Prof. Michał KLEIBER: The day Polish science came to a halt

The day Polish science came to a halt

Photo of Prof. Michał KLEIBER

Prof. Michał KLEIBER

Editor-in-chief of „Wszystko Co Najważniejsze”. Professor and lecturer at the Polish Academy of Sciences. President of the Polish Academy of Sciences 2007-2015, Minister of Science and Computerization 2001-2005, in 2006-2010, a social adviser to President Lech Kaczyński. Vice-Chairman of the Polish Committee for UNESCO. Knight of the Order of the White Eagle.

Ryc.: Fabien Clairefond

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It was clear to the occupier that the condition for effective Germanisation of Poles was the elimination of the Polish intelligentsia – writes prof. Michał KLEIBER

.Germany’s attack on Poland on September 1, 1939 was a blow to Polish science. The target was the Polish elite and Polish universities.

The years before September 1, 1939, were a time of intense catching up after the First World War and 123 years of the Partitions. Polish politicians were concerned about the development of science and education, especially higher education. In 1938, there were 15 state-owned higher education institutions in Poland, and more or less the same number of private schools. They employed a total of about 4,500 scientific employees, including over 900 professors. Polish scientists achieved the highest level in many fields, including mathematics, physics, geology, biology, sociology, philosophy and history.

On September 1, 1939, this process came to a halt. The destructive activities of the occupiers caused the closure of all high schools and scientific institutions throughout Poland, which were plundered and devastated. Scientists and students were in a dire situation.

It was clear to the occupier that the condition for effective Germanisation of Poles was the elimination of the Polish intelligentsia. Dramatic examples of methodically planned actions of terror and deportation included Sonderaktion Krakau in November 1939, in which 183 professors of the Jagiellonian University and the AGH University of Science and Technology were sent to the Sachsenhausen camp, and AB-Aktion, carried out in the period May–July 1940, in which more than three thousand people were murdered, including many scientists. 

Those who managed to avoid being shot or deported to camps had to struggle with professional non-existence. University education and science resisted by conducting underground activities. In spite of mass terror, underground education had significant scope. The scholars and teachers who were involved, with their courage to work despite the risk of life-threatening consequences, deserve the gratitude of the generations that followed them. 

Polish scientists emigrated both during and after the war, finding no opportunities to pursue their scientific ambitions under socialism in the post-war period. It was a huge loss – the reconstruction of Polish science would certainly be much faster if hundreds of excellent researchers returned, such as Henryk Magnuski, the creator of the first portable walkie-talkie radio widely used by the American army, Tadeusz Sendzimir, called the “Edison of metallurgy” who revolutionised this industry, and Hilary Koprowski, discoverer of the vaccine against the polio virus which causes the Heine-Medin disease. 

.The enormity of Poland’s losses as a result of war and the deportation and emigration of scholars led to many years of delays in the post-war education of modern economy workers. Poland’s development was stopped abruptly. Its reconstruction and new energy were only possible thanks to the incredible passion, knowledge and many talents of Poles.

prof. Michał Kleiber

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