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National minorities in Poland today

Poland's National Minorities

Poland has always been a multinational country. However, the percentage of non-Poles has varied over time. In the Poland of the sixteenth until the eighteenth century, Poles were estimated at only 50% of the country's total population. In the Poland created after the First World War, the number of non-Polish citizens equaled approximately one-third of the population. Only four percent of those living on the territory of contemporary Poland are today regarded as belonging to a national minority. This substantial reduction in the percentage of non-Poles resulted from the modification in Poland's borders after the Yalta agreement, which shifted numerous Byelorussians and Ukrainians to the USSR and removed ethnic Germans from Poland.

The present Polish population is one of the most ethnically homogeneous societies in Europe. However, there remain around 1.2 to 1.5 million people who belong to national minorities: about 500,000 Germans, 250,000 Ukrainians, 180,000 Byelorussians, 60,000 Lemkos, 25,000 Gypsies, 25,000 Lithuanians, 25,000 Slovaks, 15,000 Jews, 10,000 Russians, 8,000 Armenians, 4,000 Tatars, and 3,000 Czechs . In opinion Chief Central Statistical Office (GUS) in Poland in 1992-1993 lived 260,000 Germans, 70,000 Ukrainians and Lemkos, 76,000 Byelorussians, 25,000 Gypsies, 9,000 Lithuanians, 5,000 Slovaks, 3,000 Jews. Total was only 450,000 numbers of minorities. Chief Central Statistical Office did not to make know information about Russians, Armenians, Tatars and Czechs . In the 2001 was register census that showed new information about national minorities in Poland. After to register in Poland lives about 170,000 Silesias , 152,900 Germans, 31,000 Ukrainians, 48,700 Byelorussians, 5,900 Lemkos, 12,900 Gypsies, 5,800 Lithuanians, 2,000 Slovaks, 1,100 Jews, 6,100 Russians, 1,100 Armenians and 800 Czechs. The middle estimates would suggest that the minority population in Poland is likely to be in the range of 2.0-2.5 per cent of the society.

The German minority resides throughout Poland. Its major centers are in: Upper Silesia (Kattovitz (Katowice), Chestokhova (Częstochowa) and Opole provinces), Lower Silesia (Breslau province), Western Pomerania Slupsk (Słupsk), Koshalin (Koszalin) and Shchetsin (Szczecin) provinces and Eastern Pomerania together with Mazuria - Mazury and Ermeland - Warmia (Gdansk, Torun and Olshtyn provinces). This minority is internally divided and is organized in 49 associations. The number and division of these are rooted in the way they emerged, independent of one another. Hence their scope and significance are limited to very small regions. The Union of German Social and Cultural Associations in the Republic of Poland is the umbrella unit for a large proportion of German associations.

The Union which encompasses German associations in North-West Poland is the Union of German Minority Associations in the Olshtyn-Gdańsk-Torun Regions. The youth association of an all-Polish nature is the Union of Youth of the German Minority in the Republic of Poland. Other organizations are of a regional scope. This minority attaches much importance to its presence in local governments, particularly in Opole province. The German minority has its representatives in 60 communes.

The German minority practices cultural activity at many levels, at events encompassing a whole region and those of strictly local impact. Local cultural activity is based on club work, various German-language meetings and courses, organizing libraries and also choirs and orchestras.

Most of the German minority is of the Roman Catholic faith that holds mass in their national language, the remaining number; mostly in North-East Poland are Augsburg Evangelists.

The Ukrainians can presently be found in many provinces. This dispersal is the outcome of the 1947 "Vistula" campaign during which the Ukrainians population was expelled from territory in South-East Poland to lands in the North and West. The largest groups of Ukrainians can be found in the following provinces: Olshtyn, Koshalin, Slupsk, Suvalki, Shchetsin (Szczecin), Gorzów, Zielona Góra, Legnitsa, Novy Sącz and Peremysl.

The largest among the various Ukrainians organizations is the Union of Ukrainians in Poland. It was formed in 1990 on the basis of the structure of the Ukrainian Social and Cultural Society which had existed since 1956. The Union has a membership of 10,000 in 182 chapels. Several organizations of a professional character operate within this organization's framework to mention but a few: the Union of Ukrainian Physicians, Union of Ukrainian Teachers, Union of Ukrainian Businessmen etc. There is also a Union of Ukrainian Women and "Plast", a scouting organization.

Several independent Ukrainian organizations also exist, linked with separate regional groups: Union of Podlachia Ukrainians and The Union of Lemeks. The Union of Ukrainian Independent Youth has a different character. This Union's activists have set up "Kontakt", an experimental theatre whose big moment was reached when it appeared on Polish national TV. Apart from such social organizations, the Ukrainians have established two foundations whose purpose is to support Ukrainian culture in Poland: the Ukrainian Culture Foundation and Foundation of St. Vladimir the Baptist of Kievian Rus.

In terms of religious persuasion, the Ukrainians in Poland are of the Catholic Church (its Byzantine-Ukrainian confession — some 80 percent) and the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church. The Church of the Byzantine-Ukrainian confession has 95 parishes throughout Poland.

The Gypsy community in Poland is composed, principally, of two tribes: the Polish Roma and the Bergitkas. The largest Gypsy groups in Poland are in Novy Sącz province and also in Zgierz, Gorzov Wielkopolski, Mlava, Zhyrardov, Olshtyn and Novy Dvor Mazoviecki.

One Gypsy periodical, the „Rom-po-Drom” edited in Polish and in Gypsy dialects, is published in Poland. Publications of the Library of Gypsology also appear.

Lithuanian minority mainly resides in the North-East part of Suvalki province — in the communes of Puńsk, Sejny and Shyplishki. However, Lithuanians also live trough out the whole of Poland. They have either migrated from the Suvalki district or were repatriated from Lithuania after World War Two. The latter mainly live in Silesia and Pomerania.

The Lithuanian minority's largest organization is the Association of Lithuanians in Poland, first set up in 1957 (up to 1992 it was called the Lithuanian Social and Cultural Society). It works out of the town of Sejny. The society has an approximate membership of 2000 in 47 chapels. There are two further associations of the Lithuania minority in Poland: the St. Casimir Lithuanian Society and the Community of Lithuanian in Poland.

Where cultural activity among Lithuanians in Poland is concerned, it comprises of such large events as the "Saskrydis" Review of Folklore Ensembles, the Festival of Barn Theatres, and outdoor painting sessions for folk artists to mention but a few. A fortnightly "Ausra" is published. The Lithuanians at present have their own radio programme: one hour per week in the Bialystok broadcasting station of the Polish Radio.

Education in the Lithuanian language is available in Suvalki province. Five primary schools and one secondary grammar school exist in which the language of instruction is Lithuanian, while a further 6 offer Lithuanian as an additional subject. It is in Lithuanian schooling that the largest number of educational units exists with a national language of instruction. As regards university studies, a Faculty of the Lithuanian Language exists in Poznan while a Faculty of Baltic Philology operates in Warsaw.

Most Lithuanians are of the Roman Catholic faith. Holy mass is presently said in Lithuanian in four parishes in the Suvalki region and also in Breslau and Warsaw.

The Slovak minority in Poland is mainly resident in the Novy Sącz province, on Spish and Orawa territories. Slovaks can also be found in Warsaw, Cracow, and Cattowitse. These are all small communities, though important as they are the intellectual back up for the Slovak society resident in Poland. Those living in Spish and Orawa are mainly farmers.

The Czechs living in Poland are mainly the decedents of the Czech Brothers who settled in Poland after fleeing from religious persecution. They presently reside in Zelov and its surroundings (Piotrkov province) and also in Lublin. Another group comprises of Czechs living in the region of Tsieshyn and the Klodzko Valley on land along the border with the Czech Republic.

The Czechs and Slovaks have mutually established a Social and Cultural Society of Czechs and Slovaks in Poland. The society was founded in 1957 when a number of smaller organizations merged. The Society boasts 36 chapels and publishes its own monthly "Zhivot" in the Slovak and Czech languages and partially in Polish (1 page). Schools with Slovak as the language of instructions are situated in the Spish and Orawa region (Novy Sącz province). There is a further 17 schools in which Slovak is an additional subject, attended by 498 pupils. Two primary schools are classified as schools with Slovak as the language of instruction. One secondary grammar school functions in which Slovak is additionally taught the number of pupils there is being 31. The Czech system of education is in the organizational stage. The Czech Language is being taught as of this year in 2 schools in the town of Rybnik.

Jew minority community comprises people living mainly in Polish urban centers like Warsaw, Breslau, Cracow, Bielsko-Biala, Tsestokhowa, Gdansk and Legnica. The Jewish community is relatively small today.

The largest Jewish organization is the Social and Cultural Society of Jews in Poland, with 15 local branches. One of the most important cultural institutions of Jews in Poland is the professional Jewish Theatre in Warsaw. The remaining social organizations are the Association of Jewish Veterans and Victims of the Second World War, the Forum of Jewish Intellectuals and the Union of Jewish Students and Youth. The Jewish Historical Institute acting as a social research unit has a different character.

Two Jewish newspapers are published: “Jewish World” which is bilingual — partly in Yiddish and Polish, and is sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and the Arts. A youth periodical is also published “Jidele” which is entirely in Polish.

A number of Polish Jews are members of the Religious Union of the Judaic Faith. The remainder does not practice any religion. There are no schools in Poland st. present in which Hebrew is taught.

It would seem that such small minorities, Poland would have no national minority problem. However, problems still exist because there is no clear government policy when dealing with miss subject. Most Poles identify Roman Catholics as the only true Polish citizens. On the other hand, the Polish government has signed and ratified many international human rights conventions. Most of these conventions contain statements prohibiting any ethnic, national, or religious discrimination. These conventions, and the European Convention of Security and Co-operation Accords signed on 29 June 1990 by Poland, Lithuania, Byelorussia, and Ukraine. The most extensive of these conventions is the treaty signed with Germany. The least clear regarding minority rights are the treaty signed by Poland and Byelorussia as it views the more powerful partner as the more dominant.

After the General Election of June 1989, the subject of national minorities was raised by the post-Communist Polish authorities. It was a new idea since the communist Polish government from Edward Gierek onwards maintained that Polish society was completely homogeneous and that the problem of national minorities did not exist.

In recognizing this issue, the new Polish authorities appointed two councils. The Committee for Ethnic and National Minorities was appointed by the Sejm in August 1989 and the Committee for National Minorities was appointed by the Polish government on 7 September 1990. Unfortunately in reality the activity of the former Committee was insignificant and the latter did not function. Also, the activity of the committees appointed by the Sejm between 1991 to 1997 did not bring any substantial results. The activity of the Polish Government's Office for National Minorities, in the Ministry of Culture, was limited to the distribution of very modest resources for cultural events. The subject of minorities emerged again in the Sejm when new laws regarding the national educational system, the electoral regulations, and radio and TV broadcasting were passed. As a result of these new laws, national minorities were granted the right to learn their languages and history in school and to receive access to radio and television.

Although the local elections of 1990 were carried out with any attention to the national minorities, national minority candidates managed to win a number of positions proportionate to their percentage of the population. For example, in Grodek, of 24 seats, the Byelorussian candidates won 22. In the Sejm which was elected in 1991, 7 deputies represented the German minorities and 1 represented the Byelorussians. In the most recent parliamentary election of 1993, the minorities obtained 4 seats .

However, the new, democratic authorities did nothing to change the existing laws which were unfavorable to minorities. For example, the decree of 30 July 1945 foresaw the official use of the Polish language without exception. Thus, although the district of Punsk is 90% Lithuanian, this fact is not taken into consideration by the Polish government: all Lithuanians are forced to use Polish in all official dealings and their names are Polonized. Other minorities are treated similarly, with the aim of quick assimilation. In general, there is no protection by law for the minority languages. Also, the culture of the national minorities is subject to discrimination. For example, in 1992 the Ministry of Culture allocated only 0.2% of its funds to minority needs. That meant curtailing publishing activity, closing buildings, and suspending artistic groups. Cultural activity still exists, thanks only to activists who work hard to provide material support as well as to some financial help from local authorities.

The national government does not fund any minority cultural activities nor support any cultural institutions such as museums, libraries and cultural centers. The only exceptions to this rule are the Jewish Theatre and the Jewish Historical Institute. Within the Polish government, no one is responsible for minority cultures.

Superficially, the cultural institutions of the minorities are given equal treatment to polish organizations. However, Polish institutions have a greater possibility for adequate support and private sponsors. In contrast, the minorities must rely on the local authorities. These authorities often show their hostility toward the minorities. For example, in Belsk Podlasky, the municipal government refused support to the Byelorussian choir even though the Byelorussians represent 60% of the city's population.

Opinions promoted by some Poles linking Polish culture and the Roman Catholic Church cause anxiety among non-Roman Catholic Christians (Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Lemkos, Czechs). There are no members of the minorities in the higher ranks of the civil service. There is therefore considerable discrepancy between the rights promoted by the Polish Constitution and the reality of the minorities' situation.

Byelorussians in Poland

After the Second World War, the Byelorussian population, estimated at 230,000, lived mostly in the Bialystok region . Polish nationalists forced some Byelorussians to leave Poland and move to the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Only in 1956 were the Byelorussians permitted their own cultural organization. The change in the political climate in 1956 allowed the social-cultural life of the Belarusian minority in Poland the chance to develop for the first time. This lend to the creation on 26 February 1956 of the Byelorussian Social Cultural Association (BTSK). The Byelorussian Social Cultural Association Cultural Society was the only legal Byelorussian social organization. This society was financed and supervised by the Polish Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Society published calendars and books of poetry, organized folk music festivals and literacy competitions for young people and children. It also established the Byelorussian Museum in Bialowieza which was abolished in 1976 as "unnecessary."

The communist system in place limited process to the development of culture by ensuring that no political activity resulted. In any case, society as a whole did not push for it. However, while there was no development of a national identity amongst the Byelorussians, there was the creation of the ideology of Białostocczyzna as their region .

The change of the political climate in Poland during the time of the Round Table and the whole transformation of the country from the controlled communist system to that of a free-market democracy had the enormous significance for Poland’s population as a whole, not least its minority components. After 1989, new Byelorussian organizations were activated. For example, in 1990, the Byelorussian Democratic Union was created as the only political party of a national minority in Poland. Members of this party were elected to some provincial and municipal council . The newly established Orthodox Brotherhood even succeeded in electing one Member of Parliament. The Byelorussian Federation, established in 1990, unites seven organizations and works without any financial support from the Polish government. Three Byelorussian periodicals are available in Poland today: the weekly "Niwa," the monthly "Czasopis," and the monthly "Przegląd Prawosławny - Orthodoxia." A students' paper — "Sustreczy" also appears, though irregularly. Byelorussians can tune into their own daily programme broadcast by the Polish Radio station in Bialystok.

The Byelorussian Museum in Hajnovka is now under construction but solely at the expense of the Byelorussian community. The community's Festival of Orthodox Church Music in Hajnovka has achieved international recognition. The literary group "Bialowieza," linking Byelorussian writers, has significant achievements to its credit.

The Byelorussian youth movement can boast of a multitude of successes. The movement is composed of two organizations: The Byelorussian Student Union and the Union of Byelorussian Youth. Two other organizations exist of a social and creative nature: the Byelorussian Literary Association "Bialowieza" and the Association of Byelorussian Journalists.

On 15 March 1993 was registered the Union of Byelorussian in the Republic of Poland. It groups together all the Byelorussian organizations in Poland, with the exception of the BTSK. Its activity includes all matters of importance to Byelorussians minority, and working on a common position for talks with the authorities aimed at solving the problems of the Byelorussians. Members of the Union of Byelorussian in the Republic of Poland participated in local government elections of 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002 and parliamentary elections of 1991, 1993, 1997. Finally represents of Byelorussian organizations have a influence to local policy.

The Byelorussian language is taught in 43 primary schools in Bialystok province to 3030 pupils. Additional teaching of Byelorussian is pursued in two secondary grammar schools. The rate of quantitative changes in teaching the Byelorussian language differs from that within other minorities. The schools network is unchanged while the number of pupils attending Byelorussian language classes is systematically dropping. A Department of Byelorussian Philology exists in Warsaw University and in Bialystok University.

Most Byelorussians in Poland are followers of the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox Church, only a small number being Roman Catholics.

However, this blossoming is endangered by the diminishing number of young Byelorussians learning their native language. Polonization is common as young people fear being penalized in their future careers. These fears began after anti-Byelorussian statements were made by Polish nationalists in Solidarnosc's Bialystok office. Orthodox churches were burned and difficulties emerged in repossessing Orthodox Church properties. Sometimes Byelorussians are blamed by local Bialystok newspapers for the introduction of communism to Poland or are considered as Russians who remained after the partition of Poland as a fifth, Bolshevik column. The individuals spreading these views do not regard the Byelorussians as indigenous to Poland and consider them a foreign group. This treatment of the Byelorussian minority in Poland has had repercussions for Polish - Byelorussian relations. In 1991, Foreign Minister Vladyslav Skubishevski's trip to Mensk ended in failure when Byelorussia would not sign a treaty of friendship with Poland because of Poland's treatment of its Byelorussian minority. Nevertheless, Byelorussia is in a deep economic crisis and is in no position to demand rights for Byelorussians living in Poland; such demands could harm economic relations with Poland.

Northeast Poland, where most Byelorussians live, is one of the least developed regions with regard to industry, commerce, and services. Agriculture is also underdeveloped because of the poor, sandy soil. There is a shortage of health services and of educational institutions. This underdevelopment results from intentional limitations of investments in the region - recently and in the past. There are ten times fewer telephones in the Byelorussian-inhabited, eastern region of Bialystok province than in the Polish-inhabited, western half. This proportion holds true for the number of doctors per capital as well as for the kilometers of paved roads.

Today, Byelorussians can be found in Bialystok and part of Suvalki province. That apart, groups mainly of Byelorussian intellectuals reside in most major Polish cities like Warsaw, Gdansk and Lublin. Byelorussians in Poland have no separatist tendencies. However, they desire to be treated as equals, to be able to develop their own culture and customs and to participate actively in governing the region where they live. Byelorussians hope that Polish integration into the European Union will cause European standards to be adopted in the field of minority rights and will safeguard the Byelorussians national identity.

Antoni Mironowicz