Inspiration of an artist, resourcefulness of a merchant. Mieczysław Jałowiecki’s unknown mission

The most fascinating chapters of his memoirs are written like a thriller

Mieczysław Jałowiecki, landowner, farmer, diplomat, who bought the Westerplatte Peninsula for Poland was buried in the Avenue of the Distinguished of the Gdańsk Srebrzysko Cemetery on December 5, 2022.

“The beautiful, fertile Zborów estate was owned by Józef Garczyński. He was a broad-shouldered, red-faced muscleman, the favorite of his mother who would boast about her Józek having been drinking, as a child, 8 liters of milk a day… – writes Mieczysław Jałowiecki, a Polish aristocrat, diplomat, first representative of independent Poland in the Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk) and an emigration activist, in his memoires from the interwar period.

“Hence the favorite of her mother grew up to be something which resembled a well-fattened stud bull and apparently the whole effort was consumed by the body… Despite his enormous strength our Józef was a coward to an extent unknown among our gentry. When the Polish-Soviet war broke out and all the gentry youth got on the horse and went to the battlefield, Mr Józef produced a certificate from a local midwife with the powers of a paramedic stating that the heir of Zborów was unfit for the army. This caused wide-spread indignation and Mr Józef was expelled from the Landowners Association and condemned to a social boycott”.

The ideal of rural life

That’s how the gentry of the Second Polish Republic treated cowards and procrastinators in their milieu. Elsewhere, the author mentions a crackdown on a communist agitator making a display of his arrogance and depraving the villagers, whose son bullied his school mates (in the community where the Jałowiecki’s estate was located) just as he insulted the teacher with impunity. Aware of his duties to the local community, Mieczysław Jałowiecki, having summoned the agitator to the school, gave him a sharp reprimand.

Already the first words of the owner of Kamień did not promise that it would be a nice chat, much less a conversation of equal partners or equality debate. “My Neighbor” – I said, controlling myself with difficulty, “perhaps you would take you hat off. After all, there is a school here and you can see the cross is hanging on the wall. It is not even very proper for the host to behave like a pagan…”. When persuasion failed and the agitator tried to respond back, direct measures had to be used. Jałowiecki was tough on him. But it worked. The troublemaker disappeared from the horizon. Order in the school, and peace in the village were restored.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Communist propaganda was hostile towards Polish gentry, their culture and the attitude they represented. For the communists, the landowner was enemy number one because he personified respect for private property, patriotism and faith. And also respect for the priesthood, education, higher culture of behavior, social refinement. A way of being as far away from the nouveau riche culture as possible. Finally – the attitude towards Poland and the local community, which is best described by the word “civic”.

Landowners weren’t theoreticians. Dealing most often with cultivation and breeding, studying agricultural sciences in depth – often abroad – practicing in large estates, thoroughly learning the hard rules of life, they developed skepticism towards everything that was too sophisticated.Towards what deceives with shallow attractiveness and apparent depth. That is why the most meritorious representatives of the landowners in Poland were so immune to temptations related to any ideology. And they preferred the ideal of a healthy rural life to the urban “vanity fair”.

Uncle’s warning

For all those who understand the uniqueness of the ethos of the Polish landed gentry, the biography of Mieczysław Jałowiecki (1867-1962) appears as the result of choices against which there was no appeal – for a descendant of a historic family. He was a son to a Polish family settled in Lithuania, whose roots on his father Bolesław Pierejesławski-Jałowiecki’s side reach as far as the Rurik dynasty, while his the mother Aniela née Witkiewicz (Stanisław Witkiewicz’s sister) came from an old Scottish family. “Our family were Rurikids and that meant a lot in Russia. However, we felt Polish, and that was very troublesome in Russia” – Jałowiecki kept saying.
Mieczysław Jałowiecki, portret z pozdrowieniami dla siostrzenicy. Fot. Wikimedia/ Natalia Pochroń - https://muzhp.pl/pl/c/2567/mieczyslaw-jalowiecki-zapomniany-bohater-walk-o-polski-gdansk, CC BY-SA 4.0
He studied agriculture at the Riga University of Technology and received his PhD in Halle, Germany. He had worked in the civil service for many years, gained his skills in high official and diplomatic positions in St. Petersburg. After Poland regained independence, thanks to the exceptional trust of the authorities of the reborn Republic of Poland, he became a government plenipotentiary with the rank of minister in the Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk).

How dangerous, even reckless, and at the same time crucial for Poland this mission was, is evidenced by the warning of Józef Piłsudski, the Chief of State (and his uncle): “You will not please us, you will get a bullet in the head from us, you will not please the Germans, you will get a bullet from them. Try to avoid both. These are my instructions”. Thanks to his dexterity, presence of mind and courage, Jałowiecki managed to fulfill this extremely difficult mission. He had only two collaborators, Poles.

The war-weary country, struggling with hunger, was reached, among others, by 55 thousand wagons of food from the US, not to mention medicine and weapons. He managed to avoid death by defending the first of these transports with a pistol in his hand. Investing his own money, he bought the strategically important Westerplatte peninsula for Poland.

The art of growing barley

This man of the world in the full sense of the word, who had never been a cosmopolitan, a man of broad horizons, great culture, statesman, and insightful expert on politics as an art, found the true source of happiness, meaning of life and satisfaction in cultivating and caring for the earth. He did it with great dash, passion and love – first as a young man in the family estates of Syłgudyszki and Otulany in Lithuania, then in the Kamień estate in the region of Kalisz, which he took over after marrying its heiress, Zofia née Ramocka.

“Agriculture has never been and will never be a craft in the strict sense of the word” – noted Mieczysław Jałowiecki – “and in order to be a farmer, one must combine the inspiration of an artist and the resourcefulness of a merchant”. These notes are a kind of chronicle of political events. They are full of picturesque descriptions of interwar social relations, graceful, but not devoid of a certain sarcasm, anecdotes – Jałowiecki was a witty man and his tongue was sharp – portraits of the main personalities of that time. However, The most fascinating chapters of his memoirs, built like a thriller novel are devoted to the sugar beet farming, the harvest of rape, barley and rye.

This is how the author writes about the art of malting barley cultivation:

Unlike rape, barley should be harvested when fully ripe. The grain must be firm, in what the Germans call “Todtreif” condition, and the weather at harvest time is of the utmost importance. Cut barley should not lie in swaths on the ground even for a moment, because ripe grain, even in contact with dry ground, will immediately get damp.

Barley should be stacked or barned “dry” after a few sunny days, when the straw has dried, and the carting should start around noon to avoid dew. You have to thresh very carefully, on a “loose drum”, so as not to strain the grain, because crushed grain is no longer suitable for malting.

A merchant appears. He examines barley prepared and purified like gold in the granary. Now comes the test of nerves. The merchant has a Dutch scale to determine the weight of the grain, and I also have one so that in the presence of the merchant, who has no scruples, I can check out whether he hasn’t played any trick on me. Then the merchant takes out a machne with which he halves the test grains.

Finally, it’s time to strike the deal. The merchant, however, picks up a pile of barley and begins to smell it. – Excuse me, sir, but this barley has a bit of “must” - which is supposed to mean “mustiness”. It’s you having a “must” in your head – I say already annoyed. – Wipe your nose well and smell it again (…)”.

Today, the agricultural craft has been called production and stripped of all beauty and sublimity, including elements of the male struggle against nature’s adversities, but also stripped of the fight against the then perfidy of banks. It became monotonous drudgery for the most part, nothing like this exciting highest-stakes game.

I go hunting to obtain healthy, fresh meat

I shoot so as to kill the animal, explains the hunter with 30 years of experience.

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Such love for the land, where affection, devotion – even sacrifice – and industry were combined with understanding of the laws of nature, with the ability to use modern technology, and finally with business talents and imagination, was something that, from the communists’ point of view, had to be destroyed to the last. So that the stratum of people working in this way on the earth – and with the earth – could never be recreated.

They watched over social order

The influence of the landed gentry on the entire social life of the country, the readiness of the people of this sphere to render service to the community, practical sense, common sense, and a fundamental contribution to the Polish economy couldn’t be approved of by ideologues, even those of national origin, which the author mentions with some bitterness. Hence, among other things, the ordinance that, after the last war, the landowners, robbed of their property, thrown out of their homes, spit on and ridiculed by propaganda, called enemies of the people, could not even settle in the counties where their possessions were located.

Mieczysław Jałowiecki, describing the life of the Polish landed gentry at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries and in the interwar period, devotes a lot of space to the specific occupation of landowners, and most often also to their great passion, which was hunting. It was treated half as a duty towards nature, calculated to strengthen the animal population and to protect it against diseases, eliminate the weaker individuals, half as a noble occupation in the field of court life culture, along with a carefully cultivated social ritual and the whole atmosphere of male adventure permanently embedded in the rhythm of the seasons.

Jałowiecki, however, did not relish the poetry of hunting, he treated it like a good farmer who sees it as an area of duty necessary to maintain order and balance in nature. “Hunting is, in a sense, a branch of agriculture and breeding and requires no less work, patience and diligence than agriculture” – he writes.

With equal disgust as about poachers from the countryside, incomprehensibly tolerated by the then authorities, Jałowiecki speaks about all demagogues, left-wing agitators corrupting the peasantry, incompetent officials, politicians satisfying personal pride, in a word about all those causing chaos and anarchizing the political life of the Second Polish Republic – not sparing the National Democracy, but also some supporters of Piłsudski – about all whose activities were contrary to the state instinct, common sense, and the well-understood Polish raison d'état.

The picture of interwar Poland drawn by a classic conservative is not idyllic. With all reservations, however, it is an image of a world that sparks hope, where the farmer – as well as the landowner – is respected as the one who, taking care of the land and working on it decently, serves the homeland. That world was painted by the pen of a man free from ideological ferocity, full not only of subtlety and tact, but also of philosophical peace that results from communing with nature.

Before the war, landowners served as role models and advisors for the inhabitants of the Polish countryside. Not only did they create a modern lobby supporting rational economic changes in the countryside, beneficial innovations in cultivation and breeding, the use of modern machines, but also watched over the social order of the rural life. It was the gentry who cared about the future of peasant children – they established orphanages and schools; Polish landowners provided medical assistance to peasant families, sometimes on a large scale. Responsibility for the land and the fate of people working on it was part of responsibility for one’s own state.

“Something worse can happen to the nation than the loss of troops and battleships”, concludes father Henri Delassus in the book “L’esprit familial”. The author notes the conflict of social classes – which had been going on in France for over two hundred years: classes that previously lived in symbiosis, and now nourish prejudice and hatred towards each other.
Prince Dominik Maria Ignacy Radziwiłł from Balice aiming at a pheasant during a hunt in 1924 in Romanówka near Ternopil. Photo: NAC/IKC
It is something worse than the loss of troops and battleships, “than financial bankruptcy or the invasion of one’s territory”, it is “the abandonment of tradition and the loss of an ideal. The history of all peoples confirms this” (Delassus wrote these words in the first decade of the 20th Century).

The German orchestra played the Polish national anthem…

Mieczysław Jałowiecki, son of a great landowner from Lithuania, was at the same time, a few years before WWI, a young agricultural attaché at the Russian embassy in Berlin, shortly after his studies and doctorate. As a representative of the embassy, he was invited one evening by the commander of one of the Imperial Guards regiments to a formal reception. Among the officers dressed in gala uniforms, there was only one civilian, count Ledebur from the Austrian Embassy. Jałowiecki recalls:

“The commander of the regiment, with exquisite courtesy, introduced us one by one to the officer corps. A young officer was assigned to each of us as a cicerone. The choice was right, because I found myself under the care of a young lieutenant von Kempis, who turned out to be a Catholic and a landowner from the vicinity of Bonn. We sat down at the table in the large dark oak dining room. (…) At the end of the banquet the commander got up, followed by all of us. – To the health of the Emperor! – he cried out, raising his cup.

Holding the glasses at chest height, we drank the health of Kaiser Wilhelm. After three exclamations “hoch!” the German anthem sounded.

Then a toast was raised in honor of the Russian emperor. The commander and officers turned their faces and glasses towards me as a member of the Russian diplomatic corps. This was followed by a toast to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. This time Mr. Ledebur was the subject of ovations.

The Austrian anthem Gott erhalte, Gott beschutze unsern guten Kaiser Franz... ended the official part of the dinner.

Imagine, however, my amazement when the commander of the regiment rose from his seat and, with a glass in his hand, called on the orchestra. A cheerful melody Poland has not yet perished rang out…

– Ihres spezial! cried the commander, raising his glass and looking at me.

– Hoch, hoch – the officers answered in chorus...” (Mieczysław Jałowiecki, “On the verge of the Empire”, Warsaw 2003). The author of the memoirs points out that he became friends with lieutenant von Kempis and that he appreciated the officers of the Empress Augusta Regiment, representatives of the sphere where true values are valued, not only symbolic ones. Poland hadn’t been on the map for over a hundred years. No one in Europe had yet dreamed of a reborn Polish Commonwealth.

Manor replaced by an inn

Today, there is no such “institution” as the pre-war landed gentry, whose authority – recognized by the villagers – could effectively moderate the situation and prevent social plagues in the countryside. Because it was able to notice the problems of its inhabitants in time in a broader, nationwide context and react appropriately without delay.

The symbol of legitimate authority is never soulless domination, it is service. The mission of the gentry families in the Republic of Poland was to restore the existence of the state, and then to strengthen and defend our state, as well as to create and defend culture, the spiritual tissue of social life that unites Poles into one living organism. Landowning families were a model of life and a point of reference also in the matter of caring for the land entrusted to them by the Maker.

After years of devastation of the land by the state user who was never able to be an owner, it is clear how much our country misses landowners. The art of cultivating the land has often been turned into looting its resources, and its cultural landscape has also been destroyed. In the People’s Republic of Poland, the manor was replaced by an inn.

– Ewa Polak-Pałkiewicz
– Translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Quotes from: Mieczysław Jałowiecki, “Requiem dla ziemiaństwa [Requiem for the Landowners], Warsaw, 2002, “Na skraju imperium” [On the verge of the Empire], Warsaw 2007, “Wolne miasto” [The Free City], Warsaw 2009
Main photo: Pavilion of the Landowners' Union at the General National Exhibition in Poznań in 1929, part of the exhibition. Photo: NAC/IKC
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