Slavic Self-Interpretation in the Cashubian Literature before 1945


Vladislav Knoll


The literary tradition formed by the Cashubians, a small Slavic ethnic group living in Northern Poland along the Baltic coast, is an interesting example of a regional literature searching its own identity in a rich local language Since the late 19th century, this literature has been trying to develop all the forms and genres to surmount its regional character. This is the process that had to be passed by many nowadays flowering literatures that did not execute much or any political or social power. Nowadays, the Cashubian literature really can be considered one of those that have the potential to leave the regional dialectal stage. It has educated such figures as Aleksander Majkowski or Jan Drzeżdżon whose work has undeniable universal qualities.

The birth of the Cashubian literature was caused by the need to understand and practice Christianity in the vernacular language. Thanks to this product of the Lutheran church, many European literatures, especially Baltic, Slovenian and Sorabic started or restarted their literary development. The translation of Luther’s and biblical texts into the Polish-like language in late years of the almost germanised Pomeranian state strengthened in these Western regions of the Cashubian speaking territory the conscience about the nearness of the Polish language. The Polish body of text, clearly dependent on the German original text is enriched by many Cashubian forms that prefigure later efforts to express the relation between the Polish and Cashubian cultural traditions. The enrichment of this Slovince (North-Western Cashubian) tradition of the religious literature was a clamour of the Slavic speaking community melting in the German sea and trying to save its identity with the help of an adapted similar language. The seeming futility of these attempts is illustrated by the rapid silencing of the Slavic voice in the villages and churches in Eastern Cashubian regions incorporated to the Prussian state after the division of Poland.

As we can see, the Cashubian literary tradition, like the traditions of other minority cultures, has been since its beginning based on self-defence. What constitutes the specificity of the Cashubian case is the aspirations to interpret its own identification in the relation with two neighbour big languages and cultures who had the tendencies to comprehend the Cashubian culture as a part of theirs. The study of this phenomenon is even more interesting, if we bear in mind that the sociolinguistic history of the Cashubian region has passed several stages and the Cashubian language and culture had to shift its strategy and balance between the two neighbouring cultures. The initial direction of these self-interpretations were determined by education of Florian Ceynowa as a student keenly interested in Polish culture who had opportunity during his studies in the German-speaking Breslau/Wrocław to learn the achievements of the Czech national awakening. It was the influence of the Czech 19th perception of Slavic solidarity together with the friendship with J.A. Smoler and even more importantly the correspondence with Saint Petersburg scholars that made Florian Ceynowa a protagonist of a national one-man revival, whose heritage was appreciated by his own people decades after his death.

It is revealing to put side by side Ceynowa’s work, a part of which is collected into his journal-formed Treasure (Skôrb)[1], and the work of the Russian scholar Aleksandr Gilferding, who was guided during his visit by Ceynowa. Despite the frequent topical similarity, we have to acknowledge the different intentions of these two collections. The prevailing ethnographic character of both works is also the main purpose of Gilferding’s Rests of Slavs.[2] Ceynowa’s purpose was to introduce the richness of the popular oral, toponymic and partly material culture to his own people, offering them his own dialect as a fully comprehensible standardized language that should serve as intermediary between the vernacular idiom and the languages of the state (German) and the church (Polish), which were the only languages of education. Besides its educational purpose, Ceynowa’s work has two more levels: the first one is an attempt to create a standardized Cashubian language, and the second is the social and political effort to define the relation between the Cashubian and Polish. These attitudes, expressed by a dialogic form into the Conversations of a Cashubian with a Pole included into the Treasure[3], show particularly the critical view of the Polish aristocracy and were negatively accepted by the Polish patriots.     

In Ceynowa’s Customs and habits of the Cashubian-Slovince folk (included in the Treasure)[4] the place of Cashubians in the Slavic world is defined in relation with the Polabic and Pomeranian tribes, which he describes as part of the Vends. In this part, there is a remark challenging the Cashubians to care about their language saying it is a shame, if Czechs and Russian write so much about Cashubian language and culture and the Cashubians itself are not interested in it.

The further development of the Cashubian literature shows the gradual emergence of various literary genres and themes as it is typical for the regional artistic literature, corresponding to the phenomenon, called in German culture Mundartdichtung. From this point of view the development of the Cashubian literature can be compared to the history of the Luxembourgian one. The Mundartdichtung consists of a sort of regional epic poems, often of humoristic character, the lyric poetry expressing the love to the local idiom and its region growing to the nature lyrics and in the last stage, to the erotic lyrics. The prose consists usually of memoirs and short humoristic stories, mostly from the rural live. The dramatic work comprises the short scene performances describing mostly stories from the everyday life. The Mundartdichtung does not have the ambition to replace the serious literature written in a well-established literary language, its purpose is mostly to distract the reader and make feel him to form the part of his region, providing him texts in an unofficial, conspirator manner, written in his idiom that must not be mutually understood by others.

The epic work of Jarosz Derdowski, apparently inspired by the work of a great Low German writer Fritz Reuter, was written fully in the framework of these intentions. The view of its own people in the work of the Southern Cashubian poet is almost opposite to Ceynowa’s attitude. Derdowski does not let any doubt in his work that he sees the Cashubians to be an indivisible part of a great Polish nation - this is fully illustrated by his Cashubian March[5]. This attitude, nevertheless, does not mean by anyway that Derdowski is not proud of his cashubity. Derdowski’s hero Sir Czôrlińsczi travels through strongly germanised Western Cashubia whose inhabitants accepted the Lutheranian (German) religion, but they still do remember their Slavic language.  This is a very specific passage of the epic poem - the humorous tone is marked by the knowledge of the proceeding German assimilation process. The difference between Ceynowa’s and Derdowski’s attitudes regarding the self-defence against the Germans can be also seen as the difference between the formation of the self-conscience and the feeling stronger being the outermost part of a big nation[6]. In his poem, Derdowski mentions also that the Cashubians should do their best to learn the correct Polish language to speak finally as well as in Warsaw[7]. These two directions of the self-defining diffuse and compete through the whole following Cashubian literary history.

The continuation of these two given sources of the Cashubian ideology are presented by the Young Cashubian Movement whose first literary work was Majkowski’s humoristic poem How in Koscérzna a sacristan was chosen inspired by Derdowski’s work[8]. Another professor of Cashubian literature and the leading person of the Young Cashubians, reminisces of his studies in Greifswald’s University, founded by the Pomeranian knights. Looking at the paintings of the glorious Princes of Pomerania and Cashubia[9], he was deeply touched and became proud of his origin like Derdowski’s literary hero, visiting Oliva Monastery[10]. Majkowski felt similarly during the unveiling of Mickiewicz’s statue in Warsaw, where he was invited – it was again the pride in his origin and the belonging to a great nation. These events in Majkowski’s life can be considered symbols of the self-comprehension of Young Cashubians and further generation of the Cashubian intelligence. Without denying their near connection to the Polish nation, they were conscious of their own historical tradition which was frequently reflected and developed in their work. In Gryf, the journal and platform of the Young Cashubian Movemenet as well as in the Zrzësz Kaszëbskô (The Cashubian Union) edited by the next generation in the thirties, the Cashubian journalists tried to defend themselves against the views that they construct Cashubian artificial separatism.[11] Thus, the Young Cashubians as well as their more radical heirs – Zrzëszińcë (The United), were in a similar position as their “father” Ceynowa.

A romantic vision of Great Pomerania, formerly might Slavic nation, was a very potent motif of Cashubian literature of the fist half of the 20th century, represented by the members of the Young Cashubians and the United groups. They saw the region as rapidly disappearing spell-bound homeland, which is waiting for her liberation from the enemy’s (mostly German) hands. The golden age of the Cashubians was seen in the 13th century during the reign of the Greifen dynasty successfully defending its Pomeranian land against the enemies from all directions, or in the more ancient time, when all the North-Western Slavic tribes stood against the Germanic pressure. These motifs can be elaborated by the placing of the story to the “heroic” or “post-heroic” age or by an allegoric way, using the symbolism of the regional mythology.

The conception of Great Pomerania can be illustrated by an expression which can be found especially in Majkowski’s[12] and Trepczyk’s work[13], defining Pomerania as the land between the Hel peninsula and the Stubbenkammer on the Rügen island. The Cashubians in the present time can be considered the “last Pomeranian Mohicans,”[14] the last Slavic (also used: Velet, Vend) speaking tribe of the Polabian-Pomeranian community. An interesting interpretation of the place of the Cashubians among the Slavic world can be found in Heyke’s epic poem Dobrogòst and Miłosława.[15] In this large work, taking place in the heroic age of the Prince Swiãtopôłk’s reign, there is a character of a heroic singer singing about the ancient or recent events during the banquets. In the sixth song of the third part of the poem, a singer presents a myth about the origin of the Slavs and Cashubians proceeding from a mythological person called Słôw through the division of the lands among Lech’s three sons (the second one being the ancestor of the Pomeranians) up to the wars the Germanic aggressors against the Polabians assisted by the gods of the Slavic pantheon.

Heyke’s epic, published in full at the end of the 20th century, chants the glory of the heroic age displaying the pride of being Pomeranian. In the modest Cashubian literature tradition Derdowski was called Cashubian Homer referring among others to the Odysseus-like journey of the protagonist that is due to the unfavourable fate, presented by the Smãtk, Cashubian evil ghost. However, it is Heyke’s epic that is seriously influenced by Homer’s Iliad, describing the details of the battles and relations between the warriors in the “heroic age” in verses with several formal Homeric reminiscences.[16] However, Dobrogost and Miłosława was not deprived of certain sadness and melancholy, not just in the parts, where the heroes understand, how difficult is to defend their small homeland, fully surrounded by enemies, but also in the verses, where the fate of their “Western brothers” is shown. This appears in Dobrogost’s narration about his journey to the West (compare analogical passages in Sir Czôrlińsczi) visiting the disappearing Slavic tribe in Wendland and passing along the coasts, where “not so long ago” flourished the famous Slavic centres Vineta and Arkona.[17]

The motif of the “post-heroic” is a strong theme which can be writer’s instrument to describe his attitude to the voluntary conjunction with the Polish state on one side and the involuntary annexation to the Germanic political and cultural sphere on the other side. In the Cashubian poetry, drama and prose we can find several reminiscences related to the short period (1282-1309) since the Kępno accord through the Czech reign up to the beginning of the German Knights period. According to the literary interpretations, the Kępno accord means the end of the Pomeranian independence, but at the same time the choice between the Germanic and the Slavic.[18] Following the establishment of the German dominance in the Polabian and Western Pomeranian regions, Pomerania is in fact no longer the “middle tribe” and instinctively joins the “Polish family”. The protagonist of this decision between the German or Polish influence is the last Prince of the Greifen Dynasty Mestwin II, represented e.g. in Karnowski’s drama Mestwin’s legacy,[19] or in Sychta’s yet unedited drama Mestwin’s last Christmas.[20] An interesting point of view is shown in Karnowski’s drama Libusza, speaking about the short period of the Czech reign. There is a reference to the joining of the important Slavic centres, calling Pomerania the “lustrous amber in Saint Venceslas crown,”[21] but later comes the disillusion of the Czech protagonist married in Pomerania which is caused by the news that the young king Venceslas III wants to offer Pomerania to the Brandenburgian state – this is seen as the betrayal of the Slavic unity. The crisis and the definitive end of the glorious period of the Pomeranian history arrives with the annexation to the state of the German knights in 1308-1309, which is seen in the literature as the symbol of the “national tragedy” the victory of the German element in Pomerania which, in the thought of the Cashubian poets, is a parallel, to the second division of Poland almost five hundreds years later.[22]    

The motif of the “defeated Polabian and Western Pomeranian brothers” is not rare in the Cashubian literature of the first half of the 20th century.[23] It gives expression to the continuous vain struggle against the German assimilation and tries to encourage the Cashubians to maintain their identity. Arkona, as the Delphi of the North-Western Slavic world, has a symbolic value for the Cashubian writers. It is used allegorically for example in Rompski’s drama Rising of Arkona,[24] which describes the struggle of the Arkona’s ghosts for the soul of a Cashubian boy. All these lost lands are shown by the dying old Józwa to the young Rémus on a map of Great Pomerania in Majkowski’s masterpiece Life and the adventures of Rémus. It is a challenge that encourages el ingenioso hidalgo of Pomerania to try to rescue from the captivity nation’s soul.[25] In this novel, which represents possibly the peak of the Cashubian literature, we can find several allegoric motifs, inspired by regional mythology, that are present in the Cashubian literary traditions until the present day. The main motif is the “eternal” fight between the Good, represented mostly by a somewhat weak man (Ormuzd’s spark) and the inscrutable Evil – Smãtk, for the elf-struck nation’s soul, identified with a princess living in a fallen-down Castle. In the Cashubian tradition, as well as in the Rémus, the hero is defeated by his own weakness. In the literary interpretation, there is still a hope remaining which offers the next attempt to the next generation. In Karnowski’s drama Swantewit’s son[26] we find another important allegoric character appearing in the Cashubian literature, which has the same role as the princess – the Gryph – the mythical bird which is the symbol of the whole Pomerania. The need of the Gryph’s rescue often appears in the Cashubian poetry. Also in this piece, the hero, being seduced by Smãtk, finally does not find enough strength to do the last step to rescue the nation’s soul.

            The Cashubian literary tradition is a type of a regional border culture which, especially up to 1945, tried to express its belonging to the Slavic world, as well as the need to comprehend its historical and ethnical relations to the neighbours. Being culturally oppressed by the German culture, the Slavic literature of Pomerania was an instrument to challenge its own people not to be ashamed of the own tradition and language.[27] The close connection to the other Slavs was expressed mainly by themes from the region’s history and mythology, which presented an opportunity to appreciate the Slavic customs and inheritance. The most mentioned Slavs are the Western Pomeranians (including the island of Rügen) – Polabians as the symbol of the Slavic involuntary as well as the voluntary political-cultural defeat and the progress of the Germanization, and the Poles as the Eastern Lekhitic brothers or own family. From other nations, there are references to Czechs, (mostly in journals) who represent an example of a successful national revival and persistence against the Germanic influence.[28]

The change of the political and sociolinguistic situation in Pomerania after 1945 could also transform or re-evaluate the themes of the Cashubian literature. The Cashubians do not suffer any longer form Germanization and there are supposed to feel themselves an integral part of Polish culture. The historical-allegoric motifs are predominated by the personal confessions, memories and the biographical themes. The regionalism in the Cashubian literature becomes more prominent at the end of the 20th century, when the disappearing of the Cashubian identity in the Polish nation is felt more intensively and the society becomes more open to these feelings. The Cashubian writing intelligence has begun to revise their position within the Slavic world and to re-discover further Slavic cultures.  

[1] Florjan Cenôva, Skôrb Kaszébskosłovjnskjè mòvé (Svjecè, 1866).

[2] Aleksander Hilferding, Resztki Słowian na południowym wybrzeża Morza Bałtyckiego, ed. J. Treder (Gdańsk, 1989); Aleksander Hilferding, Ostatki Słowian na południowym brzegu Bałtyckiego morza,  in Oskar Kolberg, Dzieła wszystkie, v. 39 (Poznań, 1965).

[3] “Rozmòva Kaszébé s Pòlôchę”, in Cenôva, Skôrb, IX, 134-139, X, 151-157, XII, 183-194, 197-198. 

[4] “Zvéczaje é wòbéczaje Kaszébskosłovjnského narodé”, in Cenôva, Skôrb, V, 74-80,  VI, 87-98.  

[5] Jarosz Derdowski, O panu Czôrlińscim co do Pucka po sece jachôł (Gdyni, 1960), 81-83. This Cashubian March sings about the successful wars against Germans and the Polishness of the Cashubians (Where Vistula from Cracovia / falls into the Polish sea, / neither Polish faith nor language / will ever die...)

[6] Compare Andrej Bukowski, Regionalizm kaszubski (Poznań, 1950), 56.

[7] Derdowski, O panu Czôrlińscim, 126.

[8] Aleksander Majkowski, Jak w Koscérznie koscelnego obrele... (Gdańsk, 1899).

[9] Aleksander Majkowski, “Wspomnienia moje”, in Teka Pomorska 3, no. 5-6 (1938), 151.

[10] Derdowski, O panu Czôrlińscim, 140.

[11] I.  Muża (Stefan Bieszk), “Mit kaszebskji?“, in Zrzesz Kaszëbskô 6, no. 1 (1938), 1-2.

[12] Compare „Kaszubsczi mit“, in Modra struna, antologia poezji kaszubskiej (Gdańsk, 1973), 49 and Aleksander Majkowski, Żëcé i przigòdë Rémùsa (Gdańsk, 1997), 105.

[13] In the modern time sung by the rock group Chëcz.

[14] Aleksander Labuda, “Dejô Vjelgjigo Pomorzô”, in Zrzesz Kaszëbskô 5, no. 9 (1937), 1.

[15] Leon Heyke, Dobrogòst i Miłosława (Gdańsk, 1999), 198-200.

[16] The same period is represented in the epic Jaromar of the Cashubian poet Franciszek Sędzicki written in Polish (Gdańsk-Toruń, 1928).

[17] Heyke, Dobrogòst i Miłosława, 185.

[18] This choice is simply described in Sir Czôrlińsczi (141) – Prince Mestwin (Mszczug) left the land to the Polish king to avoid the German annexation, from that time Poland is Cashubian homeland.

[19] Jan Karnowski, “Zôpis Mestwina”, Gryf 8, no. 2 (1932),10-23.

[20] There was a thought: “We are joining Polish people, because we are the children of one father. Thus, we must have one mother, one home…” See Ferdinand Neureiter, Geschichte der kaschubischen Literatur(München, 1978), 218.

[21] Jan Karnowski, “Libusza”, Utwory sceniczne (Gdańsk, 1970), 31.

[22] Examples can be found in the lullaby of Sir Czôrlińsci’s wife (Derdowski, O panu Czôrlińscim, 59-60) mentioning the legendary defeat of the Pomeranians by the Redunia River, or Karnowski’s poems, see Jan Karnowski, Nowotné spiéwë i wiersze (Gdynia, 1958), 23-27.

[23] “Dzéń w Arkonie,” in Stanisław Czernicki (Leon Hezké), Podania kaszubskie (Kościerzyna, 1931), 38-39; “Retra – słovjańskji Akropol” 32, in Zrzesz kaszëbskô 6, no. 5 (1938), 32; Majkowski, Żëcé i przigòdë Rémùsa, 105.

[24] Jan Romskji, “Vzenjik Arkonë,” in Zrzësz Kaszëbskô, 6, no. 4-11 (1938) and 7, no. 5 (1939).

[25] Compare Neureiter, Geschichte der kaschubischen Literatur, 98.

[26] Jan Karnowski, “Wotrôk Swantewita”, Gryf 8, no. 4 (1932)22-32.

[27] Good examples of this “challenges” can be seen in Trepczyk’s verses, e.g. “Marsz Naszyńców” (The march of our people), in Modra struna, 178-180.

[28] Compare J.M., “Słowjanje ë kaszebji”, Zrzesz Kaszëbskô 6, no. 8, 54, no. 9, 60. The relation between Cashubians and Polish is by Karnowski compared to the relation of Czechs and Slovaks (Bukowski, Regionalizm kaszubski, 161). The Germans described this relation to be similar as the one between the High and Low German.