A display from Forbidden Art
A display from Forbidden Art

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point is hosting a special event, a national observance of the 72nd Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, on Thursday, Feb. 9. The event will also feature the Forbidden Art exhibition from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, a moving display of art created by the prisoners of Auschwitz and hidden away from their Nazi guards.

A great event, no doubt, but one which not have happened without the efforts of the Polish Mission at Orchard Lake Schools and its director, Marcin Chumiecki.

At this point, one might ask, “What is the Polish Mission?”

Well, it’s not a household name … yet. But, if Chumiecki has his way, everyone will know about the Mission. In particular, he hopes that Detroit’s Jewish community will appreciate the work of his institution.

Founded in 1885 by Polish immigrants, the Polish Mission is part of the Orchard Lake Schools, which includes a Polish-Catholic Seminary, as well as the St Mary’s High School for boys from around the world. High school football fans will recognize the St. Mary’s team for its numerous state championships.

The mission of the Mission, however, is secular. It “preserves and promotes Polish and Polish-American culture, tradition, and history for present and future generations.”

Within the Polish Mission, there is a museum and archives of Polonia (the Polish Diaspora). There are historical records of the Polish in Detroit, the largest collection in America of documents and artifacts related to Poles serving in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II, as well as such items as medieval correspondence from the royal families in Poland and records of Polish survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. There is also a collection of art from famous Polish artists.

Marcin Chumiecki receving the Cavalier’s Cross of the Order of Merit

Chumiecki has been director of the Mission since 2008. A Polish immigrant and American citizen, Chumiecki brings a youthful and highly energetic approach to his work. He’s not trained as a historian or curator, but as a marketer. But, no one who has met him can deny his contagious enthusiasm and intense dedication to his work. Indeed, Chumiecki is a promoter supreme, and a classic “idea” person.

One of Chumiecki’s ideas permeates his work: “Polish culture is often like a coin, with one side being Jewish and the other Polish. Our programming, our exhibits, partnerships, and the like, aim to show the realities of the heritage of my first country. It is impossible to ignore the richness of Jewish culture in Poland.”

To this end, he has reached out to partner with Detroit’s Jewish community, as well as those in Poland. He has developed partnerships with major institutions like the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, the Museum of Polish History and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

Several educational projects sponsored by the Mission have focused on the Jewish experience in Poland and have been displayed in Detroit. For example, They Risked Their Lives, a traveling exhibit created by the POLIN Museum, was shown at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield and at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit.

Rabbi Aaron Bergman from Adat Shalom blowing the shofar at the Polish Mission

Locally, the Polish Mission has held Holocaust memorials in its Galleria, and partnered with Wayne State University, Madonna University and the University of Michigan to present the Forbidden Art exhibition with programming on Jews and the Holocaust. It has also worked with the AJC over the years, including sponsoring the Global Diplomatic Seder at Temple Israel in 2016.

The Forbidden Art exhibition itself, administered by the Polish Mission, has traveled almost 8,000 miles to 15 venues across the U.S., including the Eisenhower Presidential Museum for the 70th anniversary commemoration of the D-Day landings in 2014 and the United Nations for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 2014.

The work of the Polish Mission has not gone unnoticed and has been recognized by world leaders like President Barack Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis.

The Polish Mission was also the first institution in North America to earn the Golden Gloria Artis in 2015, the highest award bestowed by the Polish Ministry of Culture, for its work in promoting the full spectrum of Polish culture. Minister of Culture, Małgorzata Omilanowska, traveled to campus to personally present the medal to Chumiecki and Orchard Lakes Schools Chancellor-Rector Msgr. Thomas Machalski. Later that year, the Ambassador of Poland, Ryszard Schnepf, made a historic visit to the campus to award Chumiecki with the Cavalier’s Cross of the Order of Merit for his work.

Now, you know a little bit about the Polish Mission and its connections to Jewish Detroit. This will make Director Marcin Chumiecki very happy.

Mike Smith
Detroit Jewish News Foundation

Mike Smith – DJN Foundation Archivist