Rebirth of a mind

Cooperatist, religious and women’s organisations in service of independence

A festive march in Warsaw, commemorating Constitution of May the 3rd (1916-05-03)Original Source: National Library - Polona

A portent

It is May 1916, and the rebirth of the Polish state is two and a half year away. A street in Warsaw is filled with members of various cooperatives and societies. Their march, commemorating Constitution of 3 May 1791, proceeds in an orderly manner: there is a group of women in the first row, and the crowd tries not to occupy the nearby trolley track. The eagle, the emblem of the non-existent country, is carried before the very people who will create and organise the renewed Polish state. Our exhibition is meant to remind about their work and efforts that started long before this march has been organised.

Edward Abramowski by Głowacki, EdwardPolish History Museum

Creating democracy by the society itself

Polish cooperativism had sound philosophical basis in the works of Edward Abramowski (1868-1918). In his opinion, the cooperatives were to take over the functions of the state, causing its gradual disappearance. „Creating democracy by the society itself, creating its very core, its internal powers, is tantamount to healing of life and moral liberation of the people. Wherever self-help institutions and cooperatives, artels and trade unions develop, wherever local independent centres of culture and education appear, important changes in human habits and souls must come there – and they surely come”.

Fruits and Vegetables Cooperative of Podhale in Tymbark (1937)Original Source: National Digital Archive

What is cooperativism?

The first Polish Cooperatives Act from the 29th of October 1920 defined a cooperative as follows:„1. By a cooperative we understand the association of the unlimited number of persons, with variable capital and membership, whose aim is to increase the revenue […] of its members by running a business together. 2. While serving these economical tasks, a cooperative may also strive to raise the cultural level of its members”. The cooperatist movement intermingled economic and social goals, promoted mutual help and collective work, and provided a legal framework for them.

President Stanisław Wojciechowski (1924-10-29) by Witczak-Witaczyński, NarcyzOriginal Source: National Digital Archive

Stanisław Wojciechowski

Cooperativism often required a lot of monotonous, mundane work. During preparations to the first rally of The Cooperatist Society in 1908 statistical information about the economic condition of cooperatives were painstakingly collected. „We have sent a questionnaire with relevant questions to 670 societies, obtaining replies from 268 societies. [...] Basing on these data we inferred that 670 societies would have approximately 90 000 members, one million roubles of share capital and 10 million roubles of annual turnover, half of which consisted of sugar, flour and groats”. Years later, Stanisław Wojciechowski included all these data in his memoirs. Work in the cooperatives endowed him with the authority that helped him to be chosen the President of Poland.

Building of Stefczyk Credit Union in Ropienka (1933-08)Original Source: National Digital Archive

Stefczyk Credit Unions

Cooperativism was not only a lofty idea, but also an efficient way of solving economical and social problems. Stefczyk credit unions – rural financial cooperatives, modelled after Raiffeisen’s cooperative lending bank – constituted a fitting response to the question what can be achieved under the difficult conditions, even in the circumstances of proverbial „Galician poverty”. They have been created in 1890. In 1913 there were already 1397 Stefczyk credit unions in Galicia, with around 322 000 members. Their founder, Franciszek Stefczyk (1861–1924) was a teacher, an economist, a cooperatist, and a peasant movement activist. He strove to improve conditions in the Polish countryside and to replace usurious loans with easily available and cheap credit.

Illustration from the brochure „What can be done”,, 1934, Original Source: National Library - Polona
Show lessRead more

Apart from giving loans to its members, usually small farmers, Stefczyk credit unions launched educational action to promote saving. Above we show fragment of a brochure containing an educational story, in which an ill-timed purchase of shoes causes the debts to pile up, which results in the forced auctioning of the only cow.

Building of Warsaw Housing Cooperative next to Wilson PlazaOriginal Source: National Library - Polona

Warsaw Housing Cooperative

„Placing the cornerstone for the first flats of Warsaw Housing Cooperative ten years ago, we were fully aware that we were laying foundations for a new kind of housing.” – said TeodorToeplitz. The cooperative has been founded by philosopher Jan Hempel, anarchist Maria Orsetti, Stanisław Tołwiński, who came to be the president of Warsaw after World War II, prime minister of the Polish government in exile Tomasz Arciszewski, and the future leader of the communist Poland – Bolesław Bierut.

Exhibition "The smallest flat" (1930-03-01)Original Source: National Digital Archive

The smallest flat

The statute from the 24th of January 1922 defined the goals of Warsaw Housing Cooperative as „providing and renting cheap and healthy flats built by the means of communal self-help with support of state and city institutions, as well as satisfying cultural needs of the members through communal effort”. Housing was to be not a commodity, but mean to the end of fulfilling human needs.

Building flats exclusively for rent, Warsaw Housing Cooperative constituted an exception among pre-war housing cooperatives. In 1938 it owned 24 buildings, inhabited by approximately 5000 people.

Teodor Toeplitz on a family walk with his dogOriginal Source: Polona - National Library

Teodor Toeplitz (1875–1937)

Societies, trade organisations, cooperatives – they all needed people who were willing to act. One of them was Teodor Toeplitz (1875–1937), social activist and community worker. Born in a village of Szepetówka in Wołyń, he studied in Warsaw, Berlin and Antwerp. During his university years he started sympathising with the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). After coming back to Warsaw, he co-founded Warsaw Housing Cooperative, became the member of the City Council and organised The First Polish Housing Congress. He also helped to create institutions such as Association of Polish Cities, Polish Town Planners Society, or the Cooperatist Society „Houses of Glass”.

City of Stryj during the fair (1918)Original Source: Polona - National Library

Proswita, Masłosojuz, Centrobank

In the 2nd Polish Republic, all the ethnic minorities had the right to found grassroots organisations – and they used it to a good effect. In 1868 r. Lwów witnessed the creation of asocial and educational Ukrainian organisation Prosvita. Publishing books, creating a network of libraries and educating the teachers, it set out to form the Ukrainian national identity. However, even actions not directed towards these goals brought about excellent results. In 1908, in the city of Stryj, a former branch – Association of Ruthenian Dairy Partnerships – has split form Prosvita, forming the cooperative Masłosoyuz. In 1939 it included more than half of farms in the South-Eastern Poland, and exported its products even to Manchukuo (Japanese protectorate in Northeast China and Inner Mongolia). Other Ukrainian ventures included Centrosoyuz, Centrobank (a credit bank) Narodna Tarhowla (National Trade Organisation) and many cooperatives associated in two Ukrainian cooperative federations.

Voice of Orthodox Church (1938)Original Source: National Library - Polona

Orthodox Church organisations

Article 114 of the Constitution of the Republic of Poland from March 1921 stated: “The Roman Catholic religion, being the religion of the preponderant majority of the nation, occupies in the state the chief position among enfranchised religions". The next two articles differentiated between religions recognized and not recognized by the state. The Eastern Orthodox Church belonged to the latter group, but relations with it were especially difficult. The Eastern Orthodox Church in Poland strove for autocephaly, that is for independence from any other patriarchate. Eventually this status has been granted in 1924 by the patriarch of Constantinople. Yet even afterwards the opposition against this decision has been active. One example was Orthodox Belarusian Democratic Union, created in 1927, which voiced demands for preaching sermons in Belarusian and wanted to preserve ties with the Moscow Patriarchate.

Catholic Action rally (1936)Original Source: National Digital Archive

Catholic Action

„Catholic action” used to be a general term for the movement of lay Catholics. Since 1922, when pope Pius XI published the encyclical „Ubi arcano Dei”, it came to denote a single organisation. The encyclical portrayed it as a spiritual group exerting social influence, striving to defend faith and decency, but avoiding political issues.

The grassroots beginnings of Catholic Action were reflected in its complex internal structure. It is shown by the pamphlet published in the town of Sokołów in 1937: „Since two years the Catholic Action in our parish is organised into four main columns. Recently created Board of Parish Catholic Action is meant to coordinate and strengthen the endeavours of all the sub-organisations. The branches of Catholic Men Organisation and Catholic Women Organisation, both encompassing the entire parish, together count more than 200 members.

A poster of Agudat Yisrael, inviting to a talk (1922)Original Source: National Library - Polona

Agudat Yisrael

At the end of May 1912, during a conference in Katowice, Agudat Yisrael, the biggest conservative Jewish organisation, has been created. In the interwar period the Polish rabbis assumed the leading role in the organisation – to such an extent that the Head-Office of Religious Matters has been moved to Warsaw. Agudat Yisrael did not shy from entering politics, where it wanted the citizen’s laws to be abided, and tried to strengthen quahals (Jewish local communities). Some members of this organisation entered the Senate of the 2nd Polish Republic from the list of Nonpartisan Bloc for Cooperation with the Government (BBWR). At present, Agudat Yisrael is functioning in the USA and inIsrael.

Rally of Society of Jews-Fighters for Poland’s Independence (1933-06)Original Source: National Digital Archive

Society of Jews-Fighters for Poland’s Independence

Society of Jews-Fighters for Poland’s Independence was an association of Jewish soldiers who fought for Poland’s independence during World War I. It has been created in 1929 on the initiative of Walery Sławek, one of the closest collaborators of Marshall Józef Piłsudski.

In a pamphlet from 1934 „The Infinite Journey”, published in Białystok, members of this organisation wrote: „We are those who want to continue this tradition already under different conditions, in the Polish state that is reborn and gains strength. We are those whose attitude towards the state has been expressed in a sincere fulfilment of soldier’s duty”.

Cover of a brochure of Red Cross Automobilists’ Trade Union, Original Source: National Library - Polona
Show lessRead more

Trade unions and associations

The first trade union within former Polish borders was Union of Mutual Help of Christian Workers of Upper Silesia, created in Bytom in 1889. In the independent Poland trade unions grew rapidly – it is estimated that 1n 1920 there were approximately 2 000 of them. This fragmentation has been caused by political, religious and ethnic differences, as well as by purely local needs – hence the institutions such as Trade Union of the Railwaymen of Łuków Station, Christian Trade Union of Cabmen of Vilnius, or Red Cross Automobilists’ Trade Union. Therefore trade unions created larger umbrella organisations, such as Trade Unions’ Association or Polish Professional Union.

Members of the Polish Women's LeagueOriginal Source: National Library - Polona

theorise less, and work more

„Not being different from men in terms of their program, […] our women are usually distinct in their reactions and modes of action. Their active element takes precedence over the passive and meditative one: they theorise less, and work more, they decide quicker and not content themselves with «taking a stance» (which is the usual content of life in our political parties), but try to express their stance through action” – these are the words of Izabela Moszczeńska, one of the first Polish feminists, also known as the author of a book „What a mother should tell her daughter as she comes of age” (1904). Philosophy of Polish Women's League has been similar. The organisation wanted to remain apolitical, gathering the supporters of different parties. Suffice it to say that Moszczeńska published her articles both in the socialist newspapers and – later – in the nationalist ones.

Anonymous Voluntary Legion of Women soldier (1919) by W. D.Original Source: National Library - Polona

Polish Women's League

Few women fought for the independence of Poland like an anonymous female soldier from Voluntary Legion of Women, pictured above. They had been exceptions. More common approach has been represented by organisations that later formed Polish Women's League: War Emergency Service Women’s League, founded in 1913 in Warsaw by Izabela Moszczeńska and writer Maria Dąbrowska, or Galician and Silesian Women’s League, whose member has been Zofia Moraczewska. Both organisations supported military endeavours of the Polish Legions, caring both for soldiers and their families. At the same time the activists did not forget about the question of emancipation.

Women electioneering on a street in Warsaw (1927-05-22)Original Source: National Digital Archive

Women’s Congress (Zjazd Kobiet)

Activities of Polish feminist movement at the time of regaining independence culminated in Women’s Congress, organised in Warsaw in September of 1917. The representatives of 16 women’s organisations, embodying entire political spectrum – from nationalism to socialism, from Society of Catholic Maidservants to War Emergency Service Women’s League – created Central Political Committee for Women's Equal Rights.

This is how solicitation for women’s voting rights begun. At first, political parties were sceptical about this issue – but they found themselves unable to ignore women’s presence in public life. In effect Poland, as one of the first European states, gave women voting rights. It was done by the decree of the Chief of State on electoral system from the 28th of November 1918.

Opening of dayroom and kitchen of the Women Citizens’ Work Association in WarsawOriginal Source: National Digital Archive

The Women Citizens’ Work Association (Związek Pracy Obywatelskiej Kobiet)

If Polish Women’s League presented itself as an apolitical organisation, then Women Citizens’ Work Association, founded in 1928, has been openly connected with the political camp of Józef Piłsudski. An important figure within the association was Zofia Moraczewska (1873–1958), wife of prime minister Jędrzej Moraczewski and an MP herself. The Women Citizens’ Work Association, having a membership of several tens of thousands, supported presence of women in politics and in the public life. It also organised maternity homes and vocational courses.

A poster inviting to the meeting of National Women's Organization (1922)Original Source: NAtional Library - Polona

National Women's Organization

National Women's Organization defined its goals as „national and political awakening of the Polish women and incorporating masses into life of society”. It somehow connected striving for “full equality for women in law as well as in life” with the intention of „unifying all the national elements”.

Members of this organisation tried to reconcile the opposites – practical, everyday feminism and adherence to conservative ideology. Female MP Gabriela Balicka did not shy away from clashing with Roman Dmowski on the issue of women’s rights. Another interesting woman from National Women's Organization was Wanda Władysława Ładzina (1880-1966). At the moment of creating the organisation she already had an interesting life history, including studies at the Academy of Fine Arts and service as a nurse on the French front of World War I.

Caritas poster (1939-03)Original Source: National Digital Archive

Catholic philantropy

Catholic charity organisation Caritas also has a pre-war lineage. Nation-wide organisation of that name has been created in 1929; similar diocesan organisation from Poznań dates back to 1922. Its predecessor was in turn Polish Catholic Association of Philantropic Societies, founded in Poznań in 1907 by Rev. Piotr Wawrzyniak and Bishop Stanisław Adamski. Going even further back in time, we can find Association of Catholic Philantropic Societies and Institutions, founded in Lwów in 1895.

However, the most interesting issue is the existence of multiple organisations with very narrow, clearly defined goals, such as Society of Catholic Railway Station Guardianship (caring for young female travellers), Polish Society of Railwaymen Opposing Alcohol or Women’s Society of St. Vincent’s Society of Merciful Women.

Students of Gymnasium run by Polish Educational Society in Brzeziny (1929-10)Original Source: National Digital Archive

Polish Educational Society (Polska Macierz Szkolna)

History of Polish Educational Society (Polska Macierz Szkolna) has been turbulent. Founded in 1906 by the writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, national activist Antoni Ossuchowski and peasant activist Mieczysław Brzeziński, it has been de-legalised just a year later, and went underground till 1916. This organisation created and run educational institutions, ranging from nurseries to schools for teachers and people’s universities. After Poland regained independence, Polish Educational Society run several schools and about 800 libraries. It has also been the biggest Polish organisation in the Free City of Danzig and in Czechoslovakia.

Unemployed Youth Welfare AssociationOriginal Source: National Library - Polona

Unemployed Youth Welfare Association has been created by Ministry of Work and Social Welfare on the 17th of November 1933. Its main activity has been creating work teams and Work Centres. Unemployed youth, at the age that did not force it into compulsory education (which, at that time, lasted only for 7 years) lived there, working chiefly in land improvement and road building, and learning new skills.

The association did not refrain from running educational activities, and published its own newspaper. From the outset, it has been treated like an experiment. In 1936 it has been dissolved, and its work teams were transformed into Youth Labour Battalions, supervised by the military. During two years of its existence, the association gave work to about 28 000 volunteers.

A member of Maritime and Colonial League (1939)Original Source: National Digital Archive

Maritime and Colonial League has been created in 1930 out of former Maritime and River League. The organisation, in 1938 boasting a membership of about one million, expressed ambitions of creating Polish colonies. They were meant to support the economy of Poland, described by writer and journalist Melchior Wańkowicz as „a country without raw materials”.

There was an idea of making Liberia a Polish protectorate, using League of Nations to that end. However, even a modest goal of establishing trade relations by sending the ship „Poznań” failed because of insufficient interest in the goods provided (cement and chamber-pots). It resulted in a debt of 44 000 zlotys and suggestions of attempted coup in the foreign press. The only benefit from the League’s existence seems to be inciting the Polish interest in the navy.

Destroyed Warsaw Main Railway Station (1939-09)Polish History Museum


The strength of pre-war Polish civil society is best shown by the fact that various cooperatives involved one citizen in five. World War II not only prevented all these organisations from functioning, but also destroyed the very social tissue they had grown from. Wartime German law in the General Government (part of occupied Poland) forbade and dissolved all the Polish societies. The populace, decimated by Holocaust, purges and deportations, and finally thrown into the Soviet sphere of influence, had neither means nor instruments to organise itself on a pre-war scale. Even the institutions that managed to reactivate after the war, often were the shadows of their former selves. Therefore all the attempts to preserve the continuity are to be highly valued. A good example is Polish Consumer’s Co-operative „Społem”, existing since 1868, that made it through war and through multiple reorganisations in the Polish People's Republic.

A brooch of Polish Women's LeaguePolish History Museum


Typical fate of a pre-war Polish association tended to be dynamic expansion in the interwar period, forced dissolution during the World War II, attempt at reactivation in the 1940s, another dissolution by the government of Polish People’s Republic in 1947, and reactivation after 1989. Polish Women's League became a state-dependent organisation in the Polish People’s Republic, and re-emerged in 2001 as a voluntary association. Tatra Volunteer Search and Rescue re-established itself after forced coalescence with Mountain Volunteer Search and Rescue. The name of Polish Educational Society is still used by a few emigrant’s organisations. History and heritage of the Polish civil society remain relevant up to this day.

Credits: Story

Concept, Polish and English text: Paweł Kozioł

Reviews: Paweł Dunin-Wąsowicz, Łukasz Jasina

Exhibition uses some photographs from National Digital Archive (NAC)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps