Poles living in Lithuania are endangered

Anna Cichoblazinska

Neither the Tsar nor the German occupation, nor the communist Russification nor labour migration broke us down, and so we are going to survive now, says Jaroslaw Narkiewicz, MP of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania, member of the parliamentary Commission for Education, Science and Culture.

The right of Poles living in Lithuania to be instructed in their mother tongue has been restricted. The President of the Lithuanian Republic Mrs Dalia Grybauskaite signed the amended bill on education passed by the Lithuanian Parliament in March.
The language of instruction in Polish schools in Lithuania will be Lithuanian starting from the new school year. Seeking to cut costs, the network of Polish schools will be decreased. Despite the several month struggle of the Polish community in Lithuania and collection of over 60,000 signatures the bill comes into force in September 2011.

Bill against Polishness

According to the bill schools in Lithuania that are attended by national minorities should provide classes on history and geography of Lithuania in the Lithuanian language. This language of instruction must be used in classes on knowledge about the contemporary world concerning Lithuania and on foundations of patriotic education. The present bill allows schools to provide all classes in the native languages of minorities. The amended bill wants to have standardized graduate examinations in Lithuanian in all Lithuanian schools and schools attended by minorities. What does it mean for Polish young people living in Lithuania? Simply that they will be required to know Lithuanian on the same level as the Lithuanians. The explanation of the Lithuanian party that the counter-proposal to the amended bill was that history, geography or knowledge about society were to be taught only in Lithuanian is not any comfort at all.

Polish schools are endangered

The amended bill includes the problem of economy in education. In the framework of the so-called optimalisation of Polish school network minority schools in small towns and villages will be closed down and only Lithuanian schools will be left there. According to this law half of the Polish schools in Lithuania will be closed down. In Vilnius and its neighbourhood inhabited by the biggest Polish community out of 120 Polish schools only 60 will be left. Currently, 200,000 Poles are living in Lithuania. 18,000 children and youth are attending Polish schools. These schools are competitive towards the Lithuanian schools because their alumni outnumber the Lithuanian ones accepted at universities.

Failure of the Eastern politics

The decision of the Lithuanian authorities means a failure of Poland’s Eastern politics. It was in this mood that the media described the decision of Lithuania’s President who had spoken about hope that the rights of the Polish education and consequently, Polish minorities in Lithuania would not be limited. ‘I could sign only such a bill that will be an exact reflection of what the Lithuanians have in Poland. Poles living in Lithuania should not have worse conditions,’ the President said before the voting in the Lithuanian Parliament. Currently, representatives of all parliamentary groups are speaking about a fiasco of this politics, reminding the Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski of his too conciliatory politics towards Lithuania and lack of firmness in defending the demands of Poles who are living in their ancestors’ lands. These remarks do not only concern the present situation of Polish minority schools but also the decision of the Lithuanian Parliament, taken last year, concerning the spelling of Polish surnames in Lithuanian. Jaroslaw Narkiewicz, MP of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania and member of the parliamentary Commission for Education, Science and Culture, who despite the politicians’ hopes predicted such a decision of Lithuania’s President, said to the Polish Agency, ‘Neither the Tsar nor the German occupation, nor the communist Russification nor labour migration broke us down, and so we are going to survive now.’

Against the international law

The President of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania (AWPL) Waldemar Tomaszewski said that the bill restricted the Polish minority rights in Lithuania to a bigger extent than it was during the times of the Soviet Union when all subjects had been taught in Polish. He also said that the bill was incompatible with the Polish-Lithuanian treaty and with the international law saying that new legislative acts accepted in the European Union could not worsen the situation of national minorities. MEP Krzysztof Lisek is of the same opinion, which he expressed in his interview for Rzeczpospolita, ‘Lithuanian politicians may not have full understanding of the European law in this respect. They show some obscure obstinacy to fight against rights that are due to every national minority in the EU. If the Polish minority is a threat towards the sovereignty of the Lithuanian state. In his opinion if the law infringed the international law the Polish government should address the Lithuanian government about it and if that does not bring any effect the Polish government should appeal to the international organisations (Rzeczpospolita, 17 March 2011).

Polish diaspora lobby

The Polish immigrants’ organisations have succoured Poles in Lithuania as they are concerned about the fact that the rights of the Polish minority in Lithuania were restricted. On behalf of the Board of the Association of Polish Teachers Abroad based London Beata Howe expressed their opinion about Minister Sikorski’s activities regarding the bill on education restricting the Polish schools in Lithuania, ‘We think that he did too little to ensure a proper place of the Polish education in Lithuania. We cannot understand why he does not exert pressure on the EU and does not present the actions of the Lithuanian government against Poles. And struggling for education is also struggling for honour…’ Congressman Gerry Connolly, representing the District of Virginia, claimed the Poles’ rights in Lithuania. In his letter to the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton he writes about the complaints of Poles living in Lithuania who cannot use the original spellings of their surnames in official documents and about the concern of his electorate regarding the Lithuanian policy on education embracing the Polish minority. Democrat Connolly writes that they fear that the Lithuanian government can deprive Poles living in Lithuania of their national identity. The Polish communities in Washington and Chicago express similar concerns. The Polish-American Advisory Group, called into being to deal with this issue, is to look at the situation of Poles in Lithuania. Its President Jacek Marczynski says, ‘The authorities of the Republic of Poland are not defending sufficiently our fellow countrymen in Lithuania and allow their humiliation. That’s why the Group turned to the congressmen with Polish roots, including Marcy Kaptur and Daniel Lipinski, to help them. ‘We have appealed to 16 senators and eight congressmen, and we have collected signatures under the petition in the Polish parish in Washington,’ Marczynski explains. The President of the Polish American Congress Mr Frank Spula sent a protest against the discrimination of Poles to the Lithuanian authorities.

Proud nations

A few years ago it was hard to find a Lithuanian who did not understand Polish. The Polish TV programmes were generally watched, especially in the border lands. The Lithuanians learnt freedom from those media. But they themselves were not eager to admit their relationships with Poland. They built their history almost from the foundations since wherever they looked they saw Polish traces in the region of Vilnius or Kaunas. It is our common history and one cannot escape from it. In some sense we can understand proud Lithuanians, whose picture was marked in our awareness by Matejko in his painting ‘Battle of Grunwald,’ that they find it so difficult to see their own paths. And going through Lithuania several years ago one had the impression that the Lithuanian history stopped on Prince Vytautas. Monuments to him are proudly shown to foreign tourists. And what was after him? Then we had common history with which the Lithuanians have to face. So far they have tried to deny everything that in their opinions threatens the Lithuanian spirit, including issues connected with national minorities. Poles who did not leave their ancestors’ lands after the new borders had been marked have experienced this policy painfully. And despite the fact that the Polish government helps Poles living in Lithuania, for example assigning concrete sums for the Polish education, Poles living in the region of Vilnius expect greater support. And their demand is justifiable because in Poland the Lithuanians have broad rights to emphasise their nationality. Poles living in Lithuania express their bitterness, ‘A Lithuanian pupil in Poland leaves school and can see the Lithuanian name of the street, Lithuanian advertisements in shops, tourist information in Lithuanian, menus in Lithuanian in restaurants and coffee houses as well as Lithuanian inscriptions on monuments to their national heroes. When he looks at his school identification card he can have his first and last names spelled in Lithuanian. And what can a Polish pupil living in Lithuania see when he leaves school? If he can see some Polish inscription it is illegal and has been fined.’ Today Poland and Lithuania are members of the European Union, a community of nations that boasts of its minorities and cares for their developments. Lithuania cannot separate itself from these obligations. And we, in Poland, should not forget our obligation to support our countrymen in their efforts to cultivate the Polish culture and national identity.

"Niedziela" 16/2011

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Ireneusz Skubis • Translation: Aneta Amrozik • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl