Who am I?
Collecting the pieces of my Polish-Lithuanian heritage
Adriana Volosevic, City, University of London
‘Never forget where you came from. Always remember where you’re going.’ One summer morning, I read this quote ten times slower than usual, mindfully and consciously, absorbing the great value of these sentimental words. It took me my whole life, the time spent abroad, and the global pandemic to ask myself - who am I?
Every plant starts its journeys towards the sun from one seed. As the new-borns, we start searching for love, care, and a parent, with whom we form bonds essential for our limbic system development, allowing us to learn the first steps on how to recognise and control emotions. The next critical moment is at two years when the child begins to recognise who is involved in the closest community - the family. In my autobiography, however, the role of the mother was removed by a car accident on a cold winter day back in 1998. But the environment left evidence in the shape of heritage and a mission for me to solve this puzzle and connect all pieces spread across two countries by my Polish and Lithuanian ancestors.
The context of the Polish-Lithuanian relations is complicated, yet the awareness of it is vital for capturing the issues one may have with understanding their identity. The Polish-Lithuanian relations date back to the 13th century. The first personal union from 1385, is interpreted by some as a deed of incorporation of Lithuania by Poland. But it was the Union of Lublin in 1569 that led to the creation of a single state - the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Whilst, the partition came two centuries later, the time when the state formally did not exist is considered as the one represented by the greatest cultural pieces in Polish history, although quite a lot of them were created by artists coming from nowadays Lithuania - not making the whole situation even a bit easier to explain. Still, when the two states regained independence after the First World War, Polish-Lithuanian relations got worse because of the rise in the nationalist sentiments and competing claims to the Vilnius region. While for most of the twentieth century, the relations remained hostile, with the fall of communism, they experienced re-establishment.
Still, there are some ongoing issues. This includes Poland trying to leverage over the Lithuanian government regarding the Polish minority - something that Violeta Tymul describes as negative feelings of some Lithuanians as for their country being dominated by Poland in the past (or even colonised if to quote Maria Janion). Nevertheless, it cannot be overseen that any kind of nowadays conflicts raised between the two states have their roots in history, which then influenced the mutual perception of and by both countries, as well as the formation of national identity. Today, the Polish minority in Lithuania estimates around 163,000, so 5,26% of the country’s population (according to the 2016 census), making it the biggest minority.
Summer readings in Trakai
One summer day, I had a reading set before the start of another school year. One of them was ‘Pan Tadeusz,’ Poland’s national epic. But when I asked my grandpa to read it to me, he chose to talk about ‘Dziady’ instead. Written by the same author and to some extent discussing similar issues. ‘Dziady’ was my grandpa staged back in school. Without any doubt, those summer holidays were a critical moment in my self-identification.
My grandparents fell in love with each other and decided to spend the rest of their lives together in Trakai (Troki in Polish), the old capital of Lithuania. He was a journalist at the ‘Kurier Wileński,’ previously known as ‘Czerwony Sztandar,’ and ‘Tygodnik Wileńszczyzny.’ She was a passionate Polish language teacher (in Lithuania), born in nowadays Belarus (so-called Kresy), she could speak Belarusian, Lithuanian and Russian, as well as perfect Polish. They were connected by a mutual love for culture and language, which for my grandpa were the greatest values, a guide through life. He was a member of the Polish Song and Dance Ensemble ‘Wilia,’ the oldest Polish folk group in Lithuania. She read ‘Ogniem i mieczem’ countless number of times while being moved as deeply by its screen version. I considered myself Polish.
Polish or Lithuanian?
Only as a 13-year-old, on my trip to Kraków, I experienced an identity shock when my new Polish friends mocked me for my accent. It turned out that although I could consider myself Polish, I was not perceived as such by some due to my funny pronunciation.
As if I actually had an accent! For the ways in which I pronounced particular words were often labelled as ‘cute.’ I had to go through a complex self-identification process all over again. For me, it was even more difficult not only through the complicated history, politics and culture but by the set expectations of others, regarding what it means to be Polish or Lithuanian.
I would recommend discovering your past. Sometimes, it may be enough to look around and question your relatives about their stories. The black and white photos, the constantly repeated stories of your grandfather, peculiar traditions such as eating cucumbers with honey may repulse you at some point in your life, but growing up and finding oneself is to realise that all of that is what makes the real you.
Go on a journey into the world of memories created by your parents, grandparents and even those who are not with you. You may be surprised how those little elements may remind you about the forgotten values that become the answer to the most crucial question of who we are. Only when you have these pieces, you may join them to see the bigger picture, the answer you were looking for surrounded in distraction.
Czesław Miłosz, born in nowadays Lithuania himself, wrote that ‘language is the only homeland.’ It took me a while to realise I am not a typical Pole or Lithuanian. The story above is just a tiny piece of the puzzle that is a part of a greater and way more complex whole. I know who I am despite and because of those nuances, as well as thanks to my family, especially grandparents. I consider myself a Pole from Lithuania.