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Dąb Józef (The Józef Oak)

This renowned Quercus robur is one of many old oaks in a park in Poland, but its exterior caught the eye of an artist and its interior concealed refugees, setting it apart from its companions and in time earning distinctions in its home country and abroad.

Józef Oak
The Józef Oak at Wiśniowa (Rafał Godek/TreeoftheYear.org)

The oak, estimated to be 650 years old, grows in a park in Wiśniowa, a town in south-eastern Poland, about 50 km form the border with Slovakia to the south, and 100 km from the border with Ukraine to the east. It is likely the oak was already growing there when the first permanent settlements were established in the Wisłok Valley in the latter half of the 14th century. When the Kingdom of Poland expanded under Casimir III, known as the Great, several new settlements were founded in the area, among them Wiśniowa in 1366. The village was the domain of several noble Polish families, and in 1864 was acquired by the Mycielski family, originally as a summer home. Future generations of the family took up permanent residence at the property. Around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the park was landscaped in the English style, incorporating trees from the existing Quercus-Carpinus forest.

Dąb Józef shows off its best profile (Source: Facebook)

In the 1920s and 30s, the manor house in Wiśniowa became a center of intellectual and cultural life in the region. The Mycielskis were art collectors, and the picturesque surroundings of the property favored the creative work of the artists they gathered around them. One of the artists in the group was Józef Mehoffer, a painter and designer who formed part of the Polish Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century known as Młoda Polska (Young Poland). Mehoffer was enchanted by the beauty of the oaks at Wiśniowa and by one in particular, which he chose as the subject of a painting. The sketch would later be used on the reverse of a 100-zloty banknote printed in the 1930s by the Second Polish Republic. Thanks to this numismatic stardom, the oak became known as Dąb Józef (the Józef Oak), after the painter.

The 100-zloty banknote issued in 1934 featuring Józef Mehoffer's drawing of the oak at Wiśniowa. The background owes much to artistic license, as the original tree is in a woodland, not by the coast. The lower two branches, however, are quite recognizable, if you compare it to current photos of the oak. One wonders whether this example may have inspired nearby Estonia to feature an oak on its 10-kroon banknote in 1991. 

The oak’s second claim to fame is less well documented: local legend has it that during the Second World War two Jewish brothers by the name of Hymi (or a whole family of six, depending on the teller), who had escaped from the labor camp at the nearby shtetl[1] of Frysztak, hid in the hollow trunk of the Józef Oak for several days (or two to three months) and were thus saved. It may have been the Mycielskis who took in the refugees, or it may have been a local Catholic woman by the name of Rozalia Proszak.

The upper of two openings in the trunk may have served as a lookout for the Hymi brothers while they hid in the oak  (Rafał Godek/TreeoftheYear.org)

The interior design of the oak was ideally suited for the purpose: the hollow trunk included two levels, each with its own orifice resulting from a sawn-off branch; the lower one served as hideout, the upper as a lookout. In any case, this story was instrumental in expanding the tree's fan base, enabling it to win the 2016 Tree of the Year competition in Poland held by Klub Gaja, a Polish ecological organization. The following year it earned the most votes in the European Tree of the Year competition.

The Józef Oak continues to be admired and be the focus of numerous school trips and family excursions to the Park-Manor and Farm Complex in Wiśniowa. It also continues to pose for photographers and artists, as the tradition of plein air painting events, which began in the interwar period with Józef Mehoffer and his colleagues, continues today. The model boasts a waistline of 6.78 m (at a height of 1.30 m); the tree's height does not appear to have been precisely measured, and estimates range from 22 to 30 m. Like any self-respecting star of the 21st century, it has its own Facebook page, a drone-video portrait, and a YouTube video records the wintry visit in 2017 of tree hunter Rob McBride.

Oak woodland
The Józef Oak (center) in its woodland setting, taking on autumn color (Source: Facebook)


[1] A small Jewish town or village formerly found in Eastern Europe