Jerzy Żurawowicz: Polish patriotism is in our DNA

Jerzy Żurawowicz: Polish patriotism is in our DNA

Most of the Belarusian Poles live in the western regions of the country, which during the interwar period were a part of Poland. Therefore, much less is known about Poles of eastern Belarus. Jerzy Żurawowicz, director of the Polish House in Mahilioŭ and the long-term chairman of the Mahilioŭ branch of the Union of Poles in Belarus, in his interview speaks about the history and current situation of the Polish community in eastern Belarus.

ICELDS: How did the social and cultural life of Poles in Mahilioŭ begin in the 1990s and how does it look like today?

Jerzy Żurawowicz: In the late 1980s, I lived in Minsk and communicated with the ethnic Polish intellectuals of the Belarusian capital. These people prompted me to engage in social activities. I returned to Mahilioŭ in 1991 and created a Polish organization here modeled on the Minsk example. Nobody directed me and everything was done through trial and error. While in the western parts of Belarus the Polish movement was developing quite intensively, the situation in Mahilioŭ differed significantly. It is necessary to understand that we are on the periphery here. The Polish House in Mahilioŭ was created as a club of enthusiasts of the Polish language and culture and it maintains this profile today. For this reason, our doors are open and we rely on those people who really need it. Of course, there are people who have always been with us. However, we do not look at the reports but simply live and work despite our limited capacities. If we look at the statistics, 595 residents of Mahilioŭ identified themselves as ethnic Poles during the previous national population census in 2009, and in Mahilioŭ region this figure is almost 1,800. The highest concentration of ethnic Poles in the region is the area around the village of Faščaŭka in Škloŭ district. There are six Roman Catholic villages there and their residents still remember their roots.

ICELDS: How and when did the Poles emerge in the region of Mahilioŭ?

: Historically there were large noble estates in the region and their owners were the carriers and transmitters of the Polish culture and language. The most emblematic example is the Bułhak estate in Žyličy (Polish: Żylicze). The effective functioning of these estates required the involvement of specialists and also contributed to migration. These migrants came inter alia from the lands of today’s Lithuania and Latvia. However, after the anti-Russian January Uprising (1863-64) large noble estates nearly disappeared. In general, up to 10-13 percent of the region’s residents used Polish. The question of their ethnic affiliation seems secondary. If one looks closely, many place names of Mahilioŭ region indeed speak about the origin of their inhabitants. For example, there is a village of Vilienka (Polish: Wilenka) in Kiraŭsk district not far from the highway Mahilioŭ – Babrujsk. Its name is the same as the name of the river in the capital of Lithuania.

Interestingly, some of the rural settlements were the “near” exile after the anti-Russian uprisings (like Radamlia in Čavusy district). During WWI, there was a fairly large wave of ethnic Polish refugees. At the same time, few people remember that in the 1920s the Soviet authorities also actively used the Polish language in promoting their policies among the population of Mahilioŭ region. The latest wave of migration took place in the postwar Soviet period when quite many ethnic Poles from the Hrodna region arrived in the eastern parts of Belarus.

ICELDS: What is special in the “Polish” heritage of the city of Mahilioŭ?

: Perhaps, it is necessary to mention the Catholic cemetery (colloquially known as the “Polish cemetery”), which is quite unique for eastern Belarus. A number of epitaphs on the graves are made in Polish which has not been spoken in Poland for more than 200 years. The tombstones are also quite interesting. They mainly belong to several related families – the Ciechanowieckis, the Żukowskis, and the Wojnicz-Sianożęckis. Some of the monuments were made in Warsaw by famous sculptors. There were cases when the remains were brought here from Warsaw or Saint Petersburg. The Mahilioŭ gentry could afford it and stand together.

Unfortunately, many monuments are lost forever. Nevertheless, more than 27 years of our efforts were not in vain and we managed to restore with our own hands the monuments that were restorable. Unfortunately, Professor Andrzej Ciechanowiecki died in 2015 in London. He was the last representative of his family. We lost our “lobby” and no longer have anyone to rely on. Many monuments have to be repaired. The restoration activities imply a serious scientific approach and money. Yes, conservation professionals came here and even made the estimates, but it was the end of it. Perhaps, this is the tragedy of the “Polish” cemetery in Mahilioŭ.

ICELDS: Does Poland support the Polish community in Mahilioŭ?

: In the early 1990s, one of the high-ranking Polish diplomats told me that Mahilioŭ is not Vilnius (Polish: Wilno), Lviv (Polish: Lwów) or Hrodna (Polish: Grodno). Thus, we could never count on Poland’s priority attention. Previously, we received something through the headquarters of the Union of Poles in Hrodna, but today we are on our own. We are a self-financing organization. We pay taxes ourselves, plan our own events and development. Of course, the local specifics in Mahilioŭ are completely different than those in Hrodna. There, 65,000 ethnic Poles live in the city. And we have to travel 500 km to the border with Poland. Poland did help us build the Polish House. We must be thankful for that!

ICELDS: What can you say about relations with the Belarusian authorities?

: We don’t have specific problems with the local authorities. I would say that we don’t overlap with them. We cooperate where it is possible to get their help or support. At some time, they solved the problem with the Polish House and gave it to us after numerous requests. In addition, for many years we have been cooperating with them to commemorate the Battle of Lenino. As for the central authorities in Minsk, we almost never intersect with them.

ICELDS: The 2005 conflict in the Union of Poles in Belarus still affects the relations between Minsk and Warsaw. How did it affect the Polish community in Mahilioŭ?

: The problem occurred much earlier. The team that created the Union of Poles of Belarus did a really great job. Tadeusz Gawin, the first chairman of the organization, and his deputy Tadeusz Malewicz helped me a lot. At a certain point, Gawin decided to leave and it turned out that no continuity of his course had been ensured. However, the election mechanism was launched and Tadeusz Kruczkowski was elected the chairman of the Union of Poles in 2000. Kruczkowski was very ambitious and not receptive to any critics. His actions as the chairman did great harm to the Union of Poles and the Polish movement in Belarus. Kruczkowski destroyed the team and generated the fermentation process in the Union. We did care what was happening in the organization but the main decisions were made in Hrodna. We raised this question before Andrzej Buczak, the then Polish consul in Minsk, but his response was that this was an internal issue of the Union of Poles. We spoke with the Marshal of the Polish Senate Longin Pastusiak and his deputy Ryszard Jarzembowski, albeit all in vain. And in 2005 the conflict exploded…

Why are we a part of the Union of Poles which Poland does not recognize? The answer is simple: the Polish House must comply with the norms of the Belarusian legislation to function effectively. Others acted differently. The building of the Polish House in Mahilioŭ was acquired by us while our colleagues in Viciebsk rented it for 99 years. They stopped their activities and removed all the property from the building. Subsequently, the authorities seized the building of the Polish House in Viciebsk for debts. Of course, it was possible to reach an agreement and try to foster dialogue. As a result of this conflict, the Polish Houses in Belarus are dying out. Perhaps, we did not have to establish a centralized Union of Poles in Belarus. Instead, a confederation of Polish organizations could have been created, like it was made in Ukraine. Perhaps, the problem would not be so acute.

ICELDS: What is the role of the Polish language in the community and how many people learn it?

: There were always people who needed the Polish language. However, the majority of local Poles no longer speaks Polish. Now the situation has slightly changed. Many people need Polish to work or study in Poland. Therefore, the Polish language became more prestigious and the number of residents of Mahilioŭ who speak it is growing. In the Polish House, we try to keep the language in communication with each other. We have a public school which offers Polish language classes. It has been working for more than 27 years. Today it has four teachers and about 250 students. Children start learning the language when they are six or seven years old. The classes are free of charge for school children.

ICELDS: What future do you see for the Polish community in the region of Mahilioŭ?

: First of all, the Polish culture in our region has been kept by families. The Roman Catholic church goes its own way but the availability of the church services in the Polish language is very important. We organize Polish language courses which also provides an opportunity to retain language skills at a certain level. The mistake that occurred in 2005 must be corrected because it primarily affected the Poles of eastern Belarus. If the authorities of Poland care about the remnants of Polishness that can be found here, they can still help to preserve it. In a while, this culture, memory, and traditions may disappear without a trace together with the people who are their carriers. And local Poles do not need to be taught patriotism, because it is in our DNA.

Interview conducted by Dr. Kiryl Kascian

Note: This text was prepared in cooperation with InBaltic.

Image: The Polish House in Mahilioŭ. © Kiryl Kascian.

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