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The Kashubians

The Kashubians in Poland and the Pomors in Russia. They have different histories, ways of life and problems. However, there are many things uniting them. Primarily it is the sea. This is the first part in a series on the Kashubians and Pomors.

December 13, 2019 - Ekaterina Maximova Paulina Siegień - Stories and ideas

Baltic Sea coast. Photo: Ekaterina Maximova

The Baltic Sea is closer to the White Sea than it may seem at first sight. Take a closer look at the map. They are connected by the notorious White Sea – Baltic Sea Canal constructed by Gulag prisoners who worked day and night, dying from hunger and cold.

The two seas are not only connected by the canal. In fact, the Baltic Sea is the White Sea, at least for those people who are called Baltic. In Latvian and Lithuanian, the words baltas and balts mean “white”. 

If this is not enough, there is one more strange similarity. Both the Baltic and the White Sea have Pomorye and the Pomors. The first ones are in Poland and the others in Russia. They have different histories, ways of life and problems. However, there are many things uniting them. First and foremost, it is the sea.

Wiôldżé Mòrze

White foam of the waves is touching the sand beach in Yastarnya. The sand is white and tender. If it were not March, but say, July, I could take off the shoes and walk on it. But it is March and it is still cold. The storm is coming: the grey sky, clouds that seem to hang only a few inches above the head and piercing wind. It makes you want to run home and make a pot of hot sweet tea. Even better, a cup of cocoa.

The house windows in coastal villages and towns are lit. Families are waiting for the fishermen to come back from the sea. The port in Yastarnya is in the Gdansk bay, but the water there is as snappish as in the open sea. A monument at the local cemetery commemorates those who have not come back to the port.

‘For those who did not return from the sea’, plaque in Jastarnia. Photo: Ekaterina Maximova

This is usual weather at the coast of the Baltic Sea. Both in March and in April. It can get chilly even in the midst of a hot summer just to tease the tourists from Warsaw.

The Baltic Sea in the north of Europe is opposite of the warm Mediterranean Sea in the south. There you have hot weather, olives, wine and dancing. Here, the place has a gloomy vibe, similar to that of Scandinavian detective stories.

Some people depreciatingly call the Baltic Sea a lake, since it is not very deep and features almost fresh water. However, for the Kashubians, the Baltic Sea is Wiôldżé Mòrze, which means the Great Sea. 

The Kashubians are neither the Basques nor the Scots

The Kashubians are Polish Pomors. It is unlikely, though, that they would call themselves the Pomors. Their region retained its historical name in Polish as Pomorze. However, considering phonetic shifts, there is only one possible translation of this word into Russian- Pomorye.

As a geographical and historical region, Pomorze spreads along the southern coast of the Baltic Sea covering the territories of today’s German federated state Meklemburg-Vorpommern and Polish voivodeships Zachodniopomorskie and Pomorskie.

The exact origin of ethnonym “Kashubian” is unknown. It is not completely clear when the Kashubians appeared at the southern coast of the Baltic Sea and where they had come from. Researchers are united only in the opinion that the Kashubians are the indigenous population of the Baltic Pomorye.

According to some historians, there were times when the Kashubians occupied almost the entire Baltic Pomorye, including its German part with Rugia Island, or Rügen Island. Today, most of them live in one Polish region – Pomorskie viovodeship.

According to the latest population census of 2011, 233.000 Kashubians live in Poland. This number is impressive, especially compared to the previous population census, when only 5,062 people identified themselves as Kashubian.

Certainly, this is not due to a sudden surge in birth rate, but to a change in the statistical method and principles of conducting the census. Unlike in 2002, in 2011 it was possible to choose double self-identification or identify yourself as a Pole and a Kashubian at the same time. In 2011, thousands of Kashubians were happy to be able to declare themselves as such without undermining their Polish identity. The majority of Kashubians perceive themselves as Polish, but living in their own region with their own culture and mentality that distinguishes them from other Poles.    

Irena Dorsz, a teacher of the Kashubian language, says:

“If you take three Polish people, each of them will have a viewpoint different from the other two. It is exactly the same with the Kashubians. I believe that every Kashubian is a Pole. Derdowski wrote about it, in fact: ‘There is no Kashubia without Polonia and there is no Poland without the Kashubians.’ All Kashubians know this phrase by heart and say it every time someone asks if they consider themselves Polish. The author of this quote is Hieronim Derdowski, a prominent Kashubian poet, writer and journalist of the second half of the 19th century.”

Irena Dorsz lives in the small town of Mrzeżyno. She is a teacher of the Kashubian language in a local school. In the population census of 2011, she listed herself as Polish and Kashubian, talking her mother into doing the same thing. 

Photo: Ekaterina Maximova

Jerzy Elwart and Agnieszka Rigga, workers of a cosmetics store at the coastal town of Puck, are also convinced in the unbreakable bond between the Poles and Kashubians.

“Are Kashubian people also Poles? Yes, of course. This is obvious.” Jerzy Elwart has no doubts about it. “It may be hard for other people to understand, but nothing prevents us from being both Kashubian and Polish at the same time. We just have different customs and mentality. I’m Kashubian, but it does not prevent me from being Polish.”  

“Yes, Kashubians are Poles. It’s just that we live here, in our region, in our own world that is slightly different from the surroundings. Our language makes us different, so does our mentality. We are made in a different way. Possibly, we are more orderly and the German influence is more noticeable here. We get it at home as a part of our upbringing and pass it on,” says Jerzy’s colleague Agnieszka Rigga.

Fishermen in Puck. Photo: Ekaterina Maximova

The largest Kashubian organisation is Zrzeszenie Kaszubsko-Pomorskie. Its representatives Łukasz Richter and Anna Dunst also say that the Kashubians are a part of the Polish people.

“This is our official position. Before the population census, we had even created a special logo, where the Kashubian and Polish flags are united like human lungs that need each other. Professors, influential figures, publication authors and common Kashubians – everyone agrees that we are both Kashubian and Polish. This is a very close bond,” says
Łukasz Richter, Director of the Zrzeszenie office.

That is why in the population census instruction, Zrzeszenie asked people to mark their first nationality as Polish and then list their second identity as Kashubian.

Anna Dunst from Zrzeszenie Kaszubsko-Pomorskie says that this is not the only point of view. There is a different organisation holding a different opinion: Kashebsko Jednota [Kashubian Unity]. Its members consider Kashubian to be a separate nationality. Anna does not give a lot of importance to their activity:

“There is a very small group of people who claim that they are of Kashubian nationality. They have been counted and their number is about 15 thousand people. So this is an exception that confirms the general rule. They are more visible and their voices are louder, that is why their actions are made public.”

Traditional Kashubian ornament has bright colours, while the Kashebsko Jednota organisation, mentioned by Anna Dunst, is lacking such brightness. Their clothes are quite ordinary, but with yellow and black elements. There is nothing strange about it, since these are the colours of the Kashubian flag and coat of arms that became official symbols of the Pomorskie voivodeship.

The combination of black and yellow colours is especially vivid in the form of the runners at the Kashubian Unity Race that took place in the coastal town of Władysławowo on a rainy March Saturday morning. Kashebsko Jednota members, together with the local public authorities as co-organisers of the event, met the race participants.     

Kashebsko Jednota activists. Photo: Ekaterina Maximova

Kashebsko Jednota activists are very precise in formulating their position: the Kashubians are a separate people. They used to be connected to Zrzeszenie Kaszubsko-Pomorskie, but the latter gradually transformed and Zrzeszenie policy, in relation to identity, became unacceptable to Kashebsko Jednota.   

Tomas Labuda, the secretary of Kashebska Jednota, vividly remembers the moment when he understood that Kashubians were not Poles:

“The year of 2011 was a pivotal point for me, when organisation chairman Karol Rode said that we were going to open a new organisation with new goals and invited me to cooperate. At that moment, I understood that our identity was more than just a cultural group and that we were a separate people, different from the Polish people I grew up with.”     

Kashebska Jednota was founded in 2011 before the Polish population census. Karol Rode and people of his circle found it important to state their nationality as Kashubian. Thus, the census provided motivation to create a separate organisation. 

More people than expected decided to do the same. Out of 233 thousand people who identified themselves as Kashubian, 16 thousand stated it as their only identity.  

Representatives of Kashebska Jednota openly admit that some accuse them of separatism and treachery. The comment authors in their Facebook group often ask them to leave Poland and these requests are far from polite. They pay no attention to it in pursuit of their main goal: to develop a legal framework for Kashubian subjectivity in the Polish legislation.  

Karol Rode considers that it is crucial for the Kashubians to receive an ethnic minority status. National and ethnic minorities in Poland enjoy a number of benefits. They have a possibility of opening educational and cultural institutions, a right to communicate in their own language with the local authority representatives, and “political” benefits – election committees established by the minorities do not have to receive at least 5 per cent of voices to get into the Polish parliament.    

In the small town of Mrzeżyno, a teacher of the Kashubian language, Irena Dorsz, is shaking her head:

“Elevating the status? Autonomy? No, thank you, we don’t need that.”

“We are not the Basque people who want larger autonomy. Do we at all have such leaders among us who could stand up and make people follow them? It is unlikely. We’d better enjoy the existing state benefits and be happy about it, instead of fighting for autonomy. We are not the Shkots. It is more important to try to keep what we have in order to preserve the culture,” Irena says with confidence.     

Her viewpoint coincides with that of Łukasz Richter, the director of the Zrzeszenie Kaszubsko-Pomorskie office:

“Today we have good legal regulation in support of education and culture. From the historical point of view, the Kashubians have never had such favourable conditions for the development of their identity, thought, and culture as now, during the time of free Poland.”

Photo: Ekaterina Maximova

Kaszëbskô mòwa, pòmòrsczi jãzëk

According to Polish legislation, the Kashubians are a group of people that use a regional language – Kashubian. Whatever they think about the identity, everyone still considers the language to be the greatest value of the Kashubian culture.

However, Kashubians are concerned about its destiny

At first sight, everything is fine with the Kashubian language. In many areas of the Pomorze region, the signs are both in Polish and Kashubian. Even local McDonalds restaurants additionally offer information in Kashubian. “Zrzeszenie Kaszubsko-Pomorskie” is extremely active in publishing books and implementing various projects in order to boost interest in traditional Kashubian literature. On the Internet, you can listen to Kashubian fairy tales read by famous Kashubian actors, singers and politicians. Irena Dorsh tells about computer games for children aimed at increasing their vocabulary.

The icing on the cake is an erotic comic in Kashubian that tells a summer love story, exclusively for the adult audience.  

In many voivodeship schools, the Kashubian language is taught separately as an optional course and it is very popular among the pupils. However, there is always a “but.”

Irena Dorsz works in a school where 80 pupils learn Kashubian. It is quite a significant number for an area with a mere population of 2.5 thousand people. At the same time, the Kashubian language has many versions and it may sound different in every village. The larger the distance between the villages, the harder it may be to understand. At school, however, a single version is taught. Irena Dorsz refers to it using the Russian word “leveling” (urovnilovka).

“Currently, a standardised literary language is introduced. That is why I speak to children at school in this version. At the same time, I tell them that they should also speak the way their mother, aunt and grandmother speak at home to preserve local traditions.”

Other Kashubians notice this problem as well, including Agnieszka Rigga:

“Kashubian is taught at schools and thank God it is. This is a way to take care of our culture. They probably teach history during these lessons, too. I don’t know, since we had no classes of Kashubian in my school. However, there is one more thing that I particularly dislike. The Kashubian language has many regional dialects, in every village they speak in their own way. At the same time, at school they teach standard Kashubian: this is the way you should write and read. In reality, there is no such standard, though.”

When Agnieszka Rigga was young, nobody could even dream of a day when the Kashubian language would be taught at schools. Socialist Poland treated any regional diversity with suspicion and the use of a “different” Polish language or even a dialect in public places was not encouraged.    

In Agnieszka’s home, everyone spoke Kashubian and she grew up with this language. When she went to school for the first time, it occurred to her that she did not speak Polish:

“At first it was very difficult. My copybook was all marked with red. Everything was highlighted, I made mistakes everywhere. Then, we had a new teacher of Polish, who helped me a lot. I’m so grateful to her to the present day.”    

Today, Agnieszka speaks beautiful literary Polish. It is not that she has an accent, she just pronounces certain words in a different way that is softer and more tender than in common Polish. She continues to actively speak Kashubian, for example, when talking to her husband.   

“I can’t imagine speaking Polish to my husband,” she says.

Agnieszka also speaks Polish to her colleague Jerzy Elwart. In his turn, he speaks Kashubian at work with some customers of the cosmetics store in Puck. However, those would mostly be elderly people.

The second “but” related to the Kashubian language is that children with no Kashubian roots often show more interest in the lessons. Parents who think that any additional knowledge is an advantage sign them up for such classes.

On the contrary, for Kashubian children, or mostly for their parents, the language of their ancestors is an extra unnecessary pastime distracting from more important things.  

For some people it is even a reason to feel embarrassed or ashamed.

What is there to be ashamed of? In front of whom? It is hard to give an unambiguous answer to these questions. Agnieszka Rigga and her colleague Jerzy Elwart look at each other surprised.

“Really? Why should you feel ashamed?” they both repeat the question.

Shame and embarrassment have still been a part of the picture. Children learn Kashubian at school, while the elderly have learnt it at home. There is a gap between them. Middle aged people often don’t speak Kashubian at all. Reinforced by the state policy of the People’s Republic of Poland, the shame prevented parents from speaking their native language to their children and they often switched to Polish. Why? To make it easier for their children to get established in life, unlike Agnieszka Rigga’s experience, for example.

Irena Dorsz believes that it is unlikely for such efforts to lead to success:

“Even if children at schools are not aware of being Kashubian, it is enough for them to open their mouth and everything becomes clear. Grammatical structures unusual for Polish give out their origin.

Irena Dorsz. Photo: Ekaterina Maximova

Irena Dorsz knows the answer to the question why “Kashubianism” is a reason of shame: “People are ashamed of their peasant origin.”

In fact, not all Kashubians were peasants.

Fishermen and peasants

Traditionally, the Kashubians are farmers and fishermen. Citizens of coastal towns are involved in fishery, especially those living in the Hel peninsular in the areas like Hel, Jastarnia, Kuźnica and Władysławowo.

Photo: Ekaterina Maximova

Agnieszka Rigga recalls that teachers used to treat the children of fishermen from the peninsular differently. In local hierarchy, fishermen were above peasants. Kashubian fishermen were better off and had more possibilities to engage in trade and exchange goods. It was especially important in “poor” communist time. There was one more non-material benefit: they could go to places, which others were forbidden to enter.

Jacek Wittbrodt, the Chairman of the Sea Fishermen Association, remembers that time very well:

“When I was a child, I could not go to the sea together with my parents. I’m talking about the 1960s now. The situation was different then. You could enter the port only with a special pass. There was an armed guard at every gate. We could look at the port through the fence that replaced the state border. The Eastern block was here and on the other side, there was something else. We were supposed to be happy where we were. At the same time, the sea meant openness and proximity to other countries. It was very easy to get to Denmark, for example. There were cases when the voyage boats went to Bornholm and stayed there for good.”

Today, Poland is a member of the European Union and there is no need to run to western countries. Borders, including the sea boarders, are open. Fishermen have lost a number of other advantages, while farmers have developed with the help of the subsidies from the European Union. Kashubian food products are in high demand because customers trust them. At the same time, fishermen survive only due to compensations, limits and regulations provided at the European Union level. This is despite the fact that they had been feared more than anything here, before Poland became a part of the European Union in 2004. Even today, you can still see faded stickers reading “The EU is the death of the Polish fisherman” on the boats in the ports of Hel, Jastarnia and Władysławowo.               

Troubles have come from where least expected. From nature. Fish have started to disappear from the Baltic Sea. Daniel Kohnke, a fisherman from Jastarnia, has no doubts that limitations on fishery should have been introduced in the Baltic region.  

Daniel Kohnke. Photo: Ekaterina Maximova

Daniel Kohnke: “Limitations are only helping in this sense. However, we fail to reach even the established quotas when fishing.”

Nobody knows the reasons. Scientists say that lately the Baltic Sea has not received enough salt water from the North Sea. It is turning into a “lake,” so many sea fish species cannot live in its water. Daniel Kohnke has a different explanation:

“Scientists try to persuade us that it is all due to scarce water inflow from the North Sea. They say that the Baltic is an extraordinary sea lacking salt water. On top of that, there is nothing more to catch there. However, I try to listen to elderly fishermen, who say that these periods come in cycles: one time there is enough fish, another time there is none. I want to believe that the fish will reappear soon. But nobody knows if it is going to be that way.”

Competition is high among the Baltic fishermen.

“Seal is an invader. It takes the fish out of the nets. There is little fish, while the seals reproduce without any limits. Nobody knows what their population is going to be. So we suffer together: the seals and the people,” says Daniel.

Daniel is thinking of changing his occupation. It is a personal tragedy for him, as well as for many local fishermen. Daniel graduated from the school of fishery. At first, he started working as a truck driver, but he still cherished his dream of becoming a fisherman like his grandfather.

“At times my heart throbbed when I drove into a port and saw the sea,” Daniel remembers. He bought his own boat only in 2010.

Jacek Wittbrodt from the Sea Fishermen Association has a similar life story. For many years, he had developed various businesses, none of which were related to the sea, before he became a fisherman. Now, together with his brother, he owns two boats that go to the sea from the Władysławowo port with a group of workers.   

“How have I become a fisherman? I have a genetic flaw. My grandfather was a fisherman, my father was a fisherman. At some point in my life the sea called me as well,” tells Jacek.

 When Jacek was young, his grandfather and father’s hard work did not appeal to him. Then, destiny made a decision for him. Why did the sea and fishery attract him in the end?  

“It is something very subtle and untraceable, it is hard to describe in words. This is freedom,” says Jacek, trying to find the best explanation. 

However, similar to Daniel Kohnke from Jastarnia, he understands that this freedom may come to an end:

“There are no fish. They are just not there. The time when coastal fishery enjoyed sufficient resources near the ports is gone. There is no simple answer, but this is true, the amount of fish have significantly decreased.”

Jacek Wittbrodt is of high opinion about the international agreements that call to preserve natural resources of the Baltic Sea and he asks not to take anti-EU stickers on the boats too seriously:

“Understanding that the Baltic Sea is overdeveloped, while the resources are limited, the European Union and the European Commission create regulations and legislation that take into account all interested parties. The idea is to follow the rules and catch less fish, which will preserve the resources. Russia and the EU have an agreement about it. Nobody wants the Baltic Sea to turn into the Dead Sea.”

Jacek emphasises that the limitations come together with compensations:

“We have voluntarily proposed to prolong the ban for trout fishing for additional protection of the resources. However, we received financial compensation that allowed us to survive during the time of the ban.”

The European Union offers special programs for those who decide to leave the fisherman job.

“Our fishery potential is too big. We have too many boats, that is why there is a reversal program. People who decided in favour of it received financial compensation at previously confirmed rates,” says Jacek, pointing at the picture of the port on the wall. “That is why our fleet has reduced so much. This is a picture from the 1960s. Today, if you come to the port, you will see that there are very few boats left.”

Kashubian Middle-Earth

Kashubian coastal areas compensate for fishery problems with the help of tourism. Baltic beaches are a popular summer destination for many Poles. In the recent years, one can hear the Russian, Czech and Scandinavian languages more often. Kashubians from other areas want to follow the same path by taking advantage of the natural and cultural attraction of their land.  

However, the towns that have been tourist centers for some time have not had the best experience. Even if tourism is a profitable business, it has its downsides. In low season, life in touristic places die down. On a March evening, Władysławowo resembles a ghost town. It is empty, dark and quiet. All restaurants and bars are closed since there is no sense of keeping them open before the season starts. Life changes as the summer comes, but not all locals are happy about it.

Władysławowo. Photo: Ekaterina Maximova

 “If I were not born here and if I didn’t grow up in Władysławowo, I would never come here to spend holidays, to be honest. It is just terrible, what is going on here in summer. When I look at those parties, I can’t believe that none of these drunk tourists has drowned here yet,” says Jacek Wittbrodt, when recalling how a group of young people came to the port after a party and insisted that fishermen drink vodka with them. Hard labour for one person seems something romantic for others. Probably, the word “romantic” is related to the word “rum” in this case, rather than “romance.”   

Recently, a visiting businessman voiced an idea of creating the Shire in the Kashubian region, recreating the “land of Hobbits” from Tolkien’s novels. He is confident that it will be flooded with tourists. However, in this case, instead of promoting rich local culture, some kind of a simulacrum is created. Agnieszka and Jerzy, Kashubians from Puck, confirm that unwise development of tourism can lead to gentrification.  

“Kashubians are not prone to taking risks. They develop their businesses slowly. A possibility to make money attracts investors and businessmen from other regions. They are more aggressive in this sense,” says Jerzy.

Anna Dunst from Zrzeszenie Kaszubsko-Pomorskie sees no threat to Kashubians in fast development of tourism:

“What is there to be afraid of? The only question concerns the prolongation of touristic season. There should be more public places here, so that tourists have something to do not only during the summer.”

Her colleague Łukasz Richter agrees. He has no concerns about the possible tourism gentrification:

“The Hel Spit has over 80 or even 90 per cent of guest houses owned by locals, these are family businesses.”

In general, the representatives of Zrzeszenie are very positive about the local population and the situation in the region. They are not aware of economic problems in the Kashubian region.

Photo: Ekaterina Maximova

Traditionally, the Kashubians have large families, which gives hope that local population will not drown in the surge of tourists and investors. This is one of the few regions in Poland where the birth rate is high. According to the latest data of the Statistical Service of Poland, the demographic increase in Pomorze is 2 per cent, while in Poland overall, this index is -0.2 per cent. The only problem is that the Kashubians get married within a narrow circle. According to the scientists from Gdansk Medical University, it increases the risk of rare genetic disorder: Long-chain 3-hydroxyacyl-CoA dehydrogenase deficiency, or a disorder of fatty acid metabolism. Presumably, one third of all people suffering from this potentially fatal disease live in the Kashubian region.          

The Kashubians – a regional success story

Poland is a homogeneous state from the ethnic point of view, so many Poles have problems with tolerating cultural diversity. Despite that, the Kashubians have managed to preserve their distinct culture. They survived centuries of German influence, as well as the unifying measures of the People’s Republic of Poland. In comparison to the other regions of modern Poland, the history of the Kashubians seems to be a regional success story. Kashubian culture has been recognised as a part of the Polish cultural heritage and recently, it has even become a distinctive brand. Customers all around Poland trust food products in a package with the distinctive Kashubian folk ornament. Kashubian strawberries are famous even in the Kaliningrad region. Polish Pomorze is one of the most economically successful parts of Poland.           

A number of famous Polish politicians representing different parties and views are of Kashubian origin. Among them is Donald Tusk, former Prime Minister of Poland and the President of the European Council.

Photo: Ekaterina Maximova

Two political opponents, Pomeranian Voivodeship Marshal Mieczysław Struk and Deputy Minister of Culture Jaroslaw Sellin, spoke at the formal ceremony on the Day of Kashubian Unity in Chmielno on March 19 2017. Both of them are Kashubian.

“In essence, our organisation helps the people [politicians] in Warsaw to unite on the issues of the Kashubian people including social, cultural and economic ones,” says Łukasz Richter from Zrzeszenie Kaszubsko-Pomorskie.

This organisation has operated since 1956 and Łukasz Richter is confident that the experience of working in it helps people from the Pomorze region to develop their political careers.      

“This is the legacy of Lech Bondkowski, the founder of our organisation who predicted back in the 1950s that Zrzeszenie will train specialists for the free Poland. At that time of centralised power, our organisation substituted local authorities.”  

Kashubian, Polish, European

From the tower of the House of Fisherman in Władysławowo you can see the sandy beaches full of tourists in summer. You can see the narrow strip of the Hel Spit stretching all the way to the horizon. You can see the port, the Baltic coast and seagulls. Jacek Wittbrodt believes that success of the Kashubians is in their mentality that combines love of their own traditions and openness to the external world.

In the introductory interview as a new President of the European Council, Donald Tusk emphasised that identity can have multiple levels:

“I’m from Gdansk, I’m Kashubian, I’m Polish – this is, of course, my main identity, but I’m also European. And I’m very proud of it.”

Paulina Siegień is a freelance journalist, writing about Polish-Russian neighbourhood and general Russian developments. She is currently working on a book about the Kaliningrad Oblast.

Ekaterina Maximova is a Moscow born free-lance photographer. She works with Geo Russia, Ogonyok and Lenta. She has photo blog.

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