Volume 16 (1998)

Minority Rights Abuse in Communist Poland and Inherited Issues*
Alfred F. Majewicz, Tomasz Wicherkiewicz

2. Exemplary Case Studies


Acts of minority rights abuse catalogued and exemplified —  doubtlessly incompletely —  so far could not have no impact upon what has been inherited.
In most basic terms the present situation can be described as a fertile soil for an almost uncontrollable proliferation of movements, political parties, social organizations, and other organisms of pressure —  both minority-supporting (emerging from or organized by particular minorities or minority group alliances as well as formed by Poles) and nationalist, strongly or utmostly nationalist, opposing any idea of even the recognition of the right of any minority group to exist, not to mention any other rights.
The most spectacular is without doubt the activity of numerous German organizations swelling in numbers of members and supporters reaching hundreds of thousands, having their strong representation in both chambers of the Polish Parliament, introducing bilingual education and bilingual road and other informative signs and captions, initiating and promoting economic development on the basis of combined Polish-mainly-German capital, organizing cultural, religious and political events that are heard of throughout the country. Simultaneously, it is the Germans who are mostly feared of as ones who can "buy out Poland cheaply," or otherwise create danger to "vital Polish (i.e. nationalist and 'Catholic') interests," and more and more often are the object of attack from gangs of skinheads —  one such attack ended with a brutal murder of a German citizen, a truck driver, solely because he was a German. To some extent, though it does not constitute any excuse, such attacks are a kind of response to frequent acts of a shameful treatment of Poles in Germany, also for being Poles only.
Many ethnic minority groups realized the existence of a chance to improve their lot and prospects in the sweeping changes taking place in Poland. It is not a proper place here to discuss or even list their initiatives in detail but some examples should suffice to more fully depict the opening opportunities.
Worthy of praise and close observation is the Kashubian group which started promoting regional education (unthinkable of under communists) which includes the foundation of a Kashubian secondary school and introducing the Kashubian ethnolect to primary schools, their own regular TV programs with video-courses of their language, and sponsorship of academic research embracing sociology, history, linguistic and literary studies related to their own minority, and economic research aiming at identifying and defining optimal factors for regional development. An impressive Kashubian Congress under the label "The Future of the Kashubs" took place in June 1992 in Gdańsk with associated events organized throughout the whole year. The Kashubians are also strongly represented in the Parliament.
Regional development is also a priority for Byelorussian political movements: the regions inhabited by the Byelorussian minority comprise territories of the so-called "eastern wall" —  the poorest and least-developed areas of the country in the east with deserted villages, abandoned land, and Byelorussian youth escaping to urban centers where acculturation and loss of language and Byelorussian self-identification are inevitable.
Resentments against Byelorussians are not weak but are regional and ignored by ignorant authorities; they are associated with the fact that during clashes and regular fights between Polish and Byelorussian groups of varying political orientations that were frequent between 1945-1947 and on a smaller scale lasted till 1957 the Byelorussians too often stood by or supported the communists and even the idea of transferring the whole Biaystok region to Soviet Byelorussia.
Resentments against Ukrainians are incomparably stronger and on a nationwide scale. The Ukrainians continue to be largely dispersed and although their activity towards cultural development is more visible now, their material basis for it seems to have considerably deteriorated: the buildings of their only secondary school, for example, which for communist authorities was a showcase of their tolerance towards and protection of minority interests have turned into a ruin endangering the lives of the pupils and teachers.
Conflicts between minority groups and the Polish majority are also generated by the growing intolerance on religious grounds, at times triggered by monstrously growing appetites of representatives of the Catholic Church but at times occurring evidently against the will of the Church authorities. The former can be exemplified by the uneasy situation of Protestant pupils of Czech extraction in Zel—w in central Poland after the reintroduction of religious education to schools or the anti-Jewish hysteria after a —  far from rational and honest —  interpretation of the event in Auschwitz described above (sec. 1. 6.) by the Polish Church Primate. The latter —  by the case of a prolonged opposition of Catholics to the handing over a church to Uniates (the transfer was approved by the Pope himself). There are also cases of clashes over the language of church services between members of minority and Poles of the same religious denomination from the same parish (one such case from a region inhabited by Slovaks and Poles was presented in a shocking TV coverage nationwide).
Religion can be stimulative for a minority language maintenance but it can also be destructive. The above mentioned Czech community from Zelów is afraid of requesting some form of education in Czech (taught only at home) precisely because of the very hostile attitude of both the majority Poles as well as the local Catholic church. On the other hand, the Catholic Church supports the promotion of Kashubian in church services and the Kashubian translation of the New Testament was published in 1992 with the Bishop's blessing and "nihil obstat." The Kashubian region is peculiar as the only region in Poland at present where a "battle for the language" actually takes place with a very strong movement to upgrade the linguistic status of Kashubian under communism officially declared "a local dialect of Polish."
The tendency to upgrade, or change, the status of a language —  although on a much smaller scale and among dispersed minorities the minority status of which (in sharp contrast to Kashubian) was never disputed —  can be observed among the Lemks and Gypsies: both started publishing their own press.
The statistics concerning ethnic minorities in Poland still has to be collected. Generally, with the strengthening renaissance of minority ethnic self-consciousness, but also with other factors (as economy in the case of the Germans or those pretending to be Germans), the population of certain minority communities grows, but the decrease in the population of certain others is evident —  sometimes it is biology that is decisive (as e.g. in the case of Karaims, Wilamowiceans, or Tatars), sometimes still politics and intolerance (as e.g. in the case of Czechs or the very few remaining Jews).
As stated, the growth of minority ethnic self-consciousness goes together with intolerance —  individual, rooted in ignorance, as well as institutionalized —  in nationalistic parties or movements. The prevailing tendency, however, seems to lead towards a more tolerant society, as one may conclude from unprecedented interest of Poles, especially the younger intelligentsia, in minorities, their cultural heritage and their differentness. Books, especially on Jewish heritage, but also those concerning other minorities, are among best-selling literature.
What is alarming and distressing is the complete ignorance of the political authorities (and so-called "political elites") of the country in this respect and their absolute lack of preparation and readiness to deal (not to speak of solving) with minority problems. Some of the politicians are outrightly nationalist and openly reject the very idea of minority rights but also those who are "intellectually" aware of the problem (often outstanding and respectable figures) group themselves into official or semi-official bodies to "assist" selected (because simply they know nothing of the very existence of other) minority groups; although their obvious incompetence and lack of basic knowledge and qualifications is evident from their (rare) initiatives and (frequent and abundant) talking, the idea of looking around for people competent and experienced in the domain would not even occur to them.
Political short-sightedness results e.g. in such schizophrenic attitudes as simultaneous support (or demand) for the foundation of a Polish university in the capital of independent Lithuania and outrage upon hearing rumors about possible demands for the foundation of a German university in Polish Upper Silesia.
Unfortunately, equally ignorant are Poland's academic circles. Organizing a much publicized conference on Poland's national minorities in Warsaw in September 1992, the Polish Academy of Sciences invited very distinguished speakers; the pity was that none of them was a specialist in minority issues and none of them even tried to touch minorities and their problems in their otherwise very sophisticated and intellectually stimulating speeches. The Academy simply knew nothing of any research in Poland or researchers involved and the money at the disposal had to be spent. Fortunately, representatives of minorities were present and did protest.