Volume 16 (1998)

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

2. Exemplary Case Studies


Throughout most of its independent existence Poland was a multiethnic country. In the interwar period 1918-1939 approximately one third of its 36,000,000 population consisted of non-Poles (mainly Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Lithuanians, Jews, Germans and Russians) who inhabited predominantly over half of its territory.
The consequence of World War II was what was labeled as the reduction (or "return") of Poland to "its ethnic borders" forced by the allied powers. Poland was thus officially proclaimed a monoethnic state with no national minorities and this proclamation was an essential and sensitive, though minor, part of the ideology imposed by the Communist rulers in spite of the fact that some twenty ethnic groups identified themselves as such and emphasized their (cultural, religious, linguistic, historical, etc.) separateness from others. To secure firm control over these undesirable sentiments, after the post-Stalin Thaw the rulers created authoritatively certain institutional possibilities for some cultivating by some ethnic groups of some aspects of their ethnic self-identification.
Nevertheless, the repertory of persecution and abuse of ethnic minority rights was quite impressive. It included:
1.1.     The so-called "verification of autochthons" on territories formerly belonging to the German state (esp. Kashubian, Slovincian, the so-called Pomeranian, Mazurian population).
1.2.     Forced deportations, displacements, resettlements, settlements of nomadic groups, prohibition or administrative obstacles in granting rights to emigrate.
Deportations in the first place involved the Germans, but representatives of other groups also suffered. For instance, on the basis of an agreement between Communist Poland and Soviet Byelorussia several thousands of Byelorussians were "repatriated" to the USSR. Basing, on the other hand, on a personal opinion of a village official (sotys), himself a newcomer from behind the Bug river line, the "authorities" decided to deport to Germany at the beginning of the 1950s inhabitants of three villages with Lausatian (Sorb) population from the Zielona Góra Province. From the town of Wilamowice all those who had during the Nazi occupation signed the so-called Volksliste were also forcibly removed (after 1956 they could return to their households).
On the recovered lands, formerly belonging to Germany, the local population was discriminated by administration (autochthons were unlawfully deprived of the right to hold administrative posts and higher professional positions) as well as by the Polish newcomers who soon outnumbered the local population (on some territories, as e.g. Gdańsk, Szczecin or Koszalin provinces, they constituted up to 65-90% of all inhabitants) who treated, with the evident approval of the authorities, all autochthons with hatred as Germans. Such policy forced waves of emigration to West Germany of Mazurians and Varmians (Ermlanders), Silesians, but also Kashubians and Slovincians. Forced deportations and resettlements often were of a criminal nature (as e.g. in the case of Lemks, cf. below).
The policy of forcible settling of nomads involved Gypsies. The process started in 1949 with promises of material rewards on the part of the authorities which triggered mass declarations of willingness to give up nomadic life. The Gypsies, however, soon changed their minds and returned to their traditional way of life. Hence the authorities started applying other policies (created fixed labor places, etc.) including the formulation and implementation of a special act of law issued by the government (No. 452/52) concerning the Gypsies which was not published as is required by law. This act revealed a total lack of understanding and knowledge of Gypsy culture and customs. The Gypsies fiercely opposed the implementation of the act which followed in pattern similar acts issued in the Soviet Union.
While certain groups were more or less forcibly being removed from the country, representatives of certain other groups were deliberately being deprived of the right to leave Poland. Jews may serve as an interesting example in the latter case, with the action of organized illegal emigration from Poland labeled Aliya Bet and coordinated by secret groups Brikha. In this way, several tens of thousands of Jews managed to leave the country for Germany (mainly via Szczecin and Świnoujście) and Czechoslovakia (mainly via Kudowa Zdr—j). It is not out of place to stress here that Soviet as well as British soldiers closely cooperated with their Polish colleagues in preventing such escapes and the escapees when caught were turned back into Polish hands.
1.3.     Deethnicization through destruction of the attributes of ethnic self-identification.
On the Easter holiday in 1949 the local priest in Wilamowice had to read from his church pulpit the decree of the authorities banning under penalty the usage of the local vernacular even in family setting and private conversation and of their distinctive costumes. This was to speed the process of assimilation of the inhabitants of Wilamowice treated officially as Germans (the label they fiercely reject) and was very successful: the Wilamowiceans (Wymysojer) lost their cultural identity practically within one generation.
1.4.     Polonization of proper names (personal and geographical).
This procedure was applied very extensively in relation to representatives of various ethnic groups. That German place names on formerly German "recovered lands" were Polonized can be understandable, acceptable, even obvious, but also here cases of abuse can be found. One such case concerned the Czech place Husinec in Lower Silesia (derived from the name of the famous Czech historical and religious figure Jan Hus), used in this form even by the Germans, which after the War was by the Polish administration changed into Geţsiniec (meaning "geese pen"; husa is incidentally the Czech word for "goose"); this was by the Czechs regarded as act of profanation of the name of their eminent compatriot.
Polonization of place names in the Biaystok region continues practically uninterruptedly (since the 19th century) till these days, predominantly through phonetic alternations which, however, usually distort the original etymological ties. These changes are in principle not announced, contrary to law, in official law publications. In 1983 Byelorussian circles initiated a wave of protests to stop the procedure.
Massive place name replacement esp. in South-Eastern Poland took place in mid 1970s on political (pro-Soviet) grounds; former names started reappearing on maps only quite recently (cf. below).
Marginally, it can be noted here that Polish administration supported the Greek refugees in Poland in forcible Hellenization of personal names of Aegean Macedonians, representatives of whom came to Poland together with the Greeks (in Greece, Aegean Macedonians have also been persecuted as ethnic minority).
1.5.     Educational policy was also ground for persecution and minority rights abuses, although positive effects must also be acknowledged. We described this problem more detailedly elsewhere (cf. Majewicz & Wicherkiewicz, 1990); here a few examples can suffice as illustration. One such example is a long-standing constant denial to positively meet the demand for the introduction of obligatory courses of the Byelorussian language into schools and some, even limited, official bilingualism in the Biaystok region.
Another, similar, example is the official silence or outright rejection in response to demands for region-oriented education for Kashubians that would include lessons in the Kashubian vernacular. The silence was broken only in 1991 with the foundation of the first Kashubian secondary school in the town of Brusy (also in 1991 the first Kashubian primary school was founded in the village of Godnica).
Schooling for certain groups was limited (such is the case of the already mentioned Macedonians), for many was unavailable, on varying grounds. In the case of Lithuanian institutionalized education in Poland, numerous facts of Soviet interference have to be mentioned.
1.6.     Acts of devastation or destruction of churches, temples and cemeteries other than Roman-Catholic as well as manifestations of varying degree and intensity of intolerance towards non-Roman-Catholic were —  and are —  unfortunately frequent. Frequent were and are forcible (!) seizures of prayer buildings of other denominations by Roman Catholics and refusals to allow representatives of other denominations even to enter Roman-Catholic churches, in spite of the official support for ecumenism.
The policy of the Roman-Catholic church towards Byelorussians is clearly anti-Byelorussian and pro-Polish. No Catholic service in the Byelorussian language is offered and within the last years orders (!) could be heard from church pulpits prohibiting the believers visits in Orthodox churches or even in homes of the Orthodox church followers during their holidays (like e.g. in Krynki in the Biaystok Province). There are also only few Orthodox churches offering service in Byelorussian, in most of them prayers are said only in Russian (and Old Church Slavonic, of course).
After the reintroduction of religion lessons into schools in autumn of 1990, conflicts arose in Zelów, a town with Czech minority belonging to the Reformed-Evangelical (Calvinist) Church. The local Roman-Catholic priest did his best not to allow religious instruction in school for Protestant children and, to some extent, he won, for in primary schools no such instruction was introduced. In secondary schools, religion lessons for Protestants were introduced due to uncompromising stand of pupils.
Language is often the source of conflict in religious life. Decades of ban of the Lithuanian language in churches on territories with predominant Lithuanian population seriously aggravated Lithuanian-Polish relations. Similar language conflict existed on territories inhabited by both Poles and Slovaks —  in this case, acts of violence against the Slovaks and the locking of one church (in Nowa Biaa, Province of Nowy Sŕţcz) for 11 years took place. Recently, the situation improved considerably in both cases.
Jewish cemeteries and synagogues (as well as old German and Ukrainian cemeteries and roadside crosses) were systematically devastated and destroyed throughout the whole post-War period either by deliberate neglect or actively, in undertakings inspired by the Communist Party as well as the Roman-Catholic Church. Many synagogues were turned into storehouses, movie theaters, schools, regional culture centres, or even swimming pools (as in Poznań ).
Not long ago, a serious Jewish-Polish conflict concerning the localization of the Carmelite nunnery in the direct neighborhood of the former concentration camp in Auschwitz, with accents in statements of Polish church hierarchy considered anti-Semitic made headlines throughout the world.
On the other hand, an outburst of interest in the Jewish culture among younger generations is worth mentioning here. President Wałęssa's visit to Israel and Israel's reciprocation as well as development of direct Israeli-Polish contacts in combination with the mentioned interest in all Jewish can create promising prospects for what has been left after the Jews in the country where, unfortunately, soon there can be no Jews left.
1.7.     Administrative obstacles in the organization of ethnic minority institutions, in the realization of cultural, educational, economical, etc. initiatives, were permanent and abundant in quantity. The below mentioned "socio-cultural" societies had the authority's blessing only as long as they realized the policy and raison d'état of Socialist Poland. All other activities of these societies, not to mention uninstitutional initiatives, were outrightly banned.
Typical here would be the case of Byelorussians. Their Byelorussian Socio-Cultural Society founded in 1956 loyal to the state administration was officially promoted and financially supported, while all initiatives that emerged outside the Society were persecuted. Byelorussian writers were invigilated by secret police and could publish, with the support of the Society, only materials that were "useful for the Society." Many books could not appear at all. Many cultural events were organized by youth and considered illegal; such were e.g. rehearsals of amateur theatrical groups, declamatory contests for children, student meetings, tourist excursions, etc. When in 1981 Byelorussian students founded their Union, the authorities refused to recognize it legally, while exactly at the same time they recognized as legal the Union of African Students. The official legal recognition of the former was possible only in 1989. Over a decade ago, the then existing Byelorussian Museum was liquidated and from a part of its collections a new Museum of Byelorussian Culture and Revolutionary Movement (apparently in accordance with the Soviet practice) was founded. In 1981 a petition was directed under the auspices of the Byelorussian Socio-Cultural Society to the Communist Party boss S.Kania in which the petitioners complained about the cultural and administrative discrimination of Byelorussians; the petition stressed "the role of the Byelorussian minority in the strengthening of the people's rule" in Poland. On the other hand, the Białystok branch of the "Solidarity" trade union postulated the removal of all the Byelorussians from all influential posts and the elimination of influence of the Orthodox church in the Białystok region.
Various administrative obstacles and moves practically destroyed most of the cultural, political and economic institutions created by the Jews whose population after the repatriation from the USSR in July of 1946 reached quarter of a million. These institutions were in bloom till 1949 when the Communist Party decided that they all were nationalist in character and banned all Jewish political parties, cooperatives and organizations and created one Jewish Socio-Cultural Society. Needless to say, all Jewish institutions and other initiatives, including cultural ones, were closely watched by the political police (state security office).
All forms of Kashubian self-government and cultural autonomy were gradually limited and there were serious obstacles in the implementation of new initiatives. The foundation of certain organizations (e.g. the Kashubian Congress or the Pomeranian Union) proved impossible, the life of certain institutions proved very short (e.g. the scholarly Baltic Institute was dissolved in 1950). [One should mention here that finally, after almost 50-years' attempts, the Kashubians succeeded in organization of the 2nd Kashubian Congress which took place in June 1992 in Gdańsk.]
A number of Kashubian press titles appeared but much fewer than in the pre-War period and in most cases they pretty soon ceased appearance. The Kashubian flag magazine Pomerania was one among the longest banned titles of non-underground press in Poland after the introduction of the martial law in 1981. Kashubian matters in mass media were limited only to a few folkloristic motifs.
Similar problems had the Lithuanians whose cultural society was also reduced to an organizer of folkloristic spectacles while their Lithuanian language quarterly Aura could not be turned into a monthly.
Folklore was also the only domain incompetently tolerated by the state administration in the case of the Rroma (Gypsy) Socio-Cultural Society; no artistic supervision promised by the governmental 452/52 act of law, however, was provided. Polish authorities in close cooperation with the Organization of Political Refugees from Greece imposed limitations upon the schooling for Macedonians and successfully prevented them from creating their own organization which could be finally founded and officially recognized as late as 1989. There were also obstacles in access to literature in Macedonian and the Macedonian version of the Greek-language paper Dimokratis ceased to appear in the 1960s.
1.8.     Orchestrated political campaigns were directed in the first place against the Jews, even after almost all of them left the country. The campaign of 1968 was an event of major importance in contemporary history of Poland when anti-Semitic slogans were widely and loudly used by prominent Communist figures to explain both the economic stagnation in the country as well as the roots of the widespread students' protests against the Communist regime. An overtly anti-Semitic and nationalistic organization Grunwald could print and disseminate their publications and organize meetings unharmed by the authorities. In May of 1990, 27 organizations in Poland were said to have been officially registered in the Ministry of Internal Affairs with programs including anti-Semitic statements and slogans.
Various nationalist organizations and parties that emerged recently express resentments also in relations to groups other than Jews.
1.9.     Overt criminal acts of violence against ethnic minority groups were not frequent. The most lamentable and tragic cases to be mentioned here include inspired pogroms of Jews (in 1946-1968, allegedly four such pogroms took place, the most tragic one in Kielce on July 4th, 1946, resulted in 40 deaths and 36 wounded Jews; other pogroms were to take place in Cracow and in Lower Silesia). A spontaneous pogrom-like act of violence against Gypsies, triggered by dissatisfaction resulting primarily from apartment shortage, took place in Konin in 1981 and resulted in death casualties. Another case of massive attack against the Gypsy population took place in Mawa in 1991.
Gypsies were particularly unlawfully harmed when leading their traditional nomadic way of living but the harassment continued also in the 1960s and 1970s when a campaign allegedly took place to persuade Gypsy women to get sterilized.
Representatives of ethnic minorities were often for their "nationalist" activities kept in prisons or in the forced labor camp in Jaworzno.
A criminal act of a different nature was the Soviet-style deportation of almost the whole ethnic group of Lemks (some 30,000-35,000 persons) and up to 140,000 Ukrainians in April - July of 1947 in the so-called "Operation Vistula" from regions in South-Eastern Poland inhabited by them for centuries to various places in Northern and Western Poland and settled there scattered in very small groups over large territories. The official propaganda kept accusing them of murderous acts directed against Poles, so they met with persecution and hatred from local people in places of their forced deportation.
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In the preceding paragraphs cases of persecution and abuse of human and ethnic minority rights were classified, briefly characterized and exemplified.
The following sections outline in points specific exemplary case studies.