It is rarely mentioned but in the 2010 Smolensk plane accident, not one but two presidents of Poland died: Lech Kaczyński, who was holding the position at the time, and the former president-in-exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski. As the latter is of a great merit to the Polish nation, yet often omitted in the official celebrations of 10 April memorials, we would like to depict in brief his life and his legacy for the Polish community in exile – those who rejected the communist authorities. Throughout his life, Kaczorowski was an example of a patriotic attitude and significantly contributed to building national identity among the younger generations abroad.
Ryszard Kaczorowski was born in Białystok, eastern Poland, on 26 November 1919. He went to a commercial school, joined the Scouts and then worked for a wine merchant. When in 1939 Poland was divided and overrun as a result of Hitler and Stalin’s non-aggression pact, he was made second in command of a civil defence group organised by the Scouts.
Białystok was occupied by the Soviets, but Kaczorowski continued clandestine activities with the Scouts and was in contact with emerging resistance groups. His anti-Soviet activities were uncovered by the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, and on 10 May 1941 he was sentenced to death, later commuted to 10 years’ hard labour, starting at the Kolyma gulag in Siberia.
Released after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Kaczorowski enlisted in the pro-allied Polish forces under the command of General Władysław Anders. Allowed out of Russia, these troops came under overall British command and formed the greater part of Anders’s Second Polish Corps, which would distinguish itself in the Italian campaign.
The discovery by the Germans of thousands of executed Polish officers in Katyn in 1943 and the Polish government-in-exile’s request that the Red Cross investigate led to Stalin breaking relations with the Polish government in London.
In 1945 the west withdrew its recognition of the government-in-exile and supported the Soviet-imposed government in Warsaw instead, leading to a succession of authorities-in-exile.
The government-in-exile, was realistic. By the time of the Korean war (1950-53), it was clear that there would be no return to power. They would merely be a symbol of resistance to communist rule in Poland. The government continued on a shoestring, its ministers often holding down menial jobs. While Warsaw’s rulers vilified this government, British authorities shunned its presence.
Kaczorowski became closely involved with the many exiled institutions in Britain. He became chief scout of the emigre Polish Scouting Union – which nurtured the children and grandchildren of exiles – while working in an accounting firm. He had served as minister of home affairs before his short tenure as president-in-exile.
Uniquely among the exiled governments of the Second World War, the Polish version had a constitutional mechanism for a legitimate administration to be formed on foreign soil. When the existing government was interned in Romania after Poland was invaded by the Germans and the Russians in 1939, a substitute was formed in Paris. It soon moved to London, where it was a valued ally until the Attlee government stopped recognising it in favour of Soviet-dominated Warsaw.
The government-in-exile looked after the interests of the Polish diaspora and exasperated the authorities in what they often referred to as “the inhuman land”, who declared that those who worked against the “People’s” Poland were no longer welcome.
Their dogged opposition to the Soviet Union exasperated the Foreign Office by their refusal to countenance the western powers’ attempts to find an accommodation with the Soviet government .
Kaczorowski was also active in the Polish political circles and a member of the National Council of Poland, a parliament-in-exile. In 1986 he was appointed the Minister for Home Affairs within the Polish government in exile. As the April Constitution of Poland of 1935 (the legal basis for the government) allowed the president to appoint his successor “in case the seat is emptied before the peace is settled”, acting president in exile Kazimierz Sabbat named Kaczorowski as his successor in January 1988. Sabbat died suddenly on 19 July 1989 and Kaczorowski automatically became his successor.
The symbolical role of Ryszard Kaczorowski in 1990
When, in 1990, Lech Wałęsa was elected president of Poland, he chose to succeed not from Poland’s last communist leader, General Jaruzelski, but from the government-in-exile in London. On 22 December 1990, Kaczorowski returned to Poland for the first time in 50 years and, in Warsaw’s rebuilt Royal Castle, handed over his presidential insignia of office. With that, the government-in-exile had completed its task.
Kaczorowski after 1990
On 9 November 2004, Kaczorowski was appointed to the Order of St Michael and St George as an Honorary Knight Grand Cross by Queen Elizabeth II for “his exceptional contribution to the community of Polish emigrees and their descendants living in the UK”. He was also appointed to many orders, medals and honors in Poland (Krzyż Pamiątkowy Monte Cassino, Krzyż Więźnia Politycznego, Krzyż Franciszkański, Krzyżem Armii Krajowej, Medal Polonia Mater Nostra Est).
Ryszard Kaczorowski died at the age of 91, 10th April 2010 in a plane crash near Smoleńsk – on his way to the memorial of the victims of Katyń mass murder. He has been appointed to a freeman of multiple cities in Poland, his name can be seen on many streets, schools and squares. For those on emigration, especially the one living in the United Kingdom, he remains the symbol of the loyalty to the principles of democratic and free Poland.