Poles Apart

December 21, 2009

Plight of the Eagle

Plight of the Eagle

After the previous post (click here) I was surprised by the serendipity in my choice of topic after I discovered an article in Dziennik about the state of the Polish language around the world. Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently published a report entitled: “The Situation of Polish People Abroad”. This is the most detailed report of its kind ever published and it paints a worrying picture for the future of Polish people and the Polish language abroad.

Radek On a Mission

Radek On a Mission

The report looked at thirty countries around the world, most of them European states. According to Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, the purpose of the report is ascertain what particular problems affect the Polonia (the Polish community outside Poland) around the globe so that the Ministry can then implement a plan to help them tackle these difficulties.

South America Tops

South America Tops

In the report we find several important pieces of information. Firstly, the number of Poles living in each country, the number of Polish schools and the local state’s attitude and policy with regards to Polish people. The report shows that Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Sweden stand out as the ‘best’ countries for Poles to live in, that is their rights are respected most in those states.

Curie-ing Favour with the French?

Curie-ing Favour with the French?

However, in the other countries found in the report, Polish ex-pats and the Polish language have little chance for support. In France, Polish children may be surprised to learn that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising were one in the same and there was much anti-Semitic feeling during WWII; in Germany they are taught that Chopin and Marie Curie-Skłodowska were French.

United in Intolerance?

United in Intolerance?

This report, once again, shows us that any talk of European solidarity and tolerance is just that – talk. Actions speak louder than words, of course, and if we truly are committed to building a united Europe then it is probably about time to do away with nationalism and intolerance. This goes for ALL the countries of the European Union, Poland included. Pie in the sky? I hope not…

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No Polish, Please

December 14, 2009

European Film Awards

European Film Awards

The European Film Academy Awards certainly don’t aspire to be anything like the Oscars. And they certainly aren’t. Once again, I had the pleasure of taking part in the event, this time in the Rhineland city of Bochum in the industrial settings of the Jahrhunderthalle. Although this post is not about my adventures swanking about with European film’s nobs and toffs, it does nicely set the scene for something which not only irked me but downright riled me.

Beautiful Düsseldorf

Beautiful Düsseldorf

I arrived in Germany on Friday afternoon and left Düsseldorf’s shiny new airport by a science-fiction-like shuttle service which looks something like a cross between an amusement park ride and a whizzing Star Trek space pod. Düsseldorf is a modern city slap bang in the centre of the sprawling Ruhr metropolis. The shuttle took me to the station and from there I caught the train to Bochum.

Multicultural Germany

Multicultural Germany

One of the many things that always strikes me about Germany is its ethnic mix, the cultural crucible that is so apparent in all of its urban centres. Waiting for the train I heard Turkish, Greek, a Slav language (perhaps Serbian?) and Arabic, to name but a few. As much as I strained my ears, however, not once did I hear Polish, although I could have sworn that many of the Rhineland denizens looked decidedly Pole-like.

No Poland

No Poland

I got to the the hotel. I smiled at the young blonde at the desk, the letters on her name tag shouted back at me: “Walczak”. “Are you Polish?” I enquired. “Half-Polish,” she said. She spoke a little Polish, had even been to Poland and Warsaw but conceded that Poland just wasn’t her cup of tea. It seemed a strange answer as it sounded more like an excuse.

Cleaning Away Language

Cleaning Away Language

A little later that day I heard the hotel cleaning ladies happily chirping away in Polish as I left my room for a wander. They were thrilled to hear me speak Polish and just as excited to talk to me about my adventures with the European Film Academy. We took the lift together down to the reception but no sooner did they spot reception than they reverted to a thickly-accented German. “Odd,” I thought.

Unwanted Gastarbeiter

Unwanted Gastarbeiter

This pattern kept repeating itself with Polish names and Polish people seemingly everywhere, yet every time they used Polish it seemed limited, stunted or somehow ‘not right’. The only real explanation seems to be the German attitude to the use of Polish. To my mind, Germany’s approach to the native tongues of ‘Gastarbeiter’, especially Polish ones, is nigh on fascist, with no real sense of European solidarity, something which the Germans, allegedly, pride themselves on.

Looking From Afar

Looking From Afar

This fact seemed all the more ironic when I stood, wine glass in hand (looking extremely suave in my dinner jacket), watching Europe’s top filmmakers, producers and actors, most of them German (due to the location of the event), clap, cheer and ‘bravo’ Andrzej Wajda, Krystyna Janda, Maciej Stuhr and Marcel Lozinski during the film awards ceremony. Is pluralism really only an elitist idea or is it an elistist cover-up?


Most Important Event

December 6, 2009
Soaring Eagle?

Soaring Eagle?

It occurred to me that it has been twenty years since Poland regained its freedom way back in 1989. Twenty years of ‘transformation’ (as Polish people like to call it) have fashioned the country that we now call Poland. I wonder whether everything that has happened over these twenty years is a consequence of the baggage of communism. Could some things have been avoided? Could Poland have taken a different route? Below is a list of (what I think to be) the most important events in Poland of the last twenty years (in chronological order):

Defining Moment?

Defining Moment?

Round Table Talks (5th April 1989)
A constant bone of contention between Law and Justice (PiS) and Poland’s other political parties. This is the moment when the communists decide to sit down and discuss with Solidarity the future of Poland.

Rydzyk Radio (9th December 1991)
Radio Maryja is founded in Toruń. After a mere three years this local Catholic radio station, the patron of which is controversial cleric Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, obtains a licence to broadcast nationally helping it later become the voice of right-wing Polish Catholicism.

War Upstairs (4th June 1992)
Jan Olszewski’s weak minority government is toppled by President Lech Wałęsa who, fearing a backlash and possible coup d’etat following Antoni Macierewicz’s much-maligned Vetting Act, decides to put an end to the Olszewski-Kaczyński-Macierewicz madness.

Charitable Change?

Charitable Change?

Orchestrating Help (3rd January 1993)
Jerzy Owsiak sets in motion what will later become the largest and most celebrated charitable event in Polish history. The very first Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity raised $1.5 million, an unprecedented sum in a country new to such events.

Russians Leave (17th September 1993)
In what turns out to be a major coup for Lech Wałęsa and a welcome surprise for Poles, Russian President Boris Yeltsin agrees to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland. In mid September, President Wałęsa bids farewell to the last of the Russian soldiers.

Poland Joins NATO (12th March 1999)
Finally, after years of oppression, Polish people around the world breathe a sigh of relief when Minister of Foreign Affairs Bronisław Geremek signs Poland’s NATO membership agreement.

Changing Europe?

Changing Europe?

Poland Joins EU (1st May 2004)
Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) leader and Prime Minister, Leszek Miller signs the paperwork in April 2003, the referendum takes place in June 2003 and within less than a year, Poland becomes a fully-fledged member of Europe’s finest club.

Death of Hope (2nd April 2005)
The death of John Paul II marked the end of an era for many. During his papacy he travelled to more countries than any previous Vicar of Rome. For Poles, his death also marked the passing of their chief flag-bearer, spiritual leader and beacon of hope.

Poland Going Euro (18th April 2007)
Much to the amazement of all concerned, Michel Platini, head of UEFA, announces that the joint bid by Poland and Ukraine to host the European Football Championships in 2012 is victorious. Poland’s future is looking brighter…

Soaring Higher?

Soaring Higher?

Buzek Tops (14th July 2009)
Former Polish Prime Minister takes the helm of the European Parliament becoming Poland’s first ever President of the European Parliament. Although not a particularly powerful post, it demonstrates Poland’s increasing influence in the EU.

It occurred to me that it has been over twenty years since Poland regained its freedom way back in 1989. Twenty years of ‘transformation’ (as Polish people like to call it) have fashioned the country that we now call Poland. I wonder whether everything that has happened over these twenty years is a consequence of the baggage of communism. Could some things have been avoided? Could Poland have taken a different route?

Some may argue that such questions are always futile and lead to nothing but frustration. I disagree. They may help us re-evaluate the reasons why certain decisions were taken, why leaders, politicians and media personalities did what they did, how this affected society, and how, in the future, we might be able to avoid some of the needless mistakes that were made.

Below is a list of (what I think to be) the most important events in Poland of the last twenty years (in chronological order):

Event No. 1: The Round Table Talks (5th April 1989)

A constant bone of contention between Law and Justice (PiS) and seemingly Poland’s other political parties. This was the moment when the communists decided to sit down and discuss with Solidarity the future of Poland.

Event No. 2: Rydzyk Radio (9th December 1991)

Radio Maryja is founded in Toruń. This local Catholic radio station, the patron of which is controversial cleric Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, obtains a licence to broadcast nationally three years after being founded later becoming the voice of right-wing Polish Catholicism.

Event No. 3: The Change Upstairs (4th June 1992)

Jan Olszewski’s weak minority government is toppled by President Lech Wałęsa who, fearing a backlash and possible coup d’etat following Antoni Macierewicz’s much-maligned Vetting Act, decides to put an end to the Olszewski-Kaczyński-Macierewicz madness.

Event No. 4: Orchestrating Help (3rd January 1993)

Jerzy Owsiak sets in motion what will later become the largest and most celebrated charitable event in Polish history. The very first Great Orchestra of Christmas Help raised $1.5 million, an unprecedented sum in a country new to such events.

Event No. 5: Russians Leave (17th September 1993)

What turned out to be one Lech Wałęsa’s major coups and much to the joyous surprise of the whole country, Russian President Boris Yelcyn agrees to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Poland. In mid September, President Wałęsa bids farewell to the last of the Russian soldiers.

Event No. 6: Poland joins NATO (12th March 1999)

Finally, after years of oppression, Polish people around the world breathe a sigh of relief when Minister of Foreign Affairs Bronisław Geremek signs Poland’s NATO membership agreement.

Event No. 7: Poland joins the EU (1st May 2004)

Left Democratic Alliance (SLD) leader and Prime Minister, Leszek Miller signs the paperwork in April 2003, the referendum takes place in June 2003 and within less than a year, Poland becomes a fully-fledged member of Europe’s finest club.

Event No. 8: Death of Hope (2nd April 2005)

The death of John Paul II marked the end of an era for many. During his papacy he travelled to more countries than any previous Vicar of Rome. For Poles, his passing marked also the passing of their chief flag-bearer, spiritual leader and beacon of hope.

Event No. 9: Poland Going Euro (18th April 2007)

Much to the amazement of all concerned, Michel Platini, head of UEFA, announces that the joint bid by Poland and Ukraine to host the European Football Championships in 2012 is victorious. Poland’s future is looking brighter…

Event No. 10: Buzek Tops (14th July 2009)

Former Polish Prime Minister takes the helm of the European Parliament becoming Poland’s first ever President of the European Parliament. Although not a particularly powerful post, it demonstrates Poland’s increasing influence in the EU.


Victims of Their Own Making

September 29, 2009

The Victim Complex

The Victim Complex

For a number of years now there has been a growing trend within right-wing Polish politics which is particularly perplexing. Right-wing politics is often equated with patriotic and nationalist sentiments, glorifying past (and present) achievements as well as demonstrating the greatness of one’s nation. However, attitudes within right-wing (and liberal) circles in Poland seem to be advocating a different approach. This approach reached its apex when Law and Justice (PiS) came to power in 2005.

Christ Nation

The Christ Nation

Together with the far-right League of Polish Families (LPR) and populist Self-Defence (Samoobrona), this approach became entrenched and particularly visible in Polish foreign policy during the PiS years. Polish politics (heavily influenced by the Catholic church at the time) embraced an almost ‘Christic’ and/or ‘martyrological’ approach to their own history. Poland was seen by these politicians to be both the saviour and martyr of Europe, the ‘Christ’ of European nations.

The German Invasion

The German Invasion

When arguing for Poland’s God-given right to have more votes in the EU’s then new system of voting, one of the Kaczyński brothers said that had it not been for World War II, Poland’s population would be greater and so they deserve more votes in the EU. This attitude continued throughout their term in office and continues today. Certain politicians feel Poland ‘deserves’ more because it suffered so much. This attitude of Poland being the ‘eternal victim’ is extremely dangerous for a number of reasons.

The Destruction of Self

The Destruction of Self

Firstly, with it comes a large whiff of misplaced arrogance which, to the outside world, is particularly irritating when the only arguments that can be heard coming from the Polish camp are that Poland deserves more because it had to live though both Nazism and Communism. Secondly, when such a victim complex becomes entrenched its proponents begin to genuinely believe it. So much so that extolling the virtues of being a victim turns into a form of flagellation or even historical and political self-mutilation.

The New History

The New History

Recently, there has been much talk about historical revisionism. Russia particularly has been found guilty of practising the re-writing of history. However, is Poland’s victim status also a form of revisionism? Believing that Poland is forever Europe’s martyr is useful as it absolves the nation of crimes previously committed, such as Jedwabne or Operation Wisła. How can the victim have ever been the tormentor?


When East Becomes West

July 27, 2009

The Heart of Europe

The Heart of Europe

Are we witnessing a gradual westward cultural shift in Europe? Are we facing a post-modern crisis where identities increasingly overlap and blur? Is the definition of Western Europe the same now as it was in 1945?

Mitteleuropa Revisited
An even trickier question is what (or where) is Central Europe? The geographical centre of Europe (not the European Union) is laid claim to by at least five towns, all of which lie in what is conventionally not thought of as Western Europe, but rather Eastern Europe. These towns are: Purnuškės, Lithuania; Polotsk, Belarus; Suchowola, Poland; Rakhiv, Ukraine; and Krahule, Slovakia. Interestingly, these places form an area partly overlapping Poland’s semi-mythical Kresy (more info here). If this is the case then our definitions of Central Europe need to be redefined. Central Europe is Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Slovakia, and perhaps also Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. To the west of this area, Western Europe begins: Germany, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. However, as we are all aware, calling Serbia a part of Western Europe is odd. There is more to west and east than points on a compass.

Neither East Nor West

Neither East Nor West

Europe Redefined
The chief problem with defining what is central, east and west is our notions of these terms and the connotations they all carry. Most people think of Western Europe as the UK, France, Germany, Benelux, Spain and Italy. But what about Greece? What of Finland? Most of the territory of Poland, all of the Czech Republic, and the afore-mentioned Serbia lie in Europe’s western half yet most Europeans would not call them ‘western’.

Culture Remade
Most recently, communism helped delimit Europe into two halves but with communism gone it can be argued that Europe has shifted west. Russians often claim Poles are westernised traitors to the Slav cause. Poles and Slovaks believe Czechs are no more than Germans speaking a Slavonic language. Perspective is key to our interpretation of east and west. We cannot deny the fact that ‘western’ culture (whatever that means) has permeated the new EU states. Popular urban culture is something familiar to people both in Warsaw and Walsall; you can get a Starbucks in Bucharest and Buckingham, a Big Mac in Bratislava and Bradford and a Burger King Whopper in Burgas and Burnley. The so-called ‘eastern’ countries have increasingly more in common with the ‘western’ ones to such an extent that any discussion of Eastern and Western Europe is little more than academic. So where is this mythical West?


Black Madonna

July 16, 2009
Faith & Family
Faith & Family

Many thanks to my good pal Jim for giving me the heads up about this text. It’s a great piece about the life of the post-war Polonia, that is the Polish people who came to the United Kingdom after World War II (as part of the UK Polish Repatriation Act) as opposed to those Polish people who have come to the UK post-EU accession. I’m ‘posting’ the text in full (copyright The Guardian 2009):

As a child growing up in Derby in the 60s I spoke Polish beautifully, thanks to my grandmother. While my mother went out to work, my grandmother, who spoke no English, looked after me, teaching me to speak her native tongue. Babcia, as we called her, dressed in black with stout brown shoes, wore her grey hair in a bun, and carried a walking stick. She was the hub of our household – she could cook Polish delicacies, play Chopin on the piano and make paper storks. I adored her.

My father, Jerzy, had escaped from Poland after the Germans invaded, travelling on foot across Europe to England, where he became a pilot in the RAF. At the end of the war, he met my English mother at a dance organised by my maternal grandfather to help lonely young Polish pilots. In 1957, he arranged for my grandmother, Maria, who was living in a tiny flat in Warsaw in increasing distress under the privations of communism, to come to the UK.

Like other Polish families in the area, we spent our weekends in the vast Polish club that kept our community’s culture alive. My father helped to establish Dom Polski (Polish House) in the 1950s and it was known as the air force club because the founders were pilots. It provided a focus for all those old comrades and their history. I remember one woman at the club who had a concentration camp number tattooed on her arm, and another whose husband and daughter got off the train transporting them to Siberia to buy bread, only for the train to leave without them. She never saw them again. There were people who had been taken east through Russia as slave labour, others who were taken west to provide a workforce for German farms and factories.

The walls of the club were covered with black-and-white photos of Polish pilots, and a huge propeller from a Spitfire was fixed to one wall. On Saturday mornings my sisters and I would study Polish at the school it ran, and on Saturday nights, my parents would go dancing. On Sundays, we played tombola there over lunch.

But my love affair with Polish culture began to fade when I was five – the year Babcia died. We had been so close that when she was dying, her last words were to ask that I should be looked after. I couldn’t believe she was dead, and went from being confident and cocky to a very quiet child.

Without Babcia’s childcare, my mother had to give up her full-time job and take part-time work in a school across the road. I was placed in the reception class and, accustomed to being at home alone with Babcia, I hated it. I don’t remember making a conscious decision, but in shock I refused to speak Polish until I saw Babcia again.

My sisters and I continued to go to Polish school, but the language would not return. Despite the efforts of my father, even a family trip to Poland in 1965 could not bring it back. When six years later my father died too, at just 53, our Polish connection almost ceased to exist. I left Derby and went to university in London. I never spoke Polish, never ate Polish food nor visited Poland. My childhood was gone and almost forgotten.

Then in 2004, more than 30 years later, things changed again. A new wave of Polish immigrants had arrived and I began to hear the language of my childhood all around me – every time I got on a bus. I saw Polish news-papers in the capital and Polish food for sale in the shops. The language sounded so familiar yet somehow distant – as if it were something I tried to grab but was always out of reach.

In Derby, Dom Polski had closed down. The building was decaying and up for rent; the old soldiers and air force men were almost all dead, and the second and third generations too busy to worry about it. But my memory had been jogged. I began to write a novel about a fictional Polish family and, at the same time, decided to enrol at a Polish language school.

Each week I went through half-remembered phrases, getting bogged down in the intricate grammar and impossible inflections. When my book was published, it put me back in touch with schoolfriends who like me were second-generation Polish. And strangely, in my language classes, I still had my accent and I found words and phrases would sometimes come unbidden, long lost speech patterns making a sudden reappearance. I had found my childhood again.

Joanna Czechowska

Her book, The Black Madonna of Derby (or Goodbye Polsko) is published by Silkmill Press.


The First ‘European’ Union

June 30, 2009

The First 'EU' Coat of Arms?

The First 'EU' Coat of Arms?

The 1st July 2009 marks the 440th anniversary of what was perhaps one of the first (in retrospect) ‘EU’-style unions on the European continent. The Union of Lublin (1st July, 1569) is often seen as a natural predecessor to the Maastricht Treaty (7th February, 1992). The Union of Lublin was a union of two states – the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The actual signing of the Union of Lublin may have been a defining point in history but it was only one moment in a whole series of acts of union and treaties that saw the eventual creation of a federal state.

EU Parallels
Not only is the Union of Lublin seen as a precursor to the Maastricht Treaty, but the state that the Union of Lublin created is often seen as analogous to the modern European Union. Does this mean that the member states of the European Union will follow the same path as Poland and Lithuania prior to and after the Union of Lublin? Can the respective histories of Poland and Lithuania give us valuable insights into what might become of the European Union? In order to answer these questions or even attempt to answer these questions, it is useful to look at what happened before and after the Union of Lublin with the help of a simple timeline…

Lublin Union - Maastricht Predecessor?

Lublin Union - Maastricht Predecessor?

Union Timeline
1385 – Union of Krewo (Grand Lithuanian Duke marries Polish Queen);
1401 – Union of Vilnius-Radom (relating to issues of royal authority);
1413 – Union of Horodło (uniting the nobilities of both states);
1432 – Union of Grodno (saw increased ties between the two states);
1499 – Union of Kraków-Vilnius (was a political-military alliance);
1501 – Union of Mielnik (renewed the personal dynastic union);
1569 – Union of Lublin (created a ‘Commonwealth’ – two states with one ruler, government and foreign policy);
1791 – Creation of a unitary state (and abolition of the two states);
1795 – The ‘Commonwealth’ disappears off the map (with the Partitions of Poland).

EU Destiny
Will the European Union follow a similar path? We may argue that the deterioration of the Polish-Lithuanian state prior to the Partitions could well happen to the EU. The social collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth opened the gates for the Partitions. Perhaps this is already happening in the EU? Rising bureaucracy, a growing feeling of dissatisfaction, a general feeling of apathy. Are we witnessing the start of the collapse of the  European Union or does Maastricht still have another 200 years left?  Could the EU also end up on the rubbish heap of history?

A History of Unions
If we count the start of the development of Europe’s first ‘Union’ to have been 1385 and the end 1795 then 410 years is not a bad result, although in reality we should count the Union of Lublin as the Union’s inception date. In any case 1569 to 1795 still gives us 226 years. The Scandinavian Kalmar Union lasted from 1397 to 1523 (a ‘mere’ 126 years). The British Acts of Union began in 1707 and still exist (which gives 302 years and counting). In any case, these three examples – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the United Kingdom and the Kalmar Union – demonstrate that the European continent has a history of unions and this is, by no means, something foreign to us. Why did the Commonwealth and Kalmar Union fail? Why is the United Kingdom still going? Two questions that may prove to be important for the future of the European Union.