Grzegorz Pelczyński

The Long History of Armenians in Poland


By Grzegorz Pelczynski

LVIV, Ukraine and KRAKOW, Poland — Armenians were settling in the areas of today’s Ukraine, later incorporated into Poland, as early as the 11th century. During the following centuries, they established settlement centers in many cities and towns, in particular Kamieniec Podolski and Lvov. They were mainly occupied with trade and craft. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Armenians introduced Orient onto the Polish market, importing from the East a variety of oriental luxury goods, and producing their own from oriental designs for the nobility and patricians. Although they were an affluent community, some restrictions were imposed on them, since members of the Armenian Apostolic Church were regarded as heretics in the Polish society. However, in 1630 they entered a union with the Roman-Catholic Church and became Catholics of the Armenian Liturgy. This advanced their assimilation processes.

Lviv Armenian Cathedral

Towards the end of the 18th century, the country of Poland, partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria, ceased to exist. The area inhabited by the Armenians, i.e. East Galicia with its capital in Lvov, was incorporated into Austria. Soon afterwards, nearby Bukowina became a settlement place for the Polish Armenians.

Interior of the Lviv Armenian cathedral

In the inter-war period there were almost five thousand Armenians in Poland; one thousand Polish Armenians lived in Bukowina, which then belonged to Romania. Also, in Poland lived about one thousand emigrants from Armenia and Russia who had escaped the 1915-1920 pogroms in West Armenia and the October Revolution. The Polish Armenians were at the time highly Polonized, except for those in the village of Kuty, who had preserved many elements of their culture. One thing retained from the old times was the Lvov Archdiocese of the Armenian Rite, headed by archbishop Józef Teodorowicz, an outstanding politician of the “Second Polish Republic”. In the 1930’s, the Archdiocese Association of Armenians initiated many cultural undertakings that performed an integrative function. Despite being a small population, the Armenians were highly respected by the Polish people not only in view of their prosperity, as many of them were landowners and industrialists, but also because of their patriotism.

During WWII, the Armenians from Eastern Little Poland (Malopolska Wschodnia) and Bukowina experienced twists and turns of fate similar to those of the other Polish citizens in those regions. During the Soviet occupation numerous Polish Armenians, who represented former elites, suffered severe persecutions. When the Germans invaded the area, the lives of some Armenians became threatened due to the exotic, Jewish-like appearance. At the same time, that appearance was instrumental in saving Jews, for whom Armenian birth certificates could be forged. A significant number of Armenians, particularly those from Pokucie, were killed by the Ukrainian Uprising Army (UPA). In the genocide in Kuty, lasting from 19 to 21 April 1944, over one hundred Armenians lost their lives. For a certain period of time, Armenian collaboration divisions were stationed in Lvov, for whom pastoral service was provided by priests Dionizy Kajetanowicz, the Archdiocese administrator, and Kazimierz Romaszkan. They both became imprisoned and, after the incorporation of Eastern Little Poland (Malopolska Wschodnia) to the Soviet Union, sentenced to many years’ imprisonment. Unusual were the stories of the Armenians in Bukowina, who regarded themselves as Poles, yet were residing in a country allied with the Third Reich.

As a result of WWII, the territory for centuries inhabited by the Polish Armenians became part of the USSR. The Armenians, like most of the Polish population living there, left their houses to go west to Poland. They were to become the citizens of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL). They settled mainly in the “Regained Territories,” predominantly in the Upper Silesia and the Lower Silesia. Many of them also settled in Cracow, Warsaw, the Tri-city (Trójmiasto) and other towns. Some tried to settle where their relatives or acquaintances lived before WWII. However, they did not manage to create close-knit settlement centers, being widely scattered throughout Poland. The dispersion affected not only members of parishes but also closest relatives, so contacts were often lost.

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Renewed Spirit

For more than 30 years, Armenians had been dissolving into the mass of the Polish society. However, at the beginning of the 1980s, their communal spirit was suddenly roused. At that point their population was estimated at about fifteen thousand, which is a number difficult to accept. It included the Polish Armenians and their children, mostly from mixed marriages, and the families of the pre-war and post-war emigrants. Irrespective, though, of how big or small the population was, there were found in it individuals capable of initiating a revival.

The rebirth of the Armenian community in the 1980s enabled its development in the “Third Polish Republic.” In the new Polish society the Armenians became a minority with its own organizations and institutions and a considerable degree of good will.

In September 1990 the Armenian Cultural Society (OTK) was established in Cracow, headed by Adam Terlecki. On June 15, 1991, the OTK organized the First Polish National Meeting of the Armenian Community. In 1993, Biuletyn Ormiańskiego Towarzystwa Kulturalnego [Bulletin of the Armenian Culture Society], edited by Anna Krzysztofowicz, was first issued, inspiring an outburst of publishing activity.

Besides OTK, various other organizations were founded, such as the Abp. J. Teodorowicz Association of Armenians in Poland, with the seat in Gliwice. Also worth noting are two other organizations — the Ararat Association of Armenians in Poland and the Association of Armenians in Poland — founded by emigrants from Armenia. Of all those, however, the association headed by Adam Terlecki appears to have made the biggest achievements.

The period described here has been particularly unfavorable for the lot of the Armenian-Catholic rite. Its pre-war tradition was practically terminated by the death of priest Kazimierz Filipiak in 1992, the last active minister of the Lvov Archdiocese of the Armenian Rite. After Filipiak’s death, the legal status of the Armenian rite was standardized. Fr. Józef Glemp, in 1992 erected the Holy Trinity Armenian-Catholic Rite and Parish with its seat in Gliwice. Being a specific parish, it gathered all the believers on the whole territory of Poland. Priest Kowalczyk became the parish priest, whereas priest Cezary Annusiewicz was entrusted with the care over the followers in northern Poland.

Armenian church in Gliwice

Topics: History, Poland

Despite his passion and numerous organizational merits, Kowalczyk lost the respect of the majority of his parishioners due to his difficult personal character. As a result of an incident on September 8, 1999, in Gdansk, he was expelled from the Armenian community. On that day, along with a group of men, Kowalczyk attacked Fr. Annusiewicz in St. Peter and Paul’s Church in an attempt to seize the painting of the Heavenly Mother of Mercy from the sanctuary founded by Filipiak. The incident was publicized in the media and brought unnecessary shame onto the Armenian community. Unfortunately, Filipiak continued committing misdeeds and frauds, which ultimately led to his imprisonment.

After those incidents, the organizational structure of the Armenian rite became unstable. Over time, the serving minister became priest Isakowicz-Zaleski, earlier banned from travel to Rome, now involved in charity work as president of Brother Albert’s Foundation in Radwanowice. The metropolitan of the Armenian liturgy became archbishop Kazimierz Nycz, who at the end of 2009 decided to establish three territorial parishes: the northern one with the seat in Gdansk, headed by Prelate Cezary Annusiewicz; the central one in Warsaw, headed by Artur Awdalian, and the southern one in Gliwice, headed by Rev. Isakowicz-Zaleski.

In 2001, the Polish Armenians together with the rest of the Armenian Diaspora celebrated 1700 years of Christianity in Armenia. In June 2001, Nerses Bedros XIX, the patriarch of the Armenian-Catholic Church, led the ceremonies commemorating the 1700th anniversary of Armenian baptism in Poland, performing Armenian liturgy in several Polish cities. Undoubtedly, the anniversary activated the Polish Armenians in Poland, both those present here for centuries as well as the newcomers. By joining the worldwide celebrations, they demonstrated their affiliation with the Diaspora.

Armenians Move to Poland from Soviet Union

At the end of the 1980s, Armenians from the Soviet Union began coming to Poland. Emigration continued in the following decades. The first groups came from the areas affected by the earthquake in 1988, and were joined by refugees from Azerbaijan at the time when their country was in conflict with Armenia over Karabakh. Once in Poland, they were mostly placed in centers for refugees. Then arrived people escaping poverty in Armenia and in other former Soviet Republics. Some of them stayed in Poland only temporarily before going on to the West. Most, however, remained longer, ultimately to settle. This produced some problems over their legal status, since Poland was only gaining experience in immigration policy and the civil service did not always know how to deal with the new situation. Nevertheless, the emigrants mostly found Poland an attractive place to live, and were aided by well-organized Armenian organizations and institutions as well as the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia, which opened in 1998.

A considerable proportion of the immigrants are involved in common trade. However, they do not continue the earliest tradition of importing luxury goods to Poland; instead, they mostly sell inexpensive clothing imported from Asian countries. The Armenian salesmen have to compete with the Polish vendors at market places in big cities, which occasionally leads to disagreements or squabbles. On the other hand, there are also Armenians who have set up independent businesses. Armenian restaurants serving Armenian cuisine deserve special mention. Some Armenians also manage to go into self-employment or freelancing. An exceptional venue is that of the Gagika Persamiana Gallery in Gdansk, which specializes in the sale of Polish Armenians’ art work and is involved in the organization of cultural events.

However, not all Armenians are successful in the country on the Vistula. Those without jobs, suffering ill health, devoid of the Polish citizenship or a permanent stay permit, are in a difficult situation, and the Armenian institutions and organizations are not always able to help them, as information about the people in need does not always reach them. Such immigrants can only rely on charity institutions. It is hoped that with the growing stabilization of the “new emigration”, as these immigrants are often called, the number of those in need of financial support will be decreasing.

An interesting phenomenon is that of Armenian education. Organized education of children was possible in the more stable conditions of the Armenian communities, essentially in Warsaw and Cracow, two cities inhabited not only by a sufficient number of children but also teachers with appropriate qualifications acquired in Armenia. Weekend schools are run and attended by dozens of children. Not all can be taught in the native language spoken at home; those with parents settled in Poland are educated in Polish schools and often become very good pupils.

A matter of special concern for the Armenians worldwide is the mentioned mass killing of their compatriots in Turkey, also remembered by the Polish Armenians. In the 1980’s, their priests remembered the victims while performing Mass; Armenians in Warsaw issued brochures about the subject. The level of interest increased in the times of the “Third Polish Republic”, after the new wave of immigrants arrived from Armenia, where the question of the Turkish responsibility for the crime has been one of the most important political issues for decades. Owing to the efforts by the Polish Armenians and following the example of parliaments worldwide, on 19 April 2005 the Polish Sejm adopted by acclamation a resolution paying tribute to the victims of the genocide and condemning the perpetrators.

A year earlier, at St. Nicholas Church in Cracow a Khachkar was erected in order to commemorate the genocide of the Armenians in Turkey, despite the Turkish Embassy’s efforts to prevent the initiative. The monument has become an exceptional symbol for the Polish Armenians, who gather around it on 24 April, the day dedicated to the victims of the genocide.

The Armenians settled in Poland for centuries and the Armenians immigrants in the last 25 years have formed an extraordinary community. Both groups maintain their own traditions, which however intermesh today in a variety of ways.

(Grzegorz Pelczyński graduated with degrees in ethnology (1986) and theology (1990) from Adam Mickiewicz University. He conducted research in Armenia, Russia and Ukraine. Member of the International Association for Armenian Studies and Poznańskie Towarzystwo Przyjaciól Nauk.  He is a professor at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of the University of Wroclaw, and manager of the Easter Research Center.)



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