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Multicultural Opole? ‘Multilingualism’ in an ethnolinguistic nation-state

Upper Silesia remains the most multiethnic region in today’s Poland.

July 24, 2020 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

Opole. Photo: falco. pixabay

Massive wartime and postwar ethnic cleansings turned Poland into an ethnically homogenous nation-state of Polish-speaking Catholics. During the communist period the existence of any ethnic minorities was strenuously denied, though Jews had to be expelled in 1968, Germans after 1970, or Roma in 1981. Yet, Upper Silesia remains the most multiethnic region in today’s Poland. According to the 2011 census, the country’s most numerous minorities (that is, non-Polish-speaking citizens of Poland), include Silesians (850,000), Kashubs (230,000), Germans (150,000), Ukrainians (50,000), and Belarusians (50,000). Out of 1.4 million ethnic non-Poles, over two-thirds (1 million) live in this historical region. There are a further 10 to 20 thousand Roma who are also living in the region but have been undercounted in censuses due to widespread discrimination. Furthermore, it should be remembered that after World War II, Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust found a relatively safe Yiddish-speaking haven in Silesia until 1968.

At present the historical region of Upper Silesia is split between two administrative units, Opole Province and Katowice (Silesian) Province. With 4.5 million inhabitants, Katowice Province is almost five times more populous than Opole Province. Yet, one has a better chance of coming across a Silesian or German in Opole Province, where these minorities add up to a third of the inhabitants. In Katowice, Germans and Silesians only make up 14 per cent of the population.

Silesians in Opole Province and Katowice Province (2002 Census). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The devastating floods in 1997 destroyed numerous Czech, German and Polish villages, towns and cities in the draining basin of the river Oder. Many of these localities, seized on this tragic event as an opportunity to rebuild in line with the inhabitants’ needs and preferences. Opole, or the historical capital of Upper Silesia, followed suit. Such a face-lift was much needed after the grey neglect of the communist times. This campaign of urban beautification and self-reinvention extended to the Municipal Public Library (Miejska Biblioteka Publiczna) in Opole. Between 2008 and 2011, the library’s seat was moved to a 19th-century building in the scenic Old Town, locally known as ‘Little Venice.’ This building was merged with an ultramodern annex, appropriately symbolising the meeting of the past with the future.

Germans in Opole Province and Katowice Province (2002 Census). Source: Wikimedia Commons

The steel and glass façade constitutes an imposing, but welcoming, entrance to the library. From afar it looks like a motorway leading to the blue sky of knowledge. The granite ‘road sides’ are enticingly adorned with waves of words, which are well-known passages by the popular, but mentally tormented, Polish poet Edward Stachura (1937-1979), who died by his own hand. The quotes are given in the original Polish and English translations.

Edward Stachura’s poetry in Polish and English translations on the entrance façade of the Municipal Public Library in Opole. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The bilingual character of this poetic adornment opens the library and its readers to a wider world, where the future lies. Yet, something is amiss. Where are the past and present? How do the figure and poetry of Stachura connect these with the future? The poet was born in France and died in Warsaw. He translated from French and Spanish, while his work was inspired by travels in North America and western Europe. Stachura’s tenuous connection to Opole was his acquaintance with the older and ethnically Silesian writer Rafał Urban (1893-1972), who then headed the Opole branch of the Union of Polish Writers (Związek Literatów Polskich). But Stachura visited Opole only briefly.

However, such a literate façade amounts to a loud statement in Opole’s public space, immediately visible to all and pregnant with meaning. A foreign visitor may be excused for thinking, quite mistakenly, that the official languages of the city and Opole Region are English and Polish. There is no English or any other Anglophone minority thriving there. No community of native-speakers of English live in Opole. The façade’s seemingly welcoming bilingualism covers the ugly reality of forced Polonisation of German-speakers before 1989. An underhanded version of this policy continued after the fall of communism and the introduction of democracy in Poland. Present-day Polonisation is quite open vis-à-vis the Silesians, given Warsaw’s obstinate denial of the existence of the Silesian language and its speakers. It is actually a mirror image of the official position on the non-existence of any Germans or their language in communist Poland.

Times and political systems change, yet Polonisation and a pronounced lack of respect for non-Polish others remain. The library’s façade is the proverbial middle finger to Germans and Silesians, while posing to visitors from abroad as a sign of the region’s mature and welcoming Europeanism and cosmopolitism.

If the goal was inclusion, a more fitting poet could be found whose words would speak to all of Opole’s inhabitants: Germans, Poles, Roma or Silesians. The famous German-language romantic poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788-1857) would be an obvious choice. He was born in Upper Silesia, and most of his works were translated into Polish, English, Silesian and other European languages. If the library really aimed to send a more universal message than the romanticism of individual feelings, I would propose the two interwar Polish citizens who were the first to write literary witness accounts of the Jewish Holocaust and the Roma Holocaust: Yitzkhak Katzenelson (1886-1944) and Papusza (Bronisława Wajs, 1908-1987). Papusza wrote the narrative poem ‘Tears of Blood: Or What We Suffered under the Germans in Volhynia in 1943 and ‘44’ (Ratfałé jasfá. So pał saséndyr pšegijám apré Vółyń 43 i 44 beršá) in Romani. Katzenelson wrote the book Song of the Murdered Jewish People (Dos lid funem oysgehargetn yidishn folk דאָס ליד פונעם אױסגעהרגעטן ײדישן פאָלק) in Yiddish.

Beyond the choice of what poet to feature on the side of a library, the question of language remains open. Language is a message. The current message on the library’s façade reads ‘ethnic Poles and foreigners are welcome, but local Germans and Silesians should not bother (let alone Roma or Jews).’ Why not adorn the entrance with a suitable quote in German, Polish, Silesian, Romani and Yiddish, so that all of the region’s inhabitants feel welcome to the library, including Roma and Jews? But what about foreigners? How would they feel without a prop of an English translation? Well, a traveller does not set out on a journey abroad with the expectation that English must be an official language in Opole. Most of the library’s staff is conversant in this international language, which suffices. But when will the time come when they will reply to an enquiry asked in German, Romani, Silesian or Yiddish? After all, these, along with Czech, Moravian and Polish, are Upper Silesia’s languages.

Tomasz Kamusella is a Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest monograph Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria was published by Routledge (2018). In 2019 his bilingual, English-Silesian, volume of short stories Limits/Styknie appeared.

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