The Sokols Project Part II: SPUR student Aleksandra Czarnik reflects

Over the summer, I completed work on a certain gymnastics association in Poland as part of the SPUR research programme under the guidance of Dr. Newman and Kamil Goworek, the other student taking part in this SPUR project. The project included looking at the Sokol organisation, which is a gymnastics association in Poland focused on fostering national patriotism. The focus of the organisation has shifted over time, and in the interwar period, it had focused largely on fostering patriotism in the Polish youth, as well as serving as a beacon of hope for the post annex population of Poland.


Handwritten speech for a Sokol gathering, Silesian library, Katowice

        I began the project in early July, deciding it would be best to do so as the library would close before I would have a chance to look through their archives. I arrived in Cracow airport on the evening of the 14th of July. I began work the same week. The first task that I would have to do is find out what is it that I’m specifically looking for, and where to find it. Initially, it seemed quite obvious that the what I needed was in the library of the history department of the Jagellonian University and the Sokol organisation themselves. I began writing e-mails to try to get in touch with anyone who could know more. I even got in contact with the Polish Sokol branch in Lviv – the first to have existed. These e-mails were unanswered, aside from the Lviv branch, which had told me that most of their documents were lost or destroyed, and that I was free to visit but they were unsure if I would find anything. I had decided against the trip to Lviv.

Initially, I visited the history department and met with a certain professor, who is a lecturer at the Jagellonian library, after finding an article in which he was interviewed about the goals of Sokol. I discussed the project with him, and he listened and nodded, and after a few seconds, had informed he that he would be unable to fully assist me – but ­he had a PhD student I could contact – whom I did, and who replied recently, sending me many more calendars and almanacs published by the Sokols in the interwar period. He also informed that I should go to the Jagellonian library, and look through the archives and databases. I thanked him very much and left.

            In the meantime, I had been in contact with the Sokol organisation in Cracow. I had decided to go in as I found my e-mails unanswered. I discussed the project with the secretary, who was to show me the archive room and help me look through them. The building was being renovated at the time, and we climbed the stone steps, stepping over cables and wires strewn across. While in the room itself, we began looking through the documents. I had already collected all of the magazines, and had translated quite a few of them. I did, however, find a number of books, which I meticulously photographed so I could arrange them into pdfs later on, and could trace the sources listed in their biographies.

During the project my assumptions about the Sokols were changed. I realized that the organisation was very conscious of politics and daily life of the Poles at the time. They reflected the distrust and fear the general population had towards its neighbours, but reflected hope and friendship with other organisations. The articles revealed how many were immigrating to the States and opening their own Sokol branches, in order to connect to their homeland and culture. I found out how the society is surprisingly feminist, opening up their own all-female departments, calling them to learn how to defend their nation.

Przewodnik Gimnastyczny Sokol nr. 18 – 1926 – Female Sokols

While the organisation was nationalistic, it was not self-righteous or niche. The organisation did what it could to foster a sense of belonging, and involved itself in the health of its members by teaching exercise. The organisation also was one of the few in Poland which was allowed by the Minister of Military Affairs to do military preparation courses. The organisation was a member of an Pan-Slavic Sokol group, aimed at uniting the Slavic peoples, and was even, in one instance, financially supported by the Polish military. The goals of the project had been met, but during the course of it, I had uncovered so much more, and realized that the organisation had much more depth to it than previously thought. 

I finished my work feeling that it had been a success. The SPUR project gave me an opportunity to find out much more about Polish history, allowing me an insight into the lives of the everyday person during the 1920s and 1930s. The project was a wonderful experience, and I’m very grateful for being able to have taken part in it.

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