We miss you, we long for Poland

Katarzyna Woynarowska

Poles from the eastern border more and more frequently visit the land of their forefathers. They are the third, sometimes the fourth generation of the displaced, the descendants of the insurgents, the victims of Stalin's transports. Well dressed, educated and aware of their Polishness. One does not associate them with old women in scarves.
'Their old, as if pre-war, charm and pretty soft accent endear them to us', thinks Maria, who is also a borderlander, and who for many years has invited some people, 'from behind the Bug', for holiday. However, a true battlefield to preserve Polishness is the place where the number of Poles is small, far from the centres of Polish immigrants: Lviv, Vilnius or Seleczniki [Salcinkai]. It is more difficult to preserve Polish culture and Polish style of life when you live for example in central Russia. Some of us have no idea about the number of places in the East where small Polish communities are and for whom Polishness is not a marginal matter. For instance, Stanislawa Afanasjewa from Smolensk has come to Poland recently, and she is worried that her fellow countrymen forget about Katyn. Therefore, she feels a sense of injustice. 'We struggled for this place so much and what will happen when the children and grandchildren of the murdered soldiers die?' she asks. The Poles from Smolensk feel that they are guards of the Katyn cemetery. There are not many of them, some 380, so the feeling is almost individual.
'This year only one person came for All Souls' Day!' Stanislawa recollects. 'Every year children from Poland come to Katyn, they are winners of various contests concerning the murder in Katyn. And the number of adults is not much bigger. Well, I would have forgotten. There is one man from Poznan, his father was killed by the Soviets and the Soviets tormented her to death in Kazakhstan. And that man insisted to preserve Katyn for posterity. A good man, noble man, old-fashioned one. And he alone organised a big thing. He transports children from a Poznan school to our kids in Smolensk. When the children from Poznan came here for the first time, their faces showed they did not want to stay here long. But after a few days the young people became friends. Like all young people. They became friends, they got to like one another, exchanged their addresses... Now we go to you and you come to us. And this is what it should be...

Poles in Russia

The organisation, headed by Stanislawa, is called 'Polish House'. Its headquarters is in her apartment - one can say in a big room. All began when a priest and nuns appeared in Smolensk. Word got out around that a priest from Poland prayed at the cemetery. A number of Polish people turned up.
There is something strange about Smolensk... The tsar and then the Soviets transported Polish people to Siberia, to Kazakhstan, they threw them to the other end of the world. But to Smolensk? In the very middle of Russia?
'Many people are wondering', Stanislawa explains, 'All armies that wanted to capture Moscow marched through Smolensk. Soldiers marched there and back... From Napoleon's times till Hitler's and all were finished off by 'general-frost'.
Thus there are some Polish names in Smolensk but these Poles who live here were forced by the Soviets to work here. After school, after university, you had to go where the regime wanted you. Stanislawa Afanasjewa, born in the region of Vilnius, studied in Minsk but then spent her adult life in Smolensk. Here she met her Russian husband, bore children, worked. She had lived peacefully, had ordinary life till she went to the cemetery to pray in Polish. That was a turning point for many Poles here. Afterwards they often prayed in the old tomb. They were impressed with what the priest, who had lived in the tomb for 7 years, did. They talked long hours. They invented this Polish House since people were taken with the man in cassock and were drawn to Polishness. The Priest was the spark; he explained to them that they were not alone, that Poland supported them, that they could do many things. Could they? Yes, they could! They decided to check and wrote to the Polish Embassy that they wanted to found a Polish school in Smolensk. And Poland did respond. They asked Warsaw to send a teacher and a teacher came. Currently, the teacher is Danusia who is a heroic person. This was an important moment, they felt the bond, felt they were rooted. They felt what national identity meant.

Who are you? Not necessarily a little Pole...

There is another strange thing about the school... It has 60 pupils, including three groups of adults. The oldest pupil Jadwiga Jarocka is 87 years old and has been learning Polish for four years, by the way, her results vary. But she loves singing in Polish at meetings and she often sings with children who sing as much as they can. Jadwiga comes to every meeting or celebration. She says, 'I have recovered Poland.' The community consists of 'the active', people from the former borderlands, people who cannot live without thinking, dreaming, speaking about Poland. Such are their natures... But the old people have fears. They have experienced a lot, they are cautious, timid. They remember that they did not speak Polish out of fear of being sent somewhere. They did so till they forgot and drowned the language of their childhood out.
'Pani Slanislawa', they whispered secretly, 'you should be watchful, for God's sake! Nobody knows what is going to happen! And what about if the Soviets returned?'
The middle-aged people and children feel drawn to Polishness. But students are the best. Even the people whose names are not Polish want to learn the language.
'They explain their decisions: I am not a Pole any longer, my parents are not Polish but my late grandmother mentioned that she was Polish. Well, what's the harm in it? Let the youth learn; let them get to know the country and its culture. It will do no harm, will it?' Stanislawa wants to make sure.
On the anniversary of John Paul II's death the Polish House received its first permission to prepare an exhibition of books on the Holy Father. The Russians allowed them to use a special place, the hall in the central library. And crowds of Russians came to the Polish exhibition, where Polish children read the poems about God written by the Polish Pope. The interest was so big that the organisers decided to translate, on the spot, the difficult verses of John Paul II's poetry into Russian. When they sang 'Czarna Madonna' and 'Barka' the whole huge hall began swinging. The Russians listened so attentively that they were moved to tears. Then the Polish House was invited to the university. And again the hall was bursting at the seams.

Universal, meaning not only Polish?

There is a beautiful Orthodox church in Smolensk and there is an equally beautiful Catholic church. A red, tall one. Only Polish people could build such churches. But it is not Polish now, nor it is Catholic. The priest who had lived in the tomb for 7 years moved to another place. The city gave Catholics the building of the former funeral house. They renovated it and prepared it and now the priest lives as a human being, and people have a godly place to worship God. Whereas the archives have been placed in the former church.
The Smolensk parish has about 550 believers, and besides Polish people there are students from Africa, Byerussians, Latvians, Ukrainians and some Russians. Since the communists have given free rein to us people have had terrible longing for holy rites.
'Take my marriage', Stanislawa explains, 'my husband is Russian. He let me baptise my children. I remember going 30 km to a priest during the night so that nobody could see us. But this year we have baptised my husband in the Catholic Church. Soon afterwards we took a church wedding. We have a couple: the man is Latvian and the woman id Polish. Her name is Rada and she is 75 years old, her husband is just a bit older and they stood before the altar exactly on the 50th wedding anniversary and promised to love, be faithful...And such pretty love stories happen here in Smolensk.
So are the stories of comebacks to God. Sometimes the way back is very long. Stanislawa knows a lot of such moving stories and she can talk for hours. But life must write new stories, stories of the Polish spirit being born in young Poles from Smolensk.
'When we opened the Polish school and the first kids came we looked at them and did not know what to begin with. The alphabet? No. We said: singing. So we sang for hours. 'Gleboka studdzienka' and 'Szla dzieweczka', we dreamt of those songs even during the night. We knew them since our mums and grandmas sang them to us. Without notes, without instruments, wholeheartedly, from memory. And we made children sing. Now we have a teacher, proper lessons, timetables but singing was first. Our band 'Ziarenka' [Seeds] sings so nicely that they have been invited to enter the song contest in Lodz several times.
This Christmas midnight Mass was in Polish and afterwards there was a special evening and carols. The children sang 'Lulajze, Jezuniu' like angels in heaven and the old furtively wiped away the tears. The priest gave a beautiful speech, broke the Christmas wafer with everyone and he recollected Poland. The Christmas tree was in the corner and there were presents under it, like in the homeland. The party lasted till the morning; there were dances, refrains and the sparks were flying up. This is how the Polish people from Smolensk rejoiced at Christmas and the New Year!

"Niedziela" 3/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl