A Quaker’s Quest in Poland

Poland wouldn’t have been my first choice as a tourist destination. I had too many troubling memories going back to the Second World War. Newsreels of the Warsaw Ghetto and of the Warsaw Uprising are nightmares from my childhood. Visions of the naked bodies of the dead and ghastly faces of prisoners in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka that I saw in these films as a child continue to fill me with horror. And then a few years ago, I discovered the journals of Rebecca Sinclair Janney, a Quaker woman who had volunteered as a nurse in Poland at the end of the First World War. Her stories caught my imagination, and Poland began to take on a very different aspect in my mind’s eye.

I discovered the writing of Rebecca Janney Timbres Clark in 1999, soon after returning from Serbia and Kosovo, where I spent a year working with the Balkan Peace Teams. I started reading about other Quaker women who had lived and worked in war zones in Slavic countries. Eventually I found a book by Rebecca and Harry Timbres about their year as health workers in Soviet Russia in the 1930s. The book was called We Didn’t Ask Utopia, and it made such a powerful impression on me that I began researching Rebecca’s life story.

Rebecca’s diaries from her time in Poland after World War I describe a country struggling to recreate itself after more than a century of foreign occupation, followed by a brutal land war. In 1919, just months after the Armistice had been signed, a small band of 25 Quaker volunteers arrived in Zawiercie, a small city in southwest Poland. They came in answer to a cry for help from the newly formed Polish government. Typhus, a lice-born disease, was ravaging the war-weary and suffering people. The Quaker Mission’s first assignment was to organize a de-lousing campaign among the citizens of Zawiercie.

This was dirty and dangerous work. Within the first four months, two of this original group of volunteers had died of typhus and a third died of pneumonia. But despite the challenges, volunteers kept coming and the epidemic began to abate. By the time Rebecca arrived in Warsaw in the winter of 1921, the Quaker Mission had expanded, with several new sites and a variety of new projects. Rebecca was put to work on the Cottonseed Meal Project, a feeding program to supply milk to the thousands of orphans, including children whose parents went missing during the war. Quaker volunteers worked on land reclamation and housing reconstruction projects. They set up soup kitchens and clothing distribution centers. There were medical clinics, and several small cottage industries created to secure income for the thousands of returning refugees.

The world Rebecca described became real to me. I imagined the vast expanse of the Polish landscapes, the beauty of the spring, the bitter cold of winter, and the terrible poverty. I imagined Rebecca’s struggles with the language, her long and tiring train rides, the desperate circumstances of the returning refugees. Eventually I realized imagining wasn’t enough; I wanted to go to Poland. Perhaps I could identify a landscape, or locate a building that Rebecca had described. Maybe I could discover a document or find some institutional memory of the Quaker Mission. Would it be possible to reach back through the past? It had been almost 100 years.

In the fall of 2008 I set off, planning to follow in Rebecca’s footsteps, revisit the sites of the Quaker Mission, and discover some legacy of their work. My first stop in my search was Zawiercie, the city where the Quaker Mission had settled in 1919. I found a city that had fallen on hard times due to the closing of the textile mills. The mayor of Zawiercie, Pan Mazur, greeted me in his office in the town hall. In advance of my visit he had done some research, and he reported that there were no records of the Quaker Mission in the city archives. Neither he nor the local historian, who had written several books on the city’s history, knew anything about the Quakers. They suggested I visit the archives in Kielce and Katowice.

Although I was disappointed, I couldn’t change my plans. I was carefully budgeting both time and expenses and had already spent ten days in Krakow at a language school, hoping to strengthen my grasp of survival Polish. My friend Silke arrived in Krakow at the end of my language course, and on October 1 we set off for Lublin, the next stop on our journey.

Lublin was one of the main distribution centers of the Cottonseed Meal Project, and Rebecca visited the city several times. Her job was to identify the number of orphans and the available food supply in each orphanage. She then organized local women’s committees, using the information she had gathered to make decisions about where the milk would go once the farmers had delivered it to the distribution centers. I thought there might be some records of the Cottonseed Meal Project in the city archives, or possibly at the university.

Again I was disappointed. Father Wargacki, a Catholic priest in Lublin, who had done some preliminary investigation for me, reported that he could find nothing about the Quaker Mission, or the Cottonseed Meal Project. No historian in Lublin that he had contacted, and no one connected with the local Catholic university, knew anything.

Under the Communists, according to Father Wargacki, records of humanitarian assistance by foreign countries, especially the United States, would probably have been either destroyed or locked away. Furthermore, the 1920s were a sensitive period of Polish history. Relationships between the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Soviets, the White Russians, and the leaders of Western Europe were involved and complicated in the time between the wars. People still did not openly discuss the history of that period. Father Wargacki suggested I visit the archives in Chelm, a district seat farther east than Lublin. He thought documents pertaining to the Quaker sites in Werbkowice and Hrubieszow might be there.

These latter two small towns in eastern Poland were in an agricultural region known as the "Polish breadbasket." Much of the grain supply for Poland had been raised in this area before the war. The Quaker Mission came to the Hrubieszow district in 1920, in response to an appeal from Jan Kotnowicz, a refugee who had fled east during the war. Jan had returned to his ruined homeland in 1919, and his heartfelt letter to the Quakers still speaks of the tragic times:

Not only once did I hear from you . . . that the chief aim of your Mission was the reconstruction of the refugees in their own homes. If this is so, then I, in Christ’s name, pray you to report our hard and desperate condition to the Society of Friends. . . . Take you yourselves the trouble to intercede and place yourselves in our miserable places and render us any possible help in re-establishing our war-torn homes.

Your humble servant, former refugee, Johan Kotnowicz

(A. Ruth Fry, A Quaker Adventure, The Story of Nine Years of Reconstruction, London, 1926)

Once settled in the district, the Quakers provided the struggling peasants with seeds, plows, farm utensils, and horses to work the land. They hauled timber from the forests in the south to rebuild homes. They set up three medical clinics, soup kitchens, and clothing distribution centers. In the summer of 1920, just as crops were beginning to mature in the newly cultivated fields and gardens, Polish and Russian troops appeared, moving east toward Warsaw, trampling over farmlands, confiscating horses and domestic animals as well as food and supplies. This was an escalation of the continuing border wars between Poland and Russia in 1920. The Quakers were rumored to be pro-Russian, which undermined their work and eventually forced them to leave Hrubieszow and retreat to Warsaw where they awaited the outcome of the war.

When a peace treaty was signed later that fall, the Quakers returned to the Hrubieszow District. This time they settled in the village of Werbkowice. By the winter of 1921, farmland was being cultivated for the spring planting and work on construction projects was again underway. Harry Timbres, a conscientious objector and graduate of Haverford College, arrived in Werbkowice in the spring of 1921 as a volunteer. Having grown up on a farm in Canada, he was an asset to the team. Harry took an instant liking to Rebecca. It was in Werbkowice that Harry and Rebecca had their first date. They soon became "an item" in the Quaker Mission.

The director of the Chelm archives invited us into the reading rooms when we arrived. After explaining my purpose, and relating something about the Quaker Mission, I passed around photographs that I had brought from the American Friends Service Committee archives. The room was suddenly buzzing with comments. Evidently no one had seen photographs from this period. Barefoot children in rags, with big heads, wise eyes, and swollen stomachs stood in front of hovels dug out of the earth. Children stretched out their cups, bowls, pans, anything they had to hold the cocoa and soup that was being doled out by the Quaker volunteers. The archival staff was very much interested in my pictures, but they had no records of the Quaker Mission. Everything prior to the Second World War had been lost, destroyed, or sent to Lublin.

The next morning Silke and I were on our way to Hrubieszow. If I couldn’t find a document, at least I could walk on the land and experience the place where Harry and Rebecca had shared their first official date, and where the Quaker volunteers had helped so many people restart their lives. On the bus ride we started talking to a man who spoke German. I showed him an excerpt from a book about the Quaker Mission that described the villages, estates, and orphanages in the area. He was very much interested in my paper, although he knew no English. He showed the paper to the bus driver, who passed it back to a woman across the aisle. Endless loud conversations and questions ensued, which I could only partly understand, or attempt to answer. Everyone on the bus became involved. Many seemed to think I was either looking for relatives, or that my search had something to do with the Second World War, Germans, and Jews.

After a long consultation with the bus driver, the German-speaking man offered to take us to Werbkowice and to one of the orphanages named on the paper for only 50 zlotys, about $25. I said "No thank you." He insisted. The situation was getting uncomfortable when a young woman who spoke some English touched my arm. She said that a young man sitting next to her had called his father who offered to take us where we wanted to go. The father, she assured me, was an "honorable man."

After some consultation, Silke and I decided to accept this invitation. We thanked our German-speaking friend and got off the bus with Tomasz Novak, our new guide. There we stood in the pouring rain by the side of a narrow country road. I felt forlorn and foolish. Nothing but sodden fields and a few farm houses was anywhere in sight.

Tomasz just smiled and led us a few hundred meters down the road to his front gate. Behind the gate was a charming little house. Colorful zinnias and beautifully tended vegetables bordered the front walk. Chickens wandered through the yard, and a tiny white puppy sat shivering on the front steps. Tomasz’s mother greeted us at the door. She had prepared tea, which she served in the rustic but immaculate dining room. Pan Novak, the father, whose first name I didn’t catch, spoke not a word of English. But the younger brother, Mateusz, did, although he was very shy. After examining the paper I had shown on the bus, Mateusz said his father would like to drive us to Werbkowice.

We drove in silence down the narrow country road, looking out at fields stretching across the serene and muted countryside. Neatly cultivated and planted with winter crops, bright green shoots were just pushing up from the dark earth. Where the soil had been freshly plowed, it lay open, drinking the heavy rains of autumn. We crossed several small rivers and passed dark stands of trees. No towns or villages appeared until we reached Werbkowice, where we stopped in front of a small grocery store.

Invited inside by the clerk, we were shepherded into a back room where there was a table and some chairs. An old woman in a babushka appeared a few minutes later, a woman with few teeth and wrinkles so deep they hung off her face. She was the oldest person in the town, and Mateuz’s father thought she might remember something from the past. I brought out my pictures of the Quaker Mission. Again the little group was fascinated with these images from their past. The old woman thought she recognized one of the farm houses in the photograph. Mateusz tried his best to translate what she was saying, but she was confused and couldn’t remember much.

I thanked the old woman, and said I wanted to walk outside. Taking my umbrella, I started off, just wanting to be alone, knowing that Rebecca and Harry and the Quaker Mission had been in this village. Perhaps they had walked on this same road, and climbed this same hill. I felt a burst of happiness, remembering Rebecca’s account of her first date with Harry. It had been something of a disaster. They had been lost in the woods, and caught in a rain storm. Her new red blouse had been ruined by the time they found shelter in a peasant’s cottage. "Harry is a good sport," Rebecca had written at the end of that day.

Undeterred by the pouring rain, my wet shoes, and freezing hands, I was transported back in time. On March 24, 1922, Rebecca married Harry Timbres in Gdansk and again in Warsaw in the offices of the Quaker Mission. They dedicated the rest of their lives to public service.

I splashed back to the waiting car and was greeted with understanding smiles. We arrived at the bus station in Hrubieszow just as the last bus for Lublin was ready to depart. Mateusz and his father would accept no payment. They waited beside their car in the pouring rain to see us off safely.

On the bus back to Lublin, I was hungry, wet, and tired, but incredibly happy. For a moment I had experienced the reality of a vanished time. And I had received such unexpected kindness: a family who had offered hospitality, transportation and help with translation, a grocery clerk who provided shelter from the rain, an old woman whose memory didn’t reach back quite far enough. I felt renewed, enriched, transformed. There was nothing I could hold in my hands, no proof of what had happened during that wonderful day. And I realized that that was my lesson. Goodness, the authentic spirit of goodness is intangible, fleeting, ephemeral.

In Poland the evidence of war’s destruction is everywhere. Stories from the Holocaust continue to haunt the land. But I was comforted by a reality not found in the history books, the story of a small band of volunteers who came to Poland almost 100 years ago. Their efforts left no imprint, their achievements gained no recognition or reward. But I felt that I saw those volunteers when I walked the streets in Warsaw, or Lublin, Konstantin, or Gdansk. I still see them. Their goodness is worth remembering.

Lyndon S. Back

Lyndon S. Back is a member of Old Haverford Meeting in Havertown, Pa., and a member of Friends Historical Association. Her Pendle Hill Pamphlet Rebecca Janney Timbres Clark: Turned in the Hand of Godwas published in 2007. In 2008 she received grants from the Lyman Fund, the Pemberton Fund, and her monthly and quarterly meetings to spend a month in Poland, retracing the footsteps of Rebecca Janney Timbres Clark and visiting the sites of the Quaker Mission. This article is the story of her journey. Since her return from Poland, Lyn has continued to research the work of the Quaker Mission in Poland. She also teaches Oral Communication at Harcum College. When she is not preparing lesson plans or listening to student presentations, she is analyzing a collection of letters and reports recently uncovered in an archive in Warsaw, Poland. The documents date back to 1920 and 1921, when the Catholic Church raised serious allegations about the true purpose of the Quaker Mission in eastern Poland.