A touching Polish story and why there is no such thing as a small kindness
By Frank J. Dmuchowski
Christmas is a special time of the year when we particularly look forward in bringing joy and happiness to children, our loved ones, friends and sometimes to perfect strangers! Often with no purpose than to show we care and to bring a smile. All the same, if we take the time to reflect we realize that we have received and given kindnesses which we thought to be a small kindness and yet which have had a great impact on our life and the lives of others.
To forgivingly modify a thought from Shakespeare who wrote about the “Quality of Mercy” which we will call the “Quality of Kindness”:
“The quality of kindness is like a gentle rain that falls from heaven. It is twice blessed, it blesses he that gives and he that receives.”
I would like to share with you a very special wonderful story :
In 1892 the world renowned pianist Ignacy Paderewski helped Herbert Hoover, then a struggling Stanford student. In 1919 Herbert Hoover helped a starving Poland!
There are many stories that I could relate about the importance of kindness. But the story of Ignacy Paderewski and Herbert Hoover is one of the most beloved and my favorite. It shows how a small kindness can have such a positive impact many years later. Here is one of many similar variation of this story.
In 1892 the 18-year-old Stanford student, Herbert Hoover, was struggling to pay his fees. He was an orphan, and not knowing where to turn for money, he came up with what he believed to be a bright idea. He and a friend decided to host a musical concert on the university campus to raise money for their education.
They reached out to the great pianist Ignacy J. Paderewski. His manager demanded a guaranteed fee of $2000 for the piano recital. A bargain was made and the two young students worked to make the concert a success. After all Paderewski with his good looks, flowing hair, charming Polish accent and manners should be a great hit. He was “the international super-star” of the time!
The big day arrived. But unfortunately, they had not managed to sell enough tickets as the event was scheduled for Holy Saturday and students would be on vacation and Polonians would be focused on getting ready for Easter. The total collection was only $1600. They went to Paderewski and explained their plight. They gave him the entire $1600, plus a cheque for the balance $400. They promised to honor the check as soon as possible.
“No,” said Paderewski. “This is not acceptable.” He tore up the check, returned the $1600 and told the two young men: “Here’s the $1600. Please deduct whatever expenses you have incurred. Keep the money you need for your fees. And just give me whatever is left”. Herbert Hoover and his friend were very grateful as this allowed them to remain at Stanford and eventually graduate from that great university.
It was a small act of kindness by Paderewski and perhaps should be the end of a story that no one would know about. You may wonder why should he help these two students who he would probably never see again? I believe that he did it because he believed it was the right thing to do. Simple as that! Certainly there was no profit to be gained for this “small kindness”.
As you know Paderewski later went on to become the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1919 for the fledgling Poland. The country under the leadership of Marshal Józef Piłsudski was just coming into political existence as a state after over 125 years of occupation. Over the next several years Poland would fight multiple wars, most notably with Bolshevik Russia. Additionally there was the immediate and critical challenge of dealing with more than 1.5 million people who were starving in the country, and there was no money to feed them.
Why were so many in Poland on the verge of starving and malnourishment in 1919?
The answer is very simple. In 1918 at the conclusion of World War I, Poland was a devastated country with the death and wounding of hundreds of thousands of young Poles who were conscripted into the armies of the occupying powers of Germany, Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was not uncommon for Poles on opposite sides of the conflict to be speaking with each other during a battle. Yet this is only a part of the story as the killing and suffering of Polish civilians during the war was appalling, with so many on the verge of starving primarily because of the indifference of Germany and Russia and the destruction their fighting brought to the Polish agricultural sector.
Paderewski seeks help from America
Paderewski understood the depth of the problem and the need for an immediate solution. In desperation he reached out to the US Food and Relief Administration for help. To the salvation of Poland came the ARA (American Relief Agency) which was headed by the future American president Herbert Hoover. Hoover agreed to help and quickly shipped tons of food grains to feed the starving Polish people.
Why did Herbert Hoover have such an interest in Poland? You might have already guessed part of the reason. Perhaps, it may go back to 1892 with the “simple kindness” of Paderewski to the little known struggling student Herbert Hoover. About 1922 Paderewski went to America to personally thank Hoover for his kindness and assistance to Poland. Here the story takes an interesting turn. They had the following conversation:
“As Paderewski began to thank Hoover for his noble gesture, Hoover quickly interjected and said, “You shouldn’t be thanking me Mr. Prime Minister. You may not remember this, but several years ago, you helped two young students go through college. I was one of them!”
How desperate was the situation in Poland? A little more background:
The following are extensive direct quotes from the webpage of Zibigniew Stańczyk who is a film consultant and was extensively involved in the development of a documentary on President Herbert Hoover and his great humanitarian effort after World War I. At the time of the development of the documentary Mr. Stańczyk was assistant curator at Stanford University. Please take the time to visit his website and pass it on to others. His documentary gives us some important and shocking background information on how difficult the situation was in Poland. Mr. Stańczyk writes in the full documentary on his website:
“The American Relief Administration (ARA) in Poland, 1919–1922: The ARA Mission in Warsaw began its work in January 1919 with two aims: to provide one meal a day for the neediest children and to develop a permanent institution that would function in the future as a countrywide child welfare organization. As one of the ARA worker wrote at that time: “Reports from special inspectors, confirm the belief that conditions in Poland, caused by the lack of food, are deplorable. In town and industrial localities workmen cannot obtain food for their children, and that mortality among them is so great the whole civilized world is filled with compassion and a desire to actively assist
Bringing and Distributing the Food: In the first months of 1919 tens of thousands of rail cars with American food left the port of Gdansk on their way to Polish cities. The towns most affected by famine were in the most remote parts of the country, where local authorities were not firmly established. Thus feeding stations and warehouses were created first in large cities and then proceeded east from village to village. Within six months deliveries reached the value of $50 million. In 1919 the program fed over 1.5 million children. After the 1920 Hoover increased the number to an additional half million and expanded the number of kitchens to 10,000. For almost four years following the war half a billion meals were provided to the hungry and starving of Poland. Transporting food by rail was extremely difficult, owing to a lack of cars and locomotives. Where railway facilities or horses were lacking, American motor trucks were pressed into service. When the first carload of American Relief flour arrived at Warsaw in February 1919, a journalist wrote: “America is the only nation that has ever made a promise to Poland – and kept it.”
During Hoover’s Visit to Poland: In August 1919 he witnessed a heartbreaking scene in Warsaw: Twenty-five thousand children had walked barefoot to pay him homage. Within hours he telegraphed for help and 700,000 overcoats and 700,000 pairs of shoes were shipped to Poland before the onset of winter. Another half million coats and shoes were delivered in the following two years. The visit had convinced him that the ARA’s original plan—to withdraw after the harvest of 1919—would be impossible in face of drastic food shortages. Indeed, the program was extended and expanded to include, besides children, the intelligentsia and students.
Why Hoover Was So Sensitive to the Plight of Polish Orphans:
Hoover was especially concerned about the children, his own experience as an orphan making him very sensitive to the plight of some 2 million children living in horrible conditions in Poland. Thus he set up programs to ensure that all children got at least one meal a day. Orphans and homeless youth were sheltered in numerous institutions organized and supported by the ARA. The Russian invasion of 1920 and the subsequent occupation of nearly half the country, including the requisition of food and livestock by the invading troops, pushed Poland back to where it had been a year earlier”
Millions of Poles and Polonians are alive today because their grandparents and/or great-grandparents were saved because of Paderewski’s kindness to Herbert Hoover. Which in turn was returned to Paderewski and Poland by Herbert Hoover through his leadership of the American Relief Agency.
Can there be a better and more touching Christmas story for Poles and Polonians?
In the telling of the story of Herbert Hoover and the American Relief Administration, Mr. Zbigniew Stańczyk has also provided all of us with a kindness by making us more deeply aware of the terrible situation in Poland after WW I and why President Herbert Hoover and Prime Minister Ignacy Paderewski are still so deeply loved by many Poles even today.
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Dear Reader, This story of Herbert Hoover and Ignacy Paderewski is my Christmas gift to you! Please consider doing something special for some unfortunate person or family during this Christmas season – however small you may feel it is it will be very important to someone. As the great English novelist Charles Dickens wrote in his beloved novella A Christmas Carol:
“ …it is at Christmastime that want is most keenly felt, and abundance rejoices”
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