Finding Common Ground: A native looks for “Armenology” in Poland

Editor’s note: ArmeniaNow reporter Vahan Ishkhanyan was selected among Armenian journalists to attend an international conference in Poland in January. While there he sought out the Polish Armenian community. This is the first of two essays.

Years ago, when my father was still alive, one day the post delivered a book my father had written that had been translated into Polish. I recall how my father, Rafael Ishkhanyan, waited impatiently to see his work in that language.

At the publishing house of Catholic News Agency the sub-editor Krzysztof Golebiowski after having told about the creation and activity of their agency immediately touched upon Armenia with excitement, asking to forgive his “Caucasian weakness”. He attends meetings of people with Armenian origin although he’s not an Armenian himself. He visited Armenia with the Pope in 2002 and said that precious impressions ended up with an unpleasant incident : “It turned out I had to pay for leaving Armenia,” he joked. (Armenia has a $22 departure tax for air passengers.)

Only after arriving in Warsaw, did I remember my father’s literary connection. I emailed Yerevan for a reminder of the book’s title: “The Armenian Book: 1512-1920” published in Wroclaw in 1994, translated by Andrzej Pisowicz.

In conversation, Golebiowski told us: “You know, at Krakow University works a scientist, Pisowicz, who knows Grabar (old Armenian), and both Eastern and Western Armenian languages?” And as we were going to spend the coming Saturday at Krakow, we took Pisowicz’s phone number. . .

In 1944 Warsaw was razed to the ground by Germans. And although later on the city was rebuilt repeating exactly the original one, the oldest city in Poland that survived is Krakow. So to trace back the Polish history we left there for a day.

But we managed to visit only Castyol in the old city, to have a pizza and visit the Institute of Eastern Studies at Yagelon University (founded in 1364) in Krakow to meet professor Pisowizc.

When I gave him my business card he asked me at once what connection I had with Ishkhanyan.

“I’m his son”.

“I’ve translated your father’s book. It’s the only book I’ve translated from Armenian. In Yerevan your father told me that the book would be translated from Russian, but he’d like it to be translated directly from Armenian. He asked me to translate and I agreed.”

He told us how he became a specialist of Armenology. In 1957-61 he was a student at Krakow University studying Persian. Once in the list of literature used in some article in the Soviet Encyclopedia he came across strange letters that surprised him. He found out they were in Armenian.

Then the Head of the Chair, who was of Armenian origin, invited a catholic priest named Roshko to teach Western Armenian to volunteers at the University. Pisowizc started learning Armenian. In 1961-63 he continued his studies at Yerevan State University. He took up dialect studies, and wrote a scientif paper “Parpy Dialect”.

He defended his first Ph.D thesis “Alteration of Armenian Consonants” (his other thesis was in Iranology). In 2001 he published a book in Polish “Grammar of Three Languages: Grabar, Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian”.

The book starts with an inscription in Armenian letters: “The author devotes this grammar to Polish Armenians on the occasion of 1700 anniversary of Christianity”.

And with Pisowizc’s initiative a book about the Armenian Genocide “A story of One Genocide” by Ives Ternon was translated from French into Polish.

During his 2001 visit (his latest) Pisowizc took part in a conference in Stepanakert and delivered a speech on the dialect of Polish Armenians. The dialect doesn’t exist now, and according to Pisowizc there is only an old woman in Catawissa, Poland who can still speak it.

At present Pisowizc and two Armenian partners are working on a Polish-Armenian Armenian-Polish dictionary, which will probably be published later this month. A need for such dictionary has come forward now as over the years a large Armenian community has formed in Poland.

“The Polish- Armenian community was formed in the 14th century. In the 17th century Armenians started adopting Catholicism, and spoke Turkic language. At that time to the question ‘Are you Armenians?’ the answer was: ‘Yes’; to ‘What language do you speak?’ ‘Turkic’.

“In the 18th century new Armenians migrated from Romania and the community was replenished with Armenian speakers and the Armenians meeting each other spoke different languages. But all of them merged eventually as the common language was Polish”, told professor Pisowizc.

There are many Armenians living in Poland today that are aware of their Armenian origin. For example the Vice Ombudsman Yejhi Svionkevizc said he was Armenian. Two delegates of Seim (the Polish parliament) are also of Armenian origin.

In 1981 a club for people interested in Armenian culture (www.otk.armenia.pl) was founded which is still active today, is financed by the Government and publishes a magazine in Polish.

Together with Pisowizc, the Head of the Armenian Club Adam Terlecki, who considers himself to be Armenian, was expecting us. Adam doesn’t know Armenian at all, and no one would guess he is Armenian judging from his appearance.

What made him consider himself an Armenian?

“My grandma Jozefa Poghosevizc would always tell me: ‘You should always remember that you are Armenian. During the registration while filling the blank to the question on my nationality I answered: Armenian’, says Adam.

Here (Poland), according to the registration data 263 citizens regard themselves as Armenian. It’s unknown which part of them are new emigrants and which only have Armenian origin. There are 40, 000 new emigrants and 12, 000 with Armenian origin.

“Many people don’t even know about their true origin. For instance, once I met a man with a surname Avetisovizc”, tells Pisowizc. “It’s not t possible that he is not Armenian, as the word ‘avetis’ is Armenian. I explained to him that he had an Armenian origin and could come to take part in the meetings of Armenians. He said it was possible, but he didn’t care and wasn’t interested in any meetings.”

Pisowizc, himself, named the youngest of his three sons Hayk.

Although only a small circle of people here show an interest in Armenia, we did learn that Armenian criminal gangs act in Poland which “tax” their compatriots and there have been murders among Armenians which were reported by Armenian mass media.

I asked the Polish “Gazeta Wyborcza” reporter Bartosz Weglarczyk whether they often write about Armenian mafia. He answered: “Not long ago we wrote about an Armenian assassinator. But on the whole we have so much material on gangsters that Armenians have to wait for their turn . . .”

Next week: Part II of “Finding Common Ground”.