It is hard to be a Pole in Lithuania

Znad Wilii

On 21 April I was finishing reading a book “Moja Wileńszczyzna i moje Kresy” (in the past, “Wileńszczyzna” (the Vilnius Region) and “Kresy” (Borderlands) were a part of Poland) written by Krzysztof Jeremi Sidorkiewicz, when in Polish electronic media disturbing and shocking news was announced at noon. In Soleczniki in Lithuania someone has scrawled an insulting graffiti on a wall saying “Poles – get out of Lithuania” I was going to write a review of this book before I heard the news but after learning about the graffiti in Soleczniki I can recommend the book straightaway. It explains the reasons for such a behaviour and describes moral and political atmosphere in which offensive for Poles graffiti can and probably will appear on walls in Lithuanian cities.

The book contains Sidorkiewicz’s sketches, small reportage and columns written by him in newspapers such as “Ilustrowany Kurier Polski”, “Promocje Pomorskie”, “Gazeta Polskia” and, most importantly, in „Kurier Wileński” between 1993 – 2013.

He knows the subject very well and writes in a great conversational style. Sidorkiewicz talks about the Vilnius Region and Borderlands from both present and past perspective. According to the author, the Vilnius Region is a place of rivalry between Lithuanians, Poles, Belarussians, Russians and, to some extent, Jews. From time to time, those nations manage to coexist peacefully but more often than not, they feud and quarrel with each other. Sometimes, even felonies are committed.

Lithuanians bear a grudge against Poles. According to them, during the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, Polish people imposed their will and vision of development, which was not beneficial for Lithuania. The Polish-Lithuanian Union enhanced wealth for Poles and induced exploitation of the Lithuanian nation. Such a perspective is offered by many influential Lithuanian groups to this day.

And what happened later? Lithuania became a place where severe persecution of Poles took place right after the January Uprising in Poland. The Polish language was banned on the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Sidorkiewicz writes: “On the entrance door of most of the offices, institutions, hotels, inns and cafés there were plaques with provocative inscriptions “Polakom i sobakomwchod zapreszczon (No Poles and dogs allowed)”. At the same time, Lithuanian education and culture was supported in the Russian Partition of Poland. By successfully implementing the “divide and rule” policy, Russians induced antagonism between Polish people and Lithuanians.

Of course, there were numerous causes for animosity and resentment. Just before the January Uprising, Lithuanians perceived Poles as those who were richer and as the stronger party in Polish-Lithuanian relations. A Pole was “a master” and a Lithuanian was “a farmhand”. Such an understanding of the relationship between the two nations, needless to say, resulted in animosity and hatred.

During the maelstrom of 1918–1920 when general Żelichowski led to the annexation of Vilnius by Poles, Lithuanians felt betrayed and stripped of a city, which was important to them. During the interwar period, an extensive depolinization and lithuanization policy was implemented on the territories which still belonged to Lithuania. Polish schools and cultural institutions were abolished and Poles were forced to use Lithuanian spelling and pronunciation of their surnames. Sidorkiewicz notes that “the new Act on citizenship rendered four-fifths of the pre-war society of Vilnius foreigners. As it could be expected, negative consequences followed. According to the Lithuanian legislation, only citizens could be doctors or lawyers. Moreover, foreigners could not establish any enterprise connected with trade or industry.

During WWII, there were secret decisions made by Soviets and Germans concerning Lithuania and Lithuanians. Germany and Russia did not annexed the whole territory of Lithuania. They left the Vilnius Region and Vilnius for Lithuanians. One may wonder why they did it and why Germany and Russia did not divide that small country between them, as they did with Poland, which was bigger than Lithuania. In the book, Sidorkiewicz offers his fascinating thoughts on the subject. In order to find answers, he goes back to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact and the life of Sergiusz Piasecki who was a soldier in the Home Army and a writer. I am not going to discuss the details but I recommend the book to history enthusiasts.

It is beyond doubt, however, that Polish people and Jews were brutally persecuted on the Lithuanian territory left by Germany to Lithuania as well as on the Lithuanian territory under Nazi occupation. Zygmunt Szendzielarz , also known as “Łupaszka”, was a leader of Polish guerrilla forces, which were strong in those areas.
There is no doubt that the war did not encourage reconciliation between Poles and Lithuanians. Under Russian occupation there were deportations and on the territories controlled by Germany, Lithuanians collaborated with Nazis. As a consequence, there were mass deportations of Poles after the war.

What are the Polish-Lithuanian relations nowadays?
Sidorkiewicz states that, even though Poland and Lithuania are members of the European Union, the anti-Polish sentiment is still present among Lithuanians and more and more visible. Nowadays, the issue of alphabet and names has become a flashpoint of conflict between Poles living in Lithuania and Lithuanians. Lithuanian authorities try to eradicate Polish names of cities and streets. They also implement acts and regulations which ban Polish pronunciation of Polish names. Anti-Polish associations and foundations are currently very active in Lithuania. For example, the association “Vilnija”. It demands fierce and brutal lithuanization of Lithuania. Furthermore, that association wants to deprive national minorities of their rights, including Polish and Russian ones. Calling into question the right of Russian minority seems to be imprudent and dangerous. Poles will not annex Vilnius with help of “little green men”. But with Russians it is not so certain…

When Valdemaras Valkiunas, Lithuanian MP, was confronted with the argument that Lithuanian names of places and pronunciation of Lithuanian surnames is allowed in Poland, he responded “If Polish authorities want to allow the Lithuanian spelling of surnames in Poland they can do so and we thank them for that. However, we have our “bible”, so to speak, and we do not want them to impose on us their “bible”
This way of understanding the principle of reciprocity in international relations is rather a peculiar one. The Internet users are also involved in this attacks on Poland and Polish culture and language. Sidorkiewicz has found a small Lithuanian rhyme. Translated into English it says:
“Poland has not yet perished
But is must
What cholera do not finish
A Lithuanian will”
And all of this takes place on the land, where culture and history of Poland and Lithuania intertwines. We have a lot in common, for example: Jagiełło and prince Witold, shared struggle with Germany and Russia, Ukraine, as a neighbour with its steppes mentality and culture, Mickiewicz, Śniadecki brothers, Piłsudski, quite recently Miłosz and a Lithuanian poet Venclowa.

The process of reconciliation is the task for the diplomacy of both countries for the years to come. Because extraordinary things has been happening in Lithuania. Poles discriminated against unite with the Russian minority and soon they will support the aggressive policy of the Kremlin regarding Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia.

Do you understand now, why there was graffiti on the wall in Soleczniki saying: „Poles – get out of Lithuania”?


Tłumaczenie by Barbara Żur w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, Translated by Barbara Żur within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights,

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