Who are the Kashubians, professor?
There are different answers, either joking or solemn and academic. As a joke, we could say that the Kashubians are those Highlanders who arrived in Kashubia on their way to the Holy Land, heading for the sea, and when they beheld it they shouted out “What’s the point in sailing anywhere? This is the Holy Land.” In folk tradition of course, Kashubia is the Holy Land. In the Kashubian epic by Hieronim Derdowski Ò Panu Czôrlińsczim co do Pùcka pò sécë jachôł, there is a scene where Czorlińści is examined in Oliwa Cathedral, where the organist asks him questions on the Holy Scripture. Of course, one question is about where Christ was born, and Czorlińści replies that everyone knows that Bytów and Bethlehem are one and the same, so Christ was born in Bytów. And there you have the whole story in folk tradition that the land on which we live is the Holy Land. In Kashubian Christmas carols, all the events take place here, where we are, in Kashubia.
But if I was to give an academic answer, you could say that the Kashubians are an ethnic group with their own language, their own identity, an awareness of their own history and intricate institutions. It is a unique and at the same time complex identity, shaped in a very complicated historical process on the border between Poland and Germany, and this has had an enormous impact. The vast majority of Kashubians have a so-called twin identity, i.e. as a nation they identify with the Poles but at the same time, they strongly underline their own ethnicity by saying of themselves that they are both Kashubian and Polish. But there are also some people who say that they are only Kashubian. And even people from Kashubia living in Germany who consider themselves Kashubian. For example, Günter Grass, a man with Kashubian roots, did a lot here for that identity. Hence the quite complex question of identity and identification. Kashubia is certainly an important social phenomenon and this is what has historically made them different in this Pomeranian borderland between Poland and Germany and continues to make them different to this day.
Are you a Kashubian, professor?
I am, of course.
Did that have an influence on your choice of academic interest on the issue mainly of national and ethnic minorities?
It is, of course, linked to some biographical experiences. As it turned out, I came to study History at the University of Gdańsk, and through studying in Gdańsk, I very quickly made connections with the work of the Kashubian-Pomeranian circle, mainly with the ‘Pomorania’ Student Club, then the Kashubian-Pomeranian Association. And I’ve been working in that environment, at the moment, for over thirty years. Professor Borzyszkowski, my mentor, always said that he had two universities – the university university and the association university, the public university. I can verify this. I also think that the atmosphere of the late 1980s was very important, when interest in minorities, especially here in Gdańsk, was very strong in history circles. Our year tutor was Professor Tadeusz Stegner, who draw us deeply into ethnic and minority issues. Suffice it to say that apart from me there was another colleague, Roman Beger, in our year, who later became director of the office of the Gdańsk Scientific Society and the two of us were linked to the Kashubian sphere. But Piotr Tyma also studied with us and he’s now head of the Ukrainian Union in Poland. Grzegorz Berendt was also there, now a professor on Jewish matters at the Institute of History. So we were working in that mixed environment and for us it was obvious that we should be working in different minority climates, so to speak. And that certainly determined the choice of academic path when I landed at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, gradually retraining or complementing my interests with sociological or anthropological interests. The minority of subjects were of course very strongly in evidence, i.e. Kashubians in the context of different groups, minority circles in Poland and elsewhere. I could also add that it came about because I’m from that sort of social, multicultural background. I was born, bred and continue to live in Bytów, where I would meet people on the street with very different identities, of very different origins – not only with Kashubian roots, but also from Germany, Ukraine, the Polish borderlands and other parts of the country. We played together and grew up in those backyards. It was, for us, an obvious situation, we weren’t necessarily aware of it as youngsters or children, but today this multiculturalism is very evident in Bytów. It’s in the town’s very identity, so for us it’s not strange that there’s the Kashubian-Pomeranian Association (I’m in the Bytów branch) but also a German minority, a Ukrainian minority with its own Union as well as a Greek-Catholic parish, and we all have great contact with each other. In 2013 we unveiled a monument to the Jewish presence in the Bytów region (I was head of the social committee). You could say that it is, in fact, our daily reality. We had a big project ‘Four Cultures of Bytów’ and we prepared an exhibition on multiculturalism. And then afterwards there was a whole project culminating in an album and conversations with people who had come from different cultures to live amongst us. You can go to the webpage bytow4kultur.pl and check. We have conversations with people from Germany, Denmark, France (actually Brittany), Russia, Bulgaria, Switzerland and even Sudan, because these people are in our world. Such is multicultural daily life.
Back to the Kashubians. The title of your habilitation was Kashubians – between Discrimination and Regional Subjectivity. To what extent has the period of fierce discrimination, which I remember and I’m not that old, had an influence on the increase of subjectivity?
It is of course a complex process because the experiences or the memory of the Kashubians are very complex. It is also a local memory we have to be aware of because the memory varies on the Hel Peninsula or in Puck and again in the area around Bytów, so in the part which was German under the Reich and where the people had German citizenship. In 1945 they were confronted with a completely new and unknown reality. If I had to point to one group that was particularly discriminated against, then that would be the people from the former German region who lived on the German side, as well as the inhabitants of the Free City of Danzig. It’s enough to say that after the experiences of the Stalin era between 1956-1959 several thousand German residents of Gdańsk left the city and then in the 1970s and 1980s Kashubians were leaving from the very region of Bytów. When Karolina Literska defended her doctorate at the University of Poznań in the late 1970s, it was the only defence which was not public. She wrote about the process of emigration, the exodus of Bytów Kashubians. That’s why it should be stressed that things were different in the former Polish Republic and the Pomeranian Voivodeship. Maybe because the Polish Kashubians had already had ‘training’ in the Polish state in the interwar years and didn’t have the best memories of it anyway, especially from the 1930s at the time of the Great Depression when there was a very difficult economic situation. Then of course there was the post-war period, particularly in the Stalin years. It was a time maybe not so much of discrimination as deep mistrust towards Kashubians. I don’t want, however, to make it sound like the Communist era was a total wasteland and nothing could be done. There was after all the Kashubian Association (later reformed as the Kashubian-Pomeranian Association), founded in 1956, which kept its autonomous status to the end and which did a great variety of things. The way Kashubian identity and culture looks today is the effect of decades of work, even in communist times. Important institutions were created. The Museum – Kashubian Ethnographic Park was expanded in Wdzydze, the Museum of Kashubian-Pomeranian Literature and Music in Wejherowo was established and the monthly magazine Pomerania was coming out. Not without difficulty, it must be said, but those institutions were still functioning. The process of subjectivity took a long time – the whole interwar period and then later all through the communist era. The breakthrough came obviously after 1989. There were detours and set-backs, sometimes things went well, sometimes badly, but we wouldn’t be where we are today if it hadn’t been for the work that was done in all those years. Thanks to all that, we can speak of a renaissance, or the ethnic re-awakening of Kashubians. To a great extent, in my opinion, this was due to the education of our own elite. That was the key thing. Pedagogical secondary schools, and later higher institutions, played a very important role here. A whole generation was being educated after the war with a lot of extraordinarily symbolic figures such as Professor Józef Borzyszkowski, Professor Brunon Synak and Professor Jerzy Treder. We could name a lot of such people, connected for example to the University of Gdańsk, but there was also a whole crowd of people unconnected to the university in different cultural, academic and media institutions, like Lech Bądkowski, Tadeusz Bolduan, Stanisław Pestka or Iza Trojanowska. They are all people who started their active, cultural or creative lives in the post-war period in the communist era. All the same, they could find enclaves of freedom and liberty to such an extent that in 1989 and 1990 we had really been prepared for crossing over into a period of transformation.
How relevant were publications in all this? We could mention Moja kaszubska stegna by Professor Brunon Synak.
You could say that it was the testimony of that certain generation. Another example, not a pure memoir in form, is the book by Professor Borzyszkowski Moi mistrzowie i przyjaciele, where he describes his mentors and friends outside the university world.
Synak’s memoirs, Borzyszkowski’s book and other similar documents are fascinating tales of a certain environment, people born right before, during and after the war. They were educated in the 1950s and starting from the 1960s, 70s they changed the face of that environment in the 1980s. In that very difficult era, the Kashubians had refined their own artistic, intellectual, academic and journalistic elite, as well as an economic and business elite, all of which is very significant. Later came the political elite. It’s not as if there were no Kashubians in the power structures of the communist system. There were, of course, and for that reason, certain things could be arranged. Perhaps it was a certain characteristic, I don’t want to use the word ‘advantage’, an important feature of that society that this elite, in the broadest sense of the word, was able to arise. And importantly, it had, as Professor Boryszkowski has described, a folk face until the 19th century. This new influx were the sons of farmers, yokels and the petit bourgeoisie. Then this intelligentsia began to re-establish itself because we are all well aware that we took a terrible beating during the war. People in Poland often do not know what the occupation of the whole Pomeranian region was like, when practically the entire local elite, if in any way active at all, was murdered – thousands of people. This, of course, all affected us, the local community. Some people survived but everything had to start from scratch again after the war. It’s fascinating, for example, that these people with their very different experiences and very different views, outlooks and commitments could do anything together in 1956. On the one side there was Lech Bądkowski and on the other Professor Andrzej Bukowski, for example, an outstanding academic but a controversial figure in the political sense. But when the moment came, when a window of opportunity opened for cooperation, they managed to achieve something. There was the young Tadeusz Bolduan, Bernard Szczęsny as well, who was after all Mayor of Wejherowo and very politically engaged. Here I’d like to stress one thing that I mentioned in a monograph for the association with the title United in an Idea − the association’s flag carries the motto ‘Zrzeszonëch naju nicht nie złómie’, a motto you can also read on the Świętopełk monument: United, or together, no one can break us. And this is, I believe, the key theme in the Kashubian movement.
How and with whom do you prefer to spend your free time, professor?
Free time is a tricky subject. Above all, of course, I spend it with the family. My wife, my daughter and I love travelling. At some point in the year, sometimes once, sometimes twice, we manage a trip, whether long or short. Since the ladies love the heat, we normally go somewhere warm – I can now say that temperatures above 40º do me no harm. Although I’m a northerner, I’m not too fond of winter, so we don’t go skiing anywhere, for example. I love being at home. We have a great house in Rzepnica near Bytów, in a little estate with beautiful surroundings, which is why we feel really good there. I like to read without obligation, not what I have to or should, what’s lying there waiting for me, but whatever catches my eye. Sometimes I like watching films, fantasy, for example. It all helps me forget about all the problems which are still around. We love taking walks and we live in a place, in the most beautiful part of Kashubia, where we have the forests and lakes literally five minutes from our door. And from there we have great places for walking and cycling. If some free time crops up, we try to spend it together.
Thank you for the interview, Professor.
Interview: Dr Tadeusz Zaleski
Photography: Piotr Pędziszewski
Gdańsk, 19 January 2016.