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Poland From the Inside.

[120]
The small nationalities

But there are, on the other hand, many good reasons for intervening in the interests of small nationalities. Take the Ukrainians in Poland. I have referred in general to numerous acts of oppression throughout the centuries, and propose now to quote some specific examples.

Although the Ukrainians could vote, with a few exceptions, for the Sejm, they were prevented from sending too many of their own representatives to Parliament by the most ruthless measures. In summer 1930, when preparations were being made for the November elections, the anti-Ukrainian action began. For the Ukrainian faction was still the most powerful Parliamentary minority movement.

An excuse was easy to find, for there has been no peace in Polish Ukraine within living memory. At the end of August, 1930, fifty Polish farms went up in flames, and Ukrainians were blamed. The prisons in the cities were not large enough to hold the Ukrainian parliamentarians, priests, teachers, students and writers who were arrested. Crowds of prisoners arrived at the gaol gates every day. Cells soon housed [121] from 12 to 20 Ukrainians, although at other times never more than five, as an absolute maximum, were confined in them. Trial before the Courts was omitted in thousands of cases. Here and there, the prisoners were simply shot out of hand, officially because they tried to escape. Remarkably enough, they were invariably killed and never wounded. The Ukrainian politician Holowinski was shot in this way. But all this did not prevent the Ukrainians from voting. Polish troops advanced against the villages.

A troop of men from the 14th Polish Ulan Regiment left Lemberg early in September, their objective being the village of Gaje. Like most villages in this part of the country (Galicia), Gaje was surrounded by trees. Nearing the village, they encountered peasants with their carts, driving along the middle of the road. The peasants, surprised, made way for the cavalcade. But the peasants did not doff their caps on seeing the military force, and one of the non-commissioned officers hit the foremost peasant in the face with a leather whip, leaving long, blood-red weals. The peasant fell from his seat into a ditch. Several other peasants speedily jumped down and two or three turned to the man in the ditch. Before they could reach him., Polish soldiers attacked them with whips. Ten minutes later, the troops continued their ride.

The mounted men stopped in front of the house of the local mayor. Mayor and councillors had to appear and to hand over a list of the inhabitants of the village. [122] The village was sentenced to a community fine of 50 cwt. of oats, 1,000 eggs, 20 pigs, 50 cwt. of flour and 50 cwt. of a groat-like substance in common use in the Ukraine. Furthermore, the troops were to be given a full load of food, cigarettes, spirit and tobacco. The time limit was fixed at two hours.

Now Ukrainian villages are not rich as a rule. But they were told that if they did not bring the supplies within the two hours the soldiers would forage for themselves, and those with pretty wives and daughters trembled at the idea of Polish soldiery in their homes.

The supplies were collected, although it meant that the village would suffer bitter hardships afterwards. Then the peasants were made to assemble. Their clothing was torn off, and each of them was held by four soldiers, while others beat them without mercy. When they lost consciousness, pails of water were thrown over them. After a time, they were flung into one corner of the communal room, and the next batch was similarly treated. Incidentally, the lieutenant in command left this work to his subordinates.

This is a typical example though the process sometimes varied. In the village of Hrystyce, Lieut. Neumann called the councillors of the village. For four hours they had to stand at attention, and were beaten for the slightest movement. The mayor was asked who had arms, and on his replying that no one had any, he was given 50 blows on the naked body. The members of the council, whose names were [123] Michael Lassaral, Alexander Lassaral, Wyszczanski, Turczyn, Wojtowicz, Olejnik, Burbel and Weres, were similarly treated. The authorities afterwards refused to receive the deputation from this village, when protest was to have been made.

In the village of Jaryczow, twenty peasants were whipped. In the village of Horodyslawice the whole Ukrainian library was destroyed, including religious works. Numerous villagers were also beaten up. In the village of Kurowce a peasant named Politacz, an old man, was beaten until he lost consciousness, then revived with pails of cold water, and forced to walk through the village barefooted. A Polish soldier rode on either side of him, a whip in his hand. In Mystowice, two women were also beaten until they were unconscious, but this outrage was perpetrated by the police, and not by soldiers. These police had bound bands round their caps, so that their numbers could not be recognised. It can be understood that the state of these and scores of other villages was ghastly after the troops retired. I have quoted the month in which all this was carried out on a wholesale manner, but cases enough have occurred at other times.

This anti-Ukrainian action was successful. The Ukrainian faction in the Sejm was much smaller at the following election. In some areas, only the Government candidates were proposed, none daring to nominate others.

It is hard to produce documentary proof of this [124] brutality since in Poland there is no freedom of movement. Every foreigner has to register with the police through his hotel, and he has difficulties in seeing things for himself. I did see much, but did not take my camera further than Cracow as I had no wish to come into conflict with the authorities. To take a camera further into the South-East direction is tantamount to asking for arrest. Nobody troubled me in Cracow, but then the scenes of the outrages were all far away. In Lemberg things are stricter, and any foreigner seen in Ukrainian villages is an immediate object of suspicion. I visited some villages and was unquestionably lucky to escape trouble.

William Day, of the Canadian Times, visited the villages after the great work of destruction, and he photographed a village where the troops had spent several days. He also took pictures of peasants who had been tortured or injured. Nothing happened to him there, and he returned to Lemberg to dispatch his report and pictures. He was immediately arrested, his camera, plates and pictures seized, and he himself remained in a cell until the Consul secured his release. He was then compelled to leave the country at once. The charge against him was "Spreading information dangerous to the State."

The conditions in the prisons must be dreadful if the stories of the relations of Ukrainian prisoners are to be believed. But I did not see these prisons, so I can give no first-hand information. It is quite impossible to [125] obtain permission to visit them. After these excesses, the Opposition in the Sejm asked pertinent questions, and also demanded an investigation into conditions in Lucz prison. The Polish Minister of the Interior replied that he had made enquiries, but that everything seemed to him to be in order at Lucz. A short time afterwards he actually informed Parliament that a prison officer had been punished there for stealing a gold watch from a prisoner. It is scarcely necessary to add that since 1930 the Ukrainians hate Warsaw.

It is hard to believe all this, as I readily admit. If I had not spoken with so many of the persons concerned, I should not believe it myself. The Polish officials I had to deal with were the most polite men I have ever met. At Posen, one accompanied me for half an hour to assist me with a ticket which required stamping when I broke my journey, bowing me into each office as we tried to find the right one. When I entered Poland, officials never asked me to show them my money, they immediately believed me when I said I had fifty pounds in banknotes and a cheque, and gave me a written confirmation, so that I could take part of it out again. When I went for a visa for Poland, I was given one free of charge, although it costs 25 zloty, and was bowed out, despite the fact that scores of others were waiting. I was treated with the greatest courtesy by the Polish officials everywhere. They did everything possible to make me feel at home. I have nothing but praise and gratitude for them [126] personally. But I must record facts and not my feelings. I find it hard to explain that such kindly people are so brutal to their minorities. Such, however, is the simple fact.

White Russians, too, have told me dreadful things. In 1921 there were 514 White Russian schools in Poland. In 1925 there were 20. The remaining 494 were closed. In 1926 there were just three of these schools left.

A kind of guerrilla warfare has been waged for two decades between White Russians and Poles. Isolated Polish settlers dare not go out unarmed - even to-day, twenty years after the inclusion of the area in the Polish Republic. At first the White Russians were inclined to turn Bolshevik, in order to obtain Russia's help against the Poles; later they tried for independence.

On January 15th, 1927, the Polish police rounded up the White Russian leaders. Four members of the Sejm, who legally enjoyed immunity, among them Taraskiewicz, leader of the Hromada, with over a hundred prominent members of that Organisation, were arrested. On the same date 80 prominent White Russians were imprisoned in Warsaw. The headmasters and teachers of the White Russian schools were arrested or dismissed and the establishments closed. It was officially announced that the arrested men had been acting on behalf of the Komintern and had been engaged in revolutionary activities.

The White Russian peasants replied with desultory [127] demonstrations. But they had no leaders, and were soon crushed. In a single day there were 11 casualties at Kossow, to quote but one example, including 5 dead. The organisations of the White Russians were then dissolved. Fifty-six White Russian leaders were brought up for trial at Vilna at the end of February, 1928, more than a year after their arrest. They included the four members of the Polish Parliament, the Sejm. Roughly six hundred witnesses appeared against them. After the case had lasted several months, 37 of the accused were sentenced to imprisonment for periods varying from three to twelve years. But the illegal Organisation of the White Russians is still alive. The men meet in secret. I was told some details, but only after I promised not to publish them, for the slightest hint as to the place concerned would, my informants said, lead to wholesale arrests and the ruin of thousands.

The following quotations show that this did not escape the Press. The Daily Herald, one of the journals whose writers use to attack Poland regularly, remarks, for example, that "not even Ireland in her worst days could show conditions so terrible as those in which the Polish peasants exist to-day" (Daily Herald, 23. 11. 1937). The "Polish peasants" were probably minorities.

The Manchester Guardian has also sponsored the case of the minorities under Polish rule: "In the autumn of 1930 the Polish Ukraine was 'pacified' by detachments of Polish cavalry and mounted police, [128] who went from village to village arresting peasants and carrying out savage floggings and destroying property. The number of peasants who were flogged ran into many thousands" (Manchester Guardian, 10. 10. 1938).

The Daily Express observed that the Ukrainians were "held against their will. The union with the Poles was forced upon them. The Poles marched troops into the Ukrainian lands and staked their claims with bayonets. Since 1923 the 'Polonisation' of the Ukrainians has gone forward with a ferocity that recalls the 'pacification' of the old Turkish territories by the Bashi-Bazouks" (Daily Express, 12. 11. 1934).

Further West, the methods adopted against the minorities were marked by less physical brutality, but were nevertheless harsh. For example, the children of German-speaking parents in Upper Silesia who wished to attend German schools had to register between May 25th and 31st, 1926. Each child had to bring a statement in writing, signed by the parent or guardian, stating: "I declare that the child registered above belongs to the German language minority." That was not in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Only when no school existed in the area was a written application to be made, but this was simply overruled. Despite this, the number of applications was very large. I rather think the Poles were honestly surprised. Some people say they only pretended to be, [129] but I doubt it. I am prepared to accept their astonishment as real.

But the methods adopted to reduce this total were unjust. Each parent or guardian was made to appear in person before the Polish authorities, who greeted them in Polish. Precisely 5,784 parents and guardians in the Kattowitz area were questioned, and the simple statements of the parents were not always accepted. It was then asserted that 145 of the children could not prove that they were Polish subjects, while 47 had applied to a school which was nearest their residence, but not in their proper district. There were also others who were struck from the list. In 391 cases the signatures were stated not to be correct. This was in the vast majority of cases because the mother had signed, whereas the Poles only accepted the mother's signature when the father was dead, or was otherwise incapable of signing. The subsequent statement of the fathers concerned that they were in agreement with the applications, and would append their signatures was not accepted. The applications were rejected. 1,307 pupils were struck from the list because the parents had failed to appear in person at the right time. 5,205 applications were rejected en masse, the claim being that they did not, in the opinion of the Polish authorities, belong to the minority.

The total number of applications made by fathers, mothers or guardians covered 8,560 children. Nor less than 7,114 were not permitted to attend the [130] German schools. Articles 75 and 131 of the Geneva Convention were thus not adhered to. By 1928 the number of applications in the area under discussion had fallen to about 2,500 as a result of the difficulties. [The German minority in the] Kattowitz area was compelled to learn Polish at school, and to give up the right to study at German schools. Yet the people of Kattowitz still speak German, as I have heard for myself. Even now, peace has not been restored. In the middle of July, 1939, I saw more police there than I had observed in the whole of Warsaw and, for the first time, I noticed mounted police. At one street corner, I even saw two mounted police who remained at their posts until relieved by two others. All day they remained there - perhaps all night as well, but I did not go to look.

At the 1928 elections, the Germans and other minorities returned numerous representatives to the Sejm, but afterwards the lists of electors were revised. In the electorate of Teschen-Bielitz, the whole list was declared to be out of order, and 20,000 votes cancelled by a stroke of the pen before the November elections of 1930. Some of the electors succeeded in registering their names for the new lists, but for the most part they were too late. The Polish authorities demanded that they should present a document affirming their Polish nationality. The police station was besieged, but in the few days left before the lists were closed only a few of the electors could obtain these certificates, the remainder losing their votes as a result.

Those at work found it difficult to apply in the hours fixed. A certain regulation was then interpreted by the local authorities to mean that a vote could be made in secret or openly, as desired, and a notice was printed in the Kattowitz journal Polska Zachodnia that those who voted secretly would be regarded as enemies of the State. Terrorism followed, and persons known to be of German descent were beaten up. In 1930 the Germans lost about 100,000 votes in Upper Silesia alone. No one who voted for the German list could hope to escape attack since the compartments in the election booths were torn down, and the votes had to be made before the eyes of the supervising Poles.

On November 9th of the same year groups of Poles from other areas, accompanied by local guides, smashed the doors of German residents, entered their rooms, and broke up the furniture. Sleeping people were dragged from their beds; those who had been wakened by the noise and who tried to save their property were beaten with sticks and rods. Some of the Germans escaped and appealed to the police who, however, claimed that they could do nothing as their numbers were too small. Two days later a similar attack was made on the Germans in the village of Golassowitz. A free fight followed, but the Poles outnumbered the local inhabitants. This was reported in the Polish Press as a revolt of the German-speaking inhabitants.

[132] The German Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Curtius, sent a request to the League of Nations, asking for help for the minority. That was on November 27th. A second note followed on December 9th.

But it was not until January 21st, 1931, that the League found time to discuss matters. The League used diplomatic but hard words, and demanded that the position of the Germans be improved. This should be clear enough proof that the charges against the Poles were not unfounded. It was established that the Polish Government had not even denied that such incidents had taken place. 255 cases were placed before the League.

Small wonder that I found the people of Upper Silesia only speaking German in low tones or in private. Small wonder that they look askance at strangers.

One must ask whether it is in keeping with the rights of small nations or nationalities that they should thus be included in States where they are exposed to such treatment. Poland has tried to make the minorities relinquish their language and customs; she has failed despite more than twenty years of activities such as I have described in this chapter. But the attempts are still going on. One begins to wonder whether the Ukrainians, White Russians and Germans should not also enjoy some protection from England, or must it only be the Poles?

[Scriptorium notes: for a taste of the Poles' treatment of their German minority at almost the exact time that this book was published, click here!]


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Poland From the Inside