Polish sounded like a waterfall and I understood nothing of the rushing sz, cz, rz, and rrr sounds. Watching foreign films from various countries depicting their own history as part of an assignment in my first year of college, I saw Italian, German, Russian films… but the sound of the Polish language intrigued me instantly. The only place in British Columbia, Canada, that teaches Polish was the University of British Columbia (UBC), which I did not yet attend, and so, having no idea what I was about to embark on, I set about teaching myself Polish. I found a 1931 Polish grammar textbook in an old bookstore and, incidentally, a well-loved copy of Pan Tadeusz.
I had no idea at the time that what I was struggling with was Poland’s national epic poem; simply put, it was the only book in Polish that I could find. Deciding some research and background knowledge might help, I found myself medias res in Polish history at a time when, officially, Poland did not exist, and would not exist for over a century. I learned about Polish children being tortured for speaking Polish under Prussian rule, and that the partitioning powers wanted to make the world forget there was ever a Poland. But Poland was not forgotten and there, in my hands, was a book in Polish.
It struck me that though the uprisings were called failures because a Polish state did not thereafter re-emerge, there was an uprising which was a miraculous success, though no one seemed to be writing about it: despite the suppression of Polish culture, language, literature and history, millions of people still maintain all of these things today, and that each one of these people does so only because their ancestors retained their Polish identity even amidst oppression and at the risk of punishment, and they raised their children as Poles, and these same children must have passed it on to their children, who passed it on to their children even though none of these children ever lived in world in which Poland existed… This phenomenon deserves to be named a cultural uprising, and a successful one at that, because not only do 40 million Poles speak Polish today but there are non-Poles who, likewise, wish to adopt and carry forward the markers of Polish identity.
Like many post-secondary institutions, the college I attended had an extreme Western bias, and no courses on Poland were offered in any discipline. I decided to Polonize my classes myself through the essays I wrote and the comments I gave in class. Professors often remarked that they had never received a paper about Poland before, and were glad to have learned new things. My average grades began to soar, reflecting two things: Firstly, that Poland truly has many fascinating and admirable elements to be studied, and even academic elites, such as professors, with no Polish background or initial interest, rate that fact highly. Secondly, that my own interest in Poland had become a life-long passion and journey.
When I finally transferred to UBC, I immediately registered in Polish classes, and my professor immediately took a taboo stance toward me as I rambled in broken, archaic, 1931 Polish in my thick English accent. It was about a month before my professor realized this was not a joke, and I really was trying to Polonize myself, even though I really wasn’t Polish. “No one just teaches themselves Polish,” was the line I would later hear on a regular basis. And, in response, I still wonder, “Why not?” Yes, it’s a difficult language, but it’s the prettiest, in my opinion; furthermore, Polish literature touches on every single aspect of the most devastating century of the ages – historically, politically, ideologically. Yes, it’s a difficult history, but it is vitally important, which is no matter of opinion at all as Poland is a microcosm of literally every extreme of the 20th century, as well as a testament to human resilience. In what other history books do so many unimaginable, seemingly out-of-reach triumphs occur?
There is a saying among Polish language learners, “Polish is spoken in heaven, because it takes a lifetime to learn.” And, tongue in cheek though it may be, the pearly gates have definitely opened, for all my academic and personal successes are the lasting and continuing triumphs of the Polish cultural uprising: I have earned scholarships twice to go to Poland. I first studied at KUL in Lublin, and then at UW in Warsaw; I am grateful to have served as an intern at the Polish Consulate in Vancouver, where I translated documents; I spent eight amazing days at the New York Polish Film Festival where I met many of the Polish intelligentsia; I have spent three years as an executive in UBC’s Polish club, and will be president this year; I have been published twice, both times in Polish, (and never in English!); and I have just returned from a cathartic conference in Canmore called Poland in the Rockies which, again has given me the opportunity to publish. And if I had never stumbled on Polishness, none of this would have come to pass, and I would surely have remained a mediocre student, living a status quo, average life. As a direct result of Polishness, my life is continually transformed in unimaginable ways, and so, alongside Adam Mickiewicz and his peers, I, for one, believe in Polish messianism.
Wodospad Zaskalnik na Sopotnickim potoku by Strzyrzyc