Race on to save house of General Sikorski’s former secretary from demolition by Chinese developers
A petition has been launched to save the home of the former secretary to Poland’s WWII Prime Minister from demolition.
The house in the Elmhurst neighbourhood of Queens in New York had been home to Walentyna Janta-Połczyńska, secretary to General Władysław Sikorski’s government-in-exile, and the first person to translate and type up Jan Karski’s harrowing report about the atrocities being committed against Jews by German troops during WWII.
A highly-respected secretary, Połczyńska also acted as an interpreter for Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill during meetings with Poland’s government-in-exile, and was a regular contributor on Radio Świt, an underground radio which broadcast programmes from England to occupied Poland.
After the war, she emigrated to the USA and married journalist and former cavalry officer Aleksander Połczyński with whom she ran a successful antiques bookshop whilst also working for the Kościuszko Foundation and UN to help restore Wawel Castle treasures from Canada to Poland.
In 1958, she and her husband helped 35 Polish prisoners of the Nazi concentration camp Ravensbruck to receive mental health treatment in the US.
At their home in Queens, the couple also regularly hosted well-known Polish émigré figures including Czesław Miłosz, Jan Karski, Marek Hłasko and Zbigniew Herbert.
In 2015, 41 years after her husband’s death, Połczyńska agreed to sell the house to a Chinese developer on the condition that she could continue living there until she died.
But, after she passed away last year at the age of 107, full control of the building automatically went to its new owner, leading to fears it could be torn down after a local heritage preservation society looked into the history of the developer.
Jennifer Ochoa, co-founder of The Elmhurst History and Cemeteries Preservation Society (EHCPS), who were the first to take interest in the future of Połczyńska’s former home said: “I was able to find out that he [the developer] buys up properties with the aim of rebuilding or demolishing them and putting up modern apartment blocks in their place, regardless of the history of these buildings or their meaning to the local community.”
With the developer failing to responded to requests about his intentions towards the property, the petition to have the building recognised as a historic monument has gathered pace with support from local councillors as well as the Polish community of New York and wider America.
Petition organiser Marialena Giampino from the Elmhurst History and Cemeteries Preservation Society (EHCPS) and the Historic District’s Council said: “The house, in the vernacular style, was the many-year home of a heroine of international fame, providing humanitarian aid and serving for decades as a meeting place of the leaders of the Polish emigration in America…Its valuable as a key to Walentyna’s mission and story is unrivalled.
“It should be approved as a historical site due to its cultural significance for our city, nation and the world.”
Frank Spula, President of the Polish American Congress said: “Her story should still be a shining example for future young generations of Americans, Poles and others, who will visit this place.”
Połczyńska was recipient of the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland in 2013 as well as the first laureate of the Special Award of the Eagle of Jan Karski in 2016.
At the time of her death in 2020, she was the last surviving staff member of the Polish Government in Exile.