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A Polish story from Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Polish minority in Bosnia and Herzegovina has mostly assimilated over the years. It is during the holidays of Christmas and Easter that the traditions and customs of their ancestors are revived.

June 16, 2021 - Nataša Lazukić - Stories and ideasTackling Prejudice

Photos are from the Minority Festival of the Prnjavor Municipality - Little Europe courtesy of Tomislav Durtka and his friends.

At the end of the 19th century, Poles and other minorities from the Austro-Hungarian Empire moved and settled in the north-western part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They were attracted to this area due to its arable land and good living conditions.

By the year 1910, there were 10,975 Poles living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This group lived in 12 agricultural colonies in the Bosnian Krajina region. Until 1946, Poles formed one of the largest ethnic groups Prnjavor district. At the invitation of the Polish government, 18,000 Poles from the area returned to the country around this time. Overall, they largely settled in Lower Silesia, in Bolesławiec and the surrounding towns.

Tomislav Durtka, the founder and project coordinator of the ”Association of Poles Bolesławiec-Prnjavor” and historical expert, explained some of his own personal history: “My dear grandfather, Jan Durtka, moved to Prnjavor in 1892 to the village of Ratkovac, where he bought land. Later immigrants got forests in the uninhabited area of ​​today’s municipalities of Srbac, Laktaši and Prnjavor, in order to turn them into fields with hard work”.

According to the estimates of the Polish embassy in Sarajevo, the Polish diaspora in Bosnia and Herzegovina currently numbers 340 people.

Assimilation through the generations

The first impressions of Tomislav’s homeland are dominated by its tradition, architecture and culture. Despite having lost and forgotten much in the process of assimilation through the generations, Tomislav and his friends are trying to maintain their ancestral culture through the work of the Association of Poles in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Every year, members of the association organise a traditional Christmas Eve dinner (Wigilia) and serve 13 different kinds of fasting meals. This is accompanied by a special kind of bread called ‘oplatek’.

Durtka says that “Our customs are mostly related to the holidays: Christmas and Easter. I also started the first Polish language school in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been functioning for four years.

And we founded a small library of books about Poland, which is still the largest here. We regularly participate in events where we are able to present Polish traditions, culture and ethnic cuisine that is specific to Poland. We prepare special cakes and pierogi, a dish specific to this area that was brought here by Ukrainians and Poles. By mixing cultures, the people have become so familiar with each other that almost every house in Prnjavor makes them, and they can even be bought frozen in stores”.

The Association of Poles together with people from Ukraine, Czech Republic, Italy and Montenegro regularly organise a festival for national minorities. This event is called “Little Europe” because about 20 different ethnic groups were settled in the territory of Prnjavor. The association’s project of a Polish Language School in Prnjavor started in 1946. It is the only language school of its kind in Republika Srpska. .

“I organised the largest gathering of Poles in 80 years in 2019, when 300 members and guests from Poland (the city of Bolesławiec) gathered at the association’s headquarters.

On that occasion, a friendly football match was organised and a performance by the folklore group “Mladi Bolesławiec”.

Also, we have marked a large number of Polish cemeteries that have become overgrown with dense forest over seven decades, and we have carried out a complete restoration of the cemetery in Devetina with financial assistance from the Polish embassy in Sarajevo. The Polish cemetery in Devetina was chosen as the place for a central landmark, a memorial plaque dedicated to all the Poles who once lived in this area and were buried there as well”, said Durtka.

Only three per cent of the population identifies as a national minority

Poles in Bosnia and Herzegovina share many problems in common with other minorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. If we take economics into account, however, they also face the same issues as the country’s constituent peoples.

“The position of minorities in Prnjavor is certainly different than in the rest of the country, because here minorities are greatly integrated and participate in all aspects of society. They are also supported by the local government to a much greater extent than in other areas. Any project or initiative aimed at improving the position of both Poles and other national minorities living here is supported. Personally, I would change the way Bosnian society treats all minorities. In fact, we have the worst constitution in the world on this issue. We have reached a point where in Bosnia and Herzegovina today only three per cent of the population declares themselves a member of a national minority, according to the last census. In a country that has always been considered an area with a great amount of cultures and ethnicities, today we have fewer national minorities than any country in the region and beyond. What does that say about us and the pressure that these people are exposed to by not being what they are?”, said Durtka.

This year is the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the return of the region’s Poles. However, organising an event has proven difficult due to the COVID pandemic. The arrival of a writer from Poland has also been announced as part of the celebration. Jan Bujak is writing his seventh book on the history of Poles in the area, so the group plan to support him and promote his books across Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Tomislav Durtka hopes that the situation will improve by the summer so they can cooperate with the Association of Scouts from Poland. They hope to send children with their parents to a Polish language camp in Karpacz. For Durtka and his association, improving their children’s health, cultural awareness and language abilities is their most important mission.

Nataša Lazukić was born in Gradačac in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She studied at the Faculty of Philology in Banja Luka. She had the opportunity to write and publish literary texts for PEN Centar Bosnia and Herzegovina, some web and print magazines and newspapers. She has been awarded the UNICEF Award For Children’s Rights. She’s currently attending a gender studies at the Center for Women’s Studies in Belgrade.

Photos are from the Minority Festival of Municipality Prnjavor – Little Europe. Courtesy of Tomislav Durtka and his friends.  

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