Polish extent of assistance to needy victims of war

Poland’s history knows many examples of national ups and downs. And all this usually refers to the country, but what happens outside of it? After all, many Poles lived outside its ethnic and historical confines, but they did not cease to be part of this nation, playing their role in its historical destiny. Therefore, any historical study on the history of Poland should cover all areas and events associated with the representatives of this nation.
So let’s talk about the fate of the Poles, who fell into a rather difficult situation on the terrains of the Russian Empire, or rather, the Kharkiv province. Events cover years 1914-1916, that is, the most difficult times for ordinary people – war time.
The war caused great losses among the population of the province. Some of its inhabitants (which were mainly heads of the household) went to war, leaving their families in the city. Many of them died without seeing their homes again. And among those who were lucky enough to return, many people, as a result of injuries and wounds, got the terrible status of the “victim of war” and could no longer fulfill their “breadwinner” functions completely. The same category also includes orphans and those who have lost their homes or property as a result of hostilities. The Poles of the Kharkiv province also got massively into a plight and desperately sought a way out of this stranded situation.
The resolution of various problems related to the damage caused by the war was undertaken by the local authorities – the Kharkiv provincial secretariat (Kulikovsky Spusk 13). According to the example of other cities of the Russian Empire, it approved the foundation of the first institution for social assistance within the province – “The Society for the assistance to Poles who participate in the war and to the Polish victims affected by hostilities of war” (in Russian «Общество вспомоществования бедным семействам Поляков, участвующих в войнах и бедствующему польскому населению, пострадавшему от военных действий») at Goryainovsky Lane 13, now Kvitka-Osnovyanenko Street.
The study of archival materials allows us to treat this new organization as an independent one and at the same time entirely dependent on the higher authorities in Petrograd. But why was it so? Let’s consider below.
Creation of the Society was a complicated process; it had passed several stages. Finally, this organization was approved by the Kharkiv governor on the basis of the official letter and a screening of the members of the Society at the highest level (it is about verifying the kind of their activities in the past, reasons for moving from one part of the city to another, etc.). The controlling duty was imposed by the secretariat on the local police and during the month it was checking the reliability of the information about the members of the Steering Committee of the Society, which due to the plan had to consist of 7-27 members. As each Committee member had access to finances, some additional controls were also applied to them. In particular, an analysis of the application request of the member of the Committee of the Society, Jozef Karenitsky (no number and date of the document is given), and the application request of Olena Dolzhanchik (No. 13442, addressed to the police officer of the 3rd police station of Kharkiv on the 9th of September, 1915) makes it possible to state that the members of this organization were obliged to inform police about changing the place of residence within the city or in case of their absence for more than two days, even when it was necessary to go to a dacha or relatives. These application requests were sent exclusively to the supervisory authority, which in the early stages of the Society consisted of members of the Committee and had to report directly to the provincial secretariat after each meeting of the committee.
Thus, we can conclude that the Society was fully controlled, but nevertheless its status cannot be interpreted so unambiguously.
Being essentially a social institution, the Society had its own charter, which outlined an action plan to assist vulnerable groups of the Polish population of the city. This charter had to be approved by the chairman of the Petrograd secretariat personally, upon condition that the original articles developed by the members of the Committee are provided. This simple, as if at first glance, document concealed some interesting details.
On the basis of §19 of the charter, every agent division of the Society did not have the status of a legal entity, and therefore on a formal level it remained a branch of the Petrograd secretariat. It was under the control of a supervisory body that consisted of 3-7 members and of a chief of a document control Nesmelov personally. But at the same time, each representation (in accordance with paragraph 1.1 of §19 of the Charter of the Society) had the right to acquire the status of a legal entity. To do this, it was necessary for a representative of the local steering committee to register the place of his activity directly at the Brigadier General Prince Obolensky. In addition, (in accordance with §18 of the charter of the Society) its terms and conditions could be amended at the first meeting of the Committee with 2/3 of its members. In this case, the agent division received broad autonomy, could choose at its discretion a committee of not less than 3 members, approve its own budget and establish contacts with other charitable organizations in the country. For example, the Union of Cities was engaged in the matter of refugee and that is why, taking into consideration the appointment of Kharkiv as an evacuation point, it worked closely with the Society.
The emerging of such a tandem of organizations led to the creation of more and more unions in the province and beyond it. According to the draft of the charter dated the 24th of June, 1915, an agent division could be opened in any locality, provided that there are at least 10 beneficiaries in its territory. The Society also collaborated with various philanthropic foundations. In this regard, we can mention the interaction with the Committee of Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna, as well as the first joint program of activities with other similar organizations. The purpose of this step was to divide activities by months for reasons of economy and to help as many Poles as possible who suffered from the war.
Interestingly, the Society was heterogeneous in the social and national context. The initial staff of Committee was as follows: Ivan Wilga, Maria Wilga, Jozef Karenitsky, Zenon Shavinsky, Stanislav Vershilo, Jozef Dvorzhanchik, Olena Dvorzhanchik. In other words, the minimum number of persons necessary for its validation was included in the administrative body (according to the request of the Kharkiv secretariat No. 1088 dated January 1, 1915). In the future, however, the Society developed and spread its activities, involving other charitable organizations in cooperation. For example, at the first meeting of the Committee, it was decided that all commissions of the Society should have representatives of other charitable organizations. In particular, Committee formally included two members of the Union of Cities that dealt with refugees and two members of the Committee of Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna (according to the protocol of the first meeting of the Committee of the Society dated July 23, 1915).
That is, the Society developed and changed itself in accordance with the necessities of the times, being constantly enriched by new members and spheres of activity. At the same time, it continued to be a purely charitable organization designed to provide assistance to representatives of the Polish minority who suffered losses during the war. This is a unique and interesting example of the transformation and interaction of various charitable organizations across the country and at the local level, reflecting the multi-ethnic mosaic of the Russian Empire (including Kharkiv) during the First World War.


Source of information:

1. ДАХО – Ф. 29. – Оп. 1. – Спр. 667.

Prepared by Maxim Agarkov