Hundreds of accounts of Polish emigrants in 28 countries can now be found on the portal www.archiwumemigranta.pl. Among those recounting their fortunes abroad are Zbigniew Boniek, Agnieszka Holland and Andrzej Seweryn.
Olga Blumczyńska of the Emigration Museum explained that interviews have been collected since 2011 and so far number around 300. They range from written texts, to sound and video recordings. The collection can be searched and sorted according to country, name, subject or decade.
The website offers accounts from 28 countries and every continent. Stories from the United States and England are the most numerous, but there are also accounts from Liberia, Thailand and Saudi Arabia. Blumczyńska explains:
We began with the first hundred stories. Each week we will publish another story. We urge those who are still abroad or have returned to share their experiences. There is a form specially dedicated to submitting accounts on the website.
She added that the Emigration Museum not only accepts the memories of emigrants, but also looks for them.
We work with researchers in the United States and Brazil, who gather interviews with Polish immigrants of different generations for our collections.
The portal at archiwumemigranta.pl is an open project. We don’t see any limit, it depends on the stories we receive. We want to create a real mosaic of the voices of emigrants.
The oldest story on the site dates back to 1908 and is a richly illustrated history of the Petryla family. Jan Petryla’s experience working in a mine in Chicago and the dispersion of his family around the world is told from the perspective of his great-granddaughter.
No two stories are the same. In the archives, readers find accounts of forced emigration during the war, relocations following March 1968, and the departure of Solidarity members.
Included is the very moving story of the ‘Maharaja’s children’, Jerzy Tomaszek and his sister Iwona Świętochowska, whose seven-year journey led from Iran, through the Maharaja Jam Saheb Digvijaysinhji Ranjitsinhji’s home for Polish orphans in Balachadi, to a refugee camp in Africa. The siblings, joined by their mother, happily returned to Poland in 1947 and settled in Bytom.
The portal also features, among others, interviews with refugees from the communist era. Konstanty Bilewicz recounts his escape in 1973 on board the ‘Stefan Batory’, where he risked his life impersonating a member of the crew in an effort to get to Copenhagen. Blumczyńska stresses:
When you look at all these voices from a distance, you see that each story is different, but there are universal themes. And this is fascinating. This is evident even in the ways that we use foreign language outside the country. Polish emigrants often describe speaking English all week, then using Polish on Sundays when they’re at home and have personal time. There are multiple examples of such shared behaviours. The sense that emigration changes a person forever is also shared across stories.
She also sees in the accounts a generational difference in the perception of emigration.
For the first wave during communist times, it was often a decision that was irreversible and the thought of returning to the homeland seemed unreal. For the younger generation, who left the country more recently, emigration is not so much a search for freedom as for opportunity. These people feel more like citizens of the world than like immigrants. At the same time, both the older emigrants from the era of Poland under communism and the more recent wave speak in a similar way about the feeling of being detached from Poland. They both speak of longing, of the need to use the Polish language.
There are more than 20 million Poles and people of Polish heritage living outside Poland. In addition to the almost 10 million people with Polish roots in the United States – the largest cluster of émigré Poles in the world – there are people with familial ties to Poland in almost every country in the world. The Polish diaspora in Brazil is estimated at around three million people, Germany is home to about two million members of the Polish community, and there are millions more in France and Canada.
The Emigration Museum in Gdynia was opened in May 2015 and presents the story of emigration from the Polish lands from the nineteenth century to today. It is housed in the renovated 1930s Marine Station and adjoining Transit Magazine in the port of Gdynia. It was from this point that many set of on their journeys away from Poland on the transatlantic ships ‘Piłsudski’, ‘Batory’, ‘Sobieski’, and ‘Chrobry’.
Sources: PAP, ed. M.Ś., April 2016; trans: AGA, 01.08.2016