Poles in Belarus: Revival of Heritage and Search for Ancestors
Today's Republic of Belarus, which became independent after the fall of the USSR, is strongly connected with Poland both historically and culturally. For centuries Belarus was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and a portion of Belarus was part of Poland up until the late 1930's.
According to the last poll held in 1989, there were 413,000 Poles in Belarus, but many question the objectivity of this poll, held while Belarus was still under the Communist regime, and believe that the actual number is much higher. It is significant to mention here that the number of Roman Catholics in Belarus is estimated to be 2.5 million.
The Soviet authorities employed a very strong anti-Polish policy in Belarus. Under Communism, most of the educated of the Polish population were massacred, deported to Siberia and Central Asia, or "repatriated" to Poland. No expression of cultural identity was allowed. There were attempts to make the Roman Catholic Church die out. But the Polish roots on Belorussian soil were very deep. Many prominent Polish authors, poets, composers, military and political leaders were born and raised there. Among them were Tadeusz Kosciusko, the leader of the National Revolution of 1793-1794 and the hero of the American War of Independence, and Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's greatest national poet and the symbol of living hope for national rebirth. This land was also home of the novelist Eliza Orzeszko, composers Michal Oginski and Stanislaw Moniuszko, and the famous politicians Józef Pilsudski and Romuald Traugutt.
With the start of Perestroika in the Soviet Union, the situation of the Polish minority in Belarus began to improve. Since April 1987 a group of activists in the city of Grodno in Western Belarus, including the writer Alaksiey Karpiuk, Tadeusz Gawin, Ryszard Kacynel and I, have undertaken measures aimed at changing the policy toward the Poles. Two letters to Mikhail Gorbachev were sent. Public statements in support of the changes were made at gatherings held at the University of Grodno. The first Polish school was established. Later, the Polish Cultural Society was registered in Grodno, giving start to the Union of Polish People in Belarus. The union has begun to publish a Polish daily newspaper, "The Nieman Voice," named after the river around which Grodno was built. The Union also started its own Quarterly, TV and radio broadcasts, and sponsored cultural events, such as choirs and folk dancing clubs. The Polish Scout organization was created.
But these were only the first steps in the hard work of restoring and preserving the Polish presence in Belarus and reviving the serious loss of national and patriotic awareness and pride among the Poles in Belarus. Therefore, at the end of 1988, I began to work on restoration of the historic Mickiewicz Trail, a complex of sites, buildings, parks, monuments, etc., associated with the life of Adam Mickiewicz and immortalized in his poetry. Sponsored by the Union of Polish People in Belarus, I established the Committee In Memory of A. Mickiewicz, a nonprofit organization based in Grodno, with the goal of managing the restoration of these historic sites. In spite of enormous financial and organizational problems, we have located the remains of the original 18th century house of Mickiewicz in the village of Zaosie near Novogrudek (another town in Western Belarus) and traces of the Wereszczak family property in Tuchanoviche, also in the vicinity of Grodno. Finally, we have found the remains of the house where Tadeusz Kosciusko was born in 1746, not far from the the city of Brest in Western Belarus. We have also restored Mickiewicz's house in another Belorussian city, Novogrudek. In 1991 Pope John Paul II personally blessed the efforts of our committee.
I always thought that revival of Polish genealogy in Belarus should be an integral part of the larger cause of restoring recognition of the Polish presence in the region. Since 1960 I have written extensively on the genealogy of famous Polish families, searching for the materials in the archives of Russia, Lithuania and Belarus. As a result of this work, I have published genealogical research findings on such families as Kosciusko, Mickiewicz, his close friend Domejko and others. I have also studied the life of the Polish freedom fighter Migurski, who fought against the Russian Empire in 1830-1831, and of Z. Minejko who fought in the Uprising of 1861, and who, by the way, was also a grandfather of the well-known Greek politician and one-time prime minister A. Papandrious.
In 1960 I maintained a correspondence with the great Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Based on the documents from 1830 through to more recent times, I was able to trace his Polish background. Another example is the Kostrowicki family, which I have studied, and which, as it turned out, has brought forth one of the greatest French poets of the 20th century, Appolinaire, whose real name was Wilhelm Apollinaris Kostrowicki.
Therefore, the genealogical research of Polish ancestors, although it may seem to be a private matter, cannot be separated from the overall movement of restoring Polish roots in Belarus. The archives, a real treasure of cultural materials, make it possible to conduct such research. Let me briefly describe the system of archives in the former Soviet Union. The documents dated prior to the 1917 Revolution are concentrated in the Central State Historic Archive in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and in the Division of that archive in Grodno. The documents of the so-called "Soviet Period" (from 1917) are located in the Central State Archive in Minsk, as well as in various archives in the center of every district (Belarus is administratively divided into six districts). The archives in Grodno and Brest contain most of the documents covering the period of 1920-1930, since during that time these areas belonged to Poland. Many files from that period of time are also located in the Central Archive of the Republic of Lithuania in the capitol of Wilno (Wilno also belonged to Poland in 1920-1930).
In summary, I would like to emphasize the importance of alerting various Polish communities outside Belarus to the complicated situation with Polish heritage there. There is a need to unite these communities in their commitment to the patriotic task of recovering that heritage. As first step, the restoration efforts aimed at rebirth of the historic Mickiewicz sites are in serious need of financial and moral support. Let us help to bring back to the world the sites where the genius of Polish and world literature was born, and where everything reminds us of the history and of the creative force which drove Mickiewicz and, finally, of the spiritual life of his times.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 1994 Boris Kleyn. All rights reserved.