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Arestakes Simavoryan

Head of the Center for Armenian Studies, “Noravank” Foundation

Today the generations of Armenians, who have been converted to other confessions for centuries, live in the countries of Eastern Europe – Romania, Hungary, Poland. Most of the Armenians of other confessions living particularly in Poland have also lost their national identity, broken off the connections with Armenia and Armeniancy. Anyway, one should not think that this group of the Armenians of other confessions has fully lost their national identity; many of such Armenians still preserve the awareness of being of Armenian origin which has been descended by their families. The evidence is the fact that over the recent 30 years stirring up of the old Armenian Catholic community has been observed in Poland and this process was arranged on their own initiative. Today many Catholics of the Armenian descent in Poland look back at their origins and try to get in touch with everything Armenian.

Background; The Armenians established in Poland in the Middle Ages (11-17th centuries). This is the period (first stage) when rather big group of the Armenians had been gradually forcedly converted to Catholicism in consequence of a union initiated by Vatican; this process was a Polish reaction to the so-called “religious sects” and the result of the struggle of the Jesuits against other churches (Armenian Apostolic and Orthodox).

While speaking about the remote past of the Polish Armenians in his “One page from the spiritual life of the Polish Armenians” article, V. Kirakosyan brings the words of F. Zakhariashevich about the disappearance of the Armenian language in Poland and conversion of the Armenians to the Catholicism: “Breaking of connections with Echmiadzin, the local priests had no need of being in correspondence with Armenia and they did not receive the decisions of the Catholicos. Torosovich allegedly gave instructions in Polish. And the Armenians were forced to join the Latin Kostel and people were visiting Catholic churches and learned the local language and forgot theirs… Thus, the Armenian was out of use and it was almost fully forgotten”1.

In spite of those realities the policy of forced conversion was not taken positively by the Armenians in Poland. For about 20 years the Apostolic Armenians had been struggling against that phenomenon but the capital of the wealthy Armenian merchants was build up on the Polish Catholic society and they did not support the community. Most of them migrated to Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova.

In the opinion of researcher V. Kirakosyan, the church union simply hastened the processes of break up and assimilation of the Armenian community: as a result of conversion to Catholicism and political and economic fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth formerly flourishing community had been thinning out and many Armenians adopting Catholicism estranged from their national roots and forgot their mother tongue. Gradually, the Armenian schools had been closed either, which also promoted assimilation of the Armenians. After adopting Catholicism the Armenian language, which had been used by a small number of people, had been almost fully forgotten and out of use; it was only used as language of church rites and ceremonies. In fact the process of the assimilation of the Armenians had been aggravated since the 1630s. In consequence the Armenians integrated into the Polish society fast and this was favoured by the fact that the Poles were Catholics. In its turn in 1664 Vatican undertook the educational issues of the newly converted Armenian Catholics. In the same year Italian monks were sent to Poland; they established schools for the Armenians, selected new priests from the members of the Armenian community.

Though, from time to time, the Armenian city communities in Poland stirred up but that activity declined very fast. In late 19th century and till World War II new flash of the national revival could be observed among the Catholic Armenians in some cities in Poland which was initiated by a number of religious figures. But this process was undermined by World War II which launched a massive blow to the Armenians in Poland.

During World War II many Armenians in Poland suffered the same fate as the Poles, thus being forcedly dislocated. During the dislocation many were either killed or lost all their belongings. In 1939 when the eastern part of Poland (Ukraine) went to the USSR, Catholic Armenians moved to the territory of present-day Poland and settled in Warsaw, Gliwice, Oborni Slonsk, Olava, Gdansk and Krakow.

When in 1940 the Armenian Catholic metropolis in Lvov appeared under the control of the Soviet army, almost a half of the adherents of the church – 2500 people – were exiled to Siberia. Their leader Father Dionysus Kaetanovich was arrested and died in exile in 1954. Most of the assets of the Armenian Catholic churches in Lvov, Ivano-Frankovsk, Tismenica, Lisetsi Snyatin, Berezhani, Gorodenka, Kout were nationalized. All this affected ethnic Armenians: most of them being landowners disguised their Armenian identity as many of them after being unmasked were exiled to Siberia (till 1950).

It can be concluded that political repressions had affected some segment of the Armeniancy thus estranging them from their roots and complicating further possible attempts to reclaim “historical memory”.

Revival of the “Old Community” – After WW II the tendencies of assimilation among the Armenians in Poland became even more prominent. Those processes slowed down in late 1950s when the Northern Diocese was established for the Catholic Armenians (with center in Gdansk) and in 1980s when the Southern Diocese (with center in Glivitsi) was established. They have turned into the centers of rallying Catholic Armenians in Poland. On the other hand this did not mean that Polish authorities accepted that there were national minorities in the country and till 1956 the notion of “national minority” had not been used in the political discourse. But in 1980s the theme of national minorities dominated in both academic and political circles.

Nevertheless, till 1990 the Polish government carried out policy of dual standards in regard to the ethnic minorities. It particular, it regarded the minorities which were considered native and established in Poland long ago. The Belarusians, Czechs, Lithuanians, Germans, Ukrainians and Lemkers (which are considered separate ethnic group, or sometimes sub-ethnic group of the Ukrainians) were recognized as national minorities, meanwhile Jews, Gypsies, as well as Armenians, Tatars and Karaites who had lived in Poland for centuries and who considered themselves mostly as Poles or people of dual ethnic identity (e.g. Pole and Armenian) were left beyond the legal status of the minority granted to other groups. All that was based on one general metaphoric formulation which was used in Poland in 1989: “I am what I consider myself”2.

Perhaps, this was the logic the Polish authorities were mastered by while giving special status to the groups which did not lose their national identity and were bigger than others. But the collapse of the socialist camp as well as social, cultural and other factors within the old Armenian community in Poland including discussions concerning the national minorities on different levels in Poland in 1980s boosted the revival of the community.

So the old Armenian community in Poland revived in the 1980s. The 1980s were marked for the Armenians in Poland by the plenary session in Krakow, after which at the informal meeting, it was proposed to become a member of the Polish Ethnographic Society and to establish the Society of Interested in the Armenian Culture. This society informally transformed into the union of the Armenians in Poland3. The first plenary session was a real “revolution” in the life of the Armenians in Poland and it marked the revival of the community life. It is remarkable that after this event organizations, which united the Armenians of old generation, were established in Poland.

Today the members of the old Armenian community in Poland are the adherents of the Armenian Catholic Church and unofficially this community numbers 8-15 thousand people. Of course those who have not lost their national identity for centuries and are somehow connected with the Armenian identity consider themselves the adherents of the Armenian Catholic Church. Those Armenians mostly consider themselves either “Poles of the Armenian origin” or “Polish Armenians”. Alongside rather big group of people despite the presence of the Armenian traces in their surnames (e.g. Torosovich, Bogosovich and etc.) in many cases do not accept their real origin and stay away from the Armenian community. This is the matter of principle: during the Nazi occupation many Jews living in Poland turning to the Armenian Catholic priests managed to take Armenian names and surnames and thus save their lives4. Even today many of them have Armenian surnames with Polish endings. This fact sometimes causes confusion and contradictions while studying the genealogy.

Unlike formerly imposed restrictions, today the process of reclaiming of the Armenian identity has acquired more liberal shades and the organizations dealing with this issue take the advantage of that. In particular, social, academic foundations and centers were established to study the past and the present problems of the Catholic Armenians in Poland; those organizations lead purposeful work among them, remind them their contribution to the social and state life of Poland. The Foundation of Culture and Heritage of Polish Armenians, which constantly keeps in the center of its attention all the events in the lives of the “old” and “new” communities, is worth mentioning. This Foundation is under the patronage of Cardinal Joseph Glemp. Due to his efforts directed to the revival of the historical and cultural heritage of the “old” Armenian community “Polish Armenian Families in the Pictures of the Past” calendar has been published in Warsaw for four years. The calendar is published in Armenian and Polish and distributed among those who are interested in their origins. With the help of this calendar today many Poles, to their surprise, find out that they have Armenian traces in their genealogy; they carry out independent researches to find out their descent, search Polish Armenian relatives, and study the history of their families5.

Relations between Old and New Communities – The relations between old Armenian community and Armenians who migrated from Armenia to Poland after the collapse of the USSR in 1990-1996 are of special interest. The relations between old and new communities were initiated mainly after the aforementioned historical event.

Polish researcher Maciej Zonbek who studies the current relations between the old and new Armenian communities mentioned: “In Poland they tend to be recognized as a national minority (old community – A.S.). Their leaders have made a great contribution to spreading Armenian history and culture in Poland and set ties with the Armenians who arrived from Armenia over the recent period. This is manifested in the joint meetings, in business cooperation, as well as establishment of the Sunday schools for the children of newly arrived. Very often they grant legal aid to the emigrants from Armenia who had problems with legalizing their status in Poland”6.

In whole all this demonstrates that as for the issue of the status the stances of the Polish authorities and old community are far from each other – you should either be a national minority or stay Polish citizens of the Armenian descent. One can conclude that the fact of integration of the old community is taken by the official circles as granted, which is determined by smallness of that community, but on the other hand the old community cannot accept the status of the national minority. Due to this reason “Be Registered: Polish Armenians in the 2011 Census” initiative will provide the best insight into the number of the Armenians (from both old and new communities) living in Poland. This important initiative is carried out by various Armenian and Polish organizations and state institutions, which take census.

In the inter-Armenian relations definite positive tendencies are manifested within the framework of organization of national and religious events, whether it is the issue of the Armenian Genocide, any cultural or social initiative which promotes the communal life of two groups. E.g. the head of the Union of the Armenian Organizations in Poland Maciej Bogosevich who is from the “old” Armenians, stated in one of his interviews that they managed to spread lobbyist activity in Poland connected with the Armenian Genocide: “In connection with the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide we had demonstrated in Polish Seim for 5 days documentaries about the 1915 events, as well as carried out some kind of propaganda. This was a big event due to which all the Armenians in Poland form both “old” and “new” communities, came forward united and realized that in this regard our stances are the same. Most of the “old” Armenians did not suffer the aftermaths of the Genocide but in my opinion it concerns us all”7.

Rather interesting observations about the relations between old and new Armenian communities has also been made by Yvonne Kalishevska; it described the meeting of the Armenians in the 1990s and how their relations developed later. According to the author the representatives of the old community who are mostly people with higher education and who do not speak Armenian (that is difference between them and their compatriots living in other countries, most of whom has a good command of Armenian) and they very often call themselves Poles of the Armenian descent. In the eyes of the newly emigrated Armenians they look “less” Armenian. In its turn the old Armenians consider newly arrived emigrants too common who do not correspond to their ideas of the Armenian. On the other hand newly arrived Armenians aroused interest among the Polish Armenians. The later have learnt about the real situation in today’s Armenia, about the problems of the country. The members of the old community helped newly arrived Armenians in the issues connected with the documents, job and business8.

Per se, the relations between two communities has initially had positive course, but those relations has been partially undermined as a result of criminal situation which has been mentioned by the representative of the “old” community for many times.

Thus, the meeting of those two worlds – Armenians who arrived from Armenia and Poles of the Armenian descent, who wanted to help their compatriots – very often caused disappointment. The old community was concerned by the behavior of those who arrived in the 1990s which was connected with the activity of the Russian mafia. They used to say the following in this regard: “They spoil our relations with the Poles”9.

It is remarkable that the representatives of the old community did their best to help Armenians who came to Poland in the issues connected with documents, education and etc. Some of them rendered direct assistance. Others treated them as Poles who are interested in Armenia, thinking that the center would take some decision, or some organizations would meet their needs. In some measure they introduced some “secrets” of the Polish society to the “new” Armenians10.

It is obvious that such relations would promote to some extent taking further relations to a new level, as the Armenians who arrived to Poland were considered by the members of the old community as a factor, which could revive the Armenian identity and stir up the community11. It is not a mere chance that in order to be accustomed to the inter-community issues and cultural and other spheres in Armenia on October 17, 2009 “Awetis” newspaper (editor-in-chief – Armen Artwich) was published; this was the first social and political Armenian periodical in post-war Poland.

Spiritual and church life – After WW II when a part of the Polish territories was passed to the Soviet Union, the Armenian Catholics did not accept the repressions against the clergy and the community and left for Poland where they settled in the villages and small towns in the west and south. The rest saw their future in big cities such as Warsaw, Gdansk, Poznan, Lodz, Gliwice and etc. The Armenians who settled in the big cities do not have a church life. The absence of common spiritual center has its negative effect on the life of the community, because the Armenian Catholic Church was considered as the main center, which united people. The political situation in Poland did not allow restoring the rights of the church which would give an opportunity to revive the community. The tendency to assimilation among the Armenians living in big cities even more deteriorated that deplorable situation.

Later, in the 1950s, the issue received positive development when Armenian Catholic Dioceses were established. According to researcher Boris Serov, in the course of time the Armenian Catholic Church turned into a “property” of the Polish Armenians12. It is not a mere chance that the first national organizations and national revival in general were connected with the eager activity of the church.

Back in our times, it should be mentioned that priests of parishes in different cities make considerable contribution to the consolidation of the Armenian Catholics. In particular, the leader of the Armenian Catholics Cardinal Josef Glemp is one of those people round whom the Armenian Catholics and their pastors from Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk rallied. Thanks to him many Armenian manuscripts were saved, he made great contribution to the preservation of the old Armenian culture in Poland. Among priests serving Armenian Catholics there are Armenians, Poles of the Armenian descent and foreigners.

The church ties of the Polish priests serving Armenian Catholics are not restricted exclusively to Poland but they go beyond its territory. Particularly, they spread their activity among the Armenian Catholics in Georgia not only in spiritual, but also in social and cultural spheres. Due to those ties the Armenian from Georgia Arthur Avdalyan became the pastor of the Armenian Catholics in Gdansk and Shecina. This looks like a kind of complimentarity – on the one hand Polish priests settle in the Armenian Catholic villages in Samtskhe-Javakhq, and on the other hand the Armenian Catholic priests, after receiving theological education, try to consolidate the members of the old and new communities and particularly the representatives of the first group who do not know Armenian.

The Armenian Catholic church in Poland, nevertheless, has no status of a general Diocese – it is divided into Dioceses and does not constitute part of the Armenian Catholic Church. It is directly subordinate to Vatican and any point at issue is considered either by Vatican or the Polish Catholic Church. The Armenian Catholics are centered mainly in three cities – Gliwice, Gdansk and Krakow.

Despite positive tendencies, in 2006 the Armenians in Poland reconsidered their viewpoints and prepared to leave Catholic fold. Such a measure was connected with the decision of the vestry (Polish) to dismiss the pastor of the Polish Armenian Catholic community Thaddeus Isaakovich-Jaleski. Father Thaddeus who ministered in both Armenian and Latin and was a member of the old Armenian community was accused of collaborating with the security services under the communists. In the opinion of the representative of the Armenian Cultural Society in Poland Adam Terlicki, the Catholic Church can stop the aforementioned process by reinstating father Thaddeus in his former position. As it was expected the pressure of the Armenians changed the decision of the Catholic Church.

The religion plays different roles in the lives of old and new communities. “Old” Armenians are more traditional in the religious aspect; they are more attached to the church. There are two polarizations among the new Armenians concerning the religious issue. First, the absence of the Armenian Apostolic churches greatly affects this segment of the Armeniancy, i.e. they visit Polish or Armenian Catholic churches or they are even involved in the sects. The majority of those who are involved in the sects are people who have no legal status. Most of them have social problems either and thus they try to solve some problems they face in their everyday live13.

Second, the considerable part of the “new” community, for which visiting church is not part of their everyday life, is to some extent connected with the atheist stereotypes coming from the Soviet times14. To some extent religious problems which are faced by the “new” community, are being solved. For the recent 200 years the activity of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Poland had been prohibited. In this aspect 2007 was a turning point because at last Polish authorities took a decision to register the Armenian Apostolic Church in Poland.

Such developments allow us stating that the close ties between two Armenian groups are prospective and useful for the revival of the “historical memory”. This will even more boost the Armenian-Polish relations. May be the visits of the Polish Armenians to Armenia (and it is necessary to come forward with such initiatives) will promote the process of reclaiming Armenian identity among them. The other important fact should also be mentioned – the Polish authorities do not hamper this process of reclaiming; besides the majority of the Armenian Catholics has higher education and there are many state officials and cultural figures among them.

1 Վ.Կիրակոսյան, Մի էջ լեհահայոց հոգևոր կյանքի պատմությունից, http://www.lusamut.net/level2_.php?id=35&id_2=663&cat_=2&s=19.

2 Михал Ягелло, Национальныe меньшинства в Польше,"Новая Польша", № 6, 2001, с. 35:

3 Վարշաւայում լոյս է տեսել «Լեհահայոց ընտանիքները անցեալի նկարներում 2010» օրացոյցը,

4 Армен Хечоян, Наш человек в Варшаве, Анив №14, 2007, http://aniv.ru/view.php?numer=14&st=13.

5 Վարշաւայում լոյս է տեսել «Լեհահայոց ընտանիքները անցեալի նկարներում 2010» օրացոյցը,

6 Մաչեյ Զոնբեկ, Հայերը Լեհաստանում. նոր համայնք (1990-2007թթ.), Բանբեր Երևանի համալսարանի, Հայագիտություն, 130.1, Երևան, 2010, էջ 71։

7 Армен Хечоян, Наш человек в Варшаве, Анив №14, 2007, http://aniv.ru/view.php?numer=14&st=13.

8 Իվոնա Կալիշևսկա, Լեհաստանում հայերի ադապտացիայի ռազմավարությունները, Բանբեր Երևանի համալսարանի, Երևան, 2009, էջ 197։

9 Ibid, p. 197։

10 Ibid, p. 196։

11 Մաչեյ Զոնբեկ, Հայերը Լեհաստանում. նոր համայնք (1990-2007թթ.), Բանբեր Երևանի համալսարանի, Հայագիտություն, 130.1, Երևան, 2010, էջ 71։

12 Борис Серов, Польские армяне, Армения Завтра, 2007,http://www.armeniazavtra.ru/print.aspx?id=215

13 Польские армяне намерены покинуть лоно Католической Церкви, 26.10.2006, http://www.pcseba.org/news/index.php?id=29410.

14 Krystyna Iglicka, Active Civic Participation of Third Country Immigrants – Poland, Centrum Stosunków Międzynarodowych Center for International Relations, Reports&Analyses, 4/05, Warszawa, 2004, p.23:

«Globus National Security», issue 5, 2011

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