Lost Polish Tribe on Haiti…

June 2, 2013
Polish Legions in Haiti

Polish Legions in Haiti

It’s not something I normally do but the following post has proved to be so popular that I have decided to re-post it. Enjoy.

Perhaps the most intriguing group of people among Poland’s huge diaspora (the so-called Polonia) are the ‘Poles of Haiti’. I heard about this lost little enclave of ‘Polishness’ on radio and began to follow, Theseus-like, the strands of stories that might lead me to some sort of end-point in my search for the truth in the labyrinthine information maze that is the internet. Much to my surprise, I was able to bring together these strands and get some kind of picture of how on earth Poland has managed to touch the culture of Haiti.

Following HIS orders

Bonaparte – Giving The Orders

In 1804, Haiti declared independence from Napoleonic France. Napoleon was having none of it and swiftly sent a force of over 5,200 Polish Legions to stamp his authority on the natives and their lust for independence. The Third Half-Brigade of the Polish Legions were not extremely happy with this state of affairs as the Legions were primarily focused on fighting for Polish freedom in Europe. The idea of (1) fighting against freedom and (2) fighting over eight thousand kilometres away from one’s homeland on the other side of the world seemed both ridiculous and annoying to these soldiers. But soldiers they were, and more importantly, soldiers of Napoleon and they had to follow orders.

Dessalines - Father of Haitian Freedom

Dessalines – Father of Haitian Freedom

The Polish Legions became embroiled in the Haitian Revolution, and most died, although it was not the fighting that killed them but yellow fever. Unaccustomed to the climate and the dangers of life in the Caribbean 4,000 soldiers died of the disease. Those that remained became the stuff of legend, Haitian legend. Miffed off with fighting those who were fighting for freedom (like themselves), the remaining Polish soldiers decided to throw off the yoke of their French masters and joined Jean-Jacques Dessalines in the Haitian struggle for independence living to see a free Haiti. The indigenous peoples were so enamoured by their Polish brothers-in-arms that they included them in the Haitian Constitution of 1805 in which it was stated in Articles 12 and 13 that no white man may hold land on Haiti apart from the Germans (who had a small community there) and the Polanders (Poles).

Erzulie Dantor - Not Matka Boska

Erzulie Dantor – Not Matka Boska

These naturalised Polish Haitians had a great impact on the fledgling Empire of Haiti, later the Republic of Haiti. The Haitians were impressed by the Poles’ great love of their Matka Boska Częstochowska (Our Lady of Częstochowa). They noticed how greatly the legionnaires venerated their icon. Through a process of assimilation and transformation, the Polish Catholic Matka Boska Częstochowska became the Haitian Vodou Erzulie Dantor, a warrior spirit, the protector of women and children, associated also with lesbians, homosexual men and abused women. Interestingly, like Matka Boska Częstochowska, Erzulie Dantor also has scars on the right-side of her face which she got from a fight with her sister when she stole her husband from her. A rather different persona from Matka Boska Częstochowska.

A 'Polish' Haitian (c) Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak

A ‘Polish’ Haitian (c) Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak

The ties between the two countries do not stop there. In Cazale, 70 kilometres north of Port-au-Prince there lives a community often referred to as blanc, polone. They are, to all intents and purposes, Haitians but due to the fact that the bulk of the Polish legionnaires settled there, the community has forever been referred to as ‘Polish’. If you are from Cazale, you are Polish, it’s as simple as that. Interestingly, there is a high proportion of blue-eyed Haitians here. Another link is Jerzy Grotowski who came to Haiti in search of inspiration in the 1970s. It’s fair to say that his experimental theatre owes a great deal to the spirituality of Haitian Vodou.

Haiti - Not Just Earthquakes

Haiti – Not Just Earthquakes

It is wonderful how two seemingly disparate and distant cultures have common threads weaving them together. On the one hand, we have Napoleon, the Haitian battle for freedom, the Polish legionnaires who joined with the Haitians in their Revolution and all the ramifications of their presence on the island. This includes a strong genetic marker in Cazale and the surrounding area and the warrior spirit of Erzulie Dantor. On the other hand we have Grotowski and his deep love of Haiti and its spirituality. Poland and Haiti – who would have thought…?

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Poland Has a Cross to Bear

August 18, 2010

Shit Hits the Plaque

Shit Hits the Plaque

Things have really reached boiling point and one could colloquially add that the shit really has hit the fan in Poland. A ‘faecal’ assailant soiled the plaque commemorating the death of President Lech Kaczyński and 95 other passengers in the Smolensk air tragedy. A 71-year-old threw a strategically aimed pot of poo at the memorial tablet in central Warsaw. He was arrested by police and taken away. This follows several months of  squabbling over what should happen to the cross that was temporarily erected outside the Presidential Palace by scouts in memory of the victims of the Smolensk tragedy.

José & Jarek - Feel the Love

José Luis Zapatero & Jarek Kaczyński - Feel the Love

It all started when President Bronisław Komorowski announced that the temporary wooden cross should be transferred to a more appropriate place, specifically Saint Anne’s Church, not far from the Presidential Palace. The cross is of course a religious symbol and not a symbol of state and it is inappropriate to leave it outside the Presidential Palace. His comments kicked off a storm with Jarosław Kaczyński claiming Komorowski was anti-catholic and a proponent of the evil of what he termed ‘Zapaterism’.

Crucifixion Anyone?

Crucifixion Anyone?

The odd thing is that no one, apart from Jarosław Kaczyński, seems to know what evil deed it is that Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has done. With a lack of decent policies, sound ideas and competent opinions, Kaczyński has been using the cross as a political makeweight. In fact, he has said that the policies of Law & Justice (PiS) will now revolve around the Smolensk tragedy. Kaczyński is literally crucifying his own party and followers in pursuit of his own personal mission. His personal loss seems to have clouded his judgement and the cross has begun to symbolise his hurt rather than the mission of Christ and his followers. Those so-called ‘defenders’ of the cross are to Catholics what hooligans are to regular football fans.

Christian or Fascist?

Christian or Fascist?

A fine example of the utter blindness of these so-called Christians was their behaviour when the day came to move the cross. Priests from Saint Anne’s came to lead the cross in procession from the Presidential Palace to Saint Anne’s Church. The reaction of these ‘Catholics’ was to scream and shout at the Catholic priests calling them traitors and, of all things, “Jews”. Odd, to say the least. We have reached an impasse and the only real way to resolve it is for the two main protagonists, President Komorowski and Jarosław Kaczyński, to sit down and reach an adequate compromise. Then again pigs might fly…


Piece of Plane Becomes Holy Relic

April 29, 2010

Holy Piece of Tupolev Tu-154

Holy Piece of Tupolev Tu-154

If anyone had previously believed Poland was a secular state there is no doubt now that the opposite is true following the tragic Smolensk air crash. In some ways it was comforting to see the very public outpouring of grief after the disaster but what was striking were the religious overtones that accompanied the grief. Mourners spoke of the “need” to join in grief and the “duty” of every “real Polish, Catholic patriot” to say goodbye to the President. What was even more striking were the mourners who queued for up to eighteen hours to kneel and make the sign of the cross before the coffins of President Lech Kaczyński and Maria Kaczyński. To outsiders looking in, it would appear that tens of thousands of Polish people were saying farewell to a holy man, a saint perhaps.

The Virgin Mary's New Clothes

The Virgin Mary's New Clothes

Now it seems that a piece of the Tupolev Tu-154 has taken on Holy Relic status. Inhabitants of Smolensk found a small piece of the plane and gifted it to Poland. Father Roman Majewski of the Jasna Góra Monastery, Poland’s most famous holy sanctuary, has said that this relic will become “a testament to the tragedy and a symbol of our love for our nation”. The tiny piece of the Tupolev Tu-154 will adorn the new ‘robes and crown’ of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Poland’s holiest relic. As well as the piece of the Tupolev, the Virgin Mary’s new robes, designed by Mariusz Drapikowski, will also contain fragments of meteorites found on the Moon, Mars and Mercury.


Adventures in Lemko Land

August 24, 2009

Discovering Lemko Land

Discovering Lemko Land

Inspired by what I had read and researched for a recent post, I decided to grab my bike and head down south to deepest, darkest Lemko Land. I decided to pick a place (or places) that were close to water. My destinations were the villages of Łosie and Klimkówka (the latter being created after the old Klimkówka had been cleared and flooded to make way for a reservoir). Armed only with my 15-year-old bike and mobile phone (with which to take pictures) I decided to attack this lost part of Europe and discover what hidden treasures this multicultural mountain land had to offer.

Kwiatoń Cerkiew

Kwiatoń Cerkiew

On my very first full day in the Low Beskids, in the heartland of what was once the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, I decided to go in search of signs of the Greek Catholic culture which was once so rich in Poland. What remains of Greek Catholic (and indeed Orthodox) culture in Poland is a sprinkling of wooden cerkiews (churches) around south-eastern Poland. In Polish there is a distinction made between Roman Catholic kościół and Greek Catholic/Orthodox cerkiew. Also, Roman Catholics refer to their priest as ksiądz whereas Greek Catholics often refer to their priest as jegomość.

Leszczyny Cerkiew

Leszczyny Cerkiew

I began my 60km biking marathon in search of Poland’s wooden (Lemko) Greek Catholic and Orthodox cerkiews starting with Łosie, followed by the picturesque Leszczyny, Kunkowa, Uście Górlickie, Kwiatoń (reckoned to be the most beautiful wooden cerkiew in Poland owing to its perfect proportions), Skwirtne, Gładyszów, Przysłup (high up on a hill) and Nowica (hidden in a forest). What struck me was that in many of these villages, the local cerkiew actually catered to three different parishes: Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and Orthodox. A real religious melting pot.

Road-side Cyrillic

Road-side Cyrillic

Certainly, evidence of this bubbling religious and cultural hotpot lies in the cerkiews dotted around the gorgeous landscape high upon the Beskid hilltops or in glades deep within the Beskid forests. But we can also see it in the numerous patriarchal (three-bar) crosses strewn across Lemko Land. These (Eastern Orthodox) stone crosses can be seen every few kilometres on all of the village roads in the Beskids. On closer inspection, the patriarchal crosses bear witness to the linguistic diversity of this region with inscriptions almost exclusively written in the Cyrillic script.

Bilingual Poland

Bilingual Poland

Language is often seen as one of the chief factors that define a nation. Likewise, the Lemkos also have their own language: Rusyn. There are now decidedly fewer speakers of the Lemko dialect of Rusyn than before the war but the language is seeing somewhat of a revival with many villages taking a vote on whether they wish to introduce bilingual signs. Several villages have already decided to do so. With such a small number of Lemko inhabitants, this can only be undertaken with the goodwill of the Polish majority. Bielanka is such an example where the decision to introduce bilingual signs was passed with a one-vote majority.

Land of Legend

Land of Legend

Łemkowszczyzna is not only a rich cultural, religious and linguistic mix but it is also a land full of stories, myths and legends. Every cerkiew on a hill, cross by the side of the road or wellspring has a story to tell – a reason for being there. Perhaps a demon was thwarted by a farmer, the Virgin Mary appeared to a young peasant girl or a spring burst out of the ground after an apparition had been seen wandering around the nearby field.  One thing is sure in Lemko Land: that cerkiew, that cross and that mountain spring is still there and can still be seen.


Lemko Land

August 17, 2009

Operation Wisła

Operation Wisła

History is all about ifs and buts and one particular region seems indicative of this statement. This region is Lemko Land, better known as Łemkowszczyzna or Lemkivshchyna. Sadly, the population of this region was decimated by Operation Wisła which forcibly repatriated and/or deported thousands of Lemkos changing the character of the region forever. It’s odd walking, cycling, driving around this beautiful area of Poland. Literally thousands of abandoned villages litter the landscape. Beautiful Byzantine rite or Orthodox churches stand either in disrepair or have been converted into Catholic churches. It’s not a surprise to come across a cross or tombstone sticking crookedly out of some bushes, in a field. Today’s Łemkowszczyzna reminds us of what could have been, what should have been.

Map of Lemko Land

Map of Lemko Land

Lemko Republics
Two interesting incidents highlight the distinctness of the Lemkos from their neighbouring Poles. The first followed the conclusion of the First World War. When it became apparent that the borders of a new Europe would soon be drawn up (later concluded by, amongst others, the Treaty of Versailles and the Polish Minority Treaty in 1919) the Lemkos, as well as their fellow Poles, realised that this is their chance for freedom, self-determination and independence. Lemko villages centred around Komańcza and Florynka formed two states. The Komańcza Republic was formed (in Komańcza) on the 4th November 1918 and lasted until the 23rd January 1919 when the Polish authorities put a brutal  end to it. The Rusyn National Republic of Lemkos was formed in Florynka and lasted from the 5th December 1918 till January 1921 when members of the ruling committee were arrested by the Polish government. However small these republics may have been, they demonstrated this minority’s need for self-determination

Tylawa Church Still Stands

Tylawa Church Still Stands

Lemko Schisms
The second incident took place several years later, in 1926, although its origins lie deep in the past with the Union of Brest which was signed in 1596. This declaration saw thousands of Orthodox Christian worshippers in Ruthenia (including Lemko worshippers) reject the (Eastern) Patriach of Constantinople and accept the authority of the Patriach of Rome (i.e. the Pope). These so-called Uniate/Greek Catholic churches still exist today, even though the Lemkos have always been more pro-Orthodox and Russophile. These pro-Orthodox tendencies came to the surface in 1911 when Father Maksym Sandowicz (now an Orthodox saint) oversaw the conversion of the Greek Catholic inhabitants of Grab and Wyszowate (back) to Orthodoxy. Several years later, the Lemko worhsippers of Tylawa and Trzciana decided to convert to Orthodoxy on the 16th November 1926. This incident goes by the name of the Tylawa Schism.

Epifaniusz Drowniak

Epifaniusz Drowniak

Lost Lemkos
This paints a mixed historical picture of the fortunes of the Lemkos in Poland: one of distinctness and failed self-determination. Estimates place the Lemko population at somewhere around 1.5 million (according to the BBC) spread across three countries: Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine. Before the Second World War, approximately 150,000 declared Lemkos are thought to have lived in Poland. The 2002 census put this figure at a mere 5,863, although many believe this could be as high as 50,000. Even so, a shortfall of over 100,000 people is a sad, sad loss. Intolerance, prejudice and ignorance were ultimately the undoing of the Lemkos in Poland. Ever so slowly, however, we are witnessing a sluggish Lemko revival with festivals, museums and cultural events sprouting up around the Beskidy and Bieszczady. Someone who wonderfully mirrors the fortunes of the Lemkos is Epifaniusz Drowniak, a Lemko who lived alone and in extreme poverty for most of his life. He often goes by the name of Nikifor.


Poland – Land of Diversity?

June 19, 2009

Many Faiths

Protect Us from Evil

Many, many years ago in a land of wild forests and lonely hills there lived a race of evil creatures called the Bies. These creatures looked like humans but were somewhat stockier, had horns and large black wings sprouting from their shoulders. They were, by all accounts, a thoroughly evil bunch and above all hated humankind. In order to make life harder for the farmers, rangers and simple folk living in this land, the Bies created the Czad, a mischievous little folk whose goal it was to pester, irritate and annoy humans. Everyday experience became story, story turned into legend and legend grew into fable. And the land of the Bies and Czad became known as the Bieszczady.

Lonely Mountains
After travelling to the Bieszczady in the south of Poland, I was once again struck by the diversity that was once part and parcel of Poland’s cultural makeup. Alas, much of this wonderful cultural diversity is no longer with us or is slowly eroding away so that in a few decades’ time we will have forgotten that such diversity once existed in this corner of Europe. The Bieszczady mountains and the surrounding area are a truly enchanting part of the world. Sparsely populated with the odd village springing up every now and again, you get the feeling that nature, not humankind, is king here.

Cultural Mix

Cultural Mix

Summit of Nations
The Bieszczady is an area with a unique history, a real cultural melting pot with Hungarian, Ukrainian, Boyko, Slovakian, Lemko, Romanian and Polish influences to be seen everywhere. A wonderful metaphor for this cultural confluence is Krzemieniec mountain – the point at which Ukraine, Slovakia and Poland converge. Travelling around the Polish part of the Bieszczady one notices odd words and phrases popping into the names of places, restaurants, companies and the suchlike. The Hungarian name of Krzemieniec, Kremenaros, seems to be quite a common linguistic tag, for example.

Demise of Diversity
One of the greatest surprises here is the inordinately large number of abandoned villages, cemeteries and churches, or rather Ukrainian/Lemko/Boyko villages and orthodox churches. Due to the now infamous forced deportation of Ukrainians, Lemkos and Boykos from Poland as part of the ridiculously patriotically-named Operation Wisła, the cultural map of the Bieszczady has been changed forever becoming tainted with a pallid homogeneity that still hangs over the area like the kiss of death. The Bieszczady was once a thriving region of many faiths, languages and cultures. It is now one of the most sparsely populated and poorest regions of Poland. All in the name of purity and reserving Poland for the Poles.


Making Sense of Easter

April 11, 2009

Christ Uncovered (c) BBC

Christ Reborn / image (c) BBC

Easter is always a time for solemn introspection and for many Christians also a time for meditation on the true essence of religion, faith and the identity of Jesus Christ. In order to understand the nature of the Christ (and the nature of Christianity itself) our first task is to break the stereotypes that so often cloud our judgement. The historical figure of יֵשׁוּעַ or יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (Yeshua; Yahshuah) was in all probability not white, did not have blue eyes and had a typical near-East physiognomy. It’s about time we changed our vision of the man-God whose followers later changed the history of the world.

Canon & Apocrypha
The development of Christianity as a world religion is fascinating. The development of the texts that make up the core of Christian dogma is even more intriguing. Christian texts are often divided into canonical and apocryphal, with the former making up the texts found in the New Testament Bible, while the latter are the texts which have been relegated to ‘non-Bible’ status. Although authentic, apocryphal texts were simply not accepted by early Church leaders as part of the dogma of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, they reveal discrepancies in the very nature of the Christ, sometime subtle, sometimes radically different.

Nature of the Christ
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas reveals a young (five-year-old) Jesus who is quick to anger and mete out vengeance: “…[Jesus] was going through the village again and a running child bumped his shoulder. Becoming bitter, Jesus said to him, “You will not complete your journey.” Immediately, he fell down and died.” The Gospel of Mary Magdalene however reveals an almost Buddhist-like quality to the Christ: “The Saviour said, All nature, all formations, all creatures exist in and with one another, and they will be resolved again into their own roots. For the nature of matter is resolved into the roots of its own nature alone.”

Alternate Creation
In the Sophia of Jesus Christ, a completely different view of God and his son are presented by Jesus: “The Lord of the Universe is not called ‘Father’, but ‘Forefather’, the beginning of those that will appear, but he is the beginningless Forefather. Seeing himself within himself in a mirror, he appeared resembling himself, but his likeness appeared as Divine Self-Father… I want you to know that First Man is called ‘Begetter, Self-perfected Mind’. He reflected with Great Sophia, his consort, and revealed his first-begotten, androgynous son. His male name is designated ‘First Begetter, Son of God’, his female name, ‘First Begettress Sophia, Mother of the Universe’. Some call her ‘Love’. Now First-begotten is called ‘Christ’.”

Christianity Reborn
The Apocrypha reveal a Christ more complex in character and more powerful in stature. Some reveal a more human and emotional Jesus who gets angry, feels love, pain and attachment. In the Apocrypha, Jesus had his ‘favourite’ disciples: James and Mary Magdalene (not Paul) who he both calls ‘beloved’ and kisses each on the mouth. This is a Jesus Christ  who, after rising from the dead, did not wind up his activities but “spent eleven years speaking with his disciples” (Pistis Sophia). He is radically different from the Jesus found in the canonical works of modern Christianity. This is a Christ from a very different cosmogony. If this is the case, could the real Christ please stand up?