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Patrycja Kniejska

Between Berlin and Warsaw: Transnational Identities in Central Europe

The ideal of national identity envisions the nation as the place where one feels connected, the place that is home. Our author Patrycja feels Polish, German and Silesian (A region in Poland with a strong German heritage). She explores the phenomenon of transnational identity, looking at potential conflicts, as well as opportunities, especially in a Europe without borders that the young generation is very much in favor of.

I am born in 1986, Polish out of necessity, German because of my roots, Silesian in my heart. Many of my friends struggle with their “transnational identity”. It is not homogeneous, but colorful, cross-cultural and connecting different traditions.

I never had a heart for Polish patriotism. I do not know the German anthem by heart. I am not fluent in the Silesian dialect as I was six years old when I asked my parents to speak only in standard Polish with me. I was also continuously reminded by my teacher in the kindergarten to do so. But when I hear the Silesian dialect in everyday life, it touches me very much. In high school, we were obliged to sing Polish patriotic songs and to recite poems by national poets Adam Mickiewicz and Cyprian Kamil Norwid during commemorational events. During the anniversary of the Polish constitution I was dragged to church service and during Independence Day I had to stand next to the Polish flag, festively dressed. Alternatives were not talked about, but we rather dedicated about three or four hours to Karol Miarka and Wojciech Korfanty, Silesian activists of the past, and to the Silesian uprisings. We have grown up in the Polish culture, many of us reacted mechanically to narratives regarding the Polish identity – the teachers demanded it, thus we learnt it by heart.

What Identity is about

What is the Polish identity all about? It depends on whoever answers this question. According to the official self-description Poland is characterized by its intriguing literature and by the diversity of the nations that have influenced Poland through tolerance, Romanticism, courage and tireless striving for independence. But what about the Catholic, conservative current, whose representatives claim power of interpretation over the Polish identity? It is xenophobic, complaining, conspiratorial as well as pessimistic and drives many young people out of the country, while it attracts radicals.

The Silesian part of my identity is pretty secular. I am not from a miners’ family, I am not a practicing Catholic. I know relatively little about the history of my region. Nevertheless, I feel my ethnic specificity. It is certainly not a “hidden German option”, as Jaroslaw Kaczynski one of Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (PiS, law and justice) foremost politicians describes Silesians.

In our house we didn’t speak German, although my grandparents were born before the Second World War and describe themselves as German citizens up to today. As their ancestors were German, many of my peers were allowed to apply for a German passport and then go abroad to work not necessarily thinking about returning. Currently, a large number of inhabitants of the Opole Voivodeship (one of the administrational regions in Poland) are commuting migrants. We have been taught German since first grade.

During the Communist era and in the 90’s we received packages with sweets and washing detergent from relatives in West Germany. Ever since I can remember, we had an advent calendar at home, a tradition originating in Germany which has become trendy in Poland only until much later. I like singing old German folk songs which I remember much better than Polish melodies.

I will always be grateful to the German State and German society for giving me the opportunity for further development and education by pursuing a PhD in Germany. But, I know that Silesia is the place where I can breathe most easily and I am not the only one of my peers with this feeling.

Searching for their identity many young Silesians engage in old traditions and customs and they use the Silesian dialect in everyday life. They create websites where they present the Silesian culture in a modern way. They sell T-Shirts with a Silesian capture. They meet and organize peaceful demonstrations and marches for the region’s autonomy. They feel as Europeans, but they are at the same time particularly connected to their local surroundings.

The “Movement for the autonomy of Silesia” and its main representative Jerzy Gorzelik are very active in the region. Their members compare themselves with the Catalonians in Spain. Moreover, they believe that their efforts are very much in accordance with the development of the EU as a Federation, a Europe of the regions.

Many of my acquaintances do not identify 100% with a national or ethnic group. Often, their parents come from different countries and have raised us children in the spirit of pluralism and diversity of nationalities. As adults we listen to all of those years of our lives in between countries, cultures and stories in order to find out where our heart beats strongest. Is a new generation of people with transnational identities emerging? A generation who is not identifying with only one nation, with only one political option? Or is this generation maybe already existent?

Europe as Home

I believe that my generation is lucky to be able to live in times of relative peace. We have many options, to identify with many different cultures, to be fascinated by diversity. For us, it is clear that we can learn from each other; that you can stay true to your own values and at the same time tolerate and accept strangers. In this globalized world, isolation seems to be not an option. The will for integration and cooperation serves us better. Having a transnational identity it is easier to cope with this modern reality.

When I ask my transnational friends in which language they think and dream as language is believed to be a strong indicator for identification with a particular national or ethnic group, they usually answer me that it depends on which city they have slept in last night. When I tell them that my question focuses on identity my friends reflect briefly and often add that their identity is diverse and that they appreciate this as an asset. They find parts of themselves in the one country or the other, in the one region or the other.

Berlin – Warsaw, Warsaw – Berlin

Berlin – Warsaw – Berlin with the express train connection, a couple of times, yes a dozen times a year. One of my friends tells me that it is important for him to know the basics of the language of a country where he will live slightly longer. He says, he thus feels more» home « when abroad. »Home« for us is not necessarily a »homeland« – Europe is our home. It is a part of our existence, of our lifestyle, our development. If Europe was a house with many rooms, we are like children running from by one room to the other in joy. Identities, traditions, cultures and worlds mix. Is life therefore perhaps less monotonous, less predictable, and maybe also more fascinating?

My three identities mature, change and evolve. Maybe it will be even more identities over the years. My identity mix makes me happy and enriches me. We should strive to be able to live in respect for the diversity of the other. Maybe the trains are a first step to tackle this challenge. And it must not only be the train Berlin-Warsaw and back.

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Europe seen as a cultural project often evolves around the question of identity. Is there a European identity? If yes, what could be the essence of such identity? Regional as well as transnational identity concepts seem to be fruitful options to discuss about the abstract idea of a potential European identity in a more concrete way.

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Berlin - Warszawa Express, Author: Fox Wu, CC BY 2.0, source:
Patrycja Kniejska

    Patrycja is a scientific assistant at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences Freiburg. Her research interests lie in the area of social gerontology, geragogy, commodification of domestic transnationalised care and geriatric rehabilitation. She lives in Dortmund but commutes regularly between Germany and Poland. She is an active member of the The Association for Scholarly Exchange with Central and Eastern Europe (GFPS e.V.)."

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