restricted access The Quaker Mission in Poland: Relief, Reconstruction, and Religion
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The Quaker Mission in Poland:
Relief, Reconstruction, and Religion


Quaker war-relief and post-war reconstruction efforts have long been regarded as positive, even inspirational examples of international service. In recognition for their humanitarian efforts, Quakers were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947.1 The Quaker practice of impartiality, their compassion, their desire to help, and their faith in the victory of spirit over force were all mentioned by Gunnar Jahn, Chairman of the Nobel Committee, when presenting the award. What particularly impressed the Nobel Committee was the way in which the Quakers worked, “their compassion for others and the desire to help them—that rich expression of the sympathy between all men, regardless of nationality or race, which transformed into deeds must form the basis for lasting peace. For this reason alone the Quakers deserve to receive the Nobel Peace Prize today.”2

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Quaker Mission, Warsaw, Poland, Summer 1921.

Given this high praise, it is surprising to learn that in Poland at the end of the First World War, there were some who viewed the Quaker presence in their country with alarm. Accusations against the Quakers for proselytizing, spreading [End Page 1] propaganda, and discriminating against Polish Catholics, can be found in a collection of letters dating back to 1920, in the time just following the First World War. The first letter, sent from the Bishop of Lublin, Marian Fulman, to the Ministry of Religious Confessions and Public Enlightenment in Warsaw on October 28, 1920, raised enough concern to warrant an investigation by the newly-formed Polish government into the work of the Quaker Mission.

The same collection of letters documents the investigation, and the conclusions drawn by the Ministry of the Interior about the work of the Quaker Mission in the Hrubieszow District of eastern Poland. The correspondence covers a period from 1920 to 1923. Using archival sources from the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) as well as minutes and reports from the Friends War Victims Relief Committee of London Yearly Meeting, I will investigate whether any of the rumors or allegations were true, and how they affected the relief and reconstruction work undertaken by the Quakers in Poland.

Narrative Background

Poland re-emerged as an independent nation at the end of the First World War, after more than a hundred and twenty years of foreign rule, which developed in a series of partitions by her three powerful neighbors: Tsarist Russia, Prussia/Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Separated by language, religion, culture, and competing armies, the Polish people endured not only the loss of their independence as a sovereign state, but also suffered through years of intense warfare. It is estimated that about 400,000 Poles died while serving in one of the three imperial armies of their occupiers during the First World War.3 Millions more fled eastward into Russia. At the time of the Armistice in November 1918, fighting ended in Western Europe, but armed conflict continued in Poland on almost every border. Industry was paralyzed, communications and infrastructure were destroyed, and the once fertile fields of Poland had become battle-shot and covered with barbed wire, making agricultural production in parts of the country nearly impossible.

On April 12, 1919, R.E. Kimens, the Acting British Commissioner in Warsaw, sent a letter to London Yearly Meeting describing the conditions in the country and recommending that Quakers undertake relief work in Poland.4 Relief work among civilian war victims was not new to London Yearly Meeting. Organized in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, the War Victims Relief Fund arose in response to appeals in the October 1870 issue of The Friend calling for relief to the non-combatant victims of the war in France. In addition to a call for a War Victims Relief Fund to be placed under the Committee for Sufferings of London Yearly Meeting, Samuel Clapper, who had just returned from France, and seen the devastation first hand, sent a personal appeal to the editor of The Friend:

I would put to thy readers, whether it does not peculiarly devolve upon us (members of the Religious Society of...