The first congress of Poles in Germany

Stage of the Congress

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The first congress of Poles in Germany took place in Berlin on 6th March 1938. It was the largest manifestation of Poles in Germany. Around 5000 people from different parts of Germany took part in the congress. The strict surveillance imposed by the Nazi government failed to prevent the celebrations and debates. At the end of the congress the so-called ‘Truths of Poles’, later known as the small ‘Decalogue’ of Poles in Germany, was published.

In the latter half of the 1930s the situation of Poles in Germany considerably deteriorated when the Nazis placed increasing restrictions on the Poles’ many different educational, cultural, social and economic activities. The German-Polish minority declaration of November 1937 contained nothing more than empty phrases and resulted in no positive changes. Given these conditions the Union of Poles in Germany (the Polish umbrella organisation) decided to organise a major congress in Germany to manifest and articulate the rights of Poles more clearly. The occasion was the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Union of Poles in Germany. The Central Council of the Union met in December 1937 and decided to hold a congress of Poles in Berlin at the beginning of March 1938. At first they considered holding the congress in Breslau but this idea was soon abandoned. Preparations for the congress took place in all the regional sections of the Union in January and February 1938. The organisers hoped that the anniversary and the congress would arouse so much attention that it would be impossible for the Nazi authorities to dissolve the Union of Poles: or, if they did so, this would involve a huge amount of time and money. A lot of legal work on the part of the Union was involved in organising the congress. All the applications to the Nazis (assembly rooms, collective journeys, folk evenings and concerts) were prepared by the Union’s legal office. The congress was to take place in the second largest venue in Berlin, the “Theater des Volkes” in Friedrichsstrasse, which could hold up to 5000 persons. Contracts were made with the Reich railways (special trains), bus companies, hotels and hostels, restaurants and cafes. The organisation of the congress presented a huge logistic challenge. A special office was set up consisting of staff from the headquarters and the Union’s press headquarters. Their duties consisted of printing tickets for the participants, entrance tickets, armbands, flags with the Rodlo emblem (the symbol of the Union) and even suitcase stickers. They even considered postage stamps and picture postcards.

 

The congress took place on Sunday 6th March 1938 and was one of the largest demonstrations organised by Poles in Germany. Poles came to Berlin – often in traditional dress – from Opole Silesia, the district of Babimost, Kaschubia, Warmia, the district of Marienburg, the area around the Elbe, from Westphalia and the Rhineland. Delegates from Polish organisations in France, Czechoslovakia, the USA, Romania and other countries were also present as well as representatives of other national minorities in Germany. All the participants paid for their own travel and the cost of food and accommodation. The Sunday was a fine sunny day and the colours of white and red were to be seen all over the streets of Berlin. It was not long before all the seats in the "Theater des Volkes" were occupied. The congress opened at midday. In the centre of the stage was an outsize Rodlo emblem, to the left the Chapel of the Holy Virgin (after the congress it was taken to Zakrzów/Sakrau), to the right the speaker’s lectern and behind it a leaf from a Linden tree, the emblem of Polish Jews in Germany. The congress opened with a Polonaise conducted by Aleksander Sienkiewicz. The opening speech was given by Pastor Dr. Bolesław Domański, the President of the Union of Poles in Germany, and the participants sang the Rodło hymn. Five people later appeared on stage, as symbols of the five sections of the Union consisting of Silesia, Berlin. the area around the Elbe, Westphalia and the Rhineland, East Prussia, the Babimost region, the Międzyrzecz area and Kaschubia. In his opening speech Pastor Domański spoke of the Fatherland and the unity of the Polish nation. Greetings were then read out from the primate Cardinal August Hlond. A variety of different persons also spoke, including representatives from the Union of National Minorities in Germany. A speech by Dr. Jan Kaczmarek, the General Secretary of the Union of Poles in Germany completed the official section of the congress. In it he focussed on the situation of Poles in Germany and the struggle to have the rights of the Polish minority respected in Germany. His speech was interrupted with applause on several occasions. He finished with the words: “On 6th March 1938 we, the sons of the Polish Nation, faithful sons gathered beneath the Rodło emblem at this huge congress of Poles in Germany, solemnly proclaim the Five Truths of Poles:

First truth: We are Poles!

Second truth: Our fathers’ faith is our children’s faith.

Third truth: A Pole is a brother to other Poles!

Fourth truth: A Pole serves his people every day!

Fifth truth: Poland is our mother – you do not speak ill of your mother!

 

These truths were later to become known as the ‘Decalogue’ of Poles in Germany. Over the next few months they were broadcast by every Polish broadcasting company and in the press. On 9th March 1938 Senator Witold Jeszke from Poznan spoke the following words in the Senate of the Republic of Poland: “The congress in Germany was a proud and dignified celebration. At this congress the Truths of Poles were solemnly proclaimed. These truths should not only guide the thoughts and actions of national minorities wherever they might find themselves, but act as an example to all Poles…”

The congress was scheduled to be recorded by a Berlin broadcasting company, the German Broadcasting Company, with whom the Polish Broadcasting Company had a contract. But staff from the German company did not show up until the middle of the congress. On the following day, to their amazement, the congress organisers were informed that because of technical problems with the equipment the “proceedings at the congress could not be recorded”. As chance would have it the promoters had already organised their own recording parallel to their agreement with the Germans. The recording equipment was secretly installed in the theatre and the material was sorted and put together by the technician Antoni Brzozowski and editor Edmund Osmańczyk in the Berlin studio of the Swedish firm Mix/Goernes. The result was a 30 minute reportage for the radio company and a 60 minute documentary recording for a record album. The material was broadcast one week later and the record was distributed in Germany and abroad in an edition of 500. The Gestapo was caught completely off guard by this action. After war broke out they raided the material and destroyed it. Only two copies have survived. One of these was donated by Edmund Kaczmarek, the brother of Dr. Jan Kaczmarek, to the History Museum in Opole.

The congress was proof of the organisational skills of the Union of Poles in Germany and its members’ unity and mobilisation abilities. It revived morale in the regional organisation and manifested the vibrant feeling of national togetherness amongst Poles in Germany. Although the Nazi authorities tried to hinder preparations for the congress and their negative attitude to the Poles was becoming ever more obvious, the lawful presentation of a major event organised by a national minority in the capital of Germany was used by the Nazi government as proof of their allegedly liberal domestic policies. Sadly – as became clear in the following years – the congress’s hopes that the event would prevent any further repressive measures against the Union of Poles in Germany and the Polish minority in the German Reich were not fulfilled.

Krzysztof Ruchniewicz

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