- July 26, 2012
Reflections on a short visit to Puńsk and Seinai
Puńsk – a town situated just off the Polish-Lithuanian border, an enclave for Polish Lithuanians. I’d always wanted to go there. A few days ago, together with a group of friends, I decided to see the Suwałki Region and also pop in to the town of Puńsk.
I’d heard a lot about the place and learned about its history. Puńsk was an ancient settlement of Yotvingians (the so-called Yotvingia) who never created their own country, but gave up the land in the 13th century. It was only in 1597 that Stanisław Zaliwski, a Lithuanian Standard-bearer, set about establishing the town of Puńsk. He built, among other things, a church and allowed for fares to take place on Sundays and bank holidays. Yotvingia has had its ups and downs throughout history, but let us concentrate on the contemporary events.
As we entered Puńsk, we were greeted by a bilingual city sign: Puńsk – Punskas, to which I rejoiced. The signs on shops and cafes were displayed similarly. How lovely! You could feel the spirit of Lithuanian identity all around! And the most striking thing was the mutual respect of the inhabitants.
We parked our car and set out to explore the town with enthusiasm. The inscriptions on notice boards, advertising banners and names on shop-signs ‘Kviečiame’ (Welcome to…) – all pleased the eye.
Walking down Mickiewicza Street – the main street of Puńsk – we were supposed to see the old synagogue and along with it, the granaries. Unfortunately, we spotted no such things. Could our guidebook be wrong?
Near the church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, I asked (in Lithuanian) an elderly woman about the synagogue. To which she replied that the synagogue and the rabbi house were just two adjoining ramshackle buildings in Mickiewicza Street. The woman also suggested we visited the local museum and gallery called „Stara Plebania” (Old Presbytery).
After a new presbytery was built, the old one was given to the parishioners. Initiated by the local activists and with the help from the Municipal Council authorities, the building was renovated and in November 1996 the museum held its first exhibition Traditional fabrics from the region of Puńsk and Seinai. Now, you can see there old Lithuanian musical instruments, Lithuanian weaving decorations called ‘krajka’, linen products, exhibition of painted Easter eggs etc. Our guide turned out to be one of the originators and founders of the museum.
Because I was the only one in our group who spoke Lithuanian, I asked the guide to speak in Polish, which wasn’t a problem for her at all. She started off by highlighting the fact that 80 per cent of the population of the town were Lithuanians who speak Polish fluently. ‘About 1.2 thousand Lithuanians live in Puńsk and about 3 thousand in the whole rural district’ — said our guide.
All place names in Puńsk are displayed in both languages but, as our guide stressed, the Lithuanian people don’t attach great importance to this fact. ‘We don’t demand, like you do, that all the street names be in Polish and Lithuanian. The Polish language is essential to us and we are aware of that. We have always spoken it. Polish is the language all the school subjects are taught in. The secondary school-leaving exam is also taken in Polish and Lithuanian students achieve better results than the Polish ones’ – she emphasised. Our Lithuanian guide also told us about occasional events organised by the museum, such as the Annual Easter Eggs Exhibition or Krajka Weaving Workshops.
„Pogranicze” Centre in Seinai
We finished off our trip to Puńsk by having dinner in a local restaurant. As I was browsing through the menu, I learned that czenaki is the traditional Lithuanian dish (?). Whereas, the cepeliny that I ordered, which are called kartacze in this region, differ from their counterparts in Lithuania only by the shape. Guess what was missing from the menu! It was Lithuanian beer, of course!
On our way back, we passed another bilingual place name before we reached Seinai.
What impressed me most in Seinai was the old town and the White Synagogue. The town is rather small but, contrary to Puńsk, it’s teaming with life. Its bustling character has much to do with the ‘Pogranicze’ Centre, which holds all kinds of cultural events all throughout the summer. As we went sightseeing in Seinai, we observed the preparations for a pianoforte concert in the synagogue and another one in the Jazz Co-operative next door.
A group of youngsters gathered near the Co-op. We walked down the main street of Seinai and reached the Basilica of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is a parish church, a sanctuary and a collegiate all in one. Interestingly, not far off from the Basilica, there is a statue of Antanas Baranauskas, who became the bishop of Seinai in 1897. It’s worth mentioning the fact that a lot of information and advertising signs in Seinai are bilingual, just like in Puńsk.
I expected things to be different in Puńsk. I was in for old architectural monuments, but I was sadly disappointed. The only advantage is the tidiness and order in the town. In comparison to Warsaw advertising landscape, the careful use of billboards and advertising banners in Seinai was like a breath of fresh air to me. It might be down to the weather or the holiday season, but the town seemed a little deserted. It was only at times that we spotted cars with Lithuanian license plates passing by.
After my short trip to the Lithuanian enclave, I have a few thoughts to share. I find the whole comparison of the Polish minority in Lithuania to the Lithuanian minority in Poland a bit inadequate. There are as many as a thousand Lithuanians in Puńsk out of its 1200 inhabitants and the whole rural district (including Puńsk) counts as many as 3247 Lithuanians.
The percentage of Lithuanians living in Poland is 0,0084 of the whole population, compared with 6,6 per cent of Poles in Lithuania. In the Šalčininkai district municipality in Lithuania, which is a kind of counterpart of Puńsk district, Poles constitute 80 per cent of the population.
As for speaking Lithuanian, I thoroughly agree with my guide from Puńsk – we should speak the language today. But, did people of the past generation really have to speak it, too? My late grandfather, who lived till he was well over 80 years old, did not know the Lithuanian language. He was fluent in Polish and communicative in Russian. Arranging all the formalities at municipal offices he always spoke in Polish (he lived in the Vilnius city municipality whose population is 60% Polish and in the 90s it was 90% Polish). Worth remembering is also the fact that before Lithuania became independent, Lithuanians communicated with Poles in Polish (they shared by the so-called minority feelings). The Lithuanians inhabiting Gmina Puńsk (administrative rural district), which is not the same as a municipality, are and were in a different position. A municipality in Lithuania is the same as voivodeship or province in Poland. Puńsk is in Podlaskie Voivodeship and Lithuanians constitute 0.27% of its population. The numbers speak volumes and conclusions spring into mind.
Most Lithuanians accuse the Poles living in Lithuania of speaking with a ‘Polish’ or ‘Belarusian accent’. But has any of those disgruntled heard the way the Lithuanians in Puńsk speak? Certainly not. Language is a living and constantly evolving organism. It is only natural that the Lithuanians in Poland speak in Lithuanian which is full Polish influences. And the same applies to the Polish dwellers of Lithuania – their language bears traces of Russian and Lithuanian.
The guide from ‘Stara Plebania’ Museum in Puńsk ended up her story about the town by saying: ‘For me what matters is the human being, the nationality is not significant’. I agree with her totally! History is unpredictable and often whimsical toward the insignificant man. Let’s just learn to respect one another.
Tłumaczenie Katarzyna Różańska w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Katarzyna Różańska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.