The Association of Polish Refugees (ZPU)

The former headquarters of the ZPU in Velbert
The former headquarters of the ZPU in Velbert and the office of the central ZPU board of management. This is where Kazimierz Odrobny and Witold Szwabowicz lived. It was also the headquarters of the League of Ukrainian Refugees.

The Foundation and Aims of the Organisation

In 1949, the forum of the Zjednoczenie Polskiego Uchodźstwa Wojennego (ZPUW), the Association of Polish Refugees of War in Paris, was the initial driving force behind the creation of a new central organisation in the Federal Republic of Germany. The new organisation was created from the ruins of the former association. It was set up to mediate between Polish officials and representatives of political parties like the Stronnictwo Narodowe (National Party). the Stronnictwo Pracy (Workers' Party), the PPS (Polish Socialistist Party), the Stronnictwo Ludowe “Wolność” (“Freedom” People's Party), the followers of Piłsudski from the former ONR (National Radical Camp) and former servicemen. But above all, the new organisation would now be based on personal rather than institutional membership. In order to implement this idea, the executive committee of the ZPUW appointed an organising committee for the ZPU (Association of Polish Refugees in Germany), whose primary task was to regulate the responsibilities of the new organisation, define its territorial structure and arrange elections for the board of directors. The initiative was motivated by the idea of grassroots democracy. The Commission was composed of the following persons: Edmund Hemmerling, Władysław Jaroszewski, Master Jerzy Knothe, Stanisław Mikiciuk, Dipl.-Ing. Jerzy Skiba, Dr. Bolesław Janusz Zawalicz-Mowiński, Dr. Tadeusz Zgaiński and Dr. Stefan Zimmer. It agreed that local groups should be the basic level of the new organizational structure. The territorial division was to be based on four districts: a south-eastern one for Bavaria with its seat in Munich, a south-western one for Württemberg, Baden, Rhineland-Palatinate and Groß-Hessen with its headquarters in Herrenalb, a north-eastern one with its headquarters in Hanover and a north-western one with its headquarters in Essen. The Commission invited all existing organisations and their members to join the new association. Initiation meetings for the new organisation took place in Munich, Hanover, Karlsruhe and Essen.

The summer of 1951 was a time full of hope for the Polish refugees who stayed in the Federal Republic of Germany after the Second World War. This was partly due to the Federal Republic of Germany's admission into the Geneva Convention on Refugees, which defined the concept of refugees, their rights and duties, their legal status (including freedom of association), their living conditions, their earning potentials and social care. It also specified the types of documents and regulations governing their freedom to travel within Europe. At the same time, however, hopes were also raised for the creation of a central organisation that would contribute to improving the legal position and daily life of a large number of Poles.

The Organising Committee convened plenary meetings of delegates from all four districts in the Federal Republic of Germany. These took place at the beginning of July 1951 and primarily served to elect district representatives to the ZPU Council. After the Commission had made a number of other provisions, a meeting of the district representatives was finally convened in Höxter from 28th to 30th July 1951. This was the first meeting of the Association Council, during which it also elected its first Board of Directors. At the same time, this was the last meeting of the ZPU Organising Committee, which had been convened by the Paris Organisation. At the time the new organisation was founded, it contained a total of 117 local groups from four districts throughout West Germany. The number of members totalled around six thousand in the first few months of the year, rose to 6,649 in May 1953, but then fell steadily in the following years. The first chairman of the new organization was Major Dr. Bolesław Zawalicz-Mowiński. Stanisław Mikiciuk, Edmund Hemmerling and Kazimierz Odrobny were elected as his deputies. Witold Szwabowicz became the association's first secretary.

The most important feature of the new association was to stand up for independence. From its foundation until its dissolution, this was demonstrated by the fact that the executive board recognised the authority of the Polish government in exile in London. This was shown by a letter from the members of the Association Council to August Zaleski, the President of the Republic of Poland in exile in London, which highlighted the organisation's work in the service of independence and its commitment to the legal exile government. Accordingly, all activist links to the Warsaw government were considered hostile and inconsistent with the organisation's activities. Among the most important statements in the association's statutes were the goals of the organisation:

“§2 a) The aim of the association is to organise and represent Poles living in the Federal Republic of Germany and to support them morally and materially, §2 b) in this context, the activities of the association are particularly expressed in the organisation of legal advice, help for self-help, in giving employment advice to its members and in caring for their religious, national and cultural needs, §2 c) the association monitors the Polish organisations existing in the (German) area, and cooperates with the trades unions.”.[1]

During its existence, the ZPU was involved in activities against the People's Republic of Poland. These included providing assistance to starving Poles who were convicted of incidents in Poznań in 1956, and later supporting protests against the USSR. The participants in the first meeting of the ZPU Council decided to make its headquarters in Höxter. After Kazimierz Odrobny was elected chairman of the association, the headquarters were moved to Velbert in 1954.

The statute established the main council (Rada Główna) as the highest organ of the ZPU. This committee was later renamed the Association Council (Rada Stowarzyszenia). In addition, the articles of association contained statements on the objectives, membership and the organs of the association (association council, executive committee, district board of directors, audit committee, etc.). After the foundation of the ZPU, all existing Polish associations were dissolved. These included Zjednoczenie Polskie w Niemczech, ZP for short, (the Polish Association in Deutschland), Zjednoczenie Polskie strefy amerykańskiej (the Polish Association in the American occupying zone), Zjednoczenie Polskie w Bawarii (the Polish Association in Bavaria), Zrzeszenie Ośrodków Polskich w Wirtembergii i Badenii (the Association of Polish Centres in Württemberg and Baden), Zrzeszenie Polaków w Bawarii (the Association of Poles in Bavaria), Zjednoczenie Polskie strefy francuskiej (the Polish Association in the French occupying zone, Zjednoczenie Polskie strefy brytyjskiej (the Polish Association in the British occupying zone) and Fundusz Polski,  FP for short (the Polish Fund). Nonetheless the latter expressed a wish to stay in existence, not as an organisation but as a disability fund with no claim to represent any Polish circles.

[1] The statutes of the association “Zjednoczenie Polskich Uchodźców w Niemczech” [1955] - from the inventory in the Department of Studies on Polish Emigrants in Germany after 1945 at the Historical Institute of the University of Wrocław (Pracownia Badań nad Polską Emigracją w Niemczech po 1945 r. w Instytucie Historycznym Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego).

The Work of the Organisation

Shortly after the foundation of the new organisation, the Executive Board began international cooperation with emigration circles, especially in Germany, France, Great Britain, the United States and Canada. At this point, it is necessary to highlight the organisations which cooperated with the ZPU in Germany: they included the Kompanie Wartownicze (the Guard Companies), the representatives of the Kongres Polonii Amerykańskiej (the Congress of American Polonia), the Stowarzyszenie Polskich Kombatantów, SPK for short (the League of Polish Combatants), the Centrala Caritasu Polskiego w Niemczech (the Headquarters of Polish Caritas in Germany), the Towarzystwo Pomocy Polakom w Niemczech, TPP for short (the Society for the Support of Poles in Germany), the Komisja Skarbu Narodowego w Niemczech (the Commission of the [Polish] National Fund in Germany), the Council of the Rada Polonii Amerykańskiej w Niemczech (the Council of American Polonia in Germany), the Związek Inwalidów Wojennych PSZ (the League of Disabled Polish Servicemen), the Centralny Komitet dla Spraw Szkolnych i Oświatowych (the Central Committee for School and Educational Affairs) and Sender Freies Europa. Although their cooperation in the initial phase was only due to their co-financing of the ZPU activities, the sponsors and employees clearly gave their support to the new organisation. Without their donations, the ZPU would never have had a chance to take up its work. Relations with the aforementioned organisations varied in intensity at different periods of time.

At the start the ZPU board had very good relations with Związek Polaków w Niemczech (ZPwN), the League of Poles in Germany, but over the years these became cooler and eventually froze at the end of the 1950s. The reason was the closer relationships between the Chair of the ZPwN, Stanisław Szczepaniak, to the Związek Polaków “Zgoda” (ZP Zgoda), the League of Poles “Eintracht”, whose work was regarded as friendly to the regime in Warsaw by circles who were striving for independence. It was not until the early 1970s that a thaw began between the two organisations, after Kazimierz Odrobny proposed a joint alliance of Polish organisations in Germany to the SPK and the ZPwN. This alliance was intended to unite all the circles: the combatants, the Poles and the refugees. But the trial proved impermanent and relations between the organisations changed considerably over the years. This was also due to the natural aging process within the Polish diaspora as well as the declining interest in the organisations themselves.

In the end, this was followed by further cooperation with refugee groups of other nationalities in the Federal Republic of Germany, including the organisations of the Serbs, Yugoslavs, Ukrainians, Czechs and Romanians.

The idea behind the founding of the ZPU was to unite and integrate all the activities of Polish refugees under one roof. With this in mind, during the first few years the ZPU's Board of Directors was involved in coordinating, amongst others, educational matters, war reparations and social welfare measures. The activities in these areas were incorporated into board departments as association structures. Educational work was taken over by the Education Committee of the ZPU (Komisja Oświatowa ZPU). It managed the network of Polish schools, which was taken over by the Central Committee for School and Education (Centralny Komitet dla Spraw Szkolnych i Oświatowych), with a particular focus on the national character of education, which was intended to maintain links with the Polish language and Polish culture. Priority educational tasks included the creation of Polskie Szkoły Przedmiotów Ojczystych (Polish schools with home-related subjects), where teachers taught the children of Polish refugees in Polish, amongst others, as well as  the history and geography of Poland, with a focus on national education. In addition, there was the commemoration of anniversaries like Constitution Day on May 3rd and Independence Day on November 11th, as well as the anniversary of the November Uprising, the January Uprising and the 1920 Battle of Warsaw, the "Miracle of the Vistula". By the end of the 1950s, however, only 12% of Polish children were enrolled in this school system. The education of young Poles by the ZPU remained at this level until the early 1970s.

Two other important components of the ZPU's commitment to the interests of Polish refugees were war reparations and civil and criminal cases. At the time, shortly after the association was founded, they were dealt with under the umbrella term of legal advice. Thanks to cooperation with Polish lawyers, the board of the ZPU and the Central Committee for Former Internees in German Prisons and Concentration Camps (Centralny Komitet byłych Więźniów Niemieckich Więzień i Obozów Koncentracyjnych) were able to start legal applications for compensation for periods of time spent in concentration and labour camps. The ZPU very often played the role of an intermediary, assisted Poles in the translation of court documents, assessed their legal status, paid their lawyers and conducted correspondence with German courts on behalf of Polish refugees. The lawyers involved in these matters from the outset included Roman Błeński and Alojzy Mikołajewski, as well as Mieczysław Chmielewski who lived in London. The inclusion of the latter was to prove very fruitful. An important part of the work was also the provision of assistance to citizens of the People's Republic of Poland, who turned to the executive board of the ZPU with their requests for war reparations.

In addition, a strong social commitment evolved. Poles in hospitals and sanatoriums were searched for and given financial support. A large number of those who had lived under extremely difficult conditions could count on regular financial support. Another form of aid was for citizens of the People's Republic of Poland who needed medication that did not exist in Poland. All in all, compatriots in Poland were supported for more than twenty years. The funds came from the Aid Fund for the Victims of the Second World War, (Fundusz Pomocy Ofiarom II wojny światowej), which in turn received donations from the Catholic University of Lublin (Katolicki Uniwersytet Lubelski). All the work in this area was largely thanks to Witold Szwabowicz, who coordinated the activities from the late 1950s until his death in 1982.

When Kazimierz Odrobny took over the chairmanship, activists in Stronnictwo Narodowe (SN), the National Party, who exercised important functions in the association, began to make their voices heard. This remained so until the end of the seventies. During this time, the positions of the older SN generation were taken over by members of the PPS.

The work of the ZPU continued unchanged in the 1960s and 1970s. This involved major efforts to guarantee the work of the schools, the provision of social assistance for the needy and shaping social and cultural life. During this time the association's board never abandoned its loyalty to the exile government in London, but always remained under its control. At the same time Kazimierz Odrobny joined forces with the Central Committee for Former Political Prisoners in German Prisons and Concentration Camps in the Free World (Centralny Komitet b. Więźniów Politycznych Niemieckich Więzień i Obozów Koncentracyjnych w Wolnym Świecie) to continue his efforts to obtain German compensation for periods spent in concentration camps. This quickly became his most important concern. The cooperation of the ZPU with the lawyer Mieczysław Chmielewski, resulted in pensions and compensation from the Federal Republic of Germany and the fund managed by the High Commissioner for Refugees. To this end, the organisation collected questionnaires from those persons who were confident that their case would receive a positive outcome in the judicial compensation procedure. At the same time efforts were also made in this matter before the High Commissioner for Refugees in Bonn and Geneva. The significance of the problem and its global significance then led to the founding of an international organisation in the early 1960s, called the "Zentralverband für Ausländinge Flüchtlinge in der BRD" (ZAF - Central Association for Foreign Refugees in the Federal Republic of Germany). Kazimierz Odrobny initially took over the office of secretary before becoming chairman of the board. The organisation dealt mainly with compensation issues and was composed of representatives from Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine and others. In the 1960s and 1970s it took over most of the compensation work from the ZPU. During these years, it was so to speak the “transmission belt” between the ZPU, the international refugee organisations, the German administration and the High Commissioner for Refugees. Besides the successes achieved by the ZAF, it was partly due to these activities that the government of the Federal Republic of Germany was able to arrange an overall compensation package. Kazimierz Odrobny also succeeded in reaching an agreement with the executive board of the German Federation of Trade Unions (DGB), which supported the federal compensation law, on the basis of which former prisoners in German concentration camps were entitled to social assistance. In 1969 the cooperation between the ZPU and the ZAF achieved its greatest success: the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees decided to set up a "major fund" (DM 45,000.000) and a "minor fund" (DM 3,000,000) for compensation payments.

The district boards worked with the state governments and their ministries in the same spirit as the cooperation agreements concluded by the central ZPU board of directors. The cooperation mainly concerned the financing of the Polish school system. In this context, it should not be forgotten that, since the establishment of the Education Committee, this area of the ZPU's work had been modestly financed by the state governments in the Federal Republic of Germany as well as by the Federal Government. In the 1950s and 1960s ZPU's Board of Directors cooperated extensively in this area with the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC), Radio Free Europe (RFE), the Polish American Immigration Relief Committee (PAIRC) and the UN. These institutions had been providing financial support to Polish schools for many years and financed scholarships for pupils and students. At the end of the 1960s the Polish school system experienced its liveliest development in the second ZPU district in North Rhine-Westphalia. Unfortunately, there was a caesura in 1968 which was largely caused by Dominik Marcol. The split weakened the activities of the ZPU, left its board of directors at the mercy of the German authorities and led to the confiscation of grants to the ZPU by the Bonn government for its school-related work. Ultimately these events led to the end of financial help, a decline in  the ZPU's activities and the closure of Polish schools. They also marked the start of the disintegration of the organisation. 

The ZPU's commitment to independence meant that it regarded the exile government in London as its supreme authority. It soon became clear that the security apparatus of the People's Republic of Poland had classified ZPU activities as anti-state. This in turn immediately ensured that association officials were targeted by the Polish security services. Departments I and II of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (civil intelligence and counterintelligence) were particularly interested in monitoring the activities of people like Jerzy Arłamowski, Henryk Bogdański, Antoni Czerwiński, Czesław Brunner, Władysław Kawecki, Jerzy Knothe, Janusz Jar-Łańcucki, Dominik Marcol, Stanisław Mikiciuk, Kazimierz Odrobny, Wincenty Broniwój-Orliński, Leopold Sanicki, Witold Szwabowicz and Roman Żelazny to name but a few. There were also a number of contemporaries who profited from the opportunity to cooperate with the Polish and West German intelligence services. It is quite possible that this happened more frequently than we know. Whatever the case, we still do not know if the 1968 split in the North Rhine-Westphalia District Association was really provoked by the intelligence service of the Polish People's Republic. Circumstances and events more likely point to operations undertaken by West German intelligence services. Dominik Marcol, chairman of the ZPU district of North Rhine-Westphalia, who maintained close and quite regular contacts with the Polish secret service, played a special role in these years. It is also worth mentioning that the British MI6, the Stasi, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the Federal Intelligence Service (BND) were also interested in the organisation and its officials.

The board of the ZPU maintained good relations with Polish priests throughout the Federal Republic of Germany. With a few exceptions, these contacts survived for many years. ZPU activists were glad to be involved with, and even actively participated in numerous pastoral initiatives. Among the most important events were pilgrimages from Poland to Neviges and Maria-Buchen, as well as the festivities on the occasion of the Millennial Celebration of the Christianisation of Poland, the so-called "Baptism of Poland" (Chrzest Polski) in 1966. In later years, the cooperation between the various Catholic initiatives and Polish clergymen tended to take place in individual, individual groups without any significant participation by the Board of Directors, until they were finally discontinued in their entirety. 


In the 1970s, the fate of the organisation continued to in the hands of its chairman, Kazimierz Odrobny. These were extremely difficult years as the number of deaths among active members increased, resulting in a generation change at the ZPU. However there were hardly any willing successors for the vacant positions. The association did not allow economic migrants or "new" refugees from the People's Republic of Poland to join its central organs. This stance was in line with the chairman's vision, which saw the association as representing war refugees. Moreover, this was also the time when financial resources for current business were becoming increasingly scarce. In this respect, council meetings and board elections were repeatedly postponed for years. The celebrations for the 25th anniversary of ZPU's existence were celebrated by only a few local groups and there was no central event to mark the occasion. This was the first clear signal of the decline of the headquarters, i. e. the Executive Board. The hour of the association's demise was approaching. Kazimierz Odrobny took part in the 1975 international conference Polonia Jutra' 75 (roughly: 1975 - The Future of the Polonia), but this had no great impact on the further work of the ZPU. The chairman was already lacking the resources to coordinate the work of all the organisations in which he was involved. From today's perspective it seems as if the organisation's existence in the 1970s only continued on account of his personal will and authority. After his death in 1981, chaos and power struggles broke out within the association. From the whole structure, only the Munich district, which consisted of a larger group of activists and a few independent local groups, survived. Disputes and trench warfare among the officials meant that the association was no longer attractive to the "new" generation of Solidarność immigrants. Nevertheless, thanks to some of the "new" forces, a few local groups were reactivated, while others resumed their work more vigorously and with greater activity. In the mid-1980s, a fifth district with its headquarters in West Berlin was founded. Ultimately, however, all these measures only allowed the CPU to exist for a few more years. In 1993 the last president of the ZPU, Andrzej Prusiński, had the organization legally removed from the register of associations. The ZPU ceased to exist.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the association achieved its goals for many years and with great effectiveness. Its activities proved successful in the interests of independence, education, legal advice, compensation and social welfare. During this time the pace of work increased from year to year. Unfortunately, the situation worsened dramatically following the withdrawal of funding by Radio Free Europe and the split in 1968 that led to a further cut in funding. However, those responsible did not allow themselves to become discouraged and continued to work for the success of their stated goals. Nevertheless, despite all the good intentions and attempts, the association was no longer able to build on its old strengths.


Łukasz Wolak, March 2017



Further reading:

W. Hładkiewicz, Emigracyjne dylematy. Działalność Zjednoczenia Polskich Uchodźców w Niemczech, [in:] W kręgu idei, polityki i wojska. Studia ofiarowane Profesorowi Januszowi Farysiowi w siedemdziesiątą rocznice urodzin, edited by T. Sikorski, H. Walczak, A. Wątor, Szczecin 2009, pp. 425-436.

Z. T. Klimaszewski, Emigracja Polska w Niemczech, Białystok 2007, pp. 107-109.

K. Ruchniewicz, Polskie zabiegi o odszkodowania niemieckie w latach 1944/45-1975, Wrocław 2007.

Ł. Wolak, Szkolnictwo Polaków w RFN pod egidą Zjednoczenia Polskich Uchodźców w latach 1951-1959, [in:] Zeszyty Naukowe PUNO, [Essays, articles, reviews], edited by J. Chwastyk-Kowalczyk, Londyn 2015, dritte Reihe Nr. 3, p.142-143.

Ł. Wolak, Działacze Zjednoczenia Polskich Uchodźców w Niemczech w materiałach organów bezpieczeństwa PRL w latach 1945-1970, [in:] Letnia Szkoła Historii Najnowszej 2010. Referaty, edited by Natalia Jarska and Tomasz Kozłowski, with an introduction by Łukasz Kamiński, Warszawa 2011, pp. 142-152.

Ł. Wolak, Pierwsze trudne lata działalności. Zjednoczenie Polskich Uchodźców w Republice Federalnej Niemiec w latach 1951-1954, [in:] Zimowa Szkoła Historii Najnowszej 2012. Referaty, edited by Łukasz Kamiński and Grzegorz Wołek, Warszawa 2012, pp.141-153.

Ł. Wolak, Zjednoczenie Polskich Uchodźców wobec emigracji solidarnościowej w latach 1981-1989, [in:] Świat wobec solidarności, edited by Paweł Jaworski and Łukasz Kamiński, Warszawa 2013, pp. 703-717.

Media library
  • Ehemaliger Sitz des ZPU in Velbert

    Ehemaliger Sitz des ZPU in Velbert, Höferstr. 58 mit dem Büro des zentralen ZPU-Vorstands. Hier wohnten Kazimierz Odrobny und Witold Szwabowicz. Außerdem befand sich hier auch der Sitz des Verbands Uk...
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  • Satzung Seite 1

    Satzung des Verbands „Zjednoczenie Polskich Uchodźców w Niemczech”. Zbiory Pracowni Badań nad Polską Emigracją w Niemczech po 1945 r. w Instytucie Historycznym Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
  • Satzung Seite 2

    Satzung des Verbands „Zjednoczenie Polskich Uchodźców w Niemczech”. Zbiory Pracowni Badań nad Polską Emigracją w Niemczech po 1945 r. w Instytucie Historycznym Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
  • Satzung Seite 3

    Satzung des Verbands „Zjednoczenie Polskich Uchodźców w Niemczech”. Zbiory Pracowni Badań nad Polską Emigracją w Niemczech po 1945 r. w Instytucie Historycznym Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
  • Satzung Seite 4

    Satzung des Verbands „Zjednoczenie Polskich Uchodźców w Niemczech”. Zbiory Pracowni Badań nad Polską Emigracją w Niemczech po 1945 r. w Instytucie Historycznym Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
  • Satzung Seite 5

    Satzung des Verbands „Zjednoczenie Polskich Uchodźców w Niemczech”. Zbiory Pracowni Badań nad Polską Emigracją w Niemczech po 1945 r. w Instytucie Historycznym Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
  • Satzung Seite 6

    Satzung des Verbands „Zjednoczenie Polskich Uchodźców w Niemczech”. Zbiory Pracowni Badań nad Polską Emigracją w Niemczech po 1945 r. w Instytucie Historycznym Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego
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    Sommerferienlager des ZPU (Tischtennisgruppe), Düsseldorf, ohne Datum.
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    Sommerferienlager des ZPU, Zofia Odrobna im Hintergrund, 50-er Jahre.
  • Kulturzentrum des ZPU in Witten

    Kulturzentrum des ZPU in Witten, anlässlich der Feier zum 3. Mai, ohne Datum.
  • Beerdigung von Zofia Odrobna in Düsseldorf-Wersten, 1960

    Beerdigung von Zofia Odrobna in Düsseldorf-Wersten, 1960