In the basement of the Polish Trade Office near Dupont Circle sits a small library, open a few hours a week and staffed by volunteers. Everyone has a story in a nation of immigrants, and there are countless ones in the Polish Library (Biblioteka Polska w Waszyngtonie) at 1503 21st St. NW. It contains about 8,000 books, DVDs and other items, most of them in Polish. It’s not surprising to find Foreign Service workers or spouses of Polish speakers there, looking to improve their language skills.
The library opened in 1991 with a “heroic effort … bringing books [from Poland] in suitcases,” says board member Izabela Rutkowska. In those nearly two decades, it’s become a touchstone for Polish culture in the Washington area. Others include Our Lady Queen of Poland Catholic church in Silver Spring (9700 Rosensteel Ave.), where Mass is celebrated in Polish, and the Washington center of the Kosciuszko Foundation (2025 O St. NW), named for Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko. The center hosts lectures and other events, and features a small art museum. The Embassy of Poland (2640 16th St. NW) also hosts events. (A Little Poland is in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood.)
The Polish Library recently helped to deepen its own cultural footprint by collaborating with the Library of Congress to digitize the Polish Declarations of Admiration and Friendship for the United States — a birthday card that Poland sent the United States on its 150th anniversary in 1926. The Declarations included more than 5 million signatures, along with artwork, poems and photographs. Participants ranged from schoolchildren to members of the military. The digitized version was published last year on the Library of Congress site.
With its 111 volumes, the Declarations have become an important research tool, as they provide a portrait of Poland and its people before World War II’s horrors. They also have become a genealogical resource for Jews, as well as for areas where archives had been destroyed, such as the formerly Belorussian and Ukrainian regions of Poland, says Grazyna Zebrowska, the library board’s president.
The Polish Library is open 7 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesdays and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. Checking out items requires a membership fee of $20 a year. Library events, free to members, include movie nights and an annual picnic.