The Emigration Museum

– Sumita Chakravarty

A brand-new and impressive Emigration Museum in Gydnia, Poland overlooks the Baltic Sea, conjuring up for the visitor the scene of countless departures of Poles for other shores over the past three centuries. As the museum’s brochure informs us, 20 million Poles are currently living abroad, and the Polish diaspora is the sixth largest in the world. It is an incredibly inspiring and complex history, as well as a recognition of the centrality of migration in the consciousness of the contemporary world. The museum takes full note of this fact: for its physical location, the planners chose Gydnia’s Marine Station at 1, Polska Street, the building built in 1933 through which thousands of emigrants passed to make new lives abroad. “It was here that the most remote routes converged, here moored legendary Polish ocean liners, with the MS Batory at the forefront. Gydnia’s emigration past, the port location and the monumental edifice of the Marine Station itself provide a perfect framework for an institution whose ambition it is to give the history of Polish emigration its proper place in the national memory.”

A view from the Museum
A view from the Museum

It is difficult to underestimate the significance of this relatively new way of conceptualizing national history. Most museums of immigration highlight the impact of new arrivals on the history and culture of the receiving country. The museums devoted to its immigrants that one finds in Britain, the United States, France, Australia, and elsewhere are of this sort. The theme here is of a nation enriched by the diverse influences brought in, and the contributions made by people from other places, but it is as though the lives lived by these immigrants prior to their journeys simply drops out of view. Poland’s Emigration Museum may be the first to present an account of its national formation not (only) from within, but fundamentally in terms of its exiles.

In choosing as its theme ‘emigration’ rather than ‘immigration,’ the museum of course avoids the heated debates about belonging engulfing the world today. Poles themselves are the target of racist attacks in Britain and the fate of many non-citizens has yet to be decided. At a time when Europe is once again faced with a crisis of collective identity, when the Brexit vote in Britain and right wing movements elsewhere on the continent, including Poland itself, excoriate the presence of foreigners in their lands, questions of mobility are being carefully weighted. But the exhibition discreetly sidesteps these aspects of life abroad. Instead, it invites a look at the long arc of Polish history to present emigration as both a sobering reality and an opportune factor in the nation’s existence. People move: it is as simple as that. And it falls to different groups and nationalities to undertake these journeys at different times in the past. Not so long ago, Europe itself was the scene, not the target of mass migrations. Between 1815 and 1914, 55-60 million people left Europe. They rebuilt their lives in Brazil and Argentina, in Canada and the United States. It would seem that for Poles emigration continued through the rest of the century and into the present. This trend has to be seen, of course, in conjunction with Poland’s war-torn past, which included the period from 1772 to 1914 when the country ceased to exist, having been partitioned by Austria, Russia, and Prussia. As one Warsovian told me, since 1989 Poland was enjoying freedom from occupation for the first time in its modern history, and it was going to take them a little while to figure things out.

A sense of optimism and hopefulness does pervade the museum. This is essentially a celebration of Polish history, culture, language, and traditions, which together constitute a kind of essential Polishness that does not go away when one leaves its shores and settles elsewhere. As I recall, the term “Polish nation” does not appear too often in the exhibits, while that of “the Polish people” does. And so a kind of continuity rather than rupture is the underlying theme in the museum, as Poles in exile are deeply invested in the political conditions of the motherland at various points in time. The phrase “spiritual exile” is recalibrated to suggest “spiritual connection in exile.” I was reminded of statements made on separate occasions by two Polish intellectuals – one an ophthalmologist/scholar and the other a university professor – who both told me, “We Poles never leave our home towns.” They were describing how they had spent their entire lives in their places of birth, although they traveled abroad quite frequently. It almost felt as though two halves of the Polish zeitgeist were being forged together.

My tour starts in a room with interactive screens which show images of people who emigrated at different times and for different destinations. This emphasis on faces and people underscores the museum’s intent to address emigration through personal stories and individual lives. The main exhibition takes us chronologically through the various stages of Poland as a country since its founding in the medieval period. Illuminated panels connect historical personages to specific events or to the songs, legends, and stories associated with them. During the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania together formed the largest country in Europe. Poland’s population was comprised of many groups at the time: “Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians (the future Belarusians and Ukrainians), Jews, Prussians, Livonians, Armenians, Tartars, Karaims, Vlachs, and Roma all lived side by side.” When the rest of Europe was persecuting Jews, the Polish Republic welcomed them, resulting in one of the largest Jewish communities settled there until the second world war. “Poland is like a motley bird, dyed to the core,” wrote Jakub Olszewski, a Vilnius Jesuit in the mid-17th century, with reference to the ethnic and religious diversity of the Polish Republic.

The story of emigration is presented in three stages: the Great Migration of 1831; the era of mass migrations in the Industrial Era and the exodus to the United States; and the recent migrations after Poland joined the European Union in 2004. The U.S. and New York in particular get attention in relation to popular culture: after all, two of the biggest Hollywood studios were founded by Polish Jews: Samuel Goldwyn from Warsaw and the Warner brothers from the Ostroleka region. In the early twentieth century, as emigration slowed because of a slumping world economy, an Emigration Syndicate was established to protect the interests of Polish emigrants abroad as well as that of the state. It was felt that emigration relieved economic pressures at home and so proper mechanisms needed to be set in place.

The exhibition left me wondering what defines a Pole, but in a good way. There were no deep, dark mysteries here of the national soul (if there is such a thing). Rather, what one sensed was an openness to the world, a going back and forth, preserving the past while creating the future. And in a globalizing world, that’s a lesson we can all embrace.

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