He was born on 1st June 1911 in Hermanice (now a part of Ustroń). His mother worked as a worker in Trzyniec. Because of their difficult financial situation, his mother was forced to put his son in the Protestant Orphans’ House in Ustroń in November 1921, he stayed there until 1925. When Jan Sztwiertnia finished Primary School number 2 with excellent results, he continued his education in Male Teachers Seminar in Cieszyn-Bobrek. During his studies he learnt how to play the violin, the piano and the organ, he also took part in theoretical classes. His passion became composing. In the letter to Jan Pieczka he wrote: (…) I spent most of my holidays composing. I wrote 8 songs for the mixed choir (…), a few sonnets and piano variations (…) and I don’t know if I can finish it till the end of my holidays. In 1930 after passing his maturity exams, he started to work at the primary school in Wisła-Równem. He met Ewa Wantulok there and then they got married on 15th August 1933. Then he moved to Wisła-Centrum where he got a flat. First he worked at Primary School number 4 and then number 1, he was also an organist in the Evangelical Church in Wisła. His sons, Jan and Bolesław, were born in the following years.
Jan Sztwiertnia continued his musical education, he joined Musical School in Cieszyn in 1935 and just after a year he was admitted to Silesian Academy of Music in Katowice. In the 1930s his most important works were created: the opera about lives of Beskid mountaineers Sałasznicy, a symphonic poem Śpiący rycerze w Czantorii, Suita beskidzka, a cantata for a male choir – Rycerze and some minor vocal and instrumental works. It often happened that in the morning he put aside a written score in order to write it the next night. He did not have much time to rest because… his students were waiting for his teacher in the classroom, social work in choirs, other normal activities and conferences, his two delectable boys, Janek and Bolek were also waiting for his dad’s fairy tale about wild animals – his friend Jerzy Drozd recalled. In May 1939 in Katowice there was Jan Sztwiertnia’s works concert in the Silesian Academy of Music concert hall. It was a great success. As a result he got a scholarship to continue his musical education in Paris. He was supposed to develop his composer’s skills at Nadia Boulanger’s – the same who taught such big names as: Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Wojciech Kilar and Astor Piazzolla. My father learnt French intensively, he did his best to prepare for his scholarship which was to start in autumn 1939 – the artist’s son recalled.
After the war outbreak Jan Sztwiertnia with Jerzy Drozd went to Kraków in fear of the Germans. But in September he decided to come back to Wisła to take care of his wife and sons. Their financial situation was difficult, after he had lost his job as a teacher, the family kept out of savings and thanks to their in-laws’ help. The weather was beautiful on 20th April, the spring already started. We were playing outside with my brother. Suddenly our mother went out and called us: come, come back home quickly. Two uniformed German policemen were already at our home, we quickly said goodbye to our father and he was taken to the car by the Germans. Nobody was aware at that time how it could end. After the detention Jan Sztwiertnia was probably taken to the transition camp in Cieszyn, and then he was transported to the Dachau concentration camp. In the camp we were segregated – professionals: electricians, bricklayers, carpenters stayed in the Dachau camp, the rest, including humanists, was sent to the Gusen camp (…). The work in the quarry lasted from 6.00 in the morning till 7.00 in the evening. A person became a shadow of their former self after two weeks of such work. The worst was dysentery which decimated people. He [Jan Sztwiertnia] became as thin as a rake. He never complained, he was extremely tough and calm, he lived and breathed music, he wrote notes of his compositions on pieces of paper – his co-prisoner Adam Zyler recalled.
After Jan Sztwiertnia’s arrest his wife with their sons moved to her parents’ house who had a farmhouse in Wisła-Równe. There, she found out from her husband’s letter that he was in the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. After a few months she got a message that Jan Sztwiertnia had died in the camp on 29th August 1940. Not long after that, a steel urn with ashes was delivered by the post which was buried on the Protestant cemetery in Groniczek in Wisła. Oskar Sztwiertnia, his younger brother, also suffered a tragic fate, he became involved in guerrilla activities and in 1944 he was hanged by the Germans in Jabłonków. Despite the pressure, his family consistently refused to sign Volksliste. In April 1943 the Germans came to our house and took all the men – my mum’s father and her brother. They were supposed to be taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp but they never got there, they were killed in Mysłowice. I remember that later, on 1st June 1943 the Germans appeared once again. They took my mother and her two sisters. They were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp and then the Ravensbrück camp. Our grandparents’ neighbours took care of me and my brother Bolesław and we lasted out till the end of the was as orphans. In 1945 our mum who survived the Ravensbrück camp with her sister, found us. Her second sister did not survive – she died in the camp.