The Second World Polonia Congress is history

Will a world-wide pro-Polish lobby ever arise?

By Robert Strybel, Our Warsaw Correspondent.

WARSAW–Recently 320 Polonian delegates from around the world deliberated for five days in Warsaw, Pultusk and Kraków, and celebrated the Third of May holiday with the Polish Episcopate at Czestochowa’s legendary Shrine of the Black Madonna. The Second World Polonia Congress had convened to discuss the problems of people of Polish ancestry world-wide and to develop new ways of working together for common goals.

The latest congress differed somewhat from the first one held in Poland nine years ago. Back then, the euphoria of Poland’s recently regained independence had still not worn off, and many delegates had crossed the border of a free Poland for the first time. Something completely new were the first official contacts with Poles from the East, who could not be spoken about freely under communism for fear of irritating Moscow. Back in 1992 hopes for a new, dynamic stage of cooperation with the authorities of the Third Polish Republic ran high. Instead of the old Polonia Society, linked to the former communist regime, contacts with Polonia were now being promoted by its successor, the Polish Commonwealth Association (Stowarzyszenie Wspólnota Polska), and the world-wide Polonia was now to be under the care of the reactivated Polish Senate, just as it was before World War II.

But with the exception of charitable and educational aid to Poles living in the post-Soviet East and perennial events (festivals, sporting competitions, summer school, etc.) mostly carried over from the communist era, not much had come of plans to create an influential world-wide Polish-Polonian lobby. On the contrary, in recent years various conflicts had erupted between Polonia and Poland. It is no wonder that at the recent congress the Polish authorities were accused of failing to consult with Polonia on matters of vital concern. These included the restitution of property confiscated by the former regime, the issue of dual citizenship, the Pole’s Charter and the defense of the good name of Poland, Polonia and things Polish around the world.

A variety of matters were raised during the proceedings in the form of resolutions or general demands. They included issues of local or regional scope:

– Germany should honor the treaty it signed with Poland a decade ago and stop discriminating Germany’s Polish minority;

– The authorities of Belarus should allow Polish schools to be established in the cities of Lida, Grodno and Nowogródek;

– The Lithuanian government should observe the provisions of the Polish-Lithuanian Treaty on returning land to Lithuanian Poles;

Other issues were directed to the authorities of the Republic of Poland:

– The Sejm (parliament) should enact a Pole’s Charter, a document granting people of Polish descent privileges not enjoyed by ordinary foreigners, including the right to unlimited, visa-free border crossings and stays in Poland as well as access to the educational opportunities and medical care to which Polish citizens are entitled;

– Polonians should have the right of dual citizenship and should be able to come to Poland on a Polish passport or the passport of their country of residence as they prefer;

– In view of the negligible knowledge that today’s Poles have about Polish communities abroad, Polonian Studies chairs should be established at Polish universities.

– Polish society should have the right to know that Polonians around the world think of the situation in Poland.

– The Polish authorities should swiftly and decisively react to all instances of anti-Polonism in foreign media and public institutions and should work together with Polonia in that area.

The congress felt that many of those issues could be dealt with better by breathing new life into the rather inactive World Polonia Council which should become an international pro-Polish lobby. A resolution to that effect was signed by delegates from North and South America, Europe and Australia, representing the world’s largest Polish communities. The Council’s organizational details and scope of activities are to be worked out over the next six months.

The only unpleasant dissonance was the luckily failed attempt to have the congress dominated by a dispute between Polish-American Congress President Edward Moskal and the former director of Radio Free Europe’s Polish Section, Jan Nowak-Jezioranski. Annoyed by Nowak-Jezioranki’s constant urging that Poles apologize to the Jewish nation for the 1941 Jedwabne massacre, Moskal asked whether he might not have something on his own conscience. Nowak-Jezioranski had lost a libel suit in Germany some time ago against someone who had identified him as a Nazi collaborator. Nowak-Jezioranski admitted he had worked for the Germans during the war but on orders from the Polish underground in order to gain an alibi for his courier activities. The matter might have ended right there if Poland’s largest daily had not launched a veritable anti-Moskal crusade. For an entire week preceding the congress ‚Gazeta Wyborcza’ mobilized politicians, intellectuals, obliging clergymen and anyone else they could against the PAC president. Since controversies sell newspapers and improve ratings, other media jumped on the bandwagon. When Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek said on TV that he was planning to meet with delegates to the Polonia Congress, the well-known political interviewer Monika Olejnik asked with indignation: ‚Even with Mr Moskal?’

Despite these concerted efforts, the congress did not get derailed nor were Poland’s leading politicians persuaded to boycott the proceedings. The gathering was ignored only by foreign minister Wladyslaw Bartoszewski who had already been irritated by Polonia for daring to criticize his allegedly pro-Jewish policies. The viewpoint of most delegates was summed up by an elderly British Polonian who said on Polish network TV: ‚Both those gentlemen — Moskal and Nowak-Jezioranski — have done a great deal for Poland. It’s too bad they cannot get along.’ It is true that several people left the hall when Moskal began to speak, but many times that number enthusiastically chanted ‚Mos-kal, Mos’kal…’, when he entered the hall. And outside Holy Cross Church, where Primate Józef Glemp was about the celebrate the inaugural mass, a crowd of Polonians broke into a round of ‚Sto lat’ for the PAC president. Naturally, such demonstrations would not have occurred were it not for the above-mentioned anti-Moskal campaign.

Regardless of whom they tended to side with or their total indifference to the quarrel, the Polonian delegates did not like the idea of outsiders trying to impose their agenda on the congress. The Polonians had come to Poland to discuss issues of common interest, and these did not include a row between the two Pol-Ams nor the outcry certain circles had had tried to stir up. Upon taking the floor, Moskal did not allude to the media-driven controversy, but he did win the support of the congress when he said. ‚When the initial enthusiasm had subsided (after 1989–RS), time and again we felt that to Warsaw we had not ceased being an object. An object-like relationship means treating the other side as an applicant (…) I do not conceal the fact that the past 12 years have given us many uplifting and beautiful moments, but they have not spared us many bitter disappointments and disenchantment (…) Administrative governing has never built bonds nor bridges between Polonia and the ancestral homeland; it has only caused resentment and resistance. The time has truly come to abandon such dogmatic thinking in the new Poland.’ Moskal also complained that the old-country authorities react to every critical remark or suggestion from Polonia with ‚official ostracism, mobilizing opposition and deploying repressive diplomatic measures’. That latter charge apparently referred to stripping Latin American Polonia leader Jan Kobylanski of honorary consul status for criticizing Polish government policy.

Helena Miziniak representing the British Polonia addressed the gathering in a similar vein saying: ‚Our congress resolutions and suggestions vanish among the mounds of official papers or land in the waste basket and have always gone unanswered. AT every congress we repeat the words: „Nothing about us without us” (…) In Poland there are many government and civic bodies dealing with Polonian affairs. Has a member of Polonia ever been on even one of them? Can one discuss Polonia and take decisions in its behalf without previously analyzing a given community? That is how things were in the case of the citizenship law, the Pole’s Charter and reprivatization (property restitution–RS).’

Prof. Andrzej Stelmachowski, the president of the Polish Commonwealth Association that organized the congress, told the delegates: ‚The Polish authorities are doing too little to win the sympathy and support of Polonian organizations (…) We have noted unnecessary irritation in relations with the top leaders of Polonian organizations (…) Living as we do under different social, economic and political conditions, of necessity we differ amongst ourselves, but we have too much in common to underscore and magnify those differences. And in no wise can the interests of our (Polonian) compatriots be sacrificed on the altar of good relations with other countries or other influential groups.’ Those remarks were enthusiastically applauded by the delegates who resent world-wide Jewry meddling in the internal affairs of the independent and sovereign Polish Republic.

The Second World Polonia Congress has set an ambitious program. Let us hope that this time the entire matter will not end with that typically Polish straw-fire enthusiasm and wishful thinking. It should be added that a shortcoming of the congress was a failure to adequately publicize it abroad. Many Polish Americans with whom I regularly communicate knew nothing about it. In fact, I’ll wager that many readers are learning about the event in this column for the first time. Despite several attempts before and during the congress, I could not get the Polish Commonwealth Association to fax me the agenda of the proceedings.

Another problem was the lack of young Polonians at the congress which was dominated by delegates of pre-retirement age and older. Conspicuously absent were younger US-born Pol-Ams who are obviously the future of the world’s largest Polonia. Since for the overwhelming majority of the latter the normal means of communication is English, let’s hope that future deliberations will be conducted at least bilingual. The chance to remedy that shortcoming will arise five years from now when the Third World Polonia Congress is due to convene.

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