Wioślarskie on the Web: Images of Rowing during the Second Polish Republic
29 August 2022
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch digs into another online archive and finds evidence of a national rowing community that thrived between 1919 and 1939.
I recently discovered the Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe (NAC) which is Polish for “National Digital Archives.” The NAC is the national archive of Poland and holds the central archives of the Polish government. The website nac.gov.pl notes:
The Search the Archives service may be used by genealogists, students, teachers, academics, and any other person interested in using the resources of the Polish archives… You only need Internet access and a browser to use the service… Currently more than 38 million scans of archive materials are available…
The NAC website also reminds us that, Each picture has its own history and some histories have their own pictures. Splendidly, it does not restrict access to, and use of, most of its archive photographs:
Photographs available at www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl are public domain or the owner of the copyright is the State Treasury, represented by the National Digital Archive, and which grant free of charge licences for free use of materials on all known exploitation fields.
Naturally, I wanted to put the Polish word for “rowing” into the search field and “wioślarskie” yielded 530 results. I have looked at the thumbnail pictures of all of them, but I have not opened every one in full resolution or put every Polish language caption into Google Translate. However, some of those that I have studied in detail are reproduced below and I have attempted to make the selection representative of the NAC’s entire collection of rowing pictures.
With few exceptions, the rowing photographs on the NAC site are from the period of Polish sovereignty that flourished between the two World Wars, the Second Polish Republic. This began with the 1919 revival of an independent Polish State (guaranteed by the Treaty of Versailles after more than a century of partitions by foreign empires) and ended with the invasion of the country by Nazi Germany from the West and the Soviet Union from the East in 1939. These inter-war years were politically chaotic but, despite this, the country achieved significant economic growth. The archive pictures give the idea of an organised and sophisticated people that had the time and the means to pursue leisure activities such as rowing.
Studying the hundreds of rowing pictures, it is clear that competitive rowing was a popular sport. Many towns and cities had splendid boathouses and new racing boats seemed commonplace. There also appeared to be genuine community support for, and interest in, local rowing clubs. The first Polish rowing club was the Warsaw Rowing Society, established in 1878. By 1939, the country had 73 clubs in 41 towns and cities.
Polish clubs appeared to be much more open affairs than British clubs of the period. Notably, in Britain rowing clubs were strictly single sex but the archive pictures indicate that in the inter-war period many Polish clubs were happily mixed. Further, there was at least one women’s club that was wealthy enough to possess both good boats and their own top-class boathouse. The Polish national rowing championships appears to have offered women’s events, something far ahead of its time.
The Warsaw Rowing Society (Warszawskie Towarzystwo Wioślarskie, WTW) was established in 1878 though it may have existed informally since 1873. It was for men only until the mid-1930s.
The Warsaw Rowing Club (Warszawskiego Klubu Wioślarek, WKW) was a women’s club established in 1913. It was far in advance of anything that existed in Britain at the time.
Poznań – a city in west-central Poland along the Warta River.
worldrowing.com: (Today) the Lake Malta regatta course is located in the centre of Poznan (and) is one of the most modern venues in the world. The origins of the first Poznan rowing club go back to the year 1904… In 1912, the Tryton Poznan Association was established, and in 1919 the Students’ Sport Association (Akademicki Związek Sportowy, AZS) began life. In the same year the Polish Federation of Rowing Societies (Polski Zwiazek Towarzystw Wioslarskich, PZTW) was established in Poznan.
Kraków – a city in southern Poland near the border of what is now Czechia (Czech Republic).
Kalisz – a city in Central Poland on a direct line between Berlin and Warsaw.
Vilnius – Poland and Lithuania both claimed Vilnius after the 1914 – 1918 War, but Polish forces occupied Vilnius in 1920 and it remained part of northeastern Poland until 1939.
Bydgoszcz – a city in northern Poland at the meeting of the rivers Vistula and Brda.
Płock – a city in central Poland, on the Vistula River.
Brześć – now Brest, a town in southwest Belarus on the Polish border. It was part of the Russian Empire until it became part of the Second Polish republic in 1919. Today, Brest houses an international standard rowing course.
Toruń – a city on the Vistula River in north-central Poland. Picture: National Digital Archive, Poland.
These photographs from the Second Polish Republic show a thriving rowing community in a vibrant European country. However, during the 1939 – 1945 War, about 17% of the Polish population were killed. It is difficult to view these pictures without thinking about what was to come…