Archive for the ‘Nationality’ Category

Yet more on “Polish death camps”

February 16, 2018

In contradiction to what I wrote the other day, I have discovered (thanks to a reference in the relevant Wikipedia page), that an explicit use of the expression “in Polish death camps” (w polskich obozach śmierci) is found in Zofia Nałkowska‘s 1946 book Medaliony , though a little later in the same section there occurs w obozach Polski (‘in Poland’s camps’), which in the English translation is also rendered as “in Polish camps”.

Zofia Nałkowska (1884–1954) was a prominent figure in post-war Poland, not only as a writer and public intellectual but in politics as well. Several cities in Poland have streets named for her. Will she, then, be posthumously charged with a crime against the reputation of the Polish nation and the Republic of Poland?

And am I a criminal in Poland for citing these references?


More on Poland and “Polish”

February 12, 2018

Just as I did with regard to Greece and Macedonia, I feel the need to expand on the flippant remark I recently posted about the stupidity of “refer[ring] (as some Western media do) to Nazi death camps that happened to lie in occupied Poland as ‘Polish'” (as well as that of the resulting Polish reaction).*

Rather than stupid, I should have characterized the reference as ignorant. Ignorant of the fact that, to Poles (as to most peoples east of the Seipel line), “Polish” does not usually mean simply ‘located in the territory of Poland’. The new Polish law is about “protecting the reputation of the Republic of Poland and the Polish Nation”, and one must note that the republic and the nation are distinct entities. Unlike the west, where (with some exceptions) nation and citizenry are essentially identical — a concept first formalized by the French Revolution — in the east these are different.

I am a Polish Jew, born in Poland as a citizen thereof, but I am not and have never been a Pole, that is, a member of the Polish nation. Nor were the many other citizens of pre-war Poland whose “nationality” (i.e. ethnicity) was other than Polish, such as Ukrainian, German or Lithuanian. (There are not many of these left.)

Poles hear references to “Polish death camps” primarily as a reflection on the Polish nation. It’s only fair to quote the Polish ambassador to the UK to the effect that the controversial new law “does not protect individual Polish citizens who committed crimes against Jews, nor does it ban anyone – especially the survivors – from speaking about the cruelty and injustice which they experienced.”

It’s also fair to note that the expression “Polish death camp” in Western media was first used as the title of an article written by a Pole, the heroic Jan Karski. The actual wording, however, may well be due to an American editor armed with the ignorance I referred to above.

*The issue is discussed in a Wikipedia page.

Greece and Macedonia… again!

February 7, 2018

I mentioned in my last post that the old squabble between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia over the latter’s name has started up again. I first wrote about this a dozen years ago, but maybe it’s time to comment again.

The Greeks’ (or, as I prefer, the Grecians’) argument is that the Republic has no right to appropriate the Macedonian identity (including symbols like the Vergina star or Alexander the Great), which to them is Greek, and that much of the Republic’s territory (the northern half was never part of historic Macedonia.

Well, let’s see now. In the (vastly oversimplifying) words of the late Benedict Anderson, nations are “imagined communities”, and the Macedonian Slavs’ choice to imagine themselves as Macedonians (after thinking of themselves as Bulgarians until about 100 years go) is no different from choices other nations have made. For a thousand years, under both Byzantine and Ottoman rule, the Greeks thought of themselves as Romans (Ρωμαίοι in Greek, Rūm in Turkish), and reinvented themselves as Hellenes only at the beginning of the 19th century for the benefit of West European philhellenes. In the Middle Ages, the French thought of themselves as Franks (Franci in Latin and interchangeably Francs or Franceis [modern Français] in French), though the Franks’ historic homeland does not lie in France.

Quite a few nations invented themselves in the course of the past century: Luxembourgers, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Montenegrins…

As for Macedonia being a part of Greece: Greeks are overwhelmingly Orthodox Christians, and as such they should know the Greek Bible, also known as the New Testament. If they were to open the Acts of the Apostles, presumably written by the Greek (or Hellenistic Jew) Luke the Evangelist, they would read (in Chapter 20, Verses 1–3) that “Paul… departed for to go into Macedonia… and… he came into Greece… he purposed to return through Macedonia” (ο Παυλος… εξηλθεν πορευεσθαι εις την Μακεδονιαν… και… ηλθεν εις την Ελλαδα… εγενετο γνωμης του υποστρεφειν δια Μακεδονιας).

Clearly, then, to the Evangelist Macedonia is not a part of Greece, and since in the Christian view the Bible is eternally true, the view that “Macedonia is Greek” is heretical, isn’t it?.

On Catalonian independence – 2

November 1, 2017

In my previous post I mentioned that the Popular Party of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy does not enjoy much support in Catalonia. Rajoy’s administration is regarded by many, perhaps most, Catalonians as especially unfriendly to their land, and the greatest Catalan of our age, the bilingual singer-songwriter Joan Manuel Serrat, has called it “factory of separatists”.

This, too, is reminiscent of the dynastic past. In the War of the Spanish Succession most of Catalonia sided with the Habsburgs, and one result of the eventual victory (in Spain) of the Bourbons, in the person of Philip V, in 1714 was a policy of repression in Catalonia, including especially the banning of the Catalan language from official use and the abolition of Catalonia’s institutions. A petty example of this policy is Philip’s closure of all the universities in Catalonia and the opening of a new one in the small city of Cervera, which had been pro-Bourbon.

Indeed, the same Catalonian nationalists who regard 987 as the beginning of Catalonian independence consider its end to be in 1714, and the date of the final defeat, September 11, is the National Day of Catalonia.

But what was this independence? According to Spanish nationalists, after all, it never existed. Let’s look into the matter.

What may have become de facto independent in 987 was a set of counties ruled by Borrell II. In the Frankish kingdom (Francia) the counties (pagi) had been established around 800 by Charlemagne as administrative units. each headed by a governor (comes or count) named by the king, and supervised by roving royal commissioners (missi dominici).  This system continued in the western kingdom (Francia occidentalis) that split off in 843, but toward the end of the 9th century the power of the kings waned and the counts came to name their own successors, usually their sons, thus establishing the feudal dynasties of Europe. The first count of Barcelona to do so was Wilfred the Hairy (878-897), starting what came to be known as the House of Barcelona. He was the direct ruler of several neighboring counties as well (in particular, those of Osona and Girona were never again to be separated from Barcelona), and was accepted as overlord by others.

This kind of rise to prominence of one count over the others in a given region happened elsewhere in the kingdom. Often these counts took the name of the whole region as their title, so that the counts of Troyes and Meaux became counts of Champagne, and in several cases they became dukes, as those of Burgundy (originally counts of Autun). But the counts of Barcelona (like those of Toulouse) were content with their original titles, along with a listing of all the additional domains that they ruled.

The first reference to Catalonia as a geographic entity dates from early in the 12th century. It was recognized as a legal entity a little later in that century, after the counts of Barcelona had become simultaneously kings of Aragon. Since the 14th century it has been referred to as a principality (principatus).

Now, “Prince of Catalonia” was never used as a monarchic title in Spain (though it was used in legal texts); it was understood that “count of Barcelona” meant that. In the listing of the many titles held by the kings of Aragon, it came directly after the list of the kingdoms and before the titles (such as duke and marquis) that technically ranked above that of count. But elsewhere in Europe the title was used; the Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain), for example, called himself as Fürst zu Cat[h]alonia/princeps Cat[h]aloniae in documents issued in his non-Spanish dominions.

Catalonia, then, was a monarchy of sorts that was in personal union with the kingdom of Aragon and later with the other kingdoms that those rulers acquired (Majorca, Valencia, Sicily etc.), and ultimately also with that of Castile, first with Ferdinand the Catholic upon his marriage to Isabella (until her death) and, for good, beginning with Charles V.

Charles and his Spanish Habsburg successors are known in Spain as the House of Austria, with de Austria being their formal surname, used in particular by illegitimate but recognized offspring who are mistakenly called “of Austria” in English, like this one.

The Spanish Habsburgs continued — as did their Austrian counterparts — the ancestral Habsburg policy of leaving their various domains as self-governing entities. And Catalonia maintained its laws, language and political institutions until they were replaced by the Bourbons, whose French tradition was the opposite — one of centralized rule. This explains Catalonia’s choice in the War of the  Spanish Succession.

But can Catalonia be said to have been independent during those centuries of personal union?

No one would deny that in our days Canada, Australia and New Zealand are independent countries, even though they are all monarchies in personal union with the United Kingdom. But then, nowadays the British monarch reigns but does not rule; the actual governing is done by the parliaments and governments of the respective countries.

It was different in the centuries before the 20th, when monarchs actually ruled, and the constituent units of a personal union, for all their internal self-government, were not really free to adopt policies that were independent of the ruler. And so, Catalonian autonomy — yes. Independence — not really.

On Catalonian independence – 1

October 28, 2017

It’s a common trope among Catalonian* separatists (independentistes) to describe Catalonia’s relationship to Spain as one of colony to empire (see here, for example). It’s no coincidence that the movement has replaced the official flag of Catalonia (the senyera, 1) with a lone-star version (estelada, 2) that is modeled on the flags of Cuba (3) and Puerto Rico (4), former colonies of Spain.

senyera estelada-01211439 cuba  puerto-rico-flag

 (1)                     (2)                        (3)                    (4)

But I think that a better model for the relationship is that between a vassal and a suzerain in the feudal system of medieval Europe. Indeed, Catalonian nationalists (not necessarily separatists) celebrated 1987 as the millennial of Catalonia’s first independence because of what did not happen in 987: Count Borrell II of Barcelona did not pay homage to his overlord Hugh Capet, king of the Western Franks, when the latter was  unable to give him military support against the invading Moors.

The present situation, with the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, dismissing the government of Catalonia and replacing it with appointees from his own political party, is reminiscent of what happened in Austria in 1276, when the emperor Rudolf I (of the house of Habsburg) dismissed Ottokar II (who was also king of Bohemia) from the dukedom of Austria and placed the lands under direct imperial administration, to be governed by his sons.

Of course, the originally Swabian Habsburgs remained as rulers of Austria until 1918. Rajoy, on the other hand, has promised to hold new elections in Catalonia on December 21, and it’s unlikely that his party (the modern equivalent of a medieval dynasty), the Partido Popular, will do any long-time governing there, not being very… popular in Catalonia: it got 8.5% of the vote in the last election. Most of Catalonia’s center-right vote goes to the main nationalist party, formerly Convergència and now PDeCAT.


*I prefer to use “Catalonian” rather than “Catalan” when referring to the territory (the so-called principality) of Catalonia; I use “Catalan” for the language, culture and ethnicity, both inside and outside this territory. I like to make this distinction whenever the English language allows it, as with Somali and Somalian, Slovak and Slovakian, and even Greek and Grecian. This way I can talk, for example, about Catalonian Catalan as distinct from the Balearic and Valencian varieties of the language. What’s more, the French sculptor Aristide Maillol and the Valencian writer Joan Fuster considered themselves Catalans, but they were not Catalonians.



December 23, 2016

Zsa Zsa Gabor died the other day, and in all the audio media that I’ve heard her surname has been pronounced with a stress on the last syllable. It’s actually pronounced, as Wikipedia puts it, GAH-bor ([ˈɡaːbor] in IPA) since it’s a Hungarian name, and in Hungarian all words are stressed on the first syllable.

It reminds me of László/Ladislav/Ladislao Kubala, the great soccer player of the mid-twentieth century. He was a Hungarian Slovak; that is, a citizen of Hungary but ethnically Slovak, not Magyar. The first-syllable stress is something that Hungarian shares with the otherwise unrelated Czech and Slovak, so that his name would be pronounced KOO-bah-lah ([‘kubala]) in Slovak and KOO-baw-law (North American aw, [‘kubɒlɒ]) in Hungarian.

But in Spain, where he spent most of his life (notably as the star of FC Barcelona in the 1950s), he was called [ku’βala], since the Spanish default stress for words ending in a vowel is on the penultimate. This is what can be heard in Joan Manuel Serrat’s song about him (which is in Catalan, so that the last [a] is somewhat reduced).

Kubala began to play soccer professionally as a teenager in Hungary during World War II. After the War, when the Communist regimes legitimized ethnic nationality according to the Soviet model, he decided to identify as a Slovak and moved to Slovakia (then a part of newly reunited — after being split by Nazi Germany — Czechoslovakia), where he played for Slovan Bratislava and the Czechoslovakian national team, and married a Slovak girl (his coach’s sister) with whom he promptly had a son named Branko.

For Eastern Europeans, one’s ethnic national identity often trumps the civic. When I was a child I thought that this was peculiar to Jews (I have always thought of myself as a Polish Jew, never as a Pole), but soon learned that it was common to most peoples east of the Seipel line. Some thirty years ago I met a woman in Mexico, a fellow tourist who at first told me that she was Yugoslavian; it turned out that she was a Slovene from Trieste — a citizen of Italy — but didn’t think of herself as Italian.

Kubala did, as a matter of fact, return to Hungary for a while, where he played for a local Hungarian club and the Hungarian national team, but soon defected to the West. He played for a makeshift team, coached by his brother-in-law, that was called Hungaria, named not for modern Hungary but the old polyethnic Hungarian kingdom. He was also signed by Torino, at the time considered the best team in Europe, and by sheer chance missed being on the plane, carrying the rest of the team, that crashed into the mountains.

As I mentioned above, he ended up in Spain, and was given Spanish citizenship by Franco himself, who used him for propaganda extolling the superiority of Francoism to Communism. And he played for Spain’s national team as well. No wonder he called himself a “cosmopolitan.”


November 25, 2016

Truth from a Polish Jew

August 10, 2016

I have just read a book titled Leap for Life by Rut Wermuth Burak, published in 2010 and subtitled A Story of Survival and Reunion. It’s the first memoir by a Polish Jew who lived through World War II in Nazi-occupied Europe that has struck me as truthful.

Actually, the book that I read was the Polish original, published in 2002, titled Spotkałam Ludzi (“I met people”) and subtitled (in Polish) “A story about a tragic beginning aend an extraordinary ending.” The author is presented as Ruta Wermuth; not only is her married name absent from the title page but it’s referred to only by its initial in the book, for some reason unknown to me.

I have already written about the tendency of my fellow Polish Jews to overdramatize, if not fictionalize, their experiences during World War II; well-known examples include Jerzy Kosiński, Luba Tryszynska (“the Angel of Bergen-Belsen”), Solomon Perel (“Europa, Europa”) and Herman Rosenblat {“An Angel at the Fence”). I have also found this tendency in personal accounts by acquaintances. Perhaps they took their inspiration from the originator of the genre, Elie Wiesel, whose hugely successful Night trilogy was later admitted by him to be semi-fictional.

But Rut(a) Wermuth, unlike the people cited above, did not write her memoir for a Western audience; the English version seems to have been an afterthought encouraged by her brother’s non-Polish-speaking family in England. Instead, she wrote it for her fellow Poles. (I have long maintained that Polish Jew does not equal Pole, but she chose to become a Pole by marrying one, living in Poland and hiding her Jewishness until late in life.) And not only do Poles know a little more about the reality of World War II in Eastern Europe than Westerners do, but they are likely to judge any such account by a Jew critically if not suspiciously.

Not only is the book (in my view) truthful but it’s fascinating and deeply moving. I recommend it.


August 5, 2016

In a short while the 2016 Olympic Summer Games will open in the winter of Rio de Janeiro (a tropical winter, to be sure). The two featured events tonight will be the lighting of the flame and the Parade of Nations, where the representatives of the Olympic nations will march in alphabetical order, except that the host country, Brazil, will be last in a show of old-fashioned courtesy, while Greece will be first, being supposedly the first Olympic nation. Well, modern Greece bears about as much relation to classical Greece as the modern Olympics do to those of antiquity, so it seems reasonable.

And the alphabetical order for the remaining nations means that Macedonia will march ahead of Azerbaijan.

Why? Because the athletes of Azerbaijan will march under the Portuguese name of their country, Azerbaijão, while the Macedonians will do so under the name Antiga República Iugoslava de Macedónia, the Portuguese version of “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” (FYROM), which is designation under which the country participates in international organizations.

Why did I bring up Azerbaijan? Because, in principle, the naming situation of the two countries is analogous: both were once member republics of a communist-led federation, and both bear the names of larger historical regions of which they form a part but of which a significant part — which includes the historic heart of the region — belongs to a neighboring country — Greece in the case of Macedonia, Iran in the case of Azerbaijan.

But I have never heard of any Iranian objecting to the name “Republic of Azerbaijan”; the relevant Persian Wikipedia page is titled Jomhuri-e Āzarbāijān. The Greek page for the Republic of Macedonia, on the other hand, carries the Greek version of FYROM, fully spelled out, as its title. For the whole FYROM business is the result of a temper tantrum by Greece, as I  already wrote ten  years a go.

The Greeks seem to ignore a practice that their ancient forebears already spoke of, that of synecdoche — the naming of an entity for a larger one that it’s a part of (or, conversely, for a smaller one that’s part of it). In the case of countries, a name like  Republic (or Kingdom or United Statesof X, where X is a larger geographic unit, is not uncommon, United States of America being a prime example. As we know, the USA is often called just America for short, not just by Americans but by others as well, though not usually by Latin Americans, Stephen Sondheim to the contrary notwithstanding. (I am referring to the song in West Side Story.)

There are  also the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which does not include the part of historic Luxembourg that belongs to Belgium; the Republic of Ireland, of which Northern Ireland (belonging to the United Kingdom) is not a part; the Republic of Cyprus, and so on.

I am looking forward to, one of these years, seeing Macedonia march at the head of the M nations, or between Madagascar and Malaysia if the games happen to be held in a country in whose language the name is Makedonia.



May 19, 2016

The Associated Press story reporting on yesterday’s death of the historian Fritz Stern includes this information:

He was born in the former German province of Silesia (now in Poland) to a prominent family that had converted from Judaism to Christianity. But the Sterns felt increasingly menaced by Hitler’s reign and left in 1938 for New York…

Why “but”?

Apparently someone at AP thought that there was a contradiction between conversion to Christianity and being menaced by Hitler. That is, they are confusing Judaism — a religion — with Jewishness as an ethnic or “racial” category. To Hitler, of course, it was only the latter than mattered. In other words, his regime persecuted Jews, not only those who also happened to be Judaists.

A common confusion, to be sure.