• November 17, 2020
  • 538

Nationality in the Hands of Politics: Lithuanian-Polish About Names Adapted to Lithuanian Language, Relationship With Poland and a Vanishing Community

The questions of national minorities in Lithuania are pushed aside or, after conflicting the society, remain unresolved. The biggest national minority in Lithuania are the Lithuanian-Polish. According to Lithuanian Department of Statistics, their population is 162 344.

Mariusz, Agnieszka, Katarzyna are some of them. However, the words “Lithuanian-Polish” do not define them. Mariusz is a lecturer at the Vilnius University, Agnieszka works at National Minorities field – helps Romani people integrate into society, Katarzyna is a sound director. Their stories help to better understand the nuances of national identity in Lithuania.

Through personal experiences, LRT.lt portal article cycle “Our Earth” aims to reveal the different cultural identities in Lithuania and the problems they encounter. 

Mariusz: if a Polish text appears next to Lithuanian, it doesn’t mean there are less texts in Lithuanian

“I found myself entering schizophrenia – I am a different person here and there. Then I realized that it is not a good thing. At that time, I could not put a finger on it but now I understand that I discovered such a thing as human integrity. That you want to be the same person everywhere, but then it clearly turns into a name” – Mariusz tells LRT.lt portal. Culturally Mariusz assigns himself to Polish, politically – to Lithuanians, but he finds local identity the most important: “I grew up in Vilnius, I’m 100% Vilnian.”

Mariusz, who graduated from a Lithuanian school revealed, that he had to adjust his name to the Lithuanian environment from the very beginning of starting school. “I used to adjust my name and last name. People used to call me Marius, when I switched schools in 9th grade, the teacher read my name as “Marijušas”, from then on everyone called me Marijušas”, – he says.

At that time, I could not put a finger on it but now I understand that I discovered such a thing as human integrity. That you want to be the same person everywhere, but then it clearly turns into a name.

Everyone in Mariusz’ family only spoke Polish, however, he has been always surrounded by multicultural environment – he had friends who were Russian, Jew, Lithuanian.

“Everyone at home strictly only spoke Polish. When I was a child, I had Polish friends, although with time there were less of them. But then again, that I could feel that multiculturality anyway. At home you speak in one way, at school – in a different way. On the other hand, a friend of mine at school was half-Jewish, another one – Russian. When I played football, we mostly spoke Russian. At family events and church – Polish”, – he says.

Mariusz says, that, growing up, he felt a strong need for culture and science, but there was a lack of Polish cultural life in Lithuania at that time, therefore, he did not feel like himself.

“I was really into rock music and I genuinely wanted to listen to Polish rock music but there was no “YouTube” or “Spotify” at that time. There was no one in my environment who would have CDs or cassettes or could consult me. That wish remained a wish”, – he remembers. Although right now any information is available at a push of button, according to Mariusz, the fact that the Polish culture in Lithuania is provincial can still be felt. 

This is a zero-sum game – people think that if you yield, you are stepping away. If there is more Polish language, there will be less of Lithuanian.

What it looks like, Mariusz found out when he went to Krakow during his university years.

“It was the commemoration of Battle of Grunwald, 600 years had passed. For the first time over there I could feel the higher Polish culture, as it was an event for students, there were many professors too. It really impressed me. I am Lithuanian-Polish and I felt that in some areas the Polish culture is really high, in some areas there are knowledge and achievements that are not present in Lithuania, and I wanted to identify with that”, – Mariusz remembers. Mariusz graduated with a diploma in Economics, Politics, and International relations, he is a professor at Vilnius university and is writing his dissertation on Polish and Russian relationship. He is one of the founders of Polish discussion club, that aims to create a dialogue between Lithuanian-Polish and Lithuanians. Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance (EAPL–CFA), who are closely related to Lithuanian-Polish, are criticized here too. Mariusz highly criticizes the party too.

“There are not many national minorities in Europe who are blessed with such political influence. And yet having that influence not being able to resolve a single problem… A question arises, what is the point of such influence. (…) You were elected to solve a problem, and yet you focus your entire energy on saving Rozova and Narkevicius”, – M. Antonovičius speaks about the political party.

He explains the phenomenon of Valdemar Tomaševski, who from the year of 1999 is the chairman of this party, as the principal of the most average voter.

There’s a book called “The Encyclopedia of Stupidity”, which states that it would be perfect for democracy if the most average voter choosing and proclaimed king. In a sense that happened to the Polish community. Regardless, in a sociocultural sense, V. Tomaševski is like his voters – think alike, his views are very similar, it should also be noted, although it now is slowly changing, but Lithuanian-Polish community was the most uneducated and pretty poor after the Soviet period, this was also affected by the unfair reform of the land, which kept this status too. According to “The Encyclopedia of Stupidity” in a sense he is a great reflection of the average voter”, – Mariusz debates.

“This is a zero-sum game – people think that if you yield, you are stepping away. If there is more Polish language, there will be less of Lithuanian. If more text appears in Polish next to Lithuanian, it does not mean that there is less text in Lithuanian”, – Mariusz says.

When asked about National Minorities’ relationship with Lithuania and the government of Lithuania, Mariusz is certain, that multiculturality is beneficial to the state.

“In the 21st century there is more creativity, innovations and they emerge when different cultures collide and work together. The need to unify, that was inherited from the 20th century, has negative consequences: it is not only national minorities that are negatively affected but it also has negative outcomes to the development of the state. (…) Multiculturality, the ability for different cultures to coexist is what leads the development of cities and the state”, – Mariusz believes.

Agnieszka: is my mother tongue a dog language?

“I have both – Lithuanian and Polish identities in me. There’s a 100% of one and a 100% of the other”, – Agnieszka emphasizes. National identity to her is dynamic, constantly shifting and can be learnt. 

Personal values define nationality for Agnieszka, therefore, she criticizes the popularized understanding that the language one speaks defines their national identity.

In her childhood, Agnieszka was surrounded by Polish culture – her family spoke Polish, she went to a Polish school. She learnt Lithuanian by watching cartoons with her brother. She also experienced the collision of the two languages – she says she cannot forget an incident on a bus.

“I was 11-12 years old, I was on a bus with my friend and we spoke Polish. We were having fun, laughing when suddenly an elder lady turned to us and said angrily: “Will you stop speaking this dog language of yours?!” and then you realize – is my mother tongue dog language?”, – she remembers.

After graduation, Agnieszka seized the opportunity to go study in Poland. There she encountered a different attitude – a specification “from Lithuania” appeared next to her name.

“When I got there, I thought I was Polish, truly Polish, yet, over there I became a Polish from Lithuania. At first, I was truly saddened by “Agnieszka from Lithuania”. Because for years, you grow, think that you are normal, then you go there and suddenly people ask: “How did you learn Polish?” I say: “I am Polish, I have graduated from a Polish school.” “Ooh, they have such school over there”, – she remembers. – Then you realize that maybe the center itself does not know how peripheries look like, or how the life of national minorities in foreign countries look like.”

Nationality is not inherited. We were born, grew up and our social and cultural field raised us so, that we feel a certain way. We know the one anthem or another, we speak one language or another, but that can change.

After five years spent in Poland, Agnieszka came back to Lithuania, and remembers that it really was not easy. It was not the slightly worsened Lithuanian language ability but the social environment. It took a lot of effort to restore her friend circle and to get back into social life. However, she points out, that this experience helped her to know and understand the nationality question better.

“Nationality is not inherited. We were born, grew up and our social and cultural field raised us so, that we feel a certain way. We know the one anthem or another, we speak one language or another, but that can change. And we need to realize, that, if we were to be born in another country, we would be completely different.”, – Agnieszka explains.

Therefore, when looking for an answer to her national identity, Agnieszka decided to take her origin and experience not as a negative but rather a positive thing – as an opportunity to judge what seems wrong more objectively.

“When you are excluded or watch everything from aside, it allows you to take a really good position of an observer. You can really critically watch both – Poland and Lithuania, without attaching yourself to one national identity and to see pros and cons in the two different sides”, – Agnieszka says.

The opportunity and the ability to critically evaluate is particularly important to Agnieszka. In her opinion, critical thinking should be taught more in schools, because one, who sees flaws of the state, is able to analyze them, is a good citizen. However, according to her, there is a lack of active citizens in Lithuania, there also is not much trust in one another.

“Often times, if you critique the state, people can tell you that “you are not patriotic”, but if you wish there to be transparency, no corruption, the respect of human rights, there to be proper social security and if you see that there is a lack of something, I think it is a feature of a very good and healthy citizen, to see everything and to wish your country a better life.

Not to try uphold some “Lithuania for Lithuanians” or “Poland for Polish”, but to wish for a country to be pleasant to live in, such system, where there is mutual solidarity, trust, which both – institutions and us still lack”, – Agnieszka points out.

Agnieszka words at national minorities field – she is an educator at a day center “help to adjust”, that works with Romani children. She says her wish to help minorities arose from her personal experience.

“Perhaps I developed social sensitivity and empathy for differences, that huge empathy to involve others and help everyone. Somewhere deep inside I have always known I am a minority. Thus, I do not care for minorities, what’s the point of minorities, – I always want to fight for their rights, support and help, particularly to sympathize and help foreigners”, – she says.

When speaking about the opposition of national groups, Agnieszka considers that it may be handy for political powers. This way, according to her, a feeling of trust and loyalty is being created, that helps political parties to attract voters. However, communities should understand, when an opposition narrative is being created and be more open to the integration of minorities.

When you know someone personally, you are not talking to a Polish, you are talking to a person.

“I think, integration will never be possible, if both sides will not truly want it and will not consistently try to integrate. Because you cannot say that minorities are not interested in integration. If we asked the majority, which is the host society, are we all that open ourselves and really accept that foreigner, sympathize and understand the problems that arise?”, – she asks.

Regardless, work and personal experiences assured her, that in the mutual relationships of people it is not the nationality that defines one: “Through contact and communication, nationality, identity is in the third or fourth level, the main thing is the friendship. When you know someone personally, you are not talking to a Polish, you are talking to a person.”

Katarzyna: not a single Polish will call me Kata

Katarzyna defines herself as Polish-speaking Lithuanian or Lithuanian-Polish. National identity is one of her main components “I consciously do not let it go.”

Katarzyna’s mom always spoke Polish to her, more precisely – local Polish. Her grandparents were religious, cherished Polish culture, therefore, her mom wanted to pass it on onto her only child. Besides, it was convenient to take Katarzyna to a nearby Polish school. According to her, the wish to maintain her national identity was strengthened by the changing political situation – fighting for independence, the restoration of independent Lithuania. National minorities were left separated, left to fight for themselves.

“As far as my mom and I spoke, everyone fought for independence, everyone wanted an independent Lithuania, everyone felt: “It’s our land, we are a part of it, we fought, we all cared.” After the restoration of independence, perhaps due to nationalistic shift, her friends also felt – as far as I heard from her circle, and they are not only Polish, but Russian, Jewish – the division: there are we, there are you. Now it is Lithuania, Lithuania is more for Lithuanians. Many were disappointed and still hold onto their hurt”, – Katarzyna says.

In her opinion, the disregard of national minorities is felt when talking about simple things, such as providing relevant public information in minority languages.

“In public spaces and social media, many announcements are firstly translated into English, although the target group is one percent of tourists. It is never translated into Polish because it is accepted that Polish must speak Russian. Therefore, firstly, the information is translated to English, although many elderly people do not even speak English. But it is a lot more important to attract tourists and immigrants, that is way more important. But it is not that difficult to translate to a language that a large part of your city speaks”, – Katarzyna critically views the priorities of Vilnius municipality.

Katarzyna does not remember how she learnt Lithuanian, the language just appeared in her life. Lithuanian environment was also in her life – she attended a Lithuanian music school. Then her name question arose.

That name becomes politicized and complicated, maybe that is why I cut it right in the middle – Kata. Everyone knows these letters, okay? Let’s go.

“I remember, one music teacher asked me how to write my name, because in Polish it is written with “r”, “z” and “y”. This is not allowed in Lithuanian – you cannot write a double consonant in your passport, people will not be able to pronounce it, will get confused and the whole state will collapse, – Katarzyna smiles. – That is why it is written with “ž” and nobody knows, what “i”. And then I am asked: “why didn’t your mom write your name with “y”, it is Polish, right?” And I do not know. That name becomes politicized and complicated, maybe that is why I cut it right in the middle – Kata. Everyone knows these letters, okay? Let’s go.”

“I introduce myself as Kata to Lithuanians, and my mom doesn’t like it, not a single Polish will call me that, because they can pronounce my Polish name. But that started in my childhood and I find it convenient. It is like duality, but it isn’t bad”, – Katarzyna says.

Lithuanians also helped her to understand and accept this duality, although, she adds, the nuances of national identity are not accepted by everyone.

“Lithuanians helped me discover: “Wait, so you live here, so you kind of are Lithuanian, why do you think you aren’t?” and then you answer “Uhm, because it isn’t allowed?” – she laughs. – You kind of do not fit the Lithuanian standards – the language, ethnicity. And it personally helped me, as a Lithuanian said, there are different Lithuanians – there are Polish speaking Lithuanians, Russian speaking Lithuanians. “Oh, so you accept me, and all of us to your community?” But then others say: “No, no, no, something is odd, you encountered odd Lithuanians.” 

And it personally helped me, when a Lithuanian said, there are different Lithuanians – there are Polish speaking Lithuanians, Russian speaking Lithuanians.”

Katarzyna works at Martynas Mažvydas National Library and as a sound producer and various projects, she also actively seeks to share the problems and question of the Polish community. She sees a huge danger to Lithuanian-Polish community. In her opinion, due to Russification and Lithuanianization, an extinction of Polish community can already be seen. And, although, according to her, is a natural process, until it happens, there is a need to improve the situation of national minorities.

“We will not go extinct for maybe another 100 years. And, until we do, it would be amazing if education was improved. If the levels of education were equalize and Lithuanians could attend Polish schools and get the same education, if it were more convenient for you to bring your child to a Polish school because its proximity to your home, and a child’s grades would not be affected by it. It would be great, if I could choose Polish language a subject at Lithuanian school, if the national minorities’ topic was covered during history classes. If letter, that foreigners could write in Lithuania were legitimized, but those letters could not be written by Lithuanian citizens, although for Polish nationals with Lithuanian letters – because there is no “v” in Polish – could. That is very important and I will fight for it, sign for it, go raise flags – whatever I need to do, because it is really important to me”, – Katarzyna points out.


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

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