Polish schools show positive example

  • 2005-02-16
  • By Aaron Eglitis
DAUGAVPILS - For centuries Polish influence has been strong in Latvia, particularly in the southeastern region of Latgale, which accounts for the largest proportion of the country's Polish population. Latgale, in fact, belonged to the Polish crown between 1562 's 1772 and later was ruled by a Germanic-Polish aristocracy comprised of descendants of crusader knights. Polish Jesuits published the first book in Latvian in 1585.

Quite properly, then, it was a Polish general, Jozef Pilsudski, who helped expel Russian troops garrisoned in Daugavpils in 1920 and establish Latvian rule in Latgale.

But though the Latvians "arrived," the Poles remained. During the interim between the wars, minority education was supported and encouraged, giving rise to schools with instruction in German, Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Belarusian and Polish. There were as many as 50 Polish schools in Latvia before the outbreak of World War II, though toward the end of the 1930's nationalist policies sought to make public education more Latvian 's children with one Latvian parent had to attend a Latvian school.

After the war, however, Soviet educational policies ended the minority system. Communist officials closed all minority schools 's leaving only Latvian and Russian-language instruction in place 's in an attempt to assimilate the country's minorities. The last Polish school closed in 1949.

Today, however, the trend is in reverse. In Daugavpils, for instance, the country's second largest city, one can attend the Pilsudski Polish School, named after the general-liberator 's compliments of funding from both Warsaw and Riga 's while in nearby Kraslava pupils can go to the super-modern Plater School named for a local aristocratic family.

These schools, which specialize in foreign-language instruction, are testimony to the resurgent strength of minority education in Latvia, despite widespread protests claiming the contrary. In contrast to the animosity standing like a Chinese wall between Russian-language schools and the government, Latvia's other minorities have managed to establish a sound system of bilingual education.

Relations between the government and its Polish minority are particularly good 's so good, in fact, they could serve as a model for many other countries.

"Everything can be solved through discussion," Evija Papule, head of the minority integration department at the Education Ministry, says. She cited different agreements that have been made with the Polish-language schools and the flexibility of the curriculum of the Jewish school, which allows pupils to attend classes on different days, honoring different holidays.

For more than four years Latvian and Polish educational experts worked together on drafting an education policy for local Polish schools. "This cooperation 's and experience 's we have only with the Polish government," says Papule, who sits on the bi-governmental committee.

Not counting Russian, there are 10 state-supported schools in Latvia with minority-language education 's including Ukrainians, Belarusians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Jews and even Roma have classes. And while the governments of the first four have supplied funding, only Poland has established a committee with Latvian officials and sends teachers from the home country to ensure quality of education.

And while there were as many as 50 schools for Poles before, today there are only five, mostly in the east 's Daugavpils, Kraslava, Jekabpils, Rezekne and Riga 's providing some 1,550 students with education partly in the Polish language. As today, many of the schools in the first republic were in smaller towns, while others in cities such as Liepaja, have not returned.

Top-notch studies

Papule stresses that students graduating from the Polish schools learn four languages: Latvian, English, Russian and Polish. She adds that from the very beginning Polish officials have supported Latvia's minority education program.

A graduate of Latvia's Polish schools is ready to enter either Polish or Latvian universities, educational officials say, and some do leave for Poland, although at smaller numbers than when the schools first reopened.

But after 50 years of Soviet policies, many young Poles spoke Russian as their native language. Polish was the norm at home and in church, but without system of instruction the language suffered, explains Gertrude Grave, director of Pilsudski School in Daugavpils.

"Many of our students speak Russian as a first language," she says, adding that she grew up in a Polish-speaking family. When the school was reopened in 1991, there were few students, although this year there are nearly 400. There are more Poles in Daugavpils than ethnic Latvians.

Indeed, Soviet policies took their toll, according to an article by historian Eriks Jekabsons published on the Latvian Institutes's Web site. Only 21 percent of the Polish minority claimed Polish as their native language in 1979, and only 27 percent knew any Polish by 1989.

Inside Pilsudski School's classrooms are three symbols that for many of Latvia´s Poles represent the gamut of their national identity: the Latvian coat of arms, the Catholic cross and the Polish eagle. A portrait of Marshal Pilsudski in a military uniform, flanked by Polish soldiers 's a gift from Poland 's provides an imposing presence in the halls of the school that bears his name.

Diaspora support

Playing a rather large part in the revival of Polish schools in Latvia is the Polish government's commitment to Polonia, the 10-million strong diaspora, although officials admit this is a "magic number." The bulk resides in North America, but there are significant populations of Poles throughout Eastern Europe in lands that had at one time been ruled by the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.

There are roughly 60,000 Poles in Latvia. Despite the small number, relations between the Polish and Latvian governments are excellent, says Marcin Knapp, first secretary at the Polish Embassy. Warsaw's relations with Belarus, in contrast, regarding minority education, are more complicated and difficult, he is quick to add.

Poles, he explains, do not complain about paying taxes that go to help Poles outside the country. Many even believe they have a "moral obligation" to support their compatriots abroad. And while funds for Polish schools in Latvia come from a variety of state agencies, some 's like funding to provide school lunches for children of poorer families 's come directly from the Polish Embassy.

Former Integration Minister Nils Muiznieks says that the Polish diaspora program, along with those of Lithuania and Estonia, partly inspired the diaspora program he created for Latvians shortly before leaving office. The government program would lend support to the diaspora that was fled the second World War.

In addition, Poland sends teaching materials, teachers, books and even provides through various programs money for building and refurbishing costs. Schoolchildren and teachers are also given the opportunity to travel to Poland for summer camps to perfect their language skills and familiarize themselves with the country.

But the real fruit of the Polish-Latvian cooperation is the new school in Kraslava, a quaint town near the Belarusian border. At a cost of $2 million, the Plater School was built across the street from a cemetery with a large number of Polish graves. It boasts top-of-the-line facilities and a pristine playground, and so impressed local parents that anyone with as much as an ounce of Polish DNA in their bloodline tried to have their kid accepted.

"It's a beauty," an elderly Kraslava man admits when asked directions from two Riga journalists.

The Polish school in Riga is named after Ita Kozakiewicz .an independence activist and prominent figure in the local Polish community. The school received 10 percent of the funds for its refurbishment from the Polish government and the remainder from the city of Riga. The Polish school in Rezekne is named after a Polish king.