Expatriate life through the lens of the Great Migration in 19th-Century Poland

25 June 2024

There is something natural, almost primal, in the longing for home, for the motherland, for what seems safe and known. While this motif is as old as ancient tales about Odysseus and his ten-year-long journey back to his beloved Ithaka, as a Pole, I cannot write about missing home without thinking about the romantic era in Poland.

In the late 1900s, Poland was torn by partition, continuous uprisings, and occupations. That forced many to expatriate and seek refuge abroad. During the Great Migration, a significant part of the Polish intelligentsia found its home in Paris, where, moved by tragic occurrences in the motherland, they found ways to honour their heritage and encourage those who remained in the country.1

One of those artists was Frédéric Chopin, a world-known composer who created some of his most famous compositions during emigration. Agitated over the cruel partition and uprisings, the musician created numerous artworks dedicated to encouraging hearts and expressing longing for the motherland. Some of his most popular compositions such as the Revolutionary Etude, when studied through the lens of historical context, resonate with emotions and pain over a lost country. Despite a willingness to return, Chopin never got to see Poland again. On his deathbed, he had only one last wish, which was to take his heart back to the country. This request was fulfilled by his sister who took his heart to Warsaw. 2

There is something utterly moving in the way Polish artists in Paris expressed their sadness over the partition, and many artworks from that period are now the most well-known Polish cultural heritage. The unsettling vision of dying far away from home seemed to be shared not only by Chopin but by many creating during that era. Juliusz Słowacki, a poet of the Romantic period, wrote:

[…] For I often pondered on the peoples’ graves,

For I hardly knew my family’s home,

For I was like a pilgrim, struggling on his way

By the lighting of the storm,

For I don’t know in which grave I’ll lay down,

My Lord, I feel down!

My white bones you will see

Which front columns won’t guard;

But I’m like a man who envies

Ashes of the graveyard…

So, because I’ll have an unsettled bed,

My Lord, I am sad, I’m dead! […] 3

Polish Romanticism remains characteristic of its patriotic sentiment motivated by numerous artists forced to settle abroad. Longing for home was also expressed by Adam Mickiewicz, the author of a few national epics. Forced to migrate, the writer moved to Paris where he created a series of sonnets inspired by his travels around Crimea and his strong feelings about the unstable situation in Poland. 4 Mickiewicz wrote:

In spring’s own country, where the gardens blow,

You faded, tender rose! For hours now past,

Like butterflies departing, on you’re cast

The worms of memories to work you woe.

Northward toward Poland stars in thousands glow:

Why in that region are such myriads massed?

Did your bright glance, before it died at last,

Light sparks along the path it loved to go?

O Polish maid! I die an exile too;

Let some kind hand throw on me friendly mold!

Here travellers gathering often talk of you

And I shall hear the speech I knew of old,

And he who sings your praise will also view

My grave near by, and I shall be consoled. 5

Longing for Poland seemed to be the main drive for many creators, not only artists. The first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize and teach at Sorbonne University, Maria Skłodowska-Curie discovered chemical elements and called one of them Polonium to honour her country. 6

Originally, I was not able to relate to most of those stories. While studying literature in my school years, I thought Romantic creators were simply too dramatic. Dreaming about travels and adventures, I could not wait to leave Poland and get to know life in other countries. That was until I fulfilled my initial hunger for excursions and after a year and a half of being stuck in the United States due to the world pandemic, I reluctantly recalled a particular story from the Polish Romantic era.

It was an artwork by another writer who was staying in Paris during the Great Migration. Henryk Sienkiewicz wrote then a short novel about an old man called The Lighthouse-Keeper. In this story, a seventy-year-old Skawiński who spent his life wandering on emigration receives an unexpected package with books in Polish. The description of this moment remained in my memory as particularly expressive and nostalgic. The light keeper drops to his knees. His face is covered in tears when he realises he has been gone from his motherland for forty years. The copy of a known novel in his hands becomes a sacred treasure. 7

While I have not dramatically cried on the beach missing home, I did find myself relating to the Romantic poets. Naturally, I did not escape war, but as a Romantic poet, I recalled little things with seemingly inadequate nostalgia. I missed the way the light fell on the walls in my grandmother’s kitchen when we used to have conversations over a cup of coffee. I missed the specific smell my home had during Christmas. I longed for much more and harder to describe than just people or places. As a book to Skawiński, to me, food from the Polish store in New York became precious. I treasured in my heart every short conversation I got to have in my native language. I searched for news and was incredibly frustrated when I could not participate in the national election. Never before had I realised that being at home is a privilege.

It took me years to look back at Polish Romantic literature and recognize longing as a universal and ubiquitous part of expatriate life. I started seeing homesickness as something greater. Perhaps too boldly, I would argue that it is that feeling that can determine who we are away from our countries. Missing home taught me who I am and where I belong.

Author

  • Aleksandra Stepska

    Aleksandra, a Media and Culture student at the University of Amsterdam, joined the Expatriate Archive Centre as a PR volunteer in Spring 2024. She combines her passion for digital media, journalism, and politics with her experience as a Pole living abroad to create a series of articles about expatriate life from a personal perspective.

    View all posts

References

  1. Rutkowski, Krzysztof. 2008. “Paryż / Paris.” Teksty Drugie 4: 169-176. Instytut Badań Literackich Polskiej Akademii Nauk. link
  2. Kubba, Adam K., and Madeleine Young. 1998. “The Long Suffering of Frederic Chopin.” Chest 113 (1): 210-216. link
  3. Słowacki, Juliusz. 1836. “Smutno Mi Boże.” Translated by Aleksandra Szymanska. Accessed May 14th, 2024. link
  4. Fagin, Helen N. 1977. “Adam Mickiewicz: Poland’s National Romantic Poet.” South Atlantic Bulletin 42 (4): 103-113. South Atlantic Modern Language Association. link
  5. Mickiewicz, Adam. 1917. “The Grave of Countess Potocka.” Translated by Edna W. Underwood. Accessed May 14th, 2024. link 
  6. Skwarzec, Bogdan. 2011. “Maria Skłodowska-Curie (1867–1934)—her life and discoveries.” Feature Article. Volume 400, pages 1547–1554. link
  7. Sienkiewicz, Henryk. 1882. “The Lighthouse Keeper.” Translated by Jeremiah Curtin. Accessed May 14th, 2024. link
magnifiercrossmenuchevron-uparrow-left