Tomasz Kamusella: Multicultural Opole?

Multicultural Opole?
‘Multilingualism’ in an Ethnolinguistic Nation-State

Tomasz Kamusella
University of St Andrews

Massive wartime and postwar ethnic cleansings made Poland into an ethnically homogenous nation-state of Polish-speaking Catholics. During the communist period the existence of any ethnic minorities was strenuously denied, though Jews had to be expelled in 1968, Germans after 1970, or Roma in 1981. Yet, Upper Silesia remains the most multiethnic region in today’s Poland. According to the 2011 census, the country’s most numerous minorities (that is, non-Polish-speaking citizens of Poland), include, Silesians (850,000), Kashubs (230,000), Germans (150,000), Ukrainians (50,000), or Belarusians (50,000).[1] Out of 1.4 million ethnic non-Poles, over two-thirds (1 million) live in this historical region, that is, almost all the members of the country’s Silesian and German minorities.[2] To this figure, 10 to 20 thousand Roma should be added, who are undercounted in censuses, due to widespread discrimination.[3] Furthermore, it should be remembered that after World War II, Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust found a relatively safe Yiddish-speaking haven in Silesia until 1968.[4]

At present the historical region of Upper Silesia is split between two administrative units, namely, Opole Province and Katowice (Silesian) Province. At 4.5 million inhabitants, the latter is almost five times more populous than Opole Province with its population of less than 1 million. Yet, one has a better chance to come across a Silesian or German in Opole Province, where these minorities add up to a third of the inhabitants,[5] while only to 7.9 percent in Katowice Province.[6] In addition, Opole is the historical capital of all of Upper Silesia.

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Silesians in Opole Province and Katowice Province (2002 Census)

(Source: Wikimedia CommonsŚlązaków.png)

After the devastating floods in 1997[7] that destroyed many Czech, German and Polish villages, towns and cities in the draining basis of the River Oder, many – including Opole – seized this tragic event as an opportunity to rebuild more in line with the inhabitants’ needs and wishes. Such a face-lift was much needed after the grey neglect of the communist times. This campaign of urban beautification and self-reinvention extended to the Municipal Public Library (Miejska Biblioteka Publiczna) in Opole. Between 2008 and 2011, the library’s new seat was constructed in the scenic Old Town. The 19th-century building was merged with an ultramodern annex, appropriately symbolizing the meeting of the past with the future.[8]

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Germans in Opole Province and Katowice Province (2002 Census)

(Source: Wikimedia Commons

The steel and glass façade constitutes an imposing, but welcoming, entrance to the library. From afar it looks like a motorway leading to the blue sky of knowledge and reading pleasure. The granite ‘road sides’ are enticingly adorned with waves of words, which spread, as though the green grass of a fresh thought or inspiration. On a closer inspection, the flâneur discovers that these are well-known passages by the popular, but mentally tormented, Polish poet Edward Stachura (1937-1979), who died by his own hand.[9] The quotes are given in the Polish original and English translations.

Edward Stachura’s poetry in Polish and English translations on the entrance façade of the Municipal Public Library in Opole

(Source: Wikimedia Commons

The bilingual character of this poetic adornment opens the library and its readers to a wider world, where the future lies. Yet, something is amiss. Where are the past and present? How do the figure and poetry of Stachura connect these with the future? The poet was born in France and died in Warsaw. He translated from French and Spanish, while his work was inspired by travels in North America and western Europe. Stachura’s tenuous connection to Opole was his acquaintance with the older and ethnically Silesian writer Rafał Urban (1893-1972),[10] who then headed the Opole branch of the Union of Polish Writers (Związek Literatów Polskich).[11] But Stachura visited Opole only briefly.

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However, such a literate façade amounts to a loud statement in Opole’s public space, immediately visible to all and sundry, and at the same time pregnant with meaning. A foreign visitor may be excused for thinking, quite mistakenly, that the official languages of the city and Opole Region are English and Polish. There is no English or any other Anglophone minority thriving there. No community of native-speakers of English live in Opole. The façade’s seemingly welcoming bilingualism covers the ugly reality of forced Polonization of German-speakers before 1989. An underhanded version of this policy continues after the fall of communism and the introduction of democracy in Poland. But not really, the present-day Polonization is quite open vis-à-vis the Silesians, given Warsaw’s obstinate denial of the existence of the Silesian language and its speakers. It is actually a mirror image of the official position on the non-existence of any Germans or their language in communist Poland.

Times and political systems change, Polonization and a pronounced lack of respect for non-Polish others remain. The library’s façade is the proverbial middle finger, which the ethnic Polish majority show to Germans and Silesians, while posing it to visitors from abroad as a sign of the region’s mature and welcoming Europeanism and cosmopolitism.

Otherwise, a more fitting poet could be found whose words would speak to and include all Opole’s inhabitants, be them Germans, Poles, Roma or Silesians. One would think that the famous German-language romantic poet Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788-1857) would be an obvious choice. He was born in Upper Silesia, and most of his works were translated into Polish, English, Silesian and other European languages.[12] But should the library aim at a more universal message than the romanticism of individual feelings, I would propose the two interwar Polish citizens who were the first to write literary witness accounts of the Jewish Holocaust and the Roma Holocaust, respectively, Yitzkhak Katzenelson[13] (1886-1944) and Papusza[14] (Bronisława Wajs, 1908-1987). The latter wrote the narrative poem Ratfałé jasfá. So pał saséndyr pšegijám apré Vółyń 43 i 44 beršá (Tears of Blood: Or What We Suffered under the Germans in Volhynia in 1943 and ‘44) in Romani, and the former the book in verse Dos lid funem oysgehargetn yidishn folk (דאָס ליד פונעם אױסגעהרגעטן ײדישן פאָלק Song of the Murdered Jewish People) in Yiddish.

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Beyond such a choice of a poet, the question of language remains open. Language is a message. The current message on the library’s façade reads, ‘ethnic Poles and foreigners are welcome, but local Germans and Silesians should not bother (let alone Roma or Jews).’ Why not to adorn the entrance with a suitable quote in German, Polish, Silesian, Romani and Yiddish, so that all the region’s inhabitants would feel welcome to the library, including Roma and Jews? But what about foreigners?, one could ask. How would they feel without a prop of an English translation? Well, a traveller does not set out on a journey abroad with the expectation that English must be an official language in Opole. I am sure that most of the library’s staff are conversant in this international language, which suffices. But when will the time come that as fluently they would reply to an enquiry asked in German, Romani, Silesian or Yiddish? After all these – including Czech, Moravian and Polish – are Upper Silesia’s languages.

June 2020















Foto tytułowe: Arcaion

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  • 6 kwiytnia 2021 ô 21:51

    Brave text. More people should be able to understand what is going wrong in Oppeln/Opole and why the Polish Academia doesn’t make a changing point towards an open minded society and the right way of coping with multicultural heritage of the region of Upper Silesia. Potentials which are awarely kept silenced.


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