William John Rose


Photo: University of British Columbia

Canadian slavist and historian. He was born on a farm in the Canadian province of Manitoba, as the oldest of ten children. In 1912 he graduated from Oxford, returned to Canada and married Emily Mary Cuthbert. The two soon travelled to Europe to continue their education.

The outbreak of World War I found Rose in the Polish-Czech borderlands­, where he conducted research on national minorities and was involved in the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association). As a British citizen, he was interned in Ligotka Kameralna, where he spent most of the war. He used his forced stay there to learn the Polish language, the history of the region and to explore nationality issues.

In 1918, local political activists entrusted him with a quasi-diplomatic ­mission to break through the front lines and make contact with the Allies, which brought Rose’s involvement in the Polish cause before and during the peace conference­. After the war, he remained in Poland as director of the YMCA in Cracow, while studying in Warsaw and Cracow. In 1926, he became the first Anglo-Saxon in four hundred years to earn a doctorate from the Jagiellonian University. The following year he returned to North America, and took a position at Dartmouth College. In 1935, he became a professor at the School of Slavonic Studies at the University of London­, and later (since 1939) headed the unit. After reaching ­retirement age, in 1950, he returned to Canada, where he became involved in the establishment of the Slavic Studies Department at the University of British Columbia. His most important books include The Drama of Upper Silesia (1936), and The Rise of Polish Democracy (1944). In 1975 his memoirs were published as The Polish Memoirs of William John Rose.

The Silesian Mission

On arriving in Warsaw next morning [February 22, 1919] we found our way to the Hotel Bristol. […] We walked about for an hour or more. My diary says: ‘Everywhere beggars, everywhere Jews, everywhere soldiers. In the windows fruit, gorgeous apples, butter, meat, even cheese. Also clothing of all sorts; but prices villainously dear.’

Meantime, I was free to do what I liked, which was (of course) to get to know Warsaw. This was a most interesting experience. For a week I was able to wander at will, save for the time that I took to be shown samples of self-help in social relief […].

The city was not attractive – how could it be after four years of war and occupation, on top of a century of foreign rule? Years of neglect, though little actual damage had been done by war. But the condition of the streets, the lack of bridges, the overcrowding of the tramlines, the general misery of the poor in the face of zero weather – all this was terrible. […]

What I saw convinced me once and for all of the nonsense we had often heard (and were still to hear) about the incapacity of the Poles as a people to deal with vital issues affecting common life. I had the good fortune to meet leaders in educational and religious life, engineers and social workers, business people and economists, and of course men of some standing in the world of letters and the fine arts. At the very end of my stay I had the honour of being received for a longer interview by the chief-of-state himself. […]

Tuesday, 4 March, had been decided on as my last day in Warsaw. From my personal point of view it was to be the best. In the morning I called at the Hotel Bristol to pay my respects to Madame Paderewski, and to thank her for helping me to see so much of the relief work then going on. […]

The visit I now had the privilege of making with Józef Piłsudski, and the interview that lasted an hour-and-a-half, was to me the climax of my whole mission to Warsaw. My host was resting in bed, and he received me there. The whole occasion was completely informal and friendly. […] I was one of the first Anglo-Saxons to talk with him after the turnover, and certainly the first to talk with him in Polish. His first question was in English, ‘Do you smoke?’ and his last word was in English also, ‘Goodbye,’ but apart from that we chatted freely in Polish about all manner of things. […]

He was suffering from a slight cold, and coughed from time to time. But he told me that he had no patience with doctors. His view was that where work had to be done one must do it, and not spare oneself. That had always been his life principle, and perhaps on that account he had been made into a sort of hero. ‘My adorers have put me in a false light,’ he said. ‘At bottom I’m sort of a barbarian.’ […]

Piłsudski was little interested in what was going on in Paris, but eager to talk of what was happening in Poland. It was clear that he had no doubts about winning: ‘The end is assured. You could call me an optimist by nature, but in analyzing situations I incline to be a pessimist. About the ends in view we can have faith, but about the means of achieving them, it is harder. The evil lies in human nature, and we must deal with that. For Poland, military training is essential. Our nation has been in subjection, and has not learned to discipline itself, to be master of itself. To learn this is the first thing. Time will tell whether we can be masters of others.’

source: Rose, William J. “The Polish Memoirs of William John Rose”, ed. Daniel Stone, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975.