Photo: Ulrike Butmaloiu

Anita Pendziałek: Polish Bread and German Poems

By Ulrike Butmaloiu

Anita Pendziałek is a Polish woman with German roots. She dances, makes sculptures of wood, takes pictures, shoots videos and does German radio. She commutes between the district capital Racibórz and her home village of Gamów, where almost only Upper Silesians with German roots live.

Here is Radio Mittendrin’ (‘Radio Right in the Middle’ ), your German-language radio in Upper Silesia.” Behind the microphone in the broadcasting studio of the small editorial office in Racibórz sits Anita Pendziałek. Concentrated, the twenty-nine-year-old editor looks at her paper, adjusts her glasses, and then again makes contact with the technical room. She brushes the hair from her forehead, black jacket over black blouse, blonde ponytails bobbing in time with her announcement. On the walls of the small station in the Polish district capital, about 400 kilometres southeast of Dresden, are pinned editorial plans in German, a small German flag and a few postcards.
Radio Mittendrin” is a station that has been reporting for and about the German minority in Upper Silesia for twenty years. Round the editorial table sit Pendziałek, two sixteen-year-old high school students from Racibórz and a high school graduate from Thuringia. What is the job of the media? What role does the journalist have?” asks the editor in a firm voice in German. Her eyes follow the discussion with concentration; she nods agreement, interjects something here and there. She follows up questions persistently, keeps at it until she is satisfied with the intern’s response. An hour later, the introductory course in journalism, and so the first day in the editorial office for her young colleagues, are over.

German nursery rhymes after evening prayer

When Pendziałek speaks, she sometimes mixes Upper Silesian and Polish words with her High German. Long before studying German at university, she learned the basics from Disney fairy tale videos, her grandparents and her father. After prayers we always read German poems and nursery rhymes and sang German songs. That was our evening ritual”, she recalls. With her family she speaks Silesian. Looking for an internship ten years ago, she came to Radio Mittendrin”. Every week she produces two hours of radio with her three colleagues and writes for the internet and a newspaper, mainly about cultural activities of the German minority in her region.
I work for people who are the way my grandfather used to be”, says Pendziałek. He treated all people with respect, a marvellous person”, she reminisces. Her grandfather Franz Kachel died when she was eleven. He taught her a lot about her family history and so awakened in her an interest in German culture. He pushed me into the minority thing”, she says, laughing.

The smell of grandfather’s smithy

Franz Kachel was a blacksmith. Today I can still remember the smell of his workshop, the flames, the noise of the bellows and blows of his blacksmith’s hammer.” They often ate lunch together. He had a small radio recorder and a box of cassettes. On Sundays, after the meal, there was Czech brass music, Andy Borg and Heino. He always sang along lustily.” She thinks of her grandfather often and about how he always called her Złoto dzioszka” in Silesian – golden girl”.
There are up to 300,000 members of the German minority in Poland, according to estimates of the German Embassy in Warsaw. Most live in Upper Silesia, where they make up over 20 per cent of the population in some communities. This makes Germans the third largest minority in the country. Many of them have relatives in Germany. Pendziałek’s older brothers and her sister live there with their families.

The family’s languages are Silesian and German

Her mother Maria and father Ernest went to school at a time when learning German was forbidden. Pendziałek’s parents first learned proper High German from their daughter and television. From their house to the editorial office in Racibórz is twelve kilometres. It lies at the outskirt of Gamów, a Silesian village of 300 inhabitants, with one shop, a parish school and a car repair shop. When Pendziałek fetches buns and butter from the village shop, she is addressed in Silesian. She grew up in Gamów and has no desire to leave.
Gamów’s houses are nestled in a valley amidst the rolling hills of the Silesian lowlands, surrounded by fields full of potatoes, maize and wheat. People in Gamów jokingly say to me I don’t fit in here. Because I work in the city, because I’m a radio moderator, because I studied at university, because I travel. They always think: What are you doing here?”

For every bachelor a girl from the village

Most people in Gamów work in agriculture. Usually, son, father and grandfather work together on a farm. They live their entire lives in the village. Only a few work outside it. There used to be a rule that every bachelor had to take as wife a girl from Gamów, so that the farmland remained in the village. Today the people in Gamów laugh about this. When the Pendziałek family meets, there are two brothers-in-law – one Croatian, the other Czech – and the wife of the great uncle, an English teacher from the Philippines, who teaches at the local university. At table, the talk goes back and forth between Silesian, Polish, German and English.
Her parents’ house is not only her place of residence, but also Anita Pendziałek’s retreat. The best ideas come to her here, in the attic, which her father has converted for her into a studio. There are her treasures: wooden figures, oil paints, palette and brushes. Placing a fresh canvas-spanned frame on the easel, she tells about her plans. With her boyfriend, she produces music videos for newcomer bands that perform modern Polish jazz on stages in the region. I’m a Jill-of-all-trades”, she says, laughing. Sound, directing, lighting.” She also writes the scripts for the videos.

Decades during which German was forbidden

Pendziałek bends down and heartily fondles her black puppy Nougat behind the ears and fetches a thick portfolio from under the work table. On the drawings inside it romp three cartoon characters. Every month she thinks up some funny adventure with them for the bilingual web portal Bilingua”. It is aimed at children who want to learn and read German. Learning should be fun”, she says. This public is by way of a change, because the majority of Mittendrin’s” listeners are Upper Silesians of German descent and retirement age. For this audience we report about the KuKs”, she says.
KuKs – this is Pendziałek’s abbreviation for Kaffee und Kuchenkränzchen“ – coffee and cake treats – for which the German Upper Silesians meet regularly. Again and again, the affectionate coinage conjures up a mischievous smile on her face. But these pleasant get-togethers were not always possible. When I started at the radio ten years ago, I couldn’t understand why the men and women in Racibórz so loved their afternoon coffee parties”, Pendziałek recalls. She came to terms with it as best she could. This then changed quite abruptly when she took part in the project Underground”. For the project, the radio station compiled memories of those Silesians whose identity the socialist government wanted to eradicate in reaction to the crimes committed in Poland by Nazi Germany. It was only through conversations in the project that I realized the extent of the oppression after the Second World War.”
For decades it was forbidden to speak German in Upper Silesia. Until the late 1980s, people used to meet in cellars to read poetry, sing German songs and speak German together. Every visit to the neighbours was considered an unannounced meeting and was prosecuted by the authorities. When I first learned that a German would copy a cassette of Heino secretly in a little room so that another could listen to it very quietly at home, I understood at last why people so delighted in their coffee parties. It was only after the end of socialist Poland in 1990 that Germans could meet and talk German with each other in public. A cup of coffee and a piece of cake – that’s all they need.”

Between Warsaw and Berlin

Pendziałek has been fully integrated into the editorial team of Mittendrin” since 2011 and has had since then a say in what topics the small local radio broadcasts. We report on everything concerning the German minority.” From the three-storey house where the editorial staff is based, it is 500 kilometres to Berlin and 370 kilometres in the opposite direction to Warsaw. Mittendrin” is financed both by Poland and by Germany. This is not always easy, because the Warsaw Home Office looks upon the minority only as an element of national folklore, says Pendziałek. The government sees us as Poles, but we want to gain recognition as Germans in Poland.” Pendziałek observes politics in Warsaw and the regions, is interested in what people around her think and speaks with them. I like discussions; they help me develop”, she explains. She has just invited German Studies students from Racibórz to talk about a film on Hannah Arendt and totalitarianism.

Pictures of Auschwitz

Through such meetings she wants to make the German minority accessible above all to young people. When I started here ten years ago, I was appalled at how people reacted to us.” At the time, the editors of Mittendrin” had made an agreement with the founder of a Racibórz information portal to upload texts on one of his subpages. No sooner were articles online than there were comments embellished with pictures of swastikas and Auschwitz. For me, it’s now normal that people react in that way.” Pendziałek pauses for a moment. No, it’s not normal”, she says. But I’ve got used to it.”
It’s particularly older people who haven’t forgotten the German occupation”, she relates. From the beginning of the war to 1945, nearly six million Polish civilians fell victim to the Nazi regime. The aim was to destroy the Polish intelligentsia; Polish newspapers, libraries and universities were closed.

I’m a German and a Pole.”

Sometimes she feels as if she has to decide for one identity. But I feel myself to be both, a German and a Pole. Both, really.” In other words, she wouldn’t have the heart to choose only one or the other. I grew up here, my friends are Poles. I’ve been eating Polish bread all my life.” On the other hand, there is her family, her roots, which she cannot simply ignore.
Anita Pendziałek dreams of teaching at the university, preferably journalism. She is currently learning Spanish and how to play the piano, goes dancing and works in Racibórz as a city guide. She is always coming up with something new to do and is constantly on the move. One weekend she goes to Warsaw for interpreter exams, the next she and her friends are wearing homemade costumes and carrying her village’s harvest festival wreath through the neighbouring community.

All Photos © Ulrike Butmaloiu

Photo: Deutsche Welle

Ulrike Butmaloiu has been reporting as a journalist on countries and peoples for over twenty-five years. As an ifa editor, she has worked on German-language newspapers in the Siberian Slavgorod, Moscow and St. Petersburg. Today she lives in Berlin, from where she sets out on research trips and for media training courses for ifa, n-ost” and the Deutsche Welle” to Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.