• September 3, 2014
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Jarosław Jot-Drużycki: Poles living in Zaolzie identify themselves better with Czechs

“Cieszyn Silesia last time belonged to the territory of Poland during the reign of Bolesław III Wrymouth. It is amazing that people living here remain Polish over 700 years” – said Polish ethnographer and newspaper columnist Jarosław Jot-Drużycki who wrote a book titled “Hospicjum Zaolzie” devoted to Poles living in the Czech Republic.

You have written a book about Poles living in Zaolzie. Poles in the Ukraine, Belarus or Lithuania are a more frequently discussed topic than Poles in the Czech Republic.  What are the main differences between them?

Poles living in Zaolzie, the western part of Cieszyn Silesia, are a specific group which has not much in common with Poland. Cieszyn Silesia belonged to the territory of Poland during the reign of Bolesław III Wrymouth. In 1918 National Council of the Duchy of Cieszyn was established. According to the agreement signed with its Czech counterpart the territory of the Duchy densely inhabited by Poles would belong to the future Polish state. Then Cieszyn Silesia was a part of the Czechoslovakia. In 1938 for a year the region belonged to Poland. It is amazing that after 700 years when people living here having not much in common with Poland and without the culture-historical background – Ladislaus I of Poland, Casimir III the Great, Władysław II Jagiełło, Battle of Grunwald, Polish-Lithuanian union, elected kings, partitions and uprisings – managed to remain Polish. What are the differences? First of all – mentality. These differences are visible in Poland itself when you go across Podlasie, Silesia, Greater Poland, Mazovia or Kielce region.

What are the basic problems of the Polish national minority in the Czech Republic? What is their legal status?

Their situation is much better than the situation of Poles living in Lithuania or Belarus. Of course, everybody complains, also Poles in Zaolzie – that they cannot use bilingual plates. They have a problem with the fact that according to the Beneš decrees issued in 1945 the Czechoslovakian government took the post-German property which meant taking also the property of Polish organizations and companies. The Polish possessions were taken away by Germans in 1939 and after the war they were considered as post-German. That is why Poles have such problems with return or restitution of the lost property.

You said that the situation here is better than in Lithuania. Why?

According to the Czech legislation if people belonging to a national minority constitute 10 percent of inhabitants of a given municipality, the language of the national minority can be used officially if a representative of the national minority apply for it. Street name plates in Czech and Polish can appear. Polish could be used in official documents submitted to the authorities. If there is a station, the Czech and the Polish names are given; there are Polish equivalents even on the tickets. In the Soviet times names and surnames were written in Czech. It means that if somebody’s name was Józef, it was written Josef. Since 1989 there is a possibility to restore the old name. Just address the appropriate authority and your name will be changed to its original form.

How many people have used this possibility?

I do not know the precise statistics, but surely not all entitled. I believe that people living here do not think that a name change is necessary. My name is Józef, although my identity card states that it is Josef. I know that when I die my family will write “Józef” on my grave; everybody call me Józef. It is more or less the same attitude as in Lithuania.

The Polish national minority has been assimilated, although there are some rights favourable for them. What seems to be the reason?

I am not entitled to say that the Czech culture is more attractive than Polish. Some Poles living here identify themselves better with Czechs, the Czech Republic or Czech culture, because it is seen as more reliable. Here are better roads, better social security, better employment possibilities and better pension. Poland is for them a state with high unemployment rate and bad roads. When you are unemployed in Poland you will have difficulties finding new job or obtaining decent financial aid. Retiring I will become a pauper.  In 1920s a plebiscite was to take place, but it has never happened. There was a lot of propaganda campaigns. Czechs were saying: “Poland offers you nothing, but poverty”.

What are the feeling of Poles living in Zaolzie towards the Czechs and the Czech government? Do they feel they are Polish patriots?

Currently, about 30 thousand people in Zaolzie declare Polish nationality. Vast majority of its inhabitants are of Czech descent, but there is a substantial group of Polish citizens. Although they have been born in the Czech Republic, never lived in Poland and never worked in Poland, they have Polish passports and cast their votes at the consulate in Ostrava. When it comes to their relations with Czechs, it depends on individual people. From my observations, I can say that if a Czech is your neighbour and you are on the same wavelength, you can invite him, for example, to a pub for a beer.

What about the historical problems? Poland and Lithuania differently judge some historical events like Żeligowski’s Munity or Home Army operations. What are feeling of Czechs towards Polish seizure of Zaolzie?

Relations between Poland and Lithuania are much longer and richer. We have only few historical incidents with the Czech Republic. Maybe I have offended some people by calling them “incidents”. In 1919 Czech troops seized the territory which was to be joined to the territory of Poland. In 1920s they tried to make Czechs out of Poles. In 1938 Poland seized the territory densely inhabited by Poles.

What do Poles think about these events? Is it something positive for them?

A man I know has told me that his mother was a little girl in 1938 and when Marshal Rydz-Śmigły arrived to Bystřice (village in the Silesian Beskids on the Czech side of the border) he was greeted with flowers. In her family they have believed that it was historical justice. Others do not recall these events very well, because they have believed that when the territory will be joined to Poland, the locals will regain power in the region. Unfortunately for them, new authorities came from Katowice, Warsaw or Kielce.  It is true that Czech organizations were dissolved and Czechs (especially those who came here after 1920) were displaced, but the Polish Sanation government started dissolving also Polish organizations. I have a proof for that in my private collection. It is a chronicle kept in the Protestant church in Karviná. The entries in the chronicle date back to the beginning of the 20th century. There is an official document issued by the then Voivode of the Silesian Voivodeship stating that the Protestants Association in Karviná is to be dissolved. It turned out that Poland was not the beloved mother, but rather a stepmother. It is sad.

One more question. What language do Poles in Zaolzie use?

“Our” or as you call it “Silesian”. The young generation is becoming more and more Czech and the language they use rather resembles Polish-Czech Volapük.

Translated by Maciej Jóźwiak within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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