taking his medicines and ate only oranges.

He also tried allopathy, homeopathy, electro-homeopathy, electrotherapy, Baunscheidtism (‘treatment’ by multiple pricks of the skin) and hydrotherapy. He took the ‘secret medicine’ of James Morison, a popular 19th-century quack, which was simply a plant mixture with a laxative effect. Did any of this help? Not only did it not help, but it also made his health worse. “The last of my strength disappeared every day, my memory went and I was also struggling to move. Friends began to say goodbye to me, seeing what was happening,” he wrote years later. At the end of his tether, he convened a council of “first-class medical authorities” for the last time. The council determined he should “go to Italy, have fun, visit museums and theaters etc., in the company of a good friend.”

That was the final straw. The resentful Oskragiełło broke with medicine. Over the following years he learned about its history, researched the biographies of doctors, and studied numerous medical methods in order to show that medicine is a scam and that a doctor is not in any way an authority, but a sly salesman of health dreams. He harshly criticized the smallpox vaccine, for example, discovered in 1796 by the British doctor Edward Jenner. This was typical of the 19th-century vegetarian movement.

Away with illnesses!

Illness is shameful, he said. One should be embarrassed by illnesses. He believed it was testament to ignorance and limitations; that each person should take personal responsibility for getting ill. Over time, Oskragiełło became ever more radical and ever more controversial – one example of which was his views on race. He closely followed scientific reports, read widely and conducted lively correspondence with scientists and researchers across Europe. He soaked up all the fashionable views of the time like a sponge. It is possible that, in his library of over 1000 books, there were works by Izydor Kopernicki, an anthropologist who measured skulls among the people of Galicia, including highlanders from near the city of Rabka. According to him, highlanders were the “perfect race”, at the vanguard of civilization. The anthropologist contributed to the creation of the Podhale mythology. In his books, he presents the Podhale highlanders as wild, audacious, courageous people, with enormous physical strength and unlimited fantasy. Beautiful souls in beautiful bodies. Health is the reward for a moral life, Oskragiełło declared in turn.

Whoever wants to follow the fate of the ‘hipster of Otwock’ – as he was known at the time – faces a difficult task. The questions multiply: Was Oskragiełło also ashamed of his own illness? Did he feel guilty? Did he really despise the sick and the disabled, as evidenced by some of his texts? Did his own sick and haggard body revolt him? What was really going on behind the mask imposed on him by the era in which he lived? Will the legend of the vegetarian from the Świder summer resort survive? Let us follow Oskragiełło to another moment that changed his life.

The end of carnivorism!

His new, better life (as he claimed) began when he limited the amount of meat he ate and then, probably at about the age of 33, switched to a permanent vegetarian diet. He no longer had to chase his health any more. He felt fantastic and, with the fervour of a convert, he persuaded others to also give up meat. “Meat pollutes the blood, gives it a putrid character, thickens it, makes one feverish, lazy; it irritates, arouses passions and gives our entire disposition a morbid mood. […] Such ferocity leads, in the spiritual life, to pride, hatred and contempt for other nations […] The principle of the ‘struggle for existence’, homo homini lupus, was born in meat,” he argued in the book Przyrodzone pokarmy człowieka i wpływ ich na dolę ludzką [Natural Foods of Man and Their Influence on the Human Condition]. “The ruthless struggle for existence also includes killing animals endowed with life, feelings and maybe even a soul,” he wrote in the foreword to one of Alfred von Seefeld’s books, which he translated from German into Polish under the title Jarosz i jarstwo [Vegetarianism and Vegetarians]. “The habit of shedding the blood of animals strongly influences the entire condition of man, both physical and moral. From the natural protector of nature, he becomes its persecutor. From animal blood to human blood, one step.”

Oskragiełło was not alone in eliminating meat from his diet. From the 1860s, the vegetarian movement developed quickly in Europe, particularly in Germany, England, France and Russia. There were also critics of the movement, such as Kazimierz Panek, a doctor and veterinarian. In his book, Jarstwo a hygiena żywienia (1906) [Vegetarianism and Nutritional Hygiene], he accused those popularizing vegetarianism of a lack of proper scientific education and bias. According to Dr Panek, vegetarianism attracts sick and weak people who, after unsuccessful treatment, seek help everywhere, including in a meat-free diet. When their health improves, which can be subjective, they become the most zealous followers and promoters of vegetarianism, he wrote. It also attracts self-proclaimed doctors who want to earn some extra money quickly on ‘natural medicine’. Another group of supporters are “excessively sensitive, sentimental individuals in whom feelings take precedence over common sense.” In other words, women, as the doctor points out. There are also vegetarians forced into it, who as soon as they do better, “leave the ranks with relief.” According to Dr Panek, “the only group worthy of respect is the idealists who, through vegetarianism, strive to eradicate addictions and licentiousness, and ultimately strive for the moral rebirth of humanity.” This is the crux of 19th-century vegetarianism: ethical progress will come if people stop eating meat. It will be the first step to “[...] a new life, worthy of the 20th century,” wrote Janisław Jastrzębowski in Jarskie Życie. A life like this, without bloodshed and close to nature, was also what Oskragiełło wanted.

If not meat, then what? Fruit, vegetables, cereals! Oskragiełło insisted that man “is not a carnivorous animal (predator), like a cat, dog or vulture, nor a herbivore like an ox, horse or camel, nor an omnivore like a pig or a bear, but is something else, namely a fruit-eating animal, like the most highly developed monkeys, i.e., the humanoid (primates) gorilla, chimpanzee and orangutan, our closest relatives.” According to Oskragiełło, the anatomical structure of the hands, teeth, stomach, intestines and even the brain is proof of this. The tradition that the Poles abandoned – forgetting that their Slavic ancestors did not eat meat – also speaks in favour of fruit eating. Oskragiełło’s readers must take his word for this, because the author did not provide the sources of his information, did not refer to scientific research, and only quoted the opinions of activists in the vegetarian movement.

He lived a myth – about the origins of mankind, when the world was still young and unspoiled. He believed that it was inhabited by Slavs who were descended directly from the mythical Hyperborea: long-lived, unfamiliar with diseases, conflict and wars. According to Oskragiełło, the Hyperboreans didn’t eat meat, just like the Slavs who followed them. The latter owed their physical strength, health, endurance, gentleness and cheerful disposition to their vegetarian diet and natural woollen clothes. The conquest of the Slavic tribes by the Germanic tribes led to the gradual physical and spiritual decline of the Slavs. According to Oskragiełło, the Slavs adopted habits from their neighbours, which turned out to be fatal over time: a weakness for binging (alcohol), sleeping in closed, unventilated rooms, and wearing clothes made of synthetic materials. But the worst part was the deviation from the vegetarian diet. “With a carnivorous diet, people have lost their paradise and today continue to lose it. This makes life a hell for them, instead of a heaven on earth,” he wrote in Przyrodzone pokarmy człowieka [Natural Foods of Man].

Why did Oskragiełło escape into a myth? Was he terrified by reality? The speed of the industrial revolution and the over-populated towns that attracted people but gave very few the chance of real social advancement? Did he fear the Second Reich that was spreading across Europe? Maybe he was just following the popular trends of the era, such as Slavophilism? One thing is certain: in 1882, on land bought from the parcelled-out farm of Anielin, Oskragiełło set up the settlement of Bojarowo. The myth was to become reality.

Vegetarian renewal

“The first Polish vegetarian health spa was established,” reported Janisław Jastrzebowski in the pages of Jarskie Życie. “The location of the spa is very healthy, picturesque, and sheltered, nestled in the vast forests belonging to an institution two versts [an obsolete Russian unit of measure equal to 1020 metres – ed. note] from Otwock station, an hour’s drive from Warsaw,” wrote Kurier Warszawski [Warsaw Courier] in 1883 about the newly-opened thermotherapy spa at Bojarowo. “The Bojarowo little farm […] at first was a treatment spa, and then became the capital of vegetarianism, then wool production and finally spirituality, occultism, magnetism and Kneippism (hydrotherapy),” runs another clipping in Kurier, suggesting that life along the Świder river was busy and interesting.

The guests had a brick-built, two-storey manor house at their disposal, built in the style of the residence of the landed gentry, with a corner tower, 10 rooms and all conveniences: a library, daily papers, a grand piano, a fireplace surrounded by hand-painted tiles and gigantic windows with views of the pine forest. Next to this were two wooden houses, also open to summer visitors. Closer to the river was the jarchata (hut) – a building for sunbathing. There is no trace of the jarchata and wooden houses, but the manor house – or more accurately, its ruins – has survived, which is eagerly visited by local writers and fans of urban exploration. Nature is gradually conquering the place; pine seedlings grow out of the roof and wild roses grow on the first floor. In 2014, the manor house and the estate were listed, but this hasn’t changed anything; the building is falling apart. Fortunately, the memory of Oskragiello is being revived.

Oskragiełło was certainly avant-garde, not just as a vegetarian. The first health spas in Otwock and Świder received their first guests later, in 1890. The typical wooden villas in the Świdermajer style, launched by Michał Elwir Andriolli, a painter and book illustrator, founder of the Brzegi summer camp, were yet to appear in the pine forests. But it was Oskragiełło who got to the lower Świder valley first and who was the first to leave after he lost all his money and enthusiasm. But that was later. In 1886, Oskragiełło was arguing that one could recover their health without medicines; that neuralgia, migraines, neurotic disorders (then called hysteria), muscle stiffness, rheumatic pain, arthritis, consumption (tuberculosis) disappear. How? The medicines on offer at Bojarowo were fresh air, water, light, warmth, cold, food, exercise and rest, nature, peace and quiet, and getting away from the city. Moreover, the right mental attitude. Hence the spa’s motto: Nil desperandum.

Never despair, argued Oskragiełło. Every illness can be cured, but not at every stage. And you don’t have to spend a fortune, just stick to several principles. “So, the proper food of man is raw grains and fruits,” advised Oskragiełło. One should eat when required and not on a whim. Breakfast – best between 6am and 8am; lunch – at midday; supper – at 6pm. Physical exercise! One should walk for at least two hours each day and spend a further two hours working in the fresh air, for example, in the garden. In summer, sleep with an open window and in winter, with the window ajar. Is it cold? Is there a draught? One just needs to wrap up warm and wear a hat. And since we are talking about overclothes, there cannot be any shortcuts here; only natural, woollen clothing. This protects one against both overheating and the cold. Baths – in cold water, below 8°C. In Oskragiełło’s opinion, the benefits of sticking to this regime can be seen already after only a few weeks; the body detoxes itself, gains strength and starts to fight off the ‘affliction’, i.e., the illness hiding within the body. Oskragiełło’s proprietary treatment did not cost an arm and a leg. The daily rate for staying at Bojarowo was between three and five roubles, and included a room, meals (initially including meat, but later only vegetarian) and basic care. There was also a fee for healing, from four to eight roubles, but not for the treatment itself. In time, it turned out to be a risky business model.

In Kurier Codzienny, [Daily Courier] there was a laconic mention in 1886 that there were not many people willing to be treated with these methods. Not a single patient came to Bojarowo in 1885. No-one apart from Oskragiełło went sunbathing in the jarchata. So, he sold up and, disillusioned, left for Kraków. He took up the occult. He believed that his contemporaries were not yet ripe for genuine spiritual reform and would one day be ashamed that they ate meat. And that they would certainly want clean air, light, healthy food, exercise and rest.

Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski
Illustration by Mieczysław Wasilewski

Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz

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