The Polish Research Centre in London – an Interview with Prof. Arkady Rzegocki

Arkady Rzegocki is a political scientist, assistant professor at the Jagiellonian University and head of the Polish Research Centr in London.

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How was the Jagiellonian University Polish Research Centre in London created? Where did the idea to open such an education institution come from?

London, or the so-called “golden triangle,” which it makes with Cambridge and Oxford, is one of the most important education and scientific centres in the world. Great Britain comes in second when internationalisation of studying is concerned, just behind the United States. Hence, prominent American universities have their branches in London or Cambridge.

Secondly, Polish people have been living in Great Britain constantly since 1940. Their presence here was so significant  – more than 200,000 Polish soldiers and their families – that there was a unique law concerning one minority, the Poles, adopted in 1947.

However, emigration from those times cannot be compared to the mass presence of Poles after our country joined the EU. At the moment, the number of Polish people living in Great Britain is highest in history. It is estimated at around 800,000 to 1 million and Polish has become the second most common language spoken in Great Britain. This emigration also requires more Polish institutions and their concentrated activity. Poland should become more evident in British minds and associated not only with Polish food, which is available everywhere, but also with Polish institutions, cities, culture and science. The Jagiellonian University can impress Poles living in Great Britain as well as British people not only with its past but also with its modern achievements.

Thirdly, we want to cooperate with distinguished emigration institutions and societies. We want to help them throw a bridge between the “old” and the “new” emigration and then between Poland and Great Britain. We started regular collaboration with the renowned Polish University Abroad in London, Ognisko Polskie, Polish Social and Cultural Association Ltd., Polish Catholic Mission and the Grabowski Foundation.

The Jagiellonian University Polish Research Centre in London is supported mainly by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which helps us carry out many important initiatives in Great Britain.


Do you involve British people in any events organised by the Jagiellonian University Polish Research Centre?

The idea is to reach British people through their Polish associates and Polish emigration. Many studies showed that people from Great Britain come to Poland mainly because they were invited or encouraged by their Polish friends. We would like the same thing to happen for various projects that the Jagiellonian University runs in London. It would be great if Poles were bringing their British friends to our events. With time we would also like to see more and more British but also people of other nationalities who live in Great Britain to study at the Jagiellonian University.


Are projects organised by the Jagiellonian University Polish Research Centre in London intended only to promote Polish science?

We would like the Jagiellonian University Polish Research Centre in London to become a showcase of Polish science in a very general sense – by promoting Polish language and our history but also through educational programmes. We build our presence in London step by step. At first, we only offered post-graduate studies in “Polish-British Strategic Partnership in the EU and NATO,” run jointly by the Faculty of International and Political Studies at the Jagiellonian University and the Polish University Abroad in London. Last year, thanks to the support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we could offer another post-graduate programme, “Teaching Polish as a Second Language with Elements of Polish Culture,” run by the Faculty of Polish Studies and the Polish University Abroad in London under the supervision of Professor Władysław Miodunka. Completing the studies means being able to teach Polish as a second language. It is a very demanding programme that involves modern teaching methods based on the rule that the teacher’s most important task is not to discourage students to study a given subject. Polish is said to be the most difficult language, which means a huge challenge both for Polish teachers and Polish parents living abroad.

Last year we also launched a doctoral seminar for students from different universities who would like to talk and share their opinions, meet with Polish academics or include Polish aspects in their doctoral theses.


Do British doctoral students also come to the Jagiellonian University Polish Research Centre in London and look for Poland-related ideas? What is most interesting for them?

As I’ve already mentioned, we are opening to the British circles step by step. The most important for us is Polish emigration – both the old and the new one. We want to become a link between these two generations. Our second goal is to make British people interested in our projects. Of course, they are most attracted by the events organised in English, which is why we organise Jagiellonian Lectures that are more and more popular. They are given by renowned academics, including Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice Chancellor of Cambridge, Charles Crowford, the ambassador of Great Britain in Poland, Witold Sobkow, the Polish ambassador in London, Przemysław Żurowski vel Grajewski, a distinguished geopolitician, Adam Zamoyski, a well-known historian, Professor Andrzej Jajszczyk, the head of the National Science Centre, and Dr Mikołaj Kunicki, the head of the new Faculty of Polish Studies at Oxford. We try to arrange such important events every few weeks. Lectures given by the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge are attended not only by members of the emigration but also by many academics. When Witold Sobkow was our guest, representatives of different embassies came to his lecture to listen to what the Polish ambassador had to say.

Moreover, we run Polish language course entitled “Living Workroom of Polish Culture.” We try to attract those who have Polish roots, those who know some Polish and would like to learn more and those who want to get to know Polish culture and customs.

We also organised two Summer Schools for people living in Great Britain. This year it was only intended for those who were born outside Poland. The school is open mainly to adults who work on their doctoral thesis or study. We want to nurture their fascination with Poland by showing them the country’s modern face. The participants of the School had an opportunity to visit Polish institutions, including various societies, the Parliament, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Jagiellonian University, charity organisations or think-tanks. They also had a chance to meet people whom they can stay in touch with.

This year our Summer School was attended by a great-great-grandson of Andrzej Małkowski – the founder of Polish Scouting, who is a scout himself as well as an outstanding young composer. We also hosted Katy Carr, who published a record entitled “Paszport,” inspired by Polish history. These two people organised Polish singing event in London to celebrate the Independence Day. The following day, Katy Carr was a guest of honour at a singing event in the Main Square in Kraków.


Who comes to the Jagiellonian University Polish Research Centre in London? How much are Polish people interested in its projects?

We manage to appeal both to the old and the new generation. It’s very important because Poles are split and distrustful towards one another. This results from the fact that the new emigration knows nothing about the old one and the history of Poles in Great Britain after 1940. Therefore, we want all our courses to incorporate some elements of Polish emigration history and for that reason we organise them in such historical buildings as Ognisko Polskie – the oldest Polish club, or at the General Sikorski Institute. It’s an incredible feeling to take part in lectures held in the room where one can see the famous Enigma machine or the standard that billowed in Monte Cassino. It turned out that only 2 out of 25 participants had been to these buildings before.

On top of that, we have prepared a Virtual Map of Polish London and 9 short videos with Kasia Madera, the best known Polish journalist in Great Britain, who hosts the news and very important interviews in BBC World. Kasia showed us around London and 9 places connected with Polish history. These are 2-3-minute films available online, which are presented both during courses in our Summer School as well as at some universities in Poland.

The third initiative we offered this year were lessons in the latest history of Poland for the Summer School. It turns out that today’s teenagers know almost nothing about what happened in Poland after 1945.


We know a lot about Polish activities in France, for example about the Kultura magazine. There were also many articles and books published about soldiers who emigrated to London. However, there is not much talking about writers and authors from the London emigration. Are you planning to do anything about it? Make them better known to Polish people?

Yes, indeed. Dr Paweł Chojnacki stressed many times that we don’t really know Polish London, meaning its literary and cultural aspects. We recognise the names of few people, such as Marian Hemar or Tymon Terlecki, but the majority of writers are still unknown to larger circles of Polish intellectuals. We try to change this.

First of all, we managed to organise a series of conferences entitled “Knights of Freedom.” The next one will take place on 30th November in London. It will be devoted to contemporary Polish academics in Great Britain, continuing the theme of the previous conference, which focused on Polish scholars and their achievements in the past. Materials from both conferences will be published as a book. Some of the texts are already available on our website. The Jagiellonian Club that we cooperate with dedicated the whole issue of its Pressje quarterly to Polish London.

Moreover, the Polish History Museum is preparing a large exhibition entitled “London – the capital of Poland” to be open in September or October 2014. The exhibition will be presented in Warsaw and then, hopefully, in London.

On the initiative of Dr Paweł Chojnacki, an exhibition devoted to Zygmunt Nowakowski, a very important but forgotten person, was organised in Kraków. There are many people like that in the history of Polish London. We will do our best to make them known to Polish people.

Thank you.


Photo © Michal Lepecki / Agencja Gazeta