Gdynia

The story of the Emigration Museum in Gdynia

more than a year ago
It says a lot about the history of the Polish nation that this year’s biggest new museum opening is that of the Emigration Museum in the port city of Gdynia.

Opened on May 16, 2015, the museum tells the story of centuries of emigration by Poles from their homeland and examines the reasons and the results of this emigration for Poland, the emigrants and their descendants and the effect that these emigrants had on the countries where they settled.

The museum is the result of many years of preparation and research and is located in Gdynia, the centre of Polish emigration for much of the 20th century. The museum is housed in the wonderful Dworzec Morski (Marine Station) building which was the home terminal of the Gdynia-Ameryka Linie Żeglugowe S.A (Gdynia-America Lines) and later the Polskie Linie Oceaniczne (Polish Ocean Lines) companies and is the first place in Poland to properly examine the subject of emigration. When you consider that the Polish diaspora is estimated to be the sixth largest in the world at over 20 million people and that once again in the modern age Polish emigration is a hot topic, the arrival of the Museum of Emigration is particularly timely.

The Mission and the vision

The story of emigration from Poland is a long and often tragic one. It is the story of millions of people who left the country, sometimes willingly in the pursuit of dreams or in search of a better life but often as the result of forced exile or necessity. It is a story of hope, courage and challenges set against the backdrop of the country’s often turbulent history.

Poles have left their homeland for hundreds of years embarking to the four corners of the globe. Through over a century of partition many were forced to leave to escape persecution or left the bosom of their families to try to find a better life in the new worlds across the seas. Even with the rebirth of the nation in 1918 and independence people continued to leave, often to escape poverty. The mission of the museum is to tell this story and though the exhibition is based in the port of Gdynia, through which many left Poland, it is not exclusively about emigration via Gdynia. The stories of those who left on foot, by rail or by air, as well as by ship are told and the new wave of emigration, particularly of young Poles which followed Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004 is also examined.

It is believed that there are more than 20 million people beyond the borders of Poland who are of Polish origin, including 3 million in Brazil, oddly enough. These descendants of émigrés sometimes carry their connection to Poland in nothing more than their surnames and it is typical for instance to see the rosters of American football teams with their fair share of ‘skis’.

The museum wants to examine just how this came about. The aim is to try to collate the stories from some of the millions of people who have the memory of Poland which has been passed on to them via by parents and grandparents. What was the experience of those that left at the end of the eighteenth century for instance or what can we learn from those that decided to emigrate at the beginning of the twenty-first century?

The mission of the Emigration Museum in Gdynia is to examine and explain the fate of millions of people, both anonymous and famous, whose names appear in annuls of scientific, artistic, commercial or sporting history. The museum would like to help Poles of today learn about or better understand the achievements of their countrymen and women from years gone by. That is one of the reasons that the museum is also a place for education and cultural events aimed at promoting discussion and learning.

Dworzec Morski

The building which has been adapted to house the Emigration Museum in Gdynia is itself a valuable piece in the exhibition.

Following World War I Gdynia expanded rapidly to become the newly-reborn Polish state’s major port and much of the architecture in the city reflects the Modernist fashion of the times. The Dworzec Morski is one of the most famous examples and the previously run-down building has been returned to its former glory. Prior to World War II, the building was one of the most representative in a city in which the Polish nation took great pride. Extensive work to the façade, north walls and interior have brought the former ruin roaring back to life.

Built in 1933, the building was the centre of all passenger movement in the port. It was here that emigration routes from all over the country would converge having first passed through the Emigration Camp in the district of Grabowek where passengers were given a medical check-up. Passengers would then arrive at the Dworzec Morski via a railway link. Those not fit enough to travel would be moved to a treatment and quarantine area in the Baby Doly district (where the Opener Festival takes place these days).

Along with the Dworzec Morski building, a fleet of liners was ordered. These were called ‘Piłsudski’ ‘Batory’, ‘Sobieski’, and ‘Chrobry’. These replaced three old-fashioned steamers – ‘Polonia’, ‘Kościuszko’ and ‘Pułaski’. The four modern liners all sailed to and from Gdynia right up to the war and it is estimated the Batory alone carried over 30,000 passengers on the route in the three years leading up to World War II.

With the outbreak of the war, Gdynia was occupied by Nazi Germany who renamed the city Gotenhafen and turned the port into a Kriegsmarine base. Allied bombing badly damaged Dworzec Morski, completely destroying one of the wings of the building. Following the war the port once again became a transit point but on a much more modest scale (the Communists weren’t so keen on letting people leave). This era came to an end in 1988 when the Stefan Batory (the replacement for the M.S. Batory) was withdrawn from service and the building fell into disrepair. It remains however one of the best examples of the Modernism in Gdynia and the museum has given it a new lease of life. In fact there are plans to rebuild the destroyed wing as well.

Can you help? - The Emigrant’s Archive

The museum’s scope of activity is intended to go way beyond that of a typical museum. It acts as a cultural and educational centre as well as continue to document the stories of Polish emigrants and their families and collect objects related to emigration. Two of the projects it is running and which you may be able to help with are called the ‘Emigrants’ Archive’ and ‘Emigration- in and of itself’.

The Emigrant’s Archive is a unique project aimed at collecting the stories of people who were forced to leave their homeland. Emigrants having left their families to embark on a journey to a foreign land then had to build new lives, often from scratch. The museum would like to understand more about how they did this and what difficulties they had to overcome. Did they maintain contact with their families in Poland for instance?

The Emigrant’s Archive was conceived in order to save individual accounts for present and future generations. They will be archived in written form, in sound and on film and will be used for exhibition purposes, for print and multimedia publications as well as being made available to the public online.

If emigration played a prominent role in your life or that of your relatives, please tell them, and the world, your story. All memories are important and deserve to be preserved and presented to a wider audience. We ask you to pass on your story by contacting the Emigration Museum: archiwumemigranta@muzeumemigracji.pl

The ‘Emigration – in and of itself’ campaign on the other hand is aimed at finding memorabilia that shows the personal side of the journeys millions of Poles took. Any memento, large or small wil be thoroughly examined by the museum’s research team, described, and incorporated into the collection of the Emigration Museum.

If you wish to take part in the building of this collection the museum will be delighted to accept any letters received from abroad, old postcards, family photos, diaries and documents, such as passports and tickets and any evidence of the wide range of activities Poles got up to abroad including those of course who went onto serve their homeland. Simple objects related to travel, such as old suitcases, are also of great value and if you wish to donate them to the collection with a brief description of their history the museum will try to make it part of history.
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