The physical rebirth

Sport, sightseeing and healthcare organisations in service of independence

Alfred Hamburgiev, teacher of gymnasticsOriginal Source: National Library - Polona

Gymnastics, sightseeing, hygiene

Gymnastics as we know it has been developed in the 1850s. The turn of the XIXth and the XXth century witnessed a contention between the German and the Swedish systems. The former emphasized apparatus gymnastics, the latter preferred the simplicity of movement and drew from knowledge of physiology.

Despite hotly contested differences, the very existence of these systems contributed to a more general trend that encompassed discovering the value of nature, promotion of tourism and sightseeing, as well as teaching about hygiene. Grafted into Polish soil, re-examined by the nation without a state, these general ideas took in the local flavour, becoming means for expressing patriotism and laying foundations of the civil society. The experiences of the 2nd Polish Republic in that respect are indeed invaluable.

Collective performance of "Sokół" Gymnastic Society (1932-08)Original Source: National Digital Archive

The most popular sport

Before World War I gymnastics, presented during collective performances, constituted the mostpopular sport. The first official football match played by the Poles in 1894 during the 2nd rally of„Sokół” („Falcon” Polish Gymnastic Society), lasted only 6 minutes – after that time it has been cancelled to make room for a gymnastic show. Gymnastics were considered an egalitarian sport, as it did not assume any specialisation, but rather harmonious bodily development. Even the eccentric writer Witkacy (that is Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz) seemed to accepted it begrudgingly in his book„Narcotics”: „sport, under the condition of being kept in its proper place, as opposite to being expanded to a ridiculous size of some priesthood, could at least support the physical rebirth without destroying the higher interests of the young healthy people by its peculiar kind of stupification”.

The banner of "Sokół"Polish History Museum

"Falcon" Polish Gymnastic Society

"Falcon" Polish Gymnastic Society (Towarzystwo Gimnastyczne „Sokół”) – one of several Slavonic organisations of that kind – intended to work on the nation’s physical strength. The American career of the wrestler Stanisław Cyganiewicz proves their point rather convincingly.The man whose photograph opens this exhibition, a gymnastics teacher Alfred Hamburgiew,was a member of „Sokół”. So was Antoni Durski (1854–1908), whose textbooks created gymnastic terminology for Polish. Despite a few linguistic quirks, his detailed descriptions of exercises have a distinctly modern feel about them. The first Polish nest (a local branch) of„Sokół” has been created in Lviv in 1867. The movement flourished chiefly in the Austrian-controlled Galicia. In other parts of partitioned Poland its activities have been stifled at best,and often downright illegal.

Fifth Rally of Polish "Sokół" (1910) by Słuka, JanOriginal Source: National Library - Polona

Falcon or eagle?

The mission to make the Poles stronger, was in perfect harmony with the second goal of „Sokół” – that of catalysing and fuelling their patriotism. The very name and emblem of the society alluded to then-banned national symbol of Poland – the eagle.

This picture evaded the censorship in yet another way. The banner carried by a man in full „Sokół” uniform (feathered cap, red shirt and white trousers) folds in such a way that the emblem cannot be discerned. The viewer has to decide for himself – is it the falcon or the eagle.

A "Sokół" troop (1917)Original Source: National Library - Polona

The success story

During the World War I, most of the „Sokół” members enlisted in the Polish Legions, usually joining the 2nd Brigade. This may be seen as the intended result of their character formation. In the post-war reality „Sokół” changed its goals, concentrating on sports and training several accomplished athletes, such as long distance runner Józef Noji. Also the influence of „Sokół” upon Polish scouting should not be underestimated. The resolutions of the 1st Scout’s Rally (Lwów, 24-25 march 1912) stated that only cooperation with „Sokół” will allow the Polish scouting movement to retain its pure form. Even to this day, Polish scouts’ greetings sound exactly the same as in „Sokół”.

The Polish scouts reporting to Robert Baden-PowellOriginal Source: National Library - Polona


The scouts movement, lead by Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941) and Ernest Thompson Seton (1860-1946), intends to support physical, spiritual and mental development of young people, cooperating in small groups. It teaches responsibility, endurance and self-improvement, often in relation with wildlife and nature.

Assembly of Polish scoutsPolish History Museum

Harcerstwo (Polish scouting)

Polish „Harcerstwo” (its name being derived from „harcerz”, a Polish word for a warrior participating in pre-battle one-on-one skirmishes) is a part of the scouting movement. One of its founders, Andrzej Małkowski, translated Baden Powell’s seminal „Scouting for boys”… as a punishment for coming late to the meetings of a secret patriotic organisation. He also coined a witty phrase, explaining the peculiarity of the Polish form of the movement: „harcerstwo is scouting plus independence”.

Cover of a brochure "Scouts' Instructors Course" (1934)Original Source: National Library - Polona

A good scout, a good "harcerz"

The first Polish patrols and troops of scouts have been formed between 1910 and 1911. A year later a book by Eugeniusz Piasecki and Mieczysław Schreiber appeared, introducing the term „harcerstwo” for Polish scouting for the first time.

A good scout, a good "harcerz"

The authors explained: „this word is even closer to the core of the idea, its most beautiful facet being the knightly code of conduct, than the original name itself. Scouting is but a part of our exercise program – a very important part without a doubt, extremely interesting and educational, but not exactly worthy to be put before everything else just because it serves as a name of the movement”.

The 1st camp of Romuald Traugutt Warsaw Scout group “The Black One” – one of the oldest Polish Scout units, founded in 1911 (1917/1920)Original Source: Museum of Scouting, Warsaw

Towards unification

When Poland regained independence, Polish scouting had a couple of years’ worth of experience, accomplished leaders and glorious legacy, including defence of the city of Lwów during Polish-Ukrainian War (1918-1919). It was also internally divided. The divisions were caused by the administrative differences between the powers occupying Poland (not all of them considered Polish scouting to be legal). The political conflicts, chiefly between the supporters and the detractors of Józef Piłsudski, has also taken their toll.

A brochure of Polish Scouts’ Summit (1936)Original Source: National Library - Polona

Polish Scouting and Guiding Association

 In 1918, despite all the aforementioned differences, Polish scouting organisations united, creating The Polish Scouting and Guiding Association (Związek Harcerstwa Polskiego). Soon the alternatives to the mainstream scouting appeared: Free Scouting (1921-1924), pacifistic at heart and founded by the socialist Adam Ciołkosz, and Red Scouting (1926-1939) of Society of the Workers’ University.

Cover of a periodical „Youth Call” (1935)Original Source: National Library - Polona

Hashomer Hatzair

Since its inception, scouting has been trans-national, so the existence of scouting organisations for ethnic minorities is nothing out of ordinary. One of them was Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard), created in Lwów in 1913. Three years later it spread to Russian-controlled Kingdom of Poland.

Hashomer Hatzair wanted to mould its members into healthy and moral persons, thoroughly prepared to settle in Palestine. It also differed from most of the scouting organisations, omitting any mention of God or religion in their version of Scout Promise and stressing the need for learning Hebrew language. Janusz Korczak has been one of the founders of Hashomer Hatzair, and Mordechai Anielewicz, later the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was one of the commanders within the organisation

Betar’s training battalion (1934)Original Source: Wikimedia Commons


Opposing political views were represented by the right-wing Sionists from Betar, a Jewish scouting organisation named after Joseph Trumpeldor, founded in Riga in 1923 by Vladimir (Ze’ew) Jabotinsky. Betar openly strove to prepare its members to fight for Palestine, organising military training, sometimes supported by the Polish government. Betar intended to raise „new Jews”, whose identity would include striving for the independent state. In its peak, Polish Betar boasted 60 000 members – approximately half of its worldwide membership.

Cover of an English-language brochure about Polish YMCAOriginal Source: National Library - Polona

(Young Men’s Christian Association)

YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) entered Poland together with general Haller’s volunteer Blue Army, formed in France in 1917. The volunteers coming from the USA were often members of YMCA. That has been one of the reasons why YMCA in Poland closely collaborated with the military, helping the war victims. The Polish branch of YMCA became an independent organisation in 1922. YMCA’s sign is a red equilateral triangle, symbolising equal measure of physical, mental and spiritual development of the members. Since 1925, Polish YMCA run „Camp Beskid” in a mountain village of Mszana Dolna. YMCA run diverse sport and educational activities in its purpose-built buildings, which stand to this day in Warsaw, Kraków and Łódź.

A group of tourist next to the cabins of Polish Tatra Society mountain shelter (1899)Original Source: National Library - Polona

Regionalism and sightseeing

In the last quarter of the XIXth century and the first half of the XXth regionalism constituted an important part of Polish identity. Its meaning, however, changed over time. In the beginning it has been patriotism in disguise; in the interwar period the regionalists worked ina much more favourable context of re-established Polish state. It can be said that they shaped its borders too. The fact that Zakopane and a part of the Tatra mountains belong to Poland is a direct consequence of the interest in the mountains and in culture of their inhabitants.

Cover of Tadeusz Dybczyński’s book „A trip to Kazimierz and Puławy” (1926)Original Source: National Library - Polona

What every tourist ought to know

„All the tourists, especially the young tourists, should always remember to behave in such a way as toneither offend nor shock the [local] folk, but to set an example for them instead”. These are the teachings of Tadeusz Dybczyński – a patriotic traveller, geographer, geologist – in his „Świętokrzyskie Mountains Guide” published in 1912. The goals of this book were twofold. It taught the right attitude towards the people met while travelling and provided some instructions meant to prevent possible foolish behaviour. Thus Dybczyński warns against smoking cigarettes while spending a night in the barn and advises to keep all the personal belongings in a hat, so that they will not get lost in the hay.

Book cover design of „Świętokrzyskie Mountains” by Aleksander PatkowskiOriginal Source: National Library - Polona

Locality meets independence

Regionalist writings published before regaining independence did not mention Poland at all.They circumvented the censorship, declaring fascination with a region rather than love of the fatherland. In the restored Polish republic patriotism was expressed openly and in a planned manner. The difference between modest pre-1918 guides and illustrated, state-supported editions from the 1930s, such as „Świętokrzyskie Mountains” by Aleksander Patkowski, is very telling. The state support stemmed from the fact that regionalism has been considered beneficial for the development of Poland. It might be even viewed as an attempt at social engineering, because of its concentration on poorer and developing regions.

Polish Sightseeing Society badge by Włodzimierz MajdewiczOriginal Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sightseeing Society

Creation of the Polish Sightseeing Society has been an unusual occurrence. In 1906, amidst the revolutionary turmoil, the tsarist Russia’s institutions allowed to form a society whose very name contained the word „Polish”. Moreover, it mixed promotion of tourism and education with strong patriotic undertones. Among the members of the society were such figures as historian and ethnographer Zygmunt Gloger, writer Stefan Żeromski or Benedykt Dybowski, traveller and naturalist best known from a detailed study of Baikal lake.

Mariusz Zaruski (1934/1939)Original Source: National Digital Archive

Mariusz Zaruski

The man on this photograph said: „When I meet St Peter and he will ask how to introduce me, I will reply: I swung my hammer against the gates of captivity, I led Poles to the mountains and to the sea, so that they would become as hard as granite, and their souls – as deep and pure as the sea”. His name is Mariusz Zaruski. He was a deportee, a sailor, a poet, a student of Fine Arts Academy in Kraków, a mountaineer, a cavalryman, a scouting instructor, an author of sailing and skiing textbooks. In short – a man of active life, willing to divide its fruits with the society.

Tatra Volunteer Search and Rescue membersOriginal Source: National Library - Polona

skis carried me like crazy…

It is said that, already being an accomplished sailor, Zaruski decided to climb the slope of a Norwegian fjord. Later, when he moved to the mountain resort of Zakopane in order to help his ailing wife, he quickly became involved in the local tourism. His greatest mountaineering achievements came in winter, when he mixed climbing and skiing on dangerous routes. Here he recalls his winter route on skis to Kościelec in 1911: “The skis carried me like crazy, yet I still controlled them. After turning to the other side I was just about to swerve yet again, when one of my skis hit a clod of ice, and I descended into a rapid fall. Immediately, though, I started ice axe braking, holding the tool under my armpit”. Someone who has lived through such dangers, surely understood the importance of the mountain rescue.

Tatra Volunteer Search and Rescue members (1935)Original Source: National Digital Archive

Tatra Volunteer Search and Rescue

Tatra Volunteer Search and Rescue (Tatrzańskie Ochotnicze Pogotowie Ratunkowe, TOPR) has been created on the 29th of October 1909, soon after the untimely death of Mieczysław Karłowicz, a composer and an avid skier, killed by an avalanche. TOPR’s statute announced: „The society’s mission is to look for the lost tourist and to bring first aid to the injured in Tatra mountains”.

Initially there were less than 20 „full-time rescuers”, and by 1939 their number increased to around 50. The first head of TOPR was Mariusz Zaruski, who capitalised on his maritime experience, creating so-called „visual telegraph of Tatra Mountains” – a system of communicating with signal flags. Even the Germans during WWII acknowledged importance of the society, allowing it to work under the wartime name of „Freiwillige Tatra Bergwacht”.

A poster of a match for the championship of PolandOriginal Source: National Library - Polona

Lwów Sports Club

The children in Lvów used to sing a song about not being able to play football on the playing field belonging to the Pogoń Club – since by doing so, they would risk being expelled by Mr Kuchar. This is a testimony of treating sports more and more seriously. After all, the playing field ceased to operate on first come, first served basis, and club members gained priority. As for Ludwik Kuchar, he was the owner of several cinemas in Galicia, who sponsored Pogoń Lwów at the beginning of its existence. Later on, in the interwar Poland, this club enjoyed a string of successes, including four victories in the Polish football championships.

Preserved hearts, put on display in the Lwów Museum of Hygiene.Original Source: National Digital Archive

Athlete's heart

„Athlete’s heart. Weight 920 g. Sudden death” – says a label on a jar containing the exhibit from Hygiene Museum in Lwów, founded by the Polish Hygiene Society. Such objects were instrumental to fulfilling Society’s mission, which, according to its statute, consisted of „scientific investigation of health and spreading information about hygiene, as well as employment of practical means in order to reduce mortality and tendency to illness among the citizens of this country”. It all started in 1887, when an exhibition concerning hygiene has been organised in Warsaw. 11 years later, in March of 1898, Warsaw Hygiene Society has been created.

X-ray apparatus from the premises of Polish Hygiene Society in Przemyśl (1934)Original Source: National Library - Polona

X-ray apparatus

Polish Hygiene Society, which has become a nationwide institution in the independent Poland, since its inception used to create local branches. It raised the awareness of the hygiene among the poorer members of the society, showing them the exemplary models of huts, or founding a village bath in Cieleśnica. A series of photographs created for the Przemyśl branch of the society shows that it used modern equipment in its work.

Postcard of the Polish White CrossOriginal Source: National Library - Polona

White Cross

Polish White Cross is a prime example of adopting to circumstances. Founded in New York in 1918, at first it helped Polish soldiers fighting in the occupant’s armies. Regaining independence, creation of the Polish Red Cross and the outbreak of the Polish-Soviet war led to a shift in priorities – the organisation started to cater for the refugees from the East. Peace has brought yet another change, and Polish White Cross embarked on a mission of reducing illiteracy in the Polish army. Their booklet thus summarises the speech of field marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły: „the occupants left us with a difficult legacy, that is with the large number of the illiterates, not only unable to read and write, but also not having the faintest idea of Poland, of its life, its former glory, its needs and future goals”.

The finish line (1938-01)Original Source: National Digital Archive

What remains

Paradoxically, the rich and multifaceted legacy of Polish sport, tourist and healthcare organisations caused that today their ideas seem obvious to the point of transparency. Physical activity, tourism and sightseeing, appreciation of the local culture initiated by the regionalists, caring for one’s health – all these issues are routinely taken care of, and this can be seen as a progress compared to the period before regaining independence, or even to the 2nd Polish Republic. However, we ought to remember that we owe this progress to the work of organisations and people presented on this exhibition.

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.
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