ACTA SLAVICA IAPONICA
Abuse in Communist Poland
and Inherited Issues*
Alfred F. Majewicz, Tomasz Wicherkiewicz
Copyright © 1998 by the Slavic Research Center.
) All rights reserved.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
* * *
In the preceding paragraphs cases of persecution and abuse of human
and ethnic minority rights were classified, briefly characterized and
The following sections outline in points specific exemplary case