Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 19
1 November 1999

P O L A N D:
Deported, Scattered or Missing
Poland's minority communities

Greg Nieuwsma

Part two of a four-part series on minorities in Central Europe. Read part one on the Czech Republic HERE.

Unlike many of its Central European neighbors, Poland is overwhelmingly homogeneous; no less than 98 per cent of its population is ethnically Polish. Though a scant two per cent of the country's citizens today, Poland's Ukrainians, Belarusians, Germans and Jews comprise a vital part of 20th-century Polish history.

Most of Poland's ethnic minority groups are a consequence of the fact that Poland has no natural boundaries to the east or west. Populations of Germans to the west and Belarusians and Ukrainians to the east historically heavily overlapped with Polish populations, so there is no obvious line of demarcation as there is with, say, Slovakia. The drastic changes to the map of Poland throughout history reflect this.

Poverty pays

The northeast corner of Poland, historically one of the poorest regions in the country, borders on Belarus and so, not surprisingly, is home to a sizable Belarusian minority. Estimates place the number of Belarusians in the region at 250 to 300 thousand, centered around their cultural capital of Bialystok, where the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas maintains a thriving congregation.

Public use of the Belarusian language was forbidden under Communist law, but it has been making a comeback over the last decade. Several newspapers and magazines now publish in Belarusian, and, in August, Polish authorities approved a broadcast license for Radio Racja, which is scheduled to begin broadcasting in Belarusian in early November.

Paradoxically the region's general lack of wealth protected the area around Bialystok somewhat from the harshest attentions of the Communists. In other, wealthier regions the post-war Polish government took more extreme measures to homogenize Poland, using two main methods of Polonization: deportation and scattering. And, most likely as a result of these policies, these same regions have experienced more ethnic trouble since 1989, both with their current minorities and the minorities in exile.

The first of these methods, deportation, was the more widely practiced. Previously the eastern-most region of Germany, the area known as Silesia became Polish territory after the war, and most Silesian Germans were forced from their native soil and relocated in rump Germany. The city of Wroclaw (known to Germans as Breslau), was virtually emptied.

Oddly, a few kilometers down the road, the town of Opole did not receive similar treatment; many of the Germans living there were allowed to stay. Now, Opole is a center of German national sentiment, which though not particularly high profile, has caused a few ripples in the region.

The deported

But it may not be the ethnic Germans who remained who perceived as such a problem by the Poles so much as those Germans who were expelled after the war. The authorities in Opole have received hundreds of letters from expelled Germans and their descendants who are trying to regain ancestral properties in what is now Poland. The issue has not yet strained relations between Germany and Poland, but the growing number of requests suggest that this is not a problem that will just disappear with time. Worryingly, there are politicians and organizations on both sides of the present border who seem willing to stoke this divisive issue into a diplomatic fire.

On the Polish side, for example, Stefan Niesiolowski, head of the Christian-National Union-Solidarity Election Action parliamentary faction, thinks the letters should go unanswered. "[Their requests are] manifestations of arrogance and impertinence," he says. "Germans should first return the lives of the six million murdered people."

On the German side, officials in Bonn/Berlin have suggested that this is "still an open question" and that it might even affect the proceedings of Poland's entry into the EU.

To the east

Another example of deportation involves the Ukrainians. Under Akcja Wisla (Operation Vistula), between 120 and 150 thousand Ukrainians were forced outside of the post-war Polish border. Poland, in turn, received thousands of ethnic Poles who had been expelled from the Ukraine. It was the Poles from in and around Lviv [aka L'wow, Lvov, Lemberg, ed], for example, who repopulated the city of Wroclaw [Breslau, Vratislav - gosh, don't you just love Central Europe, ed].But despite the chain-reaction of deportations, towns such as Przemysl, in southeast Poland and a stone's throw from the Ukrainian border, maintain strong Ukrainian populations.

The freedom that has come since 1989 has meant that some of the unresolved issues are just now surfacing.

After Akcja Wisla, for example, Orthodox churches were taken away from their congregations and given to Catholics. In 1991, Pope John Paul II formally recognized the revival of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Poland and Ukraine, which led to hopes that the cathedral in Przemysl would be returned to their hands.The following year, however, Cardinal Glemp officially handed it instead to the Carmelite Order, who immediately announced plans to rid the facade of Ukrainian architectural elements. This sparked controversy that inflamed Poles and Ukrainians on both sides of the border. Although the national governments refused to get involved, the incident deeply divided the locals.

The scattered

The other method of homogenization though forced resettlement the post-war Polish government used was scattering, whereby the members of an ethnic group were dispersed throughout the country in an attempt to dissolve their unique ethnic identity by breaking the proximity and communication necessary for strong communities to form. The Lemkos are one such group who suffered from this policy of scattering.

The very existence of Lemkos, from the western Biesczady Mountains, istestament to the lack of natural borders in this part of the world. Their language is not quite Polish but not quite Ukrainian; they have customs in common with both. Some Lemkos consider themselves to be a branch of the Ukrainian nation; others, the Polish. Their identity is elusive but indisputable.

Perhaps their similarity to Poles led the post-war authorities to reject their expulsion and not send them east with the Ukrainians; instead, they relocated them within Poland. In 1947, Akcja Wisla scattered 80,000 of them throughout the country.

Since then, over 20,000 of them have returned to their homeland, often having to buy back their ancestral homes from the Poles who had settled there. The return started in 1957 during Gomulka's liberalization, but, since the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, it has increased steadily. There are once again enough Lemkos in the region to support two summertime Lemko cultural festivals, in Zdynia and Michalow.The symbolic turning point which enabled events like these to occur came in August of 1990 when the Polish Senate passed a resolution officially condemning Akcja Wisla. The message sent by the government changed from one of Polonization to ethnic tolerance.

Poland's great ghost

Such expressions of tolerance obviously came too late for one of Poland's historical communities. The reasons for the Jewish decline are no mystery, yet 50 years after the Holocaust and 30 years after Polish Communist policy which essentially dictated the emigration of most of Poland's surviving Jews, there are a few signs of a strong return of Jewish culture in Poland. Estimates place Poland's current Jewish population between 5000 and 15,000, and they are without one locale which could serve as a cultural center.There have been some small signs of a Jewish cultural revival: the last decade has seen the first Jewish wedding and first barmitzvah since the war, and a few Jewish-interest periodicals in Polish have emerged. Also, there are two notable Jewish cultural festivals, one in Tarnow and the annual event in Krakow, which has drawn as many as 10,000 people to a single event.

Many of these, however, are Jews living abroad who have family roots in Poland, and they combine their visit to the festival with a hunt for signs of their ancestors. A few organizations exist to help them, such as "Our Roots," the Warsaw-based organization established around the time Poland and Israel reestablished diplomatic contact in 1987.The revival's coin, however, also has a flip side: anti-Semitism has also been strengthening recently. There has been some tension between Krakow's festival organizers and the city council, with some expressing displeasure that the city provides money to support a Jewish festival when it should be supporting a "Polish" one instead.This idea that Polish national identity is at odds with Jewishness is not a new one, nor is this particular manifestation of it an isolated incident in recent times. And because Polish national identity is so entangled with Catholicism, anti-Semitism can often lurk in the shadows of the Church.

Radical fringe

Kazimierz Switon, a radical Catholic activist, has placed himself in the middle of a controversy surrounding religious symbols at Auschwitz, in which Polish nationalism, Catholicism and anti-Semitism are all hopelessly intertwined. The roots of the controversy date back about 20 years.

Shortly after his election, the Pope returned to his homeland and gave a number of masses. One of them was at the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau camp to commemorate the wartime suffering of Poles, Jews and Russians. To mark the event, a tall wooden cross was erected in a gravel pit where the Nazis murdered 153 Polish political prisoners in 1941.The cross attracted criticism from Jewish groups, who point out that Jewish law prohibits Jews from praying near non-Jewish religious symbols, and also argue that the ban on religious symbols within the camp should be extended to the area surrounding it.

When a Polish official mentioned the possibility of removing the cross to address Jewish concerns, Switon called for Poles to plant more crosses to protect the Papal cross, and now a swarm of smaller crosses surround it. Switon himself has lived in the pit for over a year now.This has been enough to enrage the few Jews remaining in Poland and their counterparts worldwide.

But seemingly not content with this manifestation of his insensitivity and ignorance, if not downright anti-Semitism, Switon has also apparently taken to "outing" Jews in prominent positions in Polish society by means of a list of 100 well-known Poles. The names of most important Poles are on the list, including the President's. Many of them are obviously not Jewish; rather, the people on the list seem to be anyone who Switon doesn't agree with.

There are also a host of pamphlets available at the gravel pits, and though some deal with strictly Catholic matters, some are distinctly anti-Jewish, including one which claims that Germany and the Jews intend to divide Poland and another which declares that the World Bank, EU and NATO are all run by Jewish Communists. A third pamphlet warns Poles: "Your children and grandchildren will be servants in Jewish and German factories. Your daughters and granddaughters will fill Western brothels."

Most Poles are quick to discount Switon despite the media attention he receives both domestically and even internationally (including an interview for CNN). But although Switon is considered to be on the fringe, anti-Semitism, unfortunately, is also looking for a foothold in more respectable soil. Dariusz Ratajczak, a professor at the university in Opole, is one such example.

Ratajczak published a book last May titled Tematy Niebezpieczne (Dangerous Subjects) in which he claims that "there never existed... a plan of systematic extermination of the Jews." Ratajczak defends himself by saying he doesn't necessarily adhere to the theories detailed in his book, that they are just a document of revisionist theories. His active involvement with the extremist Nationalist Party, however, undermines his defense.

If there can be a bright side to this, it is that he is facing legal action and the university, eager to distance itself from the controversy, has banned Ratajczak from the classroom.

Greg Nieuwsma, 28 October 1999



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