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An Interview with Oleg Łatyszonek

Belonging to a minority: Oleg Łatyszonek, Belarusian - nationality, Polish – citizenship

The representatives of a dozen or so ethnic or national minorities inhabit Poland. It is not easy to determine the exact number of representatives of the different ethnic groups as it is against Polish law to disclose the ethnic origins of others. It is estimated that about 2-3% of all citizens of the Republic of Poland (at present the population is about 38.4 million) belong to an ethnic or national minority. It is hoped that the nationwide census carried out in 2002 will provide more precise data in this matter.

The following national and ethnic minorities are represented in Poland: Germans, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Russians, Jews, Armenians, Czechs, Roms (gypsies), Tartars, Lemkos (Łemkowie) and Karaites.

Read the below an interview with Oleg Łatyszonek, a Belarusian, who discusses the dilemmas that someone belonging to an ethnic group may face in Poland.

§         Should people who are ethnic minorities speak at home their native language or the language of the majority population? Why? How important is it if there are children in the family?

They should speak their native language if they want to retain their nationality and be themselves. In my family, only Grandfather spoke Belarusian, entirely Belarusian. My sister and myself still have a grudge against our parents because we didn’t speak Belarusian at home, although we were brought up to be aware Belarusians and we were taught to read Belarusian. I believe the language of the host society cannot be more important than one’s native language.

  • Should children born in such families have a right to choose what kind of school they want to attend (bilingual / monolingual)? What consequences might such a decision entail?

Children should not decide about it. Psychologically they’re not fully formed and they tend to conform to a peer group, which is, as a rule, a group of the ethnic majority. Parents should do everything to make sure that such decisions are taken in adult life. I’ve noticed that people sometimes ‘choose’ their nationality fairly late, even as late as their student years. If they choose the nationality of their ethnic group, they often regret that they didn’t attend a school which taught their native language. Sometimes they regret that they didn’t learn their native language at all, even though they had such an opportunity.

I think the question is not very clear. As I understand, a monolingual school is a school where the language of the majority population is spoken. In Poland there are no monolingual schools teaching in the languages of minority groups. Under the Polish law some school subjects must be taught in Polish.

  • What kind of problems do ethnic minorities face? What important dilemmas do they face?

The most important problem of any small ethnic minority is that it constantly lives under pressure of the majority, even if such pressure is not intended. Everywhere around the majority language is spoken. It’s enough to leave home to find oneself in the world of the majority. The state puts enormous pressure too, through its very existence. A major problem is to organise schooling and the media and a major dilemma - how great a part of the majority culture should one accept as one’s own.

  • Should members of minority communities be encouraged to intermarry (to speed up the process of assimilation) or the opposite - not to intermarry - to prevent assimilation?

Marriages should be contracted within an ethnic group, to counteract assimilation. So far I haven’t met a family that would encourage inter-marriage. I think that only a country whose official policy is the one of assimilation may encourage (or even force, as in China) inter-marriage.

  • Has there ever been a moment in your life when your membership in a minority group proved:

         - a problem of some sort

         - a special reason to be proud

         - a reason to feel hurt / offended


  • What is the role of family / religious community in fostering ethnic identity? In the family do both parents play equal roles?

Parents’ role is fundamental and both parents have equal roles. In my family it was like that, although each of my parents played a greater role at some specific time. In an extended family grandparents play an important role in raising children.

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