So while I’ve been living and working in Poland for just over five months now, I’ve written very little about the culture, the people or even the history of what really is a fascinating country.
I work and live now in south-western Poland, quite close to the border with Czech Republic in what is more commonly known as Silesia (Śląsk). Similar to Kashubia or the mountain communities along the Carpathians, it’s maintained a distinctive identity and for some is even seen as a separate nationality. It’s traditionally a heartland for industry and generally speaking, one of the better off regions in Poland, in much the same way Catalonia is for Spain. And they have some impressive food.
Rolada. A big hunk of meat and….other stuff. Served with dumplings and red cabbage. Amazing taste.
Historically Silesia has been a borderland, with the Holy Roman Empire and Kingdom of Poland vying for it as far back as the end of the 9th century. It’s suffered Mongol invasions, Legnica in 1241 being the furthest west into Europe the horde ever came. After that, Silesia would be swapped between rival powers as the fortunes of war waxed and waned in her favour. Hussites, Bohemians, Poles, Germans, Habsburgs, Swedes would all stake their claim.
Frederick the Great of Prussia would be the last main conqueror of Silesia when it was annexed in 1740. A series of conflicts over the next two decades would assure Prussian control over the majority of the region. In 1871 it would become part of the German Empire and continue to be a popular destination for immigrants in lieu of it’s increasing industrialisation. This proceeded hand in hand with the aggressive Germanization of the native population.
A map of the Prussian province of Silesia with German and Polish names for each region.
Naturally, tensions arose. Silesia as a whole was at this time 25% Polish. Of course this distinction is hazy as a policy of forced Germanization had blurred the lines as to whether someone was an ethnic Pole, a Polish speaker or any combination thereof. The tragic partitions of Poland at the close of the 18th century had removed the nation from the map but similar to Ireland, the identity remained. Split between Austria, Prussia and Russia, a Polish identity preserved despite edicts attempting to remove their language and cultural identity. Complicating the issue in Silesia was that Prussia represented a primarily Protestant urban stereotype as opposed to that of the rural, Catholic Poland. This generally ran true for the Polish and German inhabitants of the region.
Upper Silesia, particularly around Katowice was more of an anomaly. Here in this region of the province, it was over 60% Polish. Further west in Lower Silesia, while pockets of Poles still existed in rural areas, the policy of Germanization had been much more effective. Still, the government was forced to issue official documents in both Polish and German.
These issues wouldn’t come to a head till after World War 1 where the botched handling of a plebiscite to deal with the region was compounded by three bloody insurrections by the Polish speaking populace between 1919 and 1921. The final answer to the question wouldn’t arrive till the end of the Second World War when the German speaking populace was mostly expelled and replaced by displaced Polish settlers from the eastern territories. The map below show’s how dramatically Poland’s territory changed in six years.
A substantial number of the Silesian population (especially in Upper Silesia) were able to stay, swearing allegiance to Poland and also proving competent at the Polish language (much of them being bilingual). Opole the county north of me has enough of a German minority that all the town names are in German and Polish. That’s the official side, what’s been much more interesting has been the personal anecdotes from students who’ve told me about their grandparents speaking German to them or the distinctly German surnames such as Pohl or Bauer that are still around the area. Indeed some have told me they’re candidates for German citizenship due to their grandparents, just as many people of my generation in Ireland had grandparents who were British citizens. It makes you wonder what the confused months after 1945 really were like.
Many of the older generation here speak quite good German and with it being a compulsory subject in school and many having family in German, it’s interesting to see how seventy years changes the perspective. For me, it’s been a good fallback when my diabolical Polish or someone’s limited English severely restricts the conversation. And one day near a bus stop I was quite pleasantly surprised to hear two old women conversing to each other in German, though it was unlike any I had ever heard. It must have been quite a dialect! Whatever someone’s views, it’s left its mark on the region with not only architecture but also in the monuments and graveyards.
Jerzy Ziętek, Silesian insurrectionist and politician.
But since we’re still on language, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Silesian language. Of course even calling it that is a contentious issue. It’s been labelled a dialect, even something akin to a gutter argot but dialect or not, over half a million people still listed it as their home language in the last census. “I don’t understand my husband when he talks to his family” bemoans one aggravated spouse.
From now on, I’ll be talking about Upper Silesia as the population of Lower Silesia was mostly replaced (Wroclaw(“Breslau”) being repopulated by the expelled citizens of Lviv/Lvov) after the war and it’s in this region that the majority of those who identify as Silesian live. The traditional divide of rural/urban has been continued. Here in my town, Polish is what is spoken. But venture to the villages surrounding it and you’ll hear it. Of course this isn’t true for all cases but I have noticed when asking my students that there is usually a divide ‘twixt rural and urban dwellers.
The language is also connected to this Silesian identity that seems to vary vastly depending on who you’re talking to. “I don’t care about it, I’m Polish” says one student who tends to groan whenever the word is brought up. “It’s a language, it’s what I was raised with, it’s what I speak with my children, it’s part of who I am” insists another while a third says “Why can’t they speak properly? I was born in Wroclaw, I’m not Silesian, I don’t understand them”. But these are all anecdotal, everyone gets on with life. This isn’t something akin to the Welsh Knot or the “I am a donkey” sign Afrikaans speaking school students had to wear. There’s no issue, not from what I’ve observed.
It’s not threatening to split away like Moldova or Transnistria. A conflict like in Northern Ireland or Basque Country isn’t in the works. There’s no issue being simultaneously both a Silesian and a Pole. But the former are definitely proud of their heritage and history and it is indeed an interesting one. And this identity is one that crosses borders, the town of Cieszyn being literally split in two by a river into a Polish and Czech section. It’s been something governments have always been equal to capitalize on, even as recently as 1945 when the Czechoslovak military occupied Racibórz in an attempt to expand their control where Czech minorities lived (not something one-sided, the Poles were doing the same in Spis and Orava). But regardless, it has continued to exist and live on in peoples imaginations, Silesia looks to remain Polish but people will still be proud of where they’re from.
The typical Silesian lowland.
Like I said, these are merely the perspectives of an outsider, in a location that for now is home. I hurry to add that people in Silesia (and Poland as a whole to my experience!) have been nothing but welcoming and helpful since my arrival. And while I’ve yet to understand this love for vodka, I think I’m slowly falling in love with the country.
I’m heading away today down to Zakopane and the Tatra mountains, home of another fiercely proud culture and in what’s meant to be some of the most spectacular scenery in the entire country. As such, there’ll be no blogging for the next couple of weeks but I think everyone will survive. I’ll do my best to have some good photos for next time I post!
Slán go foill.