Connecting cultures

  • 2010-11-11
  • Interview by Michal Bubnik

Malgorzata Kasner is director of the Polish Institute in Vilnius. Polish Institutes are the Polish state-financed institutions promoting the Polish culture in many big cities around the world. Kasner has been connected with Vilnius since the beginning of the ’90s. She graduated from the Polish philology department at Warsaw University, where she also studied the Lithuanian language and where she was also a lecturer. Her scientific interests oscillate around the Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian linguistic borders and common heritage of Poland and Lithuania. She was studying for half a year on an exchange program in Vilnius. Later she was lecturer of the Polish language at Vilnius University.
By being surrounded by Lithuanian lecturers when she herself was a lecturer, she improved her Lithuanian. Kasner is now fluent in Lithuanian. She is a translator of Lithuanian poetry. In 2005, she was awarded the Felicija Bortkeviciene Prize for developing relations between Poland and Lithuania. As a lecturer she particularly appreciates harmony with students. She also enjoys walks on the Adriatic seaside.

You graduated in Polish philology with a Lithuanian specialization. Why have you chosen so uncommon a language?
Professor Elzbieta Smulkowa inspired me, because she had a strong belief that soon the USSR would collapse and new countries like Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus would become independent and they would become our new neighbors. In her citizen’s commitment it was important to educate people who can work, cooperate and create new relations with those countries. Then, I hadn’t known too much about that and I instinctively chose my career path.

Was it hard to learn the Lithuanian language?
Yes, it was very hard for me. The most complicated part was learning new vocabulary. Syntax is a little bit similar to Slavic languages, but getting to know new words has taken longer, perhaps it is that way because I need a long time for learning everything. I had been surrounded by the Lithuanian environment in Vilnius, thanks to lecturers for foreigners who had created my method of studying. Additionally, during my research about Lithuanian poetry written between WWI and WWII, with an emphasis on Juozas Kekstas, who carried me through the complicated Lithuanian history while I was reading his biography and works, [it is] owing to all these factors I have entered into the Lithuanian language world.

Is it worth learning the Lithuanian language? How can you encourage young people in this?
Personally, I think yes. In my opinion, while we’re starting some project, we are immediately considering if it is profitable or not - we pay too much attention to that. This is nothing extraordinary; we are human beings. So firstly, I would advise my friends or children to learn a language in which you can communicate in Europe to gain lots of contacts, for example. On the second hand it is very important to learn native languages of our neighbors; it doesn’t matter how many people speak them. If we know our neighbor’s language then we can improve relations with them, know their traditions, habits. Because of my hobby I have started to learn Slovenian; I have chosen it because of my curiosity, not for some benefit. Definitely studying uncommon languages is not worse than studying well-known ones, although it is worth learning both.

You have been a lecturer in Vilnius University since the beginning of the ’90s and you have had the opportunity to closely observe Polish-Lithuanian relations. How do they look?
Throughout the time after WWII we had some connections; those contacts were developed by scientists in areas where it was possible. It had considerable meaning.  Particularly in the ’80s, our cultural relations were developing because Solidarity [anti-communist movement in Poland] aroused awareness in the Polish society about our eastern neighbors Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, still included in the USSR. So after the reestablishment of Lithuania’s independence in March 1990, we had a great background to strengthen bilateral relations. Also, we cannot forget about Polish and Lithuanian emigration. Those people were meeting, talking, working together. The Paris-based magazine Kultura, edited by Jerzy Giedroyc, had a huge influence. This is the most meaningful example. In this Polish literary-political magazine there were published translations of Lithuanian poems, articles. It was an intellectual circle which wanted to think about Europe not divided by the iron curtain. Without any doubt, the friendship between Czeslaw Milosz [Lithuania-born Polish-language poet, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature] and Tomas Venclova, and their discussions about what it means to be a Lithuanian and what it means to be a Pole aided the creation of a base for close ties between Poland and Lithuania after March 11, 1990.

How do you estimate the evolution of Polish-Lithuanian relations? Did something change after entering the European Union?
Yes, of course. Previously I had been working as a director of the Polish Institute, from 2000 till 2005, so I was working before and after the entrance to the EU. Earlier, everything was focused on bilateral cooperation, now we also are working in the framework of European programs and initiatives. It is a superb chance to spread horizons and get out from only bilateral thinking. The Polish Institute cooperates very closely with Lithuania’s partners. Permanent partnership with The National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania allows for showing lots of exhibitions. This year we will present Tadeusz Popiel’s and Zygmunt Rozwadowski’s diorama The Battle of Grunwald [in Vilnius’ Radvilos Palace on Vilniaus Street 22, from Nov. 10 to Jan. 30]. The famous Matejko painting The Battle of Grunwald was presented in Vilnius in 1998.

How do you perceive our common heritage? Does the Lithuanian government give proper care to this?
There are plenty of areas where our cultures and heritage meet. At the Polish Institute we are involved in countless projects with Lithuanian partners. I would like to tell about one. The Bernardine Cemetery was established 200 years ago. Recently, there was a scientific conference at which were gathered people who care about this cemetery, many Lithuanians working in this field discussing how to commemorate and look after the common heritage with the Poles. The Polish Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites and Vilnius’ local authorities in 2004 were strongly committed to the reconstruction and renovation of Bernardine Cemetery. And, of course, we cannot forget about the patronage of Polish and Lithuanian presidents. I think that is an excellent example of how we can look into a common past. I assure everyone that the Polish state (via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, Council for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites) are doing everything possible. And, obviously, without Lithuanian partners we wouldn’t do anything.

Do you treat all these animosities about the nationality of Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Milosz, etc., seriously, or is it funny for you?
All those people were born on this land, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. They have roots here and have brought huge contributions to the Polish and Lithuanian cultural heritage. Their origin should be a reason of pride, and it isn’t worth it to seek animosities.

Do you see a chance for an objective look at a common history, one without animosities and unkindness?
There are some disputable points. There is cooperation between governments and presidents; a very close partnership between a lot of scientists, historians, experts of heritage, NGOs and university people – this fact needs to be stressed.  But a rather different, maybe ‘perverse’ question should be raised: Do we need a common history of Europe? And whether it is possible to create a common history?

Should we soon expect some events organized by the Polish Institute?
There will be a very interesting Krzysztof Jablonski recital, due to the 200th anniversary of Frederic Chopin’s birthday organized by us and the Lithuanian National Philharmonic. As I mentioned before, the diorama, by Popiel and Rozwadowski, will be exhibited. There will be a concert by the Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra in Kaunas, and Chopin: Jazz and Classical concert performed by two famous Polish pianists: Adam Makowicz and Krzysztof Trzaskowski.