Polish Independence Day: Art tells one family's story

Painting by Ludwik Maciag Ludwik hid in the forest in Poland to avoid being deported to Siberia

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As millions around the world celebrate Polish Independence Day an exhibition is opening in Herefordshire that celebrates the day and the art of three generations of the same family.

The history of that family, the Maciags, is tied to that of their homeland.

Along with art, it is a tale of being separated during two world wars, being taken prisoner and joining underground resistance groups.

Successive generations lived for 123 years, under the yoke of Poland's partition and control by its more powerful neighbours, before independence came.

Michal Maciag grew up in southern Poland during the 1890s when it was part of the the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When World War I broke out he found himself fighting for the empire he objected to so he surrendered to the French to avoid fighting against the allies.

His granddaughter Anna said he was fighting in Bosnia with the Austro-Hungarian artillery, where he met his wife. Their first child Josef was born there.

Jozef Maciag in Biała Podlaska, Poland Jozef was killed by a German grenade

"But he was sent to France and found himself on the side he didn't want to be on," Anna said.

"He took the most dangerous option by surrendering at Verdun so he could be on the French side but he was imprisoned by them and became a prisoner of war."

Left behind in Bosnia, his wife Roza, who was pregnant with Anna's father Otto, left the country when the family home was burnt down.

She made her way to Hungary and was there during the Hungarian Revolution in 1918.

Second separation

It is thought Roza stayed in Hungary until Otto was about two, before making her way to Poland where she was reunited with Michal.

The couple's third son Ludwik was born in Krakow in 1920 and the family settled in Biała Podlaska, which was in central Poland at the time.

Polish Independence - Key Dates

Polish Knight by Ludwik Maciag
  • 1772 - 1795 Poland is partitioned between Prussia, Russia and Austrian and disappears from the map
  • 1914 - 1918 World War I
  • 1918 - Independent Polish state restored
  • 1939 - Poland invaded by Nazi Germany and The Soviet Union
  • 1945 - World War II end. Poland loses territory to the Soviet Union but gains some from Germany
  • 1947 - Poland becomes a Communist People's Republic after Soviet-run elections
  • 1989 - Round-table talks between Solidarity, the Communists and the Catholic Church ahead of partially free elections
  • 2004 - Poland joins the EU

But when World War II broke out the family was torn apart again.

Jozef had become intensively involved in the underground movement but had to escape to the former Yugoslavia after he was seriously injured. However, he continued resistance and was known as Captain Nash by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE).

Later killed by a German grenade in Montenegro, he was buried in a British war cemetery in Belgrade.

Anna's father Otto was trained in anti-aircraft artillery but, after defending the air force at Malaszewicze in September 1939, he was trapped between the Russian and German invasions of Poland.

She said: "He escaped to Romania where he was interned but then escaped to France."

Otto was stationed in various places including Scotland and fought in France, Belgium and Holland during the rest of the war.

Meanwhile, his brother Ludwik followed in his eldest brother's footsteps and joined the underground movement.

When the war ended Otto realised that he couldn't return home.

"He was in exile and couldn't go back, especially during the Stalinist era," said Anna.

Otto Maciag in Holland during World War II Otto fought in France, Belgium and Holland after leaving Poland

"He studied art in Liverpool and then taught at Monmouth School where he was head of art."

Ludwik, who remained in Poland, faced a new threat - hundreds of thousands of Poles were still being deported to Siberia after the war.

As he had fought in the underground army and saved the lives of a group of American pilots he was blacklisted by the Communist state.

"[However] he hid in the forest and disappeared for quite a while before reappearing to study art in Krakow," Anna said.

"His war sketches, which were the basis for many paintings later on, were the only visual documentation of the forest based underground units, because the communist regime tried to erase this aspect of history.

"Ludwik protested furiously when even the titles of his purely landscape paintings were changed to suit communist propaganda and he was arrested several times."

He eventually became Dean of the Warsaw Academy of Art.

Anna, who still lives in Monmouth, has carried on the family's artistic legacy.

She was responsible for organising various Chopin bicentenary concerts in Bristol and Hereford and also makes ceramic art.

'Just wonderful'
Anna Maciag in 2009 Anna, who still lives in Monmouth, has carried on the family's artistic legacy

To commemorate Polish Independence Day all three artists' ceramics and paintings are being displayed in Hereford Museum and Art Gallery.

The location is especially appropriate because Otto and Anna were both members of the Herefordshire Art and Craft Society and for many years exhibited work in the same building.

Otto died in 2000 and Ludwik in 2007 but a new generation of Polish expatriates in Herefordshire can now explore their paintings and ceramics.

"It's just wonderful," said Anna. "I think they'd both be quite pleased."

The artwork and story of the Maciag family will be on display until 7 January 2012.

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