By Ted Lipien
Today, July 4, 2017, America celebrates its Independence Day. This article is about a unique way in which the citizens of the interwar Polish Republic marked in 1926 the 150th anniversary of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence. I combined it with a personal story about my relatives and other inhabitants of my former hometown of Mszana Dolna who participated in the 1926 4th of July celebrations.
Read in Polish: “MSZANA DOLNA NA 150-TĄ ROCZNICĘ NIEPODLEGŁOŚCI STANÓW ZJEDNOCZONYCH“
It was once described as “history’s greatest birthday card.” In October 1926, President Calvin Coolidge received 111 bound volumes with millions of signatures gathered throughout Poland to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the American Declaration of Independence. An estimated 5,500,000 Polish citizens, representing more than one-sixth of the total population of Poland in 1926, signed these books. It was an organized effort by the National Sesquicentennial Committee established by the American-Polish Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Poland and the Polish-American Society to show their country’s enduring admiration and friendship for the United States on America’s 150th Fourth of July. To get millions of signatures to be presented to the American people, the Polish authorities turned for help to Polish teachers. Within a period of a few months in 1926, the books were circulated among thousands of elementary and secondary schools and signed by millions of students, including — as I discovered — some of my relatives in Mszana Dolna, my former hometown in the region south of Krakow, where in the 1960s I had lived and attended school before emigrating to the United States.
All 111 volumes with millions of signatures and rare illustrations are now on deposit at the Library of Congress which offers the following updated description of this unique “Polish Declarations of Admiration and Friendship for the United States, 1926” Collection:
In addition to artwork by prominent Polish artists, the volumes are adorned with official seals, coats of arms, calligraphy, photographs, and decorative bindings. Many of the sheets are decorated with works of art by students or faculty. Often the signatures are arranged in clever designs, and a brief poem or congratulatory message frequently appears at the top of the sheet. Group photographs of students and faculty accompany about 1 percent of the more than 21,000 elementary and secondary school rosters. The majority of these remarkably clear photographs were collected in the formerly Prussian-ruled areas of the country.
The richly illustrated Volume 1 contains the signatures of central government officials including President Ignacy Moscicki; Jozef Pilsudski (who, although holding the title of minister of military affairs, exercised actual executive authority and, notably, signed the sheet without indicating his position); members of the Senate and Sejm, the Council of Ministers, the General Staff, and the Supreme Court; religious dignitaries, including the Primate of Poland, Cardinal Aleksander Kakowski; and officers and rank-and-file members of a wide range of national professional associations, institutes, and social organizations based in the capital city, Warsaw. Many of the signed sheets have finely drawn illustrations of buildings, coats of arms, historical monuments, rural and city scenes, and portraits of famous historical figures. The signatures are often accompanied by official seals.
Digitized and indexed, all 111 volumes are available for viewing online on the Library of Congress website. Polish and Jewish Americans, as well as Poles in Poland and abroad, can conduct genealogical research by looking up the names of towns and cities in Poland where their families came from. They may very well find a signature of their grandfather, grandmother, great grandfather, great grandmother or other relatives written in child’s handwriting.
I found several names of my father’s family members on the pages with signatures from the two elementary schools in Mszana Dolna, one for boys and the other one for girls. The Lipień family name appears three times among the boys who signed the declaration in June 1926. I also discovered many names of families I knew from my childhood — Aksamit, Farganus, Franczak, Grzywacz, Jania, Karpierz, Konieczny, Kotarba, Kroczka, Łabuz, Mucha, Nawieśniak, Popiołek, Potaczek, Rusnak, Stachura, Szynalik, Widzisz, Znachowski and others. My cousin, Teofila Latoś (Kasprzyk), who for many years was in charge of the kindergarten in Mszana Dolna, and my aunt, Maria Wołoszyn, gave me a lot of information about the town’s people and its history.
Marta Jasek, a teacher and lecturer of history from Mszana Dolna, found on the list of students’ signatures the name of our mutual great aunt, Lola Znachowska. Our grandparents and her mother were siblings. Lola Znachowska-Smaga was active in the Polish underground anti-Nazi Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK) during the war. After the war she was arrested and taken by the NKVD Soviet secret police a Gulag labor camp for three years. Lola Znachowska’s brother, Józef Znachowski, was also active in the anti-Nazi underground resistance and in 1944 was shot by the Gestapo. Her youngest brother, Jan Znachowski, was arrested by the communists in 1953 and was imprisoned for half a year in Krakow for his activities in a Catholic organization. “I think such memories can come from more than one family. This is a gene of freedom passed on to the next generations,” Marta Jasek wrote after examining the signatures of our home town pupils from 1926.
I found also a few names of what appear to be students from Jewish families who then lived in Mszana Dolna — Chawe Lustgatenówna, Ryfka Zahnuirtówa, Abraham Turner, Berek Turner, J. Weissberger, L. Weissberger, J. Goldfinger, and perhaps several others. Elementary education in interwar Poland was compulsory and Jewish children attended public schools. More than likely, although I can’t be certain, some or all of them might have been later among the Jews murdered by the Nazis during World War II. Almost all of the town’s Jews as well as those from the nearby area — 881 men, women and children — were rounded up and brutally killed by the Germans in a major mass execution in Mszana Dolna in 1942. One of them was my mother’s childhood friend whom my mother, herself a child, tried to save but could not do anything in the face of horrendous brutality and terror. Some of the signatures of the Jewish inhabitants of Mszana Dolna when they were children in 1926, now preserved in the Library of Congress, may be the only written record they had left behind. I also found a page signed by leaders of the Jewish Community of Białystok. The Polish Library in Washington partnered with the Library of Congress in 2015 to digitize most of the volumes with financial support from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MSZ).
The Roman Catholic parish pastor of Mszana Dolna Father Józef Stabrawa’s signature can also be seen in the Polish books marking the 150th Fourth of July anniversary in 1926. During the German occupation of Poland, he was arrested by the Nazis on charges of helping the Polish underground armed resistance and later died in the Dachau concentration camp. Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, the future Pope John Paul II, who was among my mother’s religion teachers and whom I had interviewed for the Voice of America on his trip to Washington in 1976, often visited Mszana Dolna after the war, knew many of the town’s inhabitants and in his sermons spoke about the Nazi persecution of Polish and Jewish communities. My uncle, Jan Lipień, who was too young in 1926 to be in school, was sent as a teenager for forced labor in Nazi Germany during the war. He was liberated by American soldiers and emigrated to the United States. Thanks to him, my father, my mother and I were also able to come separately to America in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1973, I joined the Polish Service of the Voice of America (VOA) as a radio broadcaster.
Stefan Korboński, the husband of Zofia Korbońska who was one of my co-workers in the Polish Service of the Voice of America, wrote in his book, “The Polish Underground State,” about the Nazi persecution of Jews in Mszana Dolna and the hanging of a Polish peasant who had sold potatoes to a Jew.
A dispatch from the chief of the Directorate of Civil Resistance Korbonski illustrates one case:
“May 3, 1943. In Mszana Dolna, on March 22, Volksdeutsch Gelb hanged a peasant by his feet and tormented him to death for having sold potatoes to a Jew. Threaten him.” 1
Gelb’s name does not appear on the list from 1926 since he was not from Mszana Dolna, but the names of some of his future victims are there. He disappeared toward the end of the war and most likely avoided punishment for his crimes.
Stefan Korboński, who had been the last civilian chief of the World War II Polish Underground State, was honored by Israel after the war and his escape to the United States from communist-ruled Poland as one of the Righteous Among the Nations for helping to save Jews. The radio dispatch to London warning of the brutal persecution of Jews and Poles in Mszana Dolna was most likely prepared for transmission by Zofia Korbońska who coded the Polish underground messages sent from German-occupied Poland. After the war, she was hired by the Voice of America thanks to former Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane who at that time campaigned for ending the lingering coverup of Stalin’s crimes in VOA programs, including the Katyń massacre of thousands of Polish officers, and was one of the advocates for creating Radio Free Europe.
These were some of the direct and indirect historical connections I was able to make by looking briefly at a few names from my hometown among thousands of pages of these remarkable Polish books from 1926. The Library of Congress article, “Polish Declarations: Sharing a Forgotten Treasure Through Digitization” offers helpful advice for those conducting genealogical and other research. A searchable inventory of place names for Volumes 14-110 can be found here.
In the interwar period, people of Poland were enormously grateful to former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson for including a call for Poland’s independence in his plan for ending World War I. Polish American volunteers had fought for an independent Poland in 1918 and again in the war with the Soviet Union in 1920. The strong ties of friendship between the two nations go back, however, to Polish Generals Thaddeus Kosciuszko and Casimir Pulaski who had fought on the side of the Colonists in the American Revolution, and even earlier to a group of Polish settlers in the Jamestown Colony in Virginia. They were followed by millions of Polish immigrants who came to the United States mostly in the period after Poland lost its independence to the imperial powers of Austria, Russia, and Prussia in 1795. They became some of America’s most hard working and patriotic citizens.
Since the end of the 18th century, most Poles have always looked to the United States as an important friend, ally and a land of freedom and economic opportunity. In 1939, at the outset of World War II, Poland was invaded and partitioned by Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. Even though the country was later cynically betrayed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in the words of Arthur Bliss Lane, the first American Ambassador to Poland after World War II, sold the Poles down the river to Stalin during the wartime conferences in Teheran and Yalta in 1943 and 1944, the vast majority of Americans never supported nor accepted this betrayal. It was cheered only by a small minority of Americans, the so-called “fellow travelers” and other progressives who had been fooled by Soviet propaganda and disinformation. Some of them were in charge of the Voice of America, the U.S. government’s radio station founded during World War II. After the war, much of VOA’s staff was changed. Most of the foreign language services were run by refugees from communism who were trying to undo the damage done by WWII-era pro-Soviet U.S. government officials and propagandists. By the 1950s, the Voice of America, together with Radio Free Europe, became Poland’s channels to uncensored information from the United States and the rest of the Free World.
Despite the dark period of Soviet-domination of Eastern Europe, the Polish card for the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — what former Librarian of Congress James Billington called “possibly the largest expression of affection one nation ever made to another” — was not, in the long run, just another largely meaningless public relations or public diplomacy gesture. The Polish-American friendship never wavered. It survived the post-World War II communist takeover of Poland and enjoyed strong bipartisan support in the United States throughout the Cold War. Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, as well as American diplomats and many ordinary Americans, continued to work in various ways toward restoring Poland’s independence. In 1999, Poland became a full member of NATO and a military ally of the United States.
The strategic importance of the Polish-American alliance and Poland’s NATO membership has been obvious to most Poles. Their tragic history has taught them that without the United States becoming militarily engaged in Europe during World War II, Hitler’s Germany most likely would not have been defeated and most Poles would have eventually perished. Likewise, without America’s engagement on the side of democracy after the war, the Soviet empire, if it had withstood Hitler’s attack, would not have disintegrated when it did and Poland might still be one of Russia’s satellite states. Fortunately, for both the United States and Poland, the two countries are now bound by much stronger ties of friendship, military alliance and mutual engagement than they were at any other time in their history.
Ted Lipien was in charge of the Voice of America Polish Service in the 1980s and later served as VOA’s acting associate director.
- Stefan Korbonski, The Polish Underground State: A Guide to the Underground, 1939-1945, Columbia University Press, New York, 1978, p. 137. ↩