Poles in Latvia

Latvian Polish political poster from 1931

Latvian Polish political poster from 1931

On 1561-1562 the Livonian Confederation was forced to surrender to the kingdom of Poland-Lithuania. It was done to save themselves from even greater foe – Ivan IV the Terrible who invaded Livonia. The Livonian war ended with Polish victory. Poland-Lithuania acquired all territories of Latvia. The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was autonomous from Polish throne, however the Duchy of Pārdaugava which included Riga, Vidzeme and Latgalia was under the direct Polish rule. After loosing the war to Sweden in 1629, Poland lost both Riga and  Vidzeme, but kept Latgalia until 1772. Therefore Latgalia had the most sizable Polish national population. Most of them were nobles. However, on 19th century because of social economic reasons many Latvian peasants changed their nationality to Polish. Such phenomena even happened during the interwar period. The national census shows unnatural growth of the Polish minority in different places, that can be explained by nationality change. Many poor people still had no perception of their true nationality, many used Polish in work, family and church sermons. Not only Latvians, Belorussians and Gypsies claimed to be Polish. There were even records when a Polish priest registered Gypsies as Polish without telling them. Today there are many Latvians with Polish surnames, including Prime Minister of Latvia Valdis Dombrovskis (Dombrowski). Some Latvians got their Polish surnames because of the Polish landlords who gave them to his peasants, others had some connections with Polish people.

The Polish revival in Latgalia was obstructed by the Russian repressions against the Polish people. However, few notable intellectuals like historian Gustav Manteifel, scientist and revolutionary Boleslav Limanovsky came from Latgalia. Because of industrial revolution many Poles went to big cities to work in a factory. In 1897 in Riga there were 13415 Poles, in Liepaja 6015. In whole Latvian territory there were 65056 Poles. On 1878 the first Polish organization was made – the catholic charity society and in 1879 the Polish singing society “Aušra”. In the main higher education facility the Riga Polytechnic school two Polish fraternities were formed. First Polish theaters were organized. The revolution of 1905 was also very important for Poles. Just as Latvians they wanted more national freedom and was united in common cause against the Czarist regime. Polish society became more active – first national schools were made and Poles got elected in City Councils. For a long time Russia had imposed the ban on printing with Latin letters in Latgalia. That was damaging both for Poles and Latgalian Latvians. The ban was lifted on 1904 allowing the Poles to start their own press and literature.

The punishment chamber in Riga Polytechnic school (modern day University building) with Polish writings on them

The punishment chamber in Riga Polytechnic school (modern day University building) with Polish writings on the wall

The First World War made many Poles as refugees and they found themselves in Russia. Others joined the Latvian Rifleman battalions and fought the German invaders. However, after the war many came back home. Those who stayed in the Soviet Union became victims of the “Polish Action” on 1937. The new national governments of Latvia and Poland were united in their struggle against the Bolsheviks. The Polish victory over Soviet Russia in 1920 was a guarantee for the Latvian independence. Polish forces assisted the Latvian army in the battlefields of Latgalia and chased the Bolsheviks away. The large number of Poles fought in the ranks of the Latvian army. 9 of them received the highest military award the Order of Lachplesis. In the result of Polish-Soviet peace agreement which was signed in Riga, Latvia established a common border with Poland. It was however, no secret that Poland desired to annex whole Latgalia as their old territory. The “Greater Poland” dream never realized, but Poland still acquired the Vilnius region, Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine. That caused the resentment for Stalin, which was one of the reasons for the outbreak of WWII.

In 1920 there were 52244 Poles 3,4% of the population. In Riga there were 7935 Poles, in Liepaja 2904, Daugavpils 8178 and in other cities there were large Polish minorities. Most Poles lived in cities, others were farmers. Poles got a lesser hold on commerce and industry than Germans and Jews. At first only 57,7% Poles were literate, however in 1935 the numbers rose up to 82%. Poles were mostly farmers and factory workers. On 30ies because of shortage of agricultural workforce many Poles came to work in Latvia. Most of them went to work for few months and then returned. On September 1 1939 there were 26000 such people in Latvia. Many of them stayed there.

The state of Poland was very sensitive about the Polish minority in Latvia. There was many diplomatic quarrels between Poland and Latvia. Poland accused Latvians about Polish discrimination while Latvia feared that Poland may try to use the minority rights as a guise for their territorial claims. Polish deputies were represented at the Peoples Council 0n 1919-1920 and in the Saeima (Parliament) 1922-1934. There was a Polish fraction with one or two deputies. Germans, Jews and Russians had more parliament seats. Jaroslav Vilipshevsky was the first non-Latvian who was elected to the Latvian Land Bank board. Jan Vezhbicky was the assistant to the Minister of the Interior affairs in 1928. The main Polish party was the Polish Peoples Union. There was also a Polish section of Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party. The main national society was the Latvian Polish Union with almost thousand members. Poles were elected in the City Councils.

Polish printing press was active and many Polish newspapers came out. From 1922 to 1923 “Glos Polski” (The Voice of Poles), 1925-1928 “Tygodnig Polski” (The Polish Weekly Paper), 1928-1931 “Dzwon” (The Bell), 1931-1934 “Nasz Glos” (Our Voice) and on 1934-1940 “Nasze Zycie” (Our Live).

Polish schools just as other minority schools were autonomous. There was four Polish schools in Riga, three in Liepaja. In whole Latvia already on 1919 17 Polish schools were active. In 1931 there were now 45 Polish schools with 5274 pupils.  Until 1934 in the Ministry of Education a Board of Polish Education handled all affairs of Polish education. After the coup by Kārlis Ulmanis, all minority education boards were removed and replaced by the senior manager. The number of the Polish schools dropped to 16. Most Polish students went to study in Poland, because the entrance examinations in higher education facilities were taken in Latvian.

Poles had active community life. The national organizations like “Polish Union”, and many catholic charity organizations took care for less fortunate. Polish fraternities and academic organizations were active. On the Warsaw street at Daugavpils a “Polish House” was made for many Polish organizations. Polish youth took part in Scout units. Many famous Latvian sportsmen were Poles. Also there was many Polish academics and stage artists.

The Nazi and Soviet invasion of Poland was a deep blow for Latvian Poles. On September 17, when the Soviet Union invaded Poland the Latvian Polish Union made a declaration of unbroken ties with the whole Polish nation and promised to support Poland at all costs. Latvian government was unfriendly to Poland, by closing its embassy in Warsaw. No other Baltic State did that. 1500 soldiers of the Polish army entered Latvia together with 300-400 civil refugees. Polish national organizations did their best to help these people.

The interned Polish air force men in Latvia 1939

The interned Polish air force men in Latvia 1939

The Soviet Occupation of Latvia in 1940 was taken unfriendly by Poles. Soviet Union had helped to destroy the Polish state and was against any kinds of national activity. The Polish national organizations were closed. Many leading Polish persons were arrested and sent to Siberia. The Soviet secret police the NKVD discovered an underground Polish resistance group. Large numbers of Poles were sent to Siberia in June 14 1941.

After the Nazi invasion 38191 Poles were registered in Latvia by the Nazi authorities. This count was artificially downsized because many Poles, registered as Latvians, Belorussians and Ukrainians to escape the Nazi repressions. Some Poles openly resisted the Nazi occupation by joining the Soviet underground. The pro-soviet Polish Peoples Army (Armia Ludowa) was active in Latvia. Many Latvian Poles were mobilized in the Red Army. However, because of the Soviet terror some Poles welcomed the Nazi forces and took arms against the Soviets. At first German authorities refrained from mobilizing Poles in the Waffen SS Legion by sending them to work in Germany. However, many Poles were included in the German ranks because they were registered as Latvians or joined voluntarily. Latvian Poles also formed units loyal to the Polish Government in Exile. The “Armia Krajowa” had special intelligence units in Latvia. More than 150 Latvian Poles fought for the “Armia Krajowa”. Many of them were captured by the German secret police and executed.

After the second Soviet occupation of Latvia, Poles remained in strong numbers throughout the decades.  Poles formed 2,3% of the Latvian population at 1989. Some Poles arrived from Soviet annexed West Belorussia and West Ukraine. The Soviet Union rejected the Polish national education and forced Poles to go to Russian or Latvian schools. In result the major part of Poles became Russianized and forgot their native language. The same thing happened to the Jews, Belorussians and Ukrainians. Only 27% Latvian Poles knew Polish language.

Some Poles continued to resist the Soviet occupation and joined the partisan movement. Poles were the only national minority to do so. Together with Latvian partisans they unsuccessfully combated the NKVD. On March 25 1949 many Polish farmers were sent to Siberia.

The leader of the Polish National revival Ita Kozakevich

The leader of the Polish National revival Ita Kozakevich

Polish national activity was mainly suppressed by the Soviet regime. Polish intelligentsia made unofficial meetings and activities. The main point of unity was the Catholic church that made social services for Catholic Poles. At the beginning of the restoration of the independence Poles took an active role. First Polish national society “Promien” (Ray) was organized by Henrik Svirkovsky. In 1988 the Latvian Polish Cultural Society was founded by Ita Kozakevich in charge.  She however tragically died in Italy on 1990. She stays as legendary figure for Polish national struggle. Polish national Jānis Jurkāns became the first foreign minister in restored Latvia. Latvian Polish Society supported the Barricade movement. Many Poles took part in Latvian Peoples Front.

After the restoration of independence there was 38, 9 thousand Poles in Latvia. Latvian Polish Union is active and is lead by Rishard Stankevich. With difficulties Poles are trying to maintain their own national schools. Poland is giving them some support. Many Poles are taking part in politics and  culture. Ivars Bičkovičs is the chairman of the Latvian Supreme Court. Zbigņevs Stankevičs is the main archbishop of the Latvian Catholic church. Viktors Ščerbatihs was Olympic medalist in weightlifting. Many Latvians will find a Polish roots in their family trees. Latvia tries to make good relations with Poland. Poland exports many products to Latvia and Latvia in return. Polish and Latvian historians are seeking common understanding in WWII history since both countries had similar experience of Nazi and Soviet invasion. Last year the President of Poland Bronisław Komorowski visited the University of Latvia where the Riga Polytechnic school was located and opened the restored punishment chamber for unruly students. Since there were large numbers of Polish students, the infamous chamber had many writings in Polish. Together with the chamber a book about the Polish students in Czarist time Riga was opened.  Many famous Polish people including president Komorowski himself had ancestors studying in Riga. The connection between Poland and Latvia is many centuries old and unbroken.

Selected Sources:

Jēkabsons, Ēriks, (1996) Poļi Latvijā.  Rīga : Latvijas ZA Filozofijas un socioloģijas institūts.

Dribins, Leo (Ed.) (2007) Mazākumtautības Latvijā : vēsture un tagadne. Rīga : Latvijas Universitātes Filozofijas un socioloģijas institūts, 2007.

Janicki, Arkadiusz, Laszczkowski, Michal, Jēkabsons, Ēriks Polentechnikum. Inowroclaw : Ministerstwo Kultury i Dziedzictwa Narodowego.

Polacy na Łotwie : wybór dokumentów prawnych dotyczących mniejszości narodowych = Poļi Latvijā : tiesisko dokumentu izlase, kas skar nacionālās minoritātes. (2003) Warszawa : Stowarzyszenie “Wspólnota Polska”

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