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Vegetarianism in Poland: Past, Present and Future
IVU News - Issue 1-96

[photo: Krystyna]This was to have been a joint presentation to the international conference in Johnstown by Dr. Krystyna Chomicz-Jung and Professor Wanda Stojanowska, but Krystyna was assaulted and seriously injured on her way to the conference. This talk was therefore prepared from their notes by Vanessa Clarke and presented on their behalf.

In the next few minutes I shall try to give you a brief picture of present-day vegetarianism in Poland.

Generally speaking, there is not a great deal of tolerance or understanding towards vegetarians among the general population, the Government or the Church in this culturally conservative Roman Catholic country. There are no statistics about the relative numbers or health status of vegetarians and there is nothing in the Polish legal system to prevent vegetarians being forced to eat meat in hospitals, prisons, colleges and other institutions or while doing military service. So the Polish Vegetarian Society has a great deal to do. Political liberalisation has brought some hopeful developments, so there are possibilities of more rapid progress in the future.

To understand the reasons for the present situation we need to look briefly at the historical context. Before the second world war, vegetarianism was mainly associated in the public mind with an interest in eastern philosophy and was seen as an eccentric fringe interest linked with weird or esoteric beliefs. Nevertheless, vegetarian restaurants existed in various parts of the country and vegetarian ideas were freely promoted.

After the war, during the Stalinist period, vegetarian meant subversive and even the word was banned from the media. Literature could not be disseminated and vegetarians were obliged to meet in private, if not actually in secret. So intense hostility from the authorities was added to the general disapproval from the Church and the population at large, and understandably not very much was achieved during that period.

Nevertheless, strongly committed individuals continued to work for the cause. Blazej Wlodarz advocated a pure vegetarian diet and published "The Meatless Cuisine" in 1949 despite the prevailing attitudes. He spent his latter years as a virtual hermit in a small village near Warsaw, visited by vegetarians from far and wide and on his death his enormous collection of material on vegetarianism and related subjects passed to his grandson. The huge task of cataloguing this remains to be done and is no easy undertaking for a volunteer.

Makary Sieradzki was a political prisoner for nine years under the Stalinist regime and by the time he was released at the age of 56 his health was ruined. However, through yoga and vegetarianism he got his health back and remained an active and committed vegetarian until his death in a car accident at the age of 92. Like our friend Helen Nearing in the United States, he was perfectly fit and healthy when he met his end.

In the 1970s the ban on the very idea of vegetarianism was lifted and some publications appeared, but it was still not possible to set up an official vegetarian society. By 1978, however, the first society had been set up as a social club in Olsztyn by Halina Tarasowa, a gifted linguist and mathematician who has continued to promote the cause and is now aged 84. Then in the 1980s the Solidarity movement opened the way for new initiatives and the Polish Vegetarian Society was set up in Warsaw. It was legally registered with the authorities in 1981, but its sphere of activities was still restricted to the Warsaw area even though it had members all over the country. Important figures in the early days of the society were Emilia Jakubowska, a founder of the society, and Kazimierz Chomicz - the father of our colleague Krystyna Chomicz-Jung - who was president of the society from 1981 till his death in 1990 at the age of 87. Recently, with the change in political climate, the atmosphere has changed a little to the benefit of vegetarians, but there is still widespread prejudice. For instance, a recent book by a well-known TV journalist refers to vegetarians, religious groups, communists, feminists, HIV carriers and other minorities with universal contempt. Even the word "vegetarian" seems to carry negative connotations. The only way to secure acceptance, if not approval, is to refer instead to a "meatless diet", which then carries the idea of something prescribed for medical reasons rather than the whim of some eccentric and subversive individual.

In view of all this, the need for a strong vegetarian society is pretty obvious, and the difficulties that the Polish one has had to face are pretty obvious too.

Traditionally the Catholic church has been extremely hostile to what has been regarded as an almost heretical movement. However, just recently there have been some efforts at healing through fasting and a fruit and vegetable diet. These begin with a three-day retreat and fast led by a priest and a medical doctor, Dr Ewa Dabrowska, author of "A Return to Nutritional Health". The retreat is followed by six weeks on fruit and vegetables, which is regarded as part of the "fast", followed by a full vegetarian diet. These have had some success and Krystyna's co-author, Wanda Stojanowska, has taken part in one of these, but they are still not widely known about and are generally inaccessible to the public at large. Nevertheless, they represent an advance in terms of acceptance of vegetarianism in Polish society.

Wanda is conducting a survey among her students in Warsaw to determine current attitudes. Preli-minary results show that there is an interest in vegetarianism among the students, but their knowledge is rudimentary and they have very little idea of what might be eaten instead of meat. It is hoped that publishing the results of surveys of that kind may also be a way to create a wider knowledge of what vegetarianism involves.

Slowly things are changing. With political liberalisation and the removal of at least some of the barriers to understanding, the society hopes to be able to recruit many new members and gradually to dissipate the deep-rooted cultural prejudice that still exists. In its efforts to promote the vegetarian ideal and lifestyle, the society has been greatly helped by the German Vegetarian Union as well as by the EVU, the IVU and many other organisations and individuals. The 1990s have therefore seen many new and hopeful developments even though the society has been hampered by the loss of its headquarters and meeting place and the need to store all its material in a cellar, where it still remains while the search for a new place goes on.

There have been celebrations of International Vegetarian Day, lectures and meetings and the video "Food without Fear" has been translated into Polish for use in schools and elsewhere. Vegetarian holidays have been organised by the magazine "Vegetarian World" - a very professional-looking periodical which has been appearing since early 1994.

Some of you will remember that after last year's congress in Bratislava a challenge was issued to all European Governments to admit the acceptability of a vegetarian diet and to ensure that a vegetarian option was available in all public institutions. This challenge was duly passed on to 30 major institutions, including the Polish Parliament and Government. So far, three replies have been received. The National Institute of Food and Nutrition produced an official statement that a vegetarian diet is safe for adults - a big advance from the stronghold of national nutritional wisdom, though it would not go so far as to recommend such a diet for children or adolescents. The Polish Vegetarian Society is also campaigning for a law to prevent vegetarians being forced to eat meat in public institutions. So things are definitely looking up. From being regarded by the political authorities as subversive and by the Church as heretical, vegetarianism is taking its rightful place on the Polish cultural map and with the help of the Polish Vegetarian Society and all its friends I'm sure it will go from strength to strength. As we hope that Krysztyna will, too. She has done so much to continue the work that her father began and we all hope that she'll very soon be well enough to join in the increasing success that all the years of hard work are finally bringing.

As you know, I'm British, but in this, my first speech at an international congress, I have been happy to speak for Poland. Thank you.

Krystyna is making very good progress towards a full recovery, thanks to her family and friends, her doctors, her healthy diet and her personal faith and spirit. She hopes to be able to return to Poland by the end of the year. She particularly wishes to thank everyone for their visits, gifts, messages and prayers during the weeks and months following her injury.


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