A family party, in a pub somewhere in West Germany. We stand behind the bar with a laptop and take song requests from our relatives. Mostly English-language pop music from the 80s. One of our aunts - we call her Ciocia - leans over the bar and whispers her song request into our ears.
We are Grupa Mauczka. We were all born in Germany but are at home in stories and anecdotes about and in the messiness of Upper Silesia, Górny Śląsk. We have grandparents whose first language is German. We have parents whose first language is Polish. Or should we say Upper Silesian? Because this language doesn't quite sound like Polish. Some say it sounds as if it has been diluted with a lot of water. It is coded with German and Czech, punctuated with their fragments, sound effects and insider. It is more like a mash of languages. Gibberish. A slimy, viscous mass that has clearly been stirred from various ingredients but which can no longer be separated. A moczka of polyphony and multiple affiliations to which no clear identity can be ascribed. Most of us were not taught this language, this Water-Polish. Some of us try to (re)acquire it in numerous Polish courses and yet experience time and time again that the vocabulary we learn sounds different from what we heard from the mouths of our families. We have only now learned that it is Water-Polish. Upper Silesian words and terms cannot be learned in a school or a textbook. Upper Silesian words appear mainly in everyday family life. Some of us speak Water-Polish fluently.
When we look for Upper Silesia - as we know it from the stories of our families - on a map, we find the region only in history books. Upper Silesia, Górny Śląsk was and is a landscape between the Oder, Neisse and Wisła rivers, deeply deformed throughout history by an amalgamate of coal seams, mining tunnels, shafts, and precarious underground work: a stretch of land scarred by coal excavators.
It seems to us that there is a great misunderstanding that Upper Silesia can be clearly assigned to Poland, Germany, or any other nation-state project. When in 1921 - about a hundred years ago today - Upper Silesians were asked to vote in a referendum on the affiliation of the historic border region, one thing was clear: it's a mess. The urban population was more in favour of German affiliation, the rural population more in favour of Polish affiliation. How one understood oneself and to whom or what the region should be assigned was controversial even within families. If the hope was that a simple line could be drawn on a map, then the result of the vote showed that the possibility of nationalistically conceived borders had been eliminated.
When we talk about Górny Śląsk, the question of whether it is either Polish or German does not help us. We cannot concretely answer the question of whether we are Polish or German either. An identity fixed to a nationality and names registered in passports do not help us. Our names have different spellings and pronunciations; over time, they have changed their meaning and affiliation, and they have been assigned, rewritten, overwritten, adapted, and fitted in.
The search for a clear beginning is as hopeless as it is a misunderstanding. Words do not come easily. Today, some of our names sound distinctly non-German to German ears; they say our names are more Eastern European or what many imagine to be Slavic. They need to be spelt and explained regularly. Others have been successfully Germanised and no longer produce knots in German tongues. Most of our names are on German Volkslisten, lists that were drawn up by the NSDAP under National Socialism in order to assign a clear nationality to the inhabitants of East Upper Silesia and to Germanise them. These lists are still relevant today in the Federal Republic of Germany and allowed our relatives the privilege of obtaining German citizenship more easily than other migrants. These random stratifications of our names to hold onto national classifications show: it's a mess.
Do you hear the noise of the cars? Not far from where you are now, they move across the asphalt on several lanes. It is the Autobahn 2, an artificial line from west to east, from east to west. A road abused by Nazi propaganda, built largely by Polish forced-labourers and prisoners of war. A route on which several parts of our stories overlap. Sometimes it seems to us that the A2 does not lead from one direction to the other but instead forms a knotted circle.
Today when we want to drive from Gelsenkirchen, Bochum, Hanover, or other West German cities to Poland, we use this highway. When our parents and grandparents migrated from the People's Republic of Poland to the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them used the same autobahn, only in the opposite direction. One of their first stops was the border transit camp Friedland in Lower Saxony. Almost all of our families lived in this camp. Others were also in Hamm, Osnabrück or Unna-Massen.
When they arrived here, despite faster access to citizenship, almost all of our relatives experienced discrimination, anti-Slavism and classism. Especially in the labour market. Professional qualifications and degrees they had received in the People's Republic of Poland were not recognised in the Federal Republic of Germany. Not all professions and jobs are equally available to all people. German with a Polish accent closed many doors, unless it was for nursing professions or in the care sector. Some of us have better opportunities thanks to accent-free German, are always brought out within the family as the single success story. So that the others are pushed into the background and so are their structural disadvantages as well. Some of us share this othering experience with their parents. Some of us have long been ashamed of their parents' accent.
For us, Górny Śląsk is not a place we lived in, but a fabric of fictions we spun out of our relatives' memories: the name of a final destination that we will never reach. We can only approach it through stories, languages, through sounds and questions, through Don Kamisi and other misunderstandings. Our Upper Silesian belonging does not understand itself, but such belonging can be found in misunderstandings. It reveals itself in its ambiguity and opacity. Our parents and grandparents told us that they were always seen as German in the People's Republic of Poland and as Polish in the Federal Republic of Germany. We see ourselves as neither German nor Polish. We are śląsked.
We are no longer looking for the unambiguous trace that resolves these two poles. We no longer wait for the comic relief that will resolve misunderstandings to everyone's liking.
For us, śląsking is a practice of necessary failure: both to clearly defined national identity constructs, but also to capitalistic promises, migrant hopes, and expectations. Our parents and grandparents migrated from the People's Republic of Poland to the Federal Republic of Germany with the aim of providing a better future for their children and grandchildren, a future that expects heteronormative and cisgender lifestyles from us children. We cannot fulfill this expectation. We fail in this vision and move beyond the frame. We do not fit the family picture.
We are Grupa Mauczka. We understand Upper Silesia as a verb, as a practice that does not try to resolve our Upper Silesian misunderstandings and does not neatly sort them into national pigeonholes. Upper Silesia, or as we say, śląsking, does not try to further clarify our ambiguities by explaining but by telling. Śląsking is to speak Mauzcka. It is to sing Don Kamisi. It is to practise Dindać. Śląsking means to say Mauczka, it means Dindać and to understand Don Kamisi. Śląsking means to be able to recognize a possible future in past histories of a border region. Śląsking is a practice that resists nationalistic demarcations and homogenizations, produces opacities and necessarily entangles us in misunderstandings. It is these brief moments, these little misunderstandings that have emerged at the bar counter between Ciocia and us, that we hold on to. It is this bubbling that has begun to boil somewhere between different generations and their languages, at the border crossing between Poland and Germany, between the past and the future, between westernization, Polonization and Germanization, that moves us. We devote ourselves to misunderstandings, to the Schlonsakian, to the Upper Silesian, to the Górny Śląsked, to the practice of Śląsking. Words that don't come easily are our engine, English-language pop music our contrast substance, and misunderstandings our lubricant.
We stand behind the bar with a laptop and take song requests from our relatives. One of our aunts - we call her Ciocia - leans over the bar and whispers her song request into our ears: "Play 'Don Kamisi', proszę." We type the song into the search field: D O N K A M I S I. It will take many more family celebrations before it becomes clear that this is not the correct spelling. But what are correct spellings anyway? This evening we will look for the song in vain. In the dim light of a failed family party, somewhere in West Germany, we invite you, dear listener, to join us for a little śląsking.
Text: Grupa Mauczka
Translation & Support: Tyler Cunningham, Paweł Świerczek, Zuzanna Zając