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Poland: how do young Silesians feel about their regional identity?

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Translation by:

Rosie Das

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Poland's upcoming census will give national minority groups the opportunity to express their sense of cultural belonging. In Silesia, in the southwest of the country, many people still feel a strong connection to the region. But how do younger generations feel about this heritage?

"Within families, it's often said that the second generation is very closely interested in their origins. For our generation of Silesians, it is the same." Mateusz, who was born in the region, and now lives in Rybnik, a city close to the Czech border, has little doubt: young Silesians are interested in their origins. Even if the younger generations have not mastered Silesian as well as their elders, the topic of regional identity has persisted and it's now resurfacing. Not only is Silesia the richest region in Poland after Warsaw, it also has the largest population and an extremely high rate of urbanisation (78%).

Mateusz and his partner have lived in Krakow, Munich, and New York. Now they have returned to Silesia. "We work entirely remotely for a company based in Warsaw. We're part-time entrepreneurs and activists." This activism takes the form of a website dedicated to Silesia. "We are local patriots and we use our free time and their resources to learn more about Silesia; to promote it and to preserve its language and ‘regional awareness.’" The couple post content about the region’s main attractions, while offering "tourist guides, articles in the Silesian language, podcasts and videos."

For these patriots, 2021 could mark an important step in the recognition of their identity. From 1 April, a nationwide census will take place in Poland which will run until the end of September. The compulsory form, which will be available on line, will ask Polish citizens questions about their religion and nationality. The inhabitants of Silesia will therefore be able to decide to declare their Silesian identity (or not), and, if necessary, indicate whether they use Silesian as their everyday language.

In one country or another

Łukasz Kohut, the Polish MEP, is fully committed to the recognition of Silesia as an autonomous region, and he sees the upcoming census as crucial. "My main mission is to fight for the right of citizens to freely express their ethnic and linguistic affiliation," he explains. The implication of a struggle is no surprise when you consider the history of this region. Historically, Silesia has been at a crossroads – some would say ‘cornered’ – between Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic (Bohemia). According to Mr Kohut, this turbulent history is a defining part of Silesian identity as "Silesians were divided by borders imposed by neighbouring nation-states, who were themselves hostile to one other."

During the interwar period, from 1920 to 1945, Silesia had a regional parliament (sejm) which granted some autonomy to its minorities. However, the experience was short-lived. After World War II the communist regime was in power for nearly 50 years and they left no room for regional identities. Despite the transition to democratic rule in the early 90s, Mr Kohut explains that "the policy of the Polish state in recent decades has been to deny regionalisms." He even adds that "the current government, with its nationalist obsession, is by far the worst since 1989." Nevertheless, he believes in the possibility of change. "I think that over time and with a political transformation, the situation could be different. I see a lot of young democratic politicians, whether left or centrist, understanding and supporting our cause."

The well-known fate of a regional language

Asia, who is soon to enter her twenties, performed for over a decade in Silesia's 'Naumiony theatre troupe' before moving to the UK. According to her, "Silesian identity cannot be separated from its dialect. The way in which you speak, the intonation, and the strength of the dialect cannot be separated from the history and traditions of Silesia." In the 2002 census, just over 50,000 people in Upper Silesia reported speaking the language. Yet these figures do not even cover the entirety of the region. For Mikołaj, who is 25 years old and also a student in the UK, the connection with language is less important. "Even if it is an essential part of the culture, personally, I do not think that Silesian identity is tied to the language. I know that some very committed young Silesians learn the language, but there are no possibilities to do so in school." He does not think the younger generation are re-appropriating the language in any meaningful way.

What's more, like any regional language, Silesian faces the question of its official status. Asia prefers to describe it as a dialect. "Unfortunately, it is not a language, but I hope it will be one day!" she says. Likewise, as is often the case with languages that survive only through the daily interactions of its speakers, it suffers from a lack of standardisation. Maciej, who is in his twenties, explains that "there is not a single Silesian language. It’s like a pair of trousers with holes: there are a lot of similar aspects, but there are also many different additions."

Silesian also suffers from a difficult legacy. "Some of us have been taught that it's frowned upon to speak Silesian. It was also a very common idea before, among the older generations, for whom it would have been awful to speak," explains Maciej. Asia regrets this situation: "I hear people saying that Silesian sounds ‘primitive’, and that makes me sad! The connotations surrounding the Silesian dialect are appalling." The issue of language also confronts another obstacle at a time in which learning languages is often looked at from a utilitarian standpoint. Stanisław, who has just turned 18, explains "we don’t really see how Silesian would be useful for our future, which we mostly imagine outside of Silesia."

A very pragmatic youth

Stanisław does not intend to "express any connection with Silesia" in the coming census. Issues of identity and language are often secondary to young people who are very European, mobile, and ready to seize opportunities abroad. Stanisław puts it bluntly: "The Silesian identity has never been very important to me." Maciej agrees. Although he has heard of the census, he too has no plans to report any specific connection to Silesia, "at least, nothing extra. If there is a question about ethnicity, I will answer, but if not, I do not feel the need to show my origins." These young adults don't try to hide the fact that they're not really interested in politics, or that they're not particularly well informed about the subject. Nevertheless, they both show pragmatism. Even if they aren't that interested in defending Silesian regionalism, they do have a number of very clear ideas, particularly regarding the need to abandon the coal industry.

"Silesia would not have become what it is today without the coal mines", argues Asia, who explains that the mines "are a part of the landscape, they are everywhere." Stanisław also points out that "a large number of Silesians believe that coal is our treasure." The industry, which dates back to the 18th Century, is the main source of employment in the region, and in 2015 the sector still employed almost 100,000 workers. Silesia is, for this reason, the most coal-dependent of all Poland's regions.

Despite this, many young people are unanimous: the mines must close. :"They will not be forgotten, on the contrary, but they must be closed as soon as possible," explains Maciej. Most of them consider a transition to renewable energy a very real possibility for the near future. "We can absolutely do it! More than that, we have to live without them!", says Asia. "We can let industrial identity prevail, but by using other forms of industry, such as green energy," says Stanisław. "It is possible to have a defunct institution that still functions as an important part of our culture," adds Mikolaj.

The European horizon

Another subject on which the Silesian youth seem to be unanimous is their attachment to the European Union. Stanisław actively intends to underline his status as a ‘European citizen’ in the next census. "I am very attached to the idea of a united Europe," he tells us. Indeed, beyond the mere feeling of attachment, these young people actually hope for deeper integration from a federal perspective. The EU seems to be popular among young people because it appears to represent a political solution that is advantageous to that of the Polish nation-state. For Mateusz, "if it was just the EU, I would be calm and feel secure about my Silesian heritage. There is clearly a place for minorities within the EU, and that is what makes it so attractive and powerful."

This young generation are not concerned with secessionist or separatist ideas. Nevertheless, Mikołaj, who plans to mention his Silesian identity in the next census, regrets that Poland is so centralized, and he would like to see more powers devolved to the regions. "Obviously, the dream would be to elect MEPs from regions that transcend [national] borders, but I understand that in the current state of affairs, that is not on the agenda," he adds. While it may only be a dream for now, it may yet become reality once this generation takes the reigns.

This article was produced in partnership with Courrier d'Europe Centrale.

For more stories about Poland's regions, see our Borderline project

Cover image: Silesian Museum in Katowice, on the site of an old mine © Patrice Sénécal

Story by

Thomas Laffitte

Budapestois, je m'intéresse de près aux sociétés des pays d'Europe centrale.

Translated from En Silésie, que reste-t-il de l'identité régionale chez les jeunes ?