We would be much poorer without history

An interview with Adolf Juzwenko, director of the National Ossoliński Institute

The National Ossoliński Institute is fundamental to Polish culture. With its 200 year history, the Institute’s collection needs special care and this is not always an easy task. Director Adolf Juzwenko talks about the history of Ossolineum and his own contribution to its development.


polishhistory: Ossolineum is an extremely distinguished institution in Poland. And its beginnings are paradoxically connected with the fall of Polish statehood…

Adolf Juzwenko: Indeed, there would be no Ossolineum if Poland had not collapsed at the end of the 18th Century. Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński, instead of wringing his hands after the partitions, decided to help the enslaved nation to preserve its identity. He employed his good relations with the Habsburgs and did everything to ensure that the Emperor of Austria agreed to establish family estates in Lwów, which gave resources and revenues for the Ossoliński library and publishing house. In agreement with Prince Henryk Lubomirski, he obliged the Lubomirski family to establish a family trust in Przeworsk and a museum (the Lubomirski Museum).

In this way, the Lubomirski family took over the National Ossoliński Institute and Ossolineum received its revenues from the trust. In the second half of the 19th Century, Ossolineum was a vibrant Polish centre and was considered by Poles to be the most important Polish cultural and scientific institution. Poles from all of the partitions, especially from Russia, and emigrants scattered around the world, came to Lwów to study the history of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and historians conducted their research on the history of Poland there.

Adolf Juzwenko , director of the National Ossoliński Institute (picture: dzieje.pl)

And what was the fate of the Ossolineum in the 20th Century?

In 1918, after the First World War, Poland gained independence. However, as early as 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union divided Poland’s lands between each other. After the Second World War, European borders changed radically and Poland “returned” to the map of Europe but was shifted west, losing its eastern territories while acquiring those in the north and west, including Lower Silesia and Wrocław. Lwów found itself within the borders of Soviet Ukraine. Part of the Ossolineum collection was then transferred from Lwów to Wrocław, where the institute was restored, although in a different shape from the one that the Lwów founders envisioned. In 1946, the National Institute was reactivated in Wrocław and in 1953, it was incorporated into the structure of the Polish Academy of Sciences and divided into two separate institutions: the Library and the Publishing House.

You have been involved in Ossolineum since 1990. You have managed the Ossolineum Library, and you have been the director of the foundation for 25 years. How do you remember your Ossolineum years?

I found myself in the Ossolineum after the fundamental changes that took place in 1989. There was a chance then to restore Poland’s sovereignty. We faced an opportunity to create a civil society; a society already created by free people who had realized the need for change. I was fully aware that in a free Poland, Ossolineum could not function in the shape it was given after the Second World War. Thus, in 1995, the first foundation was established by law and included the Library. On the other hand, the publishing house decided, unlike the Library, not to leave the structures of the Polish Academy of Science. Additionally, the Lubomirski Museum was not taken under consideration at that time, because after the war it had not been not reactivated in Wrocław.

Lwów’s building of the former Ossolineum in 1970s (author: Stako; CC BY 2.5)

What did the lack of the Lubomirski Museum mean to Ossolineum? Its creators managed the National Institute until 1939…

Right. Let us remember that the Przeworsk Trust assumed that if Ossolineum was not fulfilling the goals defined by its founders, or if the state authorities abolished the Przeworsk Trust, the Lubomirski collection should then return to the family. I was constantly thinking about what we should do to prevent such a situation from occurring.

I invited all the living heirs of the Lubomirski family from Przeworsk to Warsaw to propose a new contract. Thus, on 17 September 2002, Ossolineum signed a contract with the Lubomirski family entitled “Solemn Resolution”. The Lubomirski family recognized that the Ossolineum followed the assumptions adopted in the 19th Century and asked that all the heirs, wherever they were, to support their efforts to recover the collection scattered around the world. They also gave up their claims to the collection, which was transferred to the National Institute by law.

What was missing that prevented Ossolineum from becoming the same type of institution as before the Second World War?

The publishing house was not part of the Ossolineum and at some point, it was at risk of bankruptcy. I was aware of this and thus I did not give up trying to institute control, pay off the debt and prevent the publishing house from losing rights both to those books it had published in the past and its rights to the Ossolineum publishing series entitled “The National Library”, in which classical works of literature are published. In this way, and within the structures of Ossolineum, the links [between the two entities] that had existed in the 19th Century were rebuilt. Additionally, in 2016 we established the Pan Tadeusz Museum, thanks to the fact that in the 1990s we were able to buy the manuscript of Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz from the Tarnowski family.

Former Saints Peter and Paul Jesuit Church in Lwów, where the Polish press collection was kept for 50 years before being destroyed rather than transferred to Poland (photo: Katarzyna Łebkowska; CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was a spectacular success

And above all, it’s an interesting story. In September 1939, Artur Tarnowski, the owner of the manuscript, enlisted in the military. Already in an officer’s uniform of the Polish Army, he came from Dzików to Lwów and gave the manuscript to the National Institute on deposit. He did not think that Germany would come as far as Lwów. He also did not assume that the Soviet Union would attack Poland from the east. Meanwhile, several days later, the Red Army occupied Lwów. After two years, the Germans drove the Russians out of Lwów and occupied it until 1944. Before the second Soviet occupation, the Ossolineum managers were ordered to pack the most valuable part of the collection and send it to Krakow. It was decided that those things would be safer in German-occupied Krakow. However, the Germans decided to take them away to Germany instead. Among the removed objects was the manuscript of Pan Tadeusz. After the war, and after the takeover of Lower Silesia by Poland, the Poles found it near Złotoryja.

Ossolineum made an effort to have the manuscript included in its collection. Józef Cyrankiewicz, the then-prime minister, gave the manuscript to Ossolineum, which in 1952 was then included in the Polish Academy of Science, and it was included in the Ossolineum index. However, in the 1990s, Jan Tarnowski, Artur Tarnowski’s heir, asked for the manuscript to be returned. After difficult negotiations, in the presence of representatives of the Tarnowski family and representatives from the fields of Polish science and culture, it was proposed to renew the deposit agreement. Both Tarnowski and Ossolineum agreed. In the second half of the 1990s I often talked to Jan Tarnowski and urged him to sell us the manuscript. Finally, in 1999, he agreed.

Polish magnate, Count Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński, founder of the Ossoliński Institute in Lwów (painted by Jan Maszkowski; public domain)

How did you react to this proposal?

I was afraid that the Ossolineum could not afford it. When, after a few days, Tarnowski announced that he expected 200,000 dollars, I calmed down and started looking for money – the Wrocław authorities came to the rescue. However, when the day of the transaction was set, Tarnowski called me and said that the family was pushing him because the price was too low in his opinion, and he could not agree on it either. I was desperate. The guests were already invited to the signing ceremony, the city had agreed to give the money… Fortunately, everything ended well: at the meeting Tarnowski announced that he would sell one-third of the manuscript to us for 200,000 dollars, and give the remaining 2/3 as a gift to Ossolineum.

What ideas did you have about the manuscript after obtaining it?

When we were buying the manuscript, we were above all happy to have it in the Ossolineum. For some time, we shared it in the manuscript reading room. However, it turned out that the city has a beautiful Renaissance-Baroque house with beautiful interiors: House of the Golden Sun at the Market Square in Wrocław. Together with the mayor of the city, we decided that the manuscript of Pan Tadeusz had more to offer beyond simply making it available to researchers, and that it would be worth exhibiting in a museum. And I managed to do this. The Ossolineum Museum of Pan Tadeusz would not have happened without the support of the Wrocław authorities.

Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus manuscript in the Ossolineum (public domain)

However, a significant part of the Ossoliński collection remained in Lwów. What does the institute look like in this city? What is the attitude of the Ukrainian side to the collection remaining there?

We keep copying the Lwów collection. However, to ensure the safety and proper conditions of sharing and storage for it, we should establish a foreign branch of Ossolineum in Lwów. The collection which is there, which was established by the institute, still belongs to Ossolineum. And Occolineum finds it absolutely necessary to take care of it.

Is it possible?

It is difficult but possible. Ukrainians do not reject this project. Ossolineum has good relations with Lwów’s cultural institutions and “Ossolineum Meetings” are being arranged in Lwów. We organize exhibitions together, and scan collections. In this way, we strengthen friendly relations and prevent animosity. And above all, Europe is changing. A dozen or so years ago, we didn’t think that there would be 10 percent of Ukrainians among Wrocław’s population. Our relations with them will have an influence on what is happening in Lwów.

Ossolineum in Wrocław (Sławomir Milejski; CC BY-SA 4.0)

So it seems that Ossolineum may still have a big role in Polish-Ukrainian relations.

Not only in Polish-Ukrainian relations. Over the years, Wrocław has become a significant Polish city. Ossolineum is seen as an institution incomparable to any other. Many tourists from outside Poland come to Wrocław. Multilingual groups meet in the Ossolineum courtyard, which attracts them with its baroque appearance. Also the Ossolineum Museum of Pan Tadeusz is one of the most visited Polish museums.

The institution itself can also be called the “sanctuary of Polish culture”. What is the meaning of Ossolineum’s history?

History is the institute’s greatest treasure. Ossolineum is a monument to national altruism as it was established mainly thanks to gifts. And that’s how it is today – gifts are still the most important way of building the collection.


Interviewer: Marta Kopiniak
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin