The Unbreakable Identity of Poles in Lithuania

Dr. Barbara Jundo-Kaliszewska - historian, translator, and independent journalist. The author of the book "The hostages of history. Polish minority in post-Soviet Lithuania", published in 2019 by the University of Lodz Publishing House. Phot. Apolinary Klonowski

“We have been living outside Poland for almost 80 years, we have been subjected to strong Russian influences and now, we are also affected by the Lithuanian culture. However, our national identity is unbreakable,” says historian Barbara Jundo Kaliszewska in an interview with “Kurier Wileński”.

You are the author of the book “The hostages of history”, which deals with the latest history of Poles in Lithuania. Where did the idea for this topic come from?

It seems to me that this topic has always been present in my life. The Polish circles in Lithuania – the local Polish families – are strongly politically involved. It influences the worldview of children who grow up in these homes. This is why I decided to study in Poland, and why Lithuania’s path to independence became the subject of my master’s thesis. Later I went into deeper topics, which I had not dared to address earlier.

You come from Eišiškės, and you have been living in Łódź for years. How do you describe your identity?

I am a Pole from Lithuania.

Is it important for you to specify “from Lithuania”? Cannot you just be called Polish?

In today’s realities, the identity of a Pole from Lithuania is radically different from the identity of a Polish citizen. What makes us different is, above all, the post-war experience and the last three decades of functioning as a part of the independent Republic of Lithuania. Poles in Lithuania have struggled with completely different issues than the Poles in Poland. Over the last 30 years, we have devoted much less attention to issues such as accession to NATO or the European Union, problems of lustration, legalisation of abortion, etc. We have been fighting for our language and our basic rights. We have been learning how to deal with the national majority in our country. At the same time, inhabitants of economically degraded towns, like the one I come from, had to fight to provide for their families… It all shaped us.

In your book, you write about the last 30 years. What was the significance of the autonomy of the Vilnius region during this period?

The idea of autonomy. Let’s make sure to be precise, let’s not simplify things. It was an idea.

Yes, the idea. It is still a controversial topic. Autonomists are also accused of acting in favour of Moscow…

The idea of autonomy was born at the time when the Soviet Union was at its decline and individual nations began to strive for some form of state existence. Lithuanians too, however, they did not fight for their independence at once. Sąjūdis [Lithuanian: Movement, TN] was established as a reconstruction movement to support Gorbachev’s reforms. Over time, these ideas have evolved and miraculously Lithuania managed to regain its independence. Similarly, the Poles in Lithuania – first in 1989, at the first congress of the Union of Poles in Lithuania – came up with the idea to unify the areas mainly inhabited by Poles and to create a cultural autonomy. Autonomy was a substitute, a poor substitute for having our own statehood. It was assumed that on its territory, it would be possible to use Polish towards the authorities, in addition to the state language. It was not until March 11th, 1990 – when Lithuania proclaimed the Act of Restoration of the Independent Lithuanian State – that Moscow began to interfere with the idea. In KGB documents one can find traces of such activities – simplifying it and reducing the whole series of events to a statement that Poles in Lithuania were or are Pro-Soviet, is an excessively far-reaching move.

What about Moscow’s interference?

Russia has never given up its influence in the entire post-Soviet territory. Even today it happens that they reach out to us under slogans of defending human rights or defending the rights of national minorities. This is our business, a matter of the Polish minority, the authorities in Vilnius and somehow in Warsaw, not to allow for such interference to happen. As long as disputes over the history and language continue, these regions will be vulnerable to destabilisation.

It seems that Lithuania gives Russian propaganda arguments in the matter of non-compliance with minority rights – we do not have the right to use the Polish spelling of our names, we do not have the right to use bilingual street names. With all the treaties and agreements signed, can Lithuania be said to consistently violate international law?

This is a question for lawyers, I will leave it to them. The erroneous ethnic policy of the Lithuanian state has led to the escalation of tensions. Because of this, we have become a region that can be easily weakened internally. Examples of such sabotage can be observed, among others, in the east of Ukraine. However, I would look towards the future with optimism. Let’s remember that Lithuania is in the European Union. We must believe that we will be able to solve the most urgent issues in a civilised way.

In the preface of your book, you presented the Lithuanians’ path towards forming their own national identity in cultural opposition against the Poles. Can we say that anti-Polonism is a national feature of Lithuanians?

The identity of the Lithuanian nation at the beginning of the 20th century was shaped based on a strong anti-Polish sentiment. We have some signs of a class struggle here. Many scholars point to a different perception of history by both communities, but also to the element of a “Russian intrigue” … Nevertheless, I would like to emphasise the fact that many of the Lithuanian Poles helped to build Lithuanian independence: Stanisław Narutowicz, Michał Romer, Zofia and Jadwiga Chodakowski, and many more.

For some time now, we could observe warmer relations between Vilnius and Warsaw, and the strategic Polish-Lithuanian partnership is being increasingly emphasised. Should we, in the name of the partnership, sacrifice the rights of minorities provided by international law?

We should change the narrative. One should communicate with the state from the position of a citizen, of a taxpayer. Not from the position of a representative of a minority, an abused victim who, as a result of certain geopolitical reality, remained in Lithuania. I would like to remind you that in the early 90s, Poles in Lithuania acquired Lithuanian citizenship. After all, there were big fears that approx. 300,000 Poles who, in an act of protest, would not accept the citizenship of the state with which they were conflicted. First of all, Poles have accepted said citizenship. Second of all, none of the numerous official documents containing the project of autonomy includes a provision on the creation of the autonomy within the Soviet Union. There were only ideas. At one point, the Šalčininkai region (although one must distinguish the decisions of local authorities from the decisions of specific Polish congregations in Lithuania) was proclaimed a Polish national region and the validity of the USSR constitution was restored in the area. Although, it is difficult to talk about the restoration here because the state was then in a situation of dual power. Lithuania was not recognised internationally, hence it can be interpreted in two ways. It should be, however, emphasised that the Poles wanted to stay, they remained and remain within the borders of Lithuania, because this is their land, this is where they come from. They do not emigrate en masse to Poland, despite what some may suggest.

The shadow of 1990 – when several Poles decided not to support the Act of Restoration of the Independent Lithuanian State – still follows us. Was it an act of betrayal?

Imagine that in the atmosphere of a visible conflict between Sąjūdis and the Polish community in Lithuania, you come to the first meeting of the LSSR Supreme Council after the elections and that day the Act of Restoration of the Independent Lithuanian State is on the parliament’s agenda. It seems to me that these people were simply not ready for this. The evidence of this can be found in documents. They did not feel empowered by the circles they represented to vote without consulting their voters. Lithuanian independence was then backed by people strongly associated with Lithuanian communities. The fact that those six MPs abstained but did not vote against, led to the adoption of the Act without even one vote of the opposition. It was heavily emphasised. Today, some circles interpret it in a way that anyone who did not vote for it was against it. This type of thinking doesn’t lead us anywhere.

Lately one could find fan pages on Facebook such as the “Soleczniki [Lithuanian: Šalčininkai, TN] People’s Republic”. Do you think that similar provocations may take place in the near future?

The Baltic States and Poland are nowadays separated from Russia by the wall of the European Union and NATO. It is worth noting, however, that as long as we focus our narrative on Russia as the main aggressor and not on the situation of the citizens, we are going around in circles. One needs to remember that it’s the inhabitants of “regions” that are more radical, and this is mainly due to the difficult situation of these areas.

In Lithuania, a Pole still feels foreign. And in Poland, he’s a “ruski” [a pejorative term for Russian, TN].

This is why it’s important to reconcile with one’s own identity. In the turbulent history of the Vilnius region described in my book, I distinguish four elements of the conflict: Moscow, Warsaw, Vilnius, and the Poles in Lithuania. As Poles in Lithuania, we have different problems than Poles in Warsaw, we live in different realities. We shouldn’t be looking for our own place either among the Lithuanians or in Poland. In the beginning, in Łódź, I found my Vilnius accent embarrassing, but at some point, I started to emphasise it. I was asked: “Ms. Barbara, why didn’t you ever do anything about your accent?” I replied simply: “Because it makes me different.” Today I represent the University of Lodz Publishing House in the media, I talk about the “100 years of Independence” series [Polish: 100 lat Niepodległości, TN], full of letters “ł” [pronounced in a notably different way by Poles in Poland and Poles in Lithuania, TN], which one can easily hear – and it’s been warmly welcomed. We are who we are and from this position, we should build our relationships and our status in any country we live in.

Haven’t you had any issues with your identity?

At the age of 18, I came to Poland and it turned out that very often I am not seen here as a Pole, and people try to speak Russian to me. With me, who grew up in the spirit of fighting for the right to use the Polish language! How ironic. I have mainly been around the Polish student community of Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine. Some of my peers quickly assimilated. However, it is against the nature of a Lithuanian Pole to assimilate either in Lithuania or in Poland.

What do you think, are Poles in Lithuania currently at risk of lithuanisation or russification?

The Poles in Lithuania are safe! We have been living outside Poland for almost 80 years, we have been subjected to strong Russian influences and now, we are also affected by the Lithuanian culture. Even if our local dialect is enriched by loanwords, our national identity is unbreakable.

Source: https://kurierwilenski.lt/2019/04/20/tozsamosc-polaka-na-litwie-jest-nie-do-zlamania/

Tłumaczenie by Marta Bednarczyk w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Marta Bednarczyk within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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