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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hide and Seek

Poland is part of Europe. But of course, you say. Just look at the map. There it is: Poland. Right smack in the center of Europe. As sixteen-year-old Annika says, “well, duh.” It’s there, all right, conveniently situated exactly where it has been for hundreds of years, stuck right there in the middle of the European continent, offering easy access to armies from east and west. Yes, indeed, that wide open field in the heart of Europe is Poland. Except for when it isn’t. Ah, there’s the rub. Poland isn’t always where it is. Or isn’t. Or was. Or wasn’t. Put simply, Poland has been hard to keep track of. Sometimes Poland wasn’t here. Or there. Or anywhere. There were times, whole centuries, in fact, when Poland went completely missing. Search any map. Look high and low, there is no trace. Poland is gone! Lost. You blink, you turn away for several decades and Poland has vanished. It simply isn’t there. Entire centuries, notably the 19th, passed without any evidence at all of a Polish nation on the map. It disappeared completely. Except that it didn’t. Turns out, Poland was there all along. Hiding. Or more to the point, hidden. Pushed underground, shrouded with obscurity, pounded down and then carved up into three pieces. The biggest chunk of Poland was hidden away within Russia. Another part in Germany. And the third was tucked neatly into Austria. Each of these three countries was determined to hide Poland most of all from itself. Formerly Polish citizens were forbidden from even seeing their own language, from speaking it, learning it and teaching Polish to their children. Poles were deprived of their own culture, history, and traditions; it was illegal to practice and celebrate ancient Polish customs. They were not allowed the basic rights of citizenship in any nation, including owning land and self-government. Ancient and rich Polish traditions of education, democracy, science, music and literature and other arts were hidden from the very cultivators of these precious treasures. Marie Curie, Frederick Chopin, and other brilliant Poles sadly realized they would have to find freer societies for their genius to flourish. For a time, these three partitioning powers tried vainly to disguise Poland, to make it look like another country altogether. Each attempted to dress it up as part of themselves, but the real Poland kept popping out. Even while Poland shared aspects of its identity, its ethnicity, religion and culture with all of these three usurping empires, Poland did not look convincing to outsiders, much less to itself, when fitted out as part of Austria, Russia or Germany. Ultimately, there was no hiding it. Whether disguised or hidden or hunkered down, Poland was unmistakably itself and eventually (after World War One) had to emerge from obscurity and oblivion. Poland also moved. Left, right, up, down, over, out and around, Poland, at least, was a moving target. It did and did not control the Baltic coast, then it did and didn’t again. It was and wasn’t east of the Bug River, west of the Oder, inclusive of Lithuania, Ukraine, parts of Slovakia. When Poland reappeared on the maps again at the end of World War I, its borders were not the same as they had been when it was cut apart, over a century earlier. And Poland at the end of World War II had still different borders, as if the entire land mass had taken two giant steps left (pun not intended, well, maybe, pun intended). The Soviet Union had taken for itself a big part of what had been Poland in the east, enlarging the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the victorious Allied powers had given Poland parts of what had been Germany in the west. People who had started the war in Germany, ended it – without moving – as Poles. Ironic, isn’t it. Vast numbers, however, of formerly German citizens were resettled westward, losing their lands, their homes, their livelihoods. Polish citizens in Lvov, if they survived at all, now found themselves with the dubious distinction of Soviet citizenship, although some Poles from the former eastern region, now in the USSR, were planted in these newly Polish areas in the west. Confused? Join the club. Which brings us to this. Poles have, from time to time, hidden themselves. Underground. Forbidden to be Polish, to teach or speak, to celebrate and carry on their own Polish customs, Poles of earlier eras took themselves to ground, doing whatever they could to speak and sing and read and teach, to practice their religion, to govern themselves and run their own affairs, tucked beneath the surface of things, away from the watchful eyes of their arrogant, ruthless official leaders. During the period of the partitions, under the Russian, Austrian, and German regimes, the Poles suffered terribly. At the same time, they cleverly outwitted and undermined their overlords. Children were taught in homes, in secret; they learned from an early age the cost of telling tales out of these clandestine schools. Higher education was carried out in what they called “flying schools,” or “flying universities,” a practice revived of necessity at points in the communist era of the 20th century. They operated without formal sanction but continued to provide not only an excellent education but also the various diplomas and certifications that prepared Poles for future service in the medical, legal, scientific and other professions, and in service of a once and future Polish nation. All of these earlier lessons served them well when, once again, in the 20th century during the brutal Nazi German occupation and again at critical times during the post-war Soviet-imposed Communist period. These flying universities and underground schools, press, businesses and professional activities, unions and even, to an extent, small self-governing civic units were reliable sources of social order and authentic Polish life. Poland was there, even when it wasn’t. Poland was on the map at the dawn of the 21st century. But, of course, you say? Consider this, Poland was missing, invisible, wiped off the map when the two previous centuries started. It seems safe now to draw these new, post-1945 borders in permanent ink but Poland, perhaps more than any other European country, teaches one to keep an eye on the horizon. Things change. They come. And go. For good, and for ill. One thing is for sure, nevertheless. Poland is stuck in the middle.

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