Polish Declarations of Admiration and Friendship for the United States is much more than a collection of impressive artifacts. The 111-volume collection is an important, largely unexplored primary source for genealogical, historical, and sociological research.
The desire to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Declaration of Independence was motivated by sentiments of admiration and gratitude for America’s role in the restoration of Polish statehood in the aftermath of World War I. America has always held a special place in the Polish national consciousness. At the time that Poland was losing its own national sovereignty in the late 18th century, the United States was gaining its independence.
The American achievement of self-rule was in no small measure due to the assistance of the two great Polish military heroes Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Kazimierz (Casimir) Pulaski, whose portraits adorn many of the sheets in this collection. A brilliant military engineer, Kosciuszko played an important role in the defense of Saratoga and the building of the military academy at West Point. Pulaski fought at Brandywine and was involved in major battles in the South. He was mortally wounded at the Battle of Savannah. Kosciuszko and Pulaski are honored as freedom fighters in both their native Poland and the United States.
The manuscript volumes were delivered to President Calvin Coolidge at the White House in 1926 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of U.S. independence. The volumes were signed over an eight-month period by nearly one-sixth of Poland’s population as it existed in 1926. More than 5.5 million signatures were collected, many from villages so small that they are not even listed in Filip Sulimierski’s exhaustive 15-volume Slownik geograficzny Krolestwa Polskiego i innych krajow slowianskich [Geographic Dictionary of the Polish Kingdom and Other Slavic Lands].
At President Coolidge’s behest, this unique gift was transferred to the Library of Congress, where it remained largely forgotten for some seven decades. Held in remote storage for most of this period, the collection eventually caught the attention of Library staff because of its sheer dimensions. Its rediscovery serendipitously coincided with the visit to the Library of Congress by Polish First Lady Jolanta Kwasniewska, who was accompanied by officials from the Embassy of Poland. The delegation viewed selected volumes from the collection and immediately recognized its historical importance. The collection generated such intense interest that the Library, in cooperation with the Embassy, organized a special program on May 2, 1997, to showcase this symbol of the enduring friendship between Poland and the United States. The Embassy also underwrote the publication of Emblem of Good Will: A Polish Declaration of Admiration and Friendship for the United States of America, authored by Zbigniew Kantorosinski.
Poland in 1926 was a much more ethnically diverse country than it is today, as the many Jewish, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Lithuanian, Russian, and German names on the signature sheets testify. Approximately one-quarter of the institutions represented in this collection were located in eastern borderlands that Poland subsequently lost to the Soviet Union after World War II. Further, much of present-day western Poland was not included in the collection because, at that time, those areas were part of Germany.
Assembling the signatures of Poland’s national, regional, and local officials; religious dignitaries; and persons of prominence in the various professions would be a logistical challenge even today—in the era of overnight delivery, fax machines, and e-mail. That undertaking, however, still pales in comparison with the scale of the 1926 nationwide effort to gather the signatures of school children and their teachers.
Essentially a census of school-age children in 1926 Poland, volumes 7-110 of Polish Declarations constitute a new, untapped genealogical resource. Researchers will discover that certain districts and regions—such as Upper Silesia—are more comprehensively represented than others—most notably, secondary schools in Krakow (Cracow) and elementary schools in Lwow (Lviv).
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.
Volume 2 presents the signatures of dignitaries on the provincial, district, and local levels. Preceding each provincial section are poster-size original works by prominent artists, including Zofia Stryjenska, Wladyslaw Skoczylas, Ferdynand Ruszczyc, Stanislaw Czajkowski, Wladyslaw Jarocki, and Ludomir Slendzinski. The final quarter of this volume is devoted to institutions of higher learning and includes signatures of administrators, faculty, and students.
Volumes 3 through 5 have signatures from three separate institutions of higher learning. The signatures of faculty and students at Jagiellonian University in Cracow take up the entirety of Volume 3, a 16-page folio bound in blue leather with the university wax seal in a brass container attached. Similarly, Volume 4 presents signatures from faculty and students of the Mining Academy of Cracow and consists of 14 pages bound in brown leather. Volume 5 is a 10-page folio bound in gray leather with signatures from the professors and assistants of the State Dental Institute in Warsaw.
Volume 6 is the only part of the collection that represents the Polish émigré community. It was signed by an interesting cross-section of the Polish population of Austria, including members of the Austrian-Polish Chamber of Commerce in Vienna, the “Hearth ” Academic Association in Vienna, the Union of Polish Legionnaires, Polish church congregations, and random individuals who came to the Polish Embassy in Vienna to inscribe their names.
Volumes 7 through 13 contain the signatures of the students and faculty of 1,170 mostly secondary schools. Although it may have been intended to present only secondary schools in this subset of the111-volume collection, many elementary schools also are included. The signature sheets for these volumes were bound in random order. Thus in Volume 7, a sheet from Lodz precedes one from Tarnopol, followed by a sheet from Nowe Miasto nad Drweca. In the digital version, however, readers are able to search Volumes 7-13 by location or school name either in Polish or in English.
Volumes 14 through 110 contain signature sheets from some 20,000 elementary schools representing 235 school districts. Entries are organized alphabetically by administrative district (powiat) through Volume 93, but Volumes 94-109 are in random sequence. Volume 110 is a portfolio of unbound sheets of various sizes, including standard forms for elementary school signatures, broadsides with signatures and stamps of local and regional officials, posters with elaborate ornamentation, and photographs of school buildings and classes. Volume 111, in handsome calligraphy, is a general description of the gift.
In May 1997 the Library, in cooperation with the Embassy of Poland, celebrated the “rediscovery” of this collection with an exhibit marking the opening of the new European Reading Room, attended by the Polish prime minister and other dignitaries.For a more detailed overview of the collection and an essay on its historical significance, see Emblem of Good Will: A Polish Declaration of Admiration and Friendship for the United States of America on the European Division homepage at http://www.loc.gov/rr/european/egw/polishex.html.