On the World and Ourselves
On the World and Ourselves
Stanislaw Obirek Leaving for a moment our discussion about good and evil, responsibility and love, I would like to provoke you into a discussion about who we are. Or, perhaps more accurately, about who we think we are hic et nunc . This 'here and now' is important I think, because 'there and then', we would, I suspect, have answered the question differently. The immediate impetus for my train of thought on identity were the last days spent in Bialowiea Forest - literally in the heart of this virgin forest, closer to trees and animals than to people. But rather than extolling the beauty of this region of Poland, I would like to write about the people there, inscribed as it were into the trees, at one with nature. It was my first visit to Bialowieza. Historically, I learned (priceless internet) that the town was the favourite of both King Wladyslaw IV and Augustus III, and that it was possibly the hunting ground of Sigismund II Augustus and of Stefan Batory, while buildings were erected there by Tsar Alexander III. There is a Russian church, there is a chapel, there is an excellent restaurant which remembers its once-Jewish owner and serves delicacies of Jewish cuisine.
And we see a multiculturalism typical of this region, where Poles and Belorussians and Jews had lived in harmony for centuries, adding local Tatars into the mix, and, like other nations, managed to maintain their individuality while counting themselves in with the locals. In short, discussions on ethnicity and nationality were for years regarded here as tactless. It was mostly left for others, usually outsiders, to bring those discussions with them, complicating life for the locals.
Or maybe this is the case everywhere, not just in the province of Podlasie? This brief experience provokes me to question the justification of existing borders, or even their legitimacy. After all there is little advantage to them; they are nothing but a great deal of trouble. Similar vagaries of history have divided whole families, who after 1945 were forced to 'feel' Polish, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian etc. How do you deal with this heritage - do you accept it, debate with it, or perhaps reject it out of hand? So where are my roots? The past and the present of Bialowieza residents can be seen as metaphors for our here and now.
Zygmunt Bauman The shape in which you've brought up the question of 'identity' has been inspired, it seems, by the remnant of the times before the 'nation-building' frenzy (an era which lasted for 99 per cent of the history of mankind): no wonder, as it was composed in Bialowieza - still redolent of the aromas of Jewish kitchens, the sounds of the muezzin calling and echoes of the hunt of the Lithuanians, Swedes, Saxons, Hungarians - all kings of the res publica , retrospectively described by historians as of 'Both Nations' (meaning Lithuanian and Polish). Milosz wrote beautifully about the region, while you revive the tradition, lately less and less mentioned and heard of. It was there, in that region, where resided the vast majority of the 707,088 citizens of the Second Polish Republic listed in the Second Census of December 1931 as 'locals' because they could not understand the question about their 'nationality'. The great central-European novelist Joseph Roth who lived some 200 kilometres south of Bialowieza, though under the Habsburgs' rule, wrote in his short story The Bust of the Emperor about a certain Count Morstin, settled there in his ancestral estate, whom 'no one ever saw drunk or gambling, or womanising' because his sole passion was opposition to the 'national question'. As Roth noted, the national question was at the time coming into focus throughout the Empire: 'Everyone - whether willingly or just pretending - joined one of the many ethnic groups living in the old m