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Valdemar Tomaševski: not just to maintain Polish education but to strengthen it

Polish education in Lithuania has centuries-old traditions. It had its times of bloom but there were also multiple unrefined attempts to destroy it. Polish educational institutions went through different periods, although all of them – more or less – were unkind to them.

After a period of relative silence Polish schools in Lithuania again feel like they are involved in a battle for survival. Battle to continue educational mission, to maintain Polishness in Lithuania.

We talked about difficult past of Polish schools, renaissance of Polish education and hard present times with the chairman of Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania (EAPL), member of the European Parliament Valdemar Tomaševski. The EAPL leader has been actively fighting for the survival and development of Polish education in Lithuania for years. He is also concerned about Polish education as he comes from a teachers’ family. His mother Jadvyga taught Polish for 52 years and his late father Vladyslav – history for 45 years.

L24: How would you describe the phenomenon of Polish education in Lithuania?

Valdemar Tomaševski: Polish education in Lithuania has over five centuries-old traditions. It underwent periods of bloom but also suffered tough times of oppression, restrictions and persecution. There were attempts to reliquidate the system of Polish education in Lithuania after World War II. But it survived and now is a part of a stable element in national education.

L24: Numerous protest rallies in defence of Polish schools took place this year. How could you explain these intensified attacks on Polish education in Lithuania?

Valdemar Tomaševski: Regrettably, Polish schools are in a permanent state of danger. There are even people who would like them to be liquidated at all. Some are motivated by nationalistic or atheistic arguments, while others – by economic reasoning. We need to fight for Polish education all the time. In some aspects it was unfortunately limited. However, it could have been even worse without counteracting and determination of Polish community.
Lately there were huge protests of Poles, rallies, strikes, letters were sent, petitions made, attempts to counteract destructive actions of authorities made on different stages – national and European. Thanks to these actions 6 Polish schools were rescued even though situation was much worse last April when the project of parliamentary EAPL faction regarding the extension of the term of accreditation for secondary schools to 2 years was rejected. Then the situation seemed very serious, but thanks to the determination, solidarity and unity of Poles, cooperation with other national minorities, the Law on Education has been amended last June what allowed secondary schools to get 2 years for accreditation.
For now we managed to rescue 6 schools: Paluknio Secondary School in the Trakai district, Dieveniškės Adomo Mickevičiaus Secondary School and Baltosios Vokės Elizos Ožeškovos Secondary School in the Šalčininkai district, Zujūnai Secondary School, Medininkai Šv. Kazimiero Secondary School and Egliškės Šv. Jono Bosko Secondary School in the Vilnius district. The authorities wanted the schools to finish their activities as secondary schools on 1st September 2015.
For sure our determination showed tremendous effects but there is still a lot ahead of us. And problems still exist in Vilnius city thanks to the activities of nationalistic and atheistic ruling coalition headed by the mayor of Vilnius Remigijus Šimašius. They are trying to degrade two schools in the capital: Vilnius Simono Konarskio Secondary School and Vilnius Lazdynų Secondary School, while Vilnius Joachimo Lelevelio Secondary School and Vilnius Vladislovo Sirokomlės Secondary School still have not been accredited. Last rally, which gathered 4000 participants, showed that determination of Poles only intensifies and we can defend these schools. There is also hope that these two schools will be soon accredited whereas Simono Konarskio and Lazdynų schools still have one and a half years to apply for the gymnasium status, although their rights were already limited. It is very important that we stay united and keep our solidarity. Strong representation of EAPL and other national minorities in the municipal Council is also very important. Currently it consists of 10 people and in case of eventual changes in capital management we will be surely able to take advantage of the strength of this faction to defend our schools.

L24: Times change but Polish school constantly has to dwell in trenches…

V. Tomaševski: Indeed, acute defence of education on our lands is, unfortunately, permanent. New threats make us constantly fight for Polish education.

We remember the attempts to limit Polish education during the time of partitions. Polish schools were closed but the Polish language teaching was continued – whether it was done secretly, or by Poles themselves who educated their children in the native language.

Then the times of thaw came. After 1905 Polish schools were reborn in tsarist Russia and before World War I there were many of them here. Education has been developing during the interwar period until the Nazi occupation. Polish schools were liquidated but still there were secret educational sets – even under the threat of being shot. Over 100 Polish patriots were murdered during World War II: teachers and other people who were involved in secret educational sets. Their example is extremely eloquent – they did not stop the education in native language in the face of mortal threats.
In 1944, after the expulsion of Nazis, Polish schools were reborn, for example famous No 5 (Vilnius Joachimo Lelevelio Secondary School) in Vilnius. A few years later schools were again liquidated. This time because of the nationalists of Lithuanian Communists Party. In principle, they were transformed into Lithuanian schools in one day. I know this from the stories told by my father Vladislav, who was a student of a Polish school then. He recalled how things looked like in his homeland Karvys near Vilnius and in the whole Vilnius Region – teachers and students who spoke Lithuanian were brought here to start Lithuanian schools.
Poles from Vilnius took advantage of the only means of defending their education which was sending a complaint to authorities in the capital of Soviet empire and even went there in person. By going there they risked to be shot or at least deported. Nevertheless, they succeeded – Lithuanian Communist leadership of education received a reprimand in which a nationalistic politics lead in Lithuania was criticized. Polish schools were reborn and in the 50s there were more than 300 of them.

Here I would like to recall such people as late Mr Suboč and others from Karvys, group of Poles from Eišiškės who took part in this long journey to defend Polish schools. When a famous Vilnius Vladislovo Sirokomlės Secondary School was under threat of closing in 60s, late teacher Mrs stanislava Zavadzka and others insistently protested against attempts to liquidate the institution. Eventually, the school remained. This school was and still is one of the best Polish schools in Lithuania.

As we see, our predecessors were not afraid to defend Polish schools. And they defended them during much more difficult times. That is why today we are obliged to forfend our education. Especially as our times are not as tough as in the past. For sure there is no threat of cracking down or flogging of children – just like after well-known strike in Września in 1906.

L24: Indeed, today it is much easier, but Polish schools still undergo great difficulties…

V. Tomaševski: In today’s times we already witnessed multiple attempts to change the Law on Education with the intent to dent the Polish education. Such an attempt was already taken in 2003. Luckily, the defence was successful. Unfortunately, an attack was launched again in 2011 and this time some rights were taken away. We can only regret that Polish education in Lithuania is ruthlessly dealt with although it is competitive and most definitely has a right to exist.

Of course, multiple efforts to intimidate us are made but we cannot succumb. Here I would like to recall the words of John Paul II who during his first apostolic visit in Poland in 1979 said: ‘Do not be afraid’. We cannot be afraid because not only do we have to defend education but also keep the memory of our predecessors who defended Polish education when living in much worse conditions and bequeathed it to us.
I would like to thank strongmen and strongwomen of Polish education who built it in hard times, particularly in 1940-1950. Most of them have already passed away to God. We must remember them. There is an idea to start a Museum of Polish Education in Vilnius which could document all the history – actions of those who defended our schools, memory of all Poles who sacrificed for the good of Polish schools and to those who rebuilt our education or educated our children from 60s to 90s – during the period of Russification of Polish education or lately, Lithuanization. We have an obligation to pay homage to those who bravely carried the Polish language, convinced parents that only a Polish school can be a natural and comfortable environment for a Polish child, provide qualitative teaching based on national values, in the spirit of patriotism and respect for faith and tradition of our fathers.

L24: Despite many uneasy historical swirls, Polish schools in Lithuania remained. How do you see their future and prospects?

V. Tomaševski: despite the fact that this situation is not easy, we defended 6 secondary schools recently. In the mid-80s, there were only 2 percent of all students in Lithuania who were learning in Polish schools, currently the number amounts to 3,3 percent. This indicator has been stable for last 10 years regardless many unfavourable situations and authorities’ decisions.

Polish schools in Lithuania are competitive to Lithuanian ones, they offer high level education, graduates of Polish schools have better indicator of entering high studies (72 percent) while national average is 67 percent.

Polish school is not just the high level of education but also profound tradition. 100 percent of children attend religious education classes and choose to take the Polish language exam despite the fact that this is not an obligatory exam. Polish schools have exceptional shows and ceremonies; keep close contact with parents and grandparents. Polish school is not just education; it is also a very important centre of patriotism, culture, and social activities. Without a doubt, despite attempts to intimidate and break, Polish community will do everything to maintain its education and to strengthen it. As a Christian society we believe that Providence will bless us.
L24: Thank you for the conversation.