In 1926, America celebrated the 150th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence. On this occasion, citizens of Poland, almost a sixth of the population or more than 5.5 million, signed a unique birthday card, The Polish Declarations of Admiration and Friendship. Now, all 111 volumes containing more than 30,000 pages – many beautifully illustrated or accompanied by photographs – are digitized and accessible on the Library of Congress website.
“We, the people of Poland, send to you, citizens of the Great American Union, fraternal greetings, together with the assurance of our deepest admiration and esteem for the institutions which have been created by you,” reads the “Polish Declarations of Admiration and Friendship.”
“In them liberty, equality and justice have found their highest expression and have become the guiding stars for all modern democracies.”
Some 5.5 million Poles signed the document over an eight-month period in 1926 to mark the 150th anniversary of America’s Declaration of Independence, a mass expression of gratitude for the help America gave the Poles during World War I.
The collection was presented to President Calvin Coolidge, who requested the manuscripts be preserved in the Library of Congress in Washington. More than 90 years later, the documents have now been digitized and made accessible online.
The Polish Embassy in Washington announced the step a few days ahead of the Fourth of July holiday and President Donald Trump’s visit Warsaw on Thursday — a visit coming early in his presidency that also reflects the longstanding U.S.-Polish alliance.
It also comes as Poland gears up to celebrate the centennial next year of its own independence, regained at the end of World War I after 123 years of being occupied by foreign powers. Poland’s rebirth was possible partly thanks to the backing from President Woodrow Wilson, who insisted on the re-creation of an independent Polish state.
President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda, who toured the Polish Declarations in March 2016, described the collection as “an extraordinary work and an important testament for Poles and Polish-Americans. It will be thrilling for many individuals to soon be able to find the signatures of their forefathers in these Declarations.”
The manuscripts — 30,000 pages in 111 volumes — are richly illustrated and include original works by the best Polish graphic artists of the era. Among those who signed were leading politician Jozef Pilsudski, government members and Czeslaw Milosz, a teenager who went on to become a Nobel-winning poet and writer. Many other political figures, priests, scientists, soldiers and millions of schoolchildren also signed, sometimes adding their own drawings or dried flowers to the pages.
In addition to being a unique gift from a grateful nation, the Polish Declarations are also a priceless treasure trove for genealogists, historians and researchers. World War II erupted 13 years after these signatures were gathered. Poland was jointly invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and suffered immense losses. Close to six million Polish citizens, including three million Polish Jews, were killed.
Samuel Ponczak, who spearheaded the Class of 1926 digitization project, noted, “for those who did not survive the war, in many instances their signature in this declaration is the only evidence that such a person existed.” Ponczak, who himself is a Polish survivor of the Holocaust, added, “Through our digitization effort, we are reclaiming their lost history.”
The Polish Library in Washington, D.C., is a volunteer organization which has been promoting Polish culture, literature and history in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area since 1991.