At a crossroads: Kashubians in Poland are faced with a demographic dilemma9 min read

 In Analysis, Central Europe, Civil Society
The results of the 2021 census in Poland produced a shock for Kashubians, a small minority in northern Poland little-known outside of the Republic. A decline of over 50,000 members has left two of its most prominent organisations wondering how to move forward in light of a lack of government support and bureaucratic obstacles. 

Sitting on the northern shore of Poland is the city of Gdansk, the capital of the Pomeranian voivodeship. The city is also the unofficial capital of the Kashubian minority concentrated in northern Poland, whose current situation is rather unfortunate. According to the most recent national census in Poland, between 2011 and 2021 the number of Kashubians fell by over 55,000. Although the decline is a widely acknowledged fact, the reasons for the shrinking population are subject to debate.

Who are the Kashubians?

The Kashubians are the sole survivors of the Baltic Sea Slavic people. They speak Kashubian, which, along with Polish, is part of the Western Slavonic language group. In 2005, the Kashubian language was recognised as a regional language by the Act on National and Ethnic Minorities and Regional Languages. Kashubians are, therefore, addressed as a community speaking a regional language. This categorization, however, does not confer minority protections on the Kashubians. 

With this matter settled, a new debate has emerged within the community: How should Kashubians be viewed within the context of the Polish nation? This argument has been present since the 19th century. One side of the argument believes that the Kashubian people are a separate ethnicity compared to the Poles. The other side believes the Kashubs should be treated as a community encompassed within the Polish nation. Over the past decade, two organisations have emerged from this debate to advocate for one of these two  positions.

 An acrimonious divorce

The Kashubian-Pomeranian Association (ZK-P) is the dominant organisation representing the Kashub people. The ZK-P believes that Kashubs possess a double identity — Polish and Kashubian. In an interview with Lossi 36, Lukasz Richert, an employee of the ZK-P, stated: “We have a double identity, Polish and Kashubian. For now, we are happy that the Polish law says that we are a minority speaking a regional language.” According to Richert, the ZK-P’s strategy was to have Kashubians declare on the census that they were both Polish and Kashubian.

On the opposing side is Kashub Unity (KJ), which emerged in 2011 after a split with ZK-P over ideology. Rather than believing that Kashubs possess a dual identity, KJ  advocates that Kashubs are a separate ethnic group from Poles and that they are a minority with Polish citizenship. KJ advocated for Kashubs to only identify as Kashubians with Polish citizenship in the census.

A contentious relationship has developed between the two groups. The ZK-P views KJ as being unnecessarily aggressive in their views on Kashub-Polish relations. When lamenting the reaction KJ would have towards people who marked a double identity on the census, Richert exclaimed, “[Kashubia Jednota] was attacking people…we thought even some people were afraid [of] what to write down.” 

Meanwhile, in his written response to questions posed by Lossi 36, Artur Jablonskji, a current member of KJ and former president of ZK-P, was equally acerbic in how he viewed his former organisation. He suggested there was no pluralism allowed in the association and that ‘Kashubo-centric’ viewpoints were unwelcome. He wrote that he “ceased to be the president of ZK-P because, under new management, the organisation ceased to be pluralistic, i.e. one in which both sides of the Kashubian debate, the Kashubo-centric, and the Polono-centric, could develop freely.”

A controversial census

The results of the 2021 national census were widely discussed. The point of contention for the Kashubians revolves around how one could choose to identify as a certain minority. If one wanted to identify as a Kashub, one had to search for the “other” option on the online form. This format provoked some backlash, with expressions of frustration that the census was harder to complete for certain ethnic minorities.

Both Richert and Jablonskji had opinions on this technicality. “I find this discriminatory. As Kashubians, we are under legal protection,” stated Jablonskij. “We should be on the list.” However, as stated in the Act on National and Ethnic Minorities and Regional Languages, only the Kashubian language is legally protected. Those who identify as Kashubian are not viewed, legally, as an ethnic minority. Rather, as previously mentioned,  they are a ‘community speaking a regional language.’ 

Richert, for his part, believes that other factors contributed to the lower number of Kashubian entries. For him, two of the main issues were that the census was conducted online and that people waited until the last day to complete the census. “We think they were doing it in a hurry or it was the last day…and that’s why the number of answers is lower than 10 years before.” He also points out that the number of face-to-face interviews was not as high as in prior years. 

The Polish Census Bureau pushed back against these accusations. Reacting to Jablonskji’s accusations of discrimination, the bureau pointed to the legal status of the Kashubian people. In written responses to questions posed by Lossi 36 they noted that, “The Kashubian identification does not have the status of national or ethnic minorities…so for the [2005 Minorities] Act, the number of people using the Kashubian language is decisive.” 

They further pointed out that the questions had been set up in 2010 for the 2011 census after consultations with ethnic minorities in Poland. However, Jablonskji commented that “when ZK-P organised a meeting with representatives of the Central Statistical Office, nobody was invited who could ask the representatives of the administration a difficult question.” This could mean that any consultations with minorities were superficial at best.

Addressing the criticisms of the heavy reliance on the internet, the bureau replied in their responses that the COVID-19 pandemic caused an acceleration of the use of the self-reporting app. Furthermore, the census was taken telephonically and in person in certain cases (25 and 15 percent respectively). They also noted several positives regarding the use of self-reporting online such as the convenience and the lack of time limits on responding. Overall, the bureau noted that “The self-enumeration method was one of the better solutions and will be used during the next round of censuses in Poland.”

Pressure from above

In addition to the controversy surrounding the format of the census, the actions of the central government in Warsaw have angered both Kashubian organisations. Jablosnkji put it bluntly: “The policy of the current government resembles that of the People’s Republic of Poland. Everything is good when Kashubians dance and sing in their costumes. However, when they want more rights, money for culture, and self-government, [the government] will not allow it.”

Elements of the ZK-P may also be growing weary of the nationalist government in Warsaw. During the interview, Richert expressed fears about the curtailing of funding for the region, and the potential decrease in the allotted hours per week pupils could be taught the Kashubian language. German courses in Poland have already been cut from three hours to one hour per week. Some fear that these cuts will not stop with just the German language. When reached out for comment, the Education Ministry, Interior Ministry, and Finance Ministry did not respond.

What’s more, the issue of the Kashub language in the broader Polish society is still contentious. Some Kashubians, especially those more active in the greater community, claim to commonly avoid speaking the Kashub language in the presence of Poles. Richert denies widespread discrimination against the Kashubian language, however, claiming it occurs only sporadically

A solution in sight?

What can be done to stop the decline in the Kashub population? For Richert, the answer lies in the schools. “I think we should try to be closer with the schools, with the pupils, with the teachers. We should try and influence the Kashubian people’s minds and identities when it’s census time.” He also stated that the national government should have done a better job explaining to Kashubians the nature of the census and the fact that they could state a double identity. This would indicate that both the minority itself and the government need to work to improve the situation of Kashubians in the next census.

Jablonskji and the KJ take a different view. He believes that more concrete steps must be taken to halt and reverse the fall in Kashubians and Kashubian language users. For him, the Kashubian language should be made compulsory for students in the Pomeranian Voivodeship. He also advocates for more widespread usage of the language. He believes in “creating a situation like in the Basque Country, where everything: the names of streets, squares, monuments, churches, or even the menu in the restaurant is bilingual, and sometimes even only in Euskera.”

 A shared passion

Despite these vocal disagreements, there is one thing these two share — their affection for Kashubia and the Kashub language. When asked what being Kashubian means to them, both responded with passion and excitement. “When you meet a Kashubian somewhere in Poland and you…change to Kashubian language, [it] is very nice and you feel better,” reflected Richert. Meanwhile, Jablonskji’s emotion and determination were equally evident. “I don’t like it when someone says that I am a lover of the Kashubian language and culture. A lover is someone who only pursues a hobby. For me, the Kashubian language and culture is not a hobby, it is my life”

Unfortunately, passion alone cannot save the Kashubian language, which is at risk of becoming functionally extinct. In 2010, Kashubian was entered into UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and, according to the 2021 census, its users are trending downwards. If this trend continues, there is a risk that the language will disappear from public as well as private usage.

While the situation is dire, steps can be taken to improve the position of Kashubians. For one, ZK-P and KJ must work together to prepare for the next census in 2031. This does not mean that they should put aside their ideological differences. Rather, they must come up with a basic, yet coherent, strategy to improve the number of self-reporting Kashubs. Also, a lobbying or pressure group should be formed. While the political opinions of individual Kashubs are varied, this should not prevent them from coalescing around policies and legislation that directly affect their language and culture. What is clear is that the current strategies are not working. If a change is not made, an entire language and culture that has survived much historical tumult, could simply wither away.

Feature Image: Canva
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