Kashubia: One needs two lungs to breathe
Kashubians have always lived in the seaside region of Pomerania. This land has been both under German and Polish influence, but Kashubians have managed to retain their unique culture.
A big yellow sign at the main road leading to the city informs the visitors that they are approaching Kartuzy, the capital of the Kashubia region. The sign is written in the Kashubian language. This is the only hint pointing to the city’s unique identity. Kartuzy is a middle-sized, ordinary town of western Poland, with some remnants of German heritage. Grey, rough, communist buildings intermingle here with the landmarks of early capitalism: banks, small private shops, and pharmacies.
The everyday life still concentrates around the bus station and a surrounding market with sellers offering fresh fish, handmade baffies and even tulip varieties named after famous Polish politicians. There is hardly any sign of the Kashubian heritage. If people in the street speak the Kashubian language, which is rare, they lower their voices down and switch to Polish as soon as they notice somebody listening. There is a peculiar sense of a mystery and understatement in the grey streets of this foggy town.
“Yes, Kashubians are very careful and distrustful. But you must understand that it stems from a very difficult history. In order to preserve their identity Kashubians had to bound closely with their fellows and keep the distance from the others,” Tomasz Słomczyński, editor-in-chief of Magazyn Kaszuby knows how outsiders feel. He moved to the region 15 years ago.
Kashubians are the indigenous population of Pomerania, a seaside region of Poland, which over the years has been subject to constantly shifting state borders. For many years Kashubians remained under the German influence, but in the beginning of the 20th century, the process of Germanisation became particularly strong and painful.
After the First World War, in order to protect Kashubians from harassment and losing their identity, Antoni Abraham, a Kashubian social activist, made his way to Versailles to convince the negotiators to incorporate his homeland into Poland. He succeeded, but the move did not bring peace to the region. Kashubia was better developed than the rest of the country. Thanks to the Prussian influence, houses were equipped with toilets, the standard of living was higher and culture more developed.
Polish soldiers who arrived in the area did not understand the Kashubian reality, which sparked misunderstandings and conflicts between Poles and Kashubians. Proud locals called the incoming soldiers “barefoot Antek” – a contemptuous way to describe an outsider who is uneducated, uncultured and ill-mannered.
The Second World War was undoubtedly one of the most painful periods in Kashubia’s history. The land was immediately incorporated into the Third Reich. During the “bloody autumn” in 1939, 40,000 people were murdered. Nazi soldiers particularly targeted those who could protest and express rebellious views: the representatives of the intelligentsia and well-educated people including teachers, doctors and activists. Residents were forced to sign the Volksdeutsch list – a declaration of German roots. In practice, such an act was interpreted as willingness to collaborate with the Nazis. Young men were forcibly incorporated into the Wehrmacht, the Nazi armed forces, and had to fight on the side of the enemy.
Old residents of Kashubia remember photographs showing young men standing on the railway station in Wehrmacht uniforms being greeted goodbye by crying parents, sisters, lovers and singing out loud the “Rota” – a Polish patriotic song. Those who did not want to join the Germans were persecuted, deported to concentration camps or murdered.
After the Second World War the region was immediately conquered by the Red Army. Those who had agreed to sign the German list six years earlier in order to protect themselves were now treated as double traitors and German spies. Those who miraculously managed to survive the war without any dealings with the Germans were still treated as a suspicious element. The Kashubian culture and distinctness were perceived as a potential danger and fuel for separatist tendencies. All manifestations of the Kashubian culture were banned.
“When I was in primary school one teacher in my class always rebuked me for using Kashubian words in my essays. For a long time I did not even realise that, it was a language I knew from my early years, I did not distinguish between Polish and Kashubians words,” says Róman Drzéżdżón, a Kashubian writer and activist. “Once, I remember, she gave me a reprimand in front of the whole class: ‘Roman, didn’t I tell you not to use Kashubians words in the class?’, ‘Jo (Kashubian ‘yes’), I’m sorry’,” Roman recalls.
He was raised in the communist times in a traditional Kashubian family. He remembers his grandparents speaking between themselves a distinct, unrecognisable language, but he never asked them about it. The new, communist power kept a close watch on the Kashubians. They spoke a different language, were religious, and posed a threat to the idea of a homogenous, secular country. Speaking Kashubian was viewed as a shame and a sign of backwardness.
Roman, as a little boy who was raised in the region, could not even distinguish between Polish and Kashubians words. A Polish-Kashubian mix was his natural language. It was only a few years later that in school Roman found a book entirely written in Kashubian by Jan Drzeżdżon. Curiosity led him to discover his roots, the Kashubian language and by that, the culture and his ancestors’ history which at the time was overlooked in the official narrative of the People’s Republic of Poland.
The communist era elapsed some time ago, democracy brought freedom and more tolerance to the minorities in Poland, but the old wounds are still bleeding. In Kartuzy it is hard to get any honest answers to the difficult questions about the past and a vision for the future.
The most difficult subject seems to concern the German legacy in Kashubia. Locals would bend over backward to give an evasive, politically correct answer. Residents deny the German influences in the Kashubian language and they do not want to talk about the events of the Second World War in Pomerania.
“Because you, Kashubians, are German” – this phrase Róman Drzéżdżón hears all too often. He laughs at it, but he can understand why people feel suspicious. Such prejudices have followed them since the communist times. The propaganda claimed that Kashubians need to be carefully watched, because they want to merge with Germany. Despite years of trying to prove Kashubia’s connection to Poland, the past prejudices are a recurrent theme.
They also affected the President of the European Parliament, Donald Tusk, whose grandfather’s connection with the Wehrmacht was the main topic in the Polish media during the presidential elections in 2005 and the main argument used against him. At the time not many people made an effort to take into consideration the harsh realities of life of Kashubians during and after the Second World War and the reasons why they were cooperating with the Germans.
Thus Kashubians learnt to omit this period of their past in the public discussion. “I don’t want to think in this way, because I’m a patriot, but we could imagine that, objectively, the Kashubian path would be much easier if they had chosen Germany over Poland,” says Tomasz Słomczyński.
But the Kashubians chose Poland. And despite many troubles over the years stemming from this choice, they still remain faithful to the country. In 2011, the Kashubians gained the opportunity to officially mark their national identity during the census and thus declare a dual nationality. 232,000 people claimed the Kashubian identity. Out of this number 17,000, which is 7,6 per cent declared it as the only nationality.
Słomczyński believes that people who declare Kashubian nationality only and deny their Polishness, expose the entire minority to mistrust and exclusion from the rest of Poland. “Kashubian patriotism is a bit different but it exists. For the vast majority, the Polish identification is indisputable. You need two lungs to breathe. There is no Kashubia without Poland and no Poland without Kashubia,” he says.
Kashubian activists stress the difference between nationality and citizenship. As defined by the Central Statistics Office nationality is “a declarative (based on a subjective feeling) individual characteristic of each person, expressing his or her emotional, cultural or parental relationship with a specific nation or ethnic community.” Citizenship, on the other hand, means “the legal bond between a person and the State. It does not indicate the ethnic origin of a person and is independent from his or her nationality.”
Róman Drzéżdżón calls himself a nationalist. The Kashubian identity that he discovered in himself as a little boy and nurtured throughout his life is natural for him. Today he is politically and socially active. He tries to introduce the Kashubian culture to others and to extend the rights and freedoms of Kashubians to live according to their own principles.
He believes that ethnic minorities’ freedom should not be restricted by any kind of external control, like courts and governments. He is afraid that the centralising trend in state policy seeks to eliminate all differences in society, which may result in the decline of diversity and minority cultures, including the Kashubian one. However, even despite his strong stance, Roman does not deny the Polish part of his identity. “My nationality is Kashubian, but I’m a citizen of Poland. I vote in the elections, I support Polish sportsmen, and I speak the Polish language,” he says.
Misunderstandings and mutual distrust will most likely remain an issue on the streets of the tiny Pomeranian towns. The past is the inhabitants’ ball and chain. It influences everyday decisions, the development of the region and causes divisions. According to Tomasz Słomczyński, change can come with the new generation: people who grew up in free Poland, for whom the Kashubian identity is not only folk ceramics and an incomprehensible, inaccessible language their grandparents shamefully whispered among themselves.
“The greater a problem the Kashubians have with Polishness, the more silent they are. The more they feel at home, and this is the case with the new generation, the louder they speak about all the difficult things,” he says.
Agnieszka Zielonka is a Polish photographer, journalist and psychologist, who graduated in psychology from Jagiellonian University, Kraków. She currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia, and works there as a freelance photojournalist. She is cooperating mainly with Georgian media outlets and Polish non-govermental organisations and reporting from the South Caucasus region. She focuses on topics related to social justice, minorities, disputed areas and is passionate about people stories.
This article is part of the Solidarity Academy – Borderlands 2018, an international project supported by a grant from the International Visegrad Fund.