Stamp of honour for institute

Stamp of honour for institute McGill University

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McGill Reporter
December 13, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 07
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 34: 2001-2002 > December 13, 2001 > Stamp of honour for institute

Stamp of honour for institute

From the outside, it's a pleasant looking, but fairly nondescript greystone, one of several similar buildings that slope down Peel Street between Dr. Penfield and Sherbrooke.

Inside, one finds cramped aisles and book shelves filled to bursting with the contents of one of the city's most unusual library collections.

Photo Print entitled "Heads" by Polish artist Stanislaw Chrostowski (1937)

"Really, it's two libraries," points out Dr. Hanna Pappius, director of the Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences. And she's right.

The institute's library collection includes items of academic interest to scholars pursuing research on Polish art, Polish history, Polish literature or Polish culture. Some 12,000 items are listed on the McGill libraries' MUSE system and are available to McGill students and professors.

The library is also a focal point for Montreal's Polish community, lending out the sorts of tomes that are less likely to interest an academic unless the scholar in question has a burning desire to experience John Grisham in Polish.

Pappius says the library is one of a kind in North America. While other universities such as Harvard and the University of Toronto boast impressive collections of Polish works, they exist as part of larger collections, not as stand-alone entities committed to reaching out to both academic and non-specialist audiences.

The Polish government has certainly taken note of the institute. A new series of stamps commemorating major Polish institutions in North America includes one that features a certain nondescript greystone on Peel Street.

The picture on the stamp was taken by Pappius's husband, Stan, a retired engineer turned photography enthusiast. The Pappiuses thought they were just supplying the Polish postal authorities with a rough image that could be turned into an artful illustration for the actual stamp. They were surprised when the photo itself became the image for the stamp. As a result, Stan Pappius is likely the only member of the Montreal Camera Club with a stamp to his credit.

Relations between the institute and the Polish government haven't always been so friendly. For much of its history, the institute was ignored by the communist governments that ruled Poland for decades. The institute's founder, Wanda Stachiewicz, who fled Nazi occupation, relied on a network of friends still in Poland to supply her with books for the library.

The communist regime wasn't likely to support the efforts of a Canadian-based library dedicated to Polish culture and scornful of totalitarian rule. Indeed, the institute's charter, established in 1943, committed it to "preserving the menaced tradition of Polish thought and learning."

So instead of shipping large quantities of books out of Poland all at once, Stachiewicz asked an assortment of friends and acquaintances to each send her a few books disguised as "gifts" from the old country, a technique designed to evade the notice of authorities.

Stachiewicz had another reason to try to fly beneath the communist regime's radar. She was using the Polish black market, where her Canadian dollars had more purchasing power, to translate bucks into books.

Photo A new Polish government stamp features the Polish Institute
PHOTO: credit

"It's absolutely fantastic how they accumulated books," says Pappius. Today, the institute acquires many of its new books as a result of annual "shopping" trips to Poland made by the institute's librarian, Stefan Wladysiuk.

The institute is also occasionally the beneficiary of collections assembled by Polish Montrealers who either pass away or run out of space for the items they've assembled. A striking cross hanging on a wall that contains the insignia of all the regiments of the Polish cavalry is one such gift. "A lot of Polish organizations envy us this," says Pappius.

The institute began as something of an offshoot of its older cousin, the Polish Institute of New York. That centre also served as a meeting ground for Polish scholars and was also attempting to preserve and promote Poland's cultural achievements.

A number of McGill academics, including Wilder Penfield, helped get the Montreal institute off the ground. McGill offered the institute quarters -- its first location was in Dawson Hall in a room located close to Principal Cyril James's own office. In 1964, the institute moved to its current location.

Over the years, the institute has organized a wide range of lectures, readings and exhibitions dealing with different aspects of Poland's history and cultural traditions.

Whenever prominent Polish personalities visit the city, chances are they'll make a stop at the institute. Visitors have included Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (better known these days as Pope John Paul II), Nobel laureate and poet Czeslaw Milosz, former national security advisor to U.S. president Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Jan Karski, a hero of the Polish underground during World War II and one of the first to warn U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt of the scope of the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Two years ago, the institute published a book through McGill-Queen's University Press that made extensive use of its unique collection of Polish art. Grafika Polska featured Polish prints from 1918 to 1939 and included powerfully evocative works by such artists as Mieczyslaw Jurgielewicz and Stanislaw Chrostowski.

"The book created a certain sensation in Poland," Pappius recounts. "It was very well received. The book dealt with the golden age of Polish graphic art and much of it hadn't been seen by many people before."

Wladysiuk is assisted during the institute's lending hours by a small group of dedicated volunteers. Pappius's own involvement with the institute is also as a volunteer -- she is better known on campus as a neurobiologist at the Montreal Neurological Institute.

"It used to be mostly older people we would see here," says Pappius, "but now we're also seeing second and third generation Poles, younger people who are interested in finding out about their roots."

Polish Montrealers, who supply the institute with much of its funding through their donations, often come by to scan major Polish publications that are airmailed to the institute free of charge.

Some of the older visitors or more recent arrivals from Poland often don't have the reading skills in English or French to fathom much of what's popular in North America. Which is why Wladysiuk ensures that there are always Polish-language versions of best sellers by John le Carré and others.

"They want to read the popular books that their neighbours are reading," posits Wladysiuk.

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