Divided Between Two Motherlands

7 September 2012, 14:49

Professor Jerzy Nowosielski, one of the few contemporaries who know what Polish-Ukrainian dialogue should be, died over a year ago. That he was an excellent person with whom to have a conversation is clear from the book Rozmovy z Jerzym Nowosielskim (Talks with Jerzy Nowosielski) which was translated into Ukrainian and published by Tempora.


Nowosielski gave a powerful lesson to his countrymen: he dispelled most myths about Polish attitudes towards Ukraine. There are plenty of such myths today, one of them being that Austrians invented Ukrainians. Many people in Poland continue to believe that if it had not been for the freedoms Galicians enjoyed in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ukrainian consciousness would never have developed.

This is one way in which Ukraine’s cultural and national importance is diminished and its centuries-long history is ignored in Poland. This feeling became especially popular in the interwar period when Poles, unlike Ukrainians, won independence. In 1919-39, the Polish government told its citizens that there was no such nationality as Ukrainian. Poland exerted great efforts to colonise Western Ukraine. Schools were closed; churches were ruined; Polish became the mandatory language of instruction in schools; and the opening of a Ukrainian university was blocked.

Everything possible was done in order to prevent the national consciousness of Ukrainians from surging in the Polish state and thus negate their aspirations for independence. The Polish authorities tried to persuade their citizens that Ukrainians were Ruthenians who wanted to prove to Poles they were a separate people. Students were taught in schools that Ruthenians lived around Kyiv, while Lviv and its suburbs were part of Poland. Polish romanticist writers and poets led by Juliusz Slowacki emphasised as much a century earlier. This is most obvious in Slowacki’s Mazepa and Sen srebrny Salomei (The Silver Dream of Salomea).

When The Silver Dream of Salomea was staged in Lviv in June 1932 by Leon Schiller, a theatre director of socialist persuasion, it scandalised the authorities. Schiller was arrested and later expelled from Lviv. Why? The authorities charged him with manipulating the original text. Formally, it was about the missing last stanza: Landlords! Let your purple house / Sleep … and I will sleep, too.” In reality, Schiller emphasised what Slowacki himself essentially conveyed in his drama: Poles colonized Ukraine and discriminated against Ukrainians.

There were few figures in Poland at the time like Jerzy Giedroyc and Stanislaw Stempowski (one of the two Poles in the UNR government who served as the minister for agriculture) who wanted to create an independent Ukraine beyond the Zbruch River and restore the national rights of Ukrainians in Eastern Galicia to what they used to be under Wladyslaw II Jagiello (1386-1434) when no language or religion had exclusive or privileged status in the Polish state. Unfortunately, the Polish government had other views in the 1920s and the 1930s.


Nowosielski spoke very critically of the way Poles treated Ukrainians in the interwar period. He said in an interview for Tworczosc: “You don’t even realise how conceited Poles were with regard to Ukrainians in Lviv […] They took no notice whatsoever of Ukrainian culture. They ridiculed them more than the Jews. This was fear before the numerical advantage of Ukrainians.” He added that a lack of understanding and arrogance were tolerated by the Roman Catholic Church which sought to diminish the influence of Greek Catholics.

Despite undeniable evidence of the tragic condition of Ukrainians in the Second Polish Republic, many Polish politicians and writers argued for the exact opposite after 1945. Even Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, a great friend of Ukraine who studied in Kyiv, said in his Diaries: “Ukrainians are not aware of our cultural role and keep saying that there was ‘Polish nobility’ in days of old. But this is an entire chunk of our life – Kremenets, Slowacki, Joseph Conrad and Karol Szymanowski […] It has European significance […] and it came into being thanks to the work of Ukrainian peasants but hardly because of exploitation.”

Iwaszkiewicz believed that in an ideal world, Ukrainian peasants would have been thankful to the Polish nobility for spreading culture. It should be noted that the writer himself was of noble origin: he grew up in Ukraine and looked at the world through the eyes of a landlord who had lost his estate. Nevertheless, he offered picturesque descriptions of Ukraine in his stories.

Nowosielski took a completely different approach. He said half-jokingly that he did not have a drop of Polish blood in him. Renowned poet Tadeusz Rozewicz added on this account: “He has one Ukrainian and one Polish eye.” In fact, Nowosielski was a Lemko and the voice, like no other, of wisdom in Polish-Ukrainian affairs. He spoke on this topic rarely but when he did, it was with the same wisdom with which he spoke about Orthodoxy (about which he was very knowledgeable) or icons (he is believed to be the most renowned modern-time Polish icon painter).


Nowosielski was forced to become a Pole. One signature was enough. When the communist security agencies began to persecute Ukrainians in the People’s Republic of Poland, people had to declare their nationality. “If you say you’re Ukrainian, they’ll call you a butcher and Banderite. If you say you’re a Pole, you’ll hear that you’re Ukrainian and only pretending to be Polish,” Dmytro Lukashyn of the Lemko Society recalls. In January 1948, Nowosielski’s father had their nationality changed from Ukrainian to Polish in official documents. This was the only chance to stay in the country and continue living a normal life. Back then, the smallest details “determined” what nationality you were. “If you had a Hutsul woman for a nanny, you were already a Pole of Ukrainian culture,” remembers Jerzy Stempowski, son of Stanislaw Stempowski, who grew up in Volhynia.

The first postwar years were hard on Nowosielski who was brought up in a multicultural family. He was humiliated and called a criminal at school, and he had to bear it. This must have shaped his worldview, but he did not yield to emotion and  endured it all. Instead of engaging in arguments, he educated himself and this eventually enabled him to speak without undue emotion (unlike many others) about things that were very difficult for both peoples.

Of course, he most often spoke about the Orthodox Church. He spoke about the essence of rapprochement between the Catholic Church and the Greek Catholic Church, which greatly irked Polish church hierarchs. Nowosielski argued that Poland had made a mistake by ratifying the 1596 Church Union of Berestia. If it had not been for this union, he maintained, there would be Orthodox Poles in Kyiv even today. He added in the same breath that the union mothballed Ukrainian distinctiveness. Interdenominational arguments quite often hampered Polish-Ukrainian rapprochement in the course of history. The Polish Catholic Church wanted to dominate, while Greek Catholics fostered Ukrainian national consciousness, and the Russian Orthodox Church often tried to set Poles and Ukrainians against each other. On the other hand, despite all the criticism levelled at Pope John Paul II, he made a great contribution in drawing our peoples closer together, which should not be forgotten.

Much more can be said about Nowosielski’s efforts to reconcile the two people. His activities were not like the political writings of Giedroyc or Jan Lipski. Rather, his is the modest testimony of a person whose affection was divided between two motherlands throughout his life. If he was able to build bridges between our nations instead of exacting revenge, despite the persecutions he suffered in Poland for “being different”, we should be able to do the same.


Quotations from the Zbigniew Podgorzec book Rozmowy z Jerzym Nowosielskim (Talks with Jerzy Nowosielski)

“I owe it to my parents’ home that I am a man of the borderlands. I was indeed raised in two cultures at the same time: Eastern Orthodox (Slavic) and Roman Catholic (Polish). This antinomy, often extremely painful in childhood, has given a lot to me.”

“If your father is Ukrainian and your mother is Polish and you live in a country where two cultures exist, you belong to both of them. I just don’t know what it is to be Polish or what it is to be Ukrainian; instead, I know what it is to be human.”

“As a person baptised in the Greek Catholic Church and a member of its community, I attended both the Orthodox Church and Catholic cathedrals. […] I also felt that my true faith was Orthodoxy. It seemed more real to me somehow…”

“Byzantium is a union with the West that is opposed to the East.”

“Byzantium has sense and becomes active; it makes an impact and comes into its own only when it faces the West, one way or another, in a good or bad way and even in the most tragic fashion. Then certain elements of consciousness come alive and become common to both Western and Eastern thinking.”

“Orthodoxy needs to defend itself against Catholicism with the weapons Catholicism itself uses, i.e., Orthodoxy must in some way become open to the Western idea in order to find a common space for dispute with Roman Catholicism.”


Lukasz Saturczak, a Przemysl native, is a prose writer and journalist and the author of Galicia, a book about Polish-Ukrainian relationships in borderlands


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