The Polish School in Paris (known as École Polonaise Paris in French) is an institution established in the capital of France during the times of the Great Emigration – a turbulent period in Polish history, marked by an exodus of many Poles in the years between 1831 and 1870. Nowadays, the establishment has the patronage of the Embassy of Poland in France.
The Great Emigration
The school was created in 1842, at the initiative of General Józef Dwernicki (1779-1857) and a group of emigrants – the parents of Polish children, aware of the importance of school and education and willing to raise the next generation with respect for and recognition of national values. Thanks to them, the school became an important part of the Polish schooling system abroad which started to emerge in the 19th century. It’s crucial to note that the school was created in difficult emigration conditions, in an alien intellectual and organisational climate. In fact, it was really started from scratch – in the beginning, there were no buildings, teachers, or books, just people who deemed education as an opportunity for the Polish nation to survive. They used their experience, knowledge, and skills, but also the heritage of the Commission of National Education (a Polish institution, considered to be the first Ministry of Education in European history), as its traditions were still strong. Thus, emigration became the heir to the best praxis of Polish schooling.
The Great Emigration began after the fall of the November Uprising. It was at that time that Russian repressions forced many of the insurgents to leave Polish land and move abroad. They would mostly go to Western Europe, with France becoming the largest centre. They led normal, everyday lives there, but also kept in touch with each other and prepared themselves to fight, planning the next uprising. They treated their emigration as temporary, as their dream was to return to a free Poland. They called themselves wychodźcy – a barely translatable term. The Polish verb ‘wychodzić’ means to ‘go out’, willingly – it is not a synonym of ‘escape’ or ‘run away from’. As Henryk Nakwaski further explained the term:
The word ‘wychodziec’, although uncommon, seems like the most proper one for us. ‘Emigrant’ is a foreign term. ‘Tułacz’ (Polish for ‘wanderer’) is for someone who was driven out and now wanders; moreover, the term has dishonourable connotations. ‘Pielgrzym’ (Polish for ‘pilgrim’) suggests objectives that are rather religious than political. And we left the country voluntarily, because we are not willing to be under Moscow’s yoke.
Keeping identity and values
Emigrants, despite political differences, wanted to cultivate Polish national traditions, and the thought of a free Poland also united them when it came to education. Emigrants started to organise schools for their children, the first French ones being established in Nancy and Orléans. The prolonged emigration led Poles to create the Polish School in Paris, as their children, born on foreign soil, grew up and needed schooling.
General Józef Dwernicki (1779-1857) was the founder of the school, alongside Polish emigrants, who created an institution called the Association for the National Raising of the Children of Polish Emigrants [editor’s translation of Towarzystwo Wychowania Narodowego Dzieci Wychodźców Polskich]. The emigrants wanted to give their children an upbringing congruent with Polish values so that they would be able to continue their education in Poland once they returned to the fatherland, and in the future – constitute the Polish intelligentsia.
Alongside Józef Dwernicki, many other figures were engaged in the creation of and the first years of the existence of the school, including writers, journalists, servicemen, and scholars.
A generation grew up and had their personalities shaped in the era of the Commission of National Education, frequently while studying at schools created by it. In their youth, they acquired new knowledge marked by the development of the Enlightenment and used it for the sake of their country. They were well-oriented in European politics, they spoke foreign languages, were open to new ideas, and, crucially, they were patriots. They spoke proper Polish and read Polish literature, they respected the law and understood how it functioned both at home and abroad. They belonged to the progressive part of society – they understood their country’s situation and needs and also worked for its benefit. They knew that loving their homeland should be expressed by working hard for it but also by participating in its defence. Joachim Lelewel (1786-1861), a professor at Vilnius University, belonged to this group.
Among the pedagogues engaged in the school were also people living in partitioned Poland but nevertheless brought up with patriotic values instilled in them in their family homes or by Polish teachers educated in the era of the Commission of National Education. It was a generation of young people filled with patriotic spirit and working for Polish independence. Before the Great Emigration, they participated in secret youth societies, fought in the uprising, and once they left they actively engaged in patriotic undertakings, including the Polish School in Paris. Among them was Seweryn Gałęzowski (1801-1878), a doctor and graduate of Vilnius University, and Henryk Nakwaski (1800-1876), graduate of the University of Warsaw, publicist, and a proponent of granting land to Polish serfs. The latter spoke publicly about the patriotic duties of the emigrants. He was also an enthusiast of Adam Mickiewicz’s work. Nakwaski held Mickiewicz’s poetry to have immense patriotic valour. It’s also worth mentioning that Mickiewicz himself was also associated with the Polish School in Paris in the 1850s. His four sons, Władysław, Jan, Józef and Aleksander attended it, and the poet was the vice-president of the school council. Mickiewicz gave speeches at school events and thanked France for hosting Poles in exile. He also made pleas for financial support for the school.
A new generation of Poles
Initially, the Polish School was based in Chatillons-sous-Bagneux, which was then a small town near Paris. In 1843 and 1844, the School had its headquarters in the Latin District of Paris, and from 1844 in the district of Batignolles. Hence, the institution is also frequently called the School at Batignolles.
The creators of the school determined its main objective, which was to create an environment for bringing up youth in the national Polish spirit – the lessons were conducted in Polish and the students were taught about their country’s culture. Moreover, attention to tradition was paid, including celebrations of religious holidays and crucial national anniversaries, during which the achievements of great Poles, such as King John III Sobieski, Tadeusz Kościuszko, and the insurgents participating in the November Uprising, were celebrated. The school also encouraged the harmonious development of children, paying attention to physical, moral, and intellectual education, thanks to the proper organisation and a clearly scheduled rhythm of the day, with time appointed for studying, resting, and exercise.
Physicality was important in their upbringing. The students did gymnastics and swam, but were also supposed to dress properly, keep their clothes and surroundings in order, eat healthily, and rest after studying. They wore uniforms which included some typically Polish elements and distinguished them from French students.
The syllabus of patriotic education included Polish language, literature, history, and geography. The organisers also wished for students to obtain a broad general education, so the curriculum included hard sciences and martial arts. French was also studied – it turned out to be necessary as the prolonged stay in exile induced the authorities of the school to sign an agreement with the officials in charge of French education system so that the Polish students could continue their education in French institutions.
In the school’s first year, 19 students attended. With each year the number grew – in the years 1850-1860 it exceeded 200, after 1860 it grew to 300. By 1908, the Polish School in Paris had 1658 graduates.
The Polish School in Paris became a symbol of Poland and a refuge for Polish tradition and culture. It was here that the children of wychodźcy learned the language, history and geography of a country they weren’t yet able to experience. This Parisian institution thus became their Little Poland.
Originally written in Polish by Janina Kamińska (University of Warsaw), translated by NS, March 2017