A Polish Language Lesson for the Settlers’ Children

A Polish Language Lesson for the Settlers’ Children
Sebastian Cichocki

Let us teach our­selves and our chil­dren on the mis­takes of neigh­bours. Let us not pre­serve bad habits and, at the same time, let us not be afraid to use that which func­tions on the fringes, in the dark and neglected recesses of lan­guage. I would like to note the didac­tic role of children’s rhymes and counting-out games. Short rhymes of this kind, often absurd, are used in the play­ground where a group needs to be divided into teams; they are also use­ful when play­ing jump rope, or to kill bore­dom on the bus dur­ing a long school excur­sion. You will find many inter­est­ing exam­ples of this kind of minia­tures in the Polish lan­guage — catchy lin­guis­tic extrav­a­gan­zas that can truly amuse our kids. Here is an exam­ple of an old Polish children’s counting-out rhyme:

Siedzi baba na cmen­tarzu
trzyma nogi w kała­marzu.
Przyszedł duch,
babę buch,
baba fik, a duch znikł

[Woman sit­ting on a grave
with her legs in the inkwell
Comes a ghost
Hits her hard
The woman’s flop, the ghost is out]

Already this short rhyme con­tains every­thing that our fore­fa­thers asso­ci­ated (or wanted to asso­ciate) with the Polish land: graves (where does a Polish baba [woman, espe­cially an older one] sit? on a grave, of course), con­tempt for the intel­li­gentsia or elites (what does she do with the inkwell? instead of dip­ping the pen in it, she puts her legs inside), night­mares caused by past sins (a ghost imme­di­ately comes into the pic­ture, that is, a dead per­son, hos­tile, of course, to its for­mer oppres­sors), and a sad, though eas­ily fore­seen, end­ing (the woman dies, the ghost dis­ap­pears). But let us free our­selves from con­straints, from an obses­sion with past sins and vic­tim nar­ra­tives. Let us lis­ten to this rhyme with­out prej­u­dice, as our chil­dren will lis­ten to it — let us enjoy the absurd story in a grave­yard set­ting. Without pogroms loom­ing in the back­ground, with­out con­cen­tra­tion camps. After all, it’s a pure-nonsense plea­sure. How big does the inkwell have to be for the baba to be able to put her (fat prob­a­bly!) legs inside it? Who is the imp­ish ghost that sud­denly ‘hits her hard’? Let us note how many inter­est­ing words can be learned from the micro-story: we find here the now sel­dom used inkwell (a pre­text for dis­cussing the lit­er­ary cul­ture, the great Romantic poets who went on at length about their Nations and Chosen Ones, the phys­i­cal expe­ri­ence of writ­ing words down using a foun­tain, or per­haps quill, pen, and so on), the ceme­tery (a mnemonic exer­cise: the word is not far from ‘cement’, and, as we know, the American Mafia exe­cutes its vic­tims by giv­ing them ‘cement shoes’ so that they do not emerge, thus cre­at­ing an under­wa­ter ceme­tery of bod­ies float­ing in the depths), or the extremely use­ful, jolly ‘flop’ (Polish fik, used when some­one unex­pect­edly falls down, usu­ally back­wards). Memorising the tra­di­tional Polish counting-out and nurs­ery rhymes together, with your whole a fam­ily, is, as you can see, a very sat­is­fy­ing and effec­tive way of famil­iaris­ing your kids with the nuances, wealth and unde­ni­able exoti­cism of the Polish lan­guage. I would, how­ever, rec­om­mend show­ing cre­ativ­ity and reach­ing for new sources, not only the ‘sanc­tioned’ children’s rhymes. Here is an exam­ple. The piece I quote below looks like one of those pecu­liar counting-out rhymes, yet its ety­mol­ogy is rather sur­pris­ing. It is, actu­ally, the lyrics of song by the Polish punk rock band Siekiera [The Axe]. Active dur­ing the bleak years of communism’s decline in the late 1980s, it com­bined a cold-wave spirit with punk energy, but also with the gloomy seri­ous­ness of indus­trial rock. Siekiera stood out from the crowd with its untyp­i­cal, highly poetic lyrics. Rather than directly urg­ing their audi­ence to fight the sys­tem – by men­tion­ing the police, cen­sor­ship and pro­pa­ganda — Siekiera tended to explore the deep lay­ers of Polish iden­tity, writ­ing about repressed demons and unprocessed trau­mas. The lyrics of some of the punk songs of the era (in this con­text, one could men­tion bands like Armia or Brygada Kryzys) are sim­ple and tell a lot about the Polish imag­i­na­tion and the rebel­lious Slavic spirit. When search­ing for inter­est­ing source mate­ri­als for learn­ing the Polish lan­guage, it is worth look­ing at the legacy of the music sub­cul­tures of the 1980s. Our chil­dren will get to know the Polish cul­ture bet­ter, dis­cover its unknown aspects, and per­haps also iden­tify such ele­ments that the autochthons will be reluc­tant to share.

Here is an excel­lent exam­ple of Siekiera’s work, a song called People of the East, recorded in May 1985. It is short, catchy, and the lyrics can stim­u­late the settler’s imagination:

Czy tu się głowy ścina?
Czy zjedli tu murzyna?
Czy leży tu Madonna?
Czy jest tu jazda konna?

Czy w nocy dobrze śpicie?
Czy śmierci się boicie?
Czy zabił ktoś tokarza?
Czy często się to zdarza?

Tratata la la!
Tratata hej ha!

[Is this where heads are cut?
Is this where blacks are eaten?
Is this where Madonna lies?
Is this where horses are beaten?

Do you sleep well at night?
Are you afraid of death?
Has some­one killed the turner?
How much does it take?

Tratata la la!
Tratata hey ha!]

Is this not a per­fect, and per­fectly Polish, children’s counting-out rhyme? Here are sev­eral hints that teach­ers and par­ents can find use­ful. In such texts, it is worth tak­ing note of the local colour of nar­ra­tion, the char­ac­ter­is­tic eth­nic ele­ments, its ‘emo­tional tem­per­a­ture’. In the text above, which we try to adapt to the require­ments of a children’s rhyme, there is a men­tion of, for instance, horse rid­ing. Let us tell our chil­dren about the Polish love for the mounted sol­dier: the hus­sar, the uhlan, the cav­al­ry­man. Let us not for­get to tell them why the Poles are marked by this sort of ‘cav­al­ry­man bravado’, and what it really means, and why they have often been forced to pay a high price for it his­tor­i­cally. The lyrics men­tion Madonna. Let us tell our chil­dren what Marian devo­tions are and how wide­spread they are in Poland. Why do Poles first address Virgin Mary when address­ing their God?

Let us also ask the chil­dren whether they know who a doc­tor is and what they do. Why can some­one sleep badly at night and be afraid of death?

The lyrics can be played with in var­i­ous ways. Try singing it with chil­dren to a melody of your choice, turn­ing it into a national anthem, lul­laby or reli­gious hymn. Encourage the kids to answer the fol­low­ing ques­tions: who might eat a black per­son? who might like the taste of human flesh? can eat­ing human flesh be con­nected some­how with sleep­less­ness? And one more sim­ple, imagination-stimulating exer­cise: let us try replac­ing the ‘black’ in the Siekiera lyrics with a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of another race, eth­nic or sex­ual minor­ity, a mar­gin­alised or repressed group. Here is an example:

Czy zjedli tutaj Żyda?
A co będzie jak się wyda?

[Is this where heads are cut?
Is this where Jews are eaten?
Is this where Madonna lies?
Is this where horses are beaten?]


Czy zjedli tutaj Eskimosa?
Została po nim twarz bez nosa.

[Is this where heads are cut?
Is this where Eskimos are eaten?
Is this where Madonna lies?
Is this where horses are beaten?]

The more alter­na­tive ver­sions like that you can invent, the bet­ter.
Let us famil­iarise our trau­mas. Let us tame them with lan­guage. Let us learn from texts that may seem anachro­nis­tic or use­less to us. Let us appre­ci­ate the poten­tial of lin­guis­tic antiques!