100 years of Polish Gray Samaritans of YWCA
Updated: May 14
May 3, 2019. Poland Constitution Day we celebrated with a presentation on Polish Gray Samaritans of YWCA who brought very much needed relief to Poland devastated by World War One. Despite unusually heavy for Friday afternoon traffic, parking was a breeze.
After World War One American trained nurses including YWCA Gray Samaritans and Nurses from Polish White Cross arrived in Poland. While politicians argued about borders and treaties in Versailles and Washington in 1919, these women put their own lives on hold for as long as three years to move overseas and volunteer to help more than 1 million children in need, help soldiers recover from battle wounds, help their ancestral homeland get a fresh start. This was half a century before the Peace Corps, before Doctors without Borders. The Gray Samaritans were pioneers. And they served all without regard to faith or ethnic background or class.
Grey Samaritans of YWCA was a group of Polish American nurses that went to Poland in 1919 to help with medical and orphan health care under Herbert Hoover's American Relief Administration after World War One. About 300 Polish-born women answered the call of the YWCA-approved Laura de Gozdawa Turczynowicz project. YWCA trained about 200 of them. About 90 qualified for further instruction at the YWCA Polish Gray Samaritan School in New York. The instruction lasted 6 months. Gray Samaritans were trained in nursing, dietetics, and hospital building. The first group of 20 left for Poland in July 1919. Another group, of 10, arrived in January 1920. They served the needy regardless of religion, ethnicity, or social status. Gray Samaritans operated field kitchens, worked in refugee camps, often had to guard the supplies, and perform paramilitary functions.
Helena Paderewska (wife of famous pianist and future Polish Prime Minister Ignacy Paderewski) Henry Davison (Chairman of the War Council of the American Red Cross), Col. A.D. Le Pan, and representatives of the Polish community officially established Polish White Cross on January 14, 1918, another organization helping the post-war rebuilding effort. Paderewska became its first president. The organization started training nurses in New York under the direction of Professor Lapowski in June 1918. The instruction included lectures and hands-on experience in several New York hospitals. The nurses then served on battlefields of Europe and in a training camp in Canada. The organization provided equipment, medicine, clothing, and care packages. Helena Paderewska and her husband Ignacy Paderewski organized charity events, concerts, and sale of "Paderewska Dolls" to support the mission. The statutory activities of the Polish White Cross formally ended in the US 1919 and transferred to Poland where it operated till 1946.
The event was held at YWCA Minneapolis Downtown who provided us with the space for the meeting. Prior to this appearance we were able to obtain permission from Poland's Institute of Remembrance (IPN) to print four panels from the much larger exhibit "Fathers of Independence." It illustrates Poland's struggles for sovereignty of the early 1900s and provided a historical backdrop for the event. The exhibit is bilingual and available online
We heard a presentation by Mr. Mark Dillon who described the level of postwar devastation and famine in Central Europe. It is important to remember that Poland did not receive reparations after WWI as it did not exist as a country before WWI. The support from the American Relief Agency lead by Herbert Hoover, YWCA Gray Samaritans, Polish White Cross, and many private donors was vital for the survival of Poland's population. Mr. Dillon was able to connect several important historical figures related to Gray Samaritan's story, including Laura Blackwell de Turczynowicz, Helena Paderewski, General Paul Von Hindenburg (later second President of Weimar Republic who appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor) as well as describe similar efforts in neighboring countries.
Ms. Jill Johnson read a heart-wrenching excerpt from Countess Laura Blackwell de Turczynowicz's book describing her struggles during World War One and the ordeal of having her home seized by the German Army General who held her and her children hostage.
We also learned about Eleanor Wasielewski who was an alumna of Minnesota University (now University of Minnesota) and its faculty member. She, in fact, was the first Gray Samaritan recruit. Ms. Johnson helped us with in-depth research on the life of Ms. Wasielewski but was not able to identify live descendants.
The evening concluded with a small reception with snacks generously provided by Sikora's Market and Deli in Minneapolis.
There is a long history of Polish medical heritage in America built by many physicians, nurses, pharmacists in clinics, hospitals, and offices across the country. During World War I Polish White Cross and Polish, Gray Samaritans grew as an initiative of Poles living in America to support Polish soldiers and families fighting on both sides of the conflict as Poland was not yet independent.
Both organizations Polish Gray Samaritans and Polish White Cross-trained nurses but the nursing profession was vastly different then and in the past centuries, but it evolved into an esteemed profession. It may be worthwhile to mention its history briefly.
Until the mid-1800’s nursing care was provided by various religious orders, but Florence Nightingale was a beacon of change who promoted nursing as a profession. In 1844 she entered training at Deaconess Mutterhaus in Kaiserwerth, Germany run by a protestant order. She was their most famous student. She established a secular nursing school in London in 1860. She championed hand washing, good nutrition, sanitation, and statistical graphics. Many women, including Polish nurses that worked in Poland during World War One, trained in London.
The first nursing school on former Polish territory, established in Lwow in 1895, provided instruction to nuns. The first nursing book in Polish was published in 1911 in Krakow. That same year a nursing school was established in Krakow but ceased to function during the First World War. The first modern Nursing School in reborn Poland was established in 1921 in Warsaw with the help of Dorothea Hughes (an American nurse of Polish descent) and the International Red Cross.
We now cannot imagine the medical profession without the essential functions of nurses who are indispensable in medical care and make things go around in hospitals, clinics, and care facilities across the globe.
And here is a tribute by Adam Zukiewicz to all the nurses: