Noble ranks and titles, famous family names, wealth, and power – these are things we associate with the aristocracy. Since its inception, Poland was forced to fend off invaders. In turn, it repeatedly took on the role of aggressor. These continuous wars engendered great commanders.
Poland’s rulers rewarded them for bravery and services rendered to the crown by granting them titles and property. The fame and reputation they thus obtained brought honor not only to them, but also to their families. If a family member dishonored himself, his act branded the entire clan.
In Polish literature, plays and films, aristocrats are only rarely cast in a favorable light. This is perhaps due to the fact that positive characters do not inspire controversy and do not draw attention to themselves. As a result, audiences do not follow their stories with bated breath. Poland’s greatest novelists and poets bequeathed to us a memory of aristocrats as traitors and carousers. The average Pole is not familiar with the details of the lives of noble commanders, politicians, artists, and scientists, who patriotically served their country over the centuries.
During World War II, all landowners living in the Russian-occupied eastern Polish territories were expelled from their estates. In the German occupation zone – the General Government – landowners and aristocrats were allowed to remain on their estates, but each property was forcefully assigned a German overseer. Under the latter’s watchful eye, aristocrats risked their lives aiding the guerrillas of the National Army (AK), hiding fighters of the Polish underground pursued by the Gestapo, and giving shelter to Polish citizens of Jewish origin. Many noble landowners were involved in the struggle against their German occupiers, fighting in the ranks of The National Army and on the front lines, serving in General Władysław Anders’ II Polish Corps.
After the war, the communist regime dealt the final blow to the Polish aristocracy. In 1944, their land and buildings were confiscated, and many of them were imprisoned during the Stalinist era. They were accused of various offenses, the most common and at once most serious allegation being that of treason. Judges sent directly from Moscow meted out harsh sentences, including the death penalty.
Escape from Poland seemed to some to be the only route to salvation. Unfortunately, it was not and easy path, since the officers of the Security Office (UB) zealously tracked every attempt at escape to the western countries. Not all aristocrats wanted to leave Poland. Like most of their countrymen, they had long been conditioned to deal with suffering and adversity. For over a century, in the era when Poland was partitioned by three imperial powers – Russia, Prussia and Austria – they took part in a series of insurgent uprisings. The punishment for involvement in these movements included confiscation of their ancestral landholdings and exile in Siberia. During the Second World War, they were expelled from their estates, and sent to labor and concentration camps.
Many decided to stay in Poland, in spite of the persecution they suffered at the hands of the communist regime, which forbade landowners to settle within 50 kilometers of their old estates, and barred their children from attending colleges and universities. Some aristocrats decided instead to leave their home country or elected not to return from their wartime exile. A small group of these chose multinational, immigrant-friendly Canada as their second homeland.
They reached the Canadian shore, very often carrying only one symbolic suitcase, in which they smuggled in a few small mementoes. They left art collections and extensive libraries amassed over many generations back in Poland, taking only family photos, a small tapestry, a monogrammed silver cup, a fork engraved with the family coat of arms, a newspaper-cutting knife, a century-old Christening gown. Each of these things became invaluable to them. By looking at them, they recall their palaces and manor houses, situated in the midst of woods and fields, homes that they had occupied over many generations. They reminisce about a past, tradition-rich life.
Family memorabilia came to decorate the walls of new homes or to take pride of place in displays. For all that, these mementoes were not of the utmost importance. Although they reminded Polish aristocrats of bygone splendors, the spiritual values encapsulated in the slogan “Noblesse Oblige” was the most precious “baggage” they brought with them to Canada. It gave them the strength to adapt to their new homeland. In the early years of emigration, they often landed low-paying jobs, oftentimes hard farm labor. Brought up in completely different conditions, they quickly had to get used to their new, Spartan existence. In a foreign country, they strove to maintain family and national ties, just as they had done in Poland.
Sometimes, the children of Polish aristocrats carried on an age-old custom by marrying distant relatives. However, most of them married Canadians.
Thus irrevocably passes the history of the Polish aristocratic émigrés living in Canada, preserved only in family names, small objects, and traditions. The pages of this book – the album In One Suitcase – captures a small part of this history.