The Polish population in France and the Touraine (1800-2000)

Until August 28, 2011 at the National Museum of the History of Immigration, Paris is hosting an exhibition;  POLONIA: Poles in France since 1830.  It features materials from the archives of the Indre-et-Loire (the Touraine).

The aim of the Paris exhibition is to provide  a general overview and understanding of key migration from Poland to France over the last two centuries, from 1830 to 1980. Polish labour was used in a number of areas of France including: the coalfields of the Pas-de-Calais, Lorraine iron, Alsace potash as well as the agricultural departments in eastern and central France. The exhibition also traces the life-stories of famous and anonymous people in a number of spheres:, military; politicians;

Marie Curie

activists; the resistance; scientists; artists. Prominent members of the Polish community in France have included Frédéric Chopin and Marie Curie.

The exhibition traces the major phases of migration from Poland to France over two centuries starting from the period of Napoleon; who integrated Polish soldiers in his armies in 1807 and promoted the creation of a Duchy of Warsaw, on the territories taken from Prussia. While France has never been the only destination for Polish migrants, it was a popular and inspirational one  in the 19th Century because of its association with Enlightenment and Human Rights.

After the revolution in France in July 1830, the Russian Tsar, Nicholas I (1825-55), planned a military campaign against France and Belgium. This scheme involved the use of a Polish army to carry out his war, however most of the young officers in the Polish Army banded together and created the November Insurrection of November 29, 1830. Almost the entire army and the majority of Polish politicians joined in the insurrection. This, in turn, led to a war between Russia and Congress Poland which lasted from January to September 1831. When the Russian forces defeated the Poles, about 6,000 leaders of the rising were forced into exile most of them emigrating to France in what has become known in Poland as the Great Emigration.

The next ‘wave’ was during the inter-war period of the 1920s & 1930s. By the time of the census of 1931, the Poles are the second foreign nationality in France behind the Italians. Originally designed to be temporary, this inter-war immigration proved definitive for many Polish families who stayed and have now taken root in France. Compared to the north and east regions of France the Touraine did not attract as many Polish immigrants during this period but, in the 1930s, many young Polish women came as agricultural workers to the Region.

Anna Golumuch, as part of her academic research on the history and memory of immigration in France, has studied documents from the collections in the Touraine concerning the use of female agricultural labour including records from the “Committee for assistance and protection for immigrant women” (created December 28, 1928) which covered those women employed in agriculture. She has highlighted that, after the massive losses among male agricultural workers during the war of 1914-18  and the rural exodus of the 1920s, France had a real need immigrants to sustain its agricultural sector. As a matter of state policy France recruited labour from countries where there was pressure for emigration and one of these was Poland. The wages in the agricultural sector were extremely low, so it was decided to recruit women to carry out the work previously done by men but at an even lower ‘women’s rate’. The records and letters studied by Anna Golumuch make a very moving testimony of the plight of these Polish women faced; with many reports of physical violence, rape, unwanted pregnancies and disease.

During the Second World War Nazi occupation of France, a specific Polish Resistance group, Polska Organizacja Walki o Niepodleglosc – Organisation Polonaise de Lutte pour l’Indépendance (POWN), was created in 1941 by the Polish general consul in Paris, A. Kawalkowski (code name Justyn). This unit fought alongside the French Resistance. There were also other Polish Resistance movements in France, most notably former soldiers from the Jaroslaw Dabrowski Brigade who had fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. In 1941 Polish activists in Northern France also founded two resistance movements, Organisation S and Orzel Bialy (White Eagle). In 1944 Polish Committees for National Liberation (PKWN) were set up to support the Communist Polish army. There were clashes between POWN members, under direction of the London-based Polish government-in-exile, and the Communist units.
About one million people of Polish descent currently live in France. The population is concentrated in the Nord-Pas de Calais region, in Lille and the coal-mining basin around Lens and Valenciennes. But, as you walk around the villages and towns of the Touraine you will see the occasional Polish name above a shop or on a brass plate of an insurance agent, doctor, etc. Keep those eyes peeled!

  • To read of the Polish connection in beautiful village of Montresor in the Touraine click here
  • To view a video of the exhibition click here.
  • For short videos on the Polish Army in France, 1939, click here and  of Polish pilots in France, 1940, click here.
  • For a timeline of immigration to France click here.

Entrance fees for the Paris exhibition are not expencive: 5 € and 3.5 € (including entrance to the exhibition and to the permanent collection). On first Sunday of each month entry is free for all those aged below 26.

About Jim McNeill

I am a blogger on 'The Social History of the Touraine region of France (37)' and also 'The Colonial History of Pennsylvania and the life & Family of William Penn'. I am a Director of Fresh Ground Group Ltd.
This entry was posted in 19th Century Touraine, 20th Century, Agricultural labour, Polish population, Women's History, World War II and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Polish population in France and the Touraine (1800-2000)

  1. Pingback: Montrésor ~ sure, ‘tis a little bit of Poland in the Touraine | Social history in the Touraine ~ Central France

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